Ship of Rome
© 2009 John Stack
Three hundred years before it became an empire, the Roman Republic started its ascension toward power when it took on the Carthaginian state for control of first the island of Sicily, and then the entire Mediterranean. Their struggle unfolded over the course of over a hundred years and ended with the complete destruction of Carthage, but it began with an ignominious Roman defeat. As mighty as Rome’s legions were on land, the war with Carthage made control of the sea a must. Ship of Rome is a tale of naval warfare set during the first Punic War, as mighty yet humiliated Rome sought to find a way to make good on its naval weakness. It’s the story of two men, a Roman legionnaire turned marine named Septimus, and his friend and brother-warrior, the Greek captain of the good ship Aquila. Together they attempt to save Rome from defeat, and redeem their lost comrades.
Roman historical fiction is typified by political intrigue and battles on land, not naval stories; Britain was a naval empire, not Rome. But the war with Carthage made sea superiority a must, just as Britain’s war with Germany made air dominance a requirement, regardless of English naval accomplishments. In Ship of Rome, a Roman army officer and a Greek sea captain serving on the same ship are key players in the opening battles of the first Punic War, when Carthage decides to turn the delicate balance for power between the two states’ holdings in Sicily into open war, first blockading a supply port and then luring the Roman fleet into a disastrous battle. The Carthaginians are skilled at naval warfare, and Rome has no time to train its men sufficiently to surpass their rivals experience. But a way must be found, or the legions in Sicily will die a slow death of disease and starvation. Complicating matters is the rivalry between the two Roman consuls over who will get the glory for turning the side, and their mutual treachery of one another is only given spice by the wiles of the merciless Carthaginian admiral, who early on is thwarted by the Aquilaand wants revenge. At least Atticus and Septimus can count on one another to cover the other’s back – at least, when Septimus isn’t distracted by his little sister making goo-goo eyes at his comrade, who for all of his virtues can’t help not being properly Roman, but only merely Greek.
Ship of Rome is a fantastic read, novel both for being Roman fiction set on the high seas, and for being a sea story set in the classical world. Naval combat during the Punic War bears little resemblance to that of the Age of Wooden Ships and Iron Men that has produced series like the Aubrey-Maturin novels or C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower. There are no cannon broadsides here; combat consists of ramming and boarding; these ships’ weapons are the six-foot long bronze rams on their front ends and the swords, shields, and arrows of the men aboard her. Readers of sea stories will find it engaging, but there’s combat on land and in the courts as the consuls vie for power, not to mention the interpersonal conflict like that between the senior consul and his slave, a gladiator who is biding his time and waiting for an opportunity to strike for freedom – but not before taking the consul with him. For all this strife the plot matures nicely, and even gives a slightly villainous character some sympathetic development. John Stack has delivered here a book with a lot of appeal; for my own part, I’ve already ordered its sequel, Captain of Rome.