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Late Roman Army Paperback – 20 Jan 2000
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'The book is both readable and enjoyable, and it can be heartily recommended as a starting point for the study of the Late Roman army.' - The Classical Review
'There is much in this book to be lauded, and it will be a useful tool for students and teachers of Roman military history and archaeology.' - Jane Webster, University of Leicester--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Pat Southern is head librarian in the department of archaeology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Karen Ramsey Dixon is a research fellow at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Information and evidence placed in context with limitations honestly acknowledged
Well wrththe price
They describe the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine - particularly the origin of the Comitatenses, or field armies as distinct from the frontier army and give a good impression of the complexity of the debate surrounding the shifting definitions and structures as the period progressed.
The authors include an interesting discussion of morale, motivation and identity in the context of increasing cultural mix within the late Roman army. It has been criticised for containing some mistakes and for its caution in drawing new academic conclusions, but provides an excellent starting-point for study, particularly for those enthusiastic amateurs looking for an expanded and more heavily referenced progression from more introductory titles, such as the 'Osprey' series.
One of the main strongpoints of this book, which is replicated in many other books authored by Patricia Southern, is to clearly show the limits of our knowledge. This the two authors do repeatedly throughout the book, although I will only mention a few examples.
One is the emphasis put on the fact that it is quite often very difficult or even almost impossible to ascribe a given military reform or even the building, rebuilding or repair of a given fortress to a specific Emperor. The typical example here is the extent to which the separation between “frontier troops” and “mobile army troops” should be ascribed to Diocletian (and the Tetrarchy more generally) or to Constantine or even to Valentinian I and his brother Valens. There is a similar example about the fortifications along the Empire’s frontiers, but also about the fortifications of the main lines of communications.
The authors describe succinctly but clearly the sources and the “Third century crisis” that the Empire narrowly survived after almost collapsing. This was, as the author’s chapter title summarises it quite neatly a period of “crisis and transition” that saw the first embryo of a central army being put together to address emergencies by Gallienus (AD 253-268) on an ad hoc basis. The authors are however quite uncertain as to whether there were mobile armies under the Tetrarchy or whether the Emperors and Caesars only had their bodyguards and a few elite units around them. Diocletian and his colleagues seem to have redeployed the bulk of the army on the frontiers which they restored.
On the other hand, Constantine is blamed by one (very unfavourable) source for having weakened the frontier armies, both in numbers and quality, and for having built up the mobile forces at their expense. As the authors show, this accusation is somewhat unfair. Initially, the frontier troops were not necessarily second class forces. Units of frontier troops were incorporated into mobile armies after the divided into these categories, showing that they were considered good enough to hold their own in these mobile forces. Finally, and although the frontier troops did have a lower status and the separation with mobile strike forces increased overtime, these frontier troops were maintained throughout the period and continued to be available in the Eastern part of the Empire in the early Sixth century. One point where the authors do believe that Constantine can be blamed was the decision attributed to him to quarter the mobile troops onto the civilian population in cities. As the authors show rather clearly, this had far-reaching and very negative consequences. It alienated the civil population by increasing the divide with the army and it severely undermined military discipline to an extent that civilians in some cases feared their own military just about as much as the so-called “Barbarians”, if not more.
Two other related themes are presented and discussed. One is about numbers or, to put it a bit differently, the rather vexed question of the size of the Late Roman Army under Diocletian and under Constantine, and to extent to which each Emperor was responsible for expanding it, bearing in mind that both of them did increase it. The other question is about how the forces were deployed across the Empire, and whether, and to what extent, they varied in quality. Here again, the authors do a good job in showing the limits of our existing knowledge because of incomplete sources. One of the main points made is that any numbers are not only tentative, with the authors mentioning some of the numbers quoted by various authors, but they are also more “guess-estimates” than anything else. Even the so-called Notitia Dignitatum, which only lists commands and the various units placed under each of them (but no specific numbers), needs to be handled with extreme care because the document is not consistent. The data for the Western part of the Empire is more or less updated to the early decades of the Fifth century (somewhere around AD 420-430) although some of it is not, but the commands and unit lists for the Eastern part seem to be those prevalent in the closing years of the Fourth century (with most authors conveniently mentioning AD 395, the year of the death of Emperor Theodosius I, although even this is an assumption).
The other theme that had led to major scholarly debates for decades is the so-called “barbarisation” of the Roman Army. Here also, the presentation and discussion is clear, with the main points being neatly made and the issues being set in context. The Roman Army had been recruiting and integrated so-called “Barbarians” for centuries without this affecting its performances. What changed however, according to the authors, is that in the last quarter of the Fourth century both the Eastern Roman Army (at Andrinople in AD 378) and the Western Army (at Frigid River in AD 394, but also in AD 388 when Theodosius defeated the Western Army of Magnus Maximus) suffered disasters. Rather than the recruitment of growing numbers of barbarians, losing the most experienced soldiers (and probably an even greater proportion of junior officers) was a loss that could not be repaired quickly. It was this loss, they believe, that was critical because it was precisely through these soldiers that Roman discipline was exercised and integration took place.
Other parts of the book – the pieces on conditions of service, equipment, fortifications and siege warfare – are good summaries even if perhaps not great.
Two other major themes of this book are the recruitment crisis and the poor morale from which the Roman Army allegedly suffered. The authors list the numerous examples that have often been quoted by both Jones and Mc Mullen and which are largely drawn from imperial legislations from the second half of the fourth century onwards. The problem here is that they never really forward any causes or enter into any real discussion explaining why recruitment from within the Empire seems to have become such an issue or why the army’s morale deteriorated.
There is also one main piece which is missing and this is a thorough assessment of the Late Roman Army’s effectiveness on the field, whether on campaign or in battle. A related missing piece is an attempt to identify what Arther Ferrill called “the turning point” or, in the different terms, the point of no return, although the authors seem to have been largely influenced by his views.
Unfortunately, and this is where Patricia Southern’s and Karen Dixon’s book tends to show its age a bit, the debate among historians has evolved quite a bit since it was published. For instance, Hugh Elton holds the view and demonstrates in his book (Warfare in Roman Europe AD 350-425) that the Roman Army in the West was still largely effective during the early Fifth Century, at least up to the death of Aetius. Other books, such as "The Rome that did not Fall: the survival of the East in the Fifth Century" (Friell and Williams), present a complete narrative of the Fifth century which is mostly absent in Southern's and Dixon's book. It also lists numerous reasons for the Fall of the West and the survival of the East, many of which are not examined in this good but narrowly focused book.
Smaller than A4 size, but not by much, there are some 200 pages with some 20 black and white plates. The work is lavishly illustrated with line drawings covering everything from helmets to fortifications. If there is a fault, and I think there is, it's rests with the size of the font used : it appears to be 8pt which makes it difficult to read for long periods I find, 10pt or 11pt would have been much better.
But, for all that, a good solid read.
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