Arms and the men
IN THE NAME OF ROME by Adrian Goldsworthy Weidenfeld, £20, pp. 414, ISBN 0297846663 Adrian Goldsworthy has given his book the subtitle The men who won the Roman Empire'. It's a study of 15 Roman commanders, and this subtitle recognises a truth from which many prefer to avert their eyes: that empires are won, expanded, and defended by armed force, usually by armies, sometimes by navies and now also by air power. This is as true today as it was in the Ancient World. Coca-Cola and blue jeans may spread America's cultural influence, but it is the USA's possession of the most powerful and best equipped military force that makes it the world's one superpower.
Rome never doubted this. The first word of its imperial epic is alma. The Romans came to believe that they had a civilising mission:
These shall be thine arts, to impose civilisation after peace, To spare the conquered and subdue the proud ...
So, Virgil. But note: 'after peace'. Or, as Vegetius (late 4th century AD) put it, 'If you want peace, prepare for war.'
Goldsworthy's choice of commanders ranges from Fabius Cunctator and Marcellus in the second Punic war (second century BC) to Bel isarius (6th century AD). Before the war against Hannibal there is simply not enough information to make an examination of any commander possible. After Belisarius
even the greatest kingdoms of the period were incapable of supporting military forces which in any way resembled the wellequipped, organised and disciplined Roman army of the late Republic or early Principatc. And indeed it is chiefly on that period
that he dwells.
He remarks early on one difference between the Roman armies and modern ones: that the Roman commanders were not professional soldiers as we understand the term. There was no Roman equivalent of Sandhurst, and no Roman Staff College. This strikes us as unusual, but we should realise that that sort of professional training is comparatively recent, dating only from the 19th century. Roman generals weren't even professional soldiers as Marlborough, Wellington, and Napoleon were. They got command of armies in the days of the Republic because they were elected politicians. When wars were confined to Italy and the army was composed of citizen-farmers, it was commanded by that year's consuls. With the expansion of empire, this became impossible, the consul being elected for only one year. So a successful politician got himself appointed to a proconsular command (after his year in office in Rome) and this might be for as long as five years.
As Goldsworthy says, it sounds as if it shouldn't have worked; yet it did. Why? Well, very obviously, the armies the Romans fought had no Staff College and no professional training for their officers either. Second, the Roman legions, by the time they became professional, manned by full-time soldiers, were organised by extremely efficient NCOs — the centurions. Third, the aristocratic commanders were reared in a society steeped in a military tradition, one in which the martial virtues were most highly valued. Some were of course incompetents, as in all armies. Some didn't rise above the mediocre, though Goldsworthy appositely notes Moltke's remark that 'in war with its enormous friction, even the mediocre is quite an achievement'. Some, like the millionaire rival and sometime colleague of Caesar and Pompey, Marcus Crassus, grossly overestimated their ability and met disaster. But Goldsworthy makes the case that the best can be favourably compared to the greatest commanders in history.
How much does the general matter?
The personality of the general is indispensable. He is the head, he is the all of an army. The Gauls were not conquered by the Roman legions, but by Caesar.
That was Napoleon's opinion, and while you might respond with a Mandy RiceDavies 'he would say that, wouldn't he?' what is undoubtedly true is that if generals can't by their genius win battles or campaigns, they can lose them by incompetence and poor judgment. Of those examined by Goldsworthy Caesar stands out pre-eminent. This is not altogether surprising. He has one great advantage over such as Scipio, Pompey, and the rest. He is the only one among them to have left his own account of the wars he fought. He was not only successful, he was able to tell us how and why he was successful, and how much his achievements owed to his own genius. If the only first-hand account of the 1939-45 war that posterity inherits should be the memoirs of Field-Marshal Montgomery, future historians would perforce conclude that he was the supreme master of 20th-century war. So it is with Caesar.
In his own time his achievements were at least equalled by Pompey's, to whom for most of his life Caesar seemed inferior, the junior partner. Of course Caesar defeated him in the Civil War, and there is no arguing with victory. Yet other comparisons suggest victory is not always the criterion: Napoleon and Wellington, Lee and Grant, for example, or, in the Roman world, Hannibal and Scipio.
There were extenuating circumstances in the case of Pompey's defeat. Caesar's army was battle-hardened as Pompey's wasn't. Pompey's freedom of action was limited by the host of distinguished senators and exconsuls in his camp; and he himself was perhaps not the man he had been ten years previously — in this last respect resembling Napoleon at Waterloo. Even so, Pompey comprehensively outmanoeuvred Caesar, and the mystery of why he changed strategy and gave battle at Pharsalus is insoluble. (To his credit Goldsworthy doesn't pretend to provide an answer.)
Some of the most interesting chapters deal with generals of the early empire: Germanicus in the Rhineland, Corbulo in Armenia, the Emperor Trajan himself on the Danube. None of these is likely to be familiar to the general reader. I am inclined to think that Goldsworthy too easily accepts the views of historians hostile to Germanicus' uncle, the Emperor Tiberius, and therefore exaggerates that prince's achievements. But the other two chapters are excellent. Corbulo, struggling to excel in the face of the suspicion and jealousy of Nero, resembles in many respects our own imperial commanders, notably Kitchener, while Trajan was the greatest of the frontline emperors, a commander of extraordinary efficiency. If more than fragments of his Commentaries on his Dacian Wars had survived, his fame might even now deservedly surpass Caesar's.
Goldsworthy's study of these commanders is thoroughly researched, and authoritative. He is lucid in exposition and narrative. The result is a book which academics will value and which nevertheless must appeal to anyone interested in the art of war and the making and defence of the Roman Empire. I found it absorbing, the best book I know on the Roman army and its commanders.