Early Roman Warfare

We’ve dealt with the early Roman republic twice before in Ancient Warfare and in preparation for issue XI.2, I’d very much recommend issue IV.1 (only the PDF is available I’m afraid) and VII.3 (paper, pdf). Whereas the former’s emphasis was more on the variety of peoples in Italy from the 8th to the 4th century BC, the latter looks more at early Rome and various historical events during the 5th and 4th centuries. Hopefully, AW XI.2 will strike a balance between the two, but I’ll report on that later. What unites all of those issues is an attempt to make sense of Rome’s early history.

In that respect, I’d like to take a look at one of the more remarkable books to come out of Pen & Sword in recent years: Jeremy Armstrong’s Early Roman Warfare (2016), the popular version of the same author’s War and Society in Ancient Rome: From Warlords to Generals (Cambridge UP 2016).

Though the title is maybe a bit misleading – do not expect detailed descriptions of warriors and warfare here (luckily you have this magazine for that) – Armstrong’s book is a very interesting and thought-provoking history of the early history of Rome, showing how the socio-political history influenced Rome’s military capabilities and allowed it, from the mid 4th century BC forwards, to take over first Italy, beat off one of the most famous Successor generals, and finally drive Carthage out of Sicily. By the start of the Second Punic War, Rome was perhaps unbeatable, having developed a culture of determination and war supported by a large reservoir of manpower that allowed it to absorb the occasional defeat.

Armstrong’s narrative is based around the idea that Rome was not ‘just’ a city in Latium that experienced the back-and-forth conflict between the aristocracy and community internally. Instead, he sees the community living in the city working with, and sometimes against, strongly paternalistic clans that moved in and out of the nearby area. The conflicts between the orders, then, were the result of trying to control and incorporate those clans into the community, but it also explains why in Rome’s early history we see sometimes private wars being fought out (e.g. Veii) and patricians being ‘banished’ and coming back with an army (such as Coriolanus). The shock of the Celtic capture of Rome finally ensured that the city came together as a community and focused first on its defense which, unsurprisingly, resulted in near unbridled expansion. Once the system of coloniae and municipiae got underway, Rome also gained the edge in manpower.

Early Roman history is complex and fraught with the difficulties in our sources, but Armstrong’s narrative is internally coherent, makes sense, and is a fairly short, easy read. Highly recommended.

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