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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Adrian Goldsworthy

Roman Warfare

London: Cassell, 2000. 224pp. $29.95. ISBN-13: 978-0304352654.

It was the Romans who popularized displays of strength and might to intimidate their neighbors into submission. If an enemy proved obstinate, Rome relentlessly made war upon them until they accepted the privilege of subordinate ally status; or they were annihilated. Adrian Goldsworthy, in his book Roman Warfare, broadly, “traces the development of warfare within the context of the evolution of the army and state.” (p. 28). Goldsworthy anticipates questions the reader may have about a number of topics: the reliability of source material, the way two armies would have met in the field in a particular battle, and issues of historiography. These anticipations effectively complement the flow of the book. This volume has excellent color illustrations, maps, and pictures on nearly every page. These images help to reinforce the reading material in a way that surpasses words. Goldsworthy has produced a book that is readable, fact-filled, and highly entertaining. The fact that the reader is not bogged-down by a flood of dates and names helps to focus the reader on the truly formative events of Roman military history.

Goldsworthy begins his discussion by highlighting the Greek connection to Roman warfare. Though the sources are murky, there is enough evidence to conclude that the hoplite and phalanx were the primary method of making war in early Rome. Working as a well-oiled machine trumped individual skills. What mattered was the cohesion of the phalanx and nothing else. The Roman Army of the sixth century BC could muster roughly 4,000 men. Campaigning was limited because most hoplites were farmers. Under the Republic, cavalry supplemented the phalanx. During this time, war was conducted on a small scale with battles being fought in close proximity. Battles were typically raids with the objective of relieving the adversary of their wealth. “The earliest myths of Rome’s history show a willingness to absorb outsiders into the community, an attitude quite unlike that of most Greek city states who were highly jealous of the privileges of citizenship.” (p. 40)

In the mid-Republic, the Roman army was organized into ten maniples with each maniple consisting of three lines made up of hastati, principes, and triarii. Heavy infantry was complemented by a contingent called an ala composed of barbarian units numbering 4,000-5,000 infantry and 900 cavalry. At this time, Roman armies were not professionalized but made up of a citizen militia called upon only to combat imminent threats. Military service was expected and most men were proud to serve. The Roman army adopted a checkerboard formation to facilitate cavalry support and to provide protection to cavalry on their return. Goldsworthy stresses the importance of maintaining high morale and formation. Hand-to-hand combat is brutal and bloody, notes Goldsworthy, and most modern readers fail to conceptualize this often overlooked aspect. In order to ensure a tight formation and obedience, commanders praised and rewarded their soldiers. Interestingly, the highest rate of casualties was not incurred in battle but in flight.

Goldsworthy briefly covers the First Punic War taking note of the evolution of warships and the introduction of the “Crow,” a device used to bridge two ships and hold them together so the Romans could engage the Carthaginians in hand-to-hand combat. The Carthaginians were veterans who had proved their mettle in battle and led by Hannibal, they were a formidable adversary. Though superior in many tactical and technical aspects, the Carthaginians were unable to take heavy losses. Their philosophy was to seek a favorable position, inflict serious losses, and sue for a favorable peace, for, “a struggle to the death would have been in no one’s interest.” (p. 71) The general’s function, according to Goldsworthy, was to bolster his men’s confidence to stratospheric levels before an engagement and hold a strong position. Rome proved to be an unusual enemy because of their strategic vision of war. A truce was unacceptable. A treaty would only be entertained if their enemy admitted defeat and came to terms. The Carthaginians were stunned to meet such an uncompromising opponent: “When wars were decided as soon as one side admitted defeat, it was very difficult for any state to beat a people who were never willing to concede this.” (p. 85).

A preoccupation with wealth and glory fueled Rome’s wandering eye. The period from 202 BC to AD 14 witnessed Rome’s greatest expansion, conquest, and the transition to a professional army. Goldsworthy terms Roman expansion as “a never-ending search for fresh peoples to defeat.” (p. 92). In northern Italy, Rome fought ferocious barbarians called Gauls. The key to Roman success was the triplex acies. The idea of Empire became a source of inspiration and springboard for further conquest and expansion in the first half of the second century BC. The professional army that emerged in this period was drawn from a class of landless poor to entice men with little prospects to a military career. Moreover, the cohort replaced the maniple. This led to the emergence of a new class of technical specialists within the army. Goldsworthy mirrors J.E. Lendon in his discussion of conquest, focusing on Julius Caesar’s style of command. Caesar understood the psychology of war praising his men for their valor and rewarding them with military honors and coin. Caesar orchestrated his campaigns in close proximity to the battle yet was not close enough to shout out orders to his officers. He placed a great amount of trust in his senior officers to carry out his orders and gave them the flexibility to take initiative. However, Caesar understood fighting from the front not only inspired his men to fight harder, but also could change the tide of war in his favor. At the battle of Sambrae in 57 BC, Caesar rushed to engage the enemy to rally his men when the situation turned dire. This behavior was not typical. Goldsworthy notes a general’s role was to “lead and control his army.”

The army of the Principate focused less on legionaries’ loyalty to their respective commanders by placing themselves under oath to the Emperor. Promotion eluded soldiers with little education, but rapid advancement was not uncommon for men who were well connected. Training and tactics became the cornerstone of the army emphasizing drill, discipline, and order. A recruit’s first priority was to learn how to stay in formation and keep pace with his comrades. The tactics were simple but effective: a silent advance followed up by shock combat. The frontiers of the Empire were fluid zones of commerce and trade between Romans and barbarians. It was common practice for small barbarian bands to raid Roman settlements and return heavy- laden with plunder. Raids were not of much concern unless they went unchecked thereby telegraphing Roman vulnerability. The Romans took these raids as a serious threat and would seek reprisals, which included the taking of cattle as hostages from the Germans. To curb germinating thoughts of rebellion or war, the Romans constructed structures such as Hadrian’s Wall as a statement of Rome’s power. The idea was to inspire awe in their enemies and to draw them into submission without spilling Roman blood.

The Late Roman Empire was plagued by civil wars and usurpations. Leadership of the armies was given to men from the equestrian rank rather than the traditional senatorial rank. This move was intended to remove potential rivals from the Emperor but instead opened the door to greater intrigue and facilitated a meteoric rise in assassination plots. This period also witnessed the decline of the Roman army. According to Goldsworthy, they were unable to approach the enemy in silence or in proper order. Moreover, Goldsworthy refutes the suggestion that cavalry were a dominant force in the fourth century. Troops were divided into two main groups: the comitatenses and the limitanei. The former were stationed in the interior while the latter were stationed along the frontier. In AD 350, there were three major field armies and none were able to respond to more than one threat reducing their efficacy. By AD 400, this number increased substantially to position small armies along the frontier.

The collapse in the West was accompanied by the reliance placed upon allies known as Foederati, barbarian units led by their own leaders. Along with the changing makeup of the army, the empire was divided into smaller provinces to offset weak central authority. A Vegetian strategy was adopted avoiding battle unless the Roman army held a strong advantage. Heavy infantry was no longer the bread-and-butter of the Roman army; they merely provided a line of defense. The age of cavalry had arrived.

There are many parallels between Goldsworthy and Lendon. Both authors are of the same mind concerning single combat, willful disobedience, competition, personal glory, individual boldness, and command style. It would be reasonable to suggest that Goldsworthy and Lendon take similar approaches to Roman military history and interpret it in connection with the Homeric past. There is considerable overlap in topic coverage, especially in competition, glory, and prestige. Competition was inculcated from birth and was practiced by all levels of society. So powerful was the drive of competition, that Cassius Longinus, a consul of Rome, “decided on his own initiative to march his army overland to Macedonia. By chance the Senate heard of his expedition and were able to send a commission to restrain him…. This is just another example of the Roman aristocracy’s lust for glory affecting their behavior in the provinces.” (p. 99) Longinus willfully defied his orders because he lived by a Homeric code that required him to take action even if it meant to disobey orders from the Senate. What is curious about this episode is that Longinus was not reprimanded or punished for his actions. Rash behavior exhibited by a general and consul of Rome, more likely, was understood as an acceptable manifestation of Romanitas rather than willful disobedience and insubordination.

Goldsworthy, however, has a different understanding of virtus: contrary to the embodiment of Homeric values. “Virtus,” Goldsworthy observes, “was the word used to describe the military virtues which a Roman senator was expected to display because of his birth and upbringing. Virtus included the practical ability to lead and control an army, the physical courage needed to perform this role moving around close behind the battle line and the moral courage never to admit the possibility of defeat.” (p. 115-16) This broad definition is personified, in Goldsworthy’s opinion, by Julius Caesar. Lendon offers an alternative understanding of virtus and uses Titus as his exemplar. Titus, however, differed from Julius Caesar in many respects but most importantly in command style. Julius Caesar was a seasoned commander and a brilliant general who studied the ancients with a passion. Titus was a young buck who liked to flirt with danger and put himself in compromising positions. While Caesar tended to oversee operations from a safe distance, Titus repeatedly fought side-by-side with his men. Caesar and Titus were capable generals who adopted a command style that fit with their respective personalities and predispositions. Although both men share many admirable qualities, Titus lacked Caesar’s experience and the lessons learned from those hard-fought battles. Caesar fought with his mind, while Titus fought with his heart.

Goldsworthy effortlessly weaves historiographical issues into his narrative with great skill. These debates range from the use of decorations and military honors to critical reviews of Caesar’s generalship. Goldsworthy summarily accepts or rejects propositions with an arsenal of knowledge and common sense. One historical debate stands out from the rest because Goldsworthy deals with it throughout his book: were the Romans imperialists or did a Grand Strategy dictate their actions? At the turn of the twentieth century, many historians “believed that the Romans were not willing imperialists, but had been drawn on to fight war after war to defend themselves and their allies against real or imagined threats.” (p. 90) In recent years, however, revisionists have labeled Roman expansion as the “exploitation and repression of indigenous cultures.” (p. 90) This accusation is familiar to historians of the Crusades. Some historians believe that many Crusaders were enticed to the Holy Land by the allure of land, wealth, and prestige. Jonathan Riley-Smith has defended the Crusaders’ motives and has shown that Crusaders were motivated by religious conviction and conscience—not by material gain. Like Riley-Smith, Goldsworthy has assumed the unenviable task to defend the Roman Empire against the indictment of imperialism. Goldsworthy argues that historians mistake an aggressive foreign policy for imperialist motives. Roman strategy was concerned with neutralizing potential threats either through diplomacy, by way of treaty, or through a brutal war that crippled their war-making ability. It is easy to confuse Rome’s aggressive and uncompromising military strategies as a pretext for conquest and expansion. Goldsworthy vindicated Roman Grand Strategy as a strategy of survival and a means of keeping the balance-of-power intact. In an age where war is a last resort, moderns may be more shocked by Rome’s ruthless behavior to insure their sovereignty and judge them unfairly.

Roman warfare grew from petty raids in its early history to fielding legions that intimidated rivals into submission and inspired fear in those who proved more confident. The outcome was assured because, as Goldsworthy noted, the Romans would never admit defeat in an age where negotiation and limited loss in manpower was preferred. The ability to absorb other peoples, particularly the barbarians, aided Rome’s expansion and helped them field armies that could meet any challenge. Their flexibility and intensive training regimen boosted their self-confidence and morale. They became highly specialized in the Late Antique period and were staffed with engineers and reconnaissance units. Goldsworthy emphasizes the Roman Army’s ability to absorb heavy losses and replenish the ranks efficiently—an option not available to most ancient armies. This book is a fantastic volume that offers a well-balanced treatment of Roman warfare without the dense verbiage. Goldsworthy’s book is an excellent introductory text to ancient military history with user-friendly appendices.

Christopher Berg

Sam Houston State University <>

Page Added: August 2011