Sunday, July 5, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Michael M. Sage, The Republican Roman Army: A Sourcebook. Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World. New York/London: Routledge, 2008. Pp. vii, 310. ISBN 9780415178808. $41.95.
Reviewed by Jeremy Armstrong, University of Auckland

In recent years scholarship on Roman republican warfare has increasingly worked to correct a long-standing bias towards the late Republic and to present a chronologically balanced view of this important subject. Michael Sage's (henceforth S.) The Republican Roman army: a sourcebook is part of this trend. In this book, S. presents a range of sources covering the entirety of Roman warfare during the Republic, beginning in the sixth century BC with Rome's late regal period and continuing down through the civil wars of the first century BC. Although S.'s selection of sources is by no means comprehensive (an impossible task), he has managed to bring together a number of important passages, and touch on many key points, all in an approachable manner. Coupled with very extensive commentary, this work stands as an important addition to this burgeoning field, representing the first major sourcebook on the topic and a useful snapshot of scholarly opinion on various issues within the subject.

S. has divided his sources into three broadly chronological chapters: the late regal/early republican period, the middle Republic, and the late Republic. Each chapter is in turn subdivided with various thematic subheadings. Overall this method creates a very accessible sourcebook, with each piece of evidence seeming to fit within a larger narrative as S. works to demonstrate a clear progression in Roman military development. However, the transition from chronological to thematic within each chapter is not entirely seamless and on several occasions information seems to have been inserted somewhat anachronistically. For instance, when discussing the practice of decimation in Chapter 3 (a chapter devoted to the late Republic) S. includes a source which refers to events in 471 BC. Conversely, it is not uncommon for passages from Caesar's Gallic War to be used as evidence for practices in much earlier periods. Additionally, the broad chronological groupings in many ways disguise the fact that almost all of the evidence included in the sourcebook, with the exception of a few inscriptions, dates to the late Republic and imperial period. Indeed, given the extremely problematic nature of many of the sources used in this book, surprisingly little time is spent discussing the issues with the sources themselves (covered briefly in the introduction and only occasionally elaborated on in the commentary).

Chapter 1, entitled 'Rome's earliest armies: the archaic and Servian period' deals with the origins of Rome's republican army in the late regal period and with Rome's early relationship with her Latin and Etruscan neighbours. In this chapter S. covers not only the traditional tactical and equipment concerns but also spends a significant amount of time on the social and political factors which helped shape the early Roman army. Throughout S. does an admirable job of selecting and bringing together a collection of the evidence which demonstrates the variety of sources available for this period and includes not only the important literary sources but also some of the more important inscriptions, most notably the Lapis Satricanus.

Chapter 2, nominally devoted to 'The development of the manipular army', actually covers the bulk of the middle republican period, beginning at the start of the fourth century BC and continuing down to the middle of the second century BC. This chapter is by far the longest in the book, representing more than half the book's total length. Perhaps because of its length and scope, the material included in this chapter seems to lack the focus of the first chapter. Although maintaining its position within S.'s larger sequence of military development, this chapter acts in many ways as a 'catch-all' for various aspects of Roman warfare which do not fit neatly into a distinct time period.

Chapter 3 covers 'The army in the late Republic' and is probably the strongest of the three chapters in terms of both depth and complexity. Naturally, given the number of sources which deal with the period, the material included in this chapter represents a very small portion of the existing evidence. Still, combining material from a variety of genres ranging from inscriptions to Livian speeches to Virgilian poetry, from detailed tactical descriptions to poignant narratives, S. is able, in less than 100 pages, to present a coherent, source-based view of late republican warfare in the context of Rome's larger military development.

The book ends with a reasonably comprehensive and extremely useful selection of 'Suggested Readings' for further study on various topics. These readings are divided up using the same three chronological periods as the chapters, but are subdivided using a different, much more detailed and elaborate set of thematic subheadings. The final pages of the book contain the index.

Although generally an excellent work, this sourcebook does have a few flaws the most notable of which is that at times it seemed to suffer from something of an identity crisis: the sheer amount of commentary within the sourcebook often threatens overwhelm the ancient sources themselves (the ratio of commentary to ancient text in the sourcebook is well above 1:1). Many of the passages, and particularly those relating to the early and middle Republic, do require a certain amount of introduction and interpretation if they are to be understood, but the commentary often goes well beyond simply introducing passages. S. regularly presents previous scholarly arguments in detail and occasionally argues for new interpretations, all without the use of citations or even indirect referencing which would allow the reader to see where an argument was coming from, what other evidence was being used, and where one might look to pursue this argument further.1 The selection of 'Suggested Readings' offered at the end of the book does help to mitigate the effect of this lack of citation, but its absence will impact how useful this volume will be for the serious student and/or scholar. Also, on more than one occasion S. seems to have relied on commentary to express what an ancient source might have. For instance in his section on 'logistics' (p. 115-119) S. repeatedly uses examples from Polybius in his lengthy introduction, but does not actually provide the relevant passages from Polybius or even supply a reference. Consequently, portions of the book represent an unhappy compromise between a sourcebook and a history book, containing aspects of both but ultimately not entirely successful at either.

In addition, S.'s commentary was occasionally slightly out of date. In his analysis of the 'burdens of service' for Roman soldiers S. relied heavily on the work of Brunt2 without taking into account more recent works on the subject like Rosenstein's 'Rome at War',3 which is included in the recommendations for further reading but whose arguments are ignored in the commentary. Likewise, S. presented Salmon's4 arguments concerning colonization, now several decades old, and ignored recent work by Bispham and Bradley5 among others. Finally, S.'s analysis of several troublesome issues was occasionally lacking in depth. For instance, in his discussion of the possibility of a Roman hoplite phalanx S. failed to take into account van Wees' arguments concerning hoplite warfare in general6 or recent arguments against the existence of a Roman phalanx at all, for example Rich.7

Despite these flaws, S.'s 'The Republican Roman army: a sourcebook' represents a much needed addition to the corpus of material available concerning the Roman army in the Republic and would be useful for both students and enthusiasts alike. It is the first major sourcebook which covers the entirety of Roman republican warfare and as such its collection of standard literary passages, important inscriptions and discussions a few key archaeological discoveries represents an invaluable tool for anyone interested in the subject. The translations in the book are also generally excellent, capturing both technical nuance and dramatic flair with equal ability.

Overall the book was well presented with only a few mechanical errors, the most frustrating of which was the irregular use of BC and AD.8 Typographical errors were hardly noticeable.9


1.   This absence of citations/references is a standard practice throughout the Routledge 'Sourcebooks on the Ancient World' series, although none of the others books in this series comes close to the amount of commentary contained in this work.
2.   Brunt, P.A. Italian Manpower, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1985).
3.   Rosenstein, N. Rome at War: Farms, Families and Death in the Middle Republic. (Chapel Hill, 2004).
4.   Salmon, E.T. Roman Colonization Under the Republic. (London, 1969).
5.   Gill, D., E. Bispham, G. Bradley (eds.). Greek and Roman Colonization: Origins, Ideologies and Interactions. (Swansea, 2006).
6.   Van Wees, H. Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities. (London, 2004).
7.   Rich, J. 'Warfare and the Army in Early Rome' in Erdkamp, P. A Companion to the Roman Army, Blackwell's Companions to the Ancient World. (Oxford, 2007).
8.   Throughout most of the book BC was understandably omitted, given the book's exclusive focus on the republican period. But on occasion AD was needed, usually to distinguish authors writing in the imperial period, but was absent (for instance p. 214). Conversely, in a few sections BC inexplicably appeared (for instance p. 117, p. 215, p. 232, etc.) when it was not needed.
9.   Typographical errors:

p. 31 (2:13): 'Ario' should be 'Anio'
p. 42 (1:1): 'fifth century' should be 'sixth century'
p. 42 (3:6): 'sixth century' should be 'fifth century'
p. 46 (4:5): 'description' should be plural
p. 120 (2:10): 'is military' should be deleted from the sentence "A further factor is military in determining military status was age."
P122 (4:6): 'by' should replace the second 'on' in the sentence "The levy is conducted on a tribal basis rather than on the centuries."
p. 256 (5:6): Should read '...that they should not come to grips...'
p. 257 (2:8): Missing quotation marks after 'die.'

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