THE REACH OF ROME by Derek Williams


A History of the Roman Imperial Frontier, 1st-5th Centuries A.D.
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 In a distinctive and lucidly reasoned contribution to classical scholarship, freelancer Williams traces the military history of the moenia mundi (the world's walls) encircling the Roman Empire, which made possible the long pax Romana of the ancient world. The conquests of Pompey and Julius Caesar had expanded the boundaries of Roman imperium widely by the death of Caesar in 44 b.c. As the author tells it, military frontiers were conceived in the days of the Roman republic as launching posts for military excursions rather than as static positions for protecting the fruits of past conquests. However, soon after his accession as the first emperor in 27 b.c. following a sanguinary civil war, Augustus mandated the deployment of Roman soldiers in defensive garrisons along the far-flung perimeter of the empire. According to Williams, Augustus may have done this in order to maximize his power: The dispersal of the legions precluded concentration of power in the hands of an ambitious general with designs on the imperial throne and assured that Augustus alone would have control of the armies. In addition, the threat of defeat at the hands of extramural enemies was real; the annihilation of Varus and his legions at the Teutoburg Forest in 9 a.d. showed that Roman military techniques, so powerful in conquests of civilized peoples like the Carthaginians and Greeks, were less potent against wild terrain and savage barbarian tribes. Augustus's successors long remembered what came to be called the Varian Disaster and consequently institutionalized his policy of fortifying the frontiers. Williams argues that later emperors became married to Augustus's flawed formula for imperial defense, even as barbarian military competence improved. By the time the passivity of the frontier ensured its destruction at the hands of the barbarians, the frontier had done its work of preserving the civilization of Rome for four centuries. A fine look at the Roman frontier's function in the empire's political and military life, and at its meaning for history. (8 pages b&w photos, 30 maps)

Pub Date: July 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-312-15631-6
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1997


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