This book takes a look at the Roman army from its origins at the start of Rome through to the 6th century. That seemingly odd ending point (the Western Empire ended in the 5th, the Eastern in the 15th) is because that was the final time there was a concerted effort to try and take back Rome for the Roman Empire (which was then based in Byzantium).
I have to be honest, and say that I found this to be a quite fantastic book. Certain periods (3rd century BC and 2nd century AD) I knew reasonably well already, but the earlier form of the army and its slow transition to the ‘classic’ Roman army of later years was fascinating to read about. It was also interesting to read another view regarding the downfall of the empire and how the spiral of decline interacted with political and military changes.
Early on, the army was essentially drawn along the same lines as the Greek hoplites. Gradually this evolved into a more flexible army, equipped with shields copied from the Samnites and swords from the Iberians.
The army also became pathologically aggressive, which worked very well in most circumstances. The infantry was exceptional, and the cavalry notable for being rubbish. In later years, this was reversed, as the army became concentrated in many smaller units rather than the army-in-itself legion, and was mostly focused on fighting off raids (obviously cavalry excel at this, compared to infantry).
However, the old aggression had gone. The more effective command structures of both the Republican and early Imperial periods had fragmented into a bureaucratic mess. The army had adopted the worst aspects of both localism (making it hard to concentrate large forces) and centralism (making it hard to do anything unless the Emperor was there). And that’s without considering the regicidal habit the army had adopted.
In addition to the clear and interesting history, the book is festooned with splendid photographs of Roman artwork and engineering, from forts to aqueducts, and diagrams of various battles. It’s a great book, and I very much enjoyed reading it.