Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.56

Nathan Rosenstein, Rome at War: Farms, Families, and Death in the Middle Republic.   Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press, 2004.  Pp. 339.  ISBN 0-8078-2839-4.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by John D. Muccigrosso, Drew University (
Word count: 1513 words

Rosenstein (henceforth R.) attempts a new analysis of the effects of war on the population of the Roman Republic up to the period of the Gracchi and the causes of the crisis to which the brothers responded. He does so by applying a comparative approach, utilizing the growing range of demographic analyses of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds as well as other pre-modern cultures. The book thus expands R.'s work in the area of ancient warfare, on which he has already produced the equally interesting Imperatores Victi (Berkeley, 1990) and War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Cambridge, 1999, co-edited with Kurt Raaflaub).

R. begins the introductory chapter by summarizing the now traditional view, represented in the scholarship chiefly by Brunt's magisterial Roman Manpower and other works on the Roman army and the Gracchan period (especially Toynbee's Hannibal's Legacy, London, 1965). In brief: the number of slaves in the Roman world was increasing during the second century while the free, rural land-working population was declining; lurking behind both trends was the increasing intensity of Roman military activity, taking poor freemen from their farms and creating wealth and large numbers of slaves for the well-to-do (cf. esp. Appian BC 1.7-11 and Plutarch TG 8.1-3). Absence of archaeological evidence for these developments (especially in the number of agricultural settlements) has long been noted, and R. brings to bear against the standard interpretation both this and the considerable weight of more recent demographic analyses, which provide solid comparative evidence on basic statistical relationships between various elements of the population. As he writes later, "continuities rather than change marked the relationship between war and agriculture" in the middle Republic (p. 52).

The second chapter sets out to show that there is little, if any, evidence to support the traditional view and good reason to doubt its correctness. First the lack of a change in the second century: armies seem to have remained intact through the early winter already in the fourth and third centuries, to judge from several lines of evidence, including the dates provided by the triumphal fasti. Even if some of these calendrical dates were far in advance of the season (and R. argues that they were not typically so), the timing of triumphs shows that service still would often have interfered with the sowing season (which R. notes has to have varied widely throughout the growing territory under Roman control). Likewise there is no evidence for an increase in the terms of military service or the wealth of those subject to it. Although Rome did indeed field larger armies in the second century, the great Samnite and other Italian wars of the middle Republic required no small number of recruits. Evidence that military service was in conflict with agriculture also is lacking: R. finds no evidence for men furloughed to take care of their crops, either for early winter or the early-summer harvest; and a few examples from Greek contexts also fail to show any concern for the farms soldiers left behind.

Chapter 3 uses comparative data to attempt to model rural Roman society and the amount of labor available for war and agriculture. Though the more numerate reader may wish that so many calculations were not confined to the endnotes, R. presents a convincing demographic argument that Rome's military exploits prior to the Hannibalic War presented no great challenge to its mainly farm-based population. In contrast, the great war of the third century put much more strain on the population, as did Rome's increased mobilization in the following years. R. retains his fairly conservative approach to the numbers, even in the face of what may appear to be daunting uncertainties: debate still exists over such basic figures as the size of the overall population and the rate of its growth in the mid Republic. Likewise we are very much in the dark about the nature of living conditions in rural Italy and the extent to which small families cooperated with one another and shared or bartered for resources like tools and foodstuffs.

As the title indicates, chapter 4, "Mortality in war" attempts an estimate of the number of deaths due to military service. Here R. argues for the general reliability of the number of war dead reported in the sources, a position with which not all will agree. The causes he considers range beyond simple death during battle to include injuries sustained in combat and disease. The uncertainties now are even greater than before. For the wounded and diseased, R. is forced to make fairly broad estimates, backed up by good reasoning, but in the end still guesses. A startling result is his estimate that a minimum of 34-40% of soldiers died while in service during the 2nd c. BC. His calculation of this number provides the only significant error I found in the endnote math; the percentage should be even higher.1

The book's final chapter relates the findings of the earlier chapters to the crisis to which Ti. Gracchus responded. It is the least satisfying portion of the work, mainly because of the (likely) inevitable weight of the uncertainties in both R.'s calculations and the historical record. In contrast to the standard view (usually presented in term's of Brunt's work), R. suggests that the vast numbers of men who continued to be conscripted away from rural households during the second century BC actually caused a population increase during the first half of the century. This increase was, he argues, exceptionally large, from 0.9-1.5% per annum. Since most soldiers were unmarried young men, and the older ones, who might be married, tended to have the relatively safer position of triarius, existing families were little diminished, and in fact the soldiers' absences created opportunities for those left behind. The same effect resulted from the large migration to Rome, which may have removed even more men from the countryside. The particular social circumstances of Italian rural families then accommodated these absences with rapid population growth, R. suggests. The now large population was subsequently unable to sustain economically successful growth, especially with the virtual end of colonization and lucrative wars by mid-century. As a result, many families became impoverished or saw their fortunes decline significantly. Few perhaps fell below a subsistence level, but for many mere survival was no longer enough. The Gracchan reforms therefore appealed to these people as a means to improve their lots, not simply guarantee their survival. R. points to the desire for equipment and other capital improvements, as well as that for land, as evidence that families were not so much without land as without the means to adequately exploit it.

Contrasting with R.'s analysis is the overwhelming impression given by the sources that in fact a population decline and large-scale elimination of free labor from the land lay behind the problems of the 130s. R. is forced to distinguish between a perception of such problems by the contemporary elite and their actual existence. This is a defensible position, but one that leaves the reader with some discomfort. Likewise R. handles the declining census figures by calling upon widespread evasion by those seeking to avoid service in the unremunerative wars of the mid-century. Again, defensible, but disconcerting.

Seven appendices treat issues germane to R.'s arguments but too involved for notes: the number of Roman slaves in 168 BC, the accuracy of the calendar before the Hannibalic war, tenancy, the minimum age for military service, the proportion of assidui in the population (which includes fine remarks on the granting of exemptions (vacationes)), the duration of military service in the second century (mentioned in note 1), and the number of citizen deaths resulting from military service in the first third of the second century.

The format and production quality of the book are excellent. The endnote pages have guides to the pages to which notes refer; I found in the index all the topics I looked for with minimal effort; and I noticed no typographical errors. R. cites the ancient sources at length, but includes little Latin or Greek, which will make the work more accessible to non-specialists and not, I trust, terribly bother those in the field. He also provides a wide range of citations for comparative evidence, ranging all over the world in space and time. Only an index locorum is lacking.

This is a fine book. R. brings a welcome new approach to the difficult question of how war and agriculture, two of the most prevalent practices of the ancient Roman world, interacted. His use of comparative evidence is salubrious and compelling, as is the application of much recent work in demographic studies. I found myself very much engaged in the topic, often wondering about other consequences of R.'s statistics (e.g., what the response by eligible young men would have been to the very large rates of mortality of servicemen that R. calculates). If his final chapter on the actual causes of the second-century crisis which the Gracchi responded fails to convince, it is due more to uncertainties in the sources than the quality of the attempt.


1.   On p. 137, R. writes "... if twelve years was the average term of service for all recruits, between 34 and 40 percent of all those Romans and Italians who left to fight Rome's wars might never have come back". Note 149 provides the actual calculation and R. here uses 12 years for the average term of service for men who did not die in service (the main text is unclear on this point). This is a reasonable figure, and one R. backs up elsewhere (e.g., p. 90-91, 101, 103, and especially in Appendix 2). Obviously the men who did not last the full 12 years would have to be replaced and R. therefore adds in a total equal to their number, 278,891 (to use his lower estimate). But this is too many: those who died while in service would surely have served some time and therefore not need to be replaced by an equivalent number of new recruits. The relevant figure is the number of man-years (not simply men) required by the armies. R. estimates this at 6,543,340 for the 67 years in question. If we assume that the less experienced men tended to die at a higher rate than their older companions, and that the dead had served an average of one-quarter of the average term of service, 3 years (1/4 of 12), they would have provided 836,673 man-years of service (278,891 x 3), leaving 5,706,667 man-years to be served by those who did not die (6,543,340 - 836,673), who therefore would have numbered 475,556 (5,706,663/12). The total number of men needed by the armies in this period was therefore 754,446 (475,555 + 278,891). This is significantly lower than R.'s 824,369 and gives a percentage of 37, versus his 34, an increase of nearly 10%. A similar calculation for his high-end numbers yields 44%. Naturally, an increase in the average term of service for those who died would mean they constituted an even higher percentage of all soldiers (e.g., 6-year terms yield a range from 41-49%), though also that the overall numbers were lower.

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