BMCR 1999.06.03

The Roman Imperial Army of the First and Second Centuries A.D. Introduction by Hugh Elton. Third edition

, The Roman Imperial Army of the first and second centuries A.D. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. 1 online resource (xxiii, 343 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9780585145884. $19.95.

Graham Webster is the √©minence grise of British archaeology. Retired some years ago, he pursued a career that would be all but impossible today. Unlike most of his contemporaries in the archaeological field, he was not recruited from the ranks of Classicists but began life as a civil engineer and became fascinated by the sites that he had to expose to build his bridges and the like. He eventually gave up a secure and lucrative career to take a position as curator at the Grosvenor Museum in Chester. When he finally entered academia, it was in what would now be called ‘Continuing Studies’, at the University of Birmingham. This career-pattern has left its mark. His excavation and published works have always been informed by a very basic sense of practicality, and he has constantly been aware of the need to communicate. Both of these qualities are reflected in his most familiar work, The Roman Imperial Army.

The genesis of this book lay in a modest fifty-page publication that Webster brought out for the Grosvenor Museum in the 1950’s. The booklet enjoyed a success that far exceeded expectations, which inspired him to attempt something more ambitious. The fully-fledged book was published in 1969 and has continuously been in print ever since. A second edition followed a decade later, limited essentially to the correction of a number of errors. A more thorough third edition followed in 1985, involving substantial amendments in the section dealing with forts and camps and a substantial addition to the bibliography, although in other places the revision was very limited. This new revised version of the third (1985) edition has left the original text intact. Updating is limited to Hugh Elton’s misleadingly titled ‘Introduction’ which is in fact restricted to a bibliography of works published since 1985.

The organization of this version is still that of the first edition. Chapter one deals with the development of the army in the Republic down to Augustus. There follows a section on the problems of frontier policy, an area of special expertise to Webster, with a survey of the frontier works in various parts of the empire. This chapter is arranged chronologically and outlines the disposition of the legions down to Severus. The third chapter takes up the issue of the frontier army, namely the legions and auxilia, with details of their origin, organization and equipment, as well as their command structure, recruitment and training. The history and organization of the navy is also offered. Little attention is given to the home units, the praetorian guard, urban cohorts and the vigiles, a decision to be regretted since epigraphical evidence shows that these home units were an integral part of the army and that movement between them and the frontier units was a common feature of the Roman military career. Chapter four is taken up with the various types of military establishments, camps, fortresses, forts, the defences and the organization of internal buildings, as well as such extra-mural features as annexes, parade grounds and vici (civilian settlements attached to the forts). Five deals with tactics and such issues as signals, medical services and pay. Finally, the last chapter covers the ‘non-military’ aspects of the army, such as religious rites and the role played by the army in administration. Users of the book have long been familiar with the high quality of the drawings and the clear and informative maps, especially those of the frontier area. The need for economy, however, means that some of the plates are rather muddy.

There have been excellent general books on the subject since The Roman Imperial Army was first published, by such authorities as Keppie, Goldsworthy and Bohec, but none has managed to get quite into the soldier’s mind in the way that Webster’s did. Described, when it first appeared, as an archaeologist’s book rather than a historian’s, it has little to say about the philosophy of the soldier’s profession or the more abstract approaches of social history. It concentrates on the concrete issues of the military life of the soldiers. Hence Webster is not concerned with the ethical issues of imperialism and what some might view as the role of the army in oppressing native populations. To him the Roman army was a dedicated body of men entrusted with a task. fulfilling the Vergilian mission of parcere subiectis et debellare superbos. It may seem old fashioned now to talk about an army’s “Civilizing Influences” but in fact the Roman army was the most important agency for spreading Roman culture and way of life throughout the empire.

Since the book has been around for thirty years and has been widely reviewed, there is little point to repeating earlier criticisms on points of detail, which have in any case been more than counterbalanced by the acclaim it has received. Some general reservations that were expressed on the appearance of the first edition can still be voiced. It is fair to say that the evidence draws too heavily on the Roman army in Britain, Webster’s home turf, which might not have been typical of the empire as a whole. He has a tendency to be stubborn on some matters. He persists in his view, not widely shared, on the use of lorica segmentata in the army before Trajan (p. 122). He insists on identifying the venatores Bannienses recorded on an altar from Birdoswald as men hunting for food for the army, while their role was surely that of assembling animals for the arena (p.263).1 Moreover, Webster was inevitably drawn into areas outside his usual expertise. The introductory section on the republican period does contain generalizations and summary views that led experts to register sometimes misguided criticism. But the purpose of this chapter, to create a context not for the expert but for the general reader, should be kept in mind. In any case, the above points at most should be seen as relatively trivial rough edges to a book that has rightly become a Classic.

One can, of course, be very positive about the book under review. It is the fundamental work on the subject in English and a sine qua non for military historians and excavators of military sites. But at the same time one must regret an opportunity lost. It is no discredit to Webster, or to Elton who has provided a very competent and very useful bibliography, to say that the mere reprinting after 13 years of a book in a field that is changing so rapidly is not enough. In places the text needs to be brought up to date. This can perhaps be illustrated by reference to one phenomenon, the Vindolanda tablets, letters and military records from the Roman fort of that name on the Stanegate, just south of Hadrian’s Wall. These remarkable documents, in the form of thin leaves of wood with ink writing, have provided a vast amount of information about the Roman army in Britain and have given a unique insight into the whole atmosphere of life in a Roman fort at the end of the first century, as well as the complex bureaucracy that was needed to keep the wheel of the Roman army turning.

The Vindolanda records offer a rich and illuminating account of life on the frontier, of the need to economize, of socks and underpants sent out to protect the soldiers from the northern cold, and provide the first detailed account of how sophisticated the military diet could be, with supplies not only of meats, but of spices, eggs, oysters and apples, only if nice ones are available ( si potes formonsa invenire).2 They even reveal a previously unknown pejorative, Brittunculus, a diminutive used contemptuously by the Roman army of their British adversaries (the forerunner of the yet further diminished ‘Brit’ of German soldiers in World War One!).3 The tablets also give us a totally new perspective on some fundamental aspects of Roman military organization. Much of our thinking about the interior of Roman auxiliary forts is based on our views of the size of the unit and the need to house them. One of the tablets involves a strength report of the First Cohort of the Tungrians.4 It shows that of a paper strength of 752, 456 were not present at the camp. Most were at nearby Corbridge, some of the others attached to the office of an unidentified Ferox, perhaps a legionary commander, others as far away as London. In fact only 296 were present, more than easily accommodated in a fort supposedly intended for a quingenary cohort. Of the 296, 31 were unfit for service, the main problem being inflammation of the eyes.

Vindolanda alone illustrates how much our thinking has developed since 1985. The scholarly world owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Graham Webster. This can best be repaid by ensuring that The Roman Imperial Army remain a Classic, not a museum piece, and this will necessitate a serious updating every decade or so.


1. RIB 1905, cf CIL 3.7449.

2. Tab. Vindol. II. 302.22.

3. Tab. Vindol. II. 164.

4. Tab. Vindol. I. 154.