Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 22.
Paul Erdkamp (ed.), A Companion to the Roman Army. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Pp. xxvi + 574, incl. 25 black-and-white plates, 4 black-and-white maps, and 3 tables. ISBN 978-1-4051-2153-8. UK£95.00, US$174.95, AUS$280.50.
Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK
We live in an age when compendious volumes exercise an irresistible hold over publishers with, for example, series entitled ‘The Complete’, ‘The World of’ and, as here, Blackwell’s ‘Companions to’. The publisher offers a mission statement for the series (p. ii), that it provides ‘sophisticated and authoritative overviews’, written ‘in a clear, provocative and lively manner, designed for an international audience of scholars, students, and general readers’. The army is one of the best documented aspects of Roman society, especially for the early centuries AD, from a rich combination of literary, epigraphic, papyrological, sculptural, and archaeological evidence. Thus it is an easy topic to constitute a well-rounded survey in the ‘Companions’ series.
The present volume, under the general editorship of Dr. Paul Erdkamp, has brought together 29 contributors, based in Australia, Austria, Britain, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Republic of South Africa, and the United States. Each contributor was allocated a little under twenty pages, with a bibliography, and (in all but a few cases) has provided suggestions for further reading. The chapters cover a time-period of some 1300 years, from the Early Republic to the Late Empire and beyond, down to the reign of the emperor Justinian.
The contributions here are certainly not lightweight or superficial; indeed the non-academic reader could find them rather overpowering. Some are presumably translated into English, yet I have noticed only a few infelicities in the resulting phraseology, and none likely to seriously mislead. Several individual chapters provide all-embracing treatments of the army’s institutions, covering upwards of two centuries each (especially Rawlings, Hoyos, Cagniart, Gilliver, Strobel, Whitby). The richly researched chapter on religion (Stoll) cites an impressive variety of primary sources, always to the reader’s advantage. The interrelationships between military and civilian populations in the frontier provinces are usefully highlighted (Wesch-Klein). A valuable contribution on the army’s paperwork (Phang) covers ‘military documents, languages and literacy’. Other subjects include a stimulating piece on the fleets (Saddington), and discussions of the limites in both east (Wheeler) and west (Thorne). The latter offers an impressionistic assessment, hardly dealing in detail with any of the limites, while Wheeler conversely provides a valuably detailed citation of historical events and threats, and how the army was deployed to meet them. However it is hard to discover, anywhere in the volume, the army’s multi-ethnic composition, or its size at various junctures, or how it was distributed in the frontier provinces.
We have to beware of seeing the army as perpetually in a state of high readiness, when clearly there were, as in all armies down to modern times, peaks and troughs, the latter most obviously in long periods of peace, despite what we may read in the literary sources about training regimes. In the early centuries the Romans fought for hearth and home. Later they proved keener to fight for cohort and century. The eponymous Private Ryan in the Steven Spielberg film (1998), when confronted with the news of the deaths of his siblings, responds that his only true brothers now are his immediate comrades in arms.
There is a stated emphasis on the socio-economic and political impact of the army on Rome, Italy, and the provinces. Those hoping for an adequate coverage of archaeological material could be disappointed. Little is said, except in the welcome chapter by Hanel, about the excavated remains of fortresses, forts, and camps. The dust jacket has a splendid photograph of the parade-mask from Kalkriese near Osnabrück, scene of some part of the Varian Disaster of AD 9 (the latter is not alluded to in the caption); the reader would never know from the text of the present volume that the battlefield had been revealed by archaeology, or indeed that it had been located at all.
There is a strange absence of illustrations and maps, which are restricted to a few chapters. Some photographs are fuzzy and one is squint, surely unnecessarily. Above all, the Roman army is a visually exciting topic, where (for example) uniformed individuals are depicted on sculptured tombstones; the burgeoning study of military equipment, drawing on surviving weaponry is likewise a helpful source of illustrative matter, though not here.
The commissariat aimed to provide almost all the soldiers’ needs; the supply chain extended over very long distances. In wartime elaborate procedures were put in place (see the paper by Kehne). In his Eastern Approaches (London 1949, p. 505) Sir Fitzroy Maclean observed the Russian army entering Belgrade in October 1944, supported by lorries carrying only petrol and ammunition, but nothing to feed the individual soldier, at a time when it was popularly believed that dentists’ chairs and filing cabinets were brought ashore in Normandy in the immediate aftermath of the landings there.
The reviewer noticed few obvious factual errors in the text, though two well-known historical events are curiously misdated (pp. 209, 210) and non-existent legions make an appearance (p. 352). Pagi, which are geographical sub-units, are imagined as cultic organisations (p. 468). Aedes is used correctly (p. 405) for the regimental shrine in a fort or fortress rather than the long outmoded sacellum (p. 187). ‘Albinum’, wrongly placed ‘north of Rome’ (p. 263) is surely the same as ‘castra Albana’ (p. 398), the modern Albano, lying to the city’s south-east. Presumably ‘militia’ (p. 64) should be ‘militia’. Galba’s only legion in Spain at the start of his attempt at power in AD 68 (p. 352) was VI Victrix rather than VII Hispana (soon Gemina), which was raised subsequently in his province and accompanied him to Italy. M. Valerius Maximus (pp. 331-32) should be M. Valerius Maximianus. It is simplistic to describe Sejanus (p. 352) as Tiberius’ second-in-command; his was not a formal position. There is some sloppiness in the index, but reference to the main text will show what was intended; on purely military matters, legio XIV Gemina and legio XIV Martia Victrix are listed as separate units, and a non-existent XX Gemina appears.
Inevitably in such a vibrant topic, new publications continue to roll off the presses, among them The Army in the Roman Revolution by A. Keaveney (London 2007), The Impact of the Roman Army (200 BC-AD 476), edited by L. de Blois and E. Lo Cascio (Leiden 2007) and the differently focused two-volume Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare, edited by P. Sabin, H. van Wees, and M. Whitby (Cambridge 2007), of which part of volume 1 and the whole of volume 2 are devoted to the Roman period. A new journal, specifically devoted to military affairs in antiquity (Revue des Etudes Militaires Anciennes), edited by Y. le Bohec, is gaining momentum.
There is a strong feeling here, often absent in similar overarching treatments, of a constantly evolving organisation, and not one that remained static for long periods, to suddenly re-emerge in a different form. Moreover, the Late Empire is not treated as some disappointing or errant episode in the long history of an otherwise glorious institution. The chapters on the late period are eye-openers, providing a deeper understanding for those who, like the reviewer, focus on earlier centuries. We must congratulate the editor on bringing the whole project to fruition in what appears a relatively short time-span. It is particularly valuable in providing up to date accounts of the army’s manifold aspects, and the bibliographies to support them.