Book Review: Rome and the Sword: How Warriors and Weapons Shaped Roman History


by Simon James

London & New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011. Pp. 328. Illus., maps, diagr., notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0500251827

Rome & the Sword gives us a look at the origins, evolution, and decline of Roman military institutions, and thus the rise and fall of Roman imperium, using the famous sword – arguably the weapon with the highest body count in history -- as a metaphor to examine the question of why Rome outdid a number of remarkably able rivals -- the Samnites, the Gauls, the Carthaginians, the Macedonians, and more -- to emerge as dominant in the Mediterranean and adjacent regions for some five or six centuries. 

Dr. James, author of The World of the Celts and a lecturer at Leicester, opens by reminding us that the “Roman sword” was never quite what we think it was, changing form several times over the dozen or so centuries of Rome’s existence as a military power. Although perhaps overstressing Roman brutality (were they really worse than their contemporaries?), he argues, quite persuasively, that it was the adaptability of Roman military institutions, their willingness to learn from mistakes and enemies, that led to frequent bouts of reorganization, retraining, and reequipping of the troops as circumstances, enemies, environments  changed.  Thus, even in the dying decades of the Empire, during the fifth century, Roman troops were still formidable foes.  There’s much more of course, such as a discussion of the absence of a word for “the army” in Latin (as opposed to a field army, exercitus), Romans using “the soldiers” when referring to their military forces, the origins of the marching camp, training, organization, and so forth.  James also reminds us of the often overlooked Roman practice of allowing anyone to become a citizen, which made conquest by Rome somewhat less undesirable than conquest by other contenders for global domination and was an important factor in maintaining military manpower. 

Rome & the Sword is an important book for those interested in Rome or in ancient military institutions, and perhaps essential for those who are concerned about the ability, or inability, of modern military establishments to grow and change and adapt.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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