For The Glory of Rome: A History of Warriors and Warfare Book Review

For The Glory of Rome: A History of Warriors and Warfare Book Review

For The Glory of Rome: A History of Warriors and Warfare
by Ross Cowan
Publisher’s Website: Pen and Sword
On Amazon: For The Glory of Rome: A History of Warriors and Warfare

Grade: A
Teacher’s Comments: A “social history” of the men who fought for the Roman Empire.

For The Glory of Rome: A History of Warriors and Warfare is an unusual military title in that it is more social history than an account of military campaigns. In For The Glory, Ross Cowan focuses on the motivations, emotions, beliefs, and superstitions of soldiers in the Roman Army (and of some of their notable enemies). While some attention necessarily is paid to renowned leaders such as Caesar and Antony (and, as an opponent, Phyrrhus), the vast majority of the book focuses on the experiences of less significant (though still individually identified in the historical record) figures. Among these are Marcus Sergius Silus, who fought with a prosthetic iron hand; Lucius Siccius Dentatus, who in his 40 year career suffered 45 wounds — all to his front; and the Centurions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, who were featured in the HBO series Rome.

Through accounts of the lives of legionnaires, and of several notable campaigns and wars, Cowan bring illuminates Roman beliefs regarding virtue, loyalty, honor, divine intervention, the practice of devotio and single combat and soldiers’ loyalty to their leaders. I came away thinking very differently about Roman legionnaries. General histories that I had read made me think of legionnaires as cogs in a well-oiled machine. Cowan’s account reveals a much more complex picture.

One of the most interesting things to me was the practice of “Devotio.” While the Roman practice of leaders “falling on their swords” is widely known, Devotio is the practice of deliberately falling on the enemy’s swords in a ritual sacrifice intended to snatch victory from the claws of defeat.

Cowan tells the story of Publius Decius Mus, whose lines broke in the battle of Sentinum in 295 BCE against a Samnite and Gallic coalition.

Decius, who had presumably been caught up in the initial flight of the Roman cavalry, vainly attempted to halt the retreat then decided that the time had come for him to embark on a second course of action: devotio. His father had devoted himself at the Battle of the Veseris in 340 BC and secured victory for the Romans against the rebellious Latins, now the son would attempt it at Sentinum. Throughout the battle, Decius had kept beside him the Pontifex (one of the chief priests) Marcus Livius Denter. The consul declared that he could no longer avoid the fate of his family and in order to save the Roman army must devote, that is sacrifice, himself. “Now I will offer up the legions of the enemy to be slaughtered along with me, as victims to Tellus (mother Earth) and the divine Manes (gods of the Underworld).”  Decius then commanded Denter to recite the prayer of devotion, essentially a magic rite which would seal the destruction of the Gauls and Samnites through the death of the consul …

Decius like his father before him, spurred his horse through the broken Roman troops and grasping a heavy spear in his right hand, charged into the midst of the oncoming Senonian infantry … The death of a general normally signaled collapse, but Decius’ death rallied the broken Roman troops …

Inspiring and interesting stuff.

Prospective readers should be cautioned, however. For The Glory of Rome is organized around broad themes, and thus is not chronological. Some basic knowledge of Roman history probably is necessary to fully appreciate Cowan’s exposition. A reader may not otherwise be able to fully appreciate the significance of battles involving the Samnites or of the Gallic Campaign.

I found For The Glory of Rome to be a very enjoyable read and recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Rome, or in ancient warfare.

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