Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Simon James, Rome and the Sword: How Warriors and Weapons Shaped Roman History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2011. Pp. 328. ISBN 9780500251829. $29.95.

Reviewed by Josh Levithan, Kenyon College (

Version at BMCR home site

Rome and the Sword is, perhaps surprisingly, exactly what a straight reading of the title would imply: a (military) history of Rome that places special emphasis on the sword "either as a metaphor for the martial power of a… Roman state, or as [an] artefact in the hands of… Roman soldiers" (222). This is an ambitious project, and Simon James, an archaeologist who has already a contributed a great deal to our knowledge of the material reality of Roman warfare, is well positioned to provide a new synthesis. In under 300 pages of text (six chronological chapters moving from the early Republic to 565 CE in addition to a preface, introduction, "prelude," and conclusion) he moves continually between traditional military history, the social and cultural concerns of the "new military history," and the archaeology of Roman swords, keeping quite a few balls in the air. This book is readable, highly informative, and impressively error-free, and it will no doubt appeal to a broad target audience—but that is not to say that it is a complete success. At times, the profusion of different angles and interests threatens to overwhelm the narrative, and despite great efforts on the part of the author it proves difficult to ever truly join together the two titular subjects.

James stakes out his territory with precision. The opening sections of the book establish his view that the rigorous separation of scholarly study from both personal interests and larger human concerns is wrong-headed. The book is dedicated to his grandfather, a Great War veteran, and draws not only on what James has read and studied, but also on where he has been and what he has done, including working with the "experimental archaeologists" of the Ermine Street Guard. James' explicit unhappiness with the old habit (of historians and archaeologists alike) of studying ancient violence in an ethical vacuum can complicate the book in an interesting way, and it informs his commitment to the "new and different approach" to Roman warfare that has transformed the field over the past fifteen years. James draws on the work of Adrian Goldsworthy and Ted Lendon in rejecting the hierarchical, chart-ridden, and "curiously sanitized" military history of the past and submits that his emphasis on the sword "brings in the direct human experience, and something of the horror" of Roman rule (8). Despite the many shifts in perspective, James does indeed keep the human experience in sharp focus even when considering the artifacts themselves—no small feat and an important contribution to Roman military history. Relative newcomers to the field will be well-served both by his prefatory debunking of the old "war machine" approach (22-4) and the able summaries of important bits of work by Brian Campbell, C.R. Whittaker, Nicola Terrenato, Ramsay MacMullen, Peter Heather, and many others. There is no book on the Roman military that can match the combination here of chronological scope, the inclusion of so many sub-fields, and the deft handling of scholarly trends and controversies.

Many of the potential readers of this book will be familiar with the work of the historians that James draws upon and thus most interested in the added value of the archaeological perspective. These readers should be pleased. James has a knack for swiftly sketching some of the more technical aspects of both archaeology and swordsmithing. He corrects old assumptions and skillfully blends the cultural, linguistic, and material identities of arms and armor. We learn, for instance, that the adoption of the famous gladius Hispaniensis in the late 3rd century was less a complete change of hardware preference than the borrowing of an attractive "sword culture" (82), and he gives a balanced account of the cultural and physical reasons for the move to "open order" fighting in the middle Republic. James' mastery of both the archaeological and the textual material gives him a rare authority. This he uses well, as in his many calming reminders that "barbarization" is always an inappropriate way to characterize a long process of cultural change that usually involved adaptations too slow to affect the Roman soldiery's sense of self. It seems unlikely that many military historians are ready to ride the pendulum all the way over to a culturally deterministic explanation of combat behavior, but if so, James' careful explanation of the necessarily communal evolution of the Roman panoply (186)—with the size and shape of each piece limited in some degree by the rest of the kit—would be a good check. Alas, though, for the responsible use of authority: James dutifully points out the gaping holes in the archaeological record and avoids any overstatements-of-case (at least in terms of the nature of the physical evidence). This becomes a little dispiriting as the book follows the story of Roman weaponry late and eastward, where we know little enough about Roman arms and, because of various factors both ancient and modern, virtually nothing about the Sassanian weaponry that seems to have influenced it. We can't do any better than to answer the big questions as he does: "Are we seeing here a modified 'tactical package' of infantry arms and techniques? Perhaps" (125).

The six long chapters that follow Rome and its swords through time are divided into many stand-alone sections of a few pages each (separated, naturally, by a small sword-shaped icon). Some of these sections cover specific periods or issues in social or cultural history, some focus on the archaeology of a certain weapon or period of arms development, and some are military history set-pieces. It is a great strength of the book and a testament to James' unfussy precision as a writer that these bite-sized morsels go down easily. But taken together they make a rather lumpy narrative stew—if not indigestible it is still difficult to swallow comprehensively (or, if picked at rather than gulped, liable to leave more fastidious eaters unsatisfied). There are lengthy quotations from Livy's pseudo-historical first decade, in-depth discussions of grand strategy, an engaging excursus on sword belts and scabbard-slides, a skillful description of pattern welding, explanations of the living arrangements of military dependents, a great potted cultural history of the Batavi, a brief and rather speculative argument about the military significance of the Second Sophistic, a summary of the role of aristocratic cooperation in Roman diplomacy, and an explanation of Germanic sword burials as evidence for Rome "wielding the sword by proxy" (211). Much of this is fascinating, but the book can't be a comprehensive account of Roman military culture over such a period, and so (to take the treatment of the middle Republic as an example) such familiar elements as a narrative of Cannae, an explanation of the manipular legion, or a summary of the career of Spurius Ligustinus might have been omitted.

Chapter Five, covering the years 269-376, can be taken as representative of both the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. There is a rather standard "battle piece" (Strasbourg), a large section dealing with military hardware (which includes an explanation of developments in helmet technology reminiscent of some of James' terrific work on the Dura material), a treatment of the debate about the effect of the third century crisis on the later Roman empire, and discussions of the revolution in fortification, Orwell and totalitarianism, and the restructuring of the legions. James chooses to keep many plates spinning, and, while none crashes to the ground, it is hard at times to know what to make of all the activity. Topics treated only a few sections back begin to wobble badly before they are spun back up to speed as the narrative moves on. It's worth noting, too, that James' prose is stronger in the more innovative sections and shows signs of fatigue in dealing with the more familiar issues. We read, for instance, of Rome's "enormous resource bases" (72) and its "vast resource base" (76), and Roman victories both "shatter" and "shake" the earth on the same page (90).

Given the metaphors afflicting this review, it may seem unfair to point out that the metaphorical thrust of this book does not strike home as well as the archaeology. Yes, the Romans made a lot of the gladius, and James makes a solid case for its importance as a symbol and metaphor (19ff), not least because effective use of the short sword requires great aggression and the choice of a brutal and intimate form of combat. Nevertheless, the pilum and the dolabra would, at times, be better symbols for Roman warfare and, as James notes, "among the Gauls, the sword, as both instrument of violence and symbol of masculinity, was even more prominent than among the Romans" (106). It's not a bad organizing principle for the book, but it does become clunky in repetition, with the sword often invoked in either its literal or figurative roles (the qualifications "literal" and "symbolic" reappear with some frequency) and all the while jostling for narrative influence with several other bipartite metaphors, including "the sword and the open hand," the faces of Janus, the carrot and the stick, and "the eagle and the wolf."

These are petty complaints, and there is much more to be praised. This was a huge undertaking and yet there are hardly any mistakes. (I saw only two minor copy-editing issues, although there was a notable apostrophic atrocity: "Scipio's soldiers 'Cannae'd' Hannibal's" [74].) James' seriousness of purpose keeps the many appeals to comparative military history from seeming intrusive (although the inclusion of a sketched M-16 for size comparison to Roman swords is a bit jarring) and his rigor in avoiding anachronism and identifying all neo-Latin as such is most welcome. The episodic organization of the book (despite a good-sized index) is not ideal for reference use, but then again scholars of the Roman army will enjoy reading through. Though much is familiar, there are, in addition to all of the archaeological excursuses, rarer pleasures, such as finding the same auxiliary unit keeping its accounts at Vindolanda in the 2nd c. and facing dissolution in the 5th c. Life of St. Severinus.

This is a very good new military history of Rome—highly accurate, pleasant to read, never ponderous or boring. A reader seeking a basic grasp of Roman military culture would do well here, for even if Rome and the sword are really two different stories, each is well told. James' neatest trick is to provide a sort of stereoscopic texts-and-artifacts vision of the Roman military: although the twain never do meet, the extended side-by-side view gives a new and satisfying depth-of-field. Neither archaeology nor culture-through-literature gains the upper hand, and much of Roman military history, like the gladius itself, "may well have resulted from a combination of tactical practicalities and military ideology" (36-7). This is really as much of a conclusion as one can draw from such a careful survey, and in any case the book is a new synthesis as much as it is another military history. The personal investment in the topic that James confesses to in the early going clearly helped make this book so consistently engaging, but it can also get a bit quixotic, as when, in the conclusion, he dwells on the ethics of imperialism and the possibilities of human happiness. But even if James wields his sword metaphor with a heavy hand he should be congratulated, both for synthesizing and effectively delivering so much information to so many different sorts of potential readers and for doing it all without letting us forget that swords, in the end, are tools for killing.

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