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The Nisibis War: The Defence of the Roman East, AD 337-363, by John S. Harrel

Barnsley, Eng.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2016. Pp. xiv, 274. Illus., maps, diagr., appends., notes, biblio., . $39.95. ISBN: 147384830X.

The Collapse of Rome’s Eastern Frontier

Retired U.S. Army major general Harrel has emulated many other former officers in pursuing military history. In The Nisibis War, his first book, he gives us an interesting look at one of the last great Romano-Persian Wars, the protracted struggle for Nisibis, in Mesopotamia, that began with a Persian offensive in AD 337 and went on more or less continuously until the Romans finally lost the city in 363.

Harris devotes a considerable part of the book to the background of the war. He opens with a look at the nearly seven centuries of Rome’s wars with the Parthians and their successors, the Persians, both Iranic peoples. Harris then discusses the geographic setting and the contrasting two military systems. He stresses that by the fourth century the Romans were on the strategic defensive, although they maintained a penchant for an aggressive defense, and that internal prolems – notably usurpations – often complicated the Emprie’s strategic options.

The war of 337-363 – which Harrel dubs the “Nisibis War” – unfolded in several phases. He covers these well, in some detail, as the fortunes of each side see-sawed over the years; the Persians, under the Shah Shapur II managed to besiege Nisibis three times, unsuccessfully, and although they took some other fortress cities, by 361, when the Emperor Constantius II died, had managed to retain only Amida.

Harrel’s treatment of the events that followed the accession of the Emperor Julian in 361 is excellent, though perhaps his analysis of manpower figures is a bit generous. After a long preparation, Julian’s invasion of Persia in 363 opened well, with the Romans reaching the Persian capital, Ctesiphon. But Julian’s army proved weak in cavalry and his logistics were very poorly managed, which forced him to retreat. Then the emperor was killed in a skirmish. Jovian, his successor, chosen by the generals, was confronted with a hopeless situation, and after a nearly disastrous retreat, ceded vast territories to the Persians -- including Nisibis -- in return for peace, a peace which, with occasional breaks, actually lasted for more than a century.

In The Nisibis War Harris offers us some excellent strategic analysis, helping explain the many military problems confronting the late empire, and evaluating the abilities of the respective armies and leaders, particularly the over-rated Julian, altogether providing us with a good account of a very confusing conflict, in an area still in contention.


Note: The Nisibis War is also available in several e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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