Reference books on ancient warfare—Roman warfare, in particular—have been experiencing remarkably good fortune in recent years.1 2017 has already seen the publication of two such books devoted to the topic of ancient battles: the monumental Encyclopedia of Ancient Battles 2 and now this volume by Don Taylor, which follows (even in its structure) his Empire at War: a Compendium of Battles from 31 B.C. to A.D. 565, published in 2016.
Most of the volume consists of an alphabetical catalogue of 407 battles fought in the Republican era, ranging from the most famous (e.g. Cannae, Zama, Pharsalus, Actium) to the very minor, although (vii) “engagements which…appear to have been nothing more than skirmishes…have not been selected for inclusion,” understandably. In any case, no important combat appears to have been neglected, and each battle is provided with a brief description (half a page on average), drawn exclusively from ancient sources, which are cited at the end of every entry. This valuable methodological choice is clarified in the Preface, which Taylor opens by saying that “the primary purpose of this compendium is to provide readers a basic reference of the most significant battles in the Roman Republican History” (vii).
The adjective ‘basic’ appears to describe also the audience to whom the book is addressed. Part One, devoted to an “Introduction to Warfare during the Roman Republic” and offering a concise history of the army (3-16, with two paragraphs concerning battlefields, tactics and camps) and navy (pp. 17-19), contains a number of simplifications or explanations unnecessary for specialists (and even undergraduate majors): e.g. “…the Etruscans, a powerful people living north of the Tiber River in the region of Etruria” (3), or “At the time of the Republic, a government magistrate called consul typically commanded a legion in wartime. The people of Rome annually elected two such officers of state, and their duties ran concurrently.” The same can be said of the third section of Part One, entitled “The Ancient Sources” (20-28): even though its three chapters tackle some undoubtedly relevant issues (the limited reliability of ancient sources as objective historical documents and therefore of the battlefield numbers which they contain), they offer mostly general and basic information. The concise biographies of the historians given in the list of ancient authors and their works relevant to this study (22-28, from Appian to Zonaras) speak volumes in this respect.3
The book has two major shortcomings. The first is the large number of errors in Greek and Latin: the citations of Novo Carthago (repeated four times under the entry—correctly spelled—“Carthago Nova,” 101-102) or Caius Sallusticus Crispus are merely the most noticeable because they occur throughout.
Secondly, where more than one source is involved for a single battle, it is not clear how they have been merged (although sometimes Taylor provides references to modern bibliography, cf. e.g. 154) or from which he took the information provided. For example, when treating the battle of Nicopolis and Lycum (191), Taylor states that “the king [Mithridates] fled to Sinora, after cutting his way through the Roman formation with some 800 cavalry. Roman losses totaled 1,000 wounded and less than 100 killed. Enemy dead from the battle and subsequent pursuit amounted to perhaps 40,000.” Taylor points out that Dio Cassius and Appian give a description of the battle which significantly differs from Plutarch’s and Orosius’s, suggesting that the former were taken into less consideration for the writing of the lemma. But the reality is not so simple. The mention of “some 800 cavalry” is Plutarchan; 1,000 and 40,000 are numbers given by Orosius, but Plutarch and Appian agree in saying that around 10,000 of them were slain,4 while the mention of “less than 100 killed” cannot be found in any source, since only Orosius refers to Roman victims, stating they were less than 40.5 Likewise, in the entry Aquae Sextiae (63-65) Taylor writes that “some 100,000 Teutones were slain or captured” (65). Among the seven sources he mentions, two (Florus and Frontinus) do not provide numeric data; Orosius and Eutropius mention 200,000 dead and 80,000 captured (not specifying whether these are total figures or the enemy’s losses only), while Velleius specifies a total of 150,000 enemy killed and Livy a total of 200,000 enemy killed and 100,000 captured. The only author who reports the number of killed as 100,000 is Plutarch.6 The problematic interpretation and combination of sources becomes apparent as soon as one starts to scrutinize them.
A minor—but somehow more overt and puzzling—problem concerns the inconsistency of the subtitle, which on the cover is …Battles from 502 to 31 B.C., while on the frontispiece is …Battles from 498 to 31 B.C.. Since none of the battles listed in the Alphabetical and Chronological List of Battles, which Taylor puts before their detailed description, dates to 498, the proper date in both places should be 502, the year of the Battle of Pometia (cf. 214-215).
On the other hand, the book is to be praised for its ease of reading and consultation, enhanced by the addition of explanatory maps and diagrams of some of the most complex descriptions (useful as teaching material for undergraduates).7 The reference to ancient authors at the end of each entry—in spite of the above-mentioned problems—also offers non-academic audience a starting point for further research.
To conclude, this volume appears a decent reference book for undergraduates, teachers and, more generally, as a basic resource for beginning more thorough and in-depth studies of the battles of Republican Rome.
1. See e.g. P. Erdkamp (ed.), A Companion to the Roman Army, Chichester, Blackwell, 2011; Y. Le Bohec (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Roman Army, 3 vols., Chichester, Blackwell, 2015. It is surprising that Taylor mentioned neither book in his final bibliography.
2. M. Whitby and H. Sidebottom (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Ancient Battles, 3 vols., Chichester, Blackwell, 2017.
3. For example, in Caesar’s biography, the years from 49 BC to his death are summarized in this way: “His growing political power eventually culminated in civil war against Pompey and Senatorial forces. Caesar’s victory in the conflict left him in supreme authority of the Roman state until his murder by senatorial conspirators in the March of 44 BC.”
4. Plut. Pomp. 32.7 (who actually mentions “many more than ten thousand”) and App. Mythr. 100.
5. Oros. Hist. 6.4.5.
6. Plut. Marius 21.2.
7. Maps and diagrams appear to be authored by Taylor, since he does not mention credits for them.