War and Society in Imperial Rome, 31 BC-AD 284

By Brian Campbell | Go to book overview

3

THE NATURE OF WAR

What great courage is revealed! The sword [is red from killing the enemy] and worn away with slaughter. The [spear by which the fierce] barbarians were pierced and fell completes [the trophy]. 1

In these bloodthirsty verses the son of L. Apronius (governor of Africa AD 18-21) gives one view of battle. It is, however, difficult to get close to the experience of ordinary soldiers in the battle line. The evidence of inscriptions and papyri is mainly concerned with the army’s detailed administrative procedures and has led some to define it as a ‘bureaucratic army’. 2 But the army existed to fight battles and to extend and safeguard the interests of Rome by killing sufficient numbers of the enemy. As for literary sources, manuals on ancient warfare and military science tend to be technical or concerned with the ploys of famous generals, and remote from the crush of battle. 3 Battle descriptions are plentiful in the works of historians or other writers, but bring their own problems of interpretation for the reader. They are often brief and lacking in detail, deal only with certain incidents, and do not treat soldiers as individuals. They are inevitably composed from the point of view of upper-class writers, who are not in the main interested in what happened to the ordinary soldier, just as they ignored the lower classes generally. 4 Still less is there any direct evidence for the feelings of those who faced the Romans in battle. 5 In some cases battle accounts are emotional and rhetorical, though here we should distinguish between embellishment of a factual account and a literary construct that is entirely a work of imagination. It has been argued that the Roman narrative tradition rather than the Greek came to dominate later European literature and military history, simplifying characterization and motivation, and portraying legionaries as pliant automatons. 6

Yet it would be unwise to exclude ancient accounts of battles entirely from an enquiry into the nature of battle. This is especially true if for literary accounts of battle we substitute individual items abstracted from the descriptions of different authors relating to battles in different periods, in order to illustrate a modern reconstruction of what an ancient battle ‘must have been’ like. Ancient battle narratives do have an important contribution to make, not least because some of the authors were prominent in Roman life and administration. Tacitus had held high office and had an

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