Commanders and Command in the Roman Republic and Early Empire by Fred K. Drogula

Book Review by caldrail

There is a wonderful irony about certain aspects of Roman history. Not only do a great many people today make huge assumptions about ancient politics and military leadership, so did the Romans themselves who wrote the histories we get our information from. They knew very little about the details of their past and so thought that politics and war had pretty much always been the way it was in their day. When we blithely type in a reply to an internet discussion, are we sure that our answer is as accurate and erudite as we like to believe? The alarming truth that Fred K Drogula sets before us is that we cannot be so sure until we've looked closer.

Therefore this book addresses two basic principles. Firstly, that our understanding of the ancient world is greatly distorted by our modern perspective. Secondly, that Roman authority evolved radically over time and did not remain as static and traditional as we might expect.

In the first case we tend to be helplessly bound by modern experience. Authority in our world is hierarchical and defined. We understand these pecking orders almost instinctively and the trouble is, our study of Roman history rather assumes their methods were the same. You have only to watch the evening news to realise how important our social structures are to us. Anything else feels chaotic and hazardous. What stares us in the face as we read Roman sources is that there are too many anomalies for those parallel social structures we're looking for. It makes you wonder why we overlook them, but the answer there is obvious and Professor Drogula is not shy of stating it - Our expectations are based on our own experience and we tend not to look for those significant details, failing to grasp the importance of them when they're on the page right in front of our eyes.

Of course it's all very well telling us that we're wrong. What we need is for the author to supply a better model to understand, especially if the system used by the Romans was in comparison dynamic, flexible, morphing over time to suit necessity and purpose. Far from simply clicking his fingers and inventing some strange rationale, the author sets out to describe those changes, those subtle and difficult meanings that latin words and titles convey in the proper context. His effort is readily convincing.

In the same way that the Roman world evolved, so the author builds his argument from the earliest days of Rome and shows how these changes manifested themselves using the sources to underline and in many cases confirm what he's getting at. We start at the birth of the Republic and reach the rule of Augustus, covering shifting values and no shortage of clever opportunism, finding that the beginning was far less organised and that the Romans really did build a world from page one, even if they never truly understood that themselves.

If this book has one fault, I would say that it sometimes feels a little pedantic. In each chapter it began to feel as if I was reading the same sentences again and again. Perhaps that had more to do with my increasing familiarity with subject courtesy of Professor Drogula than any actual repetition. This is not a book to breeze through or assimilate quickly. A cursory read might give you some important pointers, but the reader needs to take it all in measured strides, because Roman authority was based on different ideas than those we assume today, and understanding a different mindset is one big step for the best of us.

Commanders & Command is a sturdy volume running to almost four hundred pages with no need of superfluous diagrams, maps, and photographs. They say a picture is worth a thousand words but here the picture can only be formed or discarded inside our heads. For many people the question of this book's value might be difficult. This is not an easy read for the beginner. Neither does it conform to that hazy popular image of Roman authority that many will not like letting go of.

The question of whether I would recommend this book is something of a formality. Personally I found this book to be a signpost in the desert, a welcome confirmation that my path is going more or less the right way. Michael Grant once wrote that the Romans had ain impressive record of change in politics. Now I begin to properly grasp that truth. I really have learned important lessons about a subject that I was woefully ignorant of, and I would hope others will be equally educated. If there's any doubt, be sure that Fred Drogula has grabbed this subject by the horns and wrestled the bull to the ground with all the academic muscle it deserves.

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