The Roman Wars In Spain by Daniel Varga
Book Review by caldrail
There is something about the Roman legions that is instinctively attractive. Associations of unity, strength, and success combine to produce an aura of invincibility. That's true today, and in all likelihood, was exactly the same two thousand years ago.
We go misty eyed and inwardly see the legions of Rome crushing every opponent in sight as they march across the map of the Known World. Of course this image is hopelessly wrong, because Rome did not conquer everyone, and if you need proof of that reality you need do no more than study their wars in Spain, for that was one conquest that took them almost two hundred years to complete.
There are three objectives for this book. Firstly to describe the performance of the Roman legion in Spain, secondly to examine why Rome took so long to subdue Spain, and thirdly to show how the Roman legion changed as a result of its long experience. Now that Spain has left behind the baggage of its turbulent past, archaeology in that region is supported far better than previously, and this book is benefitting from this new research.
The first objective is covered very nicely. Daniel Varga uses source material and archeology to construct his case. With such rich foundations it's hard to see how he could go wrong. One of the great advantages of Roman history is the literary inheritance they left us. The author has clearly done some reading and it shows.
The second is almost bound to be the most interesting argument. With so much focus on legionary tactics and equipment in the popular media, the 'barbarian' is often overlooked or handled simplistically. In fairness it is sometimes difficult to delve too deeply into Rome's enemies because they left so little to say for themselves, seeing as our history of Rome was largely written by the Romans themselves. yet there is some tantalising glimpses of what the ancient spanish peoples were doing. The differences between various spanish tribes is described without too much speculation and the emphasis on low level warfare, from which we use a spanish word 'guerilla', becomes a very potent strand of thought.
The third objective is harder to believe. The book tends to imply that the wars in Spain were largely responsible for the far-reaching changes from the Polybian maniples to the imperial cohorts. That may well be the case. Unfortunately this book does not quite prove the point. It does however cover the changes and at least attempts to place them in context.
There are some interesting mistakes in the text. The author tells us for instance that the Roman legions "conquered Great Britain", even though Great Britain did not exist until the 1700's. Of course he meant the British Isles and I think most readers forgive errors of this sort, understanding what was meant, but it does tend to detract from the books credibility in a small way.
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Despite these odd quibbles over details Daniel Varga has written a very approachable and concise account of conflict in one part of the Mediterranean. Indeed, the brevity of it is perhaps the books most basic problem, and I have to say it's rather like a starter in an expensive restaurant. Quality food, well cooked, but in very small portions and leaving you hungry for the next course.
Don't let that put you off. Perhaps this isn't quite what you'll use for reference, but it does cover a lot of ground and reveals interesting details about a very long period of hostilities that doesn't usually receive much attention. You will learn something in these pages, and therein lies the value of the work.