Fireside today to close out the week; if you missed the main post for this week – a review and discussion of Victoria III – because it appeared earlier you can head back to read it.
This is going to be the last post, however, before my November break. As I’ve noted before, I’m planning to take November as an ACOUP-sabbatical in order to make a concerted push on my book project; while I do balance blog-writing and research writing normally, sometimes it just helps to be able to focus singularly on a project for an extended period of time. So that means that the next normal Friday post will be 12/2/2022. Meanwhile to be fair to my patrons who are supporting this project, I will be posting some short sections of the book project for them over on Patreon. If this break works out, I may make it an annual thing (though I’ll probably pick one of the summer months) along a similar set of lines. But fear not, change not ye bookmarks, we will back back to our regular schedule in December; I’ve got a really cool guest post to share with you, along with a discussion of Roman Egypt and my own lukewarm takes on some of the worldbuilding in Rings of Power (also lest any of you fear that ACOUP is going to become an all-Paradox-all-the-time space; there will be more Teaching Paradox series, but probably not for a bit).1
Since I am taking the next month off of the blog to work on my book project, I thought this might be a good time to talk about my book project, outlining the questions I’m examining, the kind of research I’ve done and some of the conclusions I’ve come to in ‘elevator pitch’ form (albeit for what seems to be a fairly tall building).
The one sentence version is: My book argues2 that Roman military success in the third and second centuries B.C. was a consequence of superior Roman mobilization systems rooted in Italian social institutions which expressed themselves in the form of a comprehensive mobilization advantage, both more men but also more expensive men, which I can in turn detect by looking at the evidence for the costs of fielding armies in the period, particularly the cost of equipment. I didn’t say it was a short sentence.
First we need some necessary background; my project is focused on “the third and second centuries B.C.” The Roman Republic functionally completed the conquest of peninsular Italy in 272 B.C. with the capture of Tarentum. The peninsula was split between Roman territory (about 1/3 of the land area) and the territory of the socii, formally Rome’s allies but in practice subjugated communities required to send troops to Rome’s armies and denied any other foreign policy (but internally self-governing). Then in 264, Rome got itself into a scrap over a small town in Sicily (Messina) which then blew up into a major war with Carthage. That war would trigger a chain of other wars, driven in part by Rome’s belligerence and in part by the also considerable belligerence of every other large Mediterranean state. Rome thus would enter a series of wars against the Carthaginians (the Punic Wars), the Antigonid kingdom of Macedon (the Macedonian Wars), one war against the Seleucid kingdom (which ruled much of the Middle East), along with literally dozens of smaller conflicts in Spain, the Balkans, Cisalpine Gaul (today Northern Italy) and Transalpine Gaul (today Southern France). By 133, the Roman Republic was the unquestioned master of the Mediterranean, having destroyed or humbled all of these rivals – in such a position that a Roman tribune (Tiberius Gracchus) could disestablish a major kingdom (that of Pergamum) simply by passing a law in Rome. It is this range, from 264 to 133, a sort of ‘long second century’ where Roman dominance comes into being that is my focus.
Naturally the question of how Rome was able to effectively run the table, overturning the entire Mediterranean state system in just a century and a half or so, is an important one. Traditionally, scholars have pointed to some of the tremendous and outsized Roman mobilizations (especially in 216-214) and thus argued that ‘manpower’ was the Roman secret: Rome had, in the words of Nicholas Sekunda, “horde after uncomplaining horde of Italian peasant manpower” to throw at its enemies.3 You can see this focus animating some of the important foundational works in Roman demography for instance – the assumption being that if we could count Italian peasants, we could understand Rome’s success.4 To put it kindly, this answer is not actually very helpful, because as we’ll see raw population – manpower in the most basic sense – was not the problem ancient states faced in mobilizing armies. The more sophisticated studies of this sort instead focus on mobilized manpower; Michael Taylor has noted that Rome’s ability to mobilize manpower seems largely unconnected to its relatively weak state finance, for instance.5 But that just poses the question anew: why was Rome able to mobilize so much more manpower? Evidently state finance wasn’t the answer, so what was?
It isn’t that the Romans just had more surplus manpower because, as we’ve noted here, the nature of ancient agriculture meant that everyone had lots of surplus manpower, with small farms generating little surplus because they supported families that, as units of labor, were much too large for their tiny farms. I work this out in the project with some modeling of ‘typical’ smallholders, but the upshot is that the countryside was pretty much always going to be ‘long’ on labor but short on agricultural (or other economic) surplus. But you need that surplus to support a population of non-farmers, to provide their wages, equipment and so on. The question was never finding a lot of farmers with not a lot to do (they were the one thing you had a lot of), the question was turning those farmers into soldiers, which was in turn about prying resources, not people out of the countryside.
And here is where my focus lies: the main constraint on raising armies were the costs of turning farmers into soldiers, but those costs were often not borne by the state. At Rome, for instance, the Roman state paid only for the wages of Roman soldiers and the food of allied soldiers. Roman soldiers had to pay for their food out of their wages and allied soldier’s wages were presumably paid by the community required to send them to Rome’s armies. Both sets of troops had to pay for all of their own equipment (which for the wealthy might include a horse) out of pocket. Consequently, as Taylor has demonstrated, measuring state finance isn’t a good way of getting at military power, because a lot of military spending wasn’t done by the state and so state expenditures are very poorly correlated to military strength or success. Very wealthy states often struggled to field top-rate armies that could compete with Rome.
So in my research I set out to get a handle, as best I could, on the total cost of mobilizing soldiers in this period. The approach had to be comparative rather than Rome-focused in order to be useful in understanding Rome’s advantage, so each method I applied to Roman mobilization, I had to apply – in as much as possible – to the systems of Rome’s rivals: Carthage, the three successor states (Antigonid Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Anatolia+Syria+Mesopotamia; seriously, the Seleucid Empire was big), and Rome’s non-state foes (mostly focused on Spain and Gaul). The goal here is to treat ‘total social cost’ – that is the ‘all in’ cost of a soldier including costs devolved onto the soldier himself or subordinated communities.
Now what the ‘manpower thesis’ should lead us to expect is that Roman soldiers should be cheap and expendable; that would neatly explain how Rome managed to bounce back from some really nasty defeats in the third century, for instance. What I found, however, was the reverse: Rome’s way of warfare seemed to be incredibly materiel intense; the Roman soldier was, man for man, the most expensive fellow on the battlefield, a stunning and unexpected conclusion, which is of course the best kind.
Some of these areas were well-studied enough that I could quickly survey what we knew and make comparisons. Rome’s logistics, for instance, were expensive: Rome’s far-flung operations demanded that the Roman Republic ship grain across the Mediterranean to support campaigns (in addition to local foraging); the Roman Republic did skimp on paying its troops (but from this ‘total social investment’ angle that just devolves the labor cost of service onto the soldiers), but it did not skimp on food. Meanwhile, while the Romans sometimes have a modern reputation for not bringing much cavalry (always a very expensive arm, because horses are costly), in practice Roman armies were broadly typical in terms of the amount of war animals they brought to war; Roman cavalry sucked, but it wasn’t for not having enough of it. We can also think about ‘quality’ costs – what today would be training costs; here Roman rolling recruitment and continuous warfare meant that all Roman men of any property were going to spent quite a few years in the army. That’s a cost too: keeping the soldiers out doing something which in turn created this deep well of trained (and equipped, see below) reserves in case of disaster or the need to open a second (third? fourth?) front. Rome’s habit then of always having at least a couple of small wars going could be seen, I’d argue, as a significant investment in quality.
Instead the tricky part was equipment. For non-battlefield equipment, developing a sufficient archaeological sample base was likely to be impossible in this period; we don’t have a really good sense of what stuff and how much Rome’s adversaries carried and identifying dual-use tools as military would be very difficult.6 That said our non-Roman sources, particularly Polybius and Josephus, are unanimous that the Romans marched heavy, with a quantity of heavy tools and building materials (for those fortified camps) that surprised contemporaries familiar with Greek and Macedonian styles of warfare (and they in turn tended to think the Carthaginians did less field fortification, implying that the Romans were heavier than the Greeks who were heavier than the Carthaginians when it came to non-combat materiel).
But battlefield equipment is rarely studied comparatively in this way and there was enough evidence to make a direct comparison of surviving archaeological exemplars. Literary sources and representational evidence can give us a fairly good picture – there are some major uncertainties, but fairly good – of the equipment different kinds of soldiers and warriors carried for fighting. We have almost no price data for this equipment; I cannot tell you how many denarii a good gladius cost because no ancient source records that. But I could compare the material demands – iron, bronze, wood, leather, textile – and in some cases where modern time-and-labor studies had been done, the labor demands, of all of these elements of equipment. I could then sort them into panoplies (complete sets of equipment for a sort of soldier) and then make a comparison of relative equipment cost between armies in the period. That may sound simple in practice but doing this comparison means untangling a bunch of tricky questions about ancient equipment and bringing together a lot of archaeological evidence, so this comparison is the biggest evidentiary chunk of the project.
And what emerges from this, as I said, is that the Romans were anything but expendable: they were the most expensive kitted fellows out there. The main quantitative comparative element ended up being worked metal (iron and bronze) because worked metal was so expensive compared to other materials, for reasons we’ve discussed here before. And the Romans wore a lot of it, 25% more than their nearest competitors, in fact. Indeed just about everyone else’s kit seemed to look for any opportunity to substitute metal equipment for something else (like textile for armor, as in the linothorax). Meanwhile the Romans went gangbusters with mail armor, a new defensive technology whose main drawback was that it was very expensive, being both made of lots of expensive iron but also demanding a very labor-intensive manufacturing process. Initially worn by wealthy Romans, by the end of the period this became the standard armor of the legions, which is just wild.
So the Romans not only had more soldiers (when they needed them), but more expensive soldiers, whose superior combat performance was (I argue) connected in part to the fact that the Romans spared no expense in their equipment and kept lots of them in the field all the time. That makes sense of course: Roman soldiers were buying their own equipment (we suspect, but cannot be sure, that some of Rome’s rivals state-issued at least some equipment) and so invested heavily in their own survival. But this in turn means that Rome’s mobilizations were not just an issue of ‘manpower,’ rather Rome comprehensively out-mobilized its rivals across a wide range of resources.
Which of course led into my second question, “how did they do that?” There’s certainly no indication that it was because the Romans were particular rich; Rome was more urbanized and wealthier than its non-state rivals, but not (in so far as we can tell) compared to the Seleucids, the Carthaginians or the Ptolemies (the wealth of the latter two being proverbial at the time). Instead it looked like Rome dug deeper rather than having a deeper well. That led me to look at the recruitment and mobilization systems each of these groups used.
For the non-state peoples – the Gauls, Celtiberians, Iberians and so on – mobilization seems to have been very intensive, meaning they got a big percentage of their total available resources, but the lack of large-scale state organization meant that the pool of resources was small because these polities (tribes and chiefdoms, mostly) were small. Recruitment was based on the social networks of ‘big men’ – both horizontal and vertical elite relationships – or on ethnic or tribal solidarity; neither of which ‘scale up’ well.
Meanwhile the other major states mostly relied on what I came to refer to as ‘engines of force.’ The core of the state was the army, which used its dominance to extract revenues from a subjugated population which was ethnically distinct (e.g. the Mesopotamian, Syrian or Egyptian subjects of Alexander’s Macedonian successors), which was then used to fund the continuation of that army. Thus taxes were used to raise force and then that force was used to raise taxes and around and around the wheel spins. But that system imposes a lot of administrative overhead and also demands that a lot of the troops it creates be held back to keep the engine running. It also limits the ability to mobilize subject peoples because if you give these folks weapons, they might decide they shouldn’t pay taxes anymore (or that they deserve the same military pay as the Macedonians, a factor in the Great Revolt in Egypt of 205).
The Roman system was different: it relied on what I’ve termed ‘willing compliance.’ There were dire penalties for draft dodging by Roman citizens and Rome interpreted any effort at the same by Rome’s ‘allies’ as rebellion and responded with brutal force, but beyond that there were no real enforcement mechanisms. Rome had one really big ‘stick’ that was very costly and thus fairly rarely used, but that was it. Rome had no bureaucratic presence among the socii and the Roman census which determined military service obligations was conducted more-or-less on the honor system. Instead when it came time to raise an army (which was every year), the consuls put out a list of Romans who were drafted and sent messengers to all of the socii to tell them how many men to send and that was it. And with a few exceptions, that worked, which is wild for a system of extracting manpower from a disenfranchised subordinated populace; the men showed up, having purchased their own weapons, armor and tools (at considerable expense) and the Romans marched off to go crack some skulls. The administrative overhead of this whole system was minuscule.
Now it’s not hard to see why the Romans would show up: this was their Republic, they were fighting under the command leaders they had elected in voting bodies that closely correlated liability for military service with voting. But a little more than half of every Roman army was made up of socii; why did they dutifully show up more often than not?
What I argue is that the ‘secret’ here is the structure of Rome’s alliance system; while it isn’t really an alliance, it also isn’t a one-way deal either. The Romans themselves recognize this, repeatedly comparing the system to another social institution they shared with the other Italians: clientela (we’d say ‘patronage’), a system where by lower-status person could enter into a reciprocal relationship with a higher status person; the former would be expected to support his patron politically, while the patron was expected to protect their clients legally and economically.
The Roman alliance system in turn worked kind of like clientela between communities. A community of the socii, as the junior partner, promised to serve in Rome’s armies and stick by the Romans in war. Meanwhile Rome, as the senior partner, promised to protect the socii militarily and to let them have a share of the loot and glory of successful military action. And Rome largely lived up to that bargain in this period. And that helped foster allied ‘buy-in’ for Rome; whereas being a client in some non-Italian cultures (e.g. the Greeks) was shameful, for the Romans and Italians being a ‘good client’ could be a source of positive honor. There was no shame in this relationship, which is really important for managing subordination in slavery-cultures where any hint of ‘slavishness’ demands a violent response to protect honor. In short this was a good deal for allied communities living in what was frankly a pretty ‘tough neighborhood’ (so the security guarantee was valuable) and who might benefit from loot from Rome’s wars. And crucially it was a good deal they could recognize, that they had a language for, which was was valued in their culture, just as it was in Rome.
That buy-in let Rome rely on ‘willing compliance’ with the allies except in extreme cases, which in turn let them rely on each allied community to manage its own recruitment, under the direction of its own local leaders. That essentially let Rome take it’s very intensive recruitment system and ‘franchise it out,’ expanding the geographic, economic and demographic reach of the system without compromising its foundation in community solidarity and civic militarism.
Consequently, when Rome called, nearly all of Italy answered. Even when Roman armies were defeated in the field (esp. 218-216), only a minority of the socii ever tried to break away; the majority remained with Rome. The result was that Rome could dig deep, fielding armies that were heavily equipped and well-supplied, but also replaceable in a disaster. It also enabled Rome – combined with a Republican political system that allowed functionally any senator to be given the command of an army and be expected to know what to do with it – to wage wars simultaneously on multiple fronts and even against multiple enemies. After 216, the Romans spent the next several years with around a quarter of a million men under arms, fighting simultaneously in theaters in Northern, Central and Southern Italy, Sicily, Spain and eventually the Balkans and North Africa and maintaining an active naval presence the whole time.
It was a spectacular display of military resources, rooted in Rome’s clever utilization of Italian social and political institutions, mobilized through a freeholding farmer class willing to dig deep into their pockets to field the heaviest equipment in defense of communities (both Rome and the allies) they saw as their own.
In any case, that’s the book project! Right now I’m working on getting enough revised chapters together to be able to put together a ‘pitch package’ in January. The joint annual meeting for the Society for Classical Studies and the Archaeological Institute of America (SCS/AIA, the biggest ‘ancient world’ professional conference in North America; Jan 5-8), at which I’ll be presenting on some of this, should be ideal place to gauge the interest of some of the key academic presses.
On to Recommendations!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t lead in with a bit of a self-plug of this profile of my teaching and research over at Endeavors, UNC-Chapel Hill’s magazine for highlighting the work of UNC researchers (where I still have a research appointment that keeps me in things like library access that I need for this and other projects), written by one of my former students, Renata Schmidt.
Meanwhile, our heroic narrator is still at it, this time providing audio versions of the Teaching Paradox series for both EU4 and Victoria II (the latter, very well timed!).
In connection with the series we did on generalship in the pre-modern world, I want to highlight this fantastic r/AskHistorians answer by ancient historian, ditch enthusiast and all around good fellow Roel Konijnendijk (whose name I think I have now learned to pronounce) on the use – or lack there of – of battle maps or models by ancient generals. I’d be remiss as a student of Richard Talbert if I didn’t also note that for those interested in reading about how the ancients understood geography, maps and their place in the world, you might check out R. Talbert, Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered (2010) and Roman Portable Sundials: The Empire in your Hand (2017).
Meanwhile, over on YouTube, Matt Easton has done a couple of videos at the Wallace Collection with the curator there, Dr. Tobias Capwell, talking first about a set of plate armor stylized to look similar to the distinctive clothing of the Landsknechte, early modern German mercenary infantry and also a longer discussion, focused mostly on Capwell’s books. Meanwhile, Skallagrim also has a video rather vividly demonstrating why rigid head protection was generally the first sort of armor combatants on pre-modern battlefields tried to acquire.
Finally, on the topic of education and particularly teaching reading (an important thing for any humanist whose discipline is based on the written word), I wanted to highlight this recent article in The New Yorker, based heavily on the work and reporting of Emily Hanford who writes over at APMReports and who also has a great podcast on the topic. That’s basically three ways to get to the same conclusion, which is that we know how to teach English literacy effectively; we have a small mountain of studies that confirms what works for the greatest number of students and that’s a phonics-centered approach.7 But reading education keeps getting distracted by the latest ‘shiny object’ to the detriment of students. I find myself often wondering how declining reading achievement in primary school might also be playing a role in the decline of the humanities, as students who struggle with reading due to substandard teaching methods tend to become less enthusiastic readers later in life.
Finally, for this week’s book review, I am going to recommend M.H. Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 (2008). The book is, as its title suggests, an analysis of the Revolutionary War from the British perspective, considering what the British aimed to accomplish militarily, the methods that the British army adopted to achieve those ends (from strategy all the way down to tactical adaptation), and finally the success or lack thereof of those methods. The first great virtue of this approach is its treatment of the British army as one engaged in the suppression of what was effectively an insurgency, a perspective shift that will, I suspect, be eye-opening for American readers but is quite valuable for the analysis, especially on the strategic level.
The larger intervention here has to do with tactics: Spring takes aim at the Hollywood vision of ungainly Redcoats marching in deep formations being outwitted and outmaneuvered by the clever Americans. First, Spring explains the whys of linear tactics, which is always a valuable enterprise as to modern eyes such tactics seem almost suicidal and yet they worked extremely well with the technology of the day. This cannot be said enough: with linear tactics European armies conquered much of the world; they were not stupid even if they seem strange to us. Nevertheless, Spring does note that the tight, three-man deep heavy infantry musket line of continental warfare was ill-suited to much of the terrain and fighting in North America, which is why British commanders swiftly dropped it and adapted. Instead, Spring argues, both British and American forces steadily congealed around fighting in two-deep lines with eighteen inch intervals between files, a departure from the shoulder-to-shoulder European formation which owed to both the lack of effective cavalry in the theater and also the rougher terrain. Interesting, Spring’s sources understand the formation as a British adaptation, subsequently adopted widely by both sides. Moreover, British commanders placed increasingly heavy emphasis on light infantry operating in loose order as the screening and assault force for their armies (though it is difficult not to note how incomplete the implementation of this realization was in the organization of the army). The impact of the American marksmen is hardly gone however; Spring notes that in loose fighting, the British response was to try to use light infantry with bayonets to quickly shock American forces into retreat. In relatively open terrain that method worked, but in rougher ground the fighting quickly turned to a shooting match, where the American advantage in numbers told.
Instead, Spring understands British failure (and thus American success) as a consequence of a deeply unfavorable operational environment. British forces, Spring notes, were always outnumbered and lacked the numerical strength to actually hold any substantial part of the countryside. They responding by adopting a strategy of trying to batter the Continental Army with heavy losses, which was hopelessly complicated by the general refusal of American generals (especially Washington after early setbacks) to offer the conditions where that could happen, while the logistical difficulties of operating in hostile country with low population density meant that British forces could do little to force those conditions. The Continental Army could always just withdraw towards the interior where the British regulars could not safely follow, recover and try again. Meanwhile, repeated clashes steadily honed the Continental Army until the quality gap between it and the British regulars dissipated. That in turn was a catastrophe for the British as the logistics, finances and political will for only a relatively small force in North America existed; trading progressively more even blows with the Continental Army was not sustainable and so it wasn’t sustained.
And that’s the fireside. For the Patrons, look for a few snippets of the book project to show up over the course of November. For everyone else, have a great November and I’ll see you all in December!
- But the next one is probably Hearts of Iron.
- Once I finish writing it.
- N. Sekunda, “Hellenistic Warfare” in Warfare in the Ancient World ed. J. Hackett (1989).
- Most notably here P.A. Brunt, Italian Manpower (1971).
- M. Taylor, Soldiers and Silver (2020).
- Easier in the Roman case where later forts and battles like the deposits at Kalkriese provide a good cross-section of Roman non-combat kit, but still very tricky.
- And not a light sprinkling of phonics on an otherwise broken ‘whole language’ or ‘balanced literacy’ approach.