The Roman Army At War 100 Bc – Ad 200 by A. Goldsworthy

Book Review by Furius Venator

This will never be a popular book and that is a great pity. There are several reasons for this lamentable truth, none of them good. It has no pictures to speak of, there is the odd diagram and an occasional sketch map but none of the rich illustrations that grace some other works, not least Goldsworthy’s own Complete Roman Army. It is a serious academic work and thus not light reading, though it is continuously interesting and that is (or should be) better. It may also undermine cherished illusions and raise difficult questions, neither of which is always pleasing. Constant reference is made to a wide variety of sources. In short it is a book for the informed layman or professional historian who already has digested lighter fare and is ready for the main course.

What awaits the historical trencherman who parts with a fairly considerable sum for a small, if dense, paperback? A veritable feast of closely packed argument, crisp analysis of evidence and a unique approach to understanding the Roman army in time of war. Goldsworthy uses the techniques so brilliantly pioneered by Keegan in The Face of Battle and produces a unique and definitive work that captures the essence of the subject in six sections, Organisation, Opposition, Campaign, Generalship, Unit and Individual. A veritable Roman banquet but with no need to vomit between courses, though a pause to digest may well be in order.

The increased flexibility that was introduced by the move to a cohort-based legion is emphasised in ‘Organisation’, as is the relative lack of standardisation in size of units once in service. Whatever the theoretical structure of a legion, the addition or removal of vexillations and the attrition of campaign as well as the variable type and quantity of attached auxiliaries meant that in practise armies would vary dramatically from time to time and place to place. Adaptability to local conditions is emphasised. The internal structure of both legionary and auxiliary cohorts is detailed in depth.

Three enemy civilisations are considered in the chapter on ‘Opposition’, the Gauls, Germans and Parthians. That both Gallic and German cultures were unsuited to rapid mobilisation, prolonged war or guerrilla war is emphasised and explains why their armies behaved in ways that are sometimes difficult for us to comprehend. The most glaring omission is any attempt to understand how the legions adapted to the kind of semi-guerrilla war that was waged by the Iberian tribesmen and (to a lesser extent by certain British leaders. Given that Trajan’s column is a major source of material and that the Dacian wars fall squarely within the period of the book, some details on their armies would have been nice too.

The lesson of Roman campaigns in this period is that they always took the offensive at the soonest available opportunity be the campaign one of conquest, defensive or aimed at suppressing rebellion. Aggression and adaptability are the hallmarks of the legions on campaign, as capable of dealing with raid and ambush as they were pitched battles.

The chapter on generalship emphasises how strange our modern obsession with tactics would have seemed to the Romans who emphasised leadership as a far more important attribute for a general. Modern historians, especially some of the military men take a pounding here with their anachronistic assumptions of ‘universal rules of warfare’ and preoccupation with tactics. Goldsworthy comprehensively demolishes the idea that grand tactics were the most important part of a Roman general’s duties. In fact the effective feeding of reserves to key points was the most important battle skill of the commander and courage, both moral and physical, his most important attributes.

The consideration of how a unit performed in battle places (rightly) far more emphasis on morale than tactics or weaponry, once again in contrast to most studies. This chapter gives a very clear idea of how a unit’s battle would proceed, from advance to rout. Weaponry and formations are discussed in detail but relegated to their proper place.

Finally, Goldsworthy looks at the actions and motivations of the individual soldier. The Romans were keen to encourage both boldness and discipline and the various methods used to instil those key attributes are the main focus of this chapter. There is also an appendix on logistics, which is quite thorough given the lack of reliable data to work from. Comparison is made with the requirements of later pre-railway armies.

There is no anachronism in the work, no attempt to glean ‘historic truths’ or ‘general rules of warfare’. The Roman army is considered purely as it was, it’s leadership, at all levels assessed according to the standards of the time, its men as products of their society. Goldsworthy’s own words speak loudest, ‘both the popular and the scholarly view of the Roman army is at best highly misleading, and in most cases utterly false.’ A bold claim, but justified.

If you were to read only two books about the Roman army, this should be one of them. Combine it with The Complete Roman Army and you’ll have the best value all round picture currently available for less than the price of a decent evening out. This will never be a popular book, but it damned well should be…

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