Warfare in the Roman World offers an informative overview to Rome’s long military history. In the introduction, A. D. Lee deftly and concisely describes nearly one thousand years of Roman warfare, from the mid-4th century BCE through the mid-seventh century CE. He also usefully outlines the organization of Rome’s army and summarizes the potential problems our surviving evidence poses for historians who try to reconstruct Rome’s martial past. Challenging popular misperceptions about Rome’s army as a static and invincible force, and avoiding over-analyzing technological and/or tactical aspects, Lee illustrates for readers the Romans’ consistent adaptation of their warfare as need and opportunity necessitated.
Each of the book’s seven main chapters traces several themes chronologically from the mid-Republic through late antiquity. Rather than focus on battles and tactics, Lee aims for more of a „social history of warfare in the Roman world“ (xv). He is thus concerned with illuminating Rome’s warrior culture, their recruitment procedures, demographics, the cultural imperatives of command and the willingness to follow, the emergence of a military identity, both collective and individual, the communication of such identities, and the experiences of warfare among commanders, soldiers, and civilians. Such a format furthers the trend in military history towards evaluating social, cultural, and organizational components of any society’s martial endeavors, a form perhaps best introduced by Jeremy Black’s encompassing definition of „military organisations“.1
Lee was tasked with covering a lot of ground, much of it guarded by entrenched positions, yet over and over, readers are treated to clear and concise tours of these historiographical battlefields. For example, Lee considers Roman attitudes towards war by succinctly and intelligently describing the debate between Roman historians (like William Harris) who portray Romans as extremely aggressive and those (like Arthur Eckstein) who, in large part employing modern International Relations theory, view Rome as not all that exceptional from other regional powers, at least in terms of their martial desires. While newcomers will need to dig into their libraries to discover just how serious this debate remains, Lee’s commentary offers an ideal introduction to one of the fields still hotly debated questions.2
Likewise, Lee skillfully handles the debates surrounding Rome’s demographics, recruitment and what modern historians like to call the „military participation ratio“ – the percentage of those who serve(d) at any given time. The debate between the high- and low-counters regarding Rome’s citizen population is neatly and clearly presented. Connected to demographic concerns, Lee also introduces a growing subfield in Roman military history: the analysis of Rome’s responses to military defeats and casualties of war. It is, of course, impossible to read everything on a topic as large as Roman warfare, let alone concisely summarize it all.3 As in the above examples, and in countless other places throughout his volume, readers are appropriately introduced to the significant debates remaining for scholars to work out.
There are some other major themes that cut across the entirety of the volume that ought to illustrate that the study of Roman history and Roman military history is far from a dry well. First among these should be the continued evaluation of the state as a sort of prime organizational invention that drove military success. Or rather, to question what precisely we mean by the state.4 With his careful discussion of the bureaucratization of the Roman army and society, and the difficulties and realities associated with military recruitment, Lee has readily recognized some of the issues that need further study. Beginning his own work in the mid-fourth century, while perfectly understandable, leaves open significant questions about the emergence and nature of the Roman state and its connection to Roman warfare.5
A second and connected theme found throughout the volume involves identity. Again, Lee is careful (and correct) to remind readers that the identity of those who fought Rome’s wars was fluid. A soldier in Rome’s armies may have been a Roman citizen legionary, a foreign auxiliary, or, in times of emergency, he may have been a recently freed slave. So what does that mean? For one thing, it means there is still work to be done. And not just the work of identifying the kaleidoscope of differing identities that made up the ancient „Roman“ world. It also requires that future Roman historians consider even more carefully than ever the conditions, features, and social realities that caused those varied peoples to join together in war.
Finally, Lee discusses „a concern to contribute to the ongoing integration of Roman military history into Roman historical studies more broadly“ (xv). Indeed that may be true, especially as the fields of ancient and Roman history – and history in general – continue to compartmentalize into niche areas of study. There is room to question some long-held assumptions about some long-fought historical battles, and Lee provides ample scouting reports for future scholars. But it might also be beneficial to broaden his concern as well. Not only would further integration and collaboration among Roman scholars be useful6, Roman and ancient military history might also play a larger role within the broader field of military history itself.7 In that sense, in reading Lee and seeing some of the challenges Roman historians still face in their quest to interpret and understand the past, ancient historians might serve as the tip of the spear (or pen) in the next generation of scholarly interpretation. As a map for those new to the field, Warfare in the Roman World is easy to read and follow without sacrificing academic rigor. In short, Lee provides the right amount of detail to set readers up for further study.
1 Jeremy Black, Military Organisation and Military Change in Historical Perspective, in: The Journal of Military History 62.4 (1998), pp 871–892.
2 On the current state of the debate, see Paul Burton, Roman Imperialism, Leiden 2010.
3 Some recent works of interest include: Simon Lentzsch, Roma Victa: Von Roms Umgang mit Niederlagen, Stuttgart 2019; Oliver Stoll, Vestigia Cladis – Roms Umgang mit militärischem Misserfolg: Niederlagen verdrängen, Siege betonen, Resilienz beweisen, Berlin 2019; Mathieu Engerbeaud, Rome devant la défaite, Paris 2017; Jessica H. Clark / Brian Turner (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Military Defeat in Ancient Mediterranean Society, Leiden 2018; Lee L. Brice (ed.), New Approaches to Greek and Roman Warfare, Hoboken N.J. 2019; Jeremy Armstrong / Matthew Trundle (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Sieges in the Ancient Mediterranean, Leiden 2019.
4 On this issue see, Toni Ňaco del Hoyo / Fernando López Sánchez (eds.), War, Warlords, and Interstate Relations in the Ancient Mediterranean. Brill’s Impact of Empire Series, Volume 28, Leiden 2018.
5 See further Jeremy Armstrong, War and Society in Early Rome: From Warlords to Generals, Cambridge 2016.
6 For an excellent example, see Amy Richlin, The Ones Who Paid the Butcher’s Bill: Soldiers and War Captives in Roman Comedy, in: Jessica H. Clark / Brian Turner (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Military Defeat in Ancient Mediterranean Society, Leiden 2018, pp 213–239.
7 Regarding a current level of [dis]engagement, see John D. Hosler, Pre-Modern Military History in American Doctoral Programs: Figures and Implications, in: The Journal of Military History, 82.2 (2018), pp 565–582.