BMCR 2020.03.21

Roman conquests: the Danube frontier

Michael Schmitz, Roman conquests: the Danube frontier. . Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2019. xxi, 149 p., [8 p. of plates]. ISBN 9781848848245 £19.99.

The work under review is the eighth in a series titled ‘Roman Conquests’, each volume covering a region of the empire.[1] Unlike other studies in the series, here the emphasis is placed on a stretch of the frontier and concentrates on the events leading up to the imperial border being established on the Danube (for military operations in the Balkans) and the conquest of Dacia. Chronologically it spans a period between c. 230 BC and AD 180, with the Marcomannic wars being the last major conflict discussed.

The material is presented in a form of narration and is divided into ten chapters that concentrate on major events. The first chapter, ‘Illyricum: The Push Towards the Danube’, covers Illyrian wars, Rome’s dealings with Philip V of Macedon, and the first conflicts with the Delmataei in the mid- and late 2nd c BC. The second chapter has a somewhat misleading title, ‘Julius Caesar’, while in fact it is dedicated to his contemporary, Burebista, telling of his efforts to establish a Dacian state and setting up the scene for later chapters. ‘Octavian’s Illyricum’ continues where the first chapter left off, returning us to Illyria during Octavian’s provincial command. Licinius Crassus’ campaign on the lower Danube also gets a mention, a rare excursus to that part of the frontier. The fourth chapter, ‘The Danube as the Northern Frontier’, deals with the final push to the Danube under Augustus: namely the conquest of Raetia and Noricum, and Tiberius’ dealings with the Pannonians and Dalmatians between 12 and 8 BC. Neatly linking to it is the next chapter, ‘The Pannonian Uprising of AD 6 to 9’, where further history on the same stretch of the Danube is outlined.

The sixth chapter shifts our attention back to Dacia (‘The Dacians: an Emerging Empire’), picking up from Chapter 2. This chapter is somewhat of a departure from the rest of the book as no major events are reported; instead the briefest of introductions to the culture of the Dacians is offered, with an emphasis placed firmly on military details: fortifications, army formations and weapons. The interest in the Dacians is clearly limited to their role of the great Roman foe, and the chapter serves as an introduction for the seemingly inevitable clash that is to follow. The next two sections of the book tell of that conflict: ‘The Flavian Danube’ (Chapter 7) charts mainly Domitianic operations against the Dacians, while Chapter 8 brings us to what feels like a climax in the book, ‘Trajan’s Dacian Wars’. The latter chapter is longer and more detailed than any other, clearly reflecting author’s area of expertise.

The last two chapters deal with the emerging Germanic threat on the Upper and Middle Danube (Chapter 9: ‘Hadrian’, Chapter 10: ‘The War of Many Nations’), and the efforts that Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius made to consolidate the border. The book’s narration comes to a somewhat sudden end in AD 180, with the end of Marcomannic wars. The Conclusion seems set to pick up the thread further, as it opens with a quote from Dio, curiously left unattributed, who introduced his history of Rome from the time of Commodus onwards as a descent ‘from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust’ (Dio LXXII.36.4). The concluding section, however, contains only a brief mention of several key events up to the defeat at Adrianople in AD 378. All chroniclers have to pick an end date to their histories, and all such choices are inevitably artificial. It would be interesting to know the author’s rationale, particularly bearing in mind that the region under question became central in both foreign and internal politics of Rome through the 3rd century. Perhaps with the book series being called ‘Roman Conquests’, the volume is to cover just the period of imperial expansion, but one can only speculate.

In addition to text there are seventeen illustrations and six black and white maps of the wider region and the key areas mentioned. Four colored artworks have clearly been specially commissioned for the volume, vividly depicting troops and artist’s impression of battles. Select Bibliography and an Index round off the volume.

As one would expect from a book that endeavors to cover a 400-year stretch of Roman history in just under 150 pages, the coverage is selective and events are presented summarily. One could argue that with the Danube frontier running for 2,800 km the attention is skewed towards the Middle Danube, but this is an inevitability of the mentioned selection process, rather than a result of an unbalanced approach. What is more worrying than the reductive nature of the historical account is how narrative is presented as though the facts presented are without controversy. Although in the Introduction the author himself states that there are ‘difficulties associated with limited and sometimes contradictory source material that makes a detailed discussion almost impossible at times’ (p. xx), it is never clear in the text when this is the case. The only time when the quality of sources is discussed is in relation to certain stages of the Marcomannic wars (cf. p. 113-14); here the problem is merely noted, but its implications are unclear. Instead the account as presented seems to contain nothing but established facts, based primarily on the accounts of ancient authors. References have been kept to a minimum (endnotes) undoubtedly to enhance readability.

Material culture is seldom considered, and when it is (e.g. in the chapters on the Dacians) it serves as little more than an illustration of the martial aspects of a community though a description of their weaponry and fortifications. Trajan’s Column is an exception, and even its reliability as a source of information is briefly discussed (one paragraph, p. 91); an example of source criticism that none of the Classical authors seem to have been subjected to.

The focus of the volume is firmly on military history, fitting with the theme of the series, and apart from the events surrounding actual armed engagements, little else is covered. The analysis of the narrated events is largely limited to a review of strategy and tactics, with consequences of such encounters rarely being considered beyond the border changes. Although the title of the Conclusion (‘The Best Defense is a Good Offence?’) seems to imply an assessment of Roman strategy on the Danube might be offered here (that of defensive imperialism?), no further analysis or evaluation can be found in these one and a half pages.

Lack of discussion and incidental referencing make this volume of limited use to students of the period, but I very much doubt that this was intended readership. Pen and Sword Press is a known publisher of books on military topics with a following among general public and enthusiasts. For such an audience, who is not necessarily interested in the ins and outs of academic discourse and cannot easily access more comprehensive and expensive volumes such as The Cambridge Ancient History series, this book will offer a highly readable and convenient alternative. In fairness to the author it should be said that a book so envisaged offers very little scope for proper academic discussion, thus while my comments above reveal what an academic audience would find lacking, such deficiencies were likely unavoidable given the brevity that the author was striving for and the established remit of the series. Much of the study’s focus region is poorly covered in English-language publications in general, which should make the volume popular with its proper readership: judging by reviews posted on the publisher’s own website, military internet forums and the wargaming community have already picked up on it.

[1] Previous titles include Asia Minor, Syria and Armenia, Egypt and Judea, Gaul, Italy, Macedonia and Greece, and North Africa.