Book Review: The Roman Army at War: 100 BC – AD 200 by Adrian Keith Goldsworthy


I thought this book would be more than it turned out to be, unfortunately, I was mistaken. The author states in the forward that it is an expansion of his doctoral dissertation and it is obvious throughout that this is indeed the case. Neither that or my disappointment make this a book not worth reading though, it is in fact worth reading. The first chapter alone makes it well worth the purchase price. Dr. Goldsworthy has produced perhaps the best, and most concise description of the organization and structure of the roman army outside of Vegetius or Polybius that I have found.

The book is divided into six sections on the organization of the Roman Army, Romes opponents, campaigning, Roman generalship, small unit tactics, and motivating the Roman soldier. The first five are well written and draw logical conclusions from the available evidence. Where the book falls flat, in my opinion, is the last chapter and its discussion of the factors that motivated individual Roman Soldiers. Dr. Goldsworthy is up front about his adherence to and belief in the SLA Marshall/Dave Grossman theory of combat that killing another human is an unnatural act and the vast majority of solders throughout history have been unable to bring themselves to do it. I will be honest an admit that I have serious problems with that theory. Indeed, to my mind history shows us that there is nothing unnatural about the act of man killing man, even tough some academics would like it to be so. The prevalence of violent crime in the world gives the lie to the idea as well. Dr. Goldsworthy paints a picture of the Roman army in battle in which 75% of the Legionnaires listlessly wave their swords about while the other 25% picks up their slack and wins the battles. It is patently ridiculous that up to 3/4 of the participants in a close-quarters melee battle of antiquity can indulge their supposed squeamishness and avoid active, overt participation in battle. By this theory, all the ancients are lying to us and so are most of the other historians and participants of warfare down to the present.

Aside from the final chapter, this is a well written, well researched book that has much to offer the student of the Roman army and I recommend it on that basis. I have expressed my reservations about the final chapter but I will leave it to the individual reader to believe his assertions about killing or not. I would just highly recommend anyone believing it do some personal research into the veracity of the claims of SLA Marshall and the lack of evidence that he actually conducted any of the research he claimed he did prior to writing Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command, upon which all subsequent claims that men don’t kill are based. Or better yet, join the military, go to war and engage in ground combat and then tell me that people have a hard time killing.