BMCR 2022.01.23

Spare no one: mass violence in Roman warfare

, Spare no one: mass violence in Roman warfare. War and society. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021. Pp. x, 281. ISBN 9781538112205 $89.00.


Mass violence in connection with warfare comes as no surprise. Violence against civilians, non-combatants, and “the other face of battle” have been studied and analyzed across a broad chronological spectrum for some time now.[1] The impact of war on civilians, how they were affected by military operations and how they suffered from consequences of war, is a core-theme of the so called New Military History, a field that had consolidated in the late 20th century. One premise of the movement has been that one needs to look beyond the limited bounds of traditional military history to spheres of interaction between warfare and other areas, the better to understand the complexity of warfare.

The book under review is the first devoted to antiquity in the series “War and Society.”  Gabriel Baker examines widely-used tactics of mass violence ‘off the battlefield’: mass killing, mass enslavement, and the destruction (and looting) of cities in Roman warfare. Their ruthless use seems to have been vital to Roman military operations. Commanders in the field with full deliberation used mass violence and brutal strategies upon civilian populations to achieve their military objectives and political goals as a matter of routine. Atrocity and massacre were fundamental modalities of military practice, alongside pitched battles and sieges. The soldiers on campaign and in combat participated in different ways, but at the end violence resulted in remarkable military success in foreign affairs, with important effects, too, on Rome and its society.

Baker starts his book with a first chapter on war and mass violence in the Middle Republic and with a spectacular bang: the looting and destruction of Carthage and Corinth in 146 BC and the extraordinary violence on the civilian inhabitants of these famous cities.  The Roman army’s display of cruelty in urban combat shocked contemporaries. Yet these traumatic destructions were not so extraordinary: in the eyes of Diodorus (32,4,5) and Polybios (10,15,4-6), the Romans confirmed their power by “terrorism and destruction” and inspiring terror and sparing no one appeared to hem simply a “Roman custom”. Topics covered include patterns of ‘mass violence’ (which is to say, indiscriminate rather than targeted violence), warfare away from the battlefield, physical violence against noncombatants or against communities, are discussed, Rome’s willingness to conquer, destroy and to eliminate or enslave its enemies. The chapter also briefly discusses problems of methods and historiography.  The evidence primarily textual and archeological, and the historiography is rich. Many of Baker’s conclusions recapitulate arguments already present in other studies of Roman warfare.

In chapter two Baker gives a rough sketch of Rome’s military and political history through the time of its expansion over the Mediterranean (to 146 BC) as background for the analysis of war and mass violence that follows. More systematic and useful is chapter 3, which tries to show how Roman forces actually performed mass violence (using swords and fire for example). Baker concludes, usefully and convincingly, that urban destruction, mass enslavement and mass killing required labor, organization, resources and forethought on the part of Roman armies and the generals.  Chapter 4 proceeds from this point of departure, exploring Roman commanders’ motives for using mass violence on campaign. According to our ancient sources, Roman generals and leaders used mass violence to neutralize threats, to punish perceived slights and also sometimes to deter future challenges. (An appendix lists cases of mass violence with sources, pp. 213ff.)  Baker rightly emphasizes the political and economic pragmatism that Roman sources foreground in describing deliberations in this arena.  I personally would prefer an even greater concentration on economics[2]—financing war; the interplay between recruitment and finance; the role of booty; wars for resources or trade wars, etc.—since some acts of massive violence could definitely yield profit or military glory.

In the following chapters (5-7), three exemplary Roman wars are examined where mass violence features prominently in the sources: the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), the Third Macedonian War (171-167 BC), and the Lusitanian War (155-139 BC). With these wars, Baker selects narratives and events that allow him to firmly situate the use of mass violence within broader historical contexts and to explore the decision-making of Roman leaders. Chapter 8 is the conclusion:  mass violence in Roman warfare is characterized as an effective instrumental strategy to gain victory, counter threats and as a means of control.

Baker’s book is well-written and all in all a pleasant read – in spite of its character as a reminder of the disturbing means the Romans used to seek victory in warfare. He intends it to be accessible to “casual readers interested in Roman history, students, and experts alike” and admits freely (p. 9) that to that end, he devoted more attention to the ancient evidence (an index of the passages considered from ancient authors would have been fine…) than to scholarly debates and controversies, and that modern citations are “usually” limited to recent works in English that are immediately relevant to the issues at hand. As a scientist from abroad—from a generation that was trained, as a professional matter, to read scholarly literature in every European language—I encounter such statements with dismay.  It seems to me a matter of professional respect to ackknowledge the work of others.  Unfortunately, one has to read that increasingly often.[3]

The most immediate reaction inspired by Baker’s work is a lament that his sense of context was not broader.  Discussion in the senate about the conduct of the imperatores, on whether a war was “just” or not, about victory and defeat and their narration,[4] and in particular on metropolitan control over military commanders  and their decisions on battlefields far away from Rome—how free were generals in decision-making, and could  his decisions be revised, e.g. sending a city-population into slavery?[5]—competition and disputes over political orientation within the senate in general and about triumphs and spoils in particular, the economic and cultural effects of imperialism:  these are interesting and well-researched phenomena, all connected with the brutality of warfare, and deserved greate consideration than they received.

Is mass violence part of a senatorial policy or an aspect of individual aristocratic performance, with the goal of acquiring more symbolic power within some competition for political power among the aristocratic elite or some peer group? Is it as Seneca once formulated (epist. mor. 95,30-32), that deeds of “glorious crimes of genocide” were accepted as sanctioned by the senate and the people of Rome, cruelties were permitted and even approved, because they were committed by official order and not by private individuals? Was using extreme violence simply ‘rational’ or was it to some considerable part something more like a “post battle process”, a self-firing process of growing desire to go on killing and not to stop (“appetitive Gewalt” – something that is more often shown by higher army-ranks, giving them a feeling of power and control)[6]; or was acting like berserks, at least to some part something of ‘combat trauma’? Baker’s point, that violent acts were ‘not normally’ the handiwork of frenzied soldiers run amok, nor were they spontaneous outbursts of uncontrolled savagery, might be valid in many cases, but certainly each and every single case of extreme violence has to be tested on its own ratio, if our sources allow that.

Violence, murder, mass executions, rape of women and children, phenomena of ‘genocide’, enslavement and deportation and/ or forced migrations, flight, plunder and looting, acts of cultural and religious destruction, of economic structures and livelihoods – all ‘routines of war’: warfare in the ancient world was extremely brutal, it was ‘total’ and some of these ‘routines’ need further, richer study.  Furthermore, these should not avoid connecting the discussion of ancient sources with theoretical frameworks tied to comparative or diachronic study of warfare in human history.[7]

Gabriel Baker’s contribution can be seen as an important starting-point to our better understanding of violence and Roman warfare, as a kind of pilot study or model. Other scholars will hopefully contribute to complete the picture, not only drawing on ancient sources for the whole of Roman Warfare (and other cultures of antiquity), but also on more modern parallels from other epochs and interdisciplinary theoretical approaches. The atrocities of the recent past—terror, mass violence and the strategic use of the concept of total war as rational policies of states—definitely have precedents in Antiquity.


[1] For example: D. Nadali/ J. Vidal (eds.), The Other Face of the Battle. The Impact of War on Civilians in the Ancient Near East. Alter Orient und Altes Testament, Band 413 (Münster 2014); see also many contributions to K. Ruffing/ K. Droß-Krüpe/ S. Fink/ R. Rollinger (eds.), Societies at War. Melammu Symposia, Band 10 (Wien 2020).

[2] See now the most interesting book of M.J. Taylor, Soldiers and Silver: Mobilizing Resources in the Age of Roman Conquest (University of Texas 2020).

[3] Even more frank: C. Whateley, A Sensory History of Ancient Warfare ((Barnsley 2021), p. 145 who admits that – in spite of French, German, Italian, Spanish, and more research studies, his citations are restricted to works in English “given the intended audience of this book (largely Anglophone)”. As a German scholar, I understand that I am not part of the intended audience.  And yet, no wonder, the wheel is reinvented from time to time.

[4] Extremely useful: J.H. Clark/ B. Turner (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Military Defeat in Ancient Mediterranean Society(Leiden 2018), pp. 191ff. for the roman world.

[5] Exactly for that problem: F. Wieninger, Die angebliche Entscheidungsfreiheit des Feldherrn und die Senatspolitik in der römischen Republik: das Beispiel der Aufhebung von Massenversklavung, in: M. Clauss/ Chr. Nübel (eds.), Militärisches Entscheiden. Voraussetzungen, Prozesse und Repräsentation einer sozialen Praxis von der Antike bis zum 20. Jahrhundert. Krieg und Konflikt 9 (Frankfurt 2020), pp. 213ff.

[6] Very helpful: St. Burmeister, Post battle processes: Gewaltphänomene als psychologische Stressbewältigung und Befriedungsritual, in: F. Sutterlüty/ M. Jung/ A. Reymann (eds.), Narrative der Gewalt. Interdisziplinäre Analysen (Frankfurt 2019), pp. 207ff.; „appetitive Gewalt“ and higher ranks: p. 223f.

[7] When it comes to such concepts, most of them are missing in the Index of the book, although they are ‘somehow’ considered in the text. I especially miss deeper theoretical approaches for ‘genocide’, ‘terrorism’/ ‘state terrorism’, ‘total war,’ to name a few.  This means not only means looking at civilians as victims, but also as ‘combatants’. That is especially true in contexts of urban destruction and urban combat; one thinks of the role of women as fighters, for example. Some helpful books (and articles), that are not in the Bibliography: ‘total war’ – J. Wintjes, Total War – the Ancient Perspective, in: M. Paesano et al. (eds.), Conflitti militari e popolazioni civili. Atti del XXXIV Congreso della Commissione Internazionale di Storia Militare, 2008 (Rom 2009) 130-136; ‘state-terrorism’ (also the Lusitanian Wars) – T. Howe/ L.L. Brice (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Insurgency and Terrorism in the Ancient Mediterranean (Leiden 2016), esp. pp. 221ff.; ‘excessive violence‘ – M. Linder/ S. Tausend (eds.), “Böser Krieg”. Exzessive Gewalt in der antiken Kriegführung und Strategien zu deren Vermeidung (Graz 2011); impact of war on the ‘home front’ – L. Cecchet/ Chr. Degelmann/ M. Patzelt (eds.), The Ancient war’s Impact on the Home Front (New Castle upon Tyne 2019); women and war, rape and murder of women and children, women as booty – J. Armstrong/ M.P. Fonda (eds.), Romans at War. Soldiers, Citizens, and Society in the Roman Republic (London 2020) pp. 116ff. 134ff.; J. Fabre-Serris/ A. Keith (eds.), Women & War in Antiquity (Baltimore 2015); Chr. Walde/ G. Wöhrle (eds.), Gender und Krieg. Gender Studies in den Altertumswissenschaften, Band 8 (Trier 2018), esp. pp.69ff. 91ff.; A. Denzler/ S. Grüner/ M. Raasch (eds.), Kinder und Krieg. Von der Antike bis in die Gegenwart. Hist. Zeitschr. Beih. 68 (Berlin 2016), esp. 37ff. 179ff.; P. Mauritsch, Metamorphosen des Leids. Die Nicht-Thematisierung sexueller Gewalt gegen Kinder in der antiken Historiographie.Österr. Zeitschr. Geschichtswissenschaft 28, 2017,3, 71-87; mass enslavement and deportations – K.-W. Welwei, Sub corona vendere. Quellenkritische Studien zu Kriegsgefangenschaft und Sklaverei in Rom bis zum Ende des Hannibalkrieges. Forsch. Antike Sklaverei 34 (Stuttgart 2000); Volkmann’s, Massenversklavungen – see p. 269 in the Bibliography of Bakers’s book: a pity, that this most important book is received by Baker only in the form of its review!