TOP 100 REVIEWERon 4 November 2012
This is an outstanding book that is heavily inspired by John Keegan's revisionist "Face of Battle" (1976) and which seeks to do for the Romans what he has done for later periods (from Azincourt to the Battle of the Somme) and what Victor Davies Hanson did for the Ancient Greeks. Accordingly, you get a fascinating presentation of the "General's battle", "the Unit's battle" and "the Individual's battle" while his first chapters lay out the Army's organization, the main opponents it was confronted with over the period (Gauls, Germans and Parthians) and the campaign.
It does go into a fair amount of detail in explaining the training, equipment, morale, leadership, strategy, and tactics of the Roman Army. It also has the merit of showing that the Roman Army between 100BC and 200AD was not invincible or made up of supermen. There were defeats. Discipline did break down on a number of occasions and troops were prone to deserting. Another interesting insight, which goes back to AHM Jones (1964) and his work on the latter Roman Empire, but which the author also mentions for the Army during the earlier part, is that units were never at full strength and often considerably understrength, especially after a long period of campaigning, such as Caesar's legions during the Civil War.
There are however, a number of problems with this book which is not, despite its qualities, the definite reference that it is portrayed to be. It is in fact a mix between the so-called "mechanistic approach", which the author criticizes so much and then applies himself, and the "face of battle" approach, which insists more on human factors and emotions associated with war. One of the issues I had when reading this book is that BOTH, and not only the "mechanistic approach", can also be very much subject to anachronistic assumptions by the various authors.
Interestingly, some of the best parts of the book are those that focus on Caesar's generalship at both strategic and tactical levels. It shows, very well in my view, how very aggressive and offensive he was in his campaigns. Even if he did not command from the front, in hero and Alexander the Great style, he was also very much of a gambler, always ready to take high risks if the rewards were worth it and would allow him to deal a knock-out blow straight away and crush the ennemy here and there. Amusingly, and despite Goldsworthy's rants, one of the pieces I preferred in th whole book was the section on different styles of generalship...
Then there are some other problems. First, and contrary to its title, there is very little on the Imperial Army of the Second Century. There is a bit more on the first century AD. Most of the contents, however, focus on the first hundred years of the period, and on Caesar and his times in particular. I am surprised to discover that the author had almost nothing to say about the Roman Army under Trajan, for instance. The point here is that, whatever your opinion on the book's contents, this does not really cover all the period and the author's excuse - that the sources are much less abundant for the Second Century sounds just like that: an excuse...
Second, I had a bit of a problem with the author's tone and methods, which I found unnecessarily unpleasant and very pretentious, in particular when mentioning in his conclusion that he has "attempted to show that both the popular and the scholarly view of the Roman army are at best highly misleading, and in most cases utterly false."
The author is largely correct when pointing out the risks of relying too much on a single source of information, such as the study of Roman equipment, on archaeology, on a mechanistic approach of the Roman Army's organization, as if it was one big machine, or even on studies emphasizing the interactions of the army with the Roman society and its impact on the frontiers. His statement with regards to the "popular view" of the Roman army may even be valid. However, to try to make his readers believe that, up to now, all other scholars have got wrong but that he is going to set the record right is both clumsy and insufferable
However, while the author does have a case to make for the need to study the Roman Army from the viewpoint of the unit and individual soldier, there is no need to be disparaging and dismissive of any other point of view. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the author does in this book and it is hardly the best way to convince a reader that his book is, for instance, so much better than that of Lawrence Keppie ("The Making of the Roman Army") which he seems set in attacking.
Third, there is also a problem with the author's style: the contents of the book are VERY repetitive, not only because each sections has a multi-page summary but also because the same point is made time and again. The maximum I counted was five times, sometimes using almost exactly the same words across the whole book. This, which has little to do with the fact that the book is drawn from the author's PhD thesis, makes the reading somewhat tedious and less than fully convincing. I got the impression that the author was obliged to use the same examples to make his points because he had no other ones to produce.
Fourth, there are tensions, or even contradictions between the author's sweeping statements, and what he does himself. One of his main lines of attack when criticizing other scholars is to state and explain that they have made numerous anachronistic assumptions. This is largely true, but then he continues and does the same, comparing cavalry fights during Roman times with those of Napoleon's and Wellington's cavalry in Spain!
So, at the end of this review, the author's conclusion about the army not being "incredibly modern, highly organized and rigidly disciplined" but only better than average and better than what its opponents could field is not exactly a revelation. The author, whether deliberately or not, makes it sound like the truism it is.