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BOOK REVIEW: Taken at the Flood: The Roman Conquest of Greece

Posted By Russ Lockwood, Tuesday, September 17, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Taken at the Flood: The Roman Conquest of Greece

by Robin Waterfield

It's a little bit dry at times, the battle descriptions are nil, and sometimes Waterfield overwhelms you with too much detail about all the squabbling Greek City state names and timelines, but overall, this was a fascinating look at how the Roman Empire nibbled away at Greek independence to nab a new province.

It describes all the Macedonian Wars, dips into the league wars, and pokes into wars in Asia Minor -- all the while analyzing the geography and politics of Roman interest in Greece. The alliances, counter-alliances, and duplicity of all involved will make your head spin. Enjoyed it.

Tags:  Ancient 

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BOOK REVIEW: Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor

Posted By Russ Lockwood, Monday, August 26, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor

by Anthony Everitt.

Superb writing paired with excellent research, along with a skeptic's eye for some of the stories and a flair for filling in gaps in the ancient records make this a marvelous biography of Imperator Augustus Caesar. The bio creates a mesmerizing tale of a teenager with a famous and beloved uncle, Julius Caesar, but with little experience, rising to the challenge of not only keeping his life, but scheming his way to the pinnacle of power -- and staying there. Smarts, courage, and ruthlessness combined to aid his rise, along with the timely intervention of others and a certain amount of good fortune whenever he made potentially disastrous political and social mistakes. The chapters on the civil war are especially incisive.

Battles are downplayed in favor of politics, for Augustus excelled at political maneuvers rather than military ones, aided by two loyal boyhood friends Agrippa and Macraenus. Augustus stumbled, and sometimes badly, but always managed to stay close to the apex of power until he seized it and never let it go.

You may have appreciated the screenwriter's twists and turns in I Claudius, but that TV series has nothing on the reality of the era as presented by Everitt. Brilliant book.

Enjoyed it.

Tags:  Ancient 

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BOOK REVIEW: Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome: A Study of Roman Military Policy and the Barbarians Circa 375-425 A.D.

Posted By Russ Lockwood, Monday, August 5, 2019

From the MagWeb vault...

BOOK REVIEW: Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome: A Study of Roman Military Policy and the Barbarians Circa 375-425 A.D.

by Thomas S. Burns

The "fall of the Roman Empire" is much like the fall of the Roman Republic--not so much one defining event as it is a series of gradual changes over a number of years. In Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome, Professor Thomas Burns analyzes a crucial period of 50 years to explain how the Roman military institutions evolved--or devolved if you prefer--from the unified legionary system of early and mid-empire to the fragmented barbarian discord of late empire.

Burns concentrates on the western half of the empire in analyzing the influence of "barbarians" on the "Roman" military system. The eastern half, though pressed, retained command and control long after the west collapsed. He argues persuasively that the Roman empire suffered not from any one particular calamity, for example, the disastrous loss at the Battle of Adrianople or the sack of Rome, but a steady erosion of Roman military culture resulting from interlinked internal economic, political, and demographic pressures. Indeed, he contends the policies used to deal with such pressures were typical Roman responses that had served the Republic and Empire well for a thousand years. However, while each individual decision and modification served to perpetuate Roman civilization, the collective weight of these decisions ultimately crushed the system it strove to protect.

Under Pressure

The growing influence of barbarians in the Roman army stems from recruitment problems in the core areas of the Empire. In the glory days of Republic and Empire, the Romans used barbarians as specialized forces, for example, the bulk of the cavalry, while the legions contained citizens, or auxiliaries who were granted citizenship at the end of a two-decade tour of duty. Yet in the later stages of empire, those core areas that used to pump out legionnaires increasingly came under the influence of wealthy landowners who retained immense agricultural help--and forced recruiting officers to look to the frontiers for Roman soldiers.

The Roman emperors often allowed barbarians to cross the frontier and settle on uninhabited lands inside the empire to boost the supply of soldiers and taxable wealth. Burns says this was consistant with the Roman practice of "receptio," roughly translated as surrender. However, as increased numbers of barbarians entered the empire, they had little acclimation to the Roman culture and even fewer ties to supporting the political structure.

As recruitment increased to counteract "barbarian" invasions from the outside and usurper "invasions" from the inside, the military practices of earlier generations, for example, dispersing recruits across the empire and extensive training in the Roman method of warfare, fell by the wayside. Since military power often equated with political power, barbarian leaders who could deliver the troops gained political prominence, further weakening the unifying force of Roman military culture within the army.

Chapter 5 offers an exceptional view of the recruitment, garrison, and deployment procedures in a frontier province near Italy. Backed by archeological discoveries such as grave finds and other excavations, Burns neatly advances his arguments. There is a danger of speculation by using one province and applying it to half the empire, yet Burns makes the case that all frontier provinces suffered the same fate.

Refreshing and Dry

It is refreshing to discover that Burns doesn't pretend to know everything--and indeed he admits that the archeological and literary evidence (thankfully translated into English) are often in short supply. However, he carefully constructs likely scenarios and hypotheses and offers explanations. For example (sans footnotes):

    Gratian went east in 382 as far as Viminacium in Moesia I, which probably was still within eastern jurisdiction, where he issued edicts on 5 July 382. Why Gratian was in Viminacium in 382 is a bit of a mystery, His rapid pace (not longer than two weeks between Padua and Viminacium) seems to preclude any type of military movement. Since as late as 20 June 382 Gratian was in Padua, he certainly had no trouble getting to Viminacium. If indeed Theodosius joined him there, neither did he. No army could have moved so swiftly. It is possible that Gratian hoped to meet Theodosius, but something came up and he departed after receiving only a messenger from Constantinople. Gratian could not have played any major part in a Balkan campaign. He merely turned around and returned to Italy. Illyricum was largely pacified. (p. 87-88)

A couple of footnotes within this paragraph expand on this paragraph with supplementary evidence about when and where edicts were issued. Here is Burns' strength: historical analysis mixed with literary and archeological evidence. This example was part of Gratian's role or not in Balkan military operations. When Burns tackles minutiae, he tackles it with élan and a fine grasp of not only the specific movements and policy decisions, but the interpretation of those movements and decisions.

Or take this example, in which Burns contrasts old and new practices:

    The processes of agrarian evolution to less labor-intensive crops to supply the towns and garrisons had begun in many areas of the West long before. With it came even greater difficulties in tax collection, decried repeatedly in the law codes. Nor was the problem essentially demographic or social response to military service whereby men avoided or refused service through a variety of means. The legendary citizen-soldiers of the Republic who fought without pay for family and friends were dust in their graves. Not even Vegetius could conjure up their shades as he longed for a return of the army of Julius Caesar. The limitanei and barbarian auxiliaries were about as close to those old soldiers as the times could provide...The armies of the day were small and incapable of grand operations. Even their annihilation, which never occurred, would not have drastically changed the situation. Stilicho feverishly manipulated the military and political structures to balance and control the rapidly deteriorating imperial system. (p.202)

However, without such analysis, Burns' narrative turns into a dry recitation of movement--a swirling mixture of names, places, and dates. While not exactly uninspiring, it tends to be dry and requires considerable concentration.

Battles and Leaders

Note that Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome is not about detailed battle plans, tactics, orders of battle, and the like. It is an analysis of the military structure, and the evolution thereof, of the western empire of Rome. What battle descriptions it contains, such as Adrianople, are brief and tied--rightfully so--to the overall premise.

Summary

The leap from "Hannibal et portas" (Hannibal at the Gate [of Rome]) to barbarians inside the gates is as dramatic as it is long. By focusing on a narrow point in time, Burns concentrates his considerable analytical powers on the crucial period of military evolution. He details the creeping instability of reforms and compromises that fragmented the unified Roman imperial state into numerous independent barbarian kingdoms with feudal warlord mentalities. Barbarians Within the Gates of Rome offers exceptional insight, backed by solid historical evidence, into that process. Burns' touch, while not always deft, brings us greater understanding about the processes of decline and the ultimately doomed efforts to restore the Roman empire. It is a much more complex subject to tackle than relating an individual battle or campaign, and he melds the elements of archeological finds, literary extracts, and analytical speculation into a coherent body of knowledge examining the late Roman military establishment.

Tags:  Ancient 

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BOOK REVIEW: Boiotia and the Boiotian League

Posted By Russ Lockwood, Monday, August 5, 2019

From the MagWeb vault...

BOOK REVIEW: Boiotia and the Boiotian League: 423-371 B.C.

by Robert J. Buck

I picked this up from a discount rack for a few dollars on the strength of its title. The period covered a number of internecine and inter-city-state wars.

Sadly, the military aspects of these wars receive scant attention. This is primarily a political book, which is helpful for background information. Battles garner a sentence or two, and campaigns get a paragraph--mostly about which cities changed hands and when. Numbers are rarely used.

As Boiotian background, this is fantastic. As military history, it merits but a fleeting mention.

Tags:  Ancient 

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BOOK REVIEW: Hannibal

Posted By Russ Lockwood, Monday, August 5, 2019

From the MagWeb vault...

BOOK REVIEW: Hannibal

by G.P. Baker

Reprint of 1929 book does an excellent job of furthering information about Hannibal. Favorable bio treads well worn ground with crisp prose and confident conclusions.

Dodge, Baker, and Grant are three of my favorite authors. Years and new archaeology/scholarship may make some of their conclusions obsolete, but you can’t beat them for a firm grounding in the essence of classical history. Baker’s Hannibal is a keeper.

Tags:  Ancient 

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BOOK REVIEW: Augustus: The Golden Age of Rome

Posted By Russ Lockwood, Monday, August 5, 2019

From the MagWeb vault...

BOOK REVIEW: Augustus: The Golden Age of Rome

by G.P. Baker

Cooper Square Press, 2000, $18.95, ISBN 0-8154-1089-1, 324 pages

This reprint of the 1937 edition reads pretty well after 63 years, and although scholars may have added archaeological evidence since then, the portrait of the first Roman Emperor--with apologies to Julius Caesar--remains an excellent source of information. Baker weaves a sympathetic portrait of this teenager thrust into the limelight after the assassination of Julius. How Octavian plays the political game makes for an incredible story and Baker tells it well.

Baker also outlines the reasoning behind the events, detailing the options and outcomes of political maneuverings and social reconstruction in the wake of becoming heir to Julius and emperor in his own right.

"The new attitude..., which Augustus helped to make fashionable where his influence penetrated...Not to worry, nor to attribute importance to trifles, to have faith in good sense, and to hold ourselves quiet; to follow our own genius and to enjoy what we really like best-and to accept the consequences, concerning which we most of us have shrewder ideas than we are willing to admit-this was the new attitude; perhaps a little puzzling at first until we have grasped its implications...To avoid extremes and take the middle road was the whole theory on which Augustus had worked." (page 277)

Battles and campaigns receive adequate coverage for a one-volume biography. Certainly the battle of Philippi is explained, as is the siege of Perusia, and the running campaign against Sextius Pompeius. But while important, the focus remains on Augustus' efforts to bring peace and usher in a golden age. How ironic that a man who began with a civil war against the aristocrats who had killed Julius, followed by an even larger civil war against Mark Anthony, as well as continual skirmishes and campaigns against external enemies, would also be known for his improved administration, revamped constitution, and transition from civil war to civil peace.

Late in life, he remarked that he had found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble. Baker's ode to Augustus is a favorable one.

Enjoyed it.

Tags:  Ancient 

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BOOK REVIEW: The Battle That Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest

Posted By Russ Lockwood, Wednesday, June 19, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Battle That Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest

by Peter S. Wells. Another mis-titled book that actually covers Roman and Germanic societies before finally getting to the battle on page 161 of a 256-page book. The battle itself lasts only one chapter, with another chapter on the archeology of the place that goes until page 186. So, the battle is only 25 pages.

That said, it's a nice introductory book to the period, but if you've got dozens of books of that type already on the shelf, it doesn't particularly add much to the knowledge base.

The battle itself is described and explains the deviousness of the German ambush quite nicely. Records from that long ago and current archeology (book came out in 2003) being what they are, maybe that's all the battle needs. Enjoyed the two chapters.

Tags:  Ancient 

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Book Review: The Defeat of Rome: Crassus, Carrhae & the Invasion of the East

Posted By Russ Lockwood, Tuesday, May 21, 2019
by Gareth C. Sampson.

With historical records relatively scanty, especially on the Parthian viewpoint, this covers a far longer time than the actual battle, which is Chapter 6 pages 114-147 of the 181 pages of text (book is 224 pages, including excellent discussion of sources, as well as bibliography, index, etc.). The description of the battle covers the same details as before and the same general series of events as before, but if you are new to the battle and general time period, this is a fine book. Enjoyed it.

Tags:  Ancient  Roman Empire 

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Book Review: A History of Asia - Volume I: Formation of Civilizations from Antiquity to 1600

Posted By Russ Lockwood, Tuesday, May 21, 2019
by Woodbridge Bingham, Hilary Conroy, and Frank W Ikle.

This 1964 book is rather dull in style, but contains a good overview of areas and empires within Asia within the time period. I only got about halfway through, so I can't say I enjoyed it, but if you needed a quick hit of information by the three professors, you can't go wrong.

Tags:  Ancient  Asia-Pacific  Dark Ages  Medieval  Renaissance 

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Book Review: Maximinus Thrax: From Common Soldier to Emperor of Rome,

Posted By Russ Lockwood, Tuesday, May 21, 2019
by Paul N. Pearson.

Biography of a Roman Emperor traced his rise from just another soldier -- admittedly one that stood about 7 feet tall -- to officer to general to Emperor (allegedly at the insistence of the legion, including officers who drew swords on him to take the purple or else). He campaigned in Dacia and then eastwards in the 230sAD, and then battled against counter-coups before his demise. His details were nicely interspersed with events in and around the Empire. Enjoyed it.

 

Tags:  Ancient  Roman Empire 

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