James J. Bloom, Rome Rules the Waves (Pen & Sword, 2019)
In Rome Rules the Waves, James Bloom offers an operational analysis of Roman maritime strategy from its inception in the 4th Century BCE to the Empire’s demise in c500 CE. To do that, he posits Roman sea power within the framework of modern naval theory while avoiding the perils of anachronism; a fine line to tread. Thus, Bloom invites us to accompany him, along with the great theorists Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett, into the Roman world for a valuable re-assessment of an understudied component of that Empire.
Bloom sets out his stall in an academic way for a book aimed at the general reader by discussing the historiography of his subject. From there, he sets sail with his chronological analysis, beginning with the pre-Roman Mediterranean civilizations. We first encounter Rome before the Punic Wars, but it was during those that Rome became a true naval power through learning important strategic lessons that Bloom weaves carefully through a brisk narrative of key events. Indeed, by the Second Punic War, Rome had gained complete control over their rival Carthaginian navy and that played a key role in defeating Hannibal. Rome then turned its attention to the eastern Mediterranean, which they conquered, then all but dismantled their fleet, which was a grievous error because it allowed piracy to flourish. That took a long time to fix, particularly in the turbulent Late Republican period and with Rome’s reliance on maritime allies. They would not repeat their error, maintaining fleets throughout the Imperial era each with their own theatre of responsibility. Bloom devotes less space to Imperial Rome, which reflects the stability of the period and the consistency of the Roman naval mission as a protector of trade and guarantor of security. The Roman navy did provide tactical and logistical support, however, for Rome’s various military enterprises. But like everything else in the later Roman Empire, the fleets deteriorated and struggled to deal with the effects of barbarian incursions. Bloom returns to Mahan in his conclusion to summarize and reinforce his main thesis, and he follows that with an unusual but interesting annotated bibliography.
Bloom’s well written and efficiently structured approach to Roman naval strategy is certainly provocative. The efficacy of his thesis depends on the justifications laid out in his introduction and if you take those on board, the rest of the book is easy to navigate. Bloom calls on many historians to bolster his arguments, but his issues with Chester Starr’s The Influence of Sea Power on Ancient History provide the cutting edge he needs to create the tension that keeps the reader engaged throughout. That Bloom writes his narrative of Roman history through the maritime lens is interesting in itself, however, even without his somewhat contentious interpretation. I would like to have seen a greater commitment to the primary sources before endorsing Bloom’s thesis, but certainly he has laid a marker for future studies of Roman naval strategy and in that regard, Bloom has achieved his mission.