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Bill Thayer

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Roman Military History

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The testudo, a characteristic Roman attack formation,
as depicted on Trajan's Column (Rome, 2c A.D.).

Recommended Reading

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Oliver L. Spaulding, Jr.: The Ancient Military Writers. A straightforward basic survey of Greek and Roman writers on military matters, by a U. S. Army expert who served as Chief of the Historical Section of the War College. It is an excellent starting-point for anyone who wants to learn about ancient military theory.

Primary Sources

[image ALT: A portrait-bust of Julius Caesar. The image serves as the icon for the works of Caesar and his continuators on this site.]

Julius Caesar was both a great general and a good writer. He chronicled his conquest of Gaul in the Gallic War; and his Civil Wars give us his take on how civil war was forced on him, with his narration of the campaigns and from the time he threw the dice at Ariminum to the defeat and death of his opponent Pompey: mainly the sieges of Brundisium and Massilia, Curio's campaign in Africa, and the battles of Ilerda, Dyrrhachium, and Pharsalus.

Continuators also wrote up his African War, his Alexandrian War and his Spanish War, all onsite.

[ 11/9/13: for each work onsite,
a complete English translation
and sometimes the Latin text:
1360 pages of print, 19 maps, 2 diagrams
presented in 74 webpages ]

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The Greek author Polybius was a close friend of Scipio, one of Rome's great generals, and with him spent much time campaigning in the field in the 2c B.C. His Histories are thus essential to an understanding of the Roman army and the rise of the Roman republic as a world power. He is one of our most important sources on the organization of the army, the legion, and the Roman camp system.

[ complete English translation:
1500 pages of print, presented in 37 webpages ]

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The Roman History of Cassius Dio is another careful work by a Greek historian, a Roman senator of the 3c A.D.; and though he was a civilian, how can a history of Rome avoid being largely about wars? Somewhat fragmentary, the History is still a very good source for the Punic Wars, the Civil Wars of the 1c B.C. and Caesar's war in Gaul; but many other wars are covered as well.

[ complete English translation:
2178 pages of print, presented in 69 webpages ]

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The Strategemata of Frontinus (2c A.D.) are a collection of over 500 examples of devices, ruses, ploys, creative ideas from history, intended by the author as a sort of checklist for the military commander. The work is an appendix to his work on the Art of War, which has not survived; I suspect the interesting "stories" appealed far more to medieval copyists and readers than the deeper theoretical work: it's a great pity.

[ complete Latin text, English translation ]

Florus' Epitome: a clearly summarized history of Rome, or rather, to quote the title given in the manuscripts, "The two books of the Epitome, extracted from Titus Livius, of all the wars of seven hundred years". Since large chunks of Livy are lost, and since the author drew on other sources as well, it's a valuable book: if you want to sit down and read a solid, concise account of Roman history in two hours, you cannot find better.

[ complete Latin text, English translation ]

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Plutarch's Lives are onsite, all of them: among those most relevant to Roman military history, Romulus, Fabius Maximus, Crassus, Sertorius, Marius, Sulla, Caesar, Brutus, and Antony.

[ complete English translation ]

The 6c Greek historian Procopius' Buildings is nominally a catalogue of Justinian's construction spree throughout the empire; but though it does include churches, baths and other civic buildings, the bulk of the work is in fact devoted to hundreds of forts and fortifications, with details of their siting, water supply and construction problems.

[ complete Greek text, English translation ]

Of the ten books of his De Architectura, the Roman author Vitruvius devotes two to military architecture and engineering. Book I covers the siting of a town and the building of its walls; Book X is mostly given over to siege machines and defending against them, and includes a prologue on a thoroughly military topic: how to deal with cost overruns.

[ complete Latin text, English translation ]

One of the great witnesses to the Roman military machine is Trajan's Column in Rome, which documents in carved stone the emperor's campaigns in Dacia, with its armies, its battles, its fortifications, bridges and ships.

[ 9/19/06: several dozen photos and a small weblist ]

Greek Military Theory

Aeneas Tacticus' Siege Defense (almost certainly 4c B.C.) is one of the earliest didactic military manuals from classical Antiquity to have survived. It sets down some of the basic principles of defending a fortified place under siege.

[ complete Greek text and English translation ]

The 1c Greek writer Onasander's Strategikos is a manual for the general: some basic military advice, but mostly, the kind of person he ought to be, what he should be concerned with, how to think, how to treat the enemy, his subordinates, and civilian populations.

[ complete Greek text and English translation ]

Onsite too is the sole surviving work of Asclepiodotus, called a philosopher in Antiquity: his Tactics is a dry and skeletal look at the composition and evolutions of the Greek army, a topic which by his time had come to be of purely antiquarian interest.

[ complete English translation, 9 diagrams ]

Secondary Material

The Ancient Warfare Articles of Smith's Dictionary provide often very detailed treatment of many topics: armor, weapons, equipment, camps and forts, military discipline and training, law, administration and officials. They include a 25,000-word general essay on the Roman army.

[ 12/22/02: 52 webpages,
with 39 drawings, 3 plans & diagrams, 3 photos ]

Military Architecture in the City of Rome: in-depth articles from Platner & Ashby's Topography of Ancient Rome describe the structures, both extant and vanished, of walls, gates, and other military installations, and provide a comprehensive list of primary sources and references in the archaeological literature.

[ 12/22/02: 37 webpages,
with 2 plans & diagrams, 16 photos ]

A century of excavations and study has gone by, but Roman Military Remains in Britain is still a useful orientation to its subject: this chapter of The Roman Era in Britain by John Ward (1911) takes the general reader thru the marching camps and forts of the island and includes a good section on Antonine's Wall and Hadrian's Wall.

[ complete: 9 plans & sections, 3 drawings, 2 maps ]

The historians listed earlier on this page recount no shortage of battles; since modern scholars revisit them and synthesize and argue, though, I'll be putting online some of their articles on warfare and military topography. For now:

Bernard W. Henderson, The Campaign of the Metaurus
(EHR 13:417‑438, 625‑642)


Onsite link

a nest of material on Portus Itius, Caesar's port of departure on his second expedition to Britain in 54 B.C.: a summary article from the Encyclopedia Britannica, and eight journal articles debating the identification of the place with Boulogne or Wissant.

[ 10/8/07: 10 articles, 1 map ]

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Site updated: 14 Nov 13