Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.77

Yann Le Bohec, Das römische Heer in der Späten Kaiserzeit.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010.  Pp. 309; 43 p. illustrations.  ISBN 9783515091367.  €42.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by M. Weiskopf (

Franz Steiner Verlag has long maintained the practice of publishing German translations of important, standard works. The Le Bohec volume here considered, a complement to his previous history of the Roman army, is an unrevised publication based on the 2006 French original.1 His caution and clarity are hallmarks: the present state of research explained; new, indefensible, theories avoided. The reader is advised repeatedly to consider all evidence and to expect that the interpretation of the archaeological record will change over time. The detailed bibliography adds value to the book as a research tool.

The introductory portion of the work (pp. 7-17) provides an outline of the topics and the sources Le Bohec will consider. Views about decadence are dismissed: the Roman army, particularly in the West, was unable to recover from setbacks in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. No source is dismissed as without any value, rather difficulties are posed when literary sources, especially Ammianus Marcellinus, avoid using technical terminology and when providing detailed descriptions of Rome’s individual enemies proves of little interest to other authorities.

The first three chapters (pp. 18ff, 32ff, 45ff) provide an outline of the development of the army from Diocletian through Julian. The former’s reign was marked by conservatism, continuities with past military practice, and successful reactions to challenges. Le Bohec emphasizes that one can no longer use the archaeological record to maintain the perception of “Diocletian-style” camps. Nor can one speak of the creation of the comitatus as a mobile army. Constantine I, in addition to introducing a new battle formation (pp. 35-36), reorganized the army structure. Elements noted for disloyalty were disbanded, the upper command reorganized, all as Constantine modeled himself upon Trajan and Trajan’s own perception of Alexander’s military skills. Under Constantius II and Julian no great reforms were undertaken. Le Bohec relies upon the narrative of Ammianus, whom he respects as a source. Specialists will find points of disagreement in Le Bohec’s presentation (as I do in some Sasanian matters, p. 56, and later, p. 154), but newcomers have a solid foundation laid for them.

Chapters 4-13 (pp. 66-228) depart from the historical narrative and consider different aspects of the army’s organization and practices. Two questions are raised in regard to recruiting practices (Chapter 4, pp. 66-80): did Rome barbarize the army (a frequent complaint by ancients), at what point did the presence of “non-Romans” influence the military? Le Bohec sets himself against those moderns who accept the ancient criticisms. The chief problem was an uptick in vacantes and vagi permitted to fill the ranks and the practice of permitting the wealth to buy ‘replacements’ to perform their military service, practices ended by 370. It is difficult to assess how many non-Romans were actually in the service. Some, like the Germans, stood out and hence were written about. But for the most part sources spend time either excoriating the use of ‘non-Romans’ or praising the benefits of the army as a means to “Romanize,” a continuation, not of ‘racism,’ but of the ancestral Roman practice of arguing who was Roman. Le Bohec provides a separate discussion (as he will do later in the book) of the Notitia Dignitatum, a source whose value is difficult to assess and for which Le Bohec offers no quick fixes.

The later Roman army was composed of smaller units (Chapter 5, pp. 81-94). Terminology in the literary sources poses a problem when it is not commensurate with actual practices. Estimates of troop strength remain a matter of speculation. The Tetrarchy improved the navy, but by Constantine’s time (324 AD) admirals of the larger squadrons excelled in incompetence. Le Bohec calls for more detailed studies on the ranks of the army (Chapter 6, pp. 95-117). At the higher levels of responsibilty one can trace the military careers (p. 102 for a summary chart). St. Jerome’s use of military terminology assists in the reconstruction of lesser ranks (tables on pp. 103, 105) and Le Bohec finds continuities with terminology from Republican times. Military service itself was characterized by the increased performance of policing activities.

Military building activity (Chapter 7, pp. 118-130) is a field in motion for Le Bohec, one marked by new excavations and new assessments of the already known data (site list on pp. 129-130). He cautions that one must abandon ideas of a ‘tetrarchische’ camp plan and notes that individual fortifications themselves seem to decrease in square area (Abb. 48 and p. 125).

The next two chapters (Chapter 8, pp. 131-151; Chapter 9, pp. 152-170) discuss various aspects of the army’s tactics. Le Bohec removes the erroneous perception of the ‘soldier-farmer’ constantly tending crops (pp. 141 ff); supplies were made available by the state and private contractors with only limited interruptions in success (p. 146). Soldiers relied increasingly on artillery (missilia, tela), in addition to their swords and lances, although it proves difficult to match found objects with the terminology in literary sources (p. 134). Military diplomacy requires a more detailed study, but an increased interest on the part of the emperor in receiving all information-gathering reports is noted. As regards actual battle, the literary sources reflect that for most Romans military matters were an unknown quantity. No detailed portrait of a specific enemy normally was presented by ancient authors and Le Bohec argues against the selective rehabilitation of individual peoples, a practice known only this century and the end of the last (pp. 157-158). Overall, the army displayed a flexibility in battle tactics, which were adapted to deal with the enemy at hand and placed importance upon Pioneerarbeit.

Chapters 10 (pp. 171-184), 11 (pp. 185-22), and 12 (pp. 201-212) discuss the various aspects of strategy. Le Bohec begins by dispelling misconceptions (pp. 171-173). By investigating the ancients’ use of strategic terminology (pp. 174-177) one discovers many continuities with earlier Roman practices, particularly those of the early empire. Le Bohec sets aside the view of a ‘bewegliche Armee”. Often it is difficult to distinguish between pure fortifications, cities in which soldiers were stationed, and cities proper (p. 181). The viae militares were not military in nature. Rather the term denotes a road of greater breadth (pp.183-184). The different theaters of action are surveyed in Chapters 11 and 12, with cautious reporting about the state of our knowledge and recent scholarship.

Contact between military and civilians is the topic for Chapter 13 (pp. 218-228), the soldier’s life seen as ‘ein verzerrtes Bild der Zivilgesellschaft”, a somewhat altered model drawn from the structure of civil society (p. 213). Without soldiers the Empire would have proved ungovernable, hence the importance placed on the Emperor’s verbal communications and appearances before the troops, the adlocutio, and the more ornate adventus. Some gatherings are illustrated, but pose difficulties in interpretation (p. 215 and Abb. 16). Setting aside the illusory ‘soldier-farmer’, Le Bohec discusses the various forms of payment to the military and their economic impact (p. 223 for flow chart). The Roman army, like society, gradually Christianized, the first Christians present in the force as early as 200 AD.

Chapters 14 (pp. 229-242) and 15 (pp. 243-260) return to a chronological narrative. The years 364-378 represent a worsening of the military situation, but Le Bohec cautions that the Voelkerwanderung was a slower process than often perceived. 378 marked the disheartening defeat at Adrianople (similar in impact to Cannae, Ammianus Marcellinus 31.13.19), which weighed upon the army as a whole and diminished its ability to manage the enemy. The years 378 through the mid-fifth century AD were characterized by the slow disintegration of the Empire, particularly in the West, and one cannot determine with precision when an area ceased to be Roman. Trust, Le Bohec argues, should be placed in eye-witnesses (p. 258); his commentary on some of his contemporaries (pp. 244, 250, 254) “streng, aber gerecht”.

Concluding observations are offered on pp. 260-267. The decline of the Roman army was a slow process, the absence of effective troops only one cause. Le Bohec advises a nuanced approach: neither the theory of a ‘natural death’ (a product first of 18th century scholarship, with complaints about barbarization and Christian-inspired dampening of warlike spirits) nor that of “Ermordung” (a product of the last century) can be held aloft. Like Fabius Maximus, Le Bohec displays caution and circumspection. But he does not unnecessarily delay in analyzing the evidence and the means by which it was interpreted. His book will prove valuable for the student, for those whose primary interest is in Rome’s rivals, and even for those who work to bring the Empire to life in strategy and video games. Perhaps this last group can materialize the mysterious spy boats of Vegetius 4.37 (p.150)


1.   French edition: L’armee romaine sous le Bas-Empire. Paris: Editions A. et J. Picard, 2006. Earlier Le Bohec work in German translation: Die roemische Armee von Augustus zu Konstantin d. Gr. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1993.

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