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Roman Conquests: Italy by Ross Cowan

Book Review by Jason Golomb

Roman Conquests: Italy” is the first book in a new series by history publisher Pen & Sword Books. Ancient Roman military historian Ross Cowan provides a detailed accounting of pre-Republican Roman expansion across the Italian peninsula. Emphasizing the importance of this era, Cowan points out that “the famous Caesar would have accomplished nothing if the groundwork in Italy and the creation of a solid base for overseas expansion had not been achieved by the likes of the lesser-known Torquatus, Corvus, Cursor, Rullianus and Dentatus in the fourth and third centuries BC.”

The book covers about two hundred years of early Roman history. Cowan’s writing is academic and extensively researched, and he includes detailed notes and a thorough bibliography. While he acknowledges his principal source is Livy’s books I-X, he references numerous other ancient sources as well as revised historical insights based on modern archaeological research. Cowan utilizes his mix of ancient and modern sources to counterbalance Livy’s often overly Roman-centric perspective.

In 396 BC, Rome conquered the rocky citadel of Veii, just ten miles north of the city, and incorporated it into her territories. This was the beginning of the Roman conquest of Italy. It seems that everyone wanted a piece of Rome and her territory and certain peoples come up again and again – the Aequi, Volsci, Etruscans, and of course, the Samnites. Cowan explains that it was all about location. Rome was the main hub of trade and communications in west-central Italy. “The city dominated the main crossing point of the Tiber…Rome was nearest to the coast, and the famous seven hills on which the city was built provided excellent points from which to guard the crossing and filter traffic.” Furthermore, “she was also agriculturally rich…some of the most fertile land in the peninsula and [able to] support a large population.”

There are segments of the book which are more narrative – phases of the Samnite Wars and the final 50 pages or so focused on the dynamic Pyrrhus and the Pyrrhic Wars. But often times Cowan’s descriptions read like an ancient shopping list of bloody skirmishes and battles. The very thorough Cowan runs through numerous dates, peoples and leaders who too often become confused due to the repetitive nature of enemies, and the hereditary tradition of passing names from generation to generation.

One of the key military themes throughout this period is based on honor and revenge, which were extremely important to Romans and their enemies and allies. “Nothing motivated the Romans more than the need to avenge a defeat,” writes Cowan. Tom Holland also notes this deep-seated Roman characteristic in his book “Rubicon”. In addition to the wholesale slaughter or slavery of defeated enemies, Cowan references prisoners (both Roman and Samnite) who were put under the yoke – “a humiliation worse than death…indicating that a warrior was utterly defeated, little more than a beast, to be used and abused by his conqueror.”

One of the more fun aspects of “Roman Conquests” is Cowan’s cognomen translations. Cognomens started off as nicknames, but after a time became hereditary. Some of the cognomens make interesting Latin-to-English translations, and some are just descriptively fun. Aulus Cornelius Cossus, the “Worm”, was only the second Roman, after the legendary Romulus, to kill an enemy king in single combat. Camillus, who kept stepping away from his retirement to lead the Roman military, means “Noble assistant of the priest”. Appius Claudius Crassus was “Fat” or “Uncouth”. Calvinus was “Bald”. Curvus was “Stooped”. Other more noble names include Corvus the “Raven”, Venox the “Hunter”, and Cursor the “Swift Runner” who should not be confused with Lentulus the “Slow”.

Some of the more colorful characters gained their equally colorful names from their brave actions. One military tribune accepted a challenge of single combat from an enemy Gaul. He defeated the challenger and promptly cut off his head, “tore off his torque and put it, covered as it was with blood, around his own neck.” Not surprisingly, he and his ancestors adopted the cognomen of Torquatus. Quintus Servilius Ahala “achieved” his cognomen, “Armpit”, when, in 439 BC, an ancestor concealed a dagger under his arm and used it to assassinate an aspiring plebian tyrant.

Cowan acknowledges that the relative dearth of detailed sources from this period lends to rather one-dimensional characterizations of key players. Fortunately, Pyrrhus of Epirus, king of the Molossians, descendant of Achilles, wrote his memoirs which help flesh out this charismatic figure. Cowan maximizes his opportunity to build out this enemy of Rome and dedicates almost 50 pages to his story.

The book includes seven detailed maps and eight pages of photos and drawings, including 4 beautifully rendered paintings from well-known ancient military artist Graham Sumner. One frustration, though, is the lack of a timeline and, perhaps, dramatis personae – both of which would have helped limit confusion when Cowan bounces back and forth between dates and the large cast of historical characters.

Excluding the notes, bibliography and index, “Roman Conquests: Italy” is a tight 147 pages. The book is a solid mix of high quality academic research with enough narrative to please those with a more passing interest in this key period of Roman history.

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