BMCR 2021.03.19

Caesar’s great success: sustaining the Roman army on campaign

, , , Caesar's great success: sustaining the Roman army on campaign. Yorkshire: Frontline Books, 2020. Pp. 248. ISBN 9781473855878 $34.95.


In Caesar’s Great Success, Merrow, Von Hassell, and Starace bring the study of Roman military logistics to a popular audience and breathe much-needed life into a topic too often seen as dry and technical. They argue that Rome maintained a sophisticated logistical system, and that this system’s ability to provide Rome’s armies with firewood, fodder, and (most importantly) food was central to Roman military success. The authors further claim, though less consistently or successfully, that Julius Caesar used Rome’s logistical apparatus with unparalleled skill and efficiency. In their analysis, “Caesar’s great success was feeding his army on campaign” (1), a logistical achievement allegedly unmatched until the modern period, which enabled Caesar’s victories in the Gallic and Civil Wars (and revolutionized European cooking in the process).

After an introductory overview of their project and a short but effective historical narrative of Caesar’s life and campaigns (ch. 1), the authors present their core arguments in six chapters. Chapter Two explores what Rome’s soldiers ate on campaign, identifying various forms of cooked grain as the staple of the military diet and arguing that rations were, if generally bland, sufficient to fulfill the needs and expectations of rank-and-file soldiers. Chapter Three, “The Invention of Logistics,” puts in motion two (perhaps contradictory) arguments: Rome’s logistical apparatus was highly advanced and centrally administered, its complexity aided by infrastructure both physical (roads) and intellectual (maps). Yet Caesar, the authors’ unparalleled master of this system, made relatively little use of its most sophisticated features of long-distance supply, relying instead on local requisitioning to supply his forces.[1]

Chapter Four studies the movement of supplies to Roman armies from outside their areas of operation. Closely following Erdkamp (1998) and Roth (1999), Merrow et al. identify a multi-tiered system of supply depots and baggage trains that balanced commanders’ needs for secure supply and operational flexibility.[2] Chapter Five turns to provisioning within the theater of war itself through foraging and diplomacy. The authors again identify these as Caesar’s most important sources of supplies in both the Gallic and the Civil War, with requisitioning from allies and defeated enemies playing the most significant role. Chapter Six examines the intersection of logistics and strategy in Caesar’s wars; in line with Caesar’s self-representation in the Commentaries, the chapter argues that the general’s tremendous success was a result of his characteristic speed and audacity, and his willingness to push his logistical system near, or even beyond, its breaking point.

The final two chapters of the book supplement the core argument with detours into modern comparanda and the history of food. Chapter Seven examines the North African campaigns of the Second World War from a logistical perspective, drawing some approximate parallels between the importance of supply in both ancient and modern warfare. Chapter Eight briefly explores Caesar’s impact on European cuisine and food history, touching on topics from viticulture to the general’s homonymous salad. In keeping with this theme, Caesar’s Great Success also provides recipes at the end of each chapter for dishes ranging from military hardtack to Apicius’ haute cuisine.

Professional historians will find little that is new in this volume’s core argument: its depiction of sophisticated and complex Roman logistics closely matches previous scholarship by Erdkamp and Roth, both of whom offer more thorough reviews of the ancient evidence.[3] In terms of its overall approach to military history, Caesar’s Great Success is quite old fashioned, especially in its focus on the singular achievements of a single “great man.” This book does little to recognize the complexities of Caesar’s self-representation in the Commentaries, or how the topoi of Roman military literature impacted his depictions of warfare and strategy.[4] Merrow et al. whole-heartedly embrace the “universal soldier” denounced nearly two decades ago by Lynn (2003); indeed, the relevance of the North African comparanda in Chapter Seven rests entirely on the premise that “Julius Caesar had tapped into a timeless framework in which to wage war” (114).[5]

None of these are necessarily fatal flaws, especially in a book whose primary audience is not composed of professional academics; there is ample room for an engaging, traditional history of Caesar’s logistics written for the comparative enlightenment of modern military professionals and enthusiasts. It is heartening to see issues of supply and provisioning, long recognized as crucial to the conduct of war, highlighted for a popular audience traditionally more concerned with tactics and technology. Yet for a general audience as well, Caesar’s great success struggles to succeed. Numerous errors are liable to mislead readers unacquainted with Roman history. For instance, Polybius wrote nearly a century before Caesar’s time, not after him (111). Even if we accept the description of itineraria as “road maps” (51), we have no direct evidence that Caesar used a “catalogue of maps” (3) to help plan his campaigns, and no itineraria survive from so early.[6] The very modern assumption that Caesar had a “superb quartermaster corps” (4) is similarly unsubstantiated.[7]

More importantly, Caesar’s Great Success practically ignores one of its opening claims and undercuts the other. From the outset, Caesar’s impact on food history seems a strange inclusion in a book otherwise narrowly focused on military campaigning. While certainly provocative, to claim that “Julius Caesar’s logistical wizardry meant he was in many ways a culinary genius” and that his impact on “cooking in the field and at the commissary has been pervasive (1)” sets the authors a difficult task, especially when they themselves later acknowledge (25) that Caesar never commented on the preparation of food for his forces in the Commentaries. Almost without exception, the authors simply neglect to pursue this claim, and the book’s sojourn into culinary history is at best distracting, at worst detracting. The inclusion of recipes is odd, but not unwelcome—the honeyed wine on p. 21 is very good—yet devoting eight, full-color plates to lovingly staged pictures of these dishes seems a misallocation of resources in a volume which contains no maps of the campaigns it describes. To be sure, the very brief eighth chapter (the only one to address the introduction’s claims of “culinary genius”) makes thought-provoking but underexplored reference to how Caesar’s army and its conquests (though notably not Caesar himself) allowed the spread of Roman cuisine and, especially, viticulture to the provinces. Yet the chapter and the book as a whole end with a bizarre excursus on Caesar’s dubious connection to Caesar Salad and Coq au Vin. The former, as Merrow et al. readily admit, is a 20th century invention; uncited legend attributes the latter to Caesar’s personal chef, yet the authors find no evidence to substantiate the connection (though the ingredients, they note, were available). Readers are left with a conclusion both unfulfilling and arguably irrelevant.

We are left, then, with the argument to which Caesar’s Great Success devotes most of its energy, namely that Caesar was the unparalleled, innovative master of Roman military logistics. To fulfill the terms this book establishes for its own success, Merrow et al. must demonstrate not just that Caesar cared about logistics and benefited from pre-existing Roman logistical systems, but also that he himself developed and improved upon procedures of military supply and that these procedures made meaningful contributions to his victories. On the earlier claims, they make a solid case. This book demonstrates how Caesar gave considerable thought to the supply of his armies and that logistical references are certainly a frequent feature of the Commentaries. The authors’ arguments on the complexity of Roman logistical systems—dating, as they admit, to at least the 2nd century BCE (41)—give a cogent overview of ground already well-tread by Erdkamp and Roth. That Caesar, at least at times, benefited from, and participated in, a tradition of sophisticated supply is difficult to deny.

This volume is less successful in its claim that Caesar was a meaningful innovator when it came to military supply, or that he “devised the multi-faceted and multi-layered system that supplied Rome’s legions with items and foodstuffs from across the Mediterranean” (3). As Merrow et al. themselves admit, Caesar inherited but did not invent this system, and most of his supplies did not depend on the long-distance movement of provisions. The evidence for Caesar’s personal initiative on matters of supply is thin. What the authors identify as Caesar’s most dramatic change to military provisioning, i.e., the shift towards supply by local requisition, Erdkamp sees instead (and with good cause) as a common strategy of the middle republic.[8] The authors’ claim that Caesar “developed a sophisticated protection protocol” (85) for foraging contradicts Caesar’s own remark in BG 4.32 that he sent out a full legion to forage “as was customary (ex consuetudine).”

On the whole, the argument for Caesar the innovator is undercut by the general’s uncharacteristic reticence on many issues of supply. As the authors themselves admit, on the administration of military logistics “Caesar is frustratingly silent” (55). In the masterwork of self-aggrandizement that is the Commentaries, this silence speaks volumes, suggesting that Caesar’s supply arrangements were for the most part typical for his time and thus unnecessary to relate. If Caesar’s grasp of logistics was actually as innovative as Caesar’s Great Success claims, surely he would have let his readers (and posterity) know.

Meanwhile, the claim that Caesar won his many wars on account of superior logistical skill is wholly contradicted in Chapter Six. The premise of Caesar’s Great Success runs aground on the unavoidable fact that, as Merrow et al. put it, “despite the importance Caesar gave to provisioning, he often had difficulties providing for his troops while he was in Gaul and this had a negative impact on his success on the battlefield” (104). In the civil wars, Chapter Six notes that he was similarly hampered by supply difficulties and near-starvation at Ilerda, Utica, and Dyrrachium. The authors must conclude (in line with traditional portrayals of Caesar’s strategic aggression) that “Caesar sought the tactical advantage and this was gained through speed; provisioning his troops cost precious time” (107). In short, Caesar won despite logistics, not because of them.

We are left with a general like many others, one for whom supply was a necessary, if sometimes tedious, requirement of war, a leader whose greatest achievement was not keeping his soldiers fed, but motivating them to fight even when they were at the brink of starvation (which his own calculated risks had inflicted upon them). Far from being the greatest logistician until the modern period—by Caesar’s own admission, Pompey was superior in this respect, and Alexander would be justifiably apoplectic to be left out of the conversation—Caesar made only limited use of Rome’s sophisticated systems of long-distance provisioning, and his armies operated at the outer margins of logistical possibility more by force of will than by any significant expansion of ancient capacities for supply.

In the end, Caesar’s Great Success stumbles because it forces “Great General” historiography onto one of the few areas in which its protagonist was unexceptional. Merrow, Van Hassell, and Starace’s lively and necessary exploration of Roman logistics ends up muffled and diluted by an ill-conceived excursus into culinary history and by an ultimately undeserved panegyric to Julius Caesar.


[1] In this argument, the authors essentially follow Labisch, Anton. Frumentum Commeatusque. (Hain, 1976).

[2] Erdkamp, Paul. Hunger and the Sword. (Gieben, 1998); Roth, Jonathan. The Logistics of the Roman Army at War. (Brill, 1999).

[3] Op. cit.

[4] See Lendon, J.E. Soldiers and Ghosts. (Yale, 2005).

[5] Lynn, John. Battle. (Westview, 2003).

[6] On Caesar’s lack of maps, see Talbert, Richard. “War and Geographic Knowledge.” Essay W. In The Landmark Julius Caesar: Web Essays. ed. Raaflaub, Kurt (Pantheon, 2018).

[7] As the authors themselves admit on pp. 52-56.

[8] Erdkamp (op. cit.) p. 98. Contra Labisch (op. cit.).