Post 52: Roman Warfare by Adrian Goldsworthy

CoverAdrian Goldsworthy has become quite popular in recent years. He has put out successful biographies of Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Anthony and Cleopatra; as well as a book on the fall of Rome. He has also branched into historical fiction with a Sharpe-like series on the Napoleonic War. In his most memorable role for me, he was in BBC’s Time Commanders – an odd game show where contestants would play famous battles in an early version of Rome Total War. A few months ago I picked up an early book of his from back in 2000.  I finally got round to reading it (I have a bit of a stack to get through) and was not disappointed.

Roman Warfare is a short book, barely two hundred pages, giving only a brief history of the Roman military. For me, in terms of my reviews, the obvious comparison would be the Bryan Ward-Perkins book (Post 34) on the fall of Rome. Both are short books on a well defined, but huge, subject with a view to updating the reader on the current academic state of things. There is however a big difference in style, BWP was forthright and opinionated while Goldsworthy stays fairly neutral in tone. He certainly does have views (including on the army’s role in the decline of Rome) but there are weaved subtly into the narrative.  It’s more of a summary than a polemic, but for this topic that suits me fine.

That narrative begins with the Roman military in its early days in a generic hellenistic style. Rome (like everywhere else) had heroes and strong individual fighters, but these were reigned in to become part of the effective phalanx formation – though Rome would keep up the tradition of heroes in its early history. The big turning point for Rome was the wars with Carthage. Much of the world was moving towards professional armies, but the Roman army at this stage was still effectively a citizen’s militia. The manipular formation and subdivisions of the army also allowed the Romans to be flexible in warfare. Alongside this, Rome also began to diverge in another notable way – it just didn’t know when to give up: they were defeated in both Pyrrhic victories and routs like Cannae, but they still kept raising new armies and returning to the field.

The non-professional aspect would become a problem though – campaigns were becoming longer, and the long periods away from home were leading some farmers to ruination. It was also becoming clear that tactics were moving on and with a lack of experienced men, Rome was leaning more and more on that tenacious attitude. By the first century BC, the legions were now made up of cohorts and largely drawn from the landless poor. There was increased flexibility and specialization in technical aspects. All this had political consequences: the men would look to their general, rather than the unwilling state, to give them a comfy retirement. Eventually civil war would break out, and Roman would fight Roman under the likes of Sulla, Marius, Caesar and Pompey.

It shouldn’t spoil things to much to say that the Republic would collapse and a more centralized state under an Emperor would arise. In the early years of the Empire, the expansion continued but Rome had to change its military methods to control this newly won land. The army would garrison its borders and even perform administrative functions. The expansion would largely stop however, partly this was political – the army was now very powerful and civil wars and usurpers were not unheard of, the emperor would have to either leave the centre of power in Rome or else trust someone enough to give them the forces required. Generals were less likely to be chosen from the senatorial ranks. One might think that this distancing of the wealthy rivals of the senate from military power would have reduced revolts, but in fact the professional equestrian officers now found it easier to build support among the soldiers for their own power grabs.

This instability would combine with some failures of strategy to hasten the decline of Rome. In later years, the Roman army used its reputation as an immense fighting force to its advantage. This discouraged invading barbarian tribes, but also meant that Rome was less likely to conduct an aggressive campaign and take the fight to the enemy. The army of the principate and republic lost many battles but would bounce back and triumph in the war, whereas the late army would pick its battles carefully and generally win but rarely manage to strike a decisive blow. When they did lose however, it was disastrous – Adrianople is widely used to mark the beginning of the end for Rome.


I’ve tried to give a bit of a summary here of Adrian Goldsworthy’s narrative, though I’ve barely scratched the surface or done it justice.  Basically, the Roman army is kind of important to the empire and to history.  The book is quite heavy on facts and technical details of army, and is light on anecdotes or personalities, but it is very readable and fast paced. Even for someone who has read a decent amount of Roman history (albeit not quite as much specifically military material) it gives a nice take on things, with a focus on the military but enough of a general overview to draw general implications and conclusions from the details.

The book also has a number of lovely diagrams to explain key battles, and plenty of relevant photos. It really stands out as very well presented. It may have been early in Goldsworthy’s writing career but Roman Warfare is definitely still worth reading, I’d highly recommend it as an introduction to the Roman army.

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