Once in a while a book is published that becomes a standard reference work for students for its day. Edited by Paul Erdkamp, research fellow in ancient history at Leiden University is 'A Companion to the Roman Army' (Blackwell Press, Oxford, 2007) which promises to be such a book for the noughties. This is a collection of twenty-nine papers by distinguished international scholars, amongst whom contributors include Anthony Birley, Hugh Elton, Oliver Stoll and Michael Whitby. The papers are arranged in four sections: Early Rome, Mid- and Late Republic, The Empire (Actium to Adrianople) and The Late Roman Empire (to Justinian). As the sleeve copy states:
"The expert contributors to this volume delve into this culture, offering an extensive account of the Roman army, from its beginnings to its transformation in the later Roman Empire. Taking account of the latest scholarly and archaeological research, they examine the recruitment, training, organization, tactics, and weaponry that contributed to Rome's effectiveness as a fighting machine."
Precisely because the book is made of papers narrowly focused on particular subjects by specialists in those areas, this is a veritable treasury of material. Beyond the organisational and arms and armour aspects typically discussed in books on the Roman army, the contributors "explore the ecological, economic, social and political factors that help to explain the characteristic features of the army and its development over time". Indeed, the development of arms and armour receives only relatively cursory examination within the individual papers ('body armour' is discussed on as many pages as, for example, 'Arabia' according to the index).
For readers with a particular interest in the army of the early Empire, Part III will have the greatest appeal and is the largest section of the book. The fifteen papers in its 295 pages are arranged according to themes: Structure of the Imperial Army; Military Organization; Army, Emperor and Empire; and Soldiers and Veterans in Society. Subjects covered include the Augustan reforms, the 'Classes', the 'Limites' in both East and West, military documents and language, finances, logistics in peace- and wartime, propaganda, camps and forts, marriage and families, recruits and veterans and religious beliefs.
Most authors follow the discipline of a common three-part format of an introduction or prologue, a discussion and a conclusion or epilogue. Each author provides meticulous footnotes, a bibliography and recommendations for further reading. That said, some authors do weave source references into the narrative, rather than putting them in the notes, which can slow a lay reader and may irritate even a specialist such as myself researching material for my own books.
At 574 pages, this is a hefty tome. It is not without its shortcomings. That there are only 24 plates and 4 maps is surprising in a work of this importance and scope. For instance, there is only one strategic map of the Roman Empire (from Augustus to the Tetrarchy): the absence of strategic maps showing locations of units for each of the four periods covered by the book is an oversight. It is a missed opportunity to demonstrate how the deployment of the army changed over time - which is surely one of the objectives of the book? This is probably one of the consequences of creating a book from the material of many separate authors. At least the book does have a common index arranged alphabetically by subject.
The book is expensive. If you are on a tight budget it might pay to consider a used copy.
'A Companion to the Roman Army' generally lives up to its billing. Accepting its few shortcomings and its very high price, this is a book that provides an extraordinary wealth of specialist information in one volume. It could well become the standard text on the Roman Army for this generation.