Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History by C. S. Mackay

Book Review by Ursus

Many scholars these days have an agenda, but Mackay is very up front about his.

In his introduction, Mackay explains he seeks to present a nuts-and-bolts, no-nonsense introduction to Roman history. He refers to his approach as "traditional" insofar as it internalizes the conventional sources and view points. By "traditional" we of course mean European males at the top of their particular socio-economic ladder, who seemed to act without regard to modern sensibilities concerning wealth and power. The author acknowledges that the new focus in modern scholarship is a revisionist agenda designed to either illuminate heretofore unsung segments of Roman culture, or radically overturn prevailing assumptions of Roman civilization. Mackay feels this new revisionist focus should "complement rather than supplant" the traditional scholarship. It is the author's intention that his readers have the core understandings of "traditional" Roman history before availing themselves of ever-expanding alternative viewpoints.

With the author's agenda (such as it is) in mind, we can then analyze the work itself. The work is divided neatly into five sectors of history: The archaic origins of Rome through the conquest of Italy, the various wars in the Mediterranean, the Late Republic, The Early Empire, and the Late Empire through the fall of the West. The "traditional" events and actors are explored at each stage of history. Mackay manages to flawlessly compress centuries of history into 356 pages. Mackay's prose is erudite without being dull (no small feat for an academic). Important points are presented in outline form for easy comprehension. There are a variety of maps, photographs and an appendix to serve the clarity of data. There is little here that a well-read Romanophile will not have already read, but it serves as a handy review. More to the point, it offers (as was designed) a comprehensible introduction to those with little to no prior exposure of the subject.

The title is a bit misleading. The "military" is discussed only as it pertains to politics. That is to say there are no overly detailed discussions on Roman martial tactics and military paraphernalia. The battles are highlighted, and they exist not in their own right but as an illustration of Roman strategy and the personalities who forged them. This level of analysis was perfectly acceptable to this reviewer, but hardcore military buffs may find the treatment lacking.

Also lacking is any kind of exploration of the softer aspects of Roman civilization - religion, art, literature, daily life. Such of course was the intention in this politico-military sketch of Roman history. Nonetheless, there is a brief chapter of Christianity given the cult's relevance to Rome's later political history.

On the fall of the Republic, a topic of great interest to most UNRV members, Mackay does not eagerly champion one side over another. He sees imperial stresses placed on the Republic as inevitably leading to its demise. He blames the obstinacy of conservatives like Cato for allowing no other recourse but civil war, and derides other sympathizers such as Cicero for hypocrisy. However, he clearly has no love for the warlords who actually ended the Republic, and saves his strongest cynicism for Julius Caesar. Mackay suggests that Caesar should have happily accepted exile and humiliation rather than launch the war that finally toppled the Republic, a Republic that Mackay himself suggests was doomed to fall in any event. The lack of logic in Mackay's treatment of Caesar is one of my few criticisms of the book. If there is anyone from the late Republic not treated with skepticism, it is Augustus. Mackay praises his post Actium settlements as sophisticated compromises designed to lend a secure transition from Republic to Empire.

The closest thing that the book has to a central thesis is the dynamic between the military and the Roman State. Mackay seems to see the military as the chief reflection, and chief instigator, of changes in political reality. In themes familiar to most Romanophiles, Mackay traces the evolution of Roman civilization from citizen-soldier to military autocracy.

Another constant theme is the ability of Roman civilization to incorporate most of its subject peoples. Despite Rome's legendary greed, corruption and cruelty, many subjects were willing to stay loyal to Rome, or become citizens themselves. This is something we need to keep in mind as the legions of revisionists go about deconstructing Roman civilization in a mostly hostile manner.

While Mackay's treatment of the subject is not perfect, the flaws are comparatively minor. On the whole this is a great introduction to Roman history. Most UNRV members would probably find it of some worth.

Tell us your opinion - Submit your Review - Buy the book!

Get it now!

Union Jack Ancient Rome for the UK

Archive