Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.07.57

Jonathan P. Roth, Roman Warfare. Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilization.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2009.  Pp. xvii, 310.  ISBN 9780521537261.  £13.99 / $19.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Duncan B. Campbell, Glasgow (

Table of Contents

What can we reasonably expect from a book about Roman warfare? Discussion of campaign strategies and battle tactics? Perhaps even discussion of the aims and objectives professed by (or imputed to) the belligerents, and of the repercussions for each side? That is surely the stuff of warfare. The reader of such a book could justifiably expect to come away with some knowledge of key Roman battles, some appreciation of the ebb and flow of units on the ground, some insight into the decisions made, for good or ill, by their leaders. Sadly, there is none of that in the book under review.

This is the third volume in the Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilisation series, which aims to provide “a first point of reference for students who will then be equipped to seek more specialized scholarly and critical studies” (p. iii). The CUP website goes further, promising that this volume “includes comprehensive surveys of wars as well as changes in Roman warfare, equipment and organisation during Rome’s entire history.” Certainly, it is attractively and colourfully produced, as befits an introductory volume aimed at enticing the general reader, and is, by and large, clearly written (in American English). But, rather than a study of warfare, the book under review is actually a concise military history of Rome.

An Introduction covers “sources and methods”, mainly by listing the principal ancient authors, though it is perhaps not overly helpful for the beginner to learn that “ancient historians sometimes distorted, and even invented, events in order to improve the impact of their story” (p. 3). Individual chapters cover the military history of chronologically-defined periods, with two thematic chapters covering the army of the Republic and of the Principate. Separate information panels, one or two per chapter, each occupying roughly the space of a page, describe particular persons or events, such as “The Siege of Veii (ca. 400 BCE).” And each chapter ends with a short list of “Links”, which are usually references to passages in Latin literature, although in Chapter 11 (“The Imperial Army as Society”) this section lists several inscriptions and writing tablets. There are no footnotes and no references to modern literature.

The book ends with a 12-page “Timeline” of notable events (notice that “376 Theodosius defeats the Picts” should be AD 367), an 8-page “Glossary” of Latin terms, a 7-page “Glossary of People”, listing some of the characters mentioned in the book (why not all?), an 8-page “Bibliography” (including a separate section “For Younger Readers” and the URLs of five websites), and a basic Index.

My general feeling is that a book “designed for use by students who have no prior knowledge of or familiarity with Roman antiquity” (sic, p. iii) should give the reader more guidance than is offered here. For example, having read Chapter 1, “The Wars of Early Rome”, we are guided to read “Livy 2.10.1-13 (Horatius at the bridge), 3.26.7-29.7 (Cincinnatus), 5.1.1-28.8 (Siege of Veii), 8.8-10 (early Roman legion)”. But where is the novice reader to find Livy? And what supplementary reading would be useful at this stage? I would have preferred to see a short “Further reading” section attached to each chapter, rather than a general bibliography of the sort that can easily overwhelm and disconcert the novice. And even the adventurous soul who manages to locate Livy will surely be baffled by a later Link to “CIL I2.6.7, 8.9” (p. 72).

If not sensu stricto a book about Roman warfare, how does it stack up as a military history of Rome? In this arena, it has some tough competition from books that cover not only the expanded definition of warfare offered here (“we mean not only the fighting of wars, but also those institutions, such as the army, that made fighting possible”, p. 1), but the wider historical context, too. It would be unfair to compare Roman Warfare with the timeless classics of Scullard and Parker, for Roth has written a competent, broad-brush historical narrative; but the “warfare” element has been tackled by interspersing the names of battles and only rarely giving details of actual fighting. (It is interesting that, out of sixty-eight illustrations, only one is a battle plan.)1

The text is uneven in quality, and is marred by silly errors. It is disquieting to read that, during his research, Roth has consulted Wikipedia, “which provided an enormous and readily available handbook on any number of subjects” (p. xvii). It is surely wiser to dissuade students from relying on an anonymously-authored, publicly editable source, and to encourage them to be more discerning in their use of source material.2

There is a tendency for places and personalities to pop up and disappear again; most can be traced neither in the Glossary nor in the Index (e.g. the Andriscus who is defeated by Caecilius Metellus on p. 79). Such an avalanche of names, sometimes entirely irrelevant to the developing narrative, will serve only to confuse the novice. Time and again, I wondered at the wisdom of including glimpses of unexplained events, particularly when, in the absence of references, the reader has no means of pursuing them. Confusing, also, are the numerous, similarly-named Roman generals who flit across the pages; for example, readers might easily (and wrongly) assume that the aforementioned Caecilius Metellus (properly identified as “Macedonicus”) is the same man as the Caecilius Metellus who appears in the Glossary (there, correctly identified as “Numidicus”, but not so in the text, p. 90). Equally, Roman polyonymy can be guaranteed to cause confusion, unless tackled by a plethora of index entries like “Caesar, see Julius”; but it is idiosyncratic in the extreme to bury Sempronius Gracchus amongst the “T”s.

Of course, it is difficult to strike the correct balance between authority, brevity, and readability. But, all in all, I found the book unsatisfying as a discussion of Roman warfare, and I would be reluctant to recommend it to students, chiefly because they cannot easily pursue themes of interest. “Detailed and informative, but entertaining and readable,” is the publisher’s promise. I cannot agree with the former, and only the individual reader can judge the latter.


1.   Some key battles and sieges have been omitted: e.g. Sulla at Chaeronea and Piraeus (both 86 BC). Only one of Severus’ sieges of Hatra is included, and Probus’ siege of Cremna surely merited a mention, with its combination of narrative and archaeology. Also, some battles of uncertain location have been arbitrarily renamed: e.g. “Battle of Nicopolis (66)” (p. 102), “First Battle of Tapae” (p. 198). The Julio-Claudian eastern policy is much more complex than the version presented here.
2.   Wikipedia is presumably responsible for the information that the Column of Marcus Aurelius dates from AD 193 (p. 193), perhaps based on a misunderstanding of ILS 5920, which does not attest the building of the Marcus Column in AD 193, only its existence by that year. If ancient history students must use Wikipedia, it is perhaps worth noting here that, for our subject, the German version is usually less error-prone than the English-language version.

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