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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 18 November 2012
This is still a rather good one in the Osprey series. However, it was first published in 1995 and has not been updated since. There are also some glitches which are at least partly due to the overambitious scope that the author was required to deal with in as little as 64 pages. More than three centuries (236-565 AD) have to be covered when Karen Dixon and Pat Southern's Roman Cavalry from the first to the third century AD, published just two years later, could cover their topic in some 270 pages. Nevertheless, the timeframes are not quite the same and Simon MacDowall has addressed his in ways that are both fascinating and original.

First, there are a few glitches where this booklet shows its age. One is to mention that the Late Roman cavalryman was more likely to be a German, Sarmatian or Hun than an Italian. While this is true, it omits that he could still just as well be recruited from Gaul or Thrace, for instance. It also omits that he was just as likely to be recruited from within the Empire's borders, where large numbers of "barbarians" were settled from the Third century onwards, as he was from those the other side of the border. In fact, a number of historians and archeologists have shown since this booklet was published, there was on both sides of the "borders", starting with the Rhin and Danube, an area of several dozens of kilometres (perhaps even several hundred) where Roman influences could be felt north of these rivers and Germanic populations could be found within the borders of the Empire.

A related point is when the author mentions that this cavalryman "fought for pay or booty" - so did all soldiers of the Empire and an increasing majority of them no longer came from Italy. Whether "he did not particularly feel any great loyalty or sense of duty to the Empire he was defending", as the author stresses, is a more complex issue than would have warranted more discussion than just a sentence in an introduction. The same statement could just as well apply, for instance, the Roman legionaries that sided with the Flavians and pillaged Cremona in AD 69 just after their victory or those of Septimius Severus who destroyed Lugdunum. Behind this lurks the old debate about the "barbarization" of the army or rather the extent to which, over time, the army was still able to draw in and assimilate non-Romans. At least up to the fifth century, there is in fact very little evidence showing the "ethnic" barbarians that chose to fight for the Empire were lacking in loyalty or in their sense of duty. This, and the absence of a specific section dealing with the recruitment of the cavalrymen, is probably the book's main weakness. There are however many strongpoints as well.

The sections on equipment, training, interactions with the civilian population and tactics are quite good. The latter are illustrated by rather nice plates showing cavalry scouting, the rather tense relationships created when the comitatus troops were billeted in cities, as happened from the fourth century onwards. Then there are two superb plates showing the cavalry in action at Strasbourg against the Alamans and at the Milvian Bridge as they pursue the routed Praetorians. More generally, the plates are superbly integrated with the text.

Another great point was to draw on the now fashionable "Face of Battle", to show it from the individual cavalryman's point of view and to illustrate that this was about survival. This comes out brilliantly in both the text and the plates in two respects. One has already been mentioned: it is the plate showing surgery and medical treatment after one of Belisarius' engagements in Italy (Plate K) and which is drawn from Procopius. The other is the next one (Plate L) which shows a 6th century horse archer as he might have set out initially as he looked like after years of hard campaigning, with multiple item of his initial equipment having been replaced or supplemented through looting and scavenging.

A third good idea was to illustrate a campaign where cavalry played very much the main role. The author's choice was to pick the conquest of Vandal Africa by Belisarius. However, only part of the campaign is mentioned and it is rather oversimplified, probably because of space constraints.

So while this is still a valuable little book, and the plates are quite original, it has become somewhat dated and its scope was probably over-ambitious to begin with. Three stars.
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on 25 May 2002
If you are accustomed to an image of an ancient Roman soldier, prepare for shock. They look like barbarians, in fact they're mainly barbarians by origin.
This book gives us written accounts from that period, achaeological finds, drawn reconstructions and many more.
This book can be read without any historical knowledge of the period, although it's very helpful to have a wider perspective.
The effective use of cavalry prior to the introduction of stirrups is only mentioned, not properly elaborated.
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