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A Vivid Story in the Midst of the Punic Wars - an Editorial Review of "The Spanish Slave"



Author Bio:

Greg Fisher is the author of numerous works on antiquity, and he is also the series editor for Routledge's Studies in the History of the Ancient Near East.


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Editorial Review:

'The Spanish Slave' by Greg Fisher is an imaginative recreation of a particular period of a vicious and protracted war between two emerging superpowers; that of the North African-based Carthage and the young Republic of Rome - a conflict that came to encompass the whole of the Mediterranean area over an extremely long period of time. Fisher tells an adventurous tale of the conflict with a vivid spirit that is clearly based on expert knowledge and deep love of the period. The book is full of detailed descriptions and sensitive portrayals of very human people with their own very human strengths and weaknesses experiencing extreme challenges in a period of tumult in the Spain of the Third Century B.C. According to Polybius, the major Roman historian of the period, the 'Punic Wars' [those between Carthage and Rome] of 264 to 146 B.C. were ''the longest and the most seriously contested war in history.'' The conflict concluded with the complete and total destruction of Carthage as a State in 146 B.C., with a massacre of the entire population of the City, and a vengeful Roman sowing of salt into the land. Carthage was effectively removed from the historical landscape and Rome emerged as the undisputed superpower of the Mediterranean and beyond.


Fisher begins his exciting narrative in the year 209 B.C. during the Second Punic War. The two sons of the Carthaginian Supremo Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal, and Hasdrubal, have inherited his leadership. Hannibal has already crossed the Alps with his famous elephants and is bringing fire and destruction to the Italian Republic from his base in the south of Italy and has already inflicted a series of crushing and catastrophic military defeats, principally at Lake Trasimene and Cannae in the years 217 and 216 B.C. In Iberia [Spain and Portugal] his brother Hasdrubal has, with his Spanish allies, established a semi-autonomous state as far as the river Ebro, the border with the Roman Republic. Mattias is a definite 'A Lister'; the fair-haired boy of the Carthaginian army 'par excellent'. A Nubian and born a slave, by some previous act of heroism he has saved the life of the feckless and cowardly Hanno, natural son of Hasdrubal. In contrast to his stepbrother, Hanno is evil, treacherous, and pathologically jealous; a classic 'pantomime villain'. His wife Anna shares all of her husband's unpleasant character traits and is, in addition, in towering lust with Mattias. Mattias himself is the infatuated husband of a beautiful young woman called Ilde, the daughter of an important and very proud Spaniard called Mandonius, an important and key ally of the Carthaginians. Mattias, as he faces an advancing Roman army and in command of his elite force of Libyans, is about to enjoy the last success he is going to enjoy for a very long time indeed!


Back in 'New Carthage' [modern day Cartagena] a seemingly impregnable coastal city created as a Capital by the Carthaginians, Mattias and Ilde reflect upon the recent great victory and upon the future. Ilde also reflects upon the nature of Spain and the importance of the fusion of their twin Carthaginian and Spanish blood: ''Spain," she tells him as they walk the ramparts of New Carthage, ''was olive trees heavy with fruit, children smiling, vines plump with grapes. Whole families living together and dying of old age or illness, instead of knives, swords, and clubs. We have made a good partnership, the Spaniards and the Carthaginians. Despite all our differences, we have found ways to respect one another and to share what we have for the common good. We are proof of that, Mattias, you and I. Yet all we have now is burned villages and dead soldiers.'' It is a largely rosy view of their world and influenced by their privileged positions and the fact that she, currently unbeknownst to him, is carrying his child. But 'New Carthage', alas, is not as invincible as they fondly imagined and great and dreadful changes are imminent - to the city and to the Carthaginian and the Spanish alliance. Brutal shocks are in store. Even without any further Roman involvement, this has all the makings of an excellent family drama.


For a new and resolute enemy of Carthage has entered this drama; a man both determined and skilful; a ruthless military figure. This is Publius Cornelius Scipio, the new Roman Proconsul. Both his father and uncle were killed in the war against Hannibal in Italy and in Spain he is thirsting, both for revenge and to further his own military and political career. Mattias and the bulk of the Carthaginian army have, meanwhile, left New Carthage in search of Mago, brother to Hannibal and Hasdrubal, and his forces. He is aware that Hanno is continuing to foment difficulties and that the authorities back in Carthage are planning to recall Hannibal from Italy. He knows that this would be a disaster for him and his fellow Carthaginians in Spain. He learns also that Scipio is planning a major assault on New Carthage itself. In his alarm, he sends an urgent message to his wife Ilde. She leaves before the city falls to Scipio, followed by a general sack and a massacre of Carthaginians. Within the Roman preliminary spying force are two men who will play a significant role in subsequent events. These are Laelius, a noble Roman and an honourable man and the second in command to Scipio himself and his protege Marcus Tiberius Varus, a young man who has in some unspecified way blotted his copybook back home and has been spent to Spain to redeem himself and to further his military career.


As a result of the disaster of New Carthage, Carthaginian plans are now in complete disarray. Hasdrubal enters into a major decline and actually leaves to join his brother in Italy, Ilde is a refugee without a home and is somewhere on the open road. Many of the former Spanish allies are defecting to the Romans and Hanno himself is suing for terms with Scipio. Worst of all, Mattias has been brutally betrayed by Hanno and Anna and is now a slave in a silver mine. In the truly blood-soaked time ahead, a period of unadulterated cruelty, brutality, and betrayal, Fisher focuses strongly on these two young men, Mattias and Marcus, so apart in their loyalties and beliefs. As events unfold they find themselves challenging their own long-held beliefs and the notions of honour and loyalty that once they held sacred as they experience shocking circumstances and events that shake and test them. Mattias clearly has the worst of it. After immense suffering, he escapes slavery only to be stabbed by a Roman legionary and left for dead. On the Carthaginian side, the situation deteriorates rapidly. The Carthaginian survivors and the remnants of their Spanish allies attempt to reform and regroup, Hasdrubal being ambushed and killed in battle as he returns from Italy. After many misfortunes, the long-suffering Ilde is able to join them, her father is in a Roman prison. The schemes of Hanno and Anna for power have also crumbled in ruin. When next they are able to meet the legions of Scipio in battle at a place called Ilipa the Carthaginian and Spanish force suffers a crushing defeat through the superior tactics and strategy of Scipio. In the battle, Marcus is himself seriously wounded and not expected to live.


It is, however, upon the conflicting moods and emotions of the two young men that Fisher focuses the attention of the readers, the focus also of this review. Any further attempts to chronicle the many crowded and confusing events of the book will not serve the purpose here and only confuse. It is not the object of this review to comment further, only to say that the narrative is never less than gripping. It is up to the individual reader to read and absorb these details and events for himself or herself. In essence, Mattias regains consciousness to find himself in a Roman military hospital. It takes an immense amount of time for him to recover. He is genuinely startled at the great degree of compassion and care being afforded by the staff to their many Spanish patients, former bitter enemies. This is in part due to Scipio's own policy of reconciliation with the Spanish in order to sever their support of the Carthaginians. Nonetheless, Mattias is struck by the many acts of kindness he witnesses and, as time passes, he is lost in doubt and despair. He learns more of the fate of the Carthaginians slowly and, finally, of the death of his own beloved father Hasdrubal. His death ''had robbed Mattias of his anchor and his only defence against Hanno and Anna. He couldn't explain it, and to think of it only caused him pain, and that pain intensified when his thoughts strayed to Ilde........ her face swam distantly in his vision as tears overwhelmed him. The pillars of his life - in the army, his wife, his father, his liberty - all had vanished. He was no longer a slave, but neither was he truly free among the Romans at Tarraco....... His enemies had treated him with kindness, while his own family had deceived and betrayed him.''


When, some later, the recovering Mattias tends to the gravely injured Roman in the cot next to him and makes his acquaintance and as they compare notes and experiences, it transpires, naturally enough one supposes, that this is none other than that same Marcus Tiberius Varus! They learn much from each other and it is Marcus, in fact, who will bring about the final, tragic episode of this story and usher Mattias in to the next episode of his already spectacularly busy life. Greg Fisher is to be congratulated on his vivid recreation of a distant and much misunderstood period in history. This is a gripping and exciting read with a deep underlying vein of sensitivity and compassion.


*****


“The Spanish Slave” by Greg Fisher received 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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