Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.03.02

A.D. Lee, War in Late Antiquity. A Social History.   Malden, MA:  Blackwell, 2007.  Pp. xxvi, 282.  ISBN 978-0-631-22926-1.  $34.95.  

Reviewed by Josh Levithan, Kenyon College (
Word count: 2217 words

A.D. Lee's War in Late Antiquity is a very useful contribution to the study of the Roman military. Subtitled "A Social History," the book is perhaps a greater contribution to the history of Late Antiquity, and it will certainly prove to be a handy reference for historians of Late Antiquity seeking to understand the army in context. Lee's far-reaching research allows him to move freely among many different types of evidence as he seeks to cover every possible aspect of warfare in its social context, and this book could do a great deal to counteract the unfortunate isolation of military history from other fields of study. Yet there is some tension between title and subtitle. The linking of "social history" and "war" implies (or demands, really) a study of the military institution itself. This, indeed, is the central focus of the book, although far from the only major subject of inquiry. It seems to be the case both that the focus on the army of the fourth and fifth centuries is necessary and that it pulls the book in two different directions. Inasmuch as the subject at hand is this army at war, we read about it in comparison to the better-known Roman army of the Principate and it remains something of a world apart; but when the social context is to the fore the army is less the subject than are its individual members, its impact on Late Antique society, and the impact of the war (rather than the army) on civilians. It is not quite the case that never the twain shall meet, but it is difficult to apply the fruits of the heavily diachronic study of the campaigning army to the broad social context and different sorts of sources that describe other aspects of warfare. I hope to clarify this point below.

Lee's preface lays out two concerns that set his book apart from other recent monographs on the military history of Late Antiquity. First is his attention to the "wider social context," which he aims to define "in a very broad sense...encompassing the political, economic, social, and religious dimensions of the late Roman empire" (page xii). This is a relevant point -- there are several excellent recent books on the military history of Late Antiquity (notably, especially concerning their broad focus, by M. J. Nicasie and H. Elton) upon which Lee often draws, but they are more narrowly concerned with traditional military matters -- and Lee's book well satisfies this implicit argument as to its relevance. Questions of army organization that depend upon the Notitia Dignitatum and lively debates about frontiers, strategy, and the meanings of late Roman unit designations have produced copious books and articles in recent decades, and Lee has wisely declined to add to the pile, instead collecting a great deal of information about many far-less-studied aspects of the military experience. Yet, as I will argue below, there are both positive and negative elements of this commitment to great breadth. Lee's second major concern is to take a balanced look at the entire era, from the mid-third to the early seventh century. In this, too, he succeeds admirably, and the student of Roman military history who has previously conceived of the period as the work of Ammianus followed by a leaping ellipsis to Procopius will come away with a better understanding of the entire period.

The introductory chapter contains able summaries of three subjects, namely war, the army and the sources for each, and is well provided with directions to the best recent scholarship on each sub-topic. The second chapter examines questions of military loyalty and civil war, the third military infrastructure and fortification, and the fourth the economic impact of war. The fifth chapter, in a direct nod to John Keegan and the "new" military history, discusses the "experience" of war. The sixth chapter studies "soldiers and society:" here there is much that is very interesting, that serves well the goal of contextualizing the army within the larger society, and that will likely be new to students of the Roman army. The final chapter examines religion and the army from several different perspectives.

Throughout the book, Lee provides thorough coverage not only of issues central to the history of war, but also such related issues as the imperial image in its own propaganda or land ownership by individual soldiers. This wide-ranging approach is enabled by his command of an impressive range of sources. Those familiar with text- or archeology-dependant studies will likely be pleasantly surprised by the range of verbal and visual media that Lee adduces as evidence. These include not only the familiar histories and coins but all manner of art and text, including some fascinating papyri and many off-hand but telling remarks about the army found in Christian sources not often cited by scholars of the Roman army.

The collection of so much diverse and relevant material is very impressive, and given the precise organization of the book (each chapter is divided into numbered sub-headings, with emphatic paragraph divisions further sub-dividing the discussion), information on a specific topic can be found swiftly and smoothly. Yet, at least to this reviewer's taste, the careful organization increases the immediate utility of the book at some cost to its readability, and perhaps, its overall impact. It becomes something like a very good sourcebook, albeit one provided with unusually extensive commentary. Each section begins with a precise statement of intent -- helpful, certainly -- and then presents the evidence, with each piece contextualized and commented on, and when certain contentious issues are touched upon (for instance, the discussion of military manpower) they are carefully adjudicated -- but a narrative or a strong individual argument rarely emerge.

Although they should probably be ascribed to Blackwell rather than Lee, two rather niggling complaints may belong here, regarding the precise numbering system (e.g. "1.2.1 verbal media" [page 37]) and the practice of parenthetical citations of secondary sources. Though this is even more likely a matter of taste, it seemed to this reviewer that such references are clunkier and no more convenient than footnotes. Those readers who are so familiar with the topic at hand that they can skim through a few pages and recognize the work in question simply by the author's name and date will in all likelihood learn little from that section, while those who need to look up the source in the bibliography might just as well have gone to an endnote in the first place. These are quibbles, but I do not think them entirely irrelevant. The separate, numbered sections and the further breaking up of the text by many parentheses are typographical issues, but they are of a piece with the deliberate introductions to each new sub-topic -- this presentation of the material nudges the reader toward treating the text more like a survey or sourcebook than a monograph or new synthesis. This tendency toward division weakens the impact of the book because there is no good place, and little space, for scene-setting or synthesis. The experience of war, for instance, is parsed by the type of participant and the type of conflict, and many interesting bits of evidence are cited -- but there is little attempt to combine the evidence into a narrative greater than the sum of its parts. Lee is wary of the "risk of such a discussion becoming merely anecdotal" (page 123). This is sensible, but the caution may be counterproductive: without some of the unifying momentum of longer narrative passages to sweep them together, many facts and sub-sections remain inert, merely interesting bits of history that don't tell us enough about war or the social history of Late Antiquity.

The commitment to organization rather than narrative can also, somewhat paradoxically, make the book somewhat uneven. Having chosen to emphasize certain aspects of his very large topic, Lee is perhaps too committed to fleshing them out. (It seems quite possible that these choices were influenced by the scheme of the "Ancient World at War" series of which the book is part.) There is a sense that he is straining to defend the borders of the subject as he has staked them out, rather than following the contours of the terrain. This defense is usually very capable, and where the evidence does not support a confident answer, Lee conducts a fighting retreat or concedes defeat. Everything is as accurate as it could be, but the book may have been a more effective treatment of the subject if it were organized around the shape of Late Antique warfare as we are able to know it, and not as we would like to define it. Some sections (notably the attempts to ascertain the economic costs and benefits of war) hardly seem necessary, given the sparse and unreliable source material. Diligent archeology and heroic analyses of tax remittances have enabled the scholarly community to piece together the conclusion that certain invasions had long-term economic effects on the devastated territory. This is great stuff, especially for the connoisseur of creative and intense research -- but when included in a general text on the history of warfare it seems fair, if a bit cruel, to ask what exactly we have learned from this. Knowing of the invasions themselves, we could have confidently assumed as much from the bare facts and our general knowledge of warfare. So, while Lee is more than diligent about avoiding the pitfalls of generalization, a careful conclusion to a study of economic after-effects leads, unfortunately, to the larger conclusion that we can know very little about the subject. Yet stretching the borders of the subject has its benefits, too, especially in the sixth chapter. Having decided to extend the social context of war as far afield (or as far from the field) as the correspondence "between Military and Non-Military Elites," Lee is able to draw on intriguing sources that paint a vivid picture of the uneasy co-existence of soldiers and civilians in the empire's cities.

Another organizing principle, more subtle than the actual ordering of the contents, bears mentioning. Throughout most of the sections that deal directly with the army, there is a tendency to treat the material in a comparative manner. That is, facts and factors are presented as relative to the situation of the better-understood and more widely known army of the Principate. This is very useful to the student of the high empire seeking to understand the fourth century or early Byzantium, but to someone without a solid footing in Roman history it would make for difficult going. It may also irritate partisans of Late Antiquity, since the continued comparisons can tug the unconscious mind toward the old prejudice of seeing Late Antiquity as the bastardized or decayed after-image of the high empire. The section of chapter five devoted to the experience of soldiers is a good illustration of the problems caused by relative judgments: it is true, as Lee writes, that little about the experience of war in Late Antiquity is all that different from the fundamental experience of other eras. Yet unless the reader is well versed in the particulars of this experience as respecting, for example, the second century or the early middle ages, then, lacking a good basis of comparison, he or she may come away from this book without much understanding of the topic at hand.

This tendency, perhaps unavoidable, to refer back to the army of the Principate also has the effect of undermining Lee's commitment to focusing on social context, as opposed to the traditional concerns of military history. The army-as-institution remains stubbornly to the fore, and thus the elements of such traditional military history (gore and unit organizations, primarily) persist, like hobnailed louts crashing a civilized party. They are part of the picture too -- I do not mean to allege a poor choice of material, for that is not at all the case -- but there remains a certain disjunction between the stated goal and overall organizational scheme on the one hand and the contextualizing of the evidence itself on the other.

The seventh chapter, on religion, is particularly good. Here Lee draws on expertise possessed by few other scholars of the Roman army, and we find as well a social context for soldiers that is both little studied and persuasively relevant. The narrative element is more prominent here, perhaps because a strong chronological course (i.e. the transition to Christianity) recommends itself. This both gives the chapter a more cohesive shape and allows it to break free from the problem of relating the evidence to that for the army of the Principate.

The above criticisms of organization and thematic balance must be taken with a grain of salt, for it would be difficult indeed to entirely redress the traditional emphasis in the military history of Late Antiquity on things like lines of fortification and the Notitia Dignitatum. Lee achieves a notable success by significantly enlarging the subject and giving the social context of warfare attention it has long lacked. Students of Late Antiquity and of the Roman army will find much here to interest them, and will surely be introduced to new sources and new lines of inquiry. The precise organization and ample references will make it easy to return to the book again and again.

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