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The Roman Army - Patricia Southern

Book Review by Ursus

Pat Southern feels "no apologies need be made for any amount of books on the Roman army." I personally have not read many books on said topic, mostly due to disinterest, and on the few occasions I have tried I have usually been disappointed. A book that would convey a broad spectrum of information on the Roman army in an accessible format would thus do me a great favor. Fortunately, Southern need not apologize for her own entry in this overcrowded market. Her lucid writing poses a considerable amount of data in a friendly fashion. Never has the Roman army looked so inviting.

Southern is a librarian by trade. She studied History and Archaeology at London University and then went on to frontier studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. She has written several biographies of Roman individuals, has co-authored previous books on the Roman military, and wrote a history on the later Principate. She claims she first became interested in Roman history and the Roman military through BBC radio shows and epic films.

The first chapter is an introduction to her sources. Broadly speaking, material remains and primary literature were both used to good effect. One can see Southern's training as both a historian and an archaeologist at work; her fluency with the various sources is evident. Her vocation as a librarian also comes into play, for she has an eye for detail and constantly cites her sources. The second chapter then gives a brief overview of Rome and its culture. A sketch of its history, government, economics and values are offered to the reader. The aforementioned offers nothing a well-read Romanophile will not already know, but serves as a handy introduction to novices.

Chapter three finally launches into the army itself: its origins and evolutions, its structure and units, its chain of command. Chapter four deals with the "culture" of the army. Highlighted are its internal demographic make-up, its morals and traditions, its sense of community, and the status of veterans in the larger Roman world. Chapter fives conveys the Roman army in action. The author illustrates strategy (to the extent it existed), tactics, planning and control, and joint operations with the navy. Chapter six explores the army's weapons, logistics, intelligence, communications, and the like.

Chapter seven offers the reader an overview of the later Roman army. The chapter is relatively short, given the comparative paucity of evidence for the era. Nonetheless, what we know of the evolution of the army and its command structure is fascinating. Chapter eight sketches some famous soldiers and battles, from Marius to Severus.

The concluding chapter wraps up with an assessment of the study of the Roman army and implications for its future. Southern opines that new evidence will always rewrite the landscape of the field, and therefore she and her colleagues can offer only tentative conclusions based on the available evidence. She praises not only scholars and archaeologists for their contributions, but also Roman reenactors for providing practical data on how legion soldiers must have worn their attire and marched in battle.

At the end of every chapter Southern includes a bibliography of ancient and modern sources for further study, and within each chapter references ideas attributed to other scholars. She truly has a nice command of the available literature from this well-trod field; military buffs will be pleased to note Adrian Goldsworthy listed many times as a reference. In every chapter there is also at least one "sidebar" discussion from the main narrative focusing in-depth on a particular topic. There is an appendix detailing the command structure of the Roman army, as well as a handy glossary of terms, and a master bibliography at the end.

I cannot praise Southern enough for her refined prose. It is erudite without being pompous, and facile without being condescending. Her books are always a joy to read, and should service hard-core Romanophiles and neophytes alike. One thing that did annoy me is the lack of visual resources. Every chapter has one or two black and white maps, illustrations or photographs of archaeological sources. I however was expecting a barrage of colored plates with forts and weapons and battlefields. Visual references like these can really animate an author's words; the lack thereof has the opposite effect. I can probably blame the publisher (Oxford) more than the author for this, but still it is disappointing.

Not yet two years old, The Roman Army offers probably the most up-to-date assessment of the field available on the market. Clearly written, well organized, and with references to a wide variety of scholars throughout the field, Southern has written a gem that can convert even an indifferent reader such as myself.

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Book Review of The Roman Army: A Social and Institutional History - Related Topic: Roman Legion


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