A lucid study of battles, broken treaties, and arms races in Roman antiquity.
In ancient Rome, writes Santosuosso (History/Univ. of Western Ontario), the military was made up of members of landed families who had a very real interest in seeing to the health of the republic. In the second and third centuries (a.d.), however, the state (now an empire) entered a long period of decline, nudged downward by the staggering cost of maintaining a far-flung army numbering nearly a quarter of a million elite troops. The burden of supporting this force fell to the Roman taxpayers, who were already hard-pressed, especially in the countryside; to escape that burden, many rural people found it easier to join the army themselves than to till the fields and pay the publican. Especially after the time of the emperor Commodus (the heavy of the recent film Gladiator), they also found military service to be about the only shot they had at improving their lot (through land grants to veterans and shares in the spoils of conquest), for, as Santosuosso observes, “The Roman laws of war took for granted that conquered peoples surrendered their freedom and property to Rome.” The conversion of the Roman army from an elite force to a volunteer army of the dispossessed—and, increasingly, the non-Roman poor at that—contributed to Rome’s political instability, as individual commanders vied for control of their corners of the empire and occasionally marched on Rome to seize control, backed by troops loyal not to the empire but to themselves. Government became so militarized, Santosuosso writes, that “the imperial guard and the rank and file in the field . . . held the real power, standing behind often weak rulers.” Those rulers were eminently dispensable; between a.d. 211 and 284 an emperor’s reign ended almost always in assassination.
Good reading for critics of latter-day military culture, as well as students of ancient history.