The Roman Empire's Greatest Victories by J W Medhurst

Book Review by caldrail

The modern West is haunted by our Roman predecessors. In a sense, western society always has been bereft, a sense of something lost in the aftermath of the Roman decline. That human beings sometimes seek military perfection or vast civic monuments is often a matter of ego rather than necessity, yet it's almost always the Roman Empire that inspires the model to emulate. They left a deep impression on history.

Of things Roman one of the most enduringly popular is the Roman Legion. Rightly or wrongly, their soldiers have been thought of as among the best armies that ever existed, and to be perfectly frank the Romans themselves were not shy of propaganda. Nonetheless it must be said that the Romans beame a force to be reckoned with. They did win great victories. This then is a book that reminds us of those battles in which the Romans proved themselves as martial champions.

The Roman Empire's Greatest Victories does not set out to challenge fondly held beliefs. It does not analyse deeply nor criticise aggressively. Instead it's a modest volume of less than two hundred pages seeking to remind us of battles that perhaps the Romans themselves would have us remember. Those battles that were, in the eyes of this author at least, among their greatest victories.

He begins with Actium in 31BC and ends with Chalons in AD451, which basically covers a spread of history we normally refer to as Imperial Rome. These are the more significant battles, and the vast volume of patrols, raids, and skirmishes fought by Roman legions have not been considered. Each featured battle is given a background, a description of both sides involved, the dramatic events of the battle itself, and finally an overview of what happened as a result of the victory. There is a consistent level of black-and-white illustration with photographs, diagrams, and artwork. There are tables at the back listing Roman rulers and major battles, itself an eye-opener in that the reader discovers the Romans fought nearly half of these confrontations against each other.

The text is event driven, and although some of the actions of leading characters is mentioned, the book assumes an impersonal approach. This does lend itself as a quick and handy reference for wargamers as much as those interested in ancient military history. It would not be difficult to stage tabletop confrontations from the descriptions Medhurst gives us.

In some respects, JW Medhurst is playing to the crowd, those very same people who want to read about Roman victory and glory. Such a positive perspective is to be expected with so little independent literature to recount a different tale. We often hear that history is written by the victors and that cannot be more true than the body of history left to us by the Roman Empire. Therefore the favourable tone is no worse than the preconceptions of potential readers, and Medhurst does try to avoid inflating the popular image unnecessarily.

There are really only two reasons to be careful with this publication. Firstly some of the diagrams showing battle deployment should be viewed with some caution, although it must be conceded they are derived from textual sources. Secondly some of the author's conclusions do not agree with the Roman sources dealing with the same aspects.

The style of prose is simple to absorb. Whilst you probably wouldn't want to read this book to your kids at bedtime, the text is nonetheless accessible for younger readers. There is none of the grim bloodiness of a television documentary, nor of the frank reality check given by Ammianus Marcellinus in his description of the Roman defeat at Adrianople, because it doesn't even attempt to get close to that side of history. This is a happy book, and although it doesn't extoll Roman victory like a returning general, the whole point is to describe Rome's Greatest Victories, and it does this with concise focus and enthusiasm.

Joe Ward Medhurst was born near London in 1981. After studying for several years in Liverpool he moved to China where he worked in schools and universities for a year before returning to central London. In 2009 he moved to Italy where he still lives. He studied Archaeology for his bachelors, and later did a masters in Ancient history, and a postgraduate diploma in language teaching.

Since 2002 he has taught English, geography and history in the UK, China and Italy, now working as the director of a language college. As well as his books he has written over 50 articles on languages, education, Roman history, British history, Italian history and philosophy. His website is

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