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.