Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Book Review

Roman Empire at War: A Compendium of Battles from 31 BC to AD 565

· Hardcover: 215 pages
· Publisher: Pen & Sword Military (July 25th, 2016)
· Language: English
· ISBN-10: 1473869080
· ISBN-13: 978-1473869080
· RRP: £19.99 (UK); $34.95 (US)

As its title clearly states, “Empire at War” is a compendium - a select list if you will - of the battles fought by the Roman army from Emperor Augustus to Justinian I.  Dr Don Taylor’s aim is simple: to provide readers with a single volume reference that describes, concisely, the most significant battles during the chosen period.  In a work of this scale - 215 pages - it would be impossible to detail every skirmish, siege, minor encounter or major engagement.  Thus Taylor has deliberately selected only those contests of arms where some strategic value can be discerned for either protagonist.  Likewise, he has also omitted battles described by one or more ancient authors for which no identifiable name, location or landmark can be clearly attributed.  What remains, however, is a most useful alphabetical list of battles together with brief descriptions, some tactical maps, and lists of ancient sources for each.

The volume is divided into two distinct parts.  Part one provides some introductory material on the Roman imperial warfare.  For those unfamiliar or new to studied of the Roman army, this introduction is a very useful summary of the changes and evolution during the army’s long history.  Starting in the early first century BC, Taylor explains the late Republic/early Imperial army’s organisation, rank structure and terms of service and then neatly leads the reader through the significant changes and developments until the death of Emperor Justinian in AD 565.  Usefully, there is also a brief description of the navy whose role in Roman warfare is too often neglected in such works.

Part one concludes with a discussion on the reliability of the ancient and early medieval sources that chronicle the events, and from which the information for each entry is drawn.  In writing the battle descriptions, the author is keen to emphasize that he has not sought to analyse the evidence contained in the surviving accounts.  More importantly he has not sought to embellish said accounts beyond that necessary to provide clarity for the modern reader.  Instead that which is presented is a succinct version of what the original chroniclers tell us themselves of these dramatic events.

Concise biographies of the ancient authors and their works relevant to the study are presented in order that readers are aware of the possible pitfalls of relying solely on the original texts.  A basic insight is offered into the background of each early author to provide modern students with an appreciation of the value of extant sources and to evaluate ancient descriptions critically.  In addition, Taylor has provided information on how readers can obtain translated copies through the detailed bibliography on pages 196-200.

Part two is the meat of this work and begins with an alphabetical list of the battles.  Thankfully Taylor has also included a chronological list (pages 42-45).  Likewise several entries throughout Part two are usefully cross-referred where a particular battle is known by more than one name or location.  Each entry can only ever offer a brief description of the events but for those seeking more information Taylor provides a list of the sources consulted at the end.

Where more than one author is cited, however, it is less clear how differing accounts were reconciled into a coherent narrative.  This is a minor criticism given that the author never set out to produce an in-depth study.  Rather he hopes readers will be encouraged to investigate the sources, be they primary or secondary, and discover what contemporary information survives, the ambiguities that exist in the accounts, and derive their own conclusions.  In this manner Don Taylor’s “Roman Empire at War” is highly recommended and should prove an immensely useful reference and catalyst for further research into the battles of the Roman Empire.

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