Rome Seizes The Trident by Marc G. Desantis

Book Review by Mark Ollard

The Mediterranean these days is relatively peaceful. For most of us it defines a region of holidays in the sun. What naval force patrols it now is more concerned with migrants from poor ot war-torn areas of the Third World, and the memory of potential Cold War confrontation is only revived occaisonally when superpowers rub shoulders. Yet it has seen many instances of strategic importance, whether cat and mouse games of fleets, convoys, and submarines in two world wars, the colourful and melodramatic lines of cannon armed galleons in the Napoleonic Wars, or the clash of culture with Western Europe holding back the Ottoman Empire.

Yet the Mediterranean had seen a previous era of peaceful traffic. The Romans dominated the Mediterranean and even called it Mare Nostrum, or 'Our Sea'. How did this come about? The fleets of the Greek states, Pirates, Phoenicians and their later cousins the Carthaginians, had made the Mediterranean the strategic battleground it would later resume. The story goes that the Romans conquered the seas as latecomers, forced by necessity to create a navy from scratch. But they did conquer the Mediterranean - and that brings up questions of how and why.

Rome Seizes the Trident seeks to answer these questions, to describe the rise of Roman naval supremacy, and to understand what naval battle was about. The author rightly points out that we are far more accustomed to thinking of Roman military power as something inherently landlocked, and compared to the reputations that the Legions accrued, their Navy is strangely shy and retiring in our image of Rome's military power.

Marc Desantis lays the foundations in describing the reasons why nations launched fleets at each others throats and ways in which these fleets engaged in combat. We learn about the connections between land and sea, the various forms of galleys and their capabilities, and the manner in which they were employed, all with reference to fleets much earlier than those of the Romans. The rules of naval warfare had already been written by the time that Rome saw he need to contest the high seas.

Nonetheless the author points out that the popular image of Rome's entry into naval warfare are as dubious as much of their early history. Whereas Rome was supposed to have begun fighting with ships in response to Carthaginian threat, we discover little known references to earlier Roman fleets. The other concern is that Rome was never much of a maritime nation. And that despite the fact the Mediterranean came to be regarded as their own property.

The book focuses heavily on the origins of Roman naval power and so important is the traditional rise of their fleets from nowhere that the reader is already halfway through the volume before the narrative reaches the end of the First Punic War. The last chapter brings us to the end of the Third and Carthages final defeat, the point at which Rome rules the Mediterranean.

With so little hard information to go on the author investigates the reasons of Rome's supremacy at sea with intelligent questioning. It was certainly true that Rome relied heavily on boarding actions to win their battles, but then, they were not the first to do so. As with many things the Romans took to, it was the ideas and practises of other nations that Rome adopted, adapted, and made their own.

There is of course a great deal this book does not deal with. Once Carthage is defeated, the book ends, and we learn nothing of the fleet actions against pirates or between Roman factions in the late Republic. We learn nothing of the eastern coastal patrols, the river-based campaigns in Germania, or the Saxon Shore. There is little or no information about the uniforms and order of a ships crew. Rome Seizes the Trident is not therefore a book to answer every question. It sets out with an objective and achieves it, for the reader is left with a very clear mental picture of how fleets fought in the pivotal wars against Carthage which brought Rome to it's position as the dominant superpower of its day.

Marc Desantis writes with a pleasingly direct manner, and whilst there are few illustrations, those provided are pertinent. There is a genuine impression of authenticity in the text.

The reader can almost see the lighthouse guiding them to a safe conclusion, but the author is well aware that the conclusions are his and that resolving the issues of ancient naval warfare are open to some debate. Nonetheless this is a book that builds a sound keel for future understanding of the subject.

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