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The Army of the Roman Republic: The Second Century BC, Polybius and the Camps at Numantia, Spain

July 2009 (113.3)

Book Review

The Army of the Roman Republic: The Second Century BC, Polybius and the Camps at Numantia, Spain

By Michael Dobson. Pp. xii + 436, figs. 282, tables 2. Oxbow Books, Oxford 2008. $80. ISBN 978-1-84217-241-4 (cloth).

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Between 1905 and 1912, the German ancient historian Adolf Schulten conducted extensive excavations around the site of the Iberian city of Numantia, the focal point for Spanish resistance to Roman rule in the second century B.C.E. Foremost among the sites excavated was a series of Roman military camps, which have become fundamental to our understanding of the republican army. The excavations were published in four volumes, the last in 1931. The influence of Schulten’s work, which included a thorough discussion of the Roman army and its camp, has been considerable, and much of it has become so incorporated into the scholarly tradition that it is taken for granted. Since Schulten published his excavations, archaeological practice has developed, and more has been learned about the Roman army. It is in this light that Dobson’s welcome volume now revisits Schulten’s work. Dobson is not the first to do so. A similar project, with slightly different scope, was recently carried out by Pamment Salvatore (Roman Republican Castrametation: A Reappraisal of the Historical and Archaeological Sources [Oxford 1996]). Dobson, however, has been able to take advantage of work done since then, notably the archaeological-topographical survey carried out by Martin Luik from 1997 to 2002. He has also had access to some 21 of Schulten’s notebooks that cover the period of excavation.

Dobson begins with two chapters that establish the background for the discussion of Roman army camps that comprises the bulk of the book. The first reviews the history of excavations, covering Schulten’s initial identification of the site of Numantia, his collaborators, the progress of excavation, the techniques used, the value of finds as dating evidence, and finally, a brief account of the Numantine Wars. The significance of Numantia as a monument of Spanish national identity meant that once Schulten had found it, he effectively lost control of it to Spanish archaeologists and was left to focus on the Roman military sites that surrounded the city. Chapter 2 outlines the nature of the Roman army in the second century and is a clear summary of the state of modern scholarship. The most important aspect for the interpretation of the Numantine camps is Dobson’s view that the transition from a manipular to a cohort-organized army occurred in the later second century and began in Spain.

Our knowledge of Roman military camps in the second century is based on two different forms of contemporary evidence: the excavations at Numantia, and the Greek historian Polybius’ description of the layout of such a camp. These are the subjects of the remaining two chapters of the book. Chapter 3 examines the theoretical layout of the camp beginning with Polybius and the difficult problem of what type of camp he is describing. Dobson draws up three models for the Roman camp at different stages of its development: a Polybian camp for a double-consular army from the beginning of the Second Punic War, a later single-consular manipular camp that can be derived from Polybius, and finally, moving further from Polybius’ description, a single-consular cohort camp.

With these models in mind, chapter 4, which makes up roughly two-thirds of the book, pre-sents a thorough and scrupulous reassessment of the archaeological evidence, taking each camp in turn. As he progresses, Dobson questions and at times revises Schulten’s conclusions, always judiciously and cautiously. At Renieblas he suggests that Schulten may have underestimated the number of camps, and for two that Schulten had dated to 75/4 B.C.E., he proposes earlier dates. His rethinking of Scipio’s circumvallation of Numantia results in a more intense and tighter siege, one that in its physical presence and the number of installations is a testament to the Roman determination to crush Numantine resistance and make up for the recent defeat of Mancinus.

The camps around Numantia raise central questions about the relationship between textual and archaeological evidence and also between the disciplines of ancient history and archaeology. Schulten was an ancient historian who tended to interpret what he found through the literary texts he had studied; Dobson suggests he was overdependent on Polybius (412). For example, in the camp at Castillejo (which had multiple phases), he first located the praetorium of each phase, then, using Polybius’ plan of the camp, he identified the various elements of each phase. However, as Dobson points out (241), in reality the buildings and their alignments do not conform so readily to an ideal pattern. Dobson follows Elizabeth Rawson in treating Polybius’ account as a description of the camp at the time of the Second Punic War, rather than of his own day; he is suitably wary of using it to interpret the archaeological evidence. Even allowing for this, however, there remains a tendency to treat Polybius’ account as a straightforward factual report (albeit one with omissions). Both archaeological and textual evidence can be problematic, but in different ways. In the case of military camps, we know why they were built, but specialists in Roman military history and archaeology seem less ready to ask why Polybius wrote his account of the Roman camp. He could have written his history without it; understanding why he chose to include it is important to understanding how it should be used and interpreted. This is no neutral description. In this book of his history, Polybius has a clear and explicit purpose: to explain Roman success. The army is presented as a model of order and efficiency (as is the camp); the detail and the figures act as confirmation of this. Those aspects that do not contribute to this image of the Romans are not necessary—hence the omissions that frustrate those trying to reconstruct the camp. The brutal and determined efficiency of the Romans emerges when they are contrasted with Greeks. The Romans change the landscape to fit the plan of their camp; the Greeks, due to laziness, change their camp to fit the landscape (Polyb. 6.42; cf. 6.26.10). In practice, this is oversimplification; the camps around Numantia clearly show that the Romans did adapt their camp to the land. In book 6, however, Polybius’ objective is to show why the Romans win and why, by implication, the Greeks have lost.

In sum, this is a beautifully produced book, clearly written and invaluable for anyone researching the history of the republican Roman army.

Andrew Erskine
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, EH8 9JX
United Kingdom

Book Review of The Army of the Roman Republic: The Second Century BC, Polybius and the Camps at Numantia, Spain, by Michael Dobson

Reviewed by Andrew Erskine

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 3 (July 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1133.Erskine

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