The Roman Army at War 100 BC-AD 200.
It has taken a considerable time for John Keegan's pioneering technique in military studies, applied so influentially to the classical Greek world by Hanson, to be employed in the study of Roman warfare. One of the principal reasons for this delay must be the substantial difficulties involved in such a project, particularly the problems of the literary evidence. Nevertheless, despite some hiccups, Adrian Goldsworthy has done an admirable job in presenting the Roman `face of battle'. In his authoritative study, G. has covered many aspects of Roman warfare, from the military aims and objectives of campaigning to the sharp end, as it were, of pitched battle. In addition to his command of the ancient accounts, G. displays an impressive knowledge of more recent campaigns and theories of war which will no doubt delight the military enthusiast, whilst for the ancient historian the book is one of the first studies to consider seriously how the Roman army really worked. This does give rise to the question, however, of whom the book is aimed at. If the former, some explanation is needed of the connections between Roman politics and the army, if the latter, a glossary of military terms would have been useful.
G. argues forcefully that the Roman army was not a well-oiled `war machine', a body of uniform automatons who obeyed every order unthinkingly, and nowhere does his argument come across more forcefully than in his analysis of Gallus' defeat in Judaea. Here, as with the defeat of Cotta and Sabinus in the winter of 54 B.C. in Gaul, the individual actions of Roman soldiers, as well as the lack of leadership from the general, contributed to defeat. Elsewhere the more positive results of individualism are discussed with the personal contribution that soldiers can make in battle by themselves, not just as a cog in their unit. The subject of the first chapter is unit organization, a topic which is de rigeur for this kind of work, but on which there is little new to say. The full implications and significance of this chapter though become clear later in the book. G. successfully illustrates the relationship between the nature of unit organization in the Roman army, and (usually) success in battle through the cohesion of the units: `peer group pressure' encourages discipline and courage in the fighting.
There are some occasions though where the book betrays its origins as a doctoral thesis, and this is particularly the case with the rather incongruous Chapter Two, The Opposition. Rome's opponents here consist of Germans, Gauls, and Parthians. The last named appear very infrequently elsewhere in the book, the Gauls are those portrayed in Caesar, and the Germans are Late Republican or Tacitean. Despite the book's chronological framework, G. does not consider mid-second-century Germans, for example, or Severan Parthians (indeed, the chronological parameters are slightly misleading, Caesar to Tacitus being the period mostly under discussion). The two `opponents' of Rome who appear most regularly through the book are actually Jews and Romans, in revolt and civil war respectively. None the less there is much of value in this chapter, particularly in the discussion of different attitudes towards warfare and the different aims in warfare of Rome and her enemies, on which relatively little work has been done for the Principate. G.'s clear understanding of strategic concepts and his ability to explain them here is certainly refreshing.
Most aspects of campaigning are dealt with fairly briefly, so G. can spend the majority of the book on the Roman army at pitched battle rather than at war. The order of march, logistics (disappointingly relegated to an appendix), and marching camps are included rather cursorily and with few new ideas. This is regrettable since the Roman army spent a lot more time doing these sorts of things than actually fighting. G. does not mention, for example, deployment from order of march to line of battle, a crucial and very vulnerable manoeuvre for any army, albeit one that the literary sources also tend to gloss over. G.'s evaluation of the psychological effects of marching camps is one exception to an otherwise relatively bland section of the book. The daily construction of the campaign camp was designed to intimidate the enemy by stressing the order and might of the Roman army (113). It certainly had this effect on Pyrrhus who, according to Plutarch (Pyrrhus 16), on seeing the Roman encampment at Tarentum realized that he was not fighting barbarians but a disciplined force. Not that it helped the Romans.
The real meat of the book comes in Chapters 4-6 which are based very much on Keegan's methodology. The three chapters constitute a highly detailed analysis of the different stages of battle and involvement of the different types of unit. G. deals in turn with the role and activity of the general, the unit, and the individual in battle. The nature of the evidence and the methodology employed inevitably oblige a certain degree of speculation, but G. makes full use of the available literary evidence, and deploys archaeological and iconographic material when appropriate. Though these chapters we are given some idea of why the Roman army was so successful: fear of failure and ensuing punishment are obvious factors as are the rewards of victory, but G. stresses in particular the importance of morale at both individual and unit level.
There are some problems, inevitably, with this kind of subject. As indicated above, G. successfully debunks the idea of a `war machine', yet his constant comparisons with more recent warfare none the less encourage the reader to think of the Roman army as a very modern army, which it quite clearly was not. This is compounded by the use of modern behavioural studies: only 25% of American soldiers actively participated in firefights during the Second World War (187), but does this really tell us anything about how Roman soldiers might have behaved? We can probably put these things down to the nature of the study. G. is, however, a little too trusting of his literary sources at times, particularly that renowned master of exaggeration Josephus, whose famous remarks about the Roman artillery at Jotopata are taken at face value.
I would have liked G. in his discussion about the nature of war to have included civil war. So much of his evidence relates to this form of war which the Romans themselves recognized as being different, a more intense and vicious business altogether. Did it encourage different behaviour and actions on campaign, in battle, and in the aftermath of battle? Ultimately, however, despite these criticisms, G. has successfully `done a Keegan' for the Romans.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Greece & Rome|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1998|
|Previous Article:||Etruscan Art.|
|Next Article:||Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 6 vols.|