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Adapting to changing threats,
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This review is from: Legions in Crisis: The Transformation of the Roman Soldier - 192 to 284 (Kindle Edition)
The purpose and the main strongpoint of this book is to show how the appearance and equipment of the Roman legionary evolved and was adapted to meet changing threats. These were, according to the author, the threats represented by Iranian-speakers (Persians and Sarmatians) and their cavalry tactics, and those Germanic federations which learned from them (Goths in particular).
While the sources do not explicitly back the author’s thesis, changes in the form of Roman helmets and shields, the adoption of thrusting spears, at least for the front ranks, of lighter and more diverse throwing weapons (lighter javelins and darts) and of longer spatha-style swords do tend to demonstrate the author’s point rather convincingly. A related strongpoint of this book is to show that the evolutions were slow, progressive and might have taken as much as a century before the newer forms became generalised. The author’s photos, reconstructions and re-enactment clearly show to what extent the new equipment offered better protection against cavalry, for instance the helmet protected the head, neck and checks against cavalry sword thrusts much more effectively than previous models of the second century.
Mixed with these chapters on equipment changes are a series of narrative chapters focused on the reign of Septimius Severus and on the so-called “Third century crisis” up to the rise to supreme power of Diocletian. The author’s narrative is mostly good, even if some points of detail may be a bit questionable or simplified. One can wonder whether the changes in organisation, strategy, tactics and equipment had not started even under the reign under the reign of Marcus Aurelius, rather than under Septimius Severus, if only as ad hoc responses to invasions into Italy that broke through the frontiers. For instance, it seems that vexillatio of legions were already used well before the reign of the latter, although he seems to be the first emperor to start building up some kind of “central reserve”.
One piece of specific interest is the section on the Persian onslaught. In particular, it includes a rather nice piece on the siege of Dura Europos and how it can be reconstructed through the site’s archaeology. For those that have been reading Harry Sidebottom’s novels (starting with his “Fire in the East”), this book will come as a useful and very accessible companion.
Anyway, the strategic and tactical changes that affected the legionary are well told and convincingly presented. One may perhaps regret that the author has only focused on the changes affecting the legionary, rather than also covering the growing role of the auxilia, both infantry and cavalry, whose increased importance – largely because of their mobility – were are also part of the response to the “crisis”. It would however be somewhat unfair to blame the author for this since he clearly focused his topic on the legions. However, from Caracalla onwards, all free inhabitants of the Empire became Roman citizens so that one of the main distinctions between auxilia and Romans became abolished.
Also to be noted are a few (but only a handful) of typos and mistakes that an editor should have spotted. One of the main ones is that Diocletian chose to administer the Easter part of the Empire and not the Western portion which was allocated to his co-Augustus. Also, while two junior emperors were chosen in AD 293 (eight years after the two senior emperors), the two senior emperors did not abdicate eight years later but twelve years later. These, however, are minor quibbles.
Four strong stars for a relatively short, easy to read and highly recommended book.