This is a mostly good “primer” and introduction for anyone wanting to learn the essentials about “the Walls of Rome”.
Although it also has a few mostly minor glitches, it makes the main points. It is well supported by the illustrations, whether the photographs, the plates or the maps, with the two maps allowing the reader to follow the various stages in the building of Rome’s walls. It also includes a full page of references for those wanting to go further and explore some of the topics in more depth.
Unlike a number of other Fortress titles, the book is deliberately structured chronologically and, in this case, this works rather well because it also matches some of the traditional features of the series.
The introduction, the chronology, and the early defences (the so-called “Servian Wall”) set the scene. The context of the construction phase and the construction and layout of Aurelian’s walls come next. They are clearly one the book’s core pieces with consecutive chapters and are about 30 pages long, that is almost half of the whole book. The next chapter is about the major alterations introduced and the shift in the Walls’ function that they translate. The last chapter, from Honorius to Belisarius covers both the fifth and sixth centuries and happens to correspond to the main periods where the Walls saw put to use the three sieges of Rome by Alaric, the several sieges under Belisarius and the siege and storming of Rome when defended by Garibaldi.
One of the most interesting features, which is well presented and discussed by the author, is the real function of the Wall under Aurelian. It was to protect Rome from a sudden attack by “barbarians” lacking significant siege equipment and allow the city to hold out for long enough until a rescue army to reach it. In other words, the original purpose of Aurelian’s fortifications was not to allow the city to withstand a lengthy siege by a well-equipped besieging army. Drawing on some of the sources listed as references, Nic Fields also shows that this corresponded to the type of adversary that were at the time conducting large-scale raiding in Italy and all along the Rhine and Danube frontiers. It is also reflected in the hastiness of the construction and in the inclusion of numerous pre-existing houses and monuments in the circuit. While these and other measures allowed to speed up the construction and to limit its cost, it could also lead to weak points.
A second strong feature of this title is to show how Maxentius, Honorius and Belisarius all strengthened the fortifications and attempted in various ways to make them more defensible and to allow Rome to withstand more lengthy sieges.
The efforts of Maxentius were perhaps the most impressive and, although they seem to have begun in AD 307, the alterations were completed after AD 312 during the reign of Constantine. Essentially, to make Rome more defensible, many gates, doors and posterns were either blocked or narrowed. Wall heights were increased and galleries added to them. Towers were enlarged and strengthened, especially those protecting gates. These changes are particularly well illustrated by the plates that show reconstructions of these changes in structural development over time.
The sections “From Honorius to Belisarius” and “Aurelian’s Legacy” essentially cover episodes when Rome was under siege. The point made by the author is that these altered fortifications seemed to have served their purpose because they allowed the city to withstand two out of the three sieges from Alaric. The also allowed Belisarius to withstand at least two sieges one of them lasting a year and even Garibaldi was able to withstand the first assaults although heavily outnumbered.
There are however also some glitches throughout. One of these is the choice to only include Garibaldi’s defence of Rome, mention the alterations and further strengthening of parts of the perimeter that took place during the Renaissance but purely and simply omit instances when Rome was taken by storm. The most glaring omission is the siege, storm and pillage of Rome in 1527 by the army of Charles Quint, although there are others as well (for instance the storming of Rome by the Normans in 1084).
A second limitation relates to a number of “glitches” throughout the book (although most of them are in the first half), with the author using approximate and inaccurate terms and simplifications as “shortcuts” in an effort to preserve valuable space. This is where you learn, for instance, that Ardeshir of the House of Sassan overthrew the Arsacid Kings and was part of a “nationalist” movement (an obvious anachronism) and that they “constantly” sought to alter the military status quo against the Romans in their favour. Both are over-simplifications to the point that the statements become incorrect. However, it is that the Sassanids turned out to be much more aggressive and more successful against the Romans than their predecessors were although even this might be a bit of a simplification. In a similar vein, you learn about Zenobia’s “formidable cavalry army” that Aurelian defeated comprehensively and twice. In fact, and at least at the first battle, this army contained large numbers of Roman infantry which were the eastern legions (or what was left of them) whose command Odenathus had taken over. There are some other similar glitches and unexplained statements, such as Gallienius’ “elite army” being “quite small”. In fact, it included detachments of at least a couple of thousand men each from more than half a dozen legions, at least one whole legion based at Alba, the praetorians cohorts, and all the cavalry that could be brought together and auxiliary troops as well. So “quite small” here means at least 30000 and more likely 40000 or even more, so perhaps not all that small after all. Another unexplained statement is the qualification of Aureolus as “capricious”.
Four strong stars
on 14 July 2008
It is surprising how much has been written and published about Roman forts, walls and defences, but how very little of these actually cover the defences of Rome.
This book sets out to describe the defences of the Eternal City, from the 4th century BC ditches and banks of the Roman King Servius Tullius, to the remarkably well-preserved Auerlian Walls built between AD 271 to 275.
This book covers the development of the wall from Auerlian's period, to its modification and extension under Maxentius, Honorius and even Belisarius.
Every subject is covered from methods of construction, to overviews of gates, walls, towers and the wall's function. The Castra Praetoria is also given a look.
This book is wonderfully edited with colour photographs and maps, as well as a few brilliant colour plates by Peter Dennis. My favourite illustration is one of Belisarius's victorious soldiers on the Wall's defences. Other illustrations include building cutaways and bird's eye-views.
The book finishes with a look at Garibaldi's defence of Rome. I found this section surprising as I originally thought this book would only cover the Classical period. This section was fascinating nonetheless.
This is a wonderful book, and a fine introduction to the subject. Highly Recommended!