ElAnt v4n2 - REVIEWS - The Roman Army at War, 100 BC-AD 200

Volume 4, Number 2
April 1998

The Roman Army at War,
100 BC - AD 200

Adrian Keith Goldsworthy
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996, pp. xiv + 311
ISBN 0-19-815057-1

Reviewed by: Thomas Stevenson
Department of Classics and Ancient History,
University of Auckland,
Private Bag 92019,
New Zealand.
e-mail: tstevenson@artsnet.auckland.ac.nz

This book, based (like others in the series) on the author's Oxford doctoral thesis, sets out to give a 'detailed examination of the way in which the Roman army operated during a war and how it fought a battle' (dustjacket). It seems on first reading an adventurous aim for a book of around 300 pages. Nonetheless, G., who stresses his civilian status (vii), has produced a stimulating analysis of the way in which the Roman army's organization affected its behaviour during a campaign. His basic thesis is that the army was able to adapt to any type of warfare and that this flexibility gave it consistent advantages over most opponents. The thesis is argued competently, and is certainly more aware of the vagaries of the evidence than earlier studies which make broad and misleading generalizations, concentrate unacceptably on the army in peacetime, and do not give credit to its powers of adaptation, preferring instead to describe an inflexible military machine.

G. opens with 'Acknowledgements' (vii-viii), in which he describes his boyhood interest in the Roman army and his early awareness that 'classical writers are far more concerned with the behaviour and morale of soldiers than the technical aspects of warfare which have been the main interest of modern scholars' (vii). After the table of contents (ix-x), and lists of figures, maps and tables (xi-xii), there are lists of abbreviations used in the book and of translations of ancient sources (xiii-xiv). All the preliminary signs of a careful Oxford thesis are in place.

The 'Introduction' (1-11) spells out the author's distinctive approach. G. notes that both academics and general writers have approached the Roman army as an institution dominated by rigid ideas about discipline and organization. They have seen this as its major strength. However, John Keegan's groundbreaking study The Face of Battle (1976) showed that in practice armies do not behave as they are supposed in theory to do. So analyses of the Roman army which exaggerate the rigidity of its organization and discipline are likely to distort the way in which the individual soldiers conducted themselves during a battle or campaign. G. sets out to examine the degree to which Keegan's findings apply to the Roman army. He favours evidence relating to wars and battles rather than to the army's 'recruitment and career pattern, its religious beliefs and ceremony, its role in and effect on society, the artistic and technical developments of its equipment, and the specifications of its buildings' (11). After all, 'The army existed to wage war' (11). Instead of rigidity and the repression of individual initiative, he finds flexibility and the encouragement of initiative. This, contrary to received opinion, was the real strength of the Roman army. There are six chapters, which are followed by 'General Conclusions' (283-6), an appendix on 'Logistics' (287- 96), which makes interesting use of Victorian military data, a 'Select Bibliography' (297-305), and a very full 'Index' (307-11).

Chapter 1, 'The Organization of the Roman Army 60 BC - AD 200' (12-38), is concerned to point out that army organization should not be studied as an end in itself. The change in organization from a legion of 30 maniples to one of 10 cohorts reflects a change in the scale of Roman warfare. The cohort legion was just as good at winning large-scale battles, but it was far more flexible. Its clearly defined command structure made it more efficient when its units acted independently, and it was thus better at the smaller-scale, less intensive fighting which was encountered particularly during the early Empire. For a variety of reasons (e.g. illness, accident, enemy action, desertion), Roman armies on campaign could not maintain their theoretical numbers and blends of troops. G. finds that there was far less standardization and uniformity of size between units than has been assumed in the past. Differences are largely attributable to local requirements, such as the unusual weaponry and organization of Arrian's Cappadocian legions. The army, being inherently flexible, could cope with this variation.

Chapter 2, 'The Opposition' (39-75), looks at how the organization of enemies such as the Germans, Gauls and Parthians affected their respective abilities to wage war against the Romans. This approach represents a departure from previous attempts to determine military effectiveness through formal studies of the weaponry and armour of these peoples. Whereas the Roman army of G.'s period was a professional, permanent force capable of supplying itself for a long campaign if necessary, its enemies were restricted by tribal, seasonal and other factors, including their reliance on kinship groups, which produced armies lacking a clear, well-organized command structure. Such organizational factors gave the Romans consistent advantages over even the fiercest enemies.

Chapter 3, 'The Campaign' (76-115), examines different types of campaigns, from the suppression of insurrection to punitive action to wars of conquest, and also looks at the order of march and the marching camp. G. argues that Roman strategy is continually dominated by offensive thinking: 'In all types of warfare Roman tactical doctrine was based upon the offensive' (114). This, it is argued, is in stark contrast to the impression of stolid commitment to defence and caution arising from standard modern studies which over-emphasize behaviour of the army in peacetime and/or generalize from tendentious analyses, such as those by Polybius and Vegetius, which have an interest in presenting an impregnable, grinding, machine-like phenomenon. It seems extraordinary to think that Roman armies were conditioned to think that attack was the best form of defence on all occasions. Yet even if the hand is a little overplayed, it is remarkable how very often G. seems to be right. Time and again (G. particularly highlights the case of Cestius Gallus in AD 66), Roman armies exhibit a kneejerk response which involves going on the offensive against a new threat, even if less than fully prepared and less than fully informed about the enemy's tactics and movements. The explanation is given that they were not so concerned to take or defend territory (shades of accidental imperialism!) as to break the will of an opponent. Thus,

'The appearance of confidence in an army, shown for instance in its willingness to confront overwhelming odds, lowered the enemy's morale and contributed to final victory' (114).

I am drawn to the argument but also repelled. The danger of defeat must have been increased in such circumstances, and Roman defeat would have increased the enemy's morale - not to mention the loss of soldiers' lives. Though G. does not draw upon recent studies of Roman Republican imperialism, their increasing acceptance of Roman aggressiveness might have helped his case here.

Chapter 4, 'The General's Battle' (116-70), takes issue with the prevailing generalization that there wasn't much skill involved in commanding a Roman army. G. shows that there were different styles of leadership, that generals often had to work hard to motivate their troops, and that there was always a need for decisions about the best place to offer battle and the best way to deploy the available units, especially reserves. It wasn't simply a matter of unleashing the invincible legions against ill-disciplined and poorly organized enemies. This seems fundamentally sound. However, two minor aspects of the argument are problematic. Firstly, in the absence of formal military training, G. argues that Roman generals learnt how to 'read' a battle and direct reserves through experience both as a subordinate officer and as a magistrate at Rome (169). The value of military service can be accepted, but it is noticeable that G. is much attracted by the analogy of magistrates and citizens when describing the relationship between generals and soldiers. This is worrying, for we know that Roman law made distinctions between these two relationships, most especially with regard to provocatio, which protected citizens from magistrates but did not protect soldiers from their commanders (and centurions did not carry vine rods for show!). The consuls required unquestioning obedience on campaign to a far greater degree than they did in the comitia, and the thought that popular sovereignty as enshrined in the lex Hortensia could have applied to soldiers as to citizens is very hard to see. The military relationship must have been of a different order. G. even conceives of an army in which it was possible to question a general's orders (124, 148). How could such a Roman army have been successful?

Secondly, G. thinks that a general's virtus was a matter of technical skill as well as personal bravery, and that if a man failed to display these, then his political career suffered (170). Surprising, however (to me anyway), are the conclusions of Nathan Rosenstein's book Imperatores Victi (1990), which indicate that political careers tended not to be undermined by military defeat because the aristocracy exerted group influence to retain the prerogative of military command within their circle. So you could be politically prominent though a failed general. Once again, therefore, I would like to distinguish generals from magistrates and soldiers from citizens.

Chapter 5, 'The Unit's Battle' (171-247), describes how varied could be the experience of ancient battle, as different types of units found themselves in confrontation, and how tactics could be confounded by conditions or the nature of supporting troops or no good reason whatsoever. Concentration upon the experience of units shows that Roman battles were not simply a matter of 'disciplined legionaries' meeting and beating 'wild barbarians'. It is refreshing to be reminded of the soldiers themselves, and of the fear and fatigue which placed understandable limits on the effective use of their weapons (a fact which limits the conclusions one can draw from weapons studies). G. does well to evoke the confusion and fear of the battlefield, and to highlight matters of morale to a degree not done before. His emphasis upon 'the instinctive urge to flight', even as a principle underlying the formations adopted by units (244), does much to restore the human face to a field often dominated by ideas of grand tactics involving sweeping movements by two non-personal armies. G. shows that ancient battles were more a matter of small actions conducted by units of varying types who were not always sure what was happening elsewhere on the field. The Roman edge is described as being one of good morale, supported by discipline, fear of punishment, and superiority in organization, command, and equipment (246).

Chapter 6, 'The Individual's Battle' (248-282), examines the question of morale in more depth, maintaining the thesis that confidence was often more important than physical force in deciding a battle. G. highlights stories of individual bravado and acts of heroism by Roman soldiers. Such deeds were routinely rewarded with elaborate and conspicuous ceremony. In other words, individual initiative could bring rewards. Once again, G. argues, this doesn't look like the standard model in which Roman soldiers operated with one mind and singular efficiency born of countless hours of drill, punishment and other factors designed to instil unquestioning obedience to orders. Units of the army did not behave with uniform bravery from man to man. In fact, there was a need for somebody to give a lead to more fearful comrades when (say) breaking into a strong enemy line. If such soldiers did not set the example by moving forward, their more fearful comrades might have set the opposite example by running away. The men who might thereby seek gloria by displaying individual prowess were not a potential threat to discipline (as Stephen Oakley argued at one stage during a fine paper) but were necessary to it.

G.'s writing style is quite easy to follow, as is his argument. Each chapter ends with a section headed 'Conclusion', and 'General Conclusions' (283-6) follow at the book's end. The cumulative effect is to produce a positive response to G.'s thesis. In general terms it may be conceded that the case is carried. However, a couple of qualifications should be made. In the first place, the standard model against which G. argues has been drawn in rather extreme terms. This is understandable, for it allows G. to present his contrasting picture in sharper relief and enhances the distinctiveness of his contribution. It is a common characteristic of scholarship which tends to think in terms of polarities or dichotomies. It is not really a criticism, therefore, and would only be overcome if one were to devise a wholly new model or approach that transcended the parameters set by the standard. By the same token, it might be said that G.'s picture is also made a little more extreme than it really should be, for the sake once more of emphasizing the distinctiveness of his thesis. His comparison of soldiers and generals to citizens and magistrates is a case in point. However, if the reality was a little closer to the standard picture than G. allows, this does not thereby deny the general force of what G. has to say about the army not being a machine. No army can operate at all times according to the book. G. is right to emphasize this, especially at times of stress when the vagaries of the human condition emerge. On the other hand, no successful army can do without its book of drills, traditions and standard tactics. A slightly uneasy coexistence between group unity and the rewarding of individual initiative remains probable. Accordingly, I would have liked to see G. describe a somewhat closer relationship between his model and the standard model. There is a degree to which the two are complementary rather than contradictory.

Finally, and whilst affirming the great merit of the argument once again, it must be said that the standard of proofreading is amazingly poor. It hardly seems anything like the usual product of the Oxford University Press in this regard. Punctuation is problematic throughout, especially the employment of commas, and the spelling of words like 'contempory' soon begins to grate. The distinction between 'their' and 'there', and between 'whose' and 'who's', is lost. Possessive apostrophes are an element of mystery. It would take far too long to list the many errors of this type which struck me, but their number should not go unmentioned. Another annoying feature, which upsets the flow of reading, is the placing of tables inflexibly at either the top or the bottom of a page in defiance of the point at which they immediately relate to the text (note especially Table 3 on page 23 with the placing of footnote 47). These features are not in tune with the quality of the ideas contained in this book, and it is to be hoped that both G. and his publishers will attend to them in any future editions. See below for some typos and inconsistencies:

1.   'understength' for 'understrength' (23).
2.   'Bythinia' for 'Bithynia' (31).
3.   effected (33).
4.   poor sentences (bottom of page 41).
5.   no fullstop (47 n.28).
6.   (as the) typical Parthian (bottom of 66).
7.   nobleman (71).
8.   auxiliary (71 n.80).
9.   'AD 69 was' (no comma) (72).
10.  'In a sense' (twice) (72).
11.  note? (73 n.83).
12.  1998 (77 n. 2).
13.  'a tribe subject to a Roman ally' (which was?) (90).
14.  'In this (=the) final attack' (94).
15.  'Berketer' (?) (109 n.47).
16.  German Policy (112 n.58).
17.  Morale factors (115).
18.  punctuation (117 n.2).
19.  contemporaries (118).
20.  size ... were; army's size (131 n.5).
21.  What is clear, is ... (132).
22.  PPaus. (?) 1+2: arrows, different directions (134).
23.  Paus. (?) 2: 1000 cavalry (134).
24.  Conquest of Gaul (140 n.50).
25.  Marian army (140 n.52).
26.  army's tactics (1st line) (142).
27.  in a similar way, (145).
28.  Agricola 34-5 (fullstop) (147).
29.  when ... army, as they did ... (148).
30.  , as did Brutus and Cassius (second last line) (148).
31.  passive sense, took part (149).
32.  they begun to advance (quote) (150).
33.  required, prevented ... (152).
34.  it being intercepted (153).
35.  fulfill (?) (154).
36.  in our period, ... during, ... (154).
37.  earlier, battles, ... chose, or was forced, ... (155).
38.  14-15, ... (157).
39.  ? (157 n.76).
40.  who's = whose (158).
41.  general, that soldiers ... (163).
42.  *lite, involved a ... (165).
43.  events, than ... (last line 165).
44.  formation, than a well- ... (176).
45.  Roman, confirms ... (179).
46.  infantry, had ... (180).
47.  cohort, appeared in ... (186).
48.  close-order troops (187).
49.  firefight, actively participated (187).
50.  Jews, than one (189).
51.  since, as ..., they ... (190).
52.  since, unlike the stone ... (190).
53.  silent Romans - note footnotes with sections, not pages 
        (cf. Thuc. 5.70, Spartans) (193).
54.  Roman troops, to slow them down (194).
55.  advancing unit, was ... (194).
56.  frightening appearance, was (195).
57.  italics missing (198 n.84).
58.  nineth rank for 'ninth rank' (198).
59.  men, now released to run (202).
60.  achieving it, see ... (203 n.97).
61.  Suet. Vespn. (italics) (203).
62.  footnote abbreviations a problem (204 n.101).
63.  strengthened (205).
64.  arrow-shaped head (206).
65.  Greek State at War ... (fullstop) (refs.?) (206 n.104).
66.  aEpameinondas' (206).
67.  Cyropaedia (207 n.106).
68.  whichever side pushed ... (207).
69.  pp. (?) 160-93 (207 n.108).
70.  C.B. Welles (210 n.117).
71.  el-Harit (210).
72.  Excauations (211 n.118).
73.  El-Harit (212 Fig. 4).
74.  5th cent. (213 n.123).
75.  helmet's top (215).
76.  opponent's shield (217 n.133).
77.  opponent's (220).
78.  scythe-like (221).
79.  25% fighting? (222).
80.  less time than this (224).
81.  do so, not only (225).
82.  formation, might have led to a rout (225).
83.  loss, before a ... (227).
84.  (Plutarch, Antony 39) (229).
85.  have still have been unable (230).
86.  Saracen archers (232 n.160).
87.  (Arrian, Tactica ...) (233).
88.  (Plutarch, Antony 45) (italics) (234).
89.  charge, when closer to the enemy (236).
90.  (African War 78) (240).
91.  Dura Europus, 440-3 (241 n.77).
92.  result of fire, few (242).
93.  friendly horse, were (243).
94.  state, in which they (244).
95.  or were (?) the ones to fight ... (246).
96.  contemporary (x 2) (247).
97.  soldiers' tombstones (249).
98.  Sabinus? (258 n.40).
99.  'affect' (270).
100. 'to its destruction' (272 n.72).
101. 'practised' (273).
102. 'Horatii' (278 n.86).
103. carry off pack animals (289 n.6).
104. not not tell us (289).
105. Speidel, The Soldiers' Servants (304).
106. Weapons' (Wenham) (305).
107. 'Sulpicius Glaba' for 'Galba' (311).

Thomas Stevenson

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.
Electronic Antiquity Vol. 4 Issue 2 - April 1998 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington antiquity-editor@classics.Server.edu.au ISSN 1320-3606

by Kaavya Giridhar