Dr. Ilkka Syvänne, The Military History of Late Rome AD425-457 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
This is the fourth in a series of seven books by Ilkka Syvänne, presenting the military history of an Empire in deep trouble. And while it seems a short period to cover in a book, this was an action packed and turbulent three decades that Syvänne calls the Age of the Warlords. For Romans it was an era spent on the precipice of disaster.
Syvänne outlines an Empire united but fragile in 425. That integrity could not hold without a strong centralised power, however, and that was tragically missing. The West though was in much greater trouble than the East as becomes obvious when the narrative unfolds. Enemies surrounded Rome’s frontiers, and some were already inside; others, like the Huns, emerged from out of the vast emptiness beyond the frontier to threaten Rome’s existence. Policies of divide and rule against the barbarians and sometimes effective management of resources, along with almost constant firefighting under the brilliant general Aetius, stemmed the tide.
The Eastern Romans helped the West when they could, but they had their own problems, mainly with the Persians but also the Arabs and Huns. The latter threatened both Roman spheres, and led by Attila they invaded Gaul in 451, leading to the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, which he lost to Aetius. Undaunted, he invaded Italy the following year and lost again. When Aetius was murdered in 454, Attila had been dead for over a year, and the door was open for the Vandals to attack and sack Rome in 455. Marcian, by then Emperor in the East since 450, sent some help, according to Syvänne, but he was also busy in his own backyard. By his death in 457, the East at least was in a stable position. And that is where Syvänne ends this volume.
In telling this often complex story, Syvänne makes the best of patchy sources and is quite happy to lay his analytical steps out for all to see; perhaps too much so at times when he interrupts the flow to dig around in the weeds. He also has an irritating habit of referring to his other published works in lieu of straightforward explanations. Nevertheless, his interpretations are interesting, particularly when he goes against the orthodoxy; for example, on army sizes. He supports his descriptions with frequent maps and illustrations, and the centre section features multiple colour photographs of reenactors, which are visually appealing though it isn’t clear what value they add to the text. I would not say this is a book for beginners studying the late Roman Empire, but for those who have some background, they will find this stimulating and provocative.
Dr. Ilkka Syvänne, The Military History of Late Rome AD425-457 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Jonathan Eaton, Leading the Roman Army (Pen & Sword, 2020)
Imperial Rome was born out of the fires of civil war. In the last century of the Republic, armies maintained allegiance to their generals who fought on and off for power in Rome. The ultimate victor, Augustus, the first Emperor to all intents and purposes, created a system whereby the army remained loyal only to him. Despite a couple of hiccups, his system of Imperial control remained useful for generations of Emperors. In Leading the Roman Army, Jonathan Eaton examines how that management worked.
Eaton takes a thematic approach to his study to avoid chronological pitfalls. In doing so, he peels back the layers of military management and analyses how the army adapted to political and strategic circumstances. Eaton also considers command as a series of power relations, with the highest power, of course, reserved for the Emperor. Eaton’s analysis begins with the Rome garrison with which the Emperor had to cultivate good relations for obvious reasons as they protected him or didn’t as the case may be. We then move into the field army, starting with discipline and morale, which sometimes broke down into mutinies, demonstrating the Legions were not the automatons as they are sometimes portrayed. Eaton turns to the Centurions, men of prestigious rank who formed the professional backbone of the army and controlled the rank and file while spreading their loyalty to the Emperor. Up next is the Roman upper class and their attitude to military duty. Almost inevitably, Eaton finds politics at play, particularly the role of Imperial patronage that favoured loyalty over expertise. Returning to the lower ranks, Eaton asks how politically aware they were. He stresses the importance of Imperial coinage and statues for spreading identification and loyalty, otherwise control of information helped shape political opinion. Eaton closes his argument with the Emperor’s direct connections to his troops through campaigns or other military exercises, sometimes bringing his family along to stress dynastic elements. In short, his message was that he was one of them. In his conclusion, Eaton argues that “no emperor could survive without the support of the army” and his book goes a long way to establishing the truth of that.
Leading the Roman Army is not an easy read or a beginner’s book for the Roman Army, as you might expect given it is based on Eaton’s PhD thesis, but it’s certainly not out of reach either for the non-academic. Eaton’s thematic approach is different, but works for what he is trying to achieve, and his examples and deployment of sources make this an argument to reckon with for other historians examining the power dynamics of Imperial Rome. Overall, while this is not a book of battles and campaigns, Leading the Roman Army is an excellent addition to Roman Army studies.
Mike Roberts, Rome’s Third Samnite War (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In Rome’s Third Samnite War, Mike Roberts reminds us that if you are going to build a great Empire, you need to beat your neighbours first. At least that was the case for Rome that became involved in a desperate struggle for survival and supremacy against the Samnites and their allies between 298 and 290 BCE. Rome emerged victorious, and the rest is, well, history.
Roberts begins with an honest assessment of the sometimes unreliable sources for the crucial decade in the 290s when Roman expansion could have been halted. Far from the opulent place where all roads would one day lead, he describes Rome in 300 as ‘shabby and labyrinthine’ with about sixty-thousand people living there. The Romans were, therefore, just one group among many in Italy but had fought their way to prominence, a rise Roberts describes well. But to expand, Rome had to defeat the Samnites and their allies, not an easy prospect as they soon found out. The First Samnite War was a small affair, but the Second was a major war, which the Romans lost in humiliating fashion.
It takes a while for Roberts to hack his way through the undergrowth of Rome’s ascendancy to get to the Third Samnite War. When he does, Roberts describes the causes and opening of the war, exercising caution with his sources along the way. Then the narrative of strategy, campaigning, and battles begins with Roberts analysing as he goes. Although mostly penned into their towns, the Samnites opened a new front with their allies in the north. The Romans met them at Sentinum in 295 BCE and crushed the Samnite coalition. This was the turning point of the war, according to Roberts. But the Samnites were not yet finished, and plague and attrition took their toll on the Romans. Thus, the final defeat of the Samnites took two more years until the Battle of Aquilonia destroyed their lingering hopes along with their much vaunted, elite Linen Legion. Mopping up followed, but the war was mostly over. Roberts concludes with the Samnites cowed until a final hurrah and another defeat in the 1st Century BCE saw them eradicated as a functioning people.
Rome’s Third Samnite War is a fascinating story and well told by Mike Roberts. He handles his sources respectfully but is not afraid to cut loose with his imagination when warranted. In particular, his exciting narratives of the battles are built on his knowledge of the terrain and his sources. Roberts also has a novelist’s eye for character when describing the main players in this drama and rarely becomes bogged down in their sometimes esoteric biographies. Above all, Roberts questions the evidence, allowing the reader to work with him through the events, and making his book a richer reading experience for it. Anyone interested in the Early Roman Republic will enjoy Roberts’ narrative and interpretation of a pivotal time in Roman history.
Dr. Ilkka Syvänne, Aurelian and Probus (Pen and Sword, 2020)
“Cometh the moment, cometh the man” they say. For the Roman Empire in the throes of the 3rd Century Crisis, they desperately needed a saviour. According to Ilkka Syvänne, they got two. As Emperor from 270-275 CE, Lucius Domitius Aurelianus with Marcus Aurelius Probus as his general waged relentless campaigns against barbarian invasions and internal rebellions to restore most of the Empire. Probus reigned from 276 to 282, almost completing the job his mentor had started.
Syvänne sets up his narrative with a selection of excellent maps, an overview of his sources, and a rather more detailed survey of the Roman army with illustrations. Then he gets into the story, following the military careers of Aurelian and Probus as they rose through the ranks while fighting an extraordinary range of enemies on all points of the compass. That experience would stand them in good stead when they assumed Imperial command. That was just as well because, as Syvänne makes clear, the Empire was a mess in 270 when Aurelian came to power. Aurelian took to the offensive, putting out fires and sweeping up the mess against diverse enemies, while developing a reputation for cruelty that probably helped lead to his assassination in 275.
After an interregnum of a few months under Marcus Claudius Tacitus, Probus emerged from a contested accession to continue Aurelian’s work. He fought the Goths then campaigned in Gaul, Germania, Illyricum, Thrace, and Persia before crushing revolts in Gaul, Spain, the Balkans, and Britain. But in doing so, he made enemies among the rank and file of his army and that led to his assassination in 282. Syvänne concludes his narrative with an assessment of the three Emperors who vied for the throne before Diocletian emerged to become one of Rome’s greatest Emperors. Some technical appendices on the Roman army complete this volume.
Syvänne loves to get into the weeds when writing, which he deploys well for his accounts of campaigns and battles in particular, but also many of the other major events of the period. Syvänne also pauses to provide discussion and analysis at key points, which are necessary to let his readers catch their breath, though at times there is a bit too much personal commentary and referencing of his other books. He also describes Rome’s enemies well, so that we get a good all round picture of the threats. I am not big fan of numbered sub-titles or lists, however, especially in a narrative history. Syvänne is ably assisted by the inclusion of many coloured plates, photographs, and illustrations, which taken with the detailed narrative produces a valuable book for students of the Roman Empire and military history in general.
Gary Sterne, The Americans and Germans at Bastogne (Pen & Sword, 2020)
You might not think there is much left to say about the iconic siege of Bastogne, the lynchpin engagement in the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s offensive in the Ardennes in December 1944. You would be wrong. Gary Sterne recasts the Bastogne story by integrating the memories of the commanders on both sides. By doing this, Sterne hopes to generate a new analysis of the battle. But he also acknowledges the problems with the sources, making his effort at piecing together this jigsaw replete with difficulties. To Sterne’s credit, he achieves most of his objectives.
Sterne begins with the German officers planning the offensive, a survey worth the price of the book on its own. Then the artillery rains down on the Americans, allowing Sterne to start mixing his sources against the chronology. The German advance begins, causing panic, and sweeping most of the Americans aside. But not all. Sterne takes us into Bastogne where the US defence is stiffening. The Germans were initially unconcerned, believing they could sweep up Bastogne at will. But they were wrong. A core force from the 101st Division, along with other units and stragglers from the retreat, held on resolutely in what became the legendary siege of Bastogne. Desperate combat ensued all around the town, but the Americans won through the fortitude of the defenders aided by control of the air, and then the final breakthrough as their comrades relieved them.
Sterne handles his German sources directly while paraphrasing much of the American sources, subsuming them into the narrative. It just works, but it sometimes feels like two different methods are being used, which can be jarring at times. Nevertheless, Sterne’s working through the command levels sweeps in and out from the front lines very effectively, lingering on the intense combat then zooming out to draw the wider picture. Sterne is supported by many excellent maps to help us understand this confusing battle. All in all, Sterne’s book adds more quality to the growing body of work on the Battle of the Bulge, and is well worth reading.