I have had this Osprey title for a while, having bought it shortly after it was published in 2011. However, I have not up to now, reviewed it simply because I had trouble making up my mind and coming up with a well-balanced assessment. This is what my review’s title is supposed to reflect and it is also what the somewhat contrasting reviews of other reviewers reflect to some extent.
To be fair, this Osprey Warrior title was not an easy one to come up with. As others have mentioned, the scope (over four centuries) could in itself be an issue, especially when this has to be summarised in the usual sixty four pages format.
There is worse, however: all the sources are debatable, when they are not lacking. The written sources, Livy in particular, but also Polybius to some extent, are questionable and have been questioned. This was largely because they wrote centuries after the time and events that they described. It is also because what they contain is in part drawn from older lost sources, which we do not know and whose worth we cannot assess. This is, to quote T.J. Cornell, the issue about “the sources of the sources”.
A second and related set of issues is that archaeology and its findings may help, but only up to a point, and it can also contribute in some cases to further “muddying the waters”. A case in point is the discussions about Early Roman shields, where the Scutum is assumed to be derived from a Gallic prototype, which is very plausible. However, the shape, dimensions and construction of early Scutum shields are assumed to be similar to the unique exemplar preserved and found in Egypt and which dates, at best, from the second century BC.
In other words, and in most cases, the evidence that the illustrator and author can draw upon and have to work with is very flimsy and often even unreliable. Virtually all of the plates are in fact based on their assumptions or even on educated guesses. For the contents, Nic Field has in fact heavily drawn upon, and even at times almost summarised the much larger and lengthier book from T.J. Cornell “The beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC), published in 1995 and still very much the reference on the subject. He is not alone in having done this and, as noted by another reviewer, he has also done this in another of his titles (”Roman Battle tactics 390-110 BC”).
None of this is, up to now, intended to criticise the work of either the author or the illustrator. However, and this is where I really had problems with this title, their work has in at least a couple of instances made the book less good and more confusing than it could have been and generated some disappointment with a streak of annoyance, at times.
Regarding the author, Nic Fields has an unfortunate tendency to feel obliged to come up with platitudes, truisms, hyperbole and melodrama to fill in the blanks, as another reviewer has also noted. So you get statements like the following: "in the field of battle, there is one indisputable unwelcome fact that death, the great equalizer, might come visiting at any instant". These kinds of statements and digressions – there are about half a dozen spread across the book – add very little and are quite unnecessary, to be charitable. They may even at times be rather useless and also somewhat ridiculous, therefore damaging the book rather than keeping the reader interested as I presume that they were meant to. Add to this the fact that the author manages to drag in Nietzsche, Tolstoy and Napoleon and you will be left wondering whether this is a book on “Early Roman Warrior” or some philosophical essay on the “horrors and brutality” of warfare.
There are also some other but more minor issues. One is the lack of a map which would have allowed the reader to follow at least the main phases of Rome’s expansion in and conquest of Italy. Another is the choice of the period’s lower limit. The reasons for choosing 321 BC to end the period are rather unclear to me (not to say arbitrary), since this is the date of the Caudine Forks and the end of the second Samnite War which was followed shortly afterwards by a third and last one. Sometime in the early 290s just after the Samnite (and their Gallic and Etruscan allies) had been vanquished in this last war but before the arrival of King Pyrrhus in Italy would probably have made more sense to me. A third is that most of the texts accompanying the plates are made up of various portions of the main text so that they are largely duplications. A fourth is that a number of events listed in the chronology are not explained or even mentioned in the main narrative. A case in point is the raid of Coriolanus (and the date for this has obviously been mixed up with the death of Tarquinius Superbus, Rome’s last king.
Most of the contents, however, are good, and even very good at times. This is particularly the case of the Introduction, which neatly summarises the strategic value of Rome’s geographical location at the time, and the section on Italy before Rome, which mentions the main groups of inhabitants in the peninsula are neatly summarised from T. J. Cornell’s book. The piece on Equipment and appearance and Beliefs and belonging are also good, especially the discussions, however brief, on the various bits of equipment. The piece On Campaign was much less original and ends up with what is essentially a discussion on hoplite warfare. One bit I was expecting to find was a couple of paragraphs discussing the most likely period of time when the Roman army switched to the maniple system. Just after the Caudine Forks disaster in 321 BC happens to be one of the main candidates among historians. Unfortunately, there is nothing included on this.
Regarding the illustrations, the photographs are fine. I particularly liked a rather superb Campanian breastplate, the finds from Lavunium (including a whole panoply with Italo-Corinthian helmet, bronze muscle cuirass and sword which seems to be a kopis – a curved sword used by Ancient Greeks) and a great collection of helmets. I was less enthusiastic about some of the plates. I liked the Citizen soldier Class I, which is essentially a hoplite, and the citizen soldier Class III with Scutum, short spear, sword, helmet and leather cuirass because, in both cases, you can see who these evolved in to the soldiers of the Republican army some 100 or 150 years later. However, I found the raid on the Sabine settlement (the illustrator’s take on David’s famous painting titled the rapt of the Sabine Women) to be rather bland with the clan chieftain on the side being essentially the same figure as the one illustrated on page 19. I also agree with another reviewer’s assessment about the two battle scenes being somewhat “too crowded” to the extent that the faces of some of the Roman hoplites take up most of the available space in the pictures.
At the end of a rather long assessment, I can only give three stars to this title, because it neither bad nor good. It is indifferent, with the good parts somewhat cancelling the less good ones out, and it could have been better.
on 2 June 2012
Sorry to say this book does not live up to expectations. If charitable, I would say that the scope is too broad. There is of course a problem with lacking or debatable source material. This means that the author falls back on the well known classics (Livy, Polibius etc). Where there are lacunae he fills in the blanks with some antropological basic assumptions about societal development which I can't really judge. These blanks are also filled with in with oddly sounding hyperbole " in the field of battle, there is on indisputable unwelcome fact that death, the great equalizer, might come visiting at any moment".
Fair enough, but equally true of any field of conflict.
The photographs of archeological finds are well chosen though, and the illustrations are fine, though not yet outstanding. My personal preference is for less crowded battle scenes, a few more individual poses.
All in all a book which focuses more than I like on broad history, and less on the "Early Roman Warrior 753-321 BC".