Friday, September 09, 2011

Centurionum Addendum II: Book Review

Almost kind of a companion to my centurion series, Osprey Publishing released a new book the other month, called Roman Centurions 753-31 BC. The Kingdom and the Age of Consuls. It's the first installment of a two-volume series, written by Raffaele D'Amato and illustrated by Giuseppe Rava, both well known among military history buffs.

The booklet (48 pages from cover to cover) could be divided into three parts: The opening one deals with a general overview over the development of both the Roman army and the centurions as institutions in the time frame given. The second part goes into some detail about the centurions' actual role, their social background and their military duties. The last chapter then is all about equipment, clothing and weapons, and that's certainly the meat of the book. Finally, a small bibliography has been added, and it struck me again that there's still no major academic paper covering the Roman centurion in particular.

Throughout, the volume is heavily illustrated - as one would expect from an Osprey -, mostly with black and white photographs and some drawings of archaeological material. Of course, most readers will flick through the book to feast their eyes upon the eight color plates in the centre. The overall printing quality is good. However, there are issues with some photos being a bit blurred, some even rendered useless since their focus is on evidence of colour! That said, all the more colour is used with the plates…

Here the cover art sets the tone, in that it shows some, let's say, interesting artistic interpretations of Roman centurions. Definitely, Graham Sumner's and Raffaele D'Amato's works have been a breeze of fresh air in the somewhat 'traditional' subjects of Ancient military dress and equipment. While I rate Sumner's and Rava's work equal (up to personal taste), Sumner seems to be superior in methods of research compared to D'Amato. Where Sumner in his "Roman Military Clothing"-series explains every source for his reconstruction in some detail, D'Amato uses a rather broad brush. The latter focusses heavily on literary and sculptural evidence, sometimes mixing together sources from very different periods, and he produces a lot of circular statements.

To give an example: Livy (quote) describes how king Tarquinius drew together the separate units of Romans and Latin allies by putting one half of each aside in new formations. These, in turn, were led by centurions. Livy calls the new units geminati manipuli, which bears the meaning of "twin" or "paired" troops and therefore indicates the blurring of differences between Romans and Latins. Indeed, as Livy tells us, by this act of integration the army made up of 'genuinely Roman' troops was "doubled". However, D'Amato misses the meaning here completely, in that he uses a rather technical translation (not his own!): Assuming that the new units were in fact each made up of two complete manipuli, and that each of these double-maniples was commanded by one centurion, D'Amato equalises them unashamedly with a centuria, consequently nominating the manipulus as its subunit, as a "company". Of course, that gets him into serious trouble when he has to explain the sudden reversal with the manipular system, where a maniple itself is obviously composed of two centuriae!
By the by, even if we accept the statement that one centurion was appointed over each maniple, it's perfectly in line with Livy's account of the Republican army. There the tribunes (derived from "tribe leaders", so kind of a Royal council perhaps) selected half of the army's centurions (priores) to command a maniple's first centuria. These themselves then nominated a 'wing-man' (posteriores) in charge of their maniple's second subunit. As with so many institutions of unclear origin, Livy could just have backdated this practice to the Kingdom era.

As a matter of fact, D'Amato's conclusions share the issues of those of old Livy himself: By connecting all available evidence, regardless of its true origin or inherent meaning, he tries to literally "make sense" in a way that ultimately shall lead to reputedly stringent and logical argument. That's not just pointless; it also casts a damning light on D'Amato's further interpretations - be it the almost ubiquitous "organic armour" or addressing each and every supposed depiction of a Roman (or Etruscan or Italic) officer as that of a centurion.

There are many more examples, but we've certainly got the point here. I fully appreciate the fact that reliable sources for the early Roman army - the more for a special subject like the centurion - are scarce at best. But then one should simply avoid a catchy subtitle or at least exercise more caution with his argument. If there is no evidence, do say so and do not fill the gaps with excessive interpretation.
As much as I embrace bold and thought-provoking theses as well as reinterpretations of well-known material, do sell it as such in an appropriate format. An Osprey booklet definitely isn't the right place, and so I consider this particular volume improper. Improper in its methods and results, and therefore improper for its intended audience, i.e. as an introductory book.

Thus, though I would like to recommend this book for the sheer joy of pretty pictures and for covering a neglected topic - I can not.


Dalauppror said...

Thanks for a very good book review!

Best regards Dalauppror

Ted aka Mapleleaf said...

Thank you for your review I agree with many of your points and bow to your expertise. I still like Osprey for the "eye candy" colour prints may not be exactly accurate but pretty in the " oooh shiny" style.

Furt said...

Great review and must say your recent centurion project is amazingly well executed. Who can resist those grizzly old veterans!



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