OUP (2022) h/b 430pp £26.99 (ISBN 9780190937706)

Edward Luttwak set the ball rolling when he published his The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (1976, revised 2016). Ever since, there has been much interest in the subject, ranging from what that strategy might have been to whether the Romans had any concept of strategy at all.

James Lacey is a historian who holds the Horner Chair of War Studies at Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Virginia, and served in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, and United States Army Europe Headquarters. He admits that he is an amateur Roman historian (it occasionally shows), but still feels that by standing on the shoulders of the professionals he can bring his wide experience of warfare to bear on the question of Rome’s military strategy during the imperial period from the 1st to 5th C AD. For example, he makes a good case for saying that Rome’s extensive itineraria, usually dismissed as being of any military significance, did provide them with more sense of the whole empire, its size and geography, than scholars have hitherto given them credit for, and that such awareness was essential when it came to planning strategy at the limits of their world.

L. has much of interest to say on Luttwak’s theories (he suddenly becomes Hermann Luttwak in the index). For example, Luttwak argued that, from the Flavian period into the second century A.D., Rome weakened its position by preferring ‘preclusive defence’, based on its frontiers, to its earlier more attack-minded mobile legions. L. points out that Rome at that time was no longer expanding its empire but strengthening what it already had and providing a perfectly well-manned and resourced system to deal with the new realities.

However his use of the term ‘strategy’ is not always satisfactory. He offers two definitions, the simpler of which is ‘a theory on how to achieve a stated goal ... how to get from a current state or condition to a desired state or condition’ i.e. it must have an ‘objective’. But that term is wholly absent from the narrative. The result is that it is unclear what end the ‘strategy’, whether short- or long-term, was designed to achieve, while it is regularly applied either wrongly or without adding anything to the argument, e.g. ‘The invasion of Britain had served its primary strategic purpose in propping up the stature of an emperor [Claudius] whose hold on the crown was, at best, tenuous.’ For ‘primary strategic purpose’ read ‘objective’. Again, ‘Despite the legions being settled in permanent fortresses along the frontier, they had not yet lost their strategic mobility’. Is ‘strategic’ needed in that sentence? Further, the term ‘strategy’ almost disappears without trace from the narrative as the story continues towards its ending with the collapse of the Roman empire in the west. In this respect, it is significant that L.’s conclusion does not mention strategy at all but concentrates on the conditions without which no strategy of any sort can succeed.

Here lies the real strength of the book, in L.’s analysis of Rome’s strengths that lay behind its military success, none of them particularly novel but, taken together, well worth the emphasis that he places upon them: first, Rome’s manpower; second, its economic power, developed from the expansion of its empire, combined with its ability to integrate conquered populations and bring them on board, which (third) enabled them to maintain a standing and therefore fully trained and increasingly experienced army. He makes the point that these should be priorities for modern nations as much as they were for ancient, and observes that Rome’s bloody civil wars from the 3rd century AD onwards and the split of their empire into eastern and western blocs were particularly destructive of Rome’s military and economic power.

If L.’s very keenly priced book does not quite live up to its strategic title, that does not mean it does not have a contribution to make. Though there is a case for saying that it could have been shorter and more focussed on the key issues with which he deals, he writes honest, straightforward English, tells a good story, makes his disagreements with other scholars fairly and clearly and, even if one disagrees with some of his conclusions, the weight of his experience brings a sense of authority to what he writes. His reflections on the modern military world are especially valuable.


Peter Jones