Book Review: Jonathan Eaton, ‘Leading the Roman Army’ (2020)

This review will be the start of a new format, in which I will review books within a limit of 500 words. This is a new approach, and the aim is to allow people to get a grasp of the book within a smaller amount of time and without overbearing them with information. Although some reviews may need more words to summarise/review the book, this is something I wish to trial. If I receive feedback that longer reviews are wanted, then please let me know and I will revert back to the usual format. Now, onto the review itself….

Eaton, Jonathan, Leading the Roman Army: Soldiers and Emperors, 31 BC – 235 AD (Pen & Sword, 2020). £19.99

In this book, Dr Jonathan Eaton presents his PhD thesis on Roman military command structures in an in-depth and suitably referenced analysis. The core focus of the thesis is a thematic study of the relationship between the Roman command structure, the imperial court, and the emperor between 31 BC and AD 235. For this reason, it is not a beginner’s book, but rather an academic book published by an accessible publisher, in an accessible medium. This does not mean, however, that a non-academic would not gain from reading this book, but rather they might find it an intensive reading, despite its well written style and structure.  

The book starts during the wanning years of the Roman Republic, where its legions-maintained loyalty to individual generals, such as Caesar, Pompey, Anthony, and Octavian, and not necessarily the Senate/state. The author points towards Augustus’ elevation to sole ruler, and first emperor, as a time of change in the military command structure. A process that was undeniably needed in order for the army to remain loyal solely to him and to remove the chance for further civil wars. As noted by the author and other reviewers, this new system proved to be relatively reliable and therefore it was sustainable for numerous emperors in the proceeding centuries. This system revolved around a deeper and interconnected communication and bond (relationship) between the emperor and the various layers of the military’s hierarchy, notably from senior ranking officers to the ordinary troops. The author successfully supports his thesis with a variety of contemporary evidence, ranging from numismatics, inscriptions, archaeology, and various literary accounts. With that said, a very minor shortfall of the book is the limited numbers of images provided, notably whilst discussing the numismatic iconography denoting the associated military imagery.

I shall briefly mention the suitability of the author’s decision to formulate his study in a thematic approach. Firstly, it works. Dr Jonathan Eaton decides to abandon the chronological approach, in favour of a thematic one, in order to avoid turning his study into a series of notable case studies on when the relationship between emperor and army reverted to the previous system (such as AD 69). Rather, the author provides a sweeping (and yet focussed) and engaging analysis of the generality and ever-day relationship between the army, its officers, and the emperor, instead of zoning in on when these systems were broken or compromised. The thematic approach also allowed the author to investigate how each group interacted with one-another, from soldier to officer, officer to officer, and from soldier and officer to either the court or the emperor himself. This allows the reader to gain a better comprehension of how each ‘sector’ of the Roman military (including the garrison of Rome) interacted within and outside of the command structure. I particularly enjoyed the chapter that discussed the political awareness of the army, which investigated the channels of communication and the consequent impact of the various information dissemination on the army’s ideological and practical/physical display of loyalty towards the emperor.

Overall, Dr Jonathan Eaton provides a worthy addition to the existing scholarship on the Roman military. The decision to take a thematic approach makes his study stand out, and from reading through the text, it elevates the study and its positioning within the current field. Paraphrased from another reviewer because of the clearness of their expression, Eaton states that “no emperor could survive without the support of the army”, and this was certainly the case throughout history too, and his book assuredly provides clear support towards that notion.

Published by Sean Strong

Sean is a doctoral researcher working on the reign of Maurice (582-602). He holds a further interest in understanding the ideology behind identity and the perception of rulership in Eastern Europe and the Near East. Sean's research interests vary throughout the Late Antique and Byzantine world, and span across the fields of military, political, and social history.

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