A Companion to the Roman Army by Paul Erdkamp

Book Review by Melvadius

This volume is edited by Erdkamp and forms part of the Blackwell Companion to the Ancient World series. In his introduction Erdkamp states the underlying principals of this book that; the Roman army as well as being affected by changes in Roman society was itself the instrument of change in the politics, government, economy and society of the Empire.

This book at some 574 numbered pages plus several more general introductory notes is not intended for the complete novice as it contains a lot of detailed academic discussion, or at least references to original sources and other academic works but despite this it is a work which is worth consideration by the novice to the period. The work provides a wealth of insights by the contributing writers into over a thousand years of Roman military and (to some extent) administrative history.

There are four recurring themes in the volume (1) the army as a fighting force; (2) the mobilization of human and material resources; (3) the relationship between army, politics, and empire; and (4) the relationship between the armies and the civilian population. 29 writers, many well respected within their own specialism, contributed chapters to this book each addressing one or more of the volume themes. The volume is sorted into four broad time periods; ‘Early Rome’, ‘Mid- and Late Republic’, ‘The Empire (Actium and Adrianople)’ and ‘The Late Roman Empire (up to Justinian)’.

It is probably a factor of the wealth of material available in the period but the core of the book is effectively the third section with ‘The Empire (Actium to Adrianople) comprising 15 of the volumes’ 29 chapters and this section is in turn sorted into four sub-groupings which cover:

The structure of the army
Military organization
Army, Emperor and Empire, and
Soldiers and Veterans in Society
Necessarily there is some overlap of material, especially in the earlier period when there are only limited sources available, with each writer incorporating overviews and summaries of the main academic discussions on individual topics. Chapters are usually around 20 pages in length, although discussing the Army and Eastern limes Wheeler reaches an understandable 32 pages and Stoll on army religion stretches to 26 pages.

The final two or three pages in each chapter comprise; a section of notes, a bibliography and in all bar four instances suggestions for further reading. Strangely enough one of the four chapters without such suggestions is by the editor himself. While most chapter notes provide additional commentary and specific references some, notably de Ligt discussing Middle Republican Manpower, basically only provides book references plus a very few page references.

I have several relatively minor presentational complaints with the volume; including the third chapter by Rawlings; ‘Army and Battle During the Conquest of Italy (350-264 BC)’ apparently being misplaced into the mid to Late Republican section. Concentrating as it does on the early Republican period it probably should have been in the first section. The second complaint is a singular lack of illustrations in the first half of the book relieved by a single map of early Latium in the first chapter with plates and illustrations only appearing in any number from chapter 12 onwards. Coupled with this, again probably an editing issue, is the fact that the four ‘tables’ in the second chapter have not been either separately numbered or included in the list of illustrations.

However the main complaint I have is that editing appears to have been confined to ensuring a similar format for the chapters with little or no internal cross-referencing between articles in it. This lack is despite several overlapping references and in some case strongly expressed divergences of opinion by different writers or at least indications that alternative interpretations of the evidence used are possible. For the above reasons the volume seems to work best as a series of separate articles rather than as a linear account of events in the period. As a strongly academic book anyone attempting linear reading is liable to find it heavy going especially if their knowledge of the periods concerned is not extensive.

The wide scope of this book does not lend itself to a simple overview. As already indicated the individual chapters provide a wealth of detailed academic discussion, references and pointers for future studies on almost every conceivable aspect of the Roman military. The volume covers numerous topics during Rome’s military development from a citizen militia, with each man enrolled for a single campaigning season on the basis of their property holdings and expected to provide their own military equipment, to a more ‘professional’ and effectively ‘standing’ army of the late Republic and concludes with the vastly different armies used by Justinian in the sixth century.

I found several of the chapters easier to read than others; Rawlings chapter for example providing good insights into Roman exploitation of manpower and specifically Rome’s early dependence on its Latin Allies (socii) for much of its army with the subsequent development of the more mobile later manipular army. Similarly Birley’s on the armies role in ‘Making Emperors’, despite its important subject matter, is written with a light touch so is an easy read. In comparison to the above I felt that Ando discussing the Army and the Urban elite was for me a slightly weaker piece yet still provided interesting information.

In such a volume containing a diverse body of writers there always seems to be a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ and for me, although it possibly did not sit entirely happily alongside 28 heavily army orientated works, it was instructive and pleasing to find Saddington’s chapter on the classes. This chapter addressed the often overlooked or at least minimized role of the Roman naval forces (classes) as an integral part of Rome’s Imperial army.

In conclusion; although the lack of internal referencing between articles slightly militates against this volumes overall value ultimately it is a very respectable addition to the Blackwell academic 'Companion' series. There are vastly more strengths in this volume than the few ‘relatively’ minor weaknesses mentioned above. The inclusion of discussions on both current and previous theories arising from academic research along with suggestions for further reading are particular strengths.

It is an excellent academic reference book and should prove a valuable resource for anyone interested in the development of the Roman Army as well as its interactions over a thousand years with the Empire it both served and influenced.

Even the non-academic ‘lay’ reader should find several of the chapters of interest to browse through and gain an overview of some of the numerous complex issues surrounding the development of Rome’s military forces and their interaction with the Empire they served.

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