BOOK REVIEW: Total War Rome: Destroy Carthage

I guess you’ve arrived as a video game series when you start to develop your own spin-off media. Action games have been turned (with varying degrees of success) into movies and the like, but strategy games have a different problem; that being set mostly on a large scale, how would one make a film, or a book, that has that personal touch? Well Creative Assembly are giving it a go with Rome: Destroy Carthage, the first in a series of novels built around the hugely successful Total War series, whose latest iteration, Rome II, has just been released.

Rome: Destroy Carthage is written by established historical fiction author David Gibbins, and, as the title suggests, is set in the build up to the Third Punic War, which finished off Rome’s great enemy Carthage and set the stage for Rome’s ascension to Empire. Its structure is built around the historical Scipio Aemillianus Africanus and the fictional Fabius Petronius Secundus and presents itself very much as the story of Rome of the cusp of greatness, with the debate running through the book of how the Republic could best move forward.

Well, I say debate, but as this is a soldiers story, its somewhat one-sided. The Roman Republic of this period kept no standing army, it being seen as too much of a threat of military coup. As such, Legions were raised as needed and then disbanded, each threat being met pretty much by a new force, starting from scratch. The book presents this very much from a soldiers (and perhaps a war-gamers) point of view – a standing, professional force is better, those that oppose it are short sighted and fearful, and with no character to make the opposing case it does get a little lop-sided. The fact that Professional Legions, divorced from the citizen soldiery and loyal only to their ambitious generals, was a major factor in the Civil Wars of the Fall of the Republic, is left unforeshadowed.

That’s not to stop a lot of other clever winking to the audience throughout the book. One character practically invents gunpowder, another predicts catastrophic fires for Rome in the future. Tactical debates involve characters talking about innovations to the Roman Army still a generation away. A bit like the political arguments, it’s a little clunky, although not the books biggest problem. The biggest problem is the Romans themselves.

There is a commendable effort to show the life of a Roman soldier in an honestly brutal light; to show the hardships they faced and the acts they would be expected to carry out. We get the execution of prisoners as combat practice, for instance, a feature repeated several times through the text. The issue with this is that it pulls you away from the characters and there really isn’t enough other stuff to let you connect with them. A note at the end of the book comments that there is a big gap in the historical record of Scipio’s life, but nothing fills this gap – the book just jumps forward several years to his next campaign. So I’ve no reason to care about him – his personal life is mentioned in passing but theres never any sense of him as a person to connect to. What `i see these guys do is fight battles and kill unarmed prisoners and debate how to best militarise their society. Why would I care about them at all?

A generation earlier than the famous bits of Roman History everyone remembers with Julius Caesar and all that, this is a fascinating period. It’s also evidently the point at which Total War: Rome II starts, so setting out the geo-politics and the questions a potential game-player would have to face is a reasonable choice. But it feels to me like Destroy Carthage fails to deliver interesting characters to give you a personal perspective, settling for a dry military primer. Its a shame, because I wanted to like this a lot more than I eventually did.

Title: Total War Rome: Destroy Carthage

Author: David Gibbins

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Reviewer: Matt

Rating: 2/5

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