War of Words

There are only a few things that fascinate me as much as military history, and one of them is the history of words. So I found a way to squish both interests together, and the result, like a Reese’s peanut butter cup, is a delight in which the combination is even better than each part on its own. For a little over a year now I’ve been writing a short column for Military History Monthly titled War of Words in which I examine a word or phrase that we know well from ordinary English and explain its origin in, or relation to, military history. In previous issues, I’ve looked at first rate, knight, and ironclad. For the August 2017 issue, the word is panoply, the full set of equipment carried by an ancient Greek hoplite. Take a look at it if you find yourself in a bookstore soon.

Rome and Her Fleet

You know you’ve been with a subject for a long time when you start dreaming about it.  My dream had me standing on the deck of a Roman war galley, leaning over the side.  Beneath me, in the crystal clear water of the Mediterranean, swam several dark, unmistakable silhouettes of sharks.  Great big sharks, with lots of teeth.  The ones that mean business.  The ones that aren’t more scared of you than you are of them.  No, these are the sharks that see people as human ravioli.  Soft on the outside, softer on the inside.

Fortunately, this was only a dream.  But my exploration of the naval wars between Rome and Carthage was very real.  It was 2014, and I had been researching my first book, Rome Seizes the Trident, non-stop, for months. I had been living with the war for Sicily, the building of Rome’s first large battlefleet, and the corvus boarding-bridge every day of my life.  I was in a zone, and I was becoming one with my work.

So what brought me to the third century B.C. in the first place?  I had been interested in the naval battles of the ancient world for some time, and what made the Roman-Carthaginian sea fights stand out for me was the, superficially at least, incongruity of Romans making war at sea.  The legions had always been the Roman war machine to me, and many others, but in the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.) Roman fleets had been at the forefront of the fighting.  The war itself was decided in 241 in a final, climactic sea battle at the Aegates Islands that saw the last Carthaginian fleet crushed.  Rome and Carthage made peace, but it was a bitter one, and like the peace that ended the First World War at Versailles 2,000 years later, only served to set the stage for the next conflict.

Rome had wrested control of the sea from the Carthaginians, a people with a much longer seafaring tradition than the Romans had.  When Hannibal marched out of Spain across Gaul on his way to Italy, he was compelled to do so because Rome ruled the waves.  Roman domination of the sea did not win the war for Rome.  That took some sixteen years of hard fighting, especially after Hannibal had walloped the Romans at Cannae. But without control of the sea, Rome would surely have lost the war.

Once Carthage had been defeated in the Second Punic War, Roman ambitions settled on the East, and wars were fought for dominion in Greece and Asia Minor.  A third and final war with Carthage saw the complete ruin of that once majestic city.  In all of these conflicts the navy had been crucial to Roman success, but the historical memory of Rome still overlooks to one extent or another the contribution of the fleets in favour of the legions. This is in part the fault of the Romans themselves, who were landlubbers at heart, and for whom proper war was made on dry land.  The naval battles of Mylae, the Aegates Islands, and Myonnessus deserve to be as well-known and appreciated for their role in the building of the Roman Empire as the land battles of Zama, Cynoscephalae, and Magnesia.

The story of Rome’s acquisition of naval power is also a story of what sheer determination can achieve.  From just a relative handful of ships at the beginning of the First Punic War, Rome engaged in a crash-programme to build war galleys to compose a fleet strong enough to take on that of Carthage.  With these ships it was successful from the first, and with the unique corvus boarding-bridge, they had found a way to make the use of her greatest weapons, her legionaries, at sea, by turning naval battles into something more resembling fights on land.

Roman tactics brought success in her wars with Carthage, and fueled the rise of her nascent empire.  The establishment of the Roman Empire as a polity dominating large portions of three continents, and the cultural and political legacy that it left behind, still resonates today.  I think that the tale of the rise of the Roman navy in the great wars with Carthage deserved to be told, and Rome Seizes the Trident, out now from Pen & Sword, is that story.

Pick up a copy and see for yourself why my dreams put me smack in the middle of an ancient sea battle. Rome Seizes the Trident is available in hardcover and ebook formats through Pen & Sword, Amazon, and other booksellers.

A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide: A Game of Thrones Edition Review

The novels of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, alongside the critically-acclaimed television hit Game of Thrones, are a popular culture phenomenon. With millions of copies sold, together with millions of viewers, author George R. R. Martin’s world of Westeros has legions of fans. In terms of popularity, in the fantasy fiction realm there is perhaps only Tolkien’s Middle-earth to compare to it.

But for those who wish to enter the dark world of Game of Thrones, where to begin? There are already five giant novels and three seasons of the TV show completed. Even at its simplest, Game of Thrones is a vastly complicated and massively detailed world. There are so many names and places that it is hard to remember them all, even for devoted fans of the series.

A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide: A Game of Thrones Edition is the solution to all who would bewail their fate, thinking themselves destined to ignorance of Westeros and its people forever. Green Ronin Press has produced a masterpiece of a roleplaying game supplement, and it is one of the rarest of things. Not only is it of use to people who play the RPG for which it is intended, it is also one of the finest introductions to the history, personalities, and geography of Westeros and the surrounding lands that I have yet seen.

The hardcover book is beautifully produced with full color pages of glossy paper. The history of Westeros is given in rich detail, and I found this to be of enormous use in putting together the disparate strands of the lengthy backstory of Game of Thrones. After the history section, the book examines each of the major houses and personages according to their geographical region.

If Game of Thrones has any appeal to you, but the numerous names and places have left you bewildered, then this book is the answer to many of the questions that might arise. Though it only takes events up to the time just prior to the start of the first novel, there is enough information contained within to justify its $49.95 asking price. Every king and noble house is here, and I think that it would make for an excellent companion to have at your side as you watch the series or read the novels.


Marc DeSantis

Easy Living in a Hard War

I just finished MHQ Summer 2012’s article Easy Living in a Hard War by Meredith H. Lair in the issue’s new department, BEHIND THE LINES. It’s about rear echelon troops in Vietnam and the stark contrast between the war they saw, or more accurately, did not see, and that fought by the combat troops who made actual contact with the enemy. There has always been a big “tooth to tail” question with the U.S. Army – almost all armies really – but in Vietnam the problem was very stark. The article was great, kudos to Meredith Lair, and I look forward to seeing more such items in the BEHIND THE LINES department. If I can make my own suggestion – how about legionary recruitment in the Roman Empire?

Yes, he is skateboarding!


Game of Thrones: What is Dead May Never Die

What is Dead May Never Die – Season 2, Episode Three

Game of Thrones’ second season continues to build.  The more that I watch it (and entertain the heretical notion that the HBO series is more fun than the novels) the more apparent it becomes that GoT is really a political opera more than it is a fantasy series.  Oh sure, it has all the trappings of traditional fantasy – the swords, the strange names, murky, make-believe, ancient history – but it is in actuality an alternate-world War of the Roses with the complexity cranked to eleven.

Tyrion Lannister naturally gets the best parts.  He craftily tells three different men, the brothel owner Littlefinger, the eunuch Varys, and Maester P:ycelle, that he plans to wed Cersei’s daughter Myrcella to three different aristocrats, telling each that Cersei must not know.  When Cersei angrily confronts Tyrion afterwards, he realizes that the leak is Maester Pycelle, who claims to be an informant for the Lannisters, which of course seems plausible.

Brienne of Tarth at last makes her appearance.  She defeats Ser Loras in tournament combat and is made a member of King Renly Baratheon’s Kingsguard.  Brienne is one of the most engaging of all of the characters of Martin’s otherwise unappealing cast.  She is tall, gawky, and unlovely, but she is true, honorable,  and utterly loyal to her hero, Renly.  She is one of the few characters that displays real loyalty to anyone.  In some sense she is, in her almost complete outsiderness, a stand-in for us, the readers, in her struggle to comprehend and fit into the hostile world around her.

Brienne also seems to one of the few who might measure up in the difficult times ahead.  Catelyn Stark arrives in Renly’s domain, but warns that his men are “knights of summer and winter is coming.”  For many in Westeros, the War of the Five Kings is still a sport.  It will not be for long.

Theon Greyjoy is still being disrespected by his Ironborn father, Balon, who maliciously plans to give just one raiding ship to Theon while his sister Asha is to receive thirty.  Theon wisely points out that the could get more from an alliance with Robb Stark, the King of the North, instead of raiding his lands.  The Ironborn seem unconvincing to me.  They are meant to be Norman/Vikings, living on the edge of Westeros and not fully integrated into their culture.  However, their insistence, as exemplified by Balon, in taking things by force, the “iron price,” while interesting from a sociological standpoint, does not hold up when compared to real history.  The Vikings took what they could get and never insisted on doing things the hard way.