This book charts the rise of the Roman army and how it played a decisive role in the eventual demise of the Roman Republic. It tells the story of how it evolved from an army of wealthy landowners fighting for the glory of Rome, into a professional army fighting not only for Rome but for the glory of their general. Its main focus is spread over a period of about 70 years beginning in 133 B.C. with the tribuneship of Tiberius Gacchus and ending 78 B.C. on the death of Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
Although this is Erik Hildinger's first foray into the world of ancient Rome, he is clearly no stranger to Latin or ancient military affairs, as is shown in his two previous works: The first a translation from Latin called The Story of the Mongols Whom We Call the Tartars and his highly acclaimed second book Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia, 500B.c. to 1700A.D.
When asked, most people will probably lay the blame for the fall of the Republic firmly at the feet of Julius Caesar. But Hildinger quite rightly believes that the seed was planted over a hundred years before Caesar eventually got his claws into the Republic.
Swords Against the Senate begins with a short introduction from the author in which he out lays the contents of his book, he talks about the constitution of the Republic, he describes it quite simply and in my opinion quite cleverly as…..
"………an agreed set of principles and strictures that maintained the operation of the state and that worked much as a keel and ribs support a boat's hull, or a skeleton a body – something essential but not in view. It is a sort of ground, and if a state lacks it, the best it can do is totter……."
The first few chapters are dedicated to the Gracchi brothers and their reforms and how they used the power of the common people to achieve their goals; they delve into the massive gulf between the aristocracy and the poor and gives us an insight into the two very different life styles. The rest of the book then concentrates on the rise of Marius and then Sulla. We hear about the war against the Numidian king, Jugurtha, and the invasion and defeat of the German tribes. Also discussed are radical tribunes such as Lucius Apuleius Saturninus and Marcus Livius Drusus, the Italic revolt, and the Civil War. Finally there are the marches on Rome and the eventual deaths of two of the most talented, influential and at the same time ruthless, cruel and self-obsessed men the Roman Republic had ever encountered.
In-between the epic tale of the men who destroyed the Republic, the book takes time out for a while and concentrates on the army. We are given a full in-depth explanation of everything concerned with the workings of the Republican Legions. He explains how the army was a reflection of civil life and a Roman's place within it was not far different, how the common footsoldier was at the bottom of the system and that the men of senatorial and Patrician aristocracy were at the summit. He explains the lay out of the legion; its maniples, centuries, and cohorts. He describes the roles of the velites, hastati, principes and triarii and goes into great detail of the formations and manoeuvering of the army. We get a description of the layout of the Roman camp, both marching and permanent, and also of the weapons and armour that the legionaries used. All in all it's an excellent guide to the Roman army and could and probably will be used for reference.
One of the things that the author deserves credit for is his extensive use of sources: Nearly every statement or part of the story that could be looked upon as dubious is backed up by a source, sometimes ancient and sometimes modern, and he's not afraid to question the truth of the source and will often provide a separate source to counter the argument. His sources range from Plutarch, Livy, Polybius, Paterculus, Vegetius, Appian, Sallust through to the more modern historians like Hans Delbruck, Joseph du Picq, M Cary, H Scullard etc.
For those interested in this era of Rome, this book is a must. There aren't really many books around detailing this critical period in Rome's history. There are the two biographies of Sulla by Baker and Keavney, and The Gracchi, Marius and Sulla by A H Beesley as well as Plutarch Lives of…. But compared to say the numerous books on Caesar, then I would say that the choice is pretty minimal, and I would also say that this book is as good if not better than the ones mentioned. My only moan really is that the book just stops dead as soon as Sulla's story ends; I'd have liked him to take the story right the way to the eventual end of the Republic and to have read Hildinger's take on the struggle between Pompey and Caesar, Anthony and Octavian. But I suppose this has been done many times over and Hildinger didn't feel it necessary to go over old ground.
Vedict: A very entertaining and informative book.
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