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Descriptive but not analytical
on 2 February 2013
There are so many books about the Roman Empire and the Roman Army that it must be hard to think of a new angle from which to write. Adrian Goldsworthy's answer is to focus on the careers of fifteen of Rome's generals from the second century BC to the middle of the sixth century AD. The subtitle is misleading, because seven of the fifteen were defending Rome or its Empire rather than winning it.
In his preface, Goldsworthy says his concern is with such things as, "what was actually done, why it was done, what it was supposed to achieve, how it was implemented and what were its consequences in fact." (p 11) Of these five points, the first and last are descriptive while the middle three are analytic; so I was expecting to find a good deal of analysis in the book. Goldsworthy does a good job of describing the careers of his chosen generals, summarising their deeds from the accounts of the primary historians from Polybius to Procopius. However the analysis is much weaker. There are comparisons made between the actions of the different generals but there is no overall drawing together into a summary of what made a Roman general successful and why.
There are, too, some surprising omissions. Thus Goldsworthy says of the final confrontation between Hannibal and Scipio Africanus at Zama, "[the] battle was not marked by especially subtle manoeuvring on either side. In the end, the Romans prevailed in the resultant slogging match..." (p 76) Very true; but why did the two greatest generals of the era (arguably of any era) allow the battle to become a slogging match? Both generals had shown themselves to be masters of deploying and manoeuvring an army. Perhaps this question cannot be answered but surely it should be discussed.
Again, in the early stages of the Civil War, Julius Caesar attacked the Pompeian armies in Spain. Caesar avoided a pitched battle (to keep Roman casualties to a minimum) and instead outmanoeuvred his opponents, cut them off from water and thus forced them to surrender. This was a brilliant campaign to which Goldsworthy devotes three sentences. (p 245) Surely this campaign merits some in-depth discussion and analysis.
If you are looking for a descriptive summary of the careers of these fifteen Roman generals, then this could be a useful book. If you are looking for discussion, analysis and understanding, this is not the text in which to find it.