Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Book Review - Rome and the Sword

A break from the usual fare on this blog, I'm sure you'll agree! I became hooked on history when I was a youngling, my interest in history was sparked by tales of Troy and the Odyssey, followed by the deeds of Caesar (influenced not least because of a passion for Asterix!)

A couple of books by Peter Connolly on the Greek and Roman armies, and Rome's enemies (which still hold pride of place in my library) with his glorious full colour pictures fired my imagination as only a young boy's can be. I still have (somewhere) a couple of 15mm lead legionaries and auxiliaries (with now broken spears and pilums) courtesy of my family from our European holiday when I was 12. Maiden Castle, Housesteads at Hadrian's wall, Chedworth villa with its amazing mosaics, Bath; all were on the itinerary because of their links to the Roman period.

Reading this book was like being transported back in time in more ways than one! The author actually starts the book by saying that his interest in the period started with a simplistic childhood admiration for the fighting qualities of the Roman legionary, more or less exactly the same as me. He goes on to say that a real understanding of the period requires an appreciation of what the legionary fought for, as well as against. How the empire was made basically on the blade of the sword;  how it was maintained by the sword and how society was geared for the benefit of the soldiers is something that is not always appreciated by those who laud the Roman Empire as a civilising influence on a barbaric Iron Age Europe and the source of modern liberal democracy.

The author traces the developments of the Roman Empire from Rome's origins to the fall of the Western Empire using the sword designs used by the soldiers as a barometer, from Greek-style xiphos through to the Sassanid influenced proto-broadsword. The adoption of different styles of swords reflects Rome's ability to absorb foreign ideas and peoples, as well as methods of fighting. From early imitation of the Greek hoplite phalanx, to their more open maniple organisation; from the adoption of Celtic style shields, helmets and chain-mail, to the use of the famous gladius Hispaniensis; from the adoption of the lorica segmentata to the increasing use of 'barbarian' allies; all these indicate an extremely adaptable and ruthless civilisation. They were able and willing to use anything and anyone to remain the top of the heap, while always harking back to the 'glory days' of the Republic.

The author also makes clear the success of the Roman Empire; the dual nature of the sword and the open hand. If resistance is met, then the sword enforces Roman might, but on the flip-side, once defeated, the political elite of the defeated were offered the open hand, ie. 'Join us and receive all the benefits of the Empire'. That explains the success in Rome conquering the Mediterranean basin, but not the wilds of 'Barbaricum' east of the Rhine and north of the Danube; the Germanic tribes just weren't politically developed enough for the 'open hand' to get any purchase. The sword could be, and was,  employed successfully in this area (bar the unfortunate experience of Varus in AD 9), but without a political leadership to co-opt, the effort to subdue the tribes was not deemed worth the effort. The Gauls  who faced Caesar had just begun to form proto-states, ironically because of long contact with Rome, and were relatively 'easy pickings'. The interior of Spain, on the other hand, took generations to subdue because its lack of an overall political leadership. Parthia and its Sassanid replacement resisted the open hand approach and were too strong for the sword, resulting in a running hot/cold war until both the Middle Eastern territories of the Eastern Roman Empire and Sassanid Iran were overrun by the Moslem Arabs

What I found most interesting is the author's suggestion that the fall of the West was in part due to the eventual organisation of the Germanic tribes into precisely the organised societies that Rome previously would have annexed, mainly because of their interaction with Rome over an extended period. The pressure placed on the Western Empire was too great for Rome to deal with and ended with the 'Barbarians' replacing the Empire as the ones calling the shots. All the political and land-owning elite transferred their loyalties to the leadership of the newcomers who neatly suborned the existing structures to their own benefits. That is why France, Spain, Portugal and Italy all speak languages derived from Latin, while Britain always wore Roman-ness much more lightly and threw off any lingering loyalty to Rome, adopting the ways and language of the newcomers.

This kind of social history tracing changes through a culture (and here the author makes the distinction that the Roman soldier existed in a separate culture from the civilian Roman, especially after Marius' reforms), but using an object to illustrate the story always grabs my attention as it makes the story a lot more interesting to someone like myself without a great deal of knowledge of the period. I really enjoyed it and plan to read more on the topic, especially the later Roman period.


  1. A great post, sounds like a good book!!

  2. A wonderful review; top post Sir!

  3. Sounds interesting, I`ll see if I can get a hold of it.

  4. Great post. I'll be checking Amazon for that.

  5. Another detailed and descriptive review, thanks. Connolly's "Greece and Rome at War" was also a favourite of mine. A third edition is set for release soon by Pen & Sword (Frontline) books.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

My Shelfari Bookshelf