Roman Conquest North Africa by Nic Fields

Book Review by caldrail

A scientist will tell you that there is always change. A philosopher will say that nothing ever changes. North Africa feels as if it has both properties at the same time, a region apart from the continent it belongs to, almost like an island, a unique environment that persists in arid stasis and hosts mighty conflicts upon the sand.

As I write the region is struggling with civil unrest that borders on open warfare. Two generations ago, the Rats and the Fox fought across the desert in the sweeping battles of World War Two. Before that, the colonial wars and the romance of the Foreign Legion. The domination of the Ottoman Empire. The Spanish revival. The Arab conquests. The barbarian migrations. And finally, at last, we come to the era of Roman domination.

Roman Conquests - North Africa describes the clash of empires that brought this region into Roman hands and the ill fated rebellion of their former ally that followed. There is a certain resonance with recent history, sometimes an uncomfortable sympathy for one side or another, and among the wars are campaigns that have become almost legendary. This is, in many ways, a very familiar tale.

This should not surprise us. We are blessed with sources that rank among the most detailed and objective of any Roman period. It is unfortunate that history is written by the victors, and thus undeniably biased, but the author has clearly made an effort to balance the debate and present both sides in context.

That brings me to illustrations. If there is a common fault in history books, it's that the context is often less important than adding atmosphere. The modern colour photograph is insidious as yet another accessory of our visual age. Whilst the maps are relevant and very clear, there seems to have been a struggle to decide which colour illustrations to include within the limited space allowed. To my mind, a book should really decide whether to be visual or textual, and remain true to the style chosen. If there's any fault I can level at Roman Conquests - North Africa, that would be it. Nonetheless, the battle is not yet lost.

Storytellers win over their audience by way of two possible strategies. One is to tell the tale we all know, and to tell it well. The other is find something in the story we've never heard before. Where will the storyteller take us? Will this be a tale of courage, drama, passion, and tragedy to thrill the heart, or perhaps a catalogue of academic appraisals to stimulate the mind?

Nic Fields chooses a path that encompasses both ideas. On the one hand, he lays before us the relevant events and outcomes, inexorably leading toward Roman victory. On the other, he leaves us with informative chapters on the armies that faced each other. He manages to colour the tale with strong impressions of what motivated the characters and empires as he probes the details of politics and war. I applaud the authors willingness to throw light on common misconceptions.

The curious thing is that I can't help feeling the author wanted to write a different kind of book. The very first line starts with "Let us begin our story...". Who could possibly resist that? Right from the start it invites the reader to delve deeper. By the close of the book it feels more disjointed, despite some excellent conclusions that hint of future fortunes of the Roman Empire, and an appendix on Roman politics that in my view should be required reading for the aspiring historian of this period.

My mistake, I think, was to try and read this book in one sitting. This is a book to taste, savour, and digest the content at your leisure. There is so much to commend in this title. For some inexplicable reason I found it difficult to like, but it is without doubt an excellent study of how one empire lost and another gained.

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Union Jack Roman Conquest for the UK