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Book review: The Roman Wars in Spain

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Review The Roman Wars in Spain

Daniel Varga’s ‘The Roman Wars in Spain: The Military Confrontation with Guerrilla Warfare‘ is a book that focuses on the military aspects of the long Roman conquest of Hispania. Daniel Varga analyzes the strategies and tactics of both the Roman side and the many different native tribes and chiefdoms that fought the Romans. The author uses both literary sources and recent archeological findings, and he examines how the wars in the Iberian Peninsula changed the organization, tactics and equipment of the Roman armies.

This is what buyers of the book said on Amazon:

This is an interesting, mostly valuable and, at times, fascinating book about the Roman wars in Spain over a period of almost two centuries, from the end of the Second Punic War down to the final subjugation of the Galicians, Asturians and Cantabrians during the reign of Augustus. Drawn from the author’s PhD thesis, it seeks to explain why it took so long for the Roman to conquer and “pacify” Iberia, but also to what extent these long and gruelling wars influenced both the development and the equipment of the Roman army.

The book contains a reasonably good – and often a very good – narrative of the numerous conflicts across the whole period, despite a few repetitions. At times, however, the analysis can be a bit unconvincing, partly because the author tends to go too far in seeking to ascribe each and every change in the Roman Army to the influence of the Spanish conflicts. Another limit is that the author’s statement about the Iberian tactics being so problematic for the Romans, and the causes of such problems, are not always clear.

All of the main points are made and well made. However, the author gives the impression of having tried, but not entirely succeeded, to ascribe the Roman armies’ difficulties to a single main cause. The first disadvantage that the Romans had to cope with was the largely mountainous and often forested terrain which tended to put Roman legionaries at a disadvantage against a more mobile and more lightly equipped enemy. This is probably the main reason explaining Rome’s difficulties and numerous defeats. A second point, which is also made, is that Rome’s armies were often commanded by second class or even mediocre generals who lead themselves and their armies be lured onto unfavourable terrain and ambushed. While true, the author does not take into consideration that not all Iberian or Lusitanian warlords were of the same calibre as Viriathus or as the Roman “renegade” general Sertorius.

A more disputable contention is the point that the Iberian and Lusitanian presented a unique challenge among Rome’s enemies in that they were capable of fighting successfully both a guerrilla war and a more “conventional” one with pitched battles. I found this point somewhat controversial.
While the point is correct, strictly speaking, because Iberian and Lusitanian armies were indeed able to fight both “conventionally” and “unconventionally”, they do not seem to have presented the same kind of challenges to Roman armies when fighting the kind of warfare in which the latter excelled. In fact, there seem to have been few pitched battles lost by Roman armies when fighting on level ground, unless such armies had been previously weakened and morally affected by guerrilla warfare and ambushes.

Then there are also other not entirely convincing points made by the author. The traditional view is that, despite all their difficulties, the Romans won their wars through attrition and because of their ability to draw on their superior reserves of manpower. The author rightly challenges this view because it is a bit of an over-simplification. One of the reasons for the time taken to conquer the whole peninsula was that Rome prioritised – and often had to prioritise – other fronts, such as wars in the Hellenistic East, Africa or Gaul during the Second and the First century. The other reason is the alleged difficulties in recruiting sufficient troops for fighting in Spain.

There is clearly some value in these elements and they are both to some extent sustained by the written sources. The problem, however, is that the author gives the impression of exaggerating the points at times. He also gives the somewhat misleading impression that the Roman Senate deliberately chose to prioritise wars in the East, and that these were more popular because the wars were easier to win and the plunder that could be expected was more abundant. While the later point may be correct to some extent, at least once the silver mines of Southern Spain had been secured by Rome; it would be a mistake to believe that the wars against Macedonia and the Seleucids were deemed “easy” just because the Roman victories turned out to be decisive. In fact, Roman senators and generals were rather concerned, not to say nervous, when having to face pike phalanxes, heavy cavalry and elephants and the victories that they won were more closely fought than what is generally believed or even admitted by some of the (Roman, of course) sources.

Finally, there are also a handful of glitches and questionable statements which could perhaps have been corrected through a more thorough editing process. Here are just two examples. One is to mention that “the Roman army was organised according to the Macedonian phalanx formation” until the introduction of manipular legions. Instead of “Macedonian phalanx formation”, the reader should understand “Greek hoplite phalanx formation”, especially since the reference is to the fifth century – a time where Macedonians did not fight in phalanx formation at all – and since the Romans never used pike formations during the Republic. A second questionable statement is that the Romans, at a disadvantage when fighting over broken and/or forested terrain “eventually learned”. They did develop and use more cavalry and more auxiliary units to mitigate the vulnerability of heavy infantry over broken terrain or forests. However, if anything, the persistence of Roman disasters and defeats when Roman forces when ambushed, mauled or even destroyed when fighting under such conditions – think of the annihilation of Varus and his legions in Germany in 9 AD, or the near destruction of the Ninth legion during the revolt of Boudicea, both of which happened well after Spain was pacified – should lead to qualify such a statement.

Four stars.” – JPS

Lots of scholarly errors, such as incorrect info, wrong dates, etc. Not enough maps, I shouldn’t have to use the internet to look for maps to follow the terrain the book describes. The book skips around a lot, isn’t chronological organized, makes it very confusing to read.

This book should not have been published without much more editing.” – Chelsie Steinhauser

Summary of reviews: reviews are mixed, with an average 3/5 stars at the moment of the writing of this article. Criticism mainly comes from some wrong dates and information, the editing of the book and the quite scholarly nature of the book, even though it’s a short book. The positive aspects of the book are the good analysis the author makes about the causes that made the conquest of Hispania so long and how the wars in Spain changed the Roman army.

Book review: Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain

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Review Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain

Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain is a book written by Philip Matyszak where the author tells the story of the epic struggle between Sertorius and Sulla to control the Roman Republic, a civil war that was a prelude of the end of the Republic. The Sertorian War developed in Hispania and there Sertorius made alliances with the natives, especially the Lusitanians, and used guerrilla tactics to defeat larger Roman legions. I talk about the Sertorian War in episode 7, Roman Conquest of Hispania: Native Resistance.

This is what customers say on Amazon:

“I am grateful that there are authors such as Matyzsak to write books like this, and publishers such as Pen and Sword to publish them. Considering the scarcity of sources on the topic, as Matyzak recognizes in the introduction, he still does an excellent job of using everything available to craft as complete account as possible on the career of the Roman rebel. A book like this is useful for those who want to learn more about Sertorius, but who have neither the time nor expertise to gather all the material together to form a thorough portrait. Although the author has written many books on ancient Rome, this is the first I have ever read. I am now looking forward to reading his next book on the Social War, and perhaps some of his previous titles as well.

The book has ten chapters and is a short read, about 180 pages. Besides the life and career of the man himself, the author also includes a brief summary of the history of Roman rule from the time of Scipio Africanus to the time of Sertorius, and includes a survey of different tribes living in Iberia. The last chapter also follows the remnants of Sertorius’ troops as they continue their struggles for and against Rome in later wars up to the time of Augustus.” – Luis A. Hernández

The book details the Sertorian War in Spain between populated and coordinates forces. The continuation of the Roman Revolution in Spain provides powerful insights into the issues and personalities that drove this great conflict. Quintus Sertorius is properly portrayed by using Plutarch and Sallust as the tragic genius, defeating superior forces through brilliant leadership, but ultimately unable to overcome imperial resources. The book also analyses the strategies of Roman assimilation and their profound consequences. It is a very good read!!!” – José Gómez-Rivera

And this is what users of Goodreads say:

As far as tragic historical figures go, Sertorius must rank among the top. Through no fault of his own, he wound up on the wrong side of history on multiple occasions, finding himself on the losing side of politics and civil wars.

Matyszak is explicit in stating his unequivocal opinion that Sertorius was a military genius of the highest order. At each mention of his prowess (dealing with other generals accomplished in their own right the way a professional athlete would beat an amateur) the reader is left wondering what could have been had Sertorius made different allegiances, or been born in a happier time. Surely, a general of his caliber could have been one of Rome’s greatest heroes rather than one of its most notorious rebels. In an era where lesser generals made names for themselves with epic conquests for the Republic Sertorius could have achieved a great deal for the state.

The author does a wonderful job of weaving the patchwork sources into a coherent narrative, and when the sources are silent he does well to fill in the blanks and inform the reader of the logic behind his assumptions. For a book that could easily fall into hero-worship, Matyszak does excellently to avoid the blunder of excusing the atrocities committed by Sertorius however tame they might be relative to his contemporaries.

Any story about a supremely tragic and dramatic figure is attractive to a wide audience, and as this is one of most readable books on Sertorius I would highly recommend it. The story is essentially the tale of one man against the world in a battle he knew he would inevitably lose. In the forward Matyszak says that Sertorius’ story should serve as an example to give hope to the hopeless, but I believe it would be more accurate to say that his story should serve as an example of how to preserve one’s dignity in the face of hopelessness.” – Daniel

A fascinating and generally balanced account of the Roman general who fled to Spain after Sulla mounted a coup in Rome, and largely controlled the Spanish peninsula in the 70s BC, resisting Roman armies until he was assassinated. My main reservations are that in the first part of the book, Philip Matyszak too uncritically accepts some of the belittling of the great general Marius in some of the Roman sources, and is also a bit uncritical in accepting accounts of Sertorius’s alleged change of character for the worse in his final year of life.” – Michael Cayley

Summary of reviews: reviews are generally positive, remarking how narrative the story is and the analysis that Matyszak gives focused on the natives. Some of the critics say that the author praises maybe too much Sertorius and takes for granted that Sertorius knew he was going to lose in the last year of his life.