Military History Roman Republic
by
Simon Elliott
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0229

Introduction

The Roman military machine is so well known to us today it is easy to take its rise to dominance in the ancient world for granted. However, its origins were complex and have their roots deep within the Roman Republic, and even earlier. Indeed, Rome’s rise to greatness was never guaranteed and was a painstaking process featuring many setbacks. These challenges were interspersed with long periods of consolidation. It was during the latter that Rome assimilated many of the ideas, both cultural and practical, of its opponents, an ability that helps explain the longevity of both the Republic and later Empire. This trend is particularly evident during the former, when even in the most frightful circumstances Rome often showed true grit to come back from adversity and ultimately win long and drawn-out conflicts. Republican Rome’s opponents often never understood this unique combination, to absorb an opponent’s ideas and to never give in. Carthage and a succession of Hellenistic kingdoms paid for this in blood, and ultimately their freedom. The below narrative initially features a chronologically based series of themes reviewing the military history of the Roman Republic, before covering specific Republican Roman and opposing military establishments. Note that where any opponents are not covered in this latter section, they will have been considered earlier in the reading list.

General Overviews

We live in an age when considerations of the Republican Roman military, and its opponents, proliferate. At a macro level, where the big picture is the aim, Crawford 1992, Boardman 1994, and Erdkamp 2013 remain invaluable. Mackay 2004 goes into more detail, while Davies and Swain 2010 add welcome insight on the events of the later Republic. Meanwhile, chapter 1 in Elliott 2020 covers the chronological history of the Republic in depth, while chapter 2 similarly considers the Republican Roman military. Here, this ranges from the Etrusco-Greek hoplite phalanx of the Tullian system in the later sixth century BCE through to the Marian legions which conquered much of their known world in the first century BCE. Elliott 2021 adds detail here, particularly on the clash of civilizations as Rome encountered and then defeated the Hellenistic kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, Matyszak 2003 remains a significant source for very well researched pen portraits of the key figures of Roman history from its earliest days until the Senate acclaimed Augustus imperator in 27 BCE. Finally, Morstein-Marx and Rosenstein 2006 cast valuable light on wider aspects of Republican Roman society, for example religion.

  • Boardman, J. The Cambridge Ancient History. Vols. 8 and 9. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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    Takes a traditional approach in its commentary on Republican Rome and its military establishment, following a broad chronological narrative which sits within The Cambridge Ancient History’s wider history of the ancient world. Still the first title on the reading lists of many academic institutions when covering the Roman Republic.

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  • Crawford, M. Roman Republic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

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    A very detailed, thorough and technical work. The reader here will benefit from some background knowledge of the Roman Republic and its military history. The 2011 edition, that most commonly available, has expanded the original work with detail on the then most recent archaeological discoveries and analyses.

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  • Davies, M. E., and H. Swain. Aspects of Roman History, 82 BC-AD 14: A Source-Based Approach. London: Routledge, 2010.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203856659Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This extensive work focuses on the Ciceronian and Augustan ages, and serves as a very good introduction to not only later Republican Rome but also the key primary sources. In particular, it attempts to cover the period not only from the point of view of the key protagonists, but also from other perspectives. These include the role and impact of women, and non-Patrician levels of society.

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  • Elliott, S. Romans at War. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2020.

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    Detailed above, an up-to-date recent appreciation of Republican Rome and its military establishment, using data from the most recent archaeological discoveries. The book also features a specific chapter covering the allies and enemies of Rome, including (most relevantly to this bibliography) the Britons as encountered by Caesar, the Germans and Gauls, the Iberians, the Carthaginians, the Numidians, the Hellenistic kingdoms, and the Parthians.

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  • Elliott, S. Ancient Greeks at War. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2021.

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    A wide-ranging work covering the political and military history of the eastern Mediterranean, Levant, and the east (as perceived by Rome and the Hellenistic kingdoms) from the Minoan period through to the final destruction of the Successor states by Rome. The latter defined here as the Sack of Corinth in 146 BCE.

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  • Erdkamp, P., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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    Alongside Boardman 1994, another title added at the outset to any reading list covering all things classical and Roman. This is a seminal work featuring contributions from a wide range of contributors. It includes detailed insight into the Republican Roman military establishment and covers a variety of diverse subjects and topics.

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  • Mackay, C. S. Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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    Despite its four hundred pages, this work serves as a concise primer given the vast chronology covered. It is a very useful lead-in for more detailed analyses of the Roman Republic and its military establishment. To that end, there is little on Republican social, economic, or religious history, but much on specific leaders and conflicts.

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  • Matyszak, P. Chronicle of the Roman Republic: The Rulers of Ancient Rome from Romulus to Augustus. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

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    A useful chronological overview of the Republic from its founding to its end, with detailed analyses of all of the major military and political figures.

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  • Morstein-Marx, R., and N. A. Rosenstein. Companion to the Roman Republic. London: Blackwell, 2006.

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    A key work in the Blackwell/Wiley Companion series, featuring a large number of essays on the Roman Republic, some in translation. Useful for expanding on the detail in briefer works, for example Mackay.

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The Beginning of the Roman Republic

Although the origins of Rome are shrouded in myth, its location was crucial to its early success given the town was built on a highly-defendable hilltop on the left bank of the River Tiber. The early rulers of Rome were Etrusco-Roman kings, with the last Tarquin the Proud (534 BCE – 509 BCE) who was overthrown in 509 BCE by the Roman aristocracy. This created the Roman Republic. It was in the context of this latter event that we have the story of Horatio and his two companions holding the last bridge over the River Tiber from Etruscans returning to help Tarquin. As the legend goes, their sacrifice proved worthwhile, with Tarquin the last Roman king. Bradley 2021 is particularly insightful here given his use of recent archaeological research to support his narrative, while Armstrong 2016 focuses on the early Roman military establishment. Cornell 1995 provides a welcome balance given his use of non-Roman sources.

  • Armstrong, J. War and Society in Early Rome: From Warlords to Generals. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

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    Uses an excellent blend of historical sources and archaeological data to show the evolution of Rome’s military establishment, from the Late Iron Age through to the Camillan period. Excellent on the pre-Republican military.

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  • Bradley, G. Early Rome to 290 BC: The Beginnings of the City and the Rise of the Republic. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021.

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    Bradley usefully draws threads from the Etrusco-Roman and early Republican periods through to the later Republic and Roman Empire to show how the key institutions of the city all had their origins in its early history.

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  • Cornell, T. The Beginnings of Rome. London: Routledge, 1995.

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    A precise and comprehensive introduction to the world of early Rome which uses a variety of different historical sources, including those from the Greek-speaking eastern Mediterranean. Astutely written with eloquent prose.

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The Latin League, the Latin War, and War with the Apennine Hill Tribes

In the early seventh century BCE Etruscan culture emerged in the lands to the north of Latium. Here the growing villages of rich Etruria began coalescing into powerful city-states, these including Caere, Veii, and Tarquinii. Etruscan influence spread rapidly through their seafaring skills, with a mercantile empire soon established in the western Mediterranean. Through this they soon came into contact with the Greek colonies in southern Italy and eastern Sicily, and the Phoenicians who were establishing the Punic Empire in North Africa. From the former they adopted the Greek hoplite phalanx as the principle formation of their better-armed troops. This gave them a distinctive edge as they looked south to the settlements beyond the eastern bank of the Tiber, including Rome, and the wider region to their south called Latium. Soon these were all under their control, with Rome as detailed above initially governed by Etrusco-Roman kings as part of this settlement. The second of these, Servius Tullius (579 BCE to 535 BCE), was particularly important as he formalized the military systems of Rome for the first time, following Etruscan tradition by introducing the hoplite phalanx for the better Etrusco-Roman troops. This was called the Tullian, or Servian, system. Etruscan power reached its height in the mid-sixth century BCE when they conquered much of Campania below Latium, including many of the Greek settlements of Magna Graecia. However, crucially they failed to capture the key and highly-defendable city of Cumae there. This formed the center of regional resistance to Etruscan rule, they defeating the latter in battle in 524 BCE. This event emboldened the other conquered settlements, and those in Latium now formed the Latin League that, together with the Greek settlements of Magna Graecia, began to drive the Etruscans back north into Etruria. It was at this time the Romans established their Republic which quickly set them against their Latin League allies and later, as Roman power expanded eastwards, against the Apennine hill tribes. These included the Aequi, Umbri, Sabini, and Volsci. By the mid-fifth century BCE these tribes burst into southern Italy and conquered Campania, Apulia, and Lucania. This set the scene for a generation of conflict as Rome and its Latin neighbors fought back (when not fighting each other), eventually re-establishing control of their territories along the west coast. In terms of key texts covering this turbulent time, both Crawford 1992 and Elliott 2020 listed in General Overviews go into great detail about this complex period. Meanwhile, in terms of specific works, Cowan 2022 offers new insight into the relationship between military leaders and their warriors in this transitional period, while Esposito 2021 sheds new light on the arms and equipment in use in the region at this time.

War with the Etruscans, and the Sack of Rome

By the end of the fifth century BCE Rome was the dominant power in Latium, but the Etruscans to the north remained a threat. Conflict soon broke out and in 404 BCE Rome began its long eight-year siege of the Etruscan city of Veii. This fell in 396 BCE and proved the high point for Roman foreign policy in the first half of the fourth century BCE. This was because their next opponents were the Senones Gauls from northern Italy. Here, Celts from central Europe had been settling in the Po Valley for some time, challenging the local Etruscans. The riches to the south proved too strong a draw and, after bursting through Etruria, a Gallic army under Brennus found itself on the borders of Latium. Rome deployed its legions expecting a swift victory but was shocked when its army was annihilated at the Battle of Allia in 390 BCE. This was only seventeen kilometers to the north of Rome, which was promptly sacked. The traumatic event prompted the building of the first defensive circuit of the city with the eleven-kilometer-long Servian Walls. In the midst of these events an appointment occurred in Rome that was to have a profound effect on the development of the Roman military system, leading to the appearance of the legionary for the first time. This was the appointment of Marcus Furius Camillus as consular tribune to command the army in 401 BCE. A patrician with extensive experience campaigning against the Aequi and Volsci, he realized Rome’s incessant campaigning was proving financially unsustainable. He therefore raised taxation to a level where it could support the army on long campaigns. Then, with his Camillan Reforms of the military, he introduced the manipular system into the legions of Rome, with the legionary at its center. These developments rapidly superseded the earlier Tullian system, its defeat by the Gauls speeding up the transition to what is now called the Camillan system. This was quickly tested, once more against the Etruscans to the north. A final assault in 351 BCE broke Etruscan resistance. The absence of an opponent to the north left the towns of Latium free to look inward again, and a final struggle for Latin League dominance began. Rome emerged the victor and now controlled all of western Italy from southern Etruria to northern Campania. This series of interlinked conflicts is well covered in Elliott 2020, while Mackay 2004 (see General Overviews for both) also offers insight into the Tullian-Camillan military transition. For the 390 BCE sack of Rome by the Senones Gauls, Kneale 2018 covers this in detail in a bespoke chapter, while the contributors to Macintosh Turfa 2017 are insightful regarding broader Etruscan military history.

The Samnite Wars

Rome’s next opponents were the Samnites of Samnium, an Oscan-speaking people from south central Italy used to fighting in the rough terrain of their homeland. Initially an ally of the Latin League against the Volsci, war broke out with Rome in 343 BCE. This lasted for fifty years through the First, Second, and Third Samnite Wars, and included the famous Roman defeat at the Caudian Forks in 321 BCE. This was a pass near Caudium, the capital of the Samnite Caudini tribe. Here, both Roman consuls led their combined armies into a trap where their whole force was captured, every man being forced to pass under a “yoke” formed from three spears, two stuck in the ground and one placed horizontally over them. Rome never forgave the Samnites for this humiliation and within five years the “Caudine Peace” had broken down, with hostilities renewed. The Samnites were for the most part victorious, but typically the Romans refused to accept defeat and tenaciously fought back. The Samnites eventually sued for peace in 304 BCE. This was again short lived, lasting only six years. The Samnites then launched a full-out assault on Rome in 296 BCE, gathering a coalition of allies including the Gauls, the remaining Etruscan city states, and Umbrians, aiming to curb the growing power of Rome once and for all. Again they were initially successful, but ultimately lost the key battle at Sentinum in 295 BCE when only the Gauls turned up to fight alongside them. This marked the end of Samnite resistance to Roman expansion southwards, and also of Etruscan independence. It was also a remarkable example of Roman grit, never cowing to adversity in the conflict and always coming back until finally victorious. For the Caudine Forks campaign, Fields 2021 is the key work, while Salmon 1967 is still the leading title covering the history of the Samnites. For broader coverage of the Samnite Wars, Elliott 2020 (also cited under General Overviews) contains much detail, as does Mackay 2004 (see General Overviews for both).

  • Fields, N. Caudine Forks: Rome’s Humiliation in the Second Samnite War. Oxford: Osprey, 2021.

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    An excellent analysis of one of the low points in early Roman military history, this work covers in detail its humiliating defeat at Caudine Forks at the hands of the Samnites in 321 BCE. The work is particularly useful regarding the equipment and organization of both military systems engaged.

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  • Salmon, E. T. Samnium and the Samnites. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

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    When originally published in 1967 much of the evidence detailed here, for example on Samnite art, was not generally accessible. Salmon’s work was therefore cutting edge at the time, and to an extent remains so today given there has been little new research on Samnite culture when compared to, for example, the Etruscans.

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The Pyrrhic Wars

Having conquered the Gauls in the north, by the early third century BCE Rome controlled most of the Italian peninsula excepting the Greek cities to the south. These became the next object of the city’s attention. Rome tried to force these into an alliance, but was quickly rebuffed. Taranto, the leading naval power on the peninsula, then appealed for help to Pyrrhus of Epirus on the western coast of the Balkans. The Epirot king, a relation of Alexander the Great, responded positively and in 280 BCE crossed the Adriatic with an army twenty-five thousand strong. These crack troops fought in the Hellenistic military tradition with pikemen, lance-armed shock cavalry, and war elephants. A Roman army quickly marched south when word reached the city that Pyrrhus was gathering allies from Rome’s enemies across Italy, all holding grudges against earlier defeats. A major battle ensued at Heraclea. This was the first time the Romans, with their Camillan maniples of legionaries, fought a Macedonian style pike-phalanx. It was a bruising encounter for both sides, with Pyrrhus winning narrowly. Two further battles occurred at Asculum in 279 BCE—another narrow Epirot victory—and Beneventum in 275 BCE, when the Romans were finally victorious. The war was a close-run thing and made a lasting impression on the Romans. One result was the evolution of the Camillan manipular system into a more streamlined form, this styled the Polybian system in Elliott 2020 (see General Overviews) after the 2nd-century Greek historian. It also marked the beginning of Roman interest in that most tantalizing of ancient warfare troop types, the war elephant. Key titles here include Champion 2016, in his generationally defining account of Pyrrhus of Epirus, while Sekunda 2019 provides the best analysis of the army he led to Italy, and the Roman response. Meanwhile, Nossov 2008 is an excellent entry level analysis of the use of war elephants, while Kent 2019 is first rate on Pyrrhus’s campaign in Italy.

The Punic Wars

After the defeat of Pyrrhus Roman expansion continued southwards through the Italian Peninsula. By 272 BCE Taranto had been captured, providing Rome with an effective maritime capability for the first time. This caused a clash with Carthage, the regional superpower in the western Mediterranean, with the First Punic War breaking out in 264 BCE over control over the key Sicilian city of Messina. This lasted until 241 BCE and included the Battle of Agrigentum on the south coast of Sicily in 261 BCE where the legions of Rome defeated the Carthaginians for the first time. After this the conflict was largely naval, with the Romans copying Carthaginian maritime technology and tactics and ending the war the victor. Carthage evacuated Sicily and paid a huge indemnity. However, it was the Second Punic War that truly tested the power and resilience of Rome to breaking point. This broke out in 218 BCE and lasted seventeen years, with the Roman fleet at the outset cutting off the Carthaginian North African homeland from its colonies in Spain. The Carthaginian leader Hannibal responded with his audacious plan to invade Italy through southern Gaul and the Alps, defeating the legions of Rome three times at the Trebia in 218 BCE, Lake Trasimene in 217 BCE, and Cannae in 216 BCE. The last of these was a battle of titanic scale, where Hannibal famously completed his famous double envelopment of the legions. A massacre followed, with fifty thousand Romans killed. However, soon new legions were raised, and eventually Hannibal was ultimately pinned down in southern Italy. Attempts to resupply him failed due to Roman naval power, and in 204 BCE Rome went on the offensive with Publius Cornelius Scipio (later Africanus) landing a sizeable force in the Carthaginian heartland near Tunis. The legions then had their revenge for Cannae in 202 bce when Scipio defeated Hannibal at Zama. Peace followed, and on onerous terms for Carthage. Finally, the Third Punic War broke out in 146 BCE with Carthage backed into a corner by Roman demands. This saw Carthage itself destroyed. Here we are very well served by modern historical literature, this not surprising given the focus on the Punic Wars in many works on ancient conflict. Bagnall 1999 and Goldsworthy 2003 are excellent at presenting the three conflicts as part of the emergence of Rome as a major international player for the first time, while Craven 1980 was for many years the definitive account of the Punic Wars, and still remains valuable today. For a more up-to-date take of the Second Punic War see Bahmanyar 2016, while Lazenby 1996 is excellent on the First Punic War.

War with the Hellenistic Kingdoms

An additional outcome of the Second Punic War was that Roman attention also turned to the eastern Mediterranean, and the remaining Hellenistic kingdoms there. Here, the Macedonian King Philip V had unwisely been caught trying to agree a treaty with Hannibal when the latter was still in Italy. Soon the First Macedonian War began, followed by three more that finally saw Macedonia become a Roman province in 146 BCE. Rome was also victorious fighting the over-confident Seleucid monarch Antiochus III in the Seleucid-Rome War. These campaigns featured a number of enormous set piece battles between legion and phalanx. The key ones were Cynoscephalae in 197 BCE where Philip V was defeated during the Second Macedonian War, Magnesia in 190 BCE when Antiochus III was defeated in western Anatolia, and Pydna in 168 BCE when the new Macedonian king Perseus was defeated in the Third Macedonian War. The final resistance to Roman hegemony in Greece came in 146 BCE when the Achaean League in the northern and central Peloponnese declared war on Rome. The ensuing Achaean War was a short-lived affair, and very one sided, with the Achaeans being totally defeated and its leading city Corinth sacked and raised to the ground. Here a variety of modern references cover this intense period of conflict across the eastern Mediterranean in great detail. First and foremost, Green 1992 remains a seminal work which covers the rise and fall of the Hellenistic kingdoms in forensic detail. Meanwhile Taylor 2013, Grainger 2016, Grainger 2017, and Kosmin 2018 have led the way with more recent appreciations of the Seleucid Empire, while Holbl 2000 is similarly excellent regarding Ptolemaic Egypt. Lane Fox 2005 covers the clash of empires across the Balkans and Levant as Rome encroached on the world of Alexander’s successors in a highly engaging way. Finally, both Matthew 2015 and Matyszak 2020 examine the clash of the legions versus the phalanx.

  • Grainger, J. D. The Fall of the Seleucid Empire. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2016.

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    The final work of three Grainger has written detailing the history of the Seleucid Empire, that most enigmatic of the Alexandrian Successor states. Grainger shows how, from the time of Antiochus IV, Rome time and again was able to exploit the failings of Seleucid kings to encroach ever further eastwards in the Levant. There, it soon found itself encountering the other nemesis of the Seleucids, Parthia.

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  • Grainger, J. D. Kings and Kingship in the Hellenistic World. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2017.

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    Grainger’s broader narrative work, chronologically covering the rise and fall of various monarchs across the Hellenistic world from its heights to its demise. Very useful here given it carefully compares the attributes and limitations of Hellenistic kingship and political/military leadership in late Republican Rome.

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  • Green, P. Alexander to Actium. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

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    An academic blockbuster when first published, this work is still the benchmark for any wishing to cover any aspect of the Hellenistic world and its disastrous engagement with Rome. Highly recommended.

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  • Holbl, G. A History of the Ptolemaic Empire. London: Routledge, 2000.

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    The Ptolemaic kingdom was very much the steady engine of Hellenism, quietly prospering (though riven with internal friction) while Macedon and the Seleucid Empire fell foul of Roman expansion. However, even it finally succumbed when dragged into the final rounds of late Roman Republican civil war. Holbl sets its story into the wider context of events in the region. His work is particularly insightful.

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  • Kosmin, P. J. The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

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    Kosmin strips away much of the philhellene perspective on the Seleucid Empire to show how its rulers truly considered themselves, extensively using non-Greek source material. The reader is then presented with a new view of how they considered their world, giving fresh insight into the empire’s disastrous encounters with Republican Rome.

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  • Lane Fox, F. The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian. London: Allen Lane, 2005.

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    A book of epic scale, Lane Fox spends considerable time detailing the rise of Republican Roman military power, and its titanic clashes with the Hellenistic kingdoms. In particular, it is excellent at considering the fall of the kingdom of Macedon as Philip V and, later, his son Perseus made disastrous foreign policy decisions through misunderstanding the nature of Roman ambition in the eastern Mediterranean.

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  • Matthew, C. An Invincible Beast: Understanding the Hellenistic Pike Phalanx in Action. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2015.

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    Matthew presents excellent analysis of Rome’s wars with the Hellenistic kingdoms, providing fresh insight into why the manipular legions were so successful against the Hellenistic pike phalanx.

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  • Matyszak, P. Greece Against Rome: The Fall of the Hellenistic Kingdoms. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2020.

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    Matyszak is one of the leading authorities on this period of conflict between Rome and the Hellenistic kingdoms. He sets out how Rome’s brutal approach to foreign policy in the eastern Mediterranean continually set the Hellenistic kingdoms on the back foot.

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  • Taylor, M. Antiochus the Great. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2013.

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    Taylor’s work remains one of the best narratives regarding the mercurial Antiochus III’s disastrous engagements with Rome. His description of the definitive Battle of Magnesia is excellent.

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The Gracchi Brothers

The Roman Republic was now victorious across the Mediterranean, and increasingly eyeing the east with a view to new conquest. In particular, a major draw there was the enormous wealth to be found in the former Hellenistic kingdoms. Gradually, through Roman conquest, this wealth was now finding its way into the hands of the leading Senatorial families and their supporters. This was a key driver in setting the two political classes in upper Roman society against each other, the pro-Senate and reactionary optimates, and the radical populares. The early champions of popular, radical reform were the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus. Their demise set the scene for the subsequent century of sanguineous civil war. For a broad, popular take on the Gracchi story Holland 2011 is most useful given he embeds it elegantly within the wider story of Republican Rome, while for in-depth analysis older academic works that provide a useful overview include Boren 1969, Stockton 1979, and Richardson 1976. For a specific focus on Tiberius, Bernstein 1978 provides an excellent analysis, though note much of what we know of Tiberius’s story was originally based on works written by his brother Gaius, and now lost to us. Meanwhile, Badian 1984 provides a welcome focus on how the later Republic integrated its new provinces into the world of Rome.

  • Badian, E. Foreign Clientelae, 264–70 BC. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

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    A useful analysis of the engagement between Roman patricians and their newly emerging clients in the eastern Mediterranean and further afield, and the link this had to unrest back in Rome among the political classes.

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  • Bernstein, A. H. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus: Tradition and Apostasy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.

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    Bernstein’s main focus is on the events of 133 BCE when Tiberius was elected tribune of the people and attempted to pass his radical legislation aimed at allowing unused public land to be redistributed to small landholders. The opposition this caused among the optimates in the Senate led directly to his assassination later in the year. This work, which is broadly chronological, provides a useful analysis of why Tiberius’s plans were so shocking to the political classes in Rome.

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  • Boren, H. C. The Gracchi. New York: Twayne, 1969.

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    Boren’s main focus is on the causes of the economic and social problems of the late Roman Republic, and why the Gracchi brothers tried to solve them. The book is particularly useful in showing how Gaius sought support from a much broader range of stakeholders than Tiberius.

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  • Holland, T. Rubicon: The Triumph and the Tragedy of the Roman Republic. London: Abacus, 2011.

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    Holland embeds the narrative of the Gracchi brothers into the broader picture of the Roman Republic as it approached its last, civil war–wracked century. He shows how their actions, and the response of their political opponents in Rome, marked the beginning of the brutal clash of political classes to come.

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  • Richardson, K. Daggers in the Forum. London: Cassell, 1976.

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    A useful work which concentrates on the Gracchi brother’s political careers, though has little to say about their military activities.

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  • Stockton, D. The Gracchi. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

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    One of the best introductions to the story of the Gracchi brothers, which is also excellent at explaining the various issues of historiography when considering their story. The book goes into +great detail about the technicalities of Gracchan land reform, which some other works omit.

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The Mithridatic Wars and the East

Three conflicts were fought between the Roman Republic and the Kingdom of Pontus between 88 BCE and 63 BCE, these named after the Pontic king Mithridates VI. The latter unwisely initiated hostilities by invading the wealthy Roman province of Asia where his forces committed the Asian Vespers massacres against the Roman colonial merchants and administrators based there. When Rome predictably responded with force, Mithridates masterminded an anti-Roman uprising in Greece. His initial success there was helped by his successful intervention in Roman domestic politics where he was able to set the political classes against each other. However, despite this the First Mithridatic War predictably ended with total Roman victory, confirmed at the Treaty of Dardanos. Next, an ill-judged campaign by the Roman general Murena resulted in success for Mithridates in the Second Mithridatic War, though he finally succumbed to Roman might in the third war when he faced first Lucullus and later Pompey. Roller 2020 presents a very up-to-date narrative on Mithridates, last of the great Hellenistic monarchs, while Grainger 2020 details for the first time in a modern work the story of the Galatians who by this period had settled in central Anatolia and played a key role in all three of these conflicts. Meanwhile, del Hoyo 2014 presents a unique insight into intelligence gathering by both protagonists in this conflict, while Simpson 2021 capably illustrates the role of late Republican warlords in the Mithridatic Wars.

  • del Hoyo, N. T. “Roman and Pontic Intelligence Strategies: Politics and War in the Time of Mithridates VI.” War in History 21.4 (2014): 401–421.

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    In this important work del Hoyo provides unique insight among modern commentaries on the importance of intelligence gathering by both Republican Rome and Mithridates VI.

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  • Grainger, J. D. The Galatians. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2020.

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    The eastern Gauls had settled in central Anatolia by this period after their earlier lengthy and devastating migration through the Balkans. They were allies and enemies of both the Romans and Mithridates, and here Grainger sets out why they were so important in this series of conflicts.

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  • Roller, D. W. Empire of the Black Sea: The Rise and Fall of the Mithridatic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190887841.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Roller provides a welcome holistic overview of the entire history of the Pontic kingdom rather than focus only on Mithridates VI and his conflicts with Rome. In particular, he sets out how Pontus was viewed by, and engaged with, the Greek city states and colonies in the region and how this later influenced relations with Rome.

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  • Simpson. G. C. Rome’s Great Eastern War: Lucullus, Pompey and the Conquest of the East, 74–62 BC. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2021.

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    An excellent analysis of how Rome’s late Republican warlords were drawn irresistibly to the east by the wealth of the late Hellenistic kingdoms there, particularly the Pontic state of Mithridates VI.

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Civil War

With Rome dominant across the Mediterranean, its political institutions began to struggle as friction grew among the political classes. Thus, the first century BCE was one of civil war, with key figures including Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Gnaeus Pompey, Gaius Julius Caesar, and Gaius Octavian. Each deserve their own reading sub-list, though for background a discussion regarding wider events is included here. Toward the end of the second century BCE a new figure rose to prominence in Rome. This was the statesman and soldier Gaius Marius who eventually served as consul seven times. The context for his rise to the top was the next great external threat to the Republic in the form of the Cimbrian Wars. The Cimbri were a Germanic people who originated from Jutland in modern Denmark. In 113 BCE they then invaded the lands of the Taurisci, a confederation of Gallic tribes in Noricum. These were Roman allies, and the Senate decided to send an army to their aid. This was utterly defeated, as were several more Roman armies in the years that followed. Eventually Marius was appointed to deal with the situation, which in a series of campaigns he did. In so doing he completely reorganized the manipular legions into the century-based system we know so well today. It was also Marius who was the ultimate victor in the Jugurthine War against the Numidian rebel leader Jugurtha, a conflict where he first came into close contact with Sulla. Marius was soon the champion of the populares and Sulla the optimates, with a great rivalry growing between them. This peaked when they played leading roles winning the Social War against Rome’s former Italian allies, and in the Mithridatic Wars. These proved high points for the Roman military in a century when the spiral of civil war set the Republic on its path to collapse. Sulla outlived Marius, though only for a few years. Then a new great rivalry emerged in the Senate, this time between Pompey and Caesar. Ultimately, it was the latter who became the greatest of the late Republican warlords after his conquest of Gaul in the 50s BCE, and his subsequent civil war victories across the Mediterranean. However, his popularity peaked after his dalliance with Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra VII and self-installation as dictator for life. He paid with his life, assassinated by fellow Senators on the Ides of March 44 BCE. This set up the final showdown between the remaining faction leaders which saw Octavian the last man standing. With the Senate acknowledging him imperator in 27 BCE, the Roman Republic was over, and the Roman Empire began.

Marius

Turning first to Marius, Evans 1994 remains a key title which gives an excellent overview of his life, as does the now dated Carney 1970. For an appreciation of the military reforms which revolutionized the Roman military establishment, Hildinger 2002 is invaluable. Meanwhile, D’Arms 1968 illustrates the overt emergence of the super-rich in late Roman Republican society.

Sulla

Keaveney 2005 remains the definitive work on Sulla’s life and times, as told from the populares leader’s perspective, while Baker 2001 provides a welcome focus on his military career.

Pompey

Both Seager 2002 and Southern 2002 remain key biographers of Caesar’s great foe, while Goldsworthy 2004 provides a useful pen portrait in his set of Roman military biographies. Meanwhile, De Souza 2002 contextualizes Pompey’s growing reputation in the context of his campaign against Anatolian piracy.

Caesar (and the Gallic Wars)

Today, Gaius Julius Caesar is perhaps the best known figure from the Roman world. He is the frequent subject of biographical attention. Of the below key titles, Fuller 1965, Canfora 2006 and Goldsworthy 2006 are notable for their attention to detail, and Elliott 2019 is useful as a primer, while Sage 2011 goes into great detail about Caesar’s Gallic conquests. Meanwhile Fields 2014 and Fitzpatrick and Haselgrove 2019 provide a welcome focus on Caesar’s Gallic Wars, while Wiedemann 1994 is excellent at presenting the opposition’s point of view regarding Caesar’s rise to power.

Augustus

Goldsworthy 2015 equals his 2006 work on Caesar in importance, while Galinsky 2012 and Osgood 2006 are equally impressive. Meanwhile, despite its age, Chisholm and Ferguson 1981 remains a useful general reference. Ando 2000 shows how the integration of Republican provinces had evolved by this late period, while Bowersock 1990 illustrates the final collapse of the Republic very well.

The Republican Roman Army

The Republican Roman army is covered in great detail in many reference works, with the key titles listed below. Of these, the relevant section of Connolly 1998 remains highly influential, as does Goldsworthy 2011, a description of the rise of Roman military power, while Erdkamp 2007 features a variety of important papers on the evolution of the Roman military system. Meanwhile, Elliott 2018 provides great insight into the lives of the Republican Roman legionary, while Pollard and Berry 2015 explains the Republican origins of each individual legion. Next, Armstrong 2016 looks at the earlier armies of Republican Rome, while D’Amato 2021 uses new archaeological data to provide an up-to-date analysis of the armies of Julius Caesar, and Fields 2010 illustrates the evolution of Republican Roman battle tactics.

The Republican Roman Navy

There has been a tendency for writers covering the Roman military establishment to focus on land forces. However, naval military action also played a crucial part in the wars of the Roman Republic, especially from the time of the First Punic War. Elliott 2016 presents the most up-to-date academic level analysis of the navies of early Rome through to the advent of the Roman Empire, with D’Amato 2015 explaining the evolution of Republican navy military technology.

The Etruscans

The city states of classical Etruria played a key role in the early history of Rome, first through their domination of Latium and (in Rome’s case) installation of Etrusco-Roman kings, and later as a key opponent. Until recently there was little detail available in print specifically about the armies of the Etruscans, but recent welcome additions by D’Amato 2018 and Shipley 2017 have addressed this.

The Samnites

Roberts 2020 provides the most up-to-date analysis of the Samite military establishment.

  • Roberts, M. Rome’s Third Samnite War, 298–290 BC: The Last Stand of the Linen Legion. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2020.

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    The Samnites proved one of emergent Rome’s toughest opponents, frequently achieving victory over the early legions. Roberts focuses specifically on the third and final conflict which set the Roman military on track to take on Carthage in the western Mediterranean, and the Hellenistic kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean.

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Carthage

Head 2016 sets the benchmark for those considering the armies used in Rome’s struggle to the death with Carthage, while Salimbetti and D’Amato 2014 provides analysis of Punic tactics and military technology. Meanwhile Horsted 2021 considers the Numidian troops who provided allies and mercenaries to both Carthage and Rome.

The Hellenistic Kingdoms

Bar-Kochva 1976, Sekunda 1994a, Sekunda 1994b, and Sekunda 2012 remain the key titles when studying the armies of the later Hellenistic kingdoms as they fought and lost on a regular basis to the Roman Republic. Meanwhile, Johstono 2020 shows how the armies of Ptolemaic Egypt evolved over time, Goldsworthy 2020 illustrates the evolution of the Hellenistic military system, and Taylor 2020 provides another recent analysis of the clash between legion and phalanx.

The Parthians

Ellebrock 2021 provides a generationally new and fresh perspective on the Parthian Empire, and its rise and fall, while Fields 2022 presents the most up-to-date analysis of the defining Battle of Carrhae.

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