1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This is an outstanding book that is heavily inspired by John Keegan's revisionist "Face of Battle" (1976) and which seeks to do for the Romans what he has done for later periods (from Azincourt to the Battle of the Somme) and what Victor Davies Hanson did for the Ancient Greeks. Accordingly, you get a fascinating presentation of the "General's battle", "the Unit's battle" and "the Individual's battle" while his first chapters lay out the Army's organization, the main opponents it was confronted with over the period (Gauls, Germans and Parthians) and the campaign.
It does go into a fair amount of detail in explaining the training, equipment, morale, leadership, strategy, and tactics of the Roman Army. It also has the merit of showing that the Roman Army between 100BC and 200AD was not invincible or made up of supermen. There were defeats. Discipline did break down on a number of occasions and troops were prone to deserting. Another interesting insight, which goes back to AHM Jones (1964) and his work on the latter Roman Empire, but which the author also mentions for the Army during the earlier part, is that units were never at full strength and often considerably understrength, especially after a long period of campaigning, such as Caesar's legions during the Civil War.
There are however, a number of problems with this book which is not, despite its qualities, the definite reference that it is portrayed to be. It is in fact a mix between the so-called "mechanistic approach", which the author criticizes so much and then applies himself, and the "face of battle" approach, which insists more on human factors and emotions associated with war. One of the issues I had when reading this book is that BOTH, and not only the "mechanistic approach", can also be very much subject to anachronistic assumptions by the various authors.
Interestingly, some of the best parts of the book are those that focus on Caesar's generalship at both strategic and tactical levels. It shows, very well in my view, how very aggressive and offensive he was in his campaigns. Even if he did not command from the front, in hero and Alexander the Great style, he was also very much of a gambler, always ready to take high risks if the rewards were worth it and would allow him to deal a knock-out blow straight away and crush the ennemy here and there. Amusingly, and despite Goldsworthy's rants, one of the pieces I preferred in th whole book was the section on different styles of generalship...
Then there are some other problems. First, and contrary to its title, there is very little on the Imperial Army of the Second Century. There is a bit more on the first century AD. Most of the contents, however, focus on the first hundred years of the period, and on Caesar and his times in particular. I am surprised to discover that the author had almost nothing to say about the Roman Army under Trajan, for instance. The point here is that, whatever your opinion on the book's contents, this does not really cover all the period and the author's excuse - that the sources are much less abundant for the Second Century sounds just like that: an excuse...
Second, I had a bit of a problem with the author's tone and methods, which I found unnecessarily unpleasant and very pretentious, in particular when mentioning in his conclusion that he has "attempted to show that both the popular and the scholarly view of the Roman army are at best highly misleading, and in most cases utterly false."
The author is largely correct when pointing out the risks of relying too much on a single source of information, such as the study of Roman equipment, on archaeology, on a mechanistic approach of the Roman Army's organization, as if it was one big machine, or even on studies emphasizing the interactions of the army with the Roman society and its impact on the frontiers. His statement with regards to the "popular view" of the Roman army may even be valid. However, to try to make his readers believe that, up to now, all other scholars have got wrong but that he is going to set the record right is both clumsy and insufferable
However, while the author does have a case to make for the need to study the Roman Army from the viewpoint of the unit and individual soldier, there is no need to be disparaging and dismissive of any other point of view. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the author does in this book and it is hardly the best way to convince a reader that his book is, for instance, so much better than that of Lawrence Keppie ("The Making of the Roman Army") which he seems set in attacking.
Third, there is also a problem with the author's style: the contents of the book are VERY repetitive, not only because each sections has a multi-page summary but also because the same point is made time and again. The maximum I counted was five times, sometimes using almost exactly the same words across the whole book. This, which has little to do with the fact that the book is drawn from the author's PhD thesis, makes the reading somewhat tedious and less than fully convincing. I got the impression that the author was obliged to use the same examples to make his points because he had no other ones to produce.
Fourth, there are tensions, or even contradictions between the author's sweeping statements, and what he does himself. One of his main lines of attack when criticizing other scholars is to state and explain that they have made numerous anachronistic assumptions. This is largely true, but then he continues and does the same, comparing cavalry fights during Roman times with those of Napoleon's and Wellington's cavalry in Spain!
So, at the end of this review, the author's conclusion about the army not being "incredibly modern, highly organized and rigidly disciplined" but only better than average and better than what its opponents could field is not exactly a revelation. The author, whether deliberately or not, makes it sound like the truism it is.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 12 February 2009
I needed to read this book as research for my writing interests. Ordinarily I'm not sure that I would have picked up something quite so specific. I was worried that it would be dry and overly academic but I knew I needed the information inside so I pressed on. How wrong I was. After an initially boring introduction which seemed to confirm my fears, I was treated to something truly engrossing.
One word of warning here. I have given this book five stars but I think it can only be properly appreciated with some prior knowledge of Roman history. Goldsworthy's period stretches three hundred years but he also includes the odd example from outside this period such as the Punic Wars. It is essential therefore to know who the big figures in Roman history were and the order in which they came. Also important is knowledge of what was happening in the Empire at any particular time. If you already know this stuff you will find this book an excellent exploration of an essential aspect of Rome.
The book covers many different facets of the Roman army from its organisation to how it behaved while on campaign; there is even a section detailing Rome's main enemies. Goldsworthy organises his material with skill. Throughout the book he focuses on the army in greater and greater detail until we are pretty much in the shoes of a typical legionary, witnessing the sights and sounds just as he must have done. Goldsworthy goes into some precise detail but this never bogs down his prose. On the contrary, his numerous examples serve to create an extremely vivid picture of what life must have been like in this one of these armies. Of particular note for its drama is how he describes the fighting between opposing infantry; what it must have been like to have been at the frontline cut and thrust and even perhaps stepping into the enemy line itself.
Partly what makes the book so readable are the fantastic stories that Goldsworthy decides to highlight. Here we have Pullo and Vorenus fighting Gauls, completely unassisted in an attempt to bolster the confidence of their troops. There's Labienus riding to enemy lines, taunting them and then having his horse killed from under him. There are challenges of single combat during Titus's campaign in Judea. All of these examples and many more bring us in close contact with the time.
Goldsworthy really knows his stuff, quoting frequently from other historians as well as the ancient writes themselves. His purpose is to think about the Roman army in its own terms and not too infer too much from the behaviour of other forces in different eras. Having said this there are times when he is prepared to use sources from far outside of his period. He does this for specific purpose and to great effect in particular with Victorian data on recognition distances.
There are some good pictures detailing Roman equipment but perhaps some photos would also have been good. The book has an appendix on logistics. Often I am tempted to skip this kind of section but amazingly this is also a good read.
An excellent book. I will definitely check out some more of Goldsworthy's work.