CUP (2020) p/b 228pp £18 (ISBN 9781107638280)

L. is a Professor of Ancient History at Nottingham University and has written previously on related topics. The current volume is a contribution to the ‘Key themes in Ancient History’ series, which is designed primarily for students and teachers of classical studies.

The scope of the book runs from the mid-4th C BC to the early 7th C AD and extends to all regions of the Roman world. L. explains that he is not seeking to provide a linear account of individual battles or campaigns but rather an examination of the main themes which permeate the topic, distinguishing within each theme differences (where they exist) between the Republic, the Principate and Late Antiquity. He believes that Late Antiquity is the period which has been less fully covered by his predecessors.

After an opening orienting chapter on definitions, a succinct timeline and sources, he develops seven themes chapter by chapter. The first four are ‘top-down’ topics—why wars were fought and attitudes to victory and defeat; the relationship of the military to the rest of the community and the special qualities of the military, like courage; how the army was raised and paid for; how the army was controlled and how it coped with breakdowns, such as mutinies or civil wars. The final three are ‘bottom up’ topics—where did soldiers come from and how did the military communities differ from those of their fellow citizens; how did they interact with their opponents and their neighbours; how did they fight and what happened when their engagements involved civilians.

Perhaps the most striking point to emerge is how little things changed over the millennium described. Obviously the objective of Roman warfare changed from aggression and expansion during the republic to defence and conservation during the principate and Late Antiquity but the nature and philosophy of the military did not. Even the change from a citizen army in the republic to a paid professional army from the principate onwards can be exaggerated—the selection of citizens by lot under the republic relied on a public acceptance of the need to serve (no pressed men), and the subsequent professional armies were partially enticed by the promise of Roman citizenship.

Operationally things changed little. There were no major strategic developments like gunpowder—even the arrival of the stirrup may have made little significant difference. Throughout the millennium the army remained primarily an infantry force, supported by cavalry and archery—although the proportions varied slightly depending on the opposition and the terrain. The details were tweaked from time to time—the sword was remodelled on a Spanish design. The legion and its internal command structure remained the key fighting unit.

In many ways the professional Roman army that existed from the principate onwards can be likened to that of the British 19th C army from the Napoleonic War to World War 1. The key loyalty of each soldier was to the emperor (monarch) reinforced by a public oath and regular ritual reminders. Below that, the key relationship was upwards via your contubernium, cohort and legion (platoon, company, battalion) beyond which the solidarity weakened dramatically. Associated relationships within the military flourished, albeit patchily—for example Mithraism (cf. freemasonry in Kipling’s Indian army). Civilian support grew up adjacent to army camps and local relationships readily developed (cf, India again) that seem to have been mainly benign. Although the ethical background to warfare changed with the adoption of Christianity, the military seems to have adapted the changes for their own purposes (cf. church parades).

Discipline was clearly normally good, and mutinies, when they occurred, stemmed from local issues like pay and conditions rather than anything geopolitical (cf. the Nore Mutiny in 1797). Civilian populations suffered relatively little harm except when the army was in aggressive mode—the sack of Valencia in 75 BC is not that dissimilar to the fate of Badajoz at the hands of Wellington’s Peninsular Army in 1812. Also the behaviour of the Roman armies in civil wars is not unlike that of the Unionists and the Confederates in the American Civil War. The real disasters for civilian populations occurred during prolonged campaigns of attrition (Southern Italy during the Hannibal wars—cf. Vietnam).

This account is full of relevant and fascinating facts, presented in a highly readable and taut manner, mercifully free from jargon. The decision to cover so long a timeframe has not resulted in too thin a spread of information. The house style does not encourage notes or an unduly lengthy bibliography (20 pages) but there are six maps, a few illustrations and a basic glossary of the main Latin terms referenced. It undoubtedly more than meets the needs of its stated target audience, and can include those of military historians more generally. At its paperback price it is also good value for the non-specialist Classics for All reader.


Roger Barnes