Thursday, October 25, 2018


Simon Elliott, Empire State: How the Roman Military Built an Empire. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2017. Pp. xiv, 169. ISBN 9781785706585. £36.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Elizabeth H. Pearson, Independent Scholar (

Version at BMCR home site


Elliott sets out to bring together and add to the evidence for the Roman army's non-military role during the Principate. This is a worthwhile endeavour which, as Elliott rightly highlights, has not been attempted before. The result is a volume which serves as an excellent starting point for those wishing to further research the army's role in its entirety.

The volume begins by setting out necessary background information for a reader new to the field. A brief history of the Principate is provided, followed by a review of important works on the Roman economy. Chapter 2 gives an overview of the legions, auxilia and fleet. This is followed by discussions of the army as administrators (Chapter 3), engineers (Chapter 4) and builders (Chapter 5). Elliott then reaches the subject of his own research, military involvement in industry. He discusses in some depth potential military involvement in ironworking and ragstone quarrying in the Weald and Medway Valley. Chapter 7 covers military associations with agriculture. The short conclusion essentially summarises the preceding chapters, with a brief discussion of changes brought about by the Tetrarchy.

The main strength of this volume is the variety of scholars cited. Elliott provides a thorough bibliography for his reader to pursue. Only Roth's work on military logistics and Bishop and Coulston's volume on military equipment are notably absent. 1 On the other hand, ancient sources are rarely mentioned; the reader is forced to go to the cited modern scholar to find the evidence. When an ancient source is mentioned, a citation is rarely provided.

Moreover, while Elliott provides good summaries of the salient points of those scholars he cites, he rarely engages in meaningful debate with them. One example is illustrative of the theme. Millett objects to the use of tile stamp evidence to suggest that the classis Britannica was in direct control of the Weald iron industry.2 Elliott rightly engages with this criticism, but ultimately concludes the discussion with an unsupported statement: 'to my mind it very clearly indicates' (page 106).

This is symptomatic of the volume's greatest problem. Throughout, Elliott emphasises the importance of his argument concerning the military involvement in industry. The case itself, when it is reached in Chapter 6, is allowed to rest on repeated assertions of Elliott's opinion without the support of a rigorous argument. Elliott himself even admits (with regard to ragstone quarrying) that his argument for military involvement is entirely circumstantial; the evidence requires positive interpretation (page 119). Thus what is treated as firmly established elsewhere, and what forms the volume's backbone, is found to be much weaker than the reader is otherwise lead to believe.

For the reader this is particularly frustrating, because Elliott's premise is attractive. It is difficult to understand who other than the military could have been providing the manpower and expertise required in these industries, especially at such a scale. A strong case demonstrating military involvement would be of great value to the field. Elliott's volume attempts to provide this definitive confirmation, but sadly falls short. His saving grace is that he provides an interesting and well referenced work which serves as a stimulating introduction to the field.

The volume suffers from some production errors. There are repeated errors with the placement (or lack) of commas. In a couple of places sentences would have greatly benefited from the attention of a copy editor. The promised (pages 100 and 114) and much needed map of the Weald and Medway Valley does not materialise in Appendix B.


1.   Roth, J., The Logistics of the Roman Army at War (246B.C. – A.D.235), (Leiden, 1999); Bishop, M. C. & Coulston, J. C. Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome, (Aylesbury, 1989).
2.   Millett, M., 'Roman Kent' in Williams, H. (ed) The Archaeology of Kent, (Woodbridge, 2007), pp. 178-9.

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