Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
9 July 2021
Review by Jeremy Armstrong, University of Auckland
Romans at War: The Roman Military in the Republic and Empire
By Simon Elliott
Philadelphia: Casemate, 2020. Pp. 297. ISBN 978–1–61200–885–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, Antiquity, Roman Military Print Version

Historian and archeologist Simon Elliot's new book—Romans at War—falls squarely into the cat egory of "popular" history and features many hallmarks of the genre, for good or ill. On the plus side, his accessible prose style helps clarify a complex field of study for a general readership. Consider the following passage from Elliott's engaging discussion of the Second Punic War, which

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truly tested the power and resilience of Rome to the breaking point. This broke out in 218 BC and lasted 17 years, with the Roman fleet at the outset cutting off the Carthaginian North African homeland from its colonies in Spain. The Carthaginian leader Hannibal responded with his audacious plan to invade Italy through southern Gaul and the Alps, defeating the legions of Rome and their allies three times at the Trebia in 218 BC, Lake Trasimene in 217 BC and Cannae in 216 BC. The last of these was a battle of titanic scale, with 50,000 Carthaginians facing 86,000 Romans. Hannibal here famously completed his famous double envelopment of the legions. A massacre followed, with 50,000 Romans being killed. Such loses would bring most opponents to their knees, but not Rome. Soon new legions were raised, including two of freed slaves. Even though most of southern Italy now defected to Hannibal, he failed to capture Rome itself, given his lack of a viable siege train, and was ultimately pinned down in southern Italy. (36)

Elliott blends overarching summaries with detailed narratives of the army in action, confidently describing what generals may have been thinking and feeling. The following is typical:

In AD 207 the great warrior Emperor Septimius Severus was bored in Rome…. [He] hacked his way to power in the "Year of the Five Emperors" in AD 193, fought two campaigns in the east including the sack of the Parthian capital Ctesiphon, seen off the usurpation of the British governor Clodius Albinus, and campaigned in his native North Africa …. Then a golden opportunity presented itself for one final stab at victory … [During his invasion of Scotland, Septimius's] huge force was marched north from York along Dere Street, crossing Hadrian's Wall and then reaching the Scottish Borders where it destroyed all before it. The whole region was cauterized of any opposition. Notably, at this time the Antonine fort at Vindolanda just south of the wall was demolished, with LIA [Late Iron Age] round houses being laid out on a Roman grid pattern there instead. This has been interpreted as a concentration camp for the displaced local population. (206)
A concern for accessibility pervades the book: terms are defined, often redundantly, and summary tables and digressions appear throughout. The volume is richly illustrated, and maps, drawings, and photographs grace nearly every page. The frequency of the latter suggests that reenactors are a major target audience. The author also addresses matters of experimental archaelogy and the experiences of re-enactors. Such readers will enjoy learning about military equipment and other technical aspects of Roman warfare, including the building of ships and forts. Adhering to the norms of its genre, the book condenses and describes rather than breaking new ground or defending novel interpretations.

As a specialist on Roman Britain,[1] Elliott often uses the region as a case study for wider Roman practice. This tactic has a long history, reflecting the prevalence of UK authors (including Elliott) among the ranks of modern Roman historians and archaeologists, and their desire to marry their academic discipline with their home nation. But, as Elliott himself admits, Britain was "a marginal province at best, it was always a place of difference" (86), which sometimes makes it an imperfect archetype.

Additionally, the volume evinces the overly favorable stance toward the Romans and their military systems that typifies popular Roman military histories: the book opens by asserting that "The Roman military establishment was the elite fighting force of the ancient world" (1); that panegyric tone persists throughout. Thus, chap. 2 begins "The Roman military machine was preeminent in the ancient world" while chap. 4 starts by calling "The Roman military of the Principate phase of Empire … pre-eminent in the world" (131). In short, the Romans of popular military histories—and those of Elliott's volume—exhibit "true grit" and an ability to kill and conquer efficiently.

Other tendencies of popular military histories infect Elliott's book, putting its narrative, analysis, and general approach out of step with the current scholarly literature on its subject. As his bibliography attests, he leans heavily on other popular works, except when it comes to his own area of special interest—the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. This yields a badly outdated narrative for many periods, further flawed by a too optimistic faith in the reliability of the ancient literary evidence and a tendency to derive a "common practice" from an isolated example.

The book also hews to a traditional approach to ancient history overall. This is most obvious in its highly simplistic, ethnically focused, pseudo-nationalistic approach to ancient identity and Roman imperialism—things rejected by academics already in the 1990s. In the end, the book is no worse than most recent installments in popular Roman history. That said, Romans at War does not push back against these tendencies either, unlike, for instance, works by M.C. Bishop or the late Peter Connolly, who have striven to fuse the "popular" and the "academic" in this area.

All of the above duly noted, Elliott does break the mold in several ways. For instance, he gives a slightly broader view of Roman society than usually found in this type of volume. In chap. 3, "The Roman Empire," he leads a welcome succinct non-militarized tour of the provinces in the empire as well as of the city of Rome in the 2nd century AD. Not all Elliott's novel positions are compelling, however. He is prone to taking "marginal" positions without providing supporting analysis or discussion. For instance, he links the development of the manipular legion of the middle Republic (34) to changes Marcus Furius Camillus introduced in the early 4th century BC. This line of argument was popular in the 19th century, but passed out of the mainstream a century ago. Alternatively, Elliott attributes the institution of a standing army in Rome to the politician and general Gaius Marius in 107 BC rather than the emperor Augustus, as is almost universally believed.

There are some other, admittedly minor, errors of fact as well. Elliott states that "There were around 600 senators in the mid-2nd century AD. Those of this class were patricians, a social political rank, all those below, including other aristocrats, were plebeians" (2). But patrician and plebeian statuses were based on birth. Constituting the old aristocracy of the city, patricians were far more likely to become senators than were plebeians; but by the 4th century BC, the Senate began to feature a mixed patrician/plebeian membership. Elliot also wastes space on a bogus etymology of the Latin word provincia.[2]

The absence of footnotes is telling: the book is not a carefully constructed argument based on relevant evidence. Translations from the Latin are not credited. Elliott is better on the high empire, his specialty, but the book is rife with compromises stemming from the desire to squeeze a millennium of military history, spanning the Mediterranean basin and much of Europe, into a couple hundred pages.

Thanks to its abundant illustrations and brisk narrative flow, Romans at War will appeal to buffs and other non-specialist readers of Roman military history. More serious students of the subject, even at the undergraduate level, will need to look elsewhere.

[1] Elliott (PhD Kent Univ., 2017) wrote his dissertation on Roman Britain in this period.

[2] It is not related to the verb vinco, vincere, vici, victus-a-um. See Oxford Latin Dictionary, s.v., "provinca."

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