In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Roman Military

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks

Classics Roman Military
M.C. Bishop
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0148


The Roman army evolved from a small citizen yeoman force into a tool of international diplomacy, the mercenary blade in the hands of rival warlords, and finally a provincial police force that occasionally asserted itself in political events. It is often called the first professional army, but the key to the longevity of its study lies in the fact that it was the first army with a professional attitude which trained to a degree that modern armies seek to attain. It is no accident that Vegetius, a late Roman writer who drew heavily on earlier writers, is still read in military colleges. A humanities-based tradition of Roman military scholarship grew up that eschewed the grittier side of combat, contenting itself with fairly anodyne tactics and strategy. Although a pan-European interest from the Renaissance onwards, by the beginning of the 20th century, it was a German specialty, with British and French scholars striving to keep up. The publication of John Keegan’s Face of Battle in 1976, however, had a profound effect on the discipline despite its containing no explicit examination of ancient combat, but it has served to even the balance in the subject. Books on the Roman army fall into three broad categories. There are straightforward academic publications with the usual scholarly apparatus, with either endnotes or footnotes or a Harvard-type referencing system. There are popular or “coffee-table” books designed to appeal to the casually interested reader. But then there is a further category that fits in between: books that eschew any sort of note or reference system and prefer some sort of suggested reading list, yet tackle subjects that have an academic appeal, often deriving from doctoral work and clearly aimed primarily at an informed readership. This last category includes monographs intended for specialist audiences such as modelers and wargamers, frequently including colorful reconstruction paintings. Nevertheless, all three belong within this bibliography. Given the nature of the literature and the available sources, it is inevitable that the Principate forms the principal focus of any study of the Roman army, but military tradition ensured a continuity that subdividing the army into convenient time periods tends to negate.

General Overviews

No general overview of the Roman army encompasses all of its aspects and developmental history. There is a tendency to separate the Republican, Imperial, and Late Roman armies into distinct niches and to ignore the organic evolution of the institution in a way that might puzzle the Romans themselves, to whom the development presumably would all have appeared seamless. The starting point for any reading list has to be the magisterial Webster 1998. Goldsworthy 2003 attempts to remedy the temporal compartmentalization but is inevitably weighted toward the army of the Principate. Tomlin 2000, and Southern and Dixon 2000 cover the Dominate, while Campbell 1984 takes a wholly different, and very refreshing, approach to the place of the army within the state. James 2002 provides a thoughtful overview of the state of scholarship on the subject.

  • Campbell, Brian W. 1984. The emperor and the Roman army, 31 BC–AD 235. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Examines the relationship between army and state in an intriguing and readable way that defies classification by subject. That relationship is aptly summed up by Campbell in Tiberius’s phrase, likening it to “holding a wolf by the ears.” Essential reading for the student of the Roman army.

  • Goldsworthy, Adrian. 2003. The complete Roman army. London: Thames & Hudson.

    A good general introduction, but very clearly intended for a popular audience. Despite visually attractive two-page spreads and a somewhat overly ambitious title, it is well written and up to date. Nevertheless, it is not equipped with notes, so the factual basis for statements is not always necessarily readily apparent.

  • James, Simon T. 2002. Writing the legions: The past, present, and future of Roman military studies in Britain. Archaeological Journal 159:1–58.

    James contemplates the position of specifically British contemporary Roman military scholarship, but this article has a much wider application. It shows where Roman army studies have been and where they are, and speculates where they might go.

  • Southern, Pat, and Karen R. Dixon. 2000. The late Roman army. London: Routledge.

    This volume is complementary to Webster 1998, or even Le Bohec 1994 (cited under Textbooks), covering the sources, recruitment, service conditions, equipment, fortifications, siege warfare, and morale. A narrative of the army between Constantine and Justinian touches on many other crucial matters, such as “barbarization.” Well-referenced, although lacking notes, it resists adopting a negative “decline and fall” approach.

  • Tomlin, Roger S. O. 2000. The legions in the Late Empire. In Roman fortresses and their legions: Papers in honour of George C. Boon, FSA, FRHistS. Edited by Richard J. Brewer, 159–181. Occasional Papers of the Society of Antiquaries of London 20. Cardiff, UK: Society of Antiquaries of London and National Museums & Galleries of Wales.

    Despite the title of the volume, this paper provides a wide-ranging consideration of the later Roman army, which covers the survival of legions, frontier and mobile legions, fragmentation of units, specialist detachments, Constantine’s “grand strategy,” unit size, and 4th-century legionaries as heavy infantry.

  • Webster, Graham. 1998. The Roman imperial army of the first and second centuries A.D. 3d ed. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

    Reprint of the 1985 edition with a new introduction and updated bibliography by Hugh Elton. This, the standard modern work on the army of the Republic and Principate, had its origins in a 1956 booklet, The Roman Army (reprinted in 1973). It is both dated and idiosyncratic but remains the best overall survey of the army and should be essential reading for all would-be exercitologists.

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