In the Name of Rome: Review

We’ve seen Adrian Goldsworthy’s work before with Caesar: Life of a Colossus. Before he wrote that “monumental” biography, however, he wrote In the Name of Rome, which documents the career of the Roman military, from the Republic, through the Empire, and all the way into the early Byzantine period. We meet 15 generals, chosen both for their ability and through the availability of source material to document their campaigns.

  1. Quintus Fabius Maximus (c. 275 – 203 BC)
  2. Marcus Claudius Marcellus (271 – 208 BC)
  3. Scipio Africanus (c. 236 – 184 BC)
  4. Aemilius Paullus (c. 228 – c. 160 BC)
  5. Scipio Aemilianus (185/4 – 129 BC)
  6. Gaius Marius (157 – 86 BC)
  7. Quintus Sertorius (c. 125 – 72 BC)
  8. Pompey the Great (c. 106 – 48 BC)
  9. Julius Caesar (c. 100 – 44 BC)
  10. Claudius Germanicus Caesar (15 BC – AD 19)
  11. Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo (? – 67)
  12. Titus (41 – 81)
  13. Trajan (56 – 117)
  14. Julian the Apostate (332 – 363)
  15. Belisarius (505 – 565)

Some of these men are world famous, even today. Some of them have faded into obscurity. Yet, they were all important figures. Aside from their direct impact, their campaigns were also emblematic of the evolution of the Roman state. This effected their commands, how their men fought, and their own careers.

In the Name of Rome Review

In this way, In the Name of Rome can be divided into a few stages.

Stage I: The early Republican army. In this phase of Rome’s history, each citizen was expected to arm himself and report for duty. Patriotism was the bedrock of morale, as each citizen had a stake as a member of the Republic. Those who were denied the right to bear arms lived in disgrace.

Fabius, Marcellus, Scipio Africanus, and Paullus were standout commanders in this phase. We see how Fabius and Marcellus, veterans of the First Punic War, stabilized the country after the shocking defeats inflicted on it by Hannibal in the opening stages of the Second.

We see how Scipio Africanus, first in Spain and then against Hannibal himself, ended the Second Punic War.

Finally, we see how the aging veterans of the war with Hannibal, under the command of Aemilius Paullus, overcame the terror of the Macedonian phalanx. The glint from thousands of serried points of steel blinded and terrified, but could not in the end defeat the patriotic Romans.

The ethos of the times can be best described by an episode involving Scipio after the cataclysm at Cannae:

The scale of the holocaust engendered panic in many of the survivors. One group of young noblemen were openly speaking of abandoning the doomed Republic and fleeing abroad. Scipio went with a few reliable soldiers to the quarters of their leader Quintus Caecilius Metellus, where the deserters were behaving in the typical Roman way and holding a council to discuss what to do. Bursting into the room, the 20-year-old tribune stood sword in hand and swore a solemn oath to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, inviting dreadful retribution on himself and his family should he break it. The oath declared that not only would he never desert the Republic, but that he would not permit anyone else to do so and would kill them if necessary. One by one, he made each of his stunned audience swear the same oath. (pg. 54)

Romanticized or not, this account accurately describes the feelings that third century BC Romans had for their country, and this was why they were able to defeat the dreaded Hannibal.

Scipio vs. Hannibal

Stage II: The late Republican army. After the passing of the veterans of the Second Punic War, the army was becoming less effective. As the victor over Carthage and the Hellenistic Kingdoms to the east, wealth and slaves were pouring into Rome. Great landed estates, the latifundia, were reducing the number of men capable of military service as their farms got absorbed into the sprawling agricultural powerhouses owned by the nobility. Meanwhile, the taste of wealth had changed the Roman national character, and more men were reluctant to serve in the military.

The result was a downward spiral, as late Republican armies met many humiliating defeats. Effective commanders like Scipio Aemilianus and Marius were able to mitigate this, but ultimately the old Republican army proved unsustainable. Marius simply took advantage of what had been gradually developing anyway, openly recruiting from the ranks of the poor and paying his troops a salary. The army became a professional fighting force whose soldiers’ first loyalty wasn’t to the state, but to good commanders who would lead them to victory and reward them.

This destabilized politics and led to a series of strongmen. The careers of Marius, Sertorious, Pompey, and Caesar all fit into this category. All professed loyalty to the Republic, but its moral authority had broken down with only brief resurgences. As Caesar himself recognized: “the Republic is nothing, merely a name without a body or shape.

An entire chapter of In the Name of Rome is devoted to Caesar’s civil war with Pompey. From these Republican death throes, a monarchy would emerge under Augustus.

Stage III: The early imperial army. Augustus completed the process of turning the Roman army into an official professional fighting force. Pay came directly from the emperor and gradually, commands were restricted to only Augustus’ extended family members. Germanicus’ campaigns beyond the Rhine are emblematic of this evolution. This system stabilized Rome and ended the civil wars, with Augustus effectively reestablishing central authority.

With Augustus’ death, command became loosened again, as the system of only family members commanding legions was unsustainable, but Augustus’ other reforms long outlasted him. Corbulo, a successful commander in the mid-1st century, had no inkling of leading his armies against Claudius and Nero in Rome. He obeyed imperial orders without question.

The first signs of trouble came with the Year of the Four Emperors in 69 AD, but even then, the situation quickly stabilized. Vespasian took control and the machinery of the state wasn’t seriously disrupted. This was seen most notably in Titus’ hard-fought campaign in Jerusalem, where the legions suffered and overcame several big reverses on their slogging road to retake the city from rebels.

With the Dacian campaigns of Trajan, the early Empire reached its apogee of conquest. From there, the Empire shifted to the strategic defensive, but that was by no means what sealed its doom.

Stage IV: The late imperial army. Beginning in the third century, the army once again came to dominate the state. Rome was plunged into frequent civil wars as the army made and broke emperors. Julian’s experience with his troops in Gaul best illustrate this time in Roman history:

By noon they were nearing the enemy, and Julian was inclined to halt and build another camp, allowing the men to rest before giving battle on the following day. When he explained his plan to the soldiers, it provoked a howl of disapproval, the men banging their spear shafts against their shields – a gesture Ammianus says always signified protest. Men yelled out begging him to take them against the enemy immediately, declaring that with such a fortunate general they were bound to win. The army’s officers were equally keen to fight, arguing that it was better to confront and defeat the Alamanni altogether, rather than have to chase down individual groups if their great army dispersed. Finally a standard-bearer stepped out of the ranks and called on the “most fortunate of all Caesars” to lead them to victory. The army resumed its advance.

Roman commanders were often somewhat theatrical in their dealings with their men, but this incident suggests a very different relationship between general and troops to that in earlier periods. … It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the soldiers of the fourth century were all too aware of their capacity to dispose of any general and replace him with an alternative of their choosing, and as a result felt very free to express their opinion. (pg. 394-5)

Even with a more stable situation in the east two centuries later, Belisarius dealt with this same problem. Yet, the Byzantine army of his time, despite its being the descendant of its Roman forebears (and we should note that the Byzantine Empire was still officially the Eastern Roman Empire until its final fall in 1453), had changed. The Roman general, we see time and again, in In the Name of Rome, commanded from just behind the fighting line, but by the sixth century, that had vanished. Rome and its generals became something else.

Belisarius

While it doesn’t have as many teachable lessons as a biography of someone like Caesar does, In the Name of Rome is nevertheless a must for anyone interested in Roman or military history, and if you’re interested in stories of heroism, whether for entertainment value or inspiration, this is one you won’t want to do without.