Monday, September 19, 2016


Jeremy Armstrong, War and Society in Early Rome: From Warlords to Generals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xiv, 317. ISBN 9781107093577. $99.99.

Reviewed by Seth Bernard, University of Toronto (

Version at BMCR home site


This book's topic is in need of study: warfare formed the basis of early Roman wealth, aristocratic identity, and power, and war may reasonably be said to underlie most aspects of the period's socioeconomic and political history. Armstrong's central thesis is that, over the course of the sixth through fourth centuries B.C., Roman society transformed from a loose coalition of mobile warlords fighting for individual gain into a civic body protected by an army fighting for collective goals. The division between warlords and urban community emerged early and remains legible in Rome's nascent state structures. As this suggests, the study's aims are historical, and while military historians will find discussion of the tools and techniques of war, the intended audience is more broadly those scholars thinking about early Rome's social and political history, and particularly the formation of the Roman state.

In the introductory chapter, Armstrong defines his focus on "behavior, and in particular behavior associated with warfare, in order to analyze early Roman society" (4). By "behavior," he intends to emphasize those fundamental social aspects, which structured military interaction in the region, and he likewise raises the comparative concept of the warlord as "the leader of an armed group that uses military power and economic exploitation to maintain fiefdoms which are autonomous and independent from the state and society" (3 n. 6). This idea of mobile warlords operating outside of ancient and modern states is fundamental to the book. Still, the study takes a traditional approach and turns next to a lengthy review of the usual evidence: the annalist tradition and the archaeology of Latium (Ch. 1, 18-46).

The next chapters trace the chronological development of Roman warfare and sociopolitical institutions. Ch. 2 on "Rome in the sixth century" (47-73) in fact starts with Latium in the earlier Iron Age. A. M. Bietti Sestieri's study of the necropolis at Osteria dell'Osa (The Iron Age Community of Osteria dell'Osa [Cambridge, 1992]) is crucial, as it is to most discussions of Archaic Latin society. While she interpreted burial differentiation in early eighth-century Latium as showing increased stratification within a single social system, possibly gentilicial leaders and subordinate clientes, or more and less successful gentes, Armstrong argues for two more separate groups: simpler burials represent the continuation of "egalitarian" proto-urban classes, while wealthier tombs belong to a new gentilicial elite of warlords with strong ties to similar elites in other settlements rather than to the local proto-urban community; mutatis mutandis eventually these groups developed into patricians and plebeians. He sees the earlier dichotomy expressed politically in Rome's reges, often foreign and oriented externally to those of similar rank, while Rome's urban community organized itself internally into curiae. He also sees an economic division with the urban community practicing settled agriculture, while the gentilicial warlords relied instead on pastoralism and mobile forms of wealth.

Ch. 3 on "Rome's regal army (c. 570 – 509)" (74-128) detects a shift in Rome's warrior class in the Servian reforms and other evidence from the sixth century. While the Servian constitution described a more community-based army than is otherwise detectable in the period, certain elements of its structure are retained in the context of continuing clan-based warfare. Armstrong stresses that, as the constitution was based on both wealth and tribal geography, and as it diminished the power of the curiae, it privileged wealthier warlord elites over the older urban community, while also suggesting such elites were settling in locations around Rome. Thus, the tradition on Servius' constitution is held to reflect the accumulation of power by clan-leaders at Rome, as well as their attachment to Roman territory on a more permanent basis. Rejecting the precise details of the Servian constitution' arms and armor prescriptions as anachronistic, Armstrong rightly dismisses Greek-style hoplite armies in Archaic Rome.

Ch 4, "Fighting for land (509-452)" (129-82) argues that archaic way of war continued past 509 B.C., when a coalition of clan leaders replaced a single rex, but when change for the urban community was less dramatic. Discussions of the lapis Satricanus and the military exploits of the gens Fabia buttress this assertion. Meanwhile, a contraction of the central Italian economy made trade and the mobile forms of wealth upon which the warlord aristocracy depended less accessible, and this in turn sharpened attention upon landholding making land an important commodity and, for the first time, worth fighting for. I am not sure the development of a landed aristocracy was so sudden. Capogrossi Colognesi's theory, unmentioned here, that leaders of gentes were from an early point responsible for distributing land to their clientes seems relevant.1 Meanwhile, in the Romulean heredium, the Tarquinian Campus Martius, or institutions like nexum, the tradition did at least think that elite landholding in some form extended earlier than those mid-fifth century signs of pressure on the Roman economy. The Twelve Tables surely depict a world where private property was normal and widespread; why or when that world had emerged is not easy to say.

Ch 5 "The incorporation of the plebs (451-390)" (183-232) sees these changes continuing: small-scale military actions and raiding led by warlords persisted down to the early fourth century, while we also see increasingly collective behavior. The new censorship to oversee military organization, or the decision to pay soldiers stipendium, suggest an army that was increasingly viewed as an extension of the state.

The final convergence of the mobile and urban segments of Roman society during the fourth century is detailed in Ch 6 "The Gallic sack, the rebirth of Rome, and the incorporation of the Latins (390 -338)" (233-89). The need to defend Rome from the continuing threat of Gauls promoted new ways of understanding the community's military power. The new walls built in 378 B.C. represented a large investment for and by the city's residents, while the appearance of the pilum, scutum, and Montefortino-type helmet entailed simpler and more widely accessible arms and armor. Once Rome united its own, previously gens-based military, it then turned to integrate the various fighting forces of Latium into a more organized Roman-led Latin fighting force. A firmer definition of Roman citizenship and identity also resulted.

It is indisputable that Roman warfare became increasingly collective and organized from the Archaic period to the Mid-Republic. My suspicion, however, is that the picture of mobile warlords and the urban community belies a more complex reality. That is, while the duality Armstrong identifies was real to an extent, it was one of very many divisions in early Roman society. In the Twelve Tables alone we find patroni and clientes, patricii and plebes, domini and servi, and creditors and nexi. The dynamic overlapping of such categories urges caution against being too schematic or deterministic in assigning historical weight. Does Armstrong's dichotomy serve better than others to describe all actors involved in Archaic Roman warfare? I'm not convinced it does. While those followers or clan-members (clientes? sodales?) who accompanied and fought for warlords are often discussed, it is never clear how this group – non-elite but also, like Attus Clausus' clientes, not originally part of Rome's urban community – fits into this social model. How substantial was the membership of mobile war-bands before they were led by Roman consuls, and where did warlords derive significant manpower from, if not from urban communities? Then, there is the perennial question of the evidence and the extent to which our sources used these familiar categories to frame their own reconstructions of early Rome. Consider Rome's sixth king: according to Roman tradition, Servius Tullius was the consummate plebeian monarch and a proto-Republican who served as foil to the aristocratic Tarquins. Of course, Etruscan tradition portrayed him as the prototypical warlord Mastarna who attacked and occupied the Caelian Hill. Both Servius' reforms and Mastarna's campaign furnish important historical evidence for this study, even as each account depends on independent and incompatible ancient traditions.

The text is relatively, if not completely, free of error.2 There are some points, however, which might have profited from deeper scholarly engagement.3 While an excellent textbook, M. T. Boatwright et al. Rome from Village to Empire (Oxford, 2004) is not a reference work for something as precise as the fourth-century relationship between Latin communities and Gauls (284 n. 295). A preference for English-language archeological publications leaves important recent scholarship aside. There has been a half-century of energetic excavation in Latium since E. Gjerstad Early Rome (Lund, 1953-73), and reliance on the latter introduces inaccuracies, for example, on Veii's walls (108) or on a supposed mid-fifth century phase of Rome's agger (171), even as problems with Gjerstad's low chronology are elsewhere acknowledged (49 n. 9). The claim that recent excavations produce "no solid evidence" for the Gallic incendium is wrong (41).4 The view that Mid-Republican coloniae maritimae were disorganized extensions of naval raiding by aristocratic warlords (269-72) contrasts the more coordinated effort now suggested by two highly regular Mid-Republican fortified sites discovered along the coast below Ardea and Lavinium.5 Archaeological evidence sometimes feels forced into a dualist interpretation of Roman society. In relation to those Archaic houses excavated by Andrea Carandini along Rome's Via Sacra, Armstrong notes four phases between c. 725 – 550 B.C and concludes (162):

"The short period of time between the construction of each house and its demolition in favor of a new building, roughly fifty years, is suggestive of the type of mobile aristocracy which was present in Latium during the eighth to sixth centuries with each iteration possibly belonging to a new gens. However, the final house, built c. 500 remained intact until the end of the third century, demonstrating a remarkable durability and possibly indicative of the new permanence of the Roman aristocracy."

This goes too far: not only is evidence for these structures' earliest phases extremely sparse, but nothing uncovered tells us anything about why they were rebuilt, what their owners' identity or status was, or how the property changed hands.

In sum, the book's focus on warfare within a study of Roman state formation represents a profitable approach for future work on early Rome. In emphasizing the shift from individual to collective warfare the author puts his finger on a key historical development, while I might question some of the more detailed applications of Armstrong's view of early Roman society divided between warlords and the urban community.


1.   L. Capogrossi Colognesi, Propriet√† e signoria in Roma antica (Rome, 1986).
2.   110: tagulae; 159: Captiol; 236 n. 19: Chisui; 239: "loses" for losses; 243: incensa is not a noun. The Latin in 114 n. 225 is a mess. Cross-references sometimes direct readers to the same chapter (214 n. 149, 243 n. 75).
3.   Some errors of content: 97 n 115: T. J. Cornell ("The Lex Ovinia and the emancipation of the Senate," 2000) does not date the Ovinian law to 318, but suggests this as a terminus ante quem; 99: fifth-century laws do not suggest that bronze was "in use as a currency," but rather that goods were valued on a bronze standard, a very different thing; 237 n. 27: N. Horsfall (CJ 1981) by no means presents a "convincing rebuttal" of O. Skutsch (JRS 1953) on the Gaul's capture of the Capitol, but agrees with and extends Skutsch's argument; 246: Diodorus Siculus is confused with Dionysius of Halicarnassus; 259: the Porticus Aemilia was built in 193 or 179, but not 197.
4.   Two houses in the Argiletum destroyed by fire c. 400 B.C. are published in A. Delfino, Forum Iulium: L'area del Foro di Cesare alla luce delle campagne di scavo 2005-2008 (Oxford, 2014), and were presented by the same author in Mediterraneo Antico 2009 and Sc.Ant. 2010.
5.   A. M. Jaia, "Le colonie di diritto Romano. Considerazioni sul sistema difensivo costiero tra IV e III secolo a.C." Sc.Ant. 19.2/3 (2013) 475-89.

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