I read Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography of Caesar a while ago and was impressed by his writing style and the type of information he conveyed. So I chose another of his books for some holiday reading. I’m reviewing it here because it contains a few market lessons.
The subtitle is “The men who won the Roman Empire”, and its publicity says it is a “complete history of Roman warfare.” So I was expecting something that concentrated on the early days of Rome with particular emphasis on strategy and tactics. In fact, the book is a parade of selected generals and their part in Roman history, but only from the Punic Wars until the reign of Justinian. I suppose there isn’t much information surviving about the earliest generals, but there were some great Byzantine generals in the later times of that branch of the empire.
Having already read the biography of Caesar, the large part of the book that concerns him is a repetition of the previous book. However, there were two parts of the book that I found particularly interesting: chapter one about Fabius and Marcellus, and chapter 12, the siege of Jerusalem.
Fabius and Marcellus.
During the Punic Wars (the wars between Rome and Carthage – an empire that covered Northern Africa and Southern Spain), the Carthaginian general Hannibal lead an army into Roman Italy. The Romans sent an army to attack him and he defeated them. The Romans sent another army and he defeated that one too. The Romans sent more armies and he defeated them all. A lesser civilization would have surrendered at this point, but the Romans kept digging deeper to provide men and equipment in the hope of eventually winning. Their willingness to keep fighting shocked Hannibal but it also sent a message to Rome’s other enemies that they were a special kind of people, not to be trifled with.
Eventually, Fabius was given an army but he knew his troops were no match for Hannibal’s veterans. So instead of fighting , he shadowed Hannibal. His army was not allowed to fight a pitched battle but they picked off Hannibal’s scouts and foragers, generally wearing him down. At one point he almost succeeded in cornering Hannibal in a valley but Hannibal pulled an amazing tactic (if it was in a Hollywood film you would not believe what he did) and his army escaped.
The type of success Fabius was having did not make him popular in Rome. Although his army was able to survive, Hannibal was scourging the Italian countryside. Can you imagine if an enemy army was in your country and your army, even though it was weaker than the enemy, wasn’t actively fighting it? Hannibal knew this so he avoided plundering Fabius’ own farms and estates. To counteract this, Fabius signed all his country property over to the state of Rome.
While Fabius was avoiding combat with Hannibal, Hannibal was unable to lay siege to the city of Rome itself. It is very difficult to besiege a big city, it would be madness to try to do so with an enemy army nearby. Meanwhile, Rome continued to build new armies, and Hannibal defeated them, but he could not get Fabius to fight him.
Eventually, Rome produced a general named Marcellus who proved himself capable of taking a more aggressive action without risking defeat. The two generals, Fabius and Marcellus, became known as the shield and sword of Rome. Although they were not the ones to defeat Hannibal, they made life very hard for him until he understood he would never conquer Rome and returned to Carthage.
Siege of Jerusalem
In popular culture we never hear about how the Romans captured this great city, significant to three important modern religions. The facts of this siege are well known, compared with many other sieges because the account written by Josephus happened to survive. Josephus’ account is particularly useful because he had been a Jewish general before he started working for the Romans, so he understood both sides of the conflict.
This siege was especially bloody because the Romans had limited time, the city’s defenses were well built and its army was fanatical. It was dramatic because it ended in the Temple itself, and the Romans had to break through three walls to reach it. The fighting in the Temple was extremely violent, as you might expect. The Temple was the center of the Jewish religion, only the high priest was allowed to enter the main parts of it and even the public parts were only accessible to Jews who had undertaken arduous purification rituals. Thinking that their God physically occupied this temple must have made the Jews fight so much harder.
An interesting point about gold was made. Many citizens of Jerusalem did not want to join the fighting and tried to escape. This was difficult because the other defenders would kill anyone they caught trying to flee. On the other side it was not safe because some of the Roman soldiers had noticed some refugees picking gold coins from their faeces. Many refugees swallowed their gold to smuggle it out of the city. Because of this, if the Roman soldiers found a refugee, they would cut their stomach open in hopes of finding gold.
In the Name of Rome is well written but somewhat episodic. Some of the generals covered by the book are not particularly interesting because not enough of their history has survived. It contains a few market lessons, as I’ve outlined above, but it is not essential reading for a speculator. At its current price of about $13 there are some interesting stories that you won’t find in the popular culture. Personally, I was hoping to find something more like an updated Stratagems of Frontinus, which is more like Sun Tsu for Western generals.