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Somewhat useful, although outdated
on 27 November 2014
This Osprey title is useful up to a point. However, it has two main flaws. It has not been updated and it contains some rather strange and unsubstantiated statements.
The book was first published in 1996. It has been reprinted numerous times since then, but never updated. Consequently, all of the references on which the author has drawn to pull this title together are over twenty years old, with the most recent published in 1993. This is clearly a pity. It essentially means that any reader wanting to go further will be unable to access the most recent literature on the subject.
The second flaw is perhaps more serious and has been already noted by several other reviewers when they state that the author is “biased”. I do not know it this was the case, at the time Nicholas Sekunda wrote this book. What I do know, however, is that this book contains some blunt statements that are not backed by any historical evidence and even contradicted by whatever evidence there may be. The section where this appears the most clearly is the last one about “the Roman legion in battle”.
Other reviewers have noted the strangeness of the statement according to which “brutality and massacre were hallmarks of Roman methods of warfare.” They were NOT. This is not to imply that the Romans were all sweetness and light, of course, but simply that all powers could be – and at times were – just as bad, brutal and ruthless, and obliterated the cities they stormed after having slaughtered their inhabitants and sold the survivors into slavery. The point here is that such behaviour was not in any way specific to Rome. To mention just a few examples, Alexander did it to Thebes, Tyr, Gaza and to numerous cities during his Indian campaign. Sparta had done it to Plataea and Athens had done it to Melos (and both had done it to numerous other cities as well). Phocaea was destroyed by the Persians after revolting against them and Jerusalem’s population was deported to Mesopotamia, at least those who survived the siege of the city. Carthage and the Greeks happily destroyed each other’s cities and also slaughtered or enslaved its populations, and one could on, and on and on listing dozens of examples.
A second inaccurate statement is the emphasis put on Rome’s superiority in manpower. The numbers mentioned (700,000 foot and 70,000 horses) are drawn from Polybius. However, he also mentions that Rome put in the field about a third of such numbers during the Second Punic War and this number, which the author has omitted, is more interesting and valuable because it represents something more concrete that just a paper figure. This allowed Rome to fight the war on three to four fronts at the time (Spain, Italy, Sicily and Illyria) during a number of years. It also allowed Rome to replace huge losses on all fronts (in Italy, where Hannibal destroyed three armies but also in Spain where two more where destroyed) and end up by winning what was at least in part a war of attrition.
Another crucial point that is omitted is that about two-thirds of the Roman manpower was made up by the Latin, Italic, Etruscan and Greek allies. This is why it was so crucial for Hannibal to detach Rome’s allies from it. However, despite a few significant exceptions (the Campanians, Lucanians and Bruttians, for instance), he largely failed to do so.
Also inaccurate is the statement about Hannibal invading Italy “with less than 20000 men”. This number only represents the African and Spanish infantry that crossed the Alps and emerged in the Po Valley. The cavalry is omitted (another six thousand or so). Also omitted are the facts that the size of Hannibal’s army before crossing the Alps was more than double this size (over fifty thousand) and the force with which he left Spain seems to have been even larger still. Moreover, the author also fails to mention that Hannibal made up his losses by heavily recruiting among the Gallic tribes settled in Cisalpine Gaul so that by the time he fought his battles at Trebia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae, his army was about forty thousand strong.
Contrary to the author’s assertion, it was clearly NOT “Rome’s capability to mobilize such huge armies which defeated Macedon”, simply because it did not mobilise a “huge army” in this case.
Finally, the statement according to which “Rome frequently enjoyed a considerable superiority in cavalry during her battles with Macedonian and Greek armies and that this was a principal factor of her victories” is an over-simplification, at a minimum, while the belief that “the Macedonians were rarely able to raise more than a few hundred horsemen” at the time in unsubstantiated and needs to be seriously qualified and put into context.
First, it does seem that Philip V’s cavalry force at the Battle of Cynoscephalae (about 2000) was smaller than that of the Romans and of their allies, with the latter Latin and Italic allies providing the bulk of the cavalry (typically 1800 to Rome’s 600) to which several hundred Numidian light cavalry are to be added. However, the Macedonians had, by that time, lost previous encounters. They were also fighting in hilly and mountainous terrain where cavalry superiority was clearly not the “principal factor”.
Second, at the battle fought at Pydna, both sides lined up about 4000 cavalry each so that there was no “considerable superiority” on the Roman side and, if the total is correct for the Macedonian side (that is if all the Thracian and Gallic contingents are included), it may in fact be the Macedonians that had an edge in terms of numbers. Here, and contrary to what happened during the previous war, the Romans lost the first encounters which mainly pitted cavalry and light infantry forces on both sides.
As for the rest of the contents, they are decent and even good at times, but not exceptional.
You get the usual descriptions of Roman equipment (pilum, gladius, shields, cuirass, helmets) and on the Roman organization (the legion and the maniple system, the various types of troops: velites, hastati, principes and triarii), but even there, some elements are missing or go unexplained. For instance there is nothing about the pugio (the triangular shaped dagger that was, if I remember correctly, borrowed from the Iberic tribes) and the exact role of the antesignani. We are told that these were selected soldiers assigned special tasks, but what these tasks were remains a bit of a mystery.
Finally, there are the plates by Angus McBride, and the other illustrations. The plates are mostly good, except for one thing. The Roman cavalry except on the last plate which depict a scene at the very end of the period covered during the Jugurthine War are shown to be unarmored. This is somewhat strange and seems to contradict the statement of Polybius which is only reproduced in part and according to which cavalry equipment was improved. Historians nowadays believe that the reform that Polybius hints at might have taken place after the disaster of Cannae and anyway that it was in place by the time war broke out against Macedon.
Three somewhat generous stars.