The Roman Army: A Social And Institutional History Book Review

Published: 2021-06-22 00:01:12
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Category: Sociology, Literature, Time, Military, Army, History, War, Rome

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Book Review of Pat Southern’s, The Roman Army: A Social and Institutional History
In The Roman Army: A Social and Institutional History, Pat Southern covers over one thousand years of history in which the Roman military evolved from its original base of citizen-soldiers defending a city-state to a force of perhaps one million troops defending far-flung frontiers in Europe, Africa and Asia. She uses a wide variety of historical sources including written records, coins, statuary, and archeological materials, with a good understanding that the surviving information is quite limited, even about the total population of the empire and the size of its legions. Southern’s description of the Roman Army is highly detailed and even encyclopedic, although its generals, battles and campaigns were too numerous to be addressed in-depth, and the sources are often too limited in the later imperial era.
Rome’s armies evolved over the centuries to meet the practical needs of the moment, rather than any long-term strategic master plan. By the same token, the organization and the composition of the army changed from mostly Romans and Italians under the republic to every nationality in the Empire, and it probably consisted of a Celtic-Germanic majority by the time the empire collapsed in the West. Over the centuries, the military and political leadership class also shifted from its original base of Roman senators and nobles to include many provincials and subject peoples, who were all granted Roman citizenship in the 3rd Century AD. Under the empire, only a minority of those who fought in the Roman Army had ever actually seen the city of Rome, and even the capital was relocated to wherever the emperors had their military headquarters.
During the Roman Republic, the army consisted mostly of citizen-soldiers recruited from the peasant and artisan classes. Ironically, military conquests overseas undermined these social groups due to the importation of slaves into Italy, which also led to the social conflicts and civil wars that brought down the Roman Republic. Roman legions became the private armies in the pay of warlords like Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey and Julius Caesar, and this was also a recurring problem throughout the history of the empire. Emperors were frequently dispatched in military coups by the own guard units or by rival military commanders, and the empire never fully resolved the problem of the imperial succession. Military service was almost always an essential prerequisite for higher office in the state, as well as being a family tradition for most male members of the aristocracy. Although the records are limited, at least half of the imperial budget was also spent on the military. Southern holds with the traditional historical view that “the Romans consistently adopted a warlike disposition", frequently expressed in civil wars between rival factions and claimants to the throne (Southern, p. 171). For most of its history, however, whether on the offensive or defensive, the Roman Empire had no overall strategy or vision beyond the practical need for survival, nor did it have any other great power rivals apart from the Persian-Parthian Empire in the East. Despite several attempts from the Late Republic to the Late Empire, it never succeeded in conquering Persia, as Alexander the Great had.
Southern has very detailed information about virtually every aspect of the Roman Army, including ranks, uniforms, medals, weapons, maps, and insignia, and how these changed over time, as well as a lengthy Latin glossary. She discusses how the military was fed and supplied as well as its transportation and communications, and how Roman troops were frequently used in peacetime for the construction of roads, bridges, aqueducts and other public works. Veterans received pensions and land grants, and were often used to settle new Roman colonies in frontier regions. Under the empire, soldiers also performed a wide variety of tasks, including law enforcement, tax collection, customs enforcers and couriers. Southern rarely mentions the Roman Army’s role as an occupying force or in crushing rebellions, such as the two major revolts in Judea, which was the chief theme of Benjamin Isaac’s The Limits of Empire (1992).
In 1996, Southern published a more extensive work on the late Roman Army, which is compressed into a single chapter in this book. Under the administrative and military reforms of Diocletian and Constantine, the network of frontier defenses expanded as did the size of reserve forces behind the lines, based on the “division into mobile field armies and the static frontier troops”, while all Roman cities became more heavily fortified at the same time (Southern, p. 247). Executive and military authority was permanently divided between the eastern and western emperors, with Constantinople serving as the well-defended and strategically located capital of the East. Since at least two-thirds of the population and the main economic strength of the Roman Empire was located in the East, this half endured for centuries while the West crumbled under the onslaught of the Germanic invaders.
Rome’s battles and military campaigns were too numerous for Southern to cover in great detail, and she concentrates on the wars of the Late Republic, including the civil wars and private armies of Crassus, Sulla, Marius and Julius and Augustus Caesar, and the offensive campaigns in Germany and Britain during the early imperial period. After this time, the frontiers of the empire were fixed along the Rhine and Danube, and most of the fighting was defensive in nature. Southern notes that among the unanswered questions about the Roman Army requiring future study are the size and composition of the legions and how this changed over time, as well as its largely defensive strategy after it ceased to expand. In the last two centuries of the Western empire’s existence, its population may have declined by half, yet it had to maintain frontier defense forces and auxiliaries at least double the size of the early empire. This was a burden far greater than it could sustain in the long run. Edward Luttwak’s history made a similar point that the overall strategy of the empire was defensive, and that it also depended as much on the employment of auxiliaries, mercenaries and client states as the legions. Relatively little of this history could be based on the surviving written sources, but on additional archeological research on the Roman frontier regions, particularly in areas like the Balkans.
Southern, P. (2007). The Roman Army: A Social and Institutional History. Oxford University Press.

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