Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.46

Philip Sabin, Hans van Wees, Michael Whitby (ed.), The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare. Vol. II: Rome from the Late Republic to the Late Empire.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007.  Pp. Vol. 1, xxx, 663 pp.; Vol. 2, xxi, 608 pp.  ISBN 9780521857796.  $440.00.  

Reviewed by Josh Levithan, Kenyon College (
Word count: 4238 words


(The following is a review of the second volume, "Rome from the late Republic to the late Empire." Please note that three general introductory chapters to the two-volume work are included in the first volume.)

The second volume of The Cambridge history of Greek and Roman warfare consists of twelve chapters, each the work of a different scholar, organized in two matched sets of six. The first six chapters cover "The Late Republic and the Principate," while chapters seven through twelve--named identically and in sequence with the first six--cover "The Later Roman Empire." The preface states that "this will become the primary reference work for specialists and non-specialists alike" (i). A rather strong assertion, but only fair given the reputation of the press, editors, and contributors. The overall quality of the book makes it quite likely that this prediction will prove correct. The preface also introduces a double agenda: to provide a thorough updating of each subfield in the light of the advances and new emphases of the last thirty years, and to allow some of Roman military history's leading scholars to advance new ideas. This mission has been successfully discharged--this is indeed a useful and up-to-date reference work, and, while some chapters are closer to the cutting edge than others, the book will efficiently and painlessly acquaint non-specialist readers with the new trends in Roman military history.

An informal word about the structure of this review: since I do not imagine that there are very many readers waiting only for the BMCR imprimatur before dropping $240, my aim is only to be the primary point of reference for those who might be interested in reading some of the component chapters, and I will shortly turn to a description and assessment of these. Specialists and Roman warfare completists will no doubt want to read through this volume and discover what its eminent contributors have to say, but for the un-libraried and poorly-libraried alike there is a significant investment in time and effort in the wait for an interlibrary loan and significant frustration in being at the mercy of Google Books' "limited preview" of random pages. While there are certainly merits to the duplex organization of this book, the standardized chapter titles do make it difficult to get a sense of the chapters' contents from title alone. Since the editors' commitment to the scheme wavered significantly--Chapter Five is in fact two separate essays by different authors, while the matching chapter eleven, and in fact all of the others, are unitary (can this be merely the suppression of an inauspicious thirteenth chapter?)--they may be deemed to have opened the door for a critique of the book's structure.

Symmetry is universally pleasant, but in a book which is not really meant to be comparative (that is, this book will be consulted more often for the information in particular chapters than to compare the Principate with the late Empire) the double structure seems to impose, at least at the superficial level of a table of contents, a misleading uniformity. For instance, Rankov's chapter on "Military Forces" is a snapshot overview of the army of the Principate, while Elton's "Military Forces" combines a structural overview with a narrative of the changes throughout Late Antiquity and elements of a broader essay geared to answering the implied question "why did the Western Empire fall?" The first chapter fits smoothly into the overall scheme, while the second essay strives to be something more neatly suited to the history of Late Antiquity. While Elton was able to smuggle into his chapter an important question of the period that would otherwise have fallen through the cracks, there is an even more important subject that slips between the cracks among the fist six chapters, or rather is scattered piecemeal among them, namely the formal reorganization of the army under Augustus. Overlap is of course unavoidable in such a book, and the editors have done a good job of cross-referencing both in the index and in the main text, but the Augustan settlement is a central issue without a central treatment--parts of five chapters deal with it in some detail and from different perspectives, but the reader has no one place to turn for an explanation. This seems to be a problem dictated by the structure of repeating chapters, and it is worth pointing out that a competitor volume, Paul Erdkamp's A Companion to the Roman Army, has just such a chapter, by Catherine Gilliver, a contributor to the volume under review.

Another editorial decision presented in the preface is to eschew narrative for "a thematic analysis of the main aspects of warfare in the ancient world" (xii). This was surely the right call, both because the market is awash in narrative treatments of ancient military history and because the thematic chapters here and their prominent subdivisions are much better suited to the "reference work" goal. Although the degree of narrative does vary from chapter to chapter--often in keeping with the degree to which the designated topic is better characterized, in the period, by continuity or change--the essays are all clear, as comprehensive as their size allows, and well-stocked with footnotes that can serve the student as springboards into the literature of various subfields. A few running themes (prominent among them the corrective warning against assuming a high degree of standardization in the army) do emerge across the chapters--by accident rather than intention, surely--and these will provide an added level of interest to the rare reader who reads right through.

While the text itself is handsomely laid out and carefully edited, it bears mentioning that the quality of the illustrations do not match up to the book's ambitions or price. This reviewer knows very little about the physical and economic aspects of the publishing trade, but, it seems not unreasonable to hope for better here than a few rather chintzy, low-resolution black-and-white renderings of coins, sculpture, etc.

The editors and the press deserve much praise, however, for the end matter. The bibliography will be invaluable to any student of the Roman army; the chronological table, glossary, and list of ancient authors are essential to the success of the book's main goal, namely permitting an assemblage of expert essays to function as a reference work accessible to the non-specialist; and the index of ancient passages cited (23 pages of small type) and the thoroughly cross-referenced general index (another 37 pages) will indeed make this a productive reference work for decades to come.

The first chapter, "International Relations," is a quick and effective opening to the larger book. Harry Sidebottom moves quickly through several subtopics, but provides a strong sense of context, in two different senses. First there is continual attention to issues of worldview--the scope of Roman knowledge, the habits of mind and custom that made their "international relations" so very different from ours. Second, by using the full breadth of the literary sources, Sidebottom provides not only a good picture of the variety of embassies and negotiations, especially under the early Empire, but he also communicates something of the excitement of doing Roman history. The editors' twin goals of providing an update on research and pointing the way forward are each in evidence here, with the way forward indicated by a section on symbolism in diplomacy. This is both interesting and calmly observational, focusing on the stagecraft of diplomacy rather than on any more recondite or theoretical symbolism.

Boris Rankov's "Military Forces" is perhaps the most traditional chapter in the book. Here we find a quick narrative of the development of the army followed by an intense mini-encyclopedia of the units of the Principate, a section of pure reference work that will be very satisfying to most students of the Roman army--the place to go for quick explanations of unit names, ranks, etc. This chapter poses some potential problems for the tiro, however. First, copious information is referenced to an ancient source without elaboration or explicit cross-reference to a section of the book where the author's perspective and reliability might be explained. Toward the end of the chapter (p. 63) we are informed of the problems with taking Vegetius at face value, but this would seem surprising to a reader who has unquestioningly scanned parenthetical citations to him for many pages. Second, footnotes are comparatively scarce here, both in support of specific references (e.g. a passing comment on the well-known career inscription of M. Valerius Maximianus [p. 72] is unreferenced) and for the purpose of pointing the reader toward the relevant secondary literature. This can be frustrating, especially when scholarly debates have been obliquely referred to ("despite recent tendencies" or "in recent discussions.") Finally, there is a very occasional tendency toward comparisons that might lead the reader astray. In particular, the corona civica is described (p. 66) as "the Roman equivalent of the Victoria Cross or Congressional Medal of Honor," but the traditional criterion for the award (saving a fellow citizen's life in battle) goes unmentioned. Still, this chapter fills its role in the book well, and provides a valuable condensed point of reference on the forces of the Principate.

The third chapter, "War," is by Adrian Goldsworthy, the leading Roman military historian of the past decade. A busy and well-considered discussion of many aspects of Roman warmaking, this chapter should prove to be fundamentally useful to non-specialists as well as eye-opening to dabblers in Roman military history as yet unfamiliar with Goldsworthy's work. After a brief discussion of general strategy, we find a typology of Roman campaigning that adds a fourth category--the response to incursions--to the threefold typology familiar to readers of his 1996 The Roman Army at War. Less a survey and more issue-driven than most of the contributions to the book, Goldsworthy's chapter includes a discussion of Edward Luttwak's theories of Roman "grand strategy" and their refutation by Benjamin Isaac, a debate which naturally leads to a detailed look at the issue of frontier defenses, and thus brings the reader up to date on a major aspect of the past thirty years of scholarship. There is also a very interesting argument at the core of the chapter, namely that there has not been enough of an effort to consider the strategic and operational decisions of actual army commanders in a general way. Goldsworthy declares that, while particular decisions are studied in isolation and the putative imperial "grand strategy" is much-discussed, "the common principles which underlay the army's behaviour on campaign" (p. 79) have been neglected. In thus approaching the study of how culture shapes military perception and action, Goldsworthy fulfils the editors' second goal, that of pointing out the road ahead.

Catherine Gilliver contributes an engaging and very successful chapter under the frighteningly concise title "Battle." Notable strengths are comprehensibility and accessibility--the technicalities of tactics are here, but the discussion is likely to benefit the militarily unenthused reader as well as students and fans of ancient warfare. Gilliver's approach is, essentially, to take as her subject "things that are likely and unlikely to happen in Roman battles," an approach which is not rhetorically thrilling but is full of good sense. Some elements of the discussion are fairly traditional--meaning (as above in the discussion of Rankov's chapter) that certain long-held ideas are accepted despite weak evidence, e.g. too-specific imaginings of the "typical" deployment of legionary subunits. There is also, however, a welcome willingness to frankly dismiss some of the more foolish ideas about how ancient combat worked. Gilliver is to be praised for trying to give the siege (which might very well have merited its own twin chapters) its due, but the discussion of morale is somewhat thin, being more or less limited to leadership and a passing mention of rewards. (Both siege warfare and morale are, it should be noted, paramount hobby-horses of this reviewer.) Overall, this chapter is an excellent introduction to the actual fighting done by Roman soldiers in the period, likely both to lure those disinterested in the sharp end of military history and to provide a curative to enthusiasts arriving with a narrow interest in tactics and technology.

Chapter Five, on "Warfare and the State," is the lone two-parter, with sections on finance and supply by Dominic Rathbone and on "The Military and Politics" by Richard Alston. Rathbone's essay is highly technical (as befits a technical subject) and stuffed with useful detail. The writing is deft, especially given the material. Three subsections cover pay, equipment, and the economic impact of the army. The first of these is almost overwhelmed by the cataracts of detail, while the second section actually makes the subject of equipment acquisition somewhat intriguing--a considerable achievement. The discussion of the role played by the army in the overall economy of the Empire is balanced between a warning against overestimating the impact of this actually rather small force and an emphasis on the novelty of 300,000 potentially entrepreneurial wage laborers living highly monetized lives. Alston's section is perhaps the most pleasantly narrative part of the book, and also the furthest from the traditional scope of a book on "warfare." The narrative approach is welcome--this is one of the subfields in which a diachronic narrative and a summary of the different elements of the problem is much the same thing. But the first five subsections are really about politics or the role of soldiers in politics, and not warfare at all. The last, on the bullying of provincials by Roman soldiers in the Fayyum, delves into a fascinating corner of the Roman world, and one where Alston is pre-eminent. Certainly, the papyri that vividly depict the head-butting of poor men and soldiers each struggling for security are among the most compelling documents of the Roman era, but only a rather dangerously imperialistic conception of military history would fit them into a chapter and a book entitled "warfare." This chapter's discussion of the Augustan settlement is focused on Augustus himself rather than the army, and Alston tosses off the surprising observation that the standing army was created "perhaps more by accident than design" (p. 187). Another subsection (p. 189) begins by "[g]eneralizing about the politics of the Julio-Claudian dynasty." All of this is interesting, but it presses outward against the book's rigid structure.

The final chapter of Part I, by Colin Adams, covers "War and Society" and is something of a grab bag. Two themes--the impact of society on the conduct of war and the impact of war on the larger society--run through its seventeen sections. Taken as the sixth chapter in a series on the army of the late Republic and Principate, there is of course some repetition here--yet another discussion of the Augustan settlement and a second look at the economic impact of the army, albeit from a different point of view. Taken as a free-standing essay, there is much interesting information, including many facts and many approaches that may have yet to cross the mind of even a serious student of the Roman army. Most of the sub-discussions emphasize the problematic nature of the evidence, the mistakes in the assumptions of early scholarship, and the difficulty of arriving at any firm characterizations of the army's impact. Short sections on the army as a police force, an administrative presence, and a workforce are quite useful, and there are more glimpses of soldier and civilian in the Fayyum--these are particularly interesting, but also particularly particular, and a bit out of place in a big reference work. Otherwise, the short sections and ample footnoting make this a very effective chapter, although, as with several other chapters, it would be more accurately titled if "war" were replaced by "the army."

Part II: The Later Roman Empire, begins the sequence of chapters over again, and it is Mark Humphries who is called upon to write the chapter on "International Relations." This chapter is a pleasure to read, both on its own merits--a well-paced, nuanced discussion supported with helpful footnotes; smooth transitions organic connections between the subsections--and because it reflects the fact that Late Antiquity seems to place less pressure on its scholars to synchronize or homogenize. This is a sweeping survey of a big topic in an ever-evolving period, but the essay succeeds because it allows itself to be the description of a process, rather than attempting to nail down specific practices and present the reader with predictably-wieldable facts. Humphries' eight sections are carefully subdivided, making it easy to scan and find information on such diverse topics as geopolitics, the ideology of international relations, foreign policy, and intelligence-gathering. Yet it all feels like one organic topic, and is worth reading, rather than simply browsing. The penultimate section on the role of Christianity in international relations is particularly interesting and a good example of a topic that is both reasonably central to the conduct of war in the period and likely not to have featured prominently in reference works of an earlier generation.

Chapter Eight, "Military Forces," is a magisterial essay by Hugh Elton, who, like the strategists who replaced the scattered legions with a handful of concentrated field armies, opts for only three large sections, on the structure of armies, units, and individual careers, respectively. Beginning with a concise, useful sketch of the sources, he proceeds to a rather lengthy but smooth and informative discussion of army structures from the 3rd to 7th century. The second section, on "regimental structures," is less a mini-encyclopedia and more a comprehensive account of a diverse and fluctuating situation. Here the huge amount of information can be difficult to assimilate, but in general Elton's great command of the material allows him to both explain the situation and also give the reader a clear understanding of how spotty, scattered, and unsatisfying our evidence for this period can be. Emphasis is placed on the real professionalization of the late imperial officer class, and a somewhat quirky conclusion emphasizes the flexibility, resistance, and continuity of the basic army structures, pointing the reader toward economic and agricultural explanations for the fall of the Western Empire. Readers without much background in military history may be somewhat off-put by Elton's use of the term "regiment" or by sentences such as "There were no fixed formations about brigade level" (p. 284), but this is only linguistic habit and not a more troubling reflex toward comparative generalizing or anachronism. This chapter features bigger, more numerous, and highly informative illustrations, although the black and white images are, as throughout, of poor quality, with plainly visible pixels.

The ninth chapter, a second "War," is by Michael Whitby, another pre-eminent expert. Whitby begins by considering the question of the frontiers and the alleged strategy of "defense in depth." he makes the important point that, ineffective as linear fortifications may have been, the Romans did at least try to believe in their efficacy. A discussion of the changed threats that Rome faced in Late Antiquity is followed by an innovative and useful section, entitled "patterns of war," on the times and places that typically saw fighting. There is also an unusually readable section on logistics, a somewhat vague discussion of campaigns, and a compelling examination of the issue of religion--although, with the exception of a passage on the Milvian Bridge, this is another place in which "war" might be replaced by "the army." In an almost unique example of the sort of deliberate intratextuality that the duplex structure of the book would seem to encourage, Whitby specifically engages with the typology presented by Adrian Goldsworthy in Chapter Three, marking the changes. As with every chapter in this book, there is much to be learned here, much information to be found. Yet it seems worth noting that the two "War" chapters forced their authors to more difficult decisions regarding the selection and exclusion of material, and that, in a book on "Warfare," "War" might have been subdivided and spread across several chapters.

Chapter Ten, the second "Battle," is by Philip Rance. The central theme is continuity, a theme that develops throughout Part II as a whole. There is also a focus on avoiding the pitfall of reading the collapse of the West back into its army's performance, of assuming a deterioration in fighting capability that, Rance argues, did not occur. A first big section introduces the military treatises of the period--a useful service, although the formal discussion of genre is a strange choice in this context--and the entire chapter underlines one of the satisfying aspects of doing military history in this period, namely that different sorts of good sources exist, both narrative historians (Ammianus and Procopius) and contemporary treatises and manuals. The second section focuses on the tactical roles of different troop types. Rance takes a hard line on the importance of infantry and faults previous scholars for being taken in by the literary emphasis on cavalry--he also pushes for some rather surprising revisions of the standard view of the cavalryman as described by Procopius, and of the importance of stirrups to late Roman cavalry. There is a very good discussion of tactics--technical, but guided by good sense and an unwillingness to rely on the vocabulary choices of inconsistent ancient sources. Somewhat disappointing is the near omission of any discussion of positive combat motivation (other than leadership) as well as the brevity of the section on siegecraft, which neglects to discuss the cultural changes that must have been involved in what Rance describes as the abandonment of an assault-first mentality for an economic or "unhurried" preference for blockade. There is a strong case made here for the armies of the late Empire as the equals of the far-more-iconic legions of the Principate. If there is more rejecting of old (dismissive) assumptions about the army of Late Antiquity than providing of compelling new explanations, this is only because Rance takes an appropriately conservative approach to the evidence.

Chapter Eleven, "Warfare and the State" is by A.D. Lee. This chapter, which emphasizes the pervasive militarization of the state, has a somewhat different feel, relying more heavily on extensive quotation from secondary sources and often citing A.H.M. Jones' history of 1964. There are four large sections. The first, on "the military basis of imperial power," focuses on the emperor's legitimacy, and features a good discussion of the ways in which the emperor was ever more closely tied to the army. Since here we are following the emperors themselves, the sources are generous and there is an unusual clarity and precision regarding changes of practice. There is also a very interesting examination of the literary and artistic representations of imperial military success. The second section discusses usurpation, and the political situation is made amply clear by something that featured heavily in the fifth chapter, but is absent here: politics. In the politics of the late Empire, nothing really mattered much--it was the army alone that counted. While interesting, this section is a narrative of famous usurpations rather than an analysis of behaviors or trends. The third section is on the economy, and here this reviewer is uncertain whether it is more just to carp continually about the digression from the subject of actual war (much of the section is about taxation and industry) or rather to praise Lee for including a few pages at the end of the section about the economics of campaigning. Probably the latter, especially since the fourth section delivers a comeuppance to anyone who prefers an isolated examination of "war-fighting:" Lee points out that a purely military examination of this subtopic, Western collapse and Eastern survival, is impossible. Nevertheless, there is a good tonic here against the casual and misguided old idea that Roman troops must have become degenerate or "barbarized" in the waning days of the Western Empire.

Finally, Andrew Fear contributes an examination of "War and Society" in the late Empire, notably the only chapter to take a broadly comparative stance. Fear leads us from the familiar Principate to shadowy Late Antiquity by means of the mild literary device of imagining a denizen of the early Empire witnessing the change that the centuries had wrought. This is engaging and well-written, the feeling of pleasant literariness deriving at least in part from the lack of any subdivisions in the chapter. This departure was welcomed by the weary reviewer, but it may also hamper reference-seekers. Fear paints a picture of the military impinging on ordinary society, and he skillfully integrates evidence from sources as diverse as the Abinnaeus archive, the Theodosian Code, various works of literature, and the Dura excavations, describing at length the uncomfortable economic/extortionate relationship between soldiers, officials, and ordinary citizens. The chapter is creative and compelling both in terms of its subject matter and its execution--it is certainly, to a reviewer familiar with Roman military history, the most (pleasantly) surprising, most novel contribution to the volume. It is to be hoped, then, that this quibble will be forgiven: "unauthorized absence without leave" (p. 435) is a terrible and shocking redundancy. Seen in its context, this chapter shares some of the awkward attributes of others: along with Chapter Six, it should have been called "The Army and Society;" and the occurrence of yet another section on economic impact points out the need for a free-standing consideration of that topic. Considered in isolation, though, this essay, while less essential to the beginner in the field than the chapters on war and battle, will likely be, for the serious scholar of the Roman army, the most rewarding read of all.

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