Book Review by Martin Holmes
Reference books do not often make for popular reading. Many are too thick and cumbersome, their dusty pages clogged with statistics and data, lengthy quotations and technical prose. Good for academics and universities, yes. Worthy of a glance or two in passing, certainly. But to buy? Usually I avoid it. After all, why buy an encyclopaedia of nineteenth-century Russian literature when one could read Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky? Why buy a compendium of ancient battles when one could read Tacitus or Xenophon or Thucydides, or any number of modern classicists?
Such were my thoughts before reading Don Taylor’s Roman Empire at War: A Compendium of Battles from 31 BC to AD 565. Although my preconceptions found some basis in reality, I admit I was pleasantly surprised by this little book – and by little I mean little! Numbering only 215 pages, it surely must rank among the most concise compendiums ever written. Aware of the gargantuan nature of his project, as well as of the difficulties in summarising nearly six hundred years of military history, Taylor takes the road less taken by scholars. Instead of confusing readers with the interpretations and doubts of modern historians, quotations and counter-quotations from ancient historians, and the ever present difficulties involved in trying to figure out what actually happened on those battlefields a millennia ago, he takes the ancients at their word. “I’ve allowed the original writers to speak for themselves,” he states in his preface, summarising their accounts to give a “brief description of each battle.” Those who wish to go further are invited to do so, and he provides a complete list of relevant sources for each battle. For brevity, however, he has chosen to keep it simple.
And how valuable a resource it is! Part One, the first twenty-six pages, gives a brief outline of the Roman Army and Navy from 31 BC to 565 AD. Although only an introduction, I consider it the finest part of Taylor’s book. Too many classicists remain students of Edward Gibbon, forever entranced by the late Republic and early Principate periods, culminating in the golden age of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ (96-180 AD). The popular imagination sees the Roman military as rooted in this era, a timeless, unchanging institution. Every legion was 5000-6000 strong, comprised of ten cohorts. Every cohort had six centuries of eighty men each, commanded by a centurion. Each soldier served twenty to twenty-five years and could march twenty-five miles a day – and so on and so on. Taylor transcends this by emphasising the latter centuries of the Empire. He notes the gradual slimming down of traditional legions into smaller and smaller groups to cope with invasions, the growing reliance upon heavy cavalry, and the role of Gauls, Dacians, and other northerners in later centuries. Reading Taylor, I found a new appreciation for the later Empire’s plight, the struggle to keep afloat amidst the chaos of continual invasions and mutinies.
Part Two, the bulk of the book, outlines every battle of any importance that occurred between 31 BC and 565 AD. Due to the enormous scope of the topic Taylor does not consider his work comprehensive – he suspects a few events may have escaped his notice. It is, however, a valiant effort. Naval engagements, mutinies, large skirmishes, a few sieges, as well as regular battles are included. Most receive a paragraph’s explanation ranging from a few sentences to a half page. Pivotal battles – Actium (31 BC), where Antony and Cleopatra lost to Octavius Caesar; the Siege of Jerusalem (70 AD), which led to the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the ascent of the Flavians; Milvian Bridge (312 AD), where Constantine I defeated Maxetius and became the first Christian Emperor – are longer and include maps. Particularly interesting for me were the battles of the later Empire, such as the campaigns of Justinian I, which, despite their apparent importance, I knew little about.
The book does have its shortcomings. The timespan is strange. Why assess only the Empire? Why not include the Republic as well? Given Taylor’s remarkable ability to summarize six hundred years of imperial military history, it seems strange he did not add the five hundred years of the Roman Republic or at least the last two centuries BC, when the Roman military developed into a strong, coherent force. As he himself admits, focusing just on the Empire had its downsides, especially for the navy. In Taylor’s book the latter receives just one and a half forlorn pages in Part One, and, apart from Actium, is largely absent from Part Two. Is this not a problem? Had he expanded the boundaries he could have discussed Pompey’s campaigns against the pirates, Caesar’s victory over the Veneti, Sextus’s guerrilla campaign against the Triumvirate, and Rome immortal conflict with Carthage. In terms of the army he could have mentioned the Servile Wars, the Gallic Wars, the Civil War, and so on. Just as he rescues the later Empire from history, so too could he have reminded readers of the turbulent days of the Republic. While this is not a make-or-break criticism of Taylor’s book, The Roman Military at War would perhaps have made for a better title than The Roman Empire at War.
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In conclusion, despite a few shortcomings, Don Taylor’s book has merit. Military historians may find accounts of battles they never knew had taken place; amateur historians and students might be inspired to take a greater interest in the latter years of the Roman Empire, and realise that Justinian I was as skilled a commander as Marcus Aurelius and should be respected as such; classicists might consider purchasing this book for their local library, viewing it as an easy-to-navigate introduction to the subject. Even those who, like me, are somewhat wary of reference books are sure to find something of value in Roman Empire at War.
Dr Don Taylor holds a PhD in European History with a concentration in Ancient Mediterranean Studies from Fulbright College of the University of Arkansas (USA). Since 1995 he has served as a university professor in European and Ancient History at Hardin-Simmons University, Texas and he has published and/or lectured on various topics of Greek and Roman history.
Book Review of Empire at War: A Compendium of Roman Battles - Related Topic: Roman Military