BMCR 2022.01.02

Warfare in the Roman world

, Warfare in the Roman world. Key themes in ancient history. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. ISBN 9781107014282 $99.99.

This is not only an up-to-date review of Roman warfare, but a first rate one. Military history in general, and that of Rome in particular, suffers from an abundance of quantity and a dearth of quality. Warfare in the Roman World is a series of short essays, each exploring an aspect of the subject, rather than a unified analysis. Thus, it is less useful for the beginning student looking for a basic overview than for the advanced one, who wants to explore more deeply into the questions and problems that face those studying Roman war. Lee clearly and concisely explains different interpretations of Roman warfare, but also brings in his own evidence, often sources that have been overlooked or undervalued, to present his own view.

Indeed, one of the great strengths of the book is its introduction of sources unused, and often unfamiliar, to most ancient military historians. An example is the quotation of a speech by the 6th century general Patricius, as cited in the Syriac (that is, Aramaic) history of Joshua the Stylite. The book is strong in its use of documentary and archaeological evidence. The comprehensive notes guide the reader to not only the most recent scholarship, but to the most important.

The book extends its coverage to the Late Antique period, that is the 5th to the 7th centuries, which makes sense, especially given the continuity between the Late Roman and Early Byzantine armed forces. In order to do this, and keep the work short (184 pages) he excludes any discussion of the Royal and Early Republican period. There certainly is an argument for this, as our sources frequently either make up details or project later features onto the early period. While we are not quite as clueless about the development of Roman military institutions as this omission suggests, beginning with the 4th century BCE is certainly appropriate in such a study.

The introduction begins with a summary of Rome’s major conflicts, although this is a bit confused by Lee’s placing of wars in thematic categories within the broad groupings of Republic and Principate. A more strictly chronological approach, as indeed he uses for the Late Empire, would have been clearer. The discussion of unit types and organization is short but thorough. Lee also provides a study of the most significant literary and documentary sources in his introduction. Here he makes an important point about the use of the historical narratives: while one must be critical and keep rhetorical factors in mind, classicists have frequently overemphasized the rhetoric of texts. War and politics were serious matters in antiquity, as they are today, and although rhetorical flourishes are to be expected, an overly fantastic world-view could (and can) be a dangerous thing.

Lee also presents an introduction to Roman military handbooks, as well as epigraphic sources such as the military diplomas, tombstones and dedications, papyri and ostraca. There is a paragraph on archaeological evidence, which mentions the excavation of the Teutoburger Wald battlefield near Osnabrück in the 1980s, although he omits the surprising discovery in 2008 of a 3rd century CE battlefield at Harzhorn in Lower Saxony, some 250 kilometers from the Roman border.

The first chapter ” War and Peace” tackles the fundamental divide between the view of William Harris, who explains Rome’s imperialism by an especially bellicose culture, and that of Arthur Eckstein who sees the Romans making rational decisions about war in the context of a dangerous environment. The book characterizes both positions fairly, and gives a nuanced description of their development, though Lee does tend to focus on what the Romans wrote about themselves, rather than what they did. For example, it is correct, as he notes, that the Romans saw “peace” in terms of “pacification,” yet there are many examples of the Romans accepting compromise with enemies, and even defeats by them. The Roman elite may have criticized negotiated peace, as in the case of Domitian’s peace with the Dacians, to which Lee refers, but this didn’t prevent Romans from making peace. Lee himself notes that making Christianity, nominally pacifistic, into the Imperial religion, did not materially affect the Christian emperors’ warmaking.

“Military Service and Courage” deals with these two rather different subjects serially. There is an overview of the manpower debate in Republican times, which engaged both the ancients and the moderns who study them. Lee explains the disconnect between the literary sources and the archaeology in this regard, and extends the analysis from the Punic war into Gaius Marius’ (alleged) introduction of proletarians into the legions. The coverage of the Principate is not as thorough as that of the Republic, but the discussion of the Late Army is strong, characteristically so given Lee’s publication record. The second part of the chapter addresses the idea of courage, and manhood (virtus). This is a good survey of the literature and analyses, but one wishes there had been some attention paid to panic, a fundamental element of combat.

Lee’s consideration of recruitment and logistics is “Manpower and Money,” which turns to the size of Rome’s military forces relative to its population at different points, as well as the challenges of paying for it.  The question of numbers is always complex in ancient studies, whether one is looking at the size of the army or the amount it cost. Lee presents the basics of what it is possible to know.

“Authority and Allegiances” explores various elements of the relationship between officers and men. Lee focuses mainly on what the literary sources have to say about leadership and command—here is where he introduces Patricius’ speech to his men quoted in Joshua the Stylite. The analysis is typically rich and rewarding. In the section on obedience (and disobedience) more of a distinction might have been drawn between dissatisfaction and mutiny. The latter is always much less common than the former, and much of the skill of military leadership comes in how to negotiate with soldiers, as well as inferior and superior officers, over real or imagined complaints. Caesar gives many such examples. The chapter finishes with an excellent study of civil war in the context of Roman warfare.

In “Society and Identity” Lee brings out several important elements that helped create Roman military cultures, for example the informal religious and cultural organizations, such as collegia and scholae. He examines the issue of military marriage, especially Augustus’ enigmatic prohibition of it for soldiers. Throughout there is a focus on how soldiers gradually grew to be distinguished from, and ultimately alienated from, civilian culture. Of course, civilians were always present in military contexts, especially in the form of non-combatant support, and the argument here is thorough. Lee examines evidence for the oppression of civilians by the military. This chapter also introduces the subject of religion. After reviewing pagan military religions, Lee reviews military Christianity, but does not mention Jews in the Roman army, whose number may have been small, but who were certainly present.

The chapter “Culture and Communications” is one of the best in the book, although somewhat misnamed. It examines the adoption of weaponry by the Romans, the military diet and the question of literacy. Armor and weapons are often covered as a separate phenomenon, but Lee integrates them into a deliberation of how the Romans borrowed foreign technology and practices, and how foreign armies borrowed those of the Romans. There is a short study of the various ways in which the army fostered Romanization, including practices such as public bathing as well as dietary customs.  Lee notes how the army served in the Late Empire as a means of social advancement—although it might have been emphasized that this was the case in other periods as well.  There is a vigorous debate over the extent of literacy in the Roman world in general, and the book reviews this issue in the military context. Lee is right to point out that the evidence of careful record keeping does not necessarily translate into broad literacy among the soldiers.

The final chapter “Experiences of War” uses John Keegan’s influential Face of Battle approach that has become almost a sine qua non in military history. Lee considers the relevance of Keegan’s approach, as well as the controversial study of the U.S. Army in World War II, Men Against Fire, by S.L.A. Marshall, to Roman warfare. This is the only instance of Lee introducing modern studies of warfare and the military. Others might have been useful, for example, Stanislav Andreski’s classic Military Organization and Society. In general battle descriptions are avoided in the book, but Lee does provide an analysis of the Battle of Forum Gallorum in 43 BCE, drawing from it lessons on the battlefield experience. The chapter finishes with a survey of the impact of various types of warfare on civilian populations. Appended to the text are a bibliographical essay, a table of events, a list of emperors and a glossary.