Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.06.35

Pat Southern, The Roman Army: A Social and Institutional History.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Pp. x, 381.  ISBN 978-019-532878-3.  $24.95.  

Reviewed by David W. Madsen, Seattle University (
Word count: 2057 words

Pat Southern, who has co-authored works on the Roman cavalry and the late Roman army, here provides a more generic work for the "interested general reader." The scope is wide--as the contents, listed below, will indicate, but she makes no claims to have written a definitive work. As she herself acknowledges in a concluding paragraph, "We can simply make interim statements, with updates from time to time." This book is her update.

A few observations before proceeding: because this history reflects both the availability of material and literary sources and the interests of the author, readers will note a temporal preference for the Empire and a geographic focus upon Britain, Germany, and the Danube. Second, there are considerable sections of the work that seem to this reader more encyclopedic than historical in the narrative sense. One can make good use of the structure and the detailed table of contents to look up particular items (e.g. units, officers, or weapons) rather than read a continuous narrative. In brief, this is in some ways as much a handbook as it is a history.

The work opens with a detailed narrative and evaluation of the sources, which serve as the Introduction (1-36). Archaeological, papyrological, epigraphic, artistic, numismatic materials and military diplomas are both defined and exemplified before Southern moves onto literary texts. These she divides into sub-categories of authors with military experience (e.g. Polybius or Josephus), narrative historians such as Tacitus or Appian, manuals, legal codes, and maps and itineraries. In its entirety the chapter serves as an excellent example of the lengths to which ancient historians are driven in their attempts to supplement their meager sources. The chapter concludes with a brief catalogue of modern, secondary sources; this is followed, as is the case with every chapter, by a bibliography of references and suggestions for further reading.

Chapter two, entitled "The Historical Background," explores subjects of geography, demography, Roman politics, officials (especially republican), economics and finance, relations between civil society and the army, and enduring value systems. Among the political themes, Southern points to the republican reliance on rural recruits and allies--and the consequences of such dependence in the Gracchan reforms and the Social War; imperial themes include the use of legates and the emperor's recurring need to appease the soldiers. In the section on finance, Southern notes that the expenses of the army no doubt consumed about half of the annual revenue of the empire, whether collected by publicani (republic) or levied on municipia (imperial practice). The section on civil and military relations alludes to the multiple roles that the troops fulfilled when not engaged in defense or campaigning; especially in demilitarized provinces, units fulfilled police, customs, engineering, and maintenance needs. And so, while virtus continues to be a fundamental Roman value, it was proclaimed on monuments and coinage rather than witnessed by most civilians of the Empire.

Chapter three, "The Roman Army," opens with eleven pages (87-97) on the armies of the republic--Servian, fourth century, Polybian, Marian, and late republican. When Southern reaches the empire, the chapter heads in rather a different direction as she explores (98-139) the organizational structure of the legions, elite and auxiliary units, and officers. It is here that the work takes on the aspect of a handbook; for instance, the section on the legion itself includes entries on length of service, organization (including the vexed and unresolved question of size), the first cohort, cavalry detachment, specialists, headquarters staff, and longer discussions of pay and supplies. Army officers are discussed and categorized under rubrics of senatorial and equestrian commanders, the camp prefect, primus pilus and centurions. The chapter concludes with a brief but interesting review of recruitment, training and promotion--with an almost exclusively imperial focus.

The fourth chapter, "The Culture of the Roman Army," continues the handbook style/format. Following a brief section on "physiognomy," by which Southern seems to mean the provenance of the recruits, we read of matters of morale, discipline, and traditions. Southern notes the privileged legal status of soldiers but notes as well that military discipline was apparently enforced with less rigor in the Empire than in the Republic and also less so in peacetime than in war. Punishments ranged from extra duty to loss of rank or pay to discharge and finally execution. Southern notes as well that soldiers were not entitled to leave or furlough but could apparently arrange privately with their commanders to be absent (literally at their own expense) from camp and the duty roster. The section on traditions explores unit names, decorations and medals, uniforms (from helmets to socks over several pages), military music, and holidays. The last include the specially "military festivals" of the Quinquatria on 19 March and the feast of Vesta on 9 June as well as the emperor's birthday and 21 April, the anniversary of the founding of the city. A section on veterans concludes the chapter; Southern explains the military diploma, the privileges and obligations, the state funded, one time, cash pensions of the retirees, and finally the exemptions from some taxes.

Chapter five examines the subject of "The Roman Army at War." Southern opens with the traditional claim that "From their earliest beginnings to the late empire, the Romans consistently adopted a warlike disposition"(171). That said, however, she believes that the Empire lacked a strategic plan: Romans tended to behave reactively in going to war and pragmatically in settling a conflict. Reflecting the defensive posture employed over much of imperial history, Southern devotes several pages (178-186) to frontiers and forts (with perhaps the book's most useful illustrations--diagrams of the Wallsend and Housestead forts on Hadrian's Wall). Under tactics and operational concepts are grouped the order of march (with examples taken from Polybius, Josephus and Arrian), marching and temporary camps, and battle. The chapter examines as well planning and staff work, command and control (including the difficult balance of aggression and diffidence that troubled imperial commanders like Corbulo and Agricola), and operations involving combined naval and ground forces. Rather unusually for this book but doubtlessly reflecting the sources, almost all of the information about the last dates from the Republic rather than the Empire.

"The Tools of War" occupy chapter six, though in addition to weaponry Southern examines logistics, communications, medicine, technology and cartography. The weapons discussed include gladius, pilum, lancea, spatha, pugio, bows and arrows, artillery, and slingshots. Here more than anywhere else a selection of drawings or photographs would have been immensely helpful. While Southern does provide references to other authors, I would have traded several of the book's illustrations taken from the Library of Congress for genuine "hardware" here. In discussing logistics Southern points to the obvious differences between Republic and Empire when permanent forts and bases were the rule. Over several pages Southern discusses food and fodder requirements, the number of pack animals employed by a legion on the move, and the speed of transport/march. Of intelligence and communications Southern suggests that they worked much better on the local than the regional or imperial level; and so, as the frontiers became increasingly troublesome, emperors necessarily moved from Rome to where their presence was required. The discussion of medicine is brief, though Southern does demonstrate that the Romans made significant advances in the treatment of wounds and outbreaks of disease/illness in camp. Equally brief are the sections on technology and cartography, the former effectively equated with engineering and the latter with itineraries; again references indicate possibilities for more detailed study.

Chapter seven, "The Late Roman Army," returns to more traditional, historical narrative in the book's shortest chapter; here Southern provides a dramatically abridged but updated version of her 1996 work of the same title. The central issues are the adjustments, reforms, and innovations occasioned by ". . .the ultimate division into mobile field armies and the static frontier troops" (247) in response to the increasing dangers on the Danube. Southern reviews the major questions about Diocletian's reforms, namely the size of the army and its units, as well as the connection between Diocletian's comitatus and the later field armies. The Notitia Dignitatum offers an opportunity to review developments in command structure, officers, and recruits while archaeology (again with excellent plans depicting the evolution of forts along the Danube) illustrates how security concerns led to changes in design and fortification. As Southern points out, the cities of the Empire experienced the same anxiety and responded by constructing walls regardless of their distance from the real threats.

"Great Generals and Battles," by contrast the longest chapter in the book, reviews the military careers of the republicans Marius, Pompey, Caesar (the last of whom, his own best publicist, merits the lengthiest account) and the imperial commanders Tiberius, Germanicus, and Corbulo. Trajan does not "make the cut," but his Dacian campaign does appear among the great battles--along with Pharsalus, Philippi, Suetonius Paulinus' defeat of Boudicca, Agricola at the still unidentified Mons Graupius, and the Eastern campaigns of Septimius Severus. Both the military biographies and battle accounts are quite abbreviated--long enough to entice but not long enough to satisfy a reader trying to understand the strategy or tactics of a particular battle or campaign. And there is no doubt that some will question Southern's choices; certainly some of Rome's greatest generals and wars antedate the late Republic and Empire.

The final chapter, "Current Assessment," is effectively an epilogue of eight pages listing the problems in the study of the army and possible/needed areas of research. The major difficulty, Southern argues, is that it is very difficult to synthesize material which ranges so widely in time and space. In fact I suspect that this very issue is the best explanation for the different writing styles noted above. Southern likewise acknowledges that sometimes we must admit uncertainty about very fundamental questions, e.g. the size of the Roman legion. Questions of imperial policy and strategy, particularly on the frontier, continue to vex, though the subject has certainly attracted a good deal of attention since Luttwak published his provocative work. Of research possibilities Southern suggests several. "[P]ublication still tends to be devoted either to reproduction of the original texts or to translations of the sources. What is needed is a combination of both. . .where the translator not only translates but establishes a standard text with notes, some of them quite detailed. . ." (327). Southern makes the plea for more archaeological work, especially in areas not as well served as Britain, Germany and the Danube frontier, but suggests that we should probably also reexamine already existing evidence. Interdisciplinary and comparative work and conferences also offer the prospect of advances in our knowledge and understanding. As noted at the beginning of this review, Southern anticipates that work like hers will be in need of updating on occasion; that too provides occasion for research and synthesis.

The work concludes with an appendix on rank structure within the legion and auxiliary units of the army; this repeats in an expanded and unified form material that appears earlier and reinforces the sense that the work may be used as a ready reference tool. Following the appendix is a seven page glossary of the Latin terms which appear in the text, a seven page general bibliography (clearly directed at the Anglophone reader), and a thirty page index. The last, especially when employed in tandem with the detailed table of contents, makes it easy to negotiate one's way throughout the text.

There seem to me two areas in which the text might be made more useful to its intended audience. I have already indicated that some of the illustrations are curiously chosen and might profitably have been replaced with drawings or photographs, particularly of uniforms and equipment. The second issue has to do with the reference method. When an ancient source is quoted or noted, a complete reference is provided--including book and chapter numbers. However, references to modern sources, almost always paraphrased rather than quoted, do not include the particular pages to which the reader might turn; I should think that the general reader may require guidance more specific than author and work.

I noted only one misspelling (160: Quinquatria) and one factual error (281: Catiline was not brought to trial by Cicero in 63). Otherwise the text is quite dependable and reads very well. Southern knows her readership well and provides an easily accessible introduction to world of the Roman army.

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