This reviewer considers Steele Brand’s new book, Killing for the Republic: Citizen-Soldiers and the Roman Way of War, to be not only a worthy addition to the fields of Classical History, Roman History, and Military History, insightful, eminently-readable, and pretty thorough, but also an excellent primer, if you will, for anyone studying the linkages between the Classical past and the American „experiment“ of recreating a republic for more modern times. Brand brings a unique perspective to his analysis because of having deliberately joined the US military, serving in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer, and thereby discovering for himself the differences between the soldier-citizens of today (a professional, specialized sub-set of society, with their own „culture“) and the citizen-soldiers of ancient times (representing the entire culture and called out or volunteering temporarily to protect and promote themselves, their land, their country). Inspired by the Greek historian of Rome, Polybius, the author sees our current era as one of drastic choices in the „life-cycle“ of modern democratic republics: Will they thrive on the virtues that gave birth to them or will they decline under the weight of their own political vices, known well to the ancients? Thus, readers will regard the publication of Brand’s work as quite topical and timely.
In the Preface, effectively entitled „Why Care about Long-Dead Fighting Farmers?“, Brand poses the fundamental question of his study: How did the Roman Republic take over the entire Mediterranean world by means of citizen-soldiers, farmers who transformed themselves into the most lethal, most ambitious killers of their time in defense of a socio-political constitution that outdid the states of ancient Greece and the seemingly-more powerful monarchies that emerged in the Hellenistic era? Here and throughout the book, Brand argues that the key ingredient in Roman success was „republican virtue“, something he asserts has been ignored or even attacked by anti-imperialist modern and post-modern scholars angry at the rise of the Roman Empire, by supporters in modern times of the allure of ancient dictatorship, as well as by modern individualistic and self-serving citizens to whom such virtue is „increasingly foreign“. Such scholarly, political, and popular voices, Brand suggests, have thereby disregarded the „spirit of Rome“ that won the world around them and that inspired the creation of modern republics, especially that in the United States. Rome’s Republic was a resilient culture in which a rare breed of proficient, politically empowered farmer-soldiers emerged, sacrificing themselves for the glory of the Republic, which they defined as the very soil they cultivated, a persistent resistance to tyranny, and a strong sense of the public good trumping any sort of hyper-individuality. Their „virtue“, then, consisted of a dedication to liberty (by which they meant no domination of the person by another), to divided sovereignty (by which they meant a balance of power at all levels of government and society), and to participatory citizenship (which thrived on the civic mindedness of individual Romans, their sense of loyalty and piety to more than just themselves). In other words, Rome’s Republic rose to lead the Mediterranean world not just because its soldiers had the physical capacity and the military preparedness, but especially because they were inspired and driven by the values of moral citizens first, last, and always; their families, leaders, customs, and institutions bred in them civic militarism that called for self-defense and defense of one’s community.
In his Prologue („The Roman and American Republics“), the author begins to demonstrate his thorough knowledge of American history (which he continues throughout the book), not only in terms of military matters, but also, and more importantly for his analysis, in terms of the differing perspectives among the Founders of the United States on the usefulness of imitating Rome’s Republic. In an eighteenth and nineteenth century world where education in Latin and in Classical history were so pervasive and standard, the promise and the pitfalls of Rome’s socio-political structures did not go unnoticed or undebated among early American leaders and thinkers. While acknowledging how men such as Ames, Madison, Jefferson, and Washington idealized Rome’s „pastoral“, „patriotic“ past, Brand also insists that modern Americans must embrace the virtues these Founders recognized in Rome’s citizens in order to maintain the „virtue“ that truly sustains republics.
Part 1 („Farmers, Citizens, and Soldiers“) consists of two chapters („The Soldier’s Farm“ and „The Citizen’s Republic“) in which Brand further elucidates the differences between modern and ancient armies, especially among republics, and between ancient states, like Athens and Sparta, on the one hand, and Rome, on the other. The expectations of family farming in Roman society instilled in their men the skills and values foundational for wider military success; they saw themselves as protectors of their ancestral lands and, by extension, of the Republic, which was the summation of all those lands and of their own widest sense of sovereign participation. They strove to win in war to secure peace for family farms; they destroyed in war only to be able to be creators in peacetime. For Rome’s Republic, the freest, most hardworking men made the best citizens, and such citizens made the best soldiers.
Part 2 („The Making of Rome’s Citizen-Soldiers“) consists of two chapters („Origins: Kings Armies of the Roman Hills“ and „Proving Ground: Surviving in Central Italy“) in which Brand contrasts Roman soldiering with that of other populations in Italy, including Etruscans, Sabines, Samnites, and Gauls. These chapters establish a strong background for those who would like to learn the many factors, including social stratification, culture, religion, colonization, and geography, that contributed in the widest terms to the military development of the Republic, as well as the finer details in the development of Rome’s manipular legions and military colonies. The author also illustrates how ancient stories about heroes and villains in Roman society, especially members of the aristocracy (like Cincinnatus), illustrated fundamental Roman expectations of statesmanship, dedication to communal glory, and public service in war and peace, all balanced with increased personal reputation and influence. Citizens at all social levels gained from the Republic’s growing power and territorial reach because citizens of all social levels served the Republic in whatever capacity they could. Moreover, fearsomeness in war and fairness in peace acquired more and more devoted allies for Rome among the non-Roman fighting-farmers of the Italian peninsula.
Part 3 („The Triumph of Rome’s Citizen-Soldiers“) consists of three chapters („Breakout: Competition and Discipline at Sentinum“, „The Greatest Trial: Beating your Betters at New Carthage“, and „Triumph: Phalanx Killers at Pydna“) that act as case-studies to demonstrate how the timocratic socio-political ethos, ceremonial exemplification, and religious institutions of the Roman Republic, when applied to the field of battle, brought fame to the elite, spoils to the troops, and hegemony to the entire Roman People, knitting citizens together in a common purpose. The Republic as a community faced challenge after challenge with a love of valor and camaraderie and a pious bravery, surviving and overcoming those challenges thanks to sometimes audacious flexibility on and off the battlefield, as well as conservatism in societal customs and family traditions, and the independent conscience and experience of even the humblest of citizen-soldiers (neither „drones“ nor „mavericks“, to use the author’s words). As in previous chapters, Brand utilizes the stories of Rome’s generals in this era, particularly Decius Mus, Scipio Africanus, and Aemilius Paulus, as well as rank-and-file fighting men, like Spurius Ligustinus, to illustrate the pervasive values of Republican civic militarism at the personal level.
Part 4 („The Death of Rome’s Citizen-Soldiers“) consists of two chapters („Questionable Legitimacy: The Ideal Statesman’s Battle at Mutina“ and „Suicidal Fratricide: Last Stand of the Citizen-Soldier at Philippi“) where the author uses the perspectives of Polybius and Cicero as lenses through which to understand the unravelling of the Republican culture. The ideals of the self-sacrificing soldier and the self-effacing general crashed into the real temptations of greed and power offered by the overwhelming imperial might of Rome, only to be further muddied by the competing claims of representing the legitimate Republic among the political factions that emerged in the civil wars of the first century BC. In such circumstances, the virtues of civic militarism drove citizen-soldiers to destroy their fellow citizens, which meant destruction of the Republic itself under the leadership of „ideal commanders“, like Caesar or Antony, rather than „ideal statesmen“, like Cicero. Strongly defending the position of Cicero, Brand argues that the latter failed to win the battle for the Republic because of how many moderate Romans shifted toward the enticements of autocratic rule, because of how many of the „assassins of Caesar“ failed to live up to their „constitutional scruples“, and because of how many citizens-soldiers behaved more like „treacherous“ „plunderers“ than like the national heroes of old.
Having carefully and fairly-comprehensively analyzed the relevant historical sources (literary, epigraphic, and scholarly) for the period from the early Roman kings through the Battles of Philippi, Brand, in his Epilogue („War Stories for the Emperor“), brings us briefly into the world of Roman Emperors. Now, the „warrior ethos“ replaced civic militarism, so that poets like Horace could speak of how sweet and right it is to die for one’s country at a time when this really meant dying for one’s Emperor, a „warlord“ who „possessed“ his soldiers rather than treating them like fellow citizens. The „participatory“ bedrock of the Republic, in military as well as in political terms, had given way to a reliance on „professionals“ that required much less of Roman citizens and that longer shared the values essential to the sustainability of a republican form of government and society. Once again, the author makes abundantly clear the lessons of these historical developments for our own times.
Recommendation: Highly recommended for general readers, advanced secondary school students, college and graduate students.