Friday, September 5, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Sara Elise Phang, Roman Military Service. Ideologies of Discipline in the Late Republic and Early Principate. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xv, 336. ISBN 9780521882699. $90.00.
Reviewed by Josh Levithan, Kenyon College

Table of Contents

S. E. Phang's Roman Military Service is a wide-ranging look at military discipline and a host of related issues from the point of view of social and cultural history. As Phang usefully points out in her introductory chapter, there are commonly held views of the Roman army that exaggerate certain aspects of discipline--decimation and the view of Roman soldiers as tactical automatons are among the apt examples--and thus severely distort a more complex reality. Rather than mere repression or organization in service of a tactical goal, Phang argues, "discipline" embraces a wide array of cultural practices that inculcated obedience, enabled the social control of the army by the elites who commanded it, and were shaped by a complex of ideologies. There is a wealth of useful information in this book, and it provides several new ways of looking at important aspects of the social and cultural history of the Roman army. Phang casts a wide net (the metaphor of "bottom trawling" repeatedly sprung to mind) and is meticulously organized. Information on many different topics can be quickly located in one of seventy-odd titled subsections. Along with these short sections on carefully parsed topics comes formidable (and very useful) documentation--I count 1,672 footnotes.

While I will value this book as a sort of sourcebook-with-commentary (and as a combination introduction and citation-trove it should be well worth the considerable purchase price to any serious student of the Roman army) it is difficult to see it as a successful monograph on "discipline." The amount of information gathered here is very impressive, and the different ways in which Phang considers questions relating to discipline enable a number of interesting observations, but as a presiding rationale "disciplina militaris" is not quite up to the job. Reading the book as a loosely organized study of issues in the culture and social structure of the Roman army (but not including the army in action--on this distinction, and on my heavy-handed use of "military," "social," and "cultural," please see below) is rewarding, but the weakness of several central, and frequently reintroduced, concepts may frustrate even a reader more interested in nuggets of information than presiding theses. Disciplina itself remains a voluminous and murky concept, and so the attempts to reinterpret Roman military practices in light of a larger ideology of discipline are more suggestive than convincing. Other broad terms whose potency is somewhat weakened by too-frequent invocation are "elites," referring both to the writers who provide so much of our evidence on the army and to the army's commanders, and concepts such as "habitus" and "rationalization" (in the Weberian sense, on which more below).

The book spans the Late Republic and the Early Principate, and one of the central arguments concerns precisely that transition. It is useful to remind American readers, who have traditionally had little to fear from their own armed forces, of the extent to which the Roman armies presented a threat to the civilian order, and Phang treats the recovery from the civil wars at the end of the Republic (and indeed, in other contexts, the whole span of her principal sources, from Polybius to Vegetius) as a prolonged "social and political crisis" that underlies the "reactionary" ideologies of discipline that emerged under the Empire. The restoration of this larger perspective to issues of military obedience is both correct and useful, although the relevance of any "crisis" that extends over generations to the mindset of the actual participants is likely to have been slight. In addition to re-contextualizing the army in its surrounding society, this approach also provides the most effective context for the deployment of Theory-with-a-capital-T, in this case Weber's "routinization." Of course, the replacement by Augustus of the unstable armies of the civil wars with a truly professional army is perhaps the most concrete example of the transition from Republic to Empire, but it is useful to see this tangible fact as part of the same cultural complex that produced that nervous brutality in senatorial authors' opinions of the troops, the physical severity of army discipline, and the ideologies of exemplary leadership that undergirded the legitimacy of the Emperors themselves.

One of the strengths of Roman Military Service is the author's persistence in reckoning from the larger cultural context of the Roman army. Traditional military history is always limited by the treatment of soldiers as mere extensions of their commander's will and by the projection of modern expectations onto ancient actors, and even the best comparative military history may, by generalizing in such a way, overlook sui generis aspects of one society's experience of war.1 This is why such a strong commitment to social and cultural history--to the shaping of the Roman soldier's worldview and thus his experience--is necessary if Roman military history is to move forward. Phang is indeed committed to this effort, and her focus on "general service and the political aspects of such service" (page 6) makes this book a useful supplement to the most important book in this vein, Adrian Goldsworthy's The Roman Army at War. Yet I do not think that a book on discipline can be complete without consideration of battle itself, a subject which Phang expressly excludes from her study (page 7). If we are to trace the best recent work on Roman military history to its roots we find John Keegan quoting Michael Howard on the previously dominant type of institutional military history: "the trouble with this sort of book is that it loses sight of what armies are for."2 So the trouble here, then, is not the broad base in the history of ideas and Roman social history--these add much to the discussion--but rather the exclusion of the central and dominant aspect of military culture. This historiographical context back-lights the curious decision to avoid direct engagement with two recent books that have much to say on issues directly related to disciplina. These are Myles McDonnell's Roman Manliness and J.E. Lendon's Soldiers and Ghosts, both of which take virtus as a central theme, and both of which are here cited in the footnotes but not directly discussed.3 Phang is of course correct to note that one of the challenges of disciplina as it was manifested in "general service" was to encourage and preserve the stuff of violent virtus and yet keep it bottled up during peacetime, and she makes an interesting argument about how the scope of virtus-carrying activities was extended under the routinizing of the Empire. Yet disciplina--whether it is in oppositional tension with virtus, is in some sense complimentary, or even if it partially subsumes the old idealized virtus of the Republic--must be intimately fitted to virtus and any complete discussion virtus must involve a close consideration of combat motivation. Therefore a study of discipline cannot itself be complete without due attention to behavior on the battlefield. Battle was rare, and it could perhaps be successfully excluded from a purely technical, social, or institutional history of the Roman army, but a book that is rooted in the common culture of military men (as this one so properly is) surely cannot sever the bond any more than a soldier can consider training without considering fighting, or accept obedience without thought of courage.

"Roman Military Service" features a helpful general introduction, which includes a summary of the chapters and a clear statement of methodology, which notes the focus on literary and legal sources and that "This study employs sociological and critical theory as an analytical model. The moral and rhetorical nature of the ancient literary sources requires explanatory models" (page 6). There is also an introductory chapter which presents several of these models; more on this below. The second chapter examines the training of Roman soldiers, viewing both physical training (relying, inevitably, on Vegetius) and the physical and psychological aspects of military formations, with an eye toward the social control of soldiers by "elites." The third chapter looks at cultural issues of identity, appearance, and attitude, and the fourth examines the ideological contexts and cultural effects of military punishments. The fifth chapter considers the significance of wealth and payment to discipline, the sixth focuses on labor, and the seventh chapter considers eating and drinking. These chapters are highly informative, exhaustively researched, and rigorously sub-divided. This combination of mass and segmentation is excellent for the reader searching for information on a particular subject--enthusiastic classicists have much to gain from footnotes that divulge the whole history of debate on, for instance, decimation or commeatus--but at the same time it threatens to overwhelm the organizing principle of the book. The exhaustive consideration of the evidence both postpones for too long the central arguments (see, for instance, the conclusion to chapter five) and includes too many tangential discussions--even the clearly labeled sections of two or three pages can lose focus, making it difficult to keep track of the building blocks of the larger argument.4

There are problems, too, with the fitting of argument to evidence. In some cases, broad statements, built out of painstakingly assembled cultural evidence and plausible enough in and of themselves, can't be securely connected to actual historical practices. For instance, it certainly seems possible that the great emphasis on obedience in the elite literature of the Principate that bears army discipline is a function of a Stoic- and Platonic-influenced aristocratic reaction to the civil wars, but it cannot really explain any specific aspect of military discipline. Elsewhere, we are usefully reminded that the jurists who discuss military punishments have been influenced by the widespread archaizing habits of Imperial elites, but it is not possible to show how, or if, this affects the way that actual deserters were punished. At other points, overplaying the available evidence weakens an otherwise strong hand. There is a very interesting section on "Soldier and Slave Discipline" which points up the many similarities between the elite view of these two groups, and the roster of circumstantial similarities between the view and treatment of slaves and of soldiers that Phang assembles is thought-provoking. Yet, as she acknowledges, there is still a clear distinction between the two groups, as well a social gulf so significant (as she demonstrates elsewhere) that the status of soldiers is defined in large part by the fact that they are not slaves.5

Now to the question of theory. In addition to Weber, Phang makes mention of Marx, Althusser, Foucault, Mauss, Kristeva, and Bourdieu, usually in brief discussions of particular issues. Weber and Bourdieu, however, provide recurring themes, and--while garnishing with theory is in most respects a matter of scholarly taste--it seems fair to question whether they add much to the traditional narrative (perhaps we could call it the "non-terminological") consideration of the evidence. This reviewer considers himself neither a partisan of Big Theory nor its sworn enemy, generally open to the borrowing of tools from other disciplines in order to see what they might turn up when applied to the much worked-over field of Roman history. Comparative history can likewise be useful, but, to borrow a legal metaphor, these two outside influences should be subjected to strict scrutiny as to whether the benefits of their insights are sufficient to outweigh the distraction, added bulk, and abuse to which they are gateways. Weber is useful, especially in describing the astonishing Augustan "routinization of charisma" that marks the most fundamental change in a millennium of Roman military history. But, as Phang notes (page 24), this has long been recognized, so the larger catalogue of differences, in Weberian terms, between the Imperial and Republican armies becomes less than necessary. To take a different case, Phang provides thought-provoking analysis of the Imperial practice of giving donatives to the troops, in which she challenges the patronage-based model of Brian Campbell and makes some very good points about the soldiers' need to see donatives as rewards rather than payment and the utility of civic euergetism as an alternative model.6 This discussion, though, is framed in Weberian terms that shed no new light on the question and therefore have the effect of watering down the chapter by bringing in already familiar ancillary issues just because they can also be adduced as evidence of widespread "routinization."

Similarly, Bourdieu's "habitus," meaning something like "non-rational cultural habits," is introduced so that we can better understand the effects of social preparation and training on the Roman soldier's acceptance of authority. In particular, Phang uses Bourdieu to prepare her argument that the larger significance of disciplina was as an ideology of political repression that is best understood in (broadly) economic terms, at once legitimating the emperors and subjecting the soldiers to their political domination. This is one of the book's most interesting themes, which Phang opposes, suggestively, to the operations of religion, the Imperial cult, or "the invocation of political loyalty" (page 35). There has been a great deal of attention to the Imperial cult, to the holidays celebrated by the Dura garrison, and to Imperial ideology as expressed on coinage, and Phang's downgrading of their importance and substitution of an emphasis on ideologies of political control through discipline is instructive and will perhaps prove to be influential. But, while it may be that I am missing certain subtleties of Bourdieu's analysis, I found that the use of Bourdieu's terminology left the facts no better organized than they are when presented in ordinary language (although I would have liked to see more on the interesting idea of "social reproduction"). There is a very good section that elucidates the way in which "elite officers' performance of military masculinity bridged the gulf" between officers and men (page 95), and the larger discussion of gender roles in a social context is an excellent example of how the blending of cultural and social history can shed light on "how it really was" in the Roman army. But "total habitus" does not have much meaning in this more specific discussion of masculinity. In other contexts it can end up as a mere placeholder, e.g. "Individual combat training produced a habitus that was prone to violence" (page 71). Moreover, when Phang explains that, given Bourdieu's reliance on the terminology of capitalism, she will substitute more appropriate non-capitalist terms, the retranslation results in words such as "honor," "prestige," and "legitimation," (page 34) fine old words that worked well enough to begin with.

But to argue merely that theory doesn't much help is to carp over essentially aesthetic differences and thus to waste all of our time. But there is a greater significance to the use of theory in this book, in that it seems to blaze a path away from specific facts and incidents--that is, away from historical reality. Phang treats historical Latin in much the same way as she does 20th century theoretical coinages, and thus while we gain conceptual terms we lose access to words as they actually bounced around Roman literary culture, describing particular things. When Phang comes closest to discussing combat there is discussion of impetus, animus, ira and ferocia, but not of the collective actions they describe. On the other hand, Phang may be wise to stay out of the vociferous and many-sided argument on the realities of ancient tactics--yet the lack of consideration for physical reality is a more widespread problem. The discussion of ideologies that bore on physical training is interesting, but it omits to mention that military efficiency depended almost entirely on the marching fitness of the men. A section on the color of military cloaks speculates that centurion's cloaks may have been red in order distinguish them in battle--but would centurions ordinarily wear a long cloak when fighting? The wide-ranging and extremely well-informed section on capital punishment does not address one difficult question--how often, roughly, was it actually imposed? A discussion of food and the body considers the question of whether body mass was good for a charging soldier, and even considers the difference between running on level ground and the uphill advance, but without any contextualization of this charging body with its weapons, fellow soldiers, and opponents. This slight inattention to reality is made more problematic by the choice of sources, especially in the sections on training. Phang strings together some ingenious stuff out of the nuggets and crumbs of literary evidence, fragmentary records, law codes, and inscriptions, but the exclusion of the literary descriptions of battles and campaigns enforces a too-heavy reliance on Vegetius and his untrustworthy, diachronic hodge-podge. It is troubling, as well, to Phang's heavy emphasis on the social-repression aspect of labor that only Vegetius can be directly cited as voicing the basic idea that physical labor conditions obedience.

This is a handsome volume and well copy-edited, with only a handful of minor mistakes or omissions over more than three hundred pages. There is one typo that, when read aloud, produces an amusingly apposite effect: authority is "unfetted" rather than unfettered (page 285).

It bears repeating that this is a very learned book by an insightful scholar of the Roman army, that it is likely to be of great use to many students of the Roman army. There is much excellent groundwork laid for an argument, or arguments, that, unfortunately, do not quite cohere--the general conclusion reads more like the compromising coda to a collection of disparate essays than the final statement of a unified study, and it trails strangely off on a seemingly random piece of evidence about eating. Borrowing from Jacques Barzun, I would say that this a book to browse in rather than a book to be read. While my criticisms of the argument are laid out above, it should also be emphasized that Phang has taken on a formidable task and that her battle-avoiding approach is adopted for good reasons--as she remarks, Roman tactics have been "studied in inverse proportion to the extant ancient evidence" (page 53). But tactics is one thing, and the experience of battle another. While this book helps to redress the imbalance established by traditional military history, it is still not possible to get all the way around the idea of disciplina without considering the army in action.


1.   While studies focused on the experience of battle begin with John Keegan's The Face of Battle (Viking, 1976), and Keegan's book remains the best and best known rescue of soldiers from their previous status as "automata," Keegan too has over-generalized in his sweeping comparative histories. See J.E. Lendon's critique in "The Roman Army Now," CJ 99, page 449: "Both the pre-WWII students of Roman fighting and the Roman-army-as-institution school regarded the Roman army as essentially modern. The followers of Keegan, by their quick resort to comparison, treat the Roman army as essentially generic."
2.   Keegan 1976, 28. Emphasis Keegan (or Howard).
3.   Goldsworthy: The Roman Army at War 100BC-AD200. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. McDonnell: Roman Manliness: Virtus and the Roman Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Lendon: Soldiers and Ghosts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
4.   For example, the section on "Chronological Orientation" (page 213) makes the basic point that the army was more regimented in its experience of time than "other areas of ancient society below the elite," but then roams from army passwords and Polybian evidence for the use of a water clock to Saturday attacks on Jews to the meaning of sweating during hard labor. Other sections are built around one or two useful points but needlessly extended. "Soldiers' Resistance," for instance, takes as its subject sardonic humor as a form of resistance, but consists only of speculation about the term "Marius' mules" and one lovely piece of evidence: a petition from soldiers working in mines (recorded by Tacitus) asking that their general be granted triumphal ornaments for subduing them in such a manner. But the rest of the section contains no other examples of such resistance, and returns to the more general question of labor and thus labor-related mutiny, the only exclusive example of which is the assassination of Probus. Yet the idea that the assassination was driven by hatred for labor derives from the Historia Augusta and is contradicted by Zosimus and Zonaras. Similarly, a section entitled "Medical Effects: Food" enlarges our understanding discipline by demonstrating that Roman culture often, if not always, condoned the making fun of fat guys.
5.   Phang's use of comparative history produces a similar effect. While comparisons to other pre-modern armies might be useful, sections on etiquette and military dress and on drill involve comparisons to modern and early modern practices, only to quickly conclude that modern military dress and early modern musketry drill are very different from, and can tell us little about, their Roman analogues.
6.   Campbell: The Emperor and the Roman Army, 31 BC- AD 235. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

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