Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.06.48 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.06.48

Alexander Sarantis, Neil Christie (ed.), War and Warfare in Late Antiquity (2 vols.). Late antique archaeology, 8.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2013.  Pp. xxxiii, 1084.  ISBN 9789004252578.  $329.00.  

Reviewed by David Woods, University College Cork (


This two-volume set originates in a conference entitled ‘The Archaeology of War in Late Antiquity’ organized by Alexander Sarantis (one of the editors of the set) and Luke Lavan (the series editor) and held at Oxford in 2007. However, the final outcome bears little resemblance to a conventional set of conference proceedings. The first volume (pp. 1-370) contains an introductory essay by Sarantis to the set as a whole followed by 8 large bibliographic essays devoted to such subjects as military equipment, tactics, organisation, strategy, and fortifications. The last subject is regarded as of such importance that it receives 3 large essays arranged according to geography (fortifications in the West, in Africa, and in the East). Most of these essays have been written by either Sarantis or Conor Whatley. The first volume is thus little more than a thematically arranged introduction to the bibliography of the late Roman army. The second volume (pp. 371- 1084) consists of 8 sections containing 19 essays. The majority of these are broad surveys dealing with developments over a period of several hundred years or in a large region of the empire. Few attempt to tackle some more precise problem in detail. Hence the second volume resembles some form of introductory or survey volume rather than a collection of research essays. About half of the essays have been written by widely published experts whose names will be familiar to anyone with even a vague interest in the late Roman army, the other half by relatively new figures. The majority of contributors are based in the United Kingdom, or have studied there, and all the essays are in English.

In an era of bibliographic databases and searches on the internet, one may entertain some doubt as to the value of thematic bibliographies such as occur in the first volume. In this case, each bibliographic essay contains several different minor bibliographies devoted to sub-topics within the larger theme, and the items are listed as they are mentioned rather than in alphabetical order. These minor bibliographies usually begin with a section devoted to key general works so that one can find the same item repeated at the start of several different bibliographies, even within the same bibliographic essay, with full publication details each time. Yet important research items can be omitted, as when the section on plumbatae (p. 169) omits two important papers by Estiot.1 It would have been preferable to focus on genuine research works and to take greater pains to ensure completeness.

To focus on the second volume, therefore, the first section, ‘Strategy and Intelligence’, contains only one essay, by John Haldon, arguing that the defensive strategy adopted by the Byzantines in Anatolia from the seventh to the eleventh century was sophisticated and effective. The second section, ‘Fortifications and Siege Warfare’, consists of an essay by James Crow, who reviews some selected fortifications (primarily the walls of Antioch, the Anastasian wall, and the Haemus gates) in order to emphasize the number and importance of fortifications in Late Antiquity, and a second by Michael Whitby, who surveys the different tactics available to the besieged and besiegers during the late antique period, with particular attention to the change from torsion-powered to traction artillery.

The third section, ‘Weaponry and Equipment’, contains three essays, the first by J.C.N. Coulston, who surveys changes within several categories of Roman military equipment to argue that borrowing military technologies from elsewhere had been a constant feature within the Roman army, thus complicating the claim that the equipment of a late Roman soldier was any more ‘barbarised’ than that of his predecessors. The second essay by Michel Kazanski surveys change to the military equipment, and therefore tactics, used by various barbarian groups (those in the Germanic zone, the steppe zone, and Slavic groups) from the third to the fifth century. The third essay by John Conyard explains how attempts to reconstruct Roman equipment can lead to a better understanding of the use and effectiveness of such equipment.

The fourth section, ‘Literary Sources and Topography’, opens with an essay by Ian Colvin, who argues that Procopius and Agathias derive much of their information concerning Justinian’s Lazican war (548-57) from imperial archives rather than oral sources. In the second essay, Christopher Lilington-Martin argues, first, that the battle of Dara in 530 occurred about 2-3 km south of that city rather than immediately outside its walls as traditionally thought and, secondly, that Wittigis marched on Rome by means of the Salarian rather than the Milvian Bridge in 537. The third essay, by Susannah Belcher, re-examines the significance to Ammianus Marcellinus of the emperor Jovian’s surrender of Nisibis to the Persians in 363.

The fifth section, ‘The West’, consists of three essays. The first by Hugh Elton surveys the relevant archaeological evidence to see what it contributes to the understanding of imperial campaigns in the West between 284 and 423. The second by Michael Kulikowski re-examines what archaeology can really contribute to the understanding of the barbarian invasions of the Roman empire in the fifth-century. The third essay by a group of six Spanish archaeologists examines the significance of the burial of a macaque at Iulia Libica in the Pyrenees, arguing that he was a military pet.

The sixth section, ‘The Balkans’, begins with an essay by John Wilkes, who traces the rise of fortifications in the South-West Balkans (Roman Macedonia) from the third to the sixth century, followed by a study by Alexander Sarantis of the military history of the North Balkans during the period 491 to 565, with an emphasis on the role of fortifications. Finally, Florin Curta re- examines the archaeological evidence used to explain the nature of fortified sites in the sixth- and seventh-century Balkans to argue that no clear distinction can yet be made between military and civilian sites.

The seventh section, ‘The East’, contains two essays. The first by James Howard-Johnston surveys the development of the fortified defensive systems which the Romans constructed along their border with the Persian empire from the third to the sixth century. The second essay by Conor Whately re-examines the evidence to suggest that the fortress of el-Lejjūn in modern Jordan still contained a significant military presence during the first half of the sixth century. Finally, the eighth section, ‘Civil War’, consists of an essay by Neil Christie, who investigates what archaeology contributes to the understanding of the various civil wars that raged across the West between the third and the fifth century, followed by a second essay by Maria Kouroumali, who re-examines the evidence for the impact of the Justinianic war of re-conquest upon the native Italians from 535 to 553.

As far as the individual essays are concerned, there is little to quibble about. In the case of Colvin’s essay, I am not entirely convinced that one can reject the possibility of an intermediate oral source for Procopius’ apparent knowledge of the contents of imperial letters (p. 584). Some discussion of the mechanics of imperial letter writing — of who else might have been privy to their contents besides the emperor, and of the likelihood, or not, of any interactions between Procopius and these other officials — would have proved useful. In the case of Lilington-Martin’s argument that Wittigis marched on Rome by the Salarian rather than the Milvian Bridge, it does not help his overarching argument that modern satellite imagery and cartography can help resolve this and other geographical problems, that, as he himself admits, he is arguing in support of a proposal already made by Gregorovius in the mid-nineteenth century. Finally, one can occasionally detect a certain amount of unnecessary padding which does not contribute to the main argument. For example, Belcher digresses too much and too often into the modern historiography of ancient Nisibis (modern Nusaybin). The overall quality of the individual essays nevertheless remains high. There are occasional careless slips, such as the claim that the second civil war between Constantine and Licinius lasted 322-24 (p. 110), or that Constantine took the throne in 312 and acquired sole rule in 324, and Julian’s invasion of Persia lasted 362-63 (p. 129), but these are of no great significance in context.

The weaknesses in this set lie at the structural level rather than at the level of the individual essays. First, the editors have not been rigorous enough in excluding essays which do not relate closely to the relevant time period or subject matter. It is difficult to understand how one can justify including either Haldon’s or Belcher’s essay in a set of volumes on war in Late Antiquity, since the former’s essay relates to the subsequent Middle Byzantine period while the latter’s really has nothing at all to do with warfare. A similar lack of editorial rigour regarding chronology sometimes reveals itself at the level of individual essays, where some authors have been allowed to dwell too long and wishfully on the more abundant evidence from the first to the third century (e.g. pp. 139-41).

Second, there is a noticeable lack of co-ordination between and within the two volumes. This can cause some confusion to the reader as s/he searches for an order or connections that do not seem to exist. For example, one might have hoped that the subject-matter and order of the sections within the second volume would better reflect the subject-matter and order of the bibliographic essays in the first volume than they actually do. Hence the first bibliographic essay within the first volume deals with literary sources, but that represents the subject-matter of the fourth section within the second volume, while the first section within the second volume on strategy seems to correspond to the fifth bibliographic essay. Again, the final three bibliographic essays in the first volume deal with fortifications in the West, Africa, and the East, but the three regionally themed sections in the second volume deal with the West, the Balkans, and the East. More importantly, the bibliographies at the end of essays in the second volume can sometimes prove more informative and up to date than those in the corresponding bibliographic essays, and there seems to have been little attempt to cross-check for completeness and consistency. For example, various authors mention the importance of the Arch of Constantine as a source for the late Roman army and each refers the reader to a different set of secondary works (pp. 128, 671, 943-44).

As for co-ordination within the volumes, it is noteworthy that Elton’s and Christie’s essays cover much of the same ground, resulting in repetition and the occasional contradiction. For example, Elton states that the tombstone of Viatorinus cannot be dated more precisely than at some point between the third and the fifth century (p. 661), but Christie dates it ‘probably’ to the mid-fourth century (p. 942). Again, Elton claims that recent dendrochronological work firmly dates the fort at Pevensey to 293/4 (p. 670), whereas Christie states that the dendrochronological evidence dates it to 280-300, while it is the numismatic evidence that dates it to 293 in particular (p. 937).

While these two volumes will undoubtedly interest all those seeking to learn more about war and warfare during Late Antiquity, and I doubt that there is anyone who will not learn something new by reading the set, the fact remains that the dominant subject within both volumes is that of fortifications. Hence this set will be of most interest to those seeking an introduction to the subject of fortifications and defensive systems during Late Antiquity. Indeed, one could easily re-assemble most of the essays here to produce the larger part of a very good book on this subject.


1.   S. Estiot, ‘Sine arcu sagittae: la représentation numismatique de plumbatae/mattiobarbuli aux IIIe – IVe siècles (279-307 de n. è.)’, Numismatische Zeitschrift 116/117 (2008), 177-21; V. Drost and S. Estiot, ‘Maxence et le portrait de l’empereur en Mattiobarbulus’, Revue Numismatique 166 (2010), 435-45. ​

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