Magazine article The Spectator

In the Name of Rome

Magazine article The Spectator

In the Name of Rome

Article excerpt

IN THE NAME OF ROME by Adrian Goldsworthy Weidenfeld, £20, pp. 414, ISBN 0297846663

Arms and the men

Adrian Goldsworthy has given his book the subtitle 'The men who won the Roman Empire'. It's a study of 15 Roman commanders, and this subtitle recognises a truth from which many prefer to avert their eyes: that empires are won, expanded, and defended by armed force, usually by armies, sometimes by navies and now also by air power. This is as true today as it was in the Ancient World. Coca-Cola and blue jeans may spread America's cultural influence, but it is the USA's possession of the most powerful and best equipped military force that makes it the world's one superpower.

Rome never doubted this. The first word of its imperial epic is arma. The Romans came to believe that they had a civilising mission:

So, Virgil. But note: 'after peace'. Or, as Vegetius (late 4th century AD) put it, 'If you want peace, prepare for war.'

Goldsworthy's choice of commanders ranges from Fabius Cunctator and Marcellus in the second Punic war (second century BC) to Gelisarius (6th century AD). Before the war against Hannibal there is simply not enough information to make an examination of any commander possible. After Belisarius

even the greatest kingdoms of the period were incapable of supporting military forces which in any way resembled the well-equipped, organised and disciplined Roman army of the late Republic or early Principate.

And indeed it is chiefly on that period that he dwells.

He remarks early on one difference between the Roman armies and modern ones: that the Roman commanders were not professional soldiers as we understand the term. There was no Roman equivalent of Sandhurst, and no Roman Staff College. This strikes us as unusual, but we should realise that that sort of professional training is comparatively recent, dating only from the 19th century. Roman generals weren't even professional soldiers as Marlborough, Wellington, and Napoleon were. They got command of armies in the days of the Republic because they were elected politicians. When wars were confined to Italy and the army was composed of citizen-farmers, it was commanded by that year's consuls. With the expansion of empire, this became impossible, the consul being elected for only one year. So a successful politician got himself appointed to a proconsular command (after his year in office in Rome) and this might be for as long as five years.

As Goldsworthy says, it sounds as if it shouldn't have worked; yet it did. Why? Well, very obviously, the armies the Romans fought had no Staff College and no professional training for their officers either. Second, the Roman legions, by the time they became professional, manned by full-time soldiers, were organised by extremely efficient NCOs - the centurions. Third, the aristocratic commanders were reared in a society steeped in a military tradition, one in which the martial virtues were most highly valued. Some were of course incompetents, as in all armies. Some didn't rise above the mediocre, though Goldsworthy appositely notes Moltke's remark that 'in war with its enormous friction, even the mediocre is quite an achievement'. Some, like the millionaire rival and sometime colleague of Caesar and Pompey, Marcus Crassus, grossly overestimated their ability and met disaster. But Goldsworthy makes the case that the best can be favourably compared to the greatest commanders in history. …

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