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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb assessment of the late Roman army, 24 Feb. 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: Warfare in Roman Europe, Ad 350-425 (Oxford Classical Monographs) (Paperback)
This book offers a great insight into the workings and fighting capabilities of the late roman army. It is rigorous, well-argumented and not afraid of taking the academic establishment head on when it comes to dispelling several "myths" about the late roman army and the empire.
For instance, it has become common place to say that the barbarization of the late roman army led to a decline of its effectiveness on the field. Elton correctly poses the question of why, if a "barbarized" army was ineffective, the Romans did not stop recruiting barbarians; indeed, the Eastern Empire, which survived, continued to recruit barbarians well into the 6th century. The rationale for using barbarian troops must be searched beyond the trite arguments that the romans had become "corrupt", and Elton sheds lights on what business consultants call the "make" (ie raise additional roman troops) versus "buy" (ie "rent" barbarians for a specific campaign) tradeoff. On the same topic, Elton also proves that there is no clear trend towards barbarization of the higher ranks. More generally, Elton proves convincingly that there is no evidence that the late roman army was ineffective. In my opinion, arguing that the army's inability to stop the invasions is a proof of its defectiveness would be equivalent to arguing that since the US lost the Vietnam war, then its army must have been weak...
Elton's main thesis is that the crisis of the Empire was not a military one, ie the army did not have structural faults that "explain" the fall of the empire. His arguments are always stimulating and supported by research work which is often startling. The bibliography at the end of the book provides useful references to works of historians with different opinions. You might especially want to compare Elton's work with Arther Ferrill's "The fall of the Roman Empire", which takes a totally opposite view.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not as ineffective as initially believed, 27 May 2012
JPS - See all my reviews
This review is from: Warfare in Roman Europe, Ad 350-425 (Oxford Classical Monographs) (Paperback)
This fascinating book, which was developed as Hugh Elton's PhD thesis, assesses the effectiveness of the Late Roman Army from AD 350 to AD 425, from the rule of Constantius, last surviving son of Constantin after the death of his two brothers, to the beginning of the reign of Valentinian III in the West. The introduction is made up of a short narrative but the book is exactly what it is portraed to be: an assessment of the Roman Army's effectiveness.

The author's thesis is that, within the period under review, and contrary to the traditional view of decay and "barbarization", the Army remained effective against the Barbarians. The case is made in 9 chapters that there was no structural and inherent weakness that made the Army less able to cope with the threats against the Empire. The two first chapters (Barbarian Economy and Society and barbarian Military Practices) focus on the ennemies. The seven other chapters cover, respectively:
- Roman Organization, Arms and Equipment, and area where the Romans had a significant advantage over their ennemies almost to the very end in the West
- Finance
- Recruiting
- Fortifications, which was also an area of market superiority since, with the exception of the Sassanids and perhaps of the Huns, the other invaders had little siege capabilities until the end of the fifth century, including the Goths
- Foreign policy, which was rather sophisticated and would be inherited by the Byzantine Empire (that is the Eastern half of the Roman Empire - the piece that did not fall). There were several strategies at play which Elton detqils and these were often linked to recruitment of soldiers and settlement of barbarians within the Empire in exhange of military service (at least five policies) and with policies that tended to "divide and rule".

Two of the most traditional policies were to recruit individual barbarians into the army, where these were trained within Roman units and became just as effective as any other soldier recruited within the Empire, or to recruit whole units of auxiliaries from either the border provinces or, after having defeated them from just beyond the frontier and post them far from their original homes. A typical example of the latter practice was the posting of several thousand Sarmatian cavalry to Britain during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a time during which the army can hardly be deemed to be in decline or ineffective, although it did have its hands full.

- The two last chapters deal with strategies and operations, with the later demontrating that the Army was far from losing its edge and, if anything, may have been better adapted and a more flexible machine than that of the second century.

However, the most valuable contribution of this book, in my view, is that it disputes the "myth" of the barbarisation of the army as being the main cause for the fall of the Empire. First, there always had been barbarian recruits in the army, even if initially these were limited to auxiliary infantry and cavalry. Second, given that the Empire was anyway multi-ethnic, and that the Germans who joined, for instance, were eager to integrate, could expect to become Roman citizens on retirement and mostly did not have strong tribal ties beyond their clans, hiring them in any numbers did not lower the training standards or the army's effectiveness. Third, Elton tries to demonsrate, through statistics of army officers and of other ranks down to AD 476, that the percentage of barbarians did not exceed a maximum of 30% for oher ranks an of 20% for the officers. Althugh not entirely convincing - the statistics only correspond to names that are mentioned in the sources that have survived, so there is no to assess how representativ the sample may be - these relatively low proportions do tend to show that the army did not get massively barbarised.

There are however a few of Elton's positions that seem a bit questionable. One is the claim that the army did not suffer from shortages of manpower, or rather than these shortages may not have been as acute as we have been lead to believe. To determine this, Elton calculate that on the basis of 20 years of service and a total force of 600000 for the whole Empire - the higher end of historians' estimates, only about 30000 recruits per year would have been needed.

There are, of course, some BIG problems with this estimate, and Elton only mentions some of time. One is that in periods of warfare, losses would be of course MUCH higher and recruitement needs also. Since war against barbarians and civil wars were rather endemic over this period, Elton's estimate of a 5% rate of renewal looks rather low. On the other hand, he also mentions that units tended to be understrength, and often may have benn kept that way in times of peace, with additional recruitements typically taken place a few months before campaigns. However, even allowing for under strength units, and regardless of whether this was official policy or the result of unscrupulous officers drawing pay for "ghost" soldiers, losses linked to particular events over the period were in some cases nothing short of catastrophic. It should also be noted that the effectiveness of understrength unit may become questionable, partly because of reduced numbers, but also because of the effect of these reductions on morale.

The defeat of Adranopolis, following other hard fought battles and itself followed by hard fighting until 382 is a case in point. Thirty years before, the very blood civil war between Magnus and Contantius, whith the former having to be defeated three times before his usurpation was put down (AD 350 to AD 352), brought heavy losses. Further campaigns in Gaul and Julian's disastrous war against Persia also lead to heavy losses. Finally, the civil wars of Theodosius, and then the continuous wars of Stilicho and Contantius III until 422 certainlyhad an impact on the army, with AHM Jones estimating that up to half of the West's field armies may have been lost between AD 407 and AD 422. At the very least, and without even discussing the to what extent he opposition of the potentiores deprived the army of recruits, the Army of the West was clearly unable to make up its huge losses within a short period, especially since these losses were associated with a loss of control of part (Northern Gaul and Spain) or of whole provinces (Britain).

So, a fascinating book, well written, often convincing, but sometimes not. It is certainly worth four stars, but not five.
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