I am hoping to post several book recommendations during the next week, and want to begin with an excellent book on a subject close to my heart. Simon James' Rome and the Sword. How Warriors and Weapons Shaped Roman History (Thames & Hudson, 2011) is the most interesting thing on the topic for quite a while. Simon has worked on the military material from Dura Europos, among many other things, and is one of the leading experts on ancient military equipment. That knowledge shines through here, but the book is not focused on weapons and armour for their own sake and is a much wider study of the soldiers who used them, on the place of Roman soldiers in wider society and how this developed over the centuries, and deservedly places them at the heart of the creation and spread of the Roman state, as well as its eventual disappearance. Expressly this is not a book about the Roman army, because the Romans did not really use the term, and instead spoke of armies and soldiers. They did have a concept of the 'military' as a distinct sphere of life and activity covered by different rules and laws. This is just another reason why studying Roman politics or warfare in isolation misunderstands the intimate links between them, especially under the Republic and early empire
Rome and the Sword is a good read and ought to be enjoyable if you have little or no prior knowledge, but I think that the more you have read then the more interesting and challenging you will find it. It is a really good example of how to use archaeological evidence far more imaginatively than as simply a comparison of individual finds, and of integrating it with other types of evidence. This is a challenging book, and you may not agree with all the arguments - I have a slightly different view of the later army and empire - but they certainly make you think in a fresh way about long familiar subjects. It deserves to be widely read, not only by people interested in the Roman military, but also by those concerned with Roman political and social history/archaeology in general. Sadly many of the latter remain inclined to ignore or grossly over-simplify the role played by Roman soldiers.
A few days ago I was sent a pewter beaker from a new company called Calix Imperium. They tell me that this is the first of a range of historically themed drinking vessels and in this case the theme is the legions of the first century AD. One scene has a centurion charging forward, a harness covered in phalerae over his mail cuirass. Another shows a legionary in lorica segmentata, his gladius held low, and behind him a formation of other legionaries still with their pila. The remaining scene has an aquilifer, again backed by a formation of soldiers. Over each scene is a profile of Vespasian, much like a coin - the centurion and his chums have shields with the capricorn on them based on the Arch at Arausio, and plausibly interpreted as belonging to Legio II Augusta, which of course Vespasian commanded in AD 43. The designers have done their research well and got things right. The aquilifer wears his sword on the left like a centurion, but at least one tombstone does show this, even if there is also evidence for them wearing the sword on the right, like an ordinary legionaries.
All in all it is a very handsome, well made piece. Not sure whether I'll ever use it for drinking - in fact I suspect it may be obligatory to quaff from such a cup - but it has pride of place on the mantelpiece in my new office, next to a Graham Sumner print and soon to be joined by a couple of framed Peter Connolly posters. It does look very nice.
Hopefully there should be several blog postings this week, but I thought that I would start with a long-ish one. Earlier in the month I picked up a cold from somewhere, and ended up staying in watching TV for most of a weekend. Along with everything else I put on the blu-ray versions of Spartacus and Gladiator. Blu-ray and a decent screen suit epics of this sort, and you find noticing yourself little details, especially in the massed scenes - and yes, the chap in jeans next to the horse in the camp scene in Gladiator does stand out even more than usual.
Spartacus is more than fifty years old now, but is still a good movie (and we don't need to worry too much about its portrayal of first century BC politics. At least more thought went into it than the 'let's see just how gratuitous we can be' TV series running these days), and the main battle scene is still quite something. Apparently a lot of the extras were provided by the Spanish Army, so when the Romans come over the hill, they are actually marching in step and keeping better formation than is usually to be expected from movie extras. All in all we have a nice checkerboard or quincunx pattern, although they seem to be in four lines rather than the normal three. The lack of dialogue, so that the only sounds are the rattle of equipment, adding to the intimdating impression.
Laurence Olivier is there as Crassus (as this was back in the days when Romans were almost invariably played by British actors), sitting on a white horse with a cluster of staff officers and standard bearers behind him. He does not say anything for a long time. He does not really do anything at all. Instead he just watches - although admittedly he does this very charismatically. The legionaries keep marching forward, a second formation - perhaps supposed to be a second legion,again in ten blocks in four lines matching the first, follows on and marches silently towards Kirk Douglas and his boys (and girls in some cases). The Romans keep going, until they halt. Then the formation changes from checkerboard to a single line, while some of the other legionaries run together to form a mass in the centre. Never really been sure what is supposed to be going on there. Suspect the forming a single line without gaps may have come from theories about the manipular legion moving with gaps between maniples, but closing them before contact - and I have my doubts about that, but plenty of people would disagree with me. Or maybe it was simply to look impressive and create a nice sound when the men in the line all turn their shields to face front. Otherwise it's all done in silence. No orders, no signals. Laurence Olivier watches, presumably approvingly, but doesn't actually involve himself in any way. Again without orders the line advances - and then the cunning slaves roll those burning log things down on them, the battle begins, and that is the last we see of any formation. Crassus notes the arrival of Pompey and Lucullus, whose armies are less professional cheering hordes, but doesn't get too excited about it.
This is the Roman army - or rather the legions, since apart from a few cavalry who pop up later we do not see anyone other than legionaries - as a machine, its discipline so strict that every movement is mechanical, silent, and automatic. The commander may have given initial orders, but after that his job is pretty much done. The Crassus of the movie watches from afar, but issues no orders and receives no reports. He simply sets his army running and they grind through anything in their path. There is no sign of any junior officers doing anything either, although we do see them marching to the flanks of the formations as they come past Crassus. It's visually impressive and great cinema, providing a contrast between drilled automata and the passion of the slave army, but it does not have much connection with history.
The whole look of the battle at the start of Gladiator is different - much more gloomy (well, it was filmed here in the UK) and grubby. I remember reading that one of the advisors on costume and armour insisted that helmets and cuirasses should be heavily greased on the basis that this would have been essential in reality if they were not to rust. It's hard to know whether this is right, although it does sound plausible enough. The sources talk of the Romans dreessing up for a battle, so perhaps they should look more like the brightly coloured and shiny soldiers of many illustrations at least on the day of battle itself if not during the rest of the campaign, but the truth is that we cannot be sure. The soldiers' equipment in the movie look almost, but frustratingly not quite, right. The battle itself follows a similar pattern to Spartacus. Formations of Romans advance towards the woodland. We do get a few orders - mostly to the archers and artillery - but the focus is really on our main characters and what they are doing. People start setting light to everything in sight because after all this is a Hollywood battle. The legionaries have nice looking pila but no one throws them. It would be nice to see that in a movie one day. Once the battle begins it becomes a whole series of whirling individual duels, fought almost always to the death.
Russell Crowe is a lot more dynamic than Olivier, so there is none of that sitting around watching. He does give a few orders, but then leads a cavalry charge - downhill through burning woodland, but it is probably never wise to think too much about the tactics in cinematic battles. After that he lays about him with a sword - well two swords since he has fortunately brought a spare - and hacks his way through the Germans. This is in many ways not far from the style of inspirational command practiced by Alexander the Great. It's pretty much standard for any ancient commander portrayed on screen. I have picked up, but have not yet had time to watch, the old Fall of the Roman Empire on blu-ray, but have not had time to watch it. The generals fight in the thick of the battles in that one as well.
This is a far cry from the style of Roman generalship in our sources. Onasander, The General 33. 6 sums it up nicely - 'The duty of a general is to ride by the ranks on horseback, show himself to those in danger, praise the brave, threaten the cowardly, encourage the lazy, fill up gaps, transpose a unit if necessary, bring aid to the wearied, anticipate the crisis, the hour and the outcome.' Roman generals did sometimes lead charges and fight sword or spear in hand, but that was not their main job. They supervised the battle, but not from a distance and in so aloof a manner as Olivier's Crassus. Instead they kept close to the fighting line, encouraging, giving orders, trying to sense what was happening in time to react, exploiting a success or plugging a gap. All the time subordinates were performing similar roles in their respective sectors. Someone had to order changes in formation, and in particular commit the units kept in reserve. It would be nice if one day someone shows this, but I suspect it won't happen because the audience is too used to the normal Hollywood approach and will be reluctant to accept anything else.
Still, having said all this, both movies are still highly entertaining. I may carp, but they are great fun to watch and I am sure that I will do so many more times in the future.