In this book, Goldsworthy seeks to answer the questions, why some Roman generals succeeded outstandingly and what lessons we can draw. To answer them, he looks at a series of generals from the Punic Wars (3C BCE), which ensured Rome's survival and determined its future course, to the last great general, Belisarius, who tried and failed to recapture the western portion of the Empire in the 6C CE.
Each general had different styles and faced unique circumstances, but shared certain traits, namely, they ensured that their troops were logistically prepared and well trained; they shared the risks but more often maintained distance for purposes of command with an overview; and they instinctively knew where and when to press an engagement. Not all of them were popular with the men, many suffered distrust and neglect by the politicians they served, and their popularity and glory were fickle at best.
Each chapter offers a detailed portrait of one general, told in a narrative style and within the broader context of what was going on, with comparisons to their immediate rivals for power and how well they fit with current circumstances. For example, to counter the seemingly unbeatable Hannibal, Fabius Maximus developed a strategy of delay and avoidance, buying time for Rome to rebuild its forces after a series of defeats and thereby taking advantage of his adversary's mistaken assumption that Rome would sue for peace and come to reasonable terms. Though disdained as a dishonorable coward, he enabled Marcellus and later Scipio Africanus to pursue more offensive strategies. In contrast, Julius Caesar fought to enhance his own glory, to become one of the most powerful and famous Romans of all time. They are wonderful studies of character and leadership. That makes it a very different book from Goldsworthy's classic Roman Warfare, which offers neither narrative nor individual portraits, but concentrates instead on more technical detail.
The history of Rome is also brilliantly encapsulated. When its period as Mediterranean superpower began, the greatest threat it faced came from Carthage, a trading empire opposite it. At that time, the Roman army was composed of land-owning farmers, clearly amateurs who needed to return for the harvest season or face financial ruin. Once triumphant, Rome turned to conquest, eventually dominating the entire Mediterranean region, this time with a massive popular army that became a career for the poor and an almost managerial profession for aristocrats. It then became stable, a sprawling geographical patchwork that required a very different army to defend it; here, it was composed of smaller forces of different ethnicities and even mercenaries. As countries were absorbed, local aristocrats were allowed to take part as participants and citizens, ensuring their loyalty and widening to base of talent. While it helps if the reader knows this context already, it is not necessary.
The political calculus is also explained in perfect detail. Generals almost always came from the aristocrats, who were born to rule. During the time of the Republic, victory and glory were fundamental to the cultivation of political power: you had to win to rule for a limited time at the top of the hierarchy. However, highly competent generals were also feared as would-be kings or dictators, which led to their mistreatment at the hands of jealous senators. Though Scipio and others grudgingly retired into obscurity after outstanding careers, this later resulted in genuine threats to the political order: as armies became professionalized (a gradual process, Goldsworthy argues), they became loyal more to their generals than to the Republic itself, which was regarded as quasi-religious but proved politically unable to provide for retired soldiers. With his war on Pompey and the Boni, Julius Caesar definitively ended this, of course, but he had predecessors who waged civil war, i.e. Caius Marius and Sulla.
Following the death of the Republic, there was a constant tension between the Emperor and his generals: the former needed them to fight effectively, but feared that they would usurp power. Because Generals still came from the largely reconstituted Senate, it remained a hotbed of political intrigue that required constant attention. Often, by acclamation from their men or via their own ambition, they did indeed seize power, particularly when the Empire was so big that generals had to operate in faraway regions for lengthy periods of time. This resulted in periods of catastrophic instability, draining resources from defense and soon even maintenance of its vast territories. That is one reason why Rome declined over a long period of time.
Though it is not my subject, there is also plenty about military tactics and strategy. The reader can study grand wars of attrition (Gaul), skirmishes that led to negotiated peace or fealty (Parthia), and sieges (Jerusalem). Throughout, the limitations of the time - slow communications, difficult transport, and muscle-dependent weaponry - offer interesting contrasts with present day technologies. Goldsworthy even addresses the relevance of classical studies to the conduct of modern war in his concluding chapter.
This is a thoroughly engrossing read by a master writer and scholar. Goldsworthy is setting the standard for popular histories of Rome. Recommended warmly.