Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.09.45

Christopher S. Mackay, Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  Pp. xvi, 395.  ISBN 0-521-80918-5.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Darryl A. Phillips, College of Charleston, South Carolina (
Word count: 2083 words

At a time when history has become seemingly all encompassing and new textbooks strive to present cultural and social history together with discussions of governmental affairs and military activities, Mackay has narrowed his topic to the traditional themes of war and politics. By limiting his scope, Mackay is able to trace the story of Rome's military expansion and eventual defeat while closely relating these events to developments in Roman political institutions. The work is particularly compelling for the discussion of the Republic and Late Empire, where the military and political events are intimately linked, but less successful in its discussion of the first two centuries of the Principate, when the Roman world experienced relative peace and stability. Mackay strives to present an updated narrative for use by readers with no background in the subject, including, no doubt, undergraduate students. He avoids quotation of ancient sources, presenting instead a unified and lively narrative in his own voice. The clear and detailed accounts of all major Roman military campaigns may make this book a good choice for some Roman History courses and should assure this volume an enduring place in undergraduate libraries.

The book is divided into 24 chapters grouped together into five parts. Each part includes a brief introduction and discussion of sources for the period. Part One begins with prehistoric Italy, and discusses the regal period and the early Republic down to 264 B.C. Part Two "Conquest of the Mediterranean, 264 B.C. - 146 B.C." covers in discrete units the Punic wars, the Macedonian wars, and the conquest of Spain. A well-written chapter pulls together these conquests and considers the complex effects of expansion on Rome. The third section of the book, subtitled "Collapse of the Republic" considers the role of key individuals, including the Gracchi, Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, as well as events such as the Mithridatic and Social Wars in the breakdown of the Roman state. Part Four examines the Principate from 27 B.C. to A.D. 235. Separate chapters explore the Augustan age, the Julio-Claudians, civil war and the Flavian dynasty, the "Pinnacle of the Principate" from A.D. 96-192, and "Civil War and the Severan Dynasty." Following these sections, an independent chapter summarizes the "Institutions of the Principate." Part Five explores the late imperial period, from A.D. 235 to A.D. 476, with individual chapters focused on the military and dynastic crisis of A.D. 235-284, the rise of Christianity, the reign of Diocletian, civil war and the reign of Constantine, the "Heyday of the Christian Empire, A.D. 337-A.D. 395," and the fall of the Empire in the west.

The book also includes a short epilogue, which briefly traces the history of the Empire in the east after the fall of the west. A detailed chronology (pp. 357-364) offers a useful summary of key events and reigns, and a brief appendix on Roman names provides basic information. Although no notes are included within the body of the text, a section at the end of the book includes up-to-date lists of recommended readings for each chapter, both primary sources and secondary scholarship in English. Finally, an index allows for quick navigation of the text to locate discussions of key people, places, events, and concepts. Inserted on plates in the middle of the book are 49 black and white photographs of monuments, statues, coins, and inscriptions. The images are generally of high quality and include detailed captions, but the lack of references to these figures within the body of the text limits their value. Seven black and white line maps are included at the start of the book. The maps locate many of the places discussed within the body of the book, though again no references to specific maps are included in the text to guide the reader.

An overview of one section illustrates the strength of the whole book. Part Two begins with three chapters in which the Roman wars against Carthage, the conflicts in the east, and campaigns in Spain are set out in rich detail. Military strategies, political missions, and important conflicts are discussed. Convenient summaries pull together these elements, and well-placed analyses draw out meaning from the events. Following these chapters, Mackay offers a summary chapter entitled "Effects of the Conquests on Rome." Here he carefully examines complex issues, pointing out inherent tensions such as the need for more magistrates with imperium to conduct campaigns and govern the newly acquired provinces balanced against the constitutional traditions and the stability of the Senatorial oligarchy. Mackay also explores the challenge to Republican traditions posed by the influx of new and unprecedented levels of wealth. As large estates displaced small land-holders, migration to Rome increased and new political pressures arose as the dispossessed pressed for land distributions. In turn, this created recruitment problems for the military as small landholders had long been the mainstay of the Roman army. Throughout this section, Mackay connects military with political events, demonstrating how one profoundly affects the other. In Part Three, he builds on this analysis as he sets out the history of the last century of the Republic. The reader comes to this section well prepared to understand the issues that led to the fall of the Republican system. By maintaining a tight focus on military and political events, Mackay is able to provide a more detailed narrative and more nuanced analysis than is regularly found in history texts that also include literary and cultural developments.

Less successful is Mackay's treatment of the Principate, a period that saw fewer wars and political struggles than the late Republic. The problem here is in part structural, as Mackay has chosen to present a narrative of the reigns of the emperors, from Augustus through Severus Alexander, before he addresses what he terms the "Institutions of the Principate." With the important institutional developments collected in one chapter at the end of the section, and with few military campaigns to explore, the narrative in much of this section is focused on the personality of the emperors and lacks the depth of analysis that characterized other parts of the book. As presented, the Principate appears as a static period, with little development in political or military history taking place after the Augustan age. The structure of the unit also creates some chronological problems. For example, the extension of citizenship throughout the empire in A.D. 212 is discussed in Chapter 17 which chronicles the Severans, but it is not until Chapter 18 that we learn about the gradual extension of citizenship to auxiliary soldiers and members of the municipal elite that had preceded the passage of the Constitutio Antoniniana.

Other problems in this section may stem from Mackay's larger thesis which contrasts the Principate with the late imperial period. As Mackay puts it: "Unlike the basically passive Principate, which had little to do with the daily life of the populace as long as the taxes were paid, the government of the Late Empire interfered much more obtrusively in people's lives, both to regulate their religious activities and to make sure that their economic activity benefited the state in its capacity as paymaster of the army" (p. 264). Indeed, this thesis is upheld by the narrative presented in the text, but only because the chapters devoted to the Principate do not include within the chronological discussion of the emperors detailed treatments of the evolving system of provincial governance, developments in Roman law, changes in military recruitment practices, building programs in Rome or other cities, or the increasing involvement of the municipal elite in cities around the empire. Arguably, it is during the Principate that people throughout the Empire felt most clearly the effects of Roman domination. The presence of Rome may have appeared less obtrusive, as Mackay argues, but the effects were certainly profound. Expanded consideration of these topics would provide a better context for understanding points that are raised by Mackay in later sections, points such as the increasing use of German and other "non-Roman" troops in the army, the marginalization of the Senate, and the separation of legal from military duties among commanders in the provinces in the 3rd century.

A number of small errors contribute to the impression that the early Principate was a static period. Mackay attributes to Augustus the right "to commend a fixed number of candidates, who then directly assumed office without election" (p. 186). Surely Augustus enjoyed no such power, as he is not named as a precedent in the Lex de Imperio Vespasiani (CIL 6.930 = ILS 244, l. 10-14), where Vespasian is granted the right to nominate candidates extra ordinem (and even this right does not necessarily indicate that elections were by-passed). The presentation of the transition from Augustus to Tiberius again gives the impression that the political powers of the emperor had been fixed at an early date. Mackay notes that Tiberius received proconsular imperium and tribunician power after the deaths of Gaius and Lucius Caesar, and goes on to observe that "Tiberius automatically succeeded to Augustus' position upon his death in A.D. 14" (p. 188). When later he returns to the accession of Tiberius (p. 193), he asserts that "Tiberius already possessed the same powers as Augustus had," thus missing the delightfully awkward transition recorded by Tacitus (Ann.1.7-13). Tiberius, as Tacitus notes, had already issued commands to the troops when he first summoned the Senate to meet following Augustus' death. As Suetonius observes (Tib.24), this was to make Tiberius emperor in deed, if not in word. Using his tribunician power, Tiberius called the meeting of the Senate, but the consuls were left to preside over the awkward proceedings (on p. 185 Mackay had erroneously identified tribunician power as the source of Augustus' right to preside over the Senate). The meeting ultimately ended with the confirmation of Tiberius' position, but this does not mean that they served no purpose, and the accession of Tiberius was not automatic. The details of the transition from Augustus to Tiberius are important to the central themes of Mackay's book: they offer a clear illustration of the continuing importance of the political institutions of the Republic during the Principate, demonstrating that the military solution arranged by Augustus was a step ahead of the full political settlement.

With the return of civil wars and campaigns along the borders in the 3rd century A.D., Mackay's work returns to its strengths of relating military conflicts to governmental changes. Particularly strong is the discussion of the rise of Christianity, the development of the Tetrarchy, and the migration of Visigoths and Germans and attempts to integrate these groups within the Roman system. Mackay carefully explores the role of military pressures along the frontiers in transforming the structure of imperial government. Just as with the fall of the Republic, the end of the Roman Empire in the west is well presented through a combined focus on military and political history.

Throughout the entire book, Mackay has pitched his narratives to a general audience and takes care to provide appropriate background information and define his terms. He provides an excellent discussion of the Roman "constitution", clearly presenting key concepts such as imperium and auctoritas. Given the care that is taken with much of the information, some terms and details that one might expect to find in a political and military history text are conspicuously absent. Although the Gabinian law is mentioned by name, the lex Vatinia and lex Titia are not. Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian are said to have been "elected" as triumviri rei publicae constituendae (p. 163) in 43 B.C., although earlier while discussing the "First Triumvirate" Mackay had observed that the "Second Triumvirate" "formed in 42 B.C. was a proper magistracy authorized by law" (p. 144). Although the concepts are discussed, the terms alimenta (p. 228) and honestiores and humiliores (p. 258) are not presented. In its only appearance in the text, euergetism is misspelled, unfortunately appearing as "eugergetism" (p. 256). While the absence of some terms will make the text much more user-friendly, it does come at a cost. Without additional guidance, readers will find it difficult to explore in greater depth some of the specific issues raised in the book.

Mackay has provided a valuable service by presenting an updated text focused on Rome's military and political history. For the general reader, the work as a whole provides a solid introduction. Mackay reminds us all of the value in focusing on military conflicts and governmental affairs, particularly for understanding the breakdown of the Republican system and the collapse of the western empire.

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