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The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare
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Book description

Warfare was the single biggest preoccupation of historians in antiquity. In recent decades fresh textual interpretations, numerous new archaeological discoveries and a much broader analytical focus emphasising social, economic, political and cultural approaches have transformed our understanding of ancient warfare. Volume II of this two-volume History reflects these developments and provides a systematic account, written by a distinguished cast of contributors, of the various themes underlying the warfare of the Roman world from the Late Republic to the sixth-century empire of Justinian and his successors. For each broad period developments in troop-types, equipment, strategy and tactics are discussed. These are placed in the broader context of developments in international relations and the relationship of warfare to both the state and wider society. Numerous illustrations, a glossary and chronology, and information about the authors mentioned supplement the text. This will become the primary reference work for specialists and non-specialists alike.


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  • 1 - International relations
    pp 1-29
  • DOI:
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    Roman ways of thinking about the Roman empire and its neighbours largely precluded the creation of structures similar to those of the post-Renaissance West. To understand Roman international relations, this chapter first looks at the ideological frameworks within which they operated, and then deals with other aspects such decision-making and the role of governors. Under the Republic, the Senate received and sent embassies. Under the Principate, the emperor was the ultimate decision maker. Embassies went to and from the emperor. Under the Republic, the Senate debated any treaties entered into by governors, whereas under the Principate, all governors acted to some extent under the auspices of the emperor. It is a truism that religion and politics could not be separated in ancient Rome. This was never more the case than in interstate relations. The chapter also deals with the acts of symbolism and the issue of practicalities in diplomatic relations in the Roman empire.
  • 2 - Military forces
    pp 30-75
    • By Boris Rankov, Professor of Roman History, Royal Holloway, University of London
  • DOI:
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    The period of the late Republic and early Principate is one in which Rome's military forces underwent a transformation in almost all aspects. C. Marius, a senator, used the popular revulsion against the aristocratic mismanagement of Rome's armies, obtained the command in Africa for himself. The army he employed to win his African victories had been subject to better individual training than before. In the course of Augustus' reign, a standing Roman army was set up on a permanent basis, under the command of the reigning emperor and the direct control of his appointed legates. The legions of the Principate were equipped with 120 cavalry. In the middle Republic, each legion had had 300, drawn from the very wealthiest members of society, including senators. Octavian, Caesar's great-nephew, stationed troops in Rome on a standing basis for the first time, although both he and his successors were careful as far as possible not to offend lingering Republican sensibilities.
  • 3 - War
    pp 76-121
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    This chapter discusses the types of war fought by the Roman army in the late Republic and Principate. It examines the context in which these conflicts occurred, their frequency, duration, decisiveness and results. Much of the chapter deals with strategy, or the practical factors such as intelligence, communications and logistics which impose limits upon it. It is convenient to divide the foreign wars fought by the army in this period into four broad groups: wars of conquest, wars to suppress rebellion, punitive expeditions, and wars fought in response to invasions or raids. Beyond the desire of the emperor to prevent the movement of troops for one operation causing problems in other areas, it is hard to see how any form of grand strategy could have coped with so many local, ever-changing problems. The strategy in civil wars was always simple and wars ended with the death of one of the rival leaders. Compromises were inevitably temporary.
  • 4 - Battle
    pp 122-157
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    A graphic pitched battle narrative or detailed description of a siege (complete with gruesome embellishments) was a must for any decent history. The tactical flexibility offered by the auxiliary units was especially valuable in the smaller-scale wars of the imperial period, and for frontier and internal security. This applied most of all to the part-mounted equitatae units. Naval battles were more likely to be influenced by the vagaries of weather and wind than land battles, so there could be some delay before conditions allowed a battle to take place. Rome had traditionally been a successful besieger and was able to maintain an army over the winter if necessary. Roman military thinking believed that a pitched battle fought on a fair or level battlefield would bring a certain victory. The tactical manuals provide some insight into how the Romans themselves explained their military success.
  • 5 - Warfare and the state
    pp 158-197
    • By Dominic , Professor of Ancient History, King’s College London, Richard , Professor of Ancient History, Royal Holloway, University of London
  • DOI:
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    The extant literature of the Roman world of the late Republic and Principate has occasional brief references to soldiers' pay, preparations for particular campaigns and the burden of military expenses. The four centuries of the late Republic and Principate are supposed to have seen two major changes in Roman military provisioning: introduction of a civil administration supplying the dispersed units of the army of the Principate; and the abandonment of this system in the third century AD in favour of direct requisitioning of supplies by the army. The lack of ancient statistics makes it difficult to assess the overall impact of the Roman army and warfare on the economy of the Roman world. Six decades of regular civil wars ushered in a period of two centuries in which civil political conflicts did not escalate into war. The chapter also discusses this Roman revolution and the removal of the soldiery from the politics of the imperial centre.
  • 6 - War and Society
    pp 198-232
    • By Colin Adams, Senior Lecturer in Ancient History, University of Liverpool
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    This chapter discusses two themes related to Roman warfare in the late Republic and early Principate: the impact of society and social structures on the conduct of war, and the reciprocal effect of war on society. It focuses on the changing character of external wars in the late Republic, the pressures which this caused in Rome and Italy, both socially and politically, and how these were eventually to lead to internal or civil wars which tore the Roman Republic apart. No matter what the causes of wars were, there is no doubt that there was a massive influx of public and private wealth and slaves into Italy in the second century BC and beyond. The human cost of wars in Italy, and throughout the Mediterranean world, must have been great. The effect of Roman imperialism in the Mediterranean and beyond was determined not just by events on the ground, but in the political developments in the city of Rome itself.
  • 7 - International relations
    pp 233-269
    • By Mark Humphries, Professor of Ancient History, University of Swansea
  • DOI:
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    The subjugation of barbarian envoys in front of Theodosius I, as depicted in the Constantnople's obelisk in 390, soon turned out to be hollow. The same barbarians later became embroiled in a series of conflicts that would seriously undermine the stability of the empire and eventually produce a very different balance of power between the empire and its neighbours. This chapter traces this changing balance of power in late antiquity and its ramifications for imperial international relations. After 378, the balance of power shifted in favour of Rome's enemies, as the Roman Empire was consistently on the retreat with any territorial expansion. The substantial geopolitical transformations experienced by the Empire between Diocletian and the Arab conquest affected its perspectives both in terms of the ideological underpinnings that guided policy and the goals it sought to achieve through diplomacy. The late Empire relied on a fluid decision-making process that meant the implementation of foreign policy was rarely consistent.
  • 8 - Military forces
    pp 270-309
    • By Hugh Elton, Professor of Ancient History and Classics, Trent University
  • DOI:
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    This chapter examines the military forces of the Roman Empire in three parts: the structure of armies, the structure of regiments, and the structure of individual careers. The first section of the chapter deals with the structure of the Roman army above the level of operational units. All late Roman armies were made up of individual regiments that had their own histories and traditions. The second section focuses on establishment strengths, though regimental units were under strength for much of their existence. The third part deals with the structures of units made up of individuals. It is sometimes argued that the late Roman army suffered from severe shortages of manpower and was thus forced to rely on non-Roman manpower. Soldiers were either conscripts or volunteers, but it is not possible to assess the relative importance of the two. Conscripts also came from annual levies of both free Romans and barbarians settled within the empire.
  • 9 - War
    pp 310-341
    • By Michael Whitby, Professor of Ancient History, University of Warwick
  • DOI:
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    War shaped the existence of the Roman empire, determined its decline and conditioned the nature of post-Roman structures. The majority of wars were undertaken in response to external threats, serious ones in contrast to the excuses which were sometimes exploited during the Republic to justify expansionist campaigns. Most warfare had the predictable rhythms imposed by seasons and logistics. In the east Roman commanders could forecast when Arab tribes would be inactive because of religious celebrations. It was usually to the Romans' advantage to confirm the cessation of hostilities with a formal agreement. In the east written treaties became increasingly more specific during the fifth century. Warfare was preceded by careful preparations, not just of men and material but also of information, as appears from a tenth-century account which purports to describe Constantine's practice. The traditional Latin religion had significance in structuring the lives of Roman soldiers, which was particularly relevant in a unit largely recruited from eastern provincials.
  • 10 - Battle
    pp 342-378
  • DOI:
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    This chapter assesses the factors which distinguished Roman armies from their various opponents: the tactical roles of the different troops deployed; their training, discipline and morale; and whether their attitudes to and preparation for combat were equal to the operational tasks they faced. Like their predecessors, later Roman emperors and officers embarking on military operations had at their disposal a number of military treatises or tactica. While Roman cavalry became more effective in fulfilling its existing tactical roles, the fundamentals of mounted combat remained unchanged. Sieges constitute over half the military engagements in late antiquity. Given the relative rarity of large-scale Roman offensives before the sixth century, Roman troops were ordinarily in the role of defenders, and more likely to be limitanei than comitatenses. This changed perspective is evident in contemporary treatises, which hitherto dealt almost exclusively with offensive siegecraft.
  • 11 - Warfare and the state
    pp 379-423
    • By A. D. Lee, Senior Lecturer in Classics, University of Nottingham
  • DOI:
  • View abstract
    The relationship between war and the state was always a close one throughout Roman history, but never more so than during late antiquity. During the early Empire the relationship between military and political power was particularly evident in two interrelated areas. Maintenance of the emperor's political position was dependent to a significant degree on the projection of an image of military success. During the course of late antiquity challenges to imperial power did periodically emerge from within the Empire's own armed forces. Some of these were the result of ambitious individuals exploiting the interests of troops for their own ends. Donatives and material incentives, and mutinies over slowness of or reductions in pay reflect the importance of economic dimensions and ramifications of military affairs. In the late fifth century, while the western half of the Empire ceased to exist as a political entity, the eastern half continued to exist in one form or another for a further millennium.
  • 12 - War and Society
    pp 424-458
    • By Andrew Fear, Lecturer in Ancient History, University of Manchester
  • DOI:
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    For inhabitants of the early Empire, the Roman army was a somewhat distant feature of society. In the realm of high politics the relationship between soldier and civilian had also changed greatly. The Roman state in the fourth century had become in most respects a para-military one. Work in the civil service was now described as militia. The militarization of society came with a general loss in esteem for the army. By its very nature and composition no army is likely to behave as if it were composed of angels and there is plenty of evidence of military brutality and abuse of civilians from the early Empire. On the other hand, there was also frequent pleading for exemption from conscription on the grounds that the prospective recruit did not meet the minimum standards for army life.

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