The Roman War (58 BC - 235 AD)

The Roman army still fascinates today. The Gallo-Roman festivals, more and more numerous in France, allow visitors to have a glimpse of what the Roman legions were. While many books have appeared on the subject, few have taken an interest in the Roman war as a whole. War is not only a succession of fights but a singular moment in the life of a community that mobilizes all spheres, whether political, cultural, social, legal or even religious. This vast subject is emblematic of the revival of military historiography. Yann le Bohec offers us in his book The Roman War (58 BC), published in 2004 by Tallandier editions, a very good summary of this dossier.

A thematic story

The author offers us a panorama of the Roman war from the end of the Republic to the end of the Severan dynasty. The choice to integrate the Gallic Wars is strongly linked to the numerous sources on the subject. Rome had to face important enemies throughout this period: the Gauls, Germans and Britons often represented in cinema but also Iranians and Jews less present in the mind of the general public when this subject was raised. The confrontation of the various wars waged by Rome sheds important light on the subject and makes it possible to measure the pragmatism and flexibility of the Roman army. All this allows the author to finally paint a rather fine and complete portrait of the Roman war. The author often returns to the vocabulary used by the Romans, which allows him to address the many points unthought by them. This last bridge still poses a certain number of difficulties today for the historian who uses a more modern vocabulary to describe past situations.

The construction of the work

The book is divided into major themes: the army as an institution, the war environment, towards combat, strategy and finally tactics. It is regrettable that the author had difficulty in masking the disinterest he felt in describing the subtleties of the Roman army in the first chapter: "It was necessary to present the units, the hierarchy and the recruitment of the Roman army. so that we can understand the tactics ”. This chapter is very complete but suffers from the “catalog” effect which is certainly necessary for this kind of subject. In addition, the author punctuates his remarks with remarks such as “the so-called equitatae cohorts have given rise to unnecessary debates” p. 44 or even "the legionary cavalry has caused more ink to flow, whereas it regrouped [...] only a few men. Despite some rather laborious parts, the chapter has much more enjoyable parts to read full of valuable and interesting information. The following chapter on the environment of war is truly part of the new military history and embraces many varied subjects such as the question of Roman imperialism, the social, legal, political and religious context but also the philosophical reflections on the war. We will not develop the content of the other chapters due to the clarity of their title. The work is accompanied by index and a very developed summary allowing to find or find a more particular passage.

A non-neutral work

The author uses a very personal tone throughout the book. Indeed, he does not hesitate to criticize certain historians or to criticize certain historiographical points. One can however reproach the brutality of certain poorly argued criticisms. For example, on pages 55-56, the author deals with the role of the emperors in the treated war, indicates that "Augustus was a great soldier, contrary to what has been said", firmly argues his point then addresses some lines further his successors. He makes a list of good and bad emperors which does not really upset the historiographical canons except on the Trajan case where he is content to write "we think that [this one] was more a 'communicator' than a strategist. ". The emperor is not listed in the index of proper names and no footnote completes this statement. On the other hand, he returns later in the work on Trajan (pp. 309-310) and writes that military successes are relative because the defeat of the Dacians was inevitable while its failures are more important. The author makes no reference to recent works on the subject and does not seem to have mentioned the Dacians at any other time (the Dacians are absent from the passage in which the author presents the enemies of Rome). The smallness of the kingdom alone cannot explain the ease of conquest. If this example is in our eyes the one that raises the most questions, other passages of the book are also embarrassing, as indicated above, because of the quick and undeveloped remarks punctuating the text and leaving the reader warned about his hunger. and a little puzzled.

Despite certain reservations, this book is certainly intended to be a must-read for a first approach on the subject. The author offers a complete story and on the whole accessible to all. Yann le Bohec clearly demonstrates that if the Roman Empire is an empire of peace, war is omnipresent during this period (few emperors have not been confronted with a war). But weren't the Romans the authors of this maxim: "Si vis pacem, para bellum".

The Roman War: 58 BC - 235 AD, by Yann Le Bohec. Tallandier, August 2014.

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