BMCR 2010.04.43

Roman Conquests: Italy

, Roman Conquests: Italy. Barnsley: Sword Military, 2009. xxii, 162. ISBN 9781844159376. £19.99.

In Rome’s earliest phases no-one, not even the Romans themselves, could have predicted that the city on the Tiber, frequently struggling for its own survival, would rise to become a Mediterranean super-power. Ross Cowan charts this first phase of Roman warfare from the late sixth century BC until Rome’s activities in the Greek south following the Pyrrhic war, ending in 265. This volume is the first in a series by Pen and Sword Press that covers the Roman empire from these uncertain beginnings to its farthest reaches.1 Cowan rightly emphasises the importance of this first phase of Roman development, a phase too often obscured by the dazzle of Julius Caesar and the later Empire. While keeping the narrative moving along briskly, Cowan provides an overview of Rome’s early wars in Italy with an emphasis on the means, both military and political, by which it came to dominate the peninsula. The book is generously illustrated with six maps and eight pages of plates. The maps provide a valuable accompaniment to the detailed accounts of warfare in the peninsula, enabling the reader to keep track of the action. Due to the fact that Rome frequently fought on multiple fronts, a certain amount of skipping back and forth in the narrative is inevitable; a timeline of major events might have been of assistance in making the relative chronology more accessible to the reader.

The period under consideration here is notoriously difficult to discuss due to the problems of source material, particularly the later Roman tendency, often noted by Cowan, to gloss over embarrassments and refigure defeats as ‘draws’. This work, aimed primarily at the military history enthusiast, makes no claim to discuss the historiographic problems in detail. Still, a general statement of methodology and overview of the major writers would have helped to orient the reader unfamiliar with these issues. In the interests of readability, references have been kept to a minimum (four pages of endnotes). Even within those formatting restrictions, however, a greater number of references for the frequent citations of the ancient authors could have been provided without overly burdening the text. A more serious drawback lies in Cowan’s inconsistent approach to the problems in the approach to source problems. For instance, he expresses caution about the glorious role attributed by Livy to the cavalry in the fighting against the Hernici in 362, noting the influence that aristocratic boasting has had on our tradition (p.20), yet later accepts Livy’s account of the fighting against the Samnites in 322, which is similarly complimentary to the cavalry, on precisely the grounds that the noble families took care to preserve great tales of ancestral achievements (p.47). Other historical puzzles, such as the conflicting traditions surrounding the dictator M. Furius Camillus, receive very incomplete treatment (p.19). There are also some surprising omissions from the sparse, three-page bibliography. While selectivity is necessary, the absence of both A.N. Sherwin-White’s landmark The Roman Citizenship and H. Mouritsen’s more recent Italian Unification is striking, especially given Cowan’s discussion of the importance of the civitas sine suffragio as a means by which Rome controlled its growing territory. The preceding criticism is not meant to deny Cowan’s enthusiasm for his topic and easy familiarity with his sources. His expert knowledge of military equipment and tactics are evident and the detailed discussion of these which he provides will be of interest to many.2

The book is divided into an introduction and six chapters. The first, ‘War Bands,’ opens with the Gallic sack of 390 but ultimately covers the period from the occupation of Lars Porsenna to the conquest of Veii. Cowan’s discussion of the importance of economics and geography to developments on the Latin plain provides balance to his discussion of Rome’s military might. The second chapter, ‘The Triumph of Roman Arms,’ covers the period from 389 to 345 and is concerned with the ongoing conflicts between Rome and the Latins, Volsci, Etruscans and Gauls. As is appropriate for a work on Roman conquests, Cowan focuses his attention on these external conflicts and largely ignores Rome’s domestic struggles, although he does make occasional references to important developments in Roman politics.

The third and fourth chapters, ‘Warriors of the Sacred Spring’ and ‘The Great Samnite War’ are, as their titles suggest, concerned with the first and second Samnite Wars and cover 354-329 and 327-305 respectively. Although lacking the partisan spirit of E.T. Salmon’s treatment of these conflicts,3 Cowan’s study nevertheless provides a lively account, picking out such dramatic moments as the immolation of Decius Mus and the execution of the younger Manlius Torquatus for breach of discipline (p. 35-6). He balances these episodes with detailed discussion of tactics and routes of armies and importantly acknowledges Rome’s achievements in winning the peace as well as the wars.

Chapter Five, ‘Tota Italia,’ deals with the period between 304 and the 260s BC, with a focus on the Third Samnite War. Cowan provides a detailed a discussion of the tactics employed by Rome in this conflict, with close attention to Livy’s account. He also gives careful attention to the role of religion in ancient warfare and takes the occasion of the devotio of P. Decius Mus (cos. 312, 308, 297) in 295 to describe this dark ritual. The final chapter, ‘The Pyrrhic War,’ occupies nearly one third of the book and breaks somewhat with the approach of the earlier chapters. Previously, Cowan has maintained a tight focus on Rome’s wars of conquest and gave minimal attention to other developments. This chapter, however, contains an overview of the early life of the king, a whirlwind introduction to the struggles of the Diadochi, and a brief history of the cities of Greek southern Italy, especially Tarentum. When it comes to the war itself, we once again have a detailed discussion of the tactics and arms employed by both sides and the relative strengths of the Macedonian phalanx against the Roman maniple. While the narrative proper finishes with the triumph of M. Curius Dentatus in 274, Cowan devotes some closing remarks to Rome’s consolidating activities in the South. The book ends with a description of the extent of Roman influence over the Italian peninsula by 265. While Cowan is perhaps premature in declaring that ‘the conquest was complete’, it is certainly fair to say that Rome’s status in Italy was assured.

In tackling a period for which the source tradition is so problematic, Cowan has undertaken a difficult task. Adopting what is essentially the Livian narrative has provided the guiding thread for this work, which is also well served by Cowan’s expertise in matters of military detail. Caution does need to be exercised, however, even (or especially) on pet topics. One of Cowan’s particular interests appears to be Roman cognomina and his translations and accounts of the origins of these nicknames provide points of light relief among the battles. Unfortunately, Cowan then applies these translations inconsistently, for instance referring to C. Iunius Bubulcus the magister equitum of 310/309 as ‘the Ploughman’ and ‘Iunius Bubulcus’ while calling P. Decius Mus (cos. 308) both ‘Decius Mus’ and ‘the Rat’ all on the same page (p.62). This habit ultimately becomes confusing and distracting. The lack of context provided for Cowan’s occasional remarks on domestic developments at Rome, such as the passage of the Licinian-Sextian laws (p. 19) and the aedilician prosecutions of grazers exploiting more than the legal limits of ager publicus in the 290s (p.77), seem doomed to confuse rather than enlighten the reader not already familiar with these events and their significance. The thinness of the discussion of the historical problems and sparseness of the references mean that this volume is likely to be of limited use to the serious student of early Rome. It nevertheless provides an accessible overview of the period and is packed with tidbits that are sure to please those with an interest in the detail of res militares.


1. The series is to include works on Spain, Greece and Macedon, North Africa, Asia Minor and Syria, Gaul, Germany, Britain, The Danube Provinces, and The Eastern Frontier.

2. Cowan’s earlier publications include For the Glory of Rome (Pen & Sword, 2007); Roman Battle Tactics 109 BC – AD 313 (Osprey 2007) Imperial Roman Legionary AD 161 – 284 (Osprey 2003) and Roman Legionary 58 BC – AD 69 (Osprey 2003).

3. E.T. Salmon’s Samnium and the Samnites (Cambridge, 1967) was reviewed by M.W. Frederiksen as ‘frankly and engagingly partisan’ ( JRS 58, 1968, 224).