Thursday, 11 February 2016

Cataclysm: 90BC - The Forgotten War that Almost Destroyed Rome, Philip Matyszak

A "Mr Steve" Book Review

This is a book I was looking forward to reading, it is written by an author I like and it also covers one of my favourite periods. Philip Matyszak’s writing style is easy to read and he always gets the story across very well plus along the way he sprinkles in tiny amounts of humour hidden amongst some of his turns of phrase. If I think of all the periods of Roman history, the Late Republican era is one of the most interesting, there is always something going on with those wicked Romans and we are fortunate in that there is a reasonably good range of ancient sources available, relatively speaking of course.

After the end of the 2nd Punic War in 201BC the Romans then spent the next one-hundred and thirty years or so gradually conquering most of the land around the Mediterranean; before the Punic Wars Rome had a very parochial attitude with virtually no interest in anything outside of Italy unless it affected them directly, now after two hard wars things were different, they started to go out and actively meet new peoples who lived in strange far away lands and then pinch all their stuff. Combine this glorified looting with the Roman hobby of doing in your colleagues back home then it gets very interesting indeed.

This book covers a particularly strange war set in Italy, on one side are the Romans, which means Rome itself and its colony cities, and on the other side are the Italians (i.e. everyone else). Now this is the strange bit. The Italians reason for fighting was that they actually wanted to become Roman, and the Romans, or we should really say the Roman aristocracy didn't want them to. The same group of families had run Rome for centuries, they had complete control of the Senate, lots of money and increased their land holdings every year, life was good, as for the rest, well they had the vote but it didn't really matter as that had been stitched up as well.

However the people who had to do the actual fighting were getting more and more disgruntled, especially the Italians who were getting none of the rewards, the poor wanted land, to have the vote and come under Roman legal protection, the rich wanted into the Senate. Coincidentally, the Roman equites (Knights) who were the next rung down from the Senators wanted to move up that last rung so as to get their share of the good life and so there was a nasty little political struggle going on inside Rome at the same time. The aristocracy on the other hand really didn't want any new members whether they came from the rest of Italy or from the Equites sharing in the goodies so that was right out, to be honest giving the Italian poor what they wanted wasn't that much of a concern to them, after all, how many would take the trouble to go all the way to Rome to vote, and as for land, well they would just continue to steal it from them just like they did from the Roman poor.

Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus
That’s the background for this book and it forms the core of the story; what Matyszak has done is to bolt on to either side of this conflict two more stories.

The first third of the book outlines most of what I have said above in greater depth along with key events happening overseas that with hindsight, will become part of the catalyst. This was the war with Jugurtha in North Africa which was an utter shambles; there was military embarrassment, obscene bribery and we see the rise of Marius and Sulla (more of them later). Meanwhile back at Rome he runs through the rise of the Gracchi brothers, among others, and their attempts to force through various changes in how Rome was run (in their favour of course) using the Tribune powers. The Italian tribes latched onto anyone that would espouse their cause but their hopes were constantly dashed with each successive failure/brutal murder. In the end they ran out of patience and so resorted to the only thing remaining and declared war on Rome.

Roman Infantry - 1st Century BC
The middle section covers the fighting which really only lasts a few years, the Italians had been plotting for just this event in case things didn't work out on the political side and were trying to get everyone ready to go at the same time, when the crunch came the plan was for war to kick off in spring 91BC when their scheming could be hidden by the yearly troop levy, but a combination of rumours and un-related troop movements spooked one of the cites to jump the gun towards the end of 90BC and it all became a bit messy.

In summary, the Italians besieged the Roman colony cities and when the Roman armies came to relieve them, promptly defeated them all. The war was one defeat after the other for the Romans until the Senate won the war by belatedly giving in to all the Italian tribe’s original demands. 

Unfortunately a few bridges had been well and truly burned by then especially by the Samnites and whilst most of the Italians now made peace, they tried to fight on. (It doesn't end well).

Here we move into the third part of the book, which sees the beginning of the end for the Republic. What I mean by this is that it suddenly dawned on a few generals that their soldiers, once loyal to the state had stopped being mere farmers who went home after campaigning (mainly because the rich had nicked all their farms) and that their loyalty had switched to whichever General would get the best deal for them either in new land or gold. So we see first Marius then Sulla, then Marius again and, well you can see were this is going, marching on Rome and “stabilising “the city; as each of them took control a great number of people became very stable indeed in a non-moving sort of way only this time it was mostly the rich aristocracy, who to be honest, got what they deserved for being such pig-headed idiots.

A little of the Mithradtic wars is also included mainly as it ignites the Marius v Sulla conflict, (I recommend “Mithridates the Great” also by Matyszak for this conflict) he covers well the whole Marius and Sulla period in sufficient detail to satisfy and then closes off with explaining the effects of various decisions and how they may or may not have prevented what was to come. The future players like Pompey and Julius Caesar make their first appearances, but that’s another book.

I liked it,

I had already read both the Jugurthine wars and Marius and Sulla from the free version of Plutarchs Lives that you can find online so I knew that part of the story quite well but I don’t think this really matters if you are coming to it fresh. The only thing I would say is that the book isn't very long as its main topic, the Italian/Roman war, only lasts about a year and there isn't much in the way of in-depth battle reports passed down to us that could be available for analysis.

Readable pages: 166

Priced at £19.99

Best Price I found today was: £12.65  


  1. Thanks for this review, it makes me want to rush out and grab a copy!

    Matyszak writes well on the period, and having read his life of Mithradates, it's a safe bet that we're in good hands here.

  2. Its a period he obviously knows well,I can also recommend his book on Sertorius who was a supporter of Marius and rather sensibly retired in a huff to Spain and so managed to outlive his comrades by many years. His campaigns in Spain against the Sullan's makes you reassess Pompey the Greats reputation.