Book Review: Rome and the Sword, by Simon James

Rome and the Sword: How Warriors and Weapons Shaped Roman History, by Simon James, Thames & Hudson, London, 2011, $29.95

Writing a history of Rome from its founding until its demise is no easy task, but British archaeologist/historian Simon James accomplishes it brilliantly. James argues in the introduction that modern histories of Rome are written from the perspective of its political and military elites, with an unjustified reliance on surviving historical texts, themselves biased and incomplete. The result has been a Eurocentric view of Rome and its empire to the neglect of equally, and sometimes more, important factors.

James seeks to correct this European bias by constructing a history of Rome from the perspective of the common soldiers, the provincial residents and the conquered peoples who comprised the empire. He tests the claims in ancient historical texts against the archaeological evidence, often disproving the former. To stitch together his narrative along a common theme, James employs the Roman sword, relating changes in its design and manufacture to the broader events in Roman history that influenced these changes. The result is a fine book that challenges many long-held beliefs and illuminates Roman history from a new perspective.

James’ account of the evolution of the Roman Republic and the events that led to its collapse and the rise of the empire is excellent and alone worth the price of the book. Equally valuable is his account of how Roman policy in Germany and on the Danube forced local tribes to form larger and more powerful confederations that, with the acquisition of weapons and military technology supplied to them by Roman arms merchants, created tribal polities finally powerful enough to threaten Roman defenses. In yet another terrific section, the author dispels the myth that Rome’s legions collapsed due to the “barbarization” of men and weapons, explaining that it was these barbarized legions that actually restored the empire in the 3rd century. James also stresses the importance of the Roman-Parthian Wars to the ultimate collapse of the empire, arguing that past accounts focus too much on barbarian invasions along the western frontier.

James’ book is well written and illustrated, making it easy for the reader to follow his arguments. His supporting research is first-rate and far more inclusive, particularly regarding archaeological data, than that found in most other histories. The footnotes are a trove of source materials, and the bibliography is solid, although why the publisher presents these sections in narrow, almost unreadable columns is a puzzle. All in all, this is a first-rate work of ancient military history, highly recommended for general readers, students and historians alike.

—Richard A. Gabriel


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