Sunday, July 21, 2019

Review: Army of the Roman Emperors: Archaeology and History by Thomas Fischer


History resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2019

Casemate Academic Publishing recently sent me a reference text to examine entitled "Army of the Roman Emperors: Archaeology and History" by Thomas Fischer.  This comprehensive  work is divided into six parts.

Part I, written by Dietrich Boschung,  examines "Iconographic sources for the Roman military" from the Republican period through Late Antiquity.  I found its in-depth descriptions of some famous Roman imagery very revealing.  Furthermore, some of the astonishing pieces I had not seen before either.  One such piece was the Gemma Augusta, a low-relief cameo cut from Arabian onyx attributed to Dioscurides or one of his disciples created in the second or third decade of the 1st century CE. It is currently housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.  The text explains the significance of each major figure on the piece, something you rarely get with a museum identification card, and speculates on the purpose for which the piece was created.

1st century CE Roman cameo depicting Tiberius and Augustus with various deities and prisoners
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carole Raddato
 It peaked my interest so much that I researched the cameo further and discovered there are also alternative explanations for some of the figures, particularly those in the lower register where captives are shown awaiting the erection of a tropaion.  It was interesting to read how various art historians use slight clues from hairstyles and attire in combination with a knowledge of political and military history of the period to determine who is actually represented and for what purpose.

Part II explores the changes that occurred over time in the armament and equipment of the Roman army, a result of the development of more advanced weapons and fluctuations in the procurement of raw materials.  It also discusses archaeological finds made in different contexts such as battlefield and siege finds, objects recovered from camps, forts and other military sites, those found in civilian settlements, and artifacts recovered from water deposits, hoards, and grave sites.

Part III examines all of the costumes, weapons, and equipment from original archaeological finds. This was my favorite section since I am a visually-oriented person and it was full of photographs, drawings, and reconstructions of objects actually recovered from the field.  I was particularly impressed with the condition of some of the artifacts, especially ornate pugio scabbards and cavalry helmets, many of them, I noticed, in private collections.  I was also surprised by the variety of different helmet designs and the degree of ornamentation on some accessories like a privately-owned collection of cheek pieces. I really appreciated the drawings showing the placement of some items of a legionary's kit and those used with horses, too.

Part IV explored the details of Roman army constructions and architecture from marching camps to vexillation fortresses and how defensive structures changed through the centuries.  There is even a discussion of the various military structures in Rome itself from the Castra Praetoria to the accommodation for the vigiles.

Part V wraps up the army portion with a chronological look at military conflicts and the armament and equipment used in each historical period beginning with the Republic.

Then Part VI discusses the development of the Roman navy from the arming and equipping of the marines to locations of naval installations including those along major rivers and tributaries.  A wealth of illustrations, informed by not only iconographic sources but the recovery of actual vessels, depict various ships and smaller craft as well as harbor installations.

I think this book would be an invaluable reference work for not only Roman history enthusiasts and re-enactors but aspiring novelists as well.  Its extensive bibliography serves as a stepping stone to more research sources and it offers a thorough index as well.

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