Alexander Merrow, Agostino von Hassell, and Gregory Starace, Caesar’s Great Success (Frontline, 2020)
The Roman General Julius Caesar must rank in the top three of the Western Hemisphere’s greatest generals. During his meteoric rise in the 1st Century BCE, Caesar dominated multiple enemies in far-flung environments, winning dozens of battles along the way. Nevertheless, argue the authors of Caesar’s Great Success, it was Caesar’s logistical brilliance, two-thousand years ahead of is time, that makes him stand out from the rest. They set out their case in this occasionally quirky book.
The opening chapter narrates Caesar’s campaigns and examines the size of his army during those operations. That was a huge number, bearing in mind all the animals and non-combat manpower involved, and they all had to be fed. Caesar’s army required mountains of grain as the staple ingredient in their diet – they marched and fought on bread and porridge. The soldiers supplemented their grain with meat, salt, olive oil, and cheese to a greater or lesser degree, and they drank sour wine (posca). Caesar’s success came from ensuring his men had a good supply of all that. The authors are careful to point out that Rome already had a logistical framework in place, but Caesar enhanced its administration and transport infrastructure, improving road and river communications. He was also a master of creating and maintaining effective supply lines. We follow the army on the march, discovering what the soldiers carried, how they constructed marching camps, why they foraged and what for, and requisitioning supplies, which at times took the form of pillaging and plunder. All of this logistical effort had a strategic purpose. Caesar’s campaigns often had supply in mind, though he sometimes surrendered that security for speed and surprise. He also blocked enemy supplies, especially water sources. The authors illustrate Caesar’s tapping into a ‘timeless framework’ of logistical support through a comparison with the North African campaign in World War II. They conclude with a chapter on Caesar’s legacy in modern cuisine, though they dispel the myth that Caesar Salad had any connection to the great general!
The claim that logistical brilliance was Caesar’s Great Success may be over egging the pudding, but the authors cannot be blamed for hyping what is after all the unsexy side of military history. That might also explain the peculiar inclusion of recipes to end each chapter and the colour plates of meals. The unnecessary addition of the comparison with a World War II campaign also feels contrived: a more useful historical comparison might have been with Alexander the Great’s army as detailed in Donald Engels’ excellent Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (UC Press, 1980) that covers much of the same ground. Setting aside those conceptual issues, the authors have produced a valuable book for understanding how Caesar’s campaigns worked and his strategic considerations. Their sifting of the evidence used to recreate the soldiers’ lives away from the battlefield is deftly handled, as is the authors’ setting that into the broader context. Merrow and his colleagues have written a recipe for related inquiries into other ancient armies, and you won’t read Ancient military history quite the same way again after reading this book.