Saturday, 25 May 2019

Roman Wars in Spain

It is usually a capital idea to start a project with a decent question in mind, preferably one which no-one has asked much before. Daniel Varga evidently did so in this work:

Varga, D., The Roman Wars in Spain (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2015).

The question he had in mind was: why did it take the Romans 200 years or so to conquer Spain?

The book is, fairly clearly, a translation of Varga’s 2010 PhD thesis, with most of the intellectual scaffolding (read: the bits only interesting to academics) stripped out. Thus there are few in-text references (and those that remain can be a little ambiguous) but there is a fairly extensive bibliography of both ancient and secondary sources.

One of the things Varga sets out to do is to integrate recent archaeology (mostly published in Spanish and Portuguese, and thus not available to us broadly monoglot Anglo-Americans) with the ancient sources. Of course, both source and ground have their limitations, and a great deal of the detail of what happened is rather speculative, but the broad themes are clear.

The Romans never really intended to get heavily involved in Spain, but were drawn there, as every wargamer knows, but the Punic Wars. Spain, or at least the Carthaginian bits of it, had to be suppressed to prevent reinforcements reaching Hannibal in his rampage through Italy in the Second Punic War. Of course, the fact is that the Carthaginians were there in the first place because they lost the First Punic War and Sicily and needed somewhere else to expand to. The fact that the Carthaginian bit of Spain was mostly owned by the Barca family probably added a bit of extra spice to the proceedings.

Varga notes that the wars in Spain had a number of effects on Rome and the Roman army. It was the first major war the Romans fought where they needed more permanent forces in the field; the usual summer term of serving in the legions no longer cut the mustard. Thus the army had to change its terms of service and, ultimately, recruitment process and targets.

Another problem to face the Senate was how to control the armies. Service in the west was not all that popular. No-one was going to make a fortune from conquering a tribe in Spain while conquering kingdoms in the east could well lead to fame, fortune, power and, possibly, being stabbed. The Senate was unwilling to increase the number in the pool of possible commanders, because it did not wish to diffuse its own power, and so a sequence of more or less capable and willing commanders was dispatched.

The Roman command of the sea more or less meant that reinforcements and logistical support were available, but were subject to the vagaries of weather and political support for the commanders in Rome. This, of course, worked both ways. The commanders on the ground had to make decisions, often of peace or war, treaty or raid, without referring to the Senate. This had two consequences. Firstly, the Senate occasionally repudiated and refused to ratify treaties agreed on the ground and insisted on further attacks on tribes that presumably thought peace had come. Secondly, and more seriously from the point of view of Rome, commanders on the ground could start to make their troops loyal to themselves. This had grave consequences for the late republic in the first century BC, as we know.

So for Rome Hispania was, after the defeat of Carthage, a bit of a sideshow and not really somewhere any ambitious young man would really wish to be deployed to. Naturally, if you were told to go, you went, but extracting wealth from the natives could be a bit tricky, and more than one campaign was launched to try to capture gold mines.

Working to Rome’s advantage, as with other places like Germany and Britain (and Gaul, for that matter), was the political disunity of the native tribes. They, after all, had spent generations fighting each other and were only going to take advantage of the incomers to further their own political interests. The fact that this usually meant weakening the ‘Spanish’ response was neither here nor there: the tribe and its interests were key, and so no overall leader or response emerged to drive the Romans into the sea.

On the downside, Spain’s geography made life difficult. Mountain ranges and river valleys led themselves to ambushes. Spanish political centres tended to be on the tops of steep hills, making sieges tricky. The native knowledge of the land also exposed Roman armies to difficulty and defeat. Indeed, the subtitle of the book is ‘The Military Confrontation with Guerrilla Warfare’, which does sum up a fair bit of the content.

Varga does admit that the word guerrilla is a modern invention, and it does not do justice to the whole of the fighting in Spain. Spanish armies, which could be relatively heavy in cavalry (Varga says about 5:1 foot: cavalry) could and did stand up to the Romans in a straight fight. That they lost fairly often is no worse than any other tribal army of the time. That they not infrequently subsequently ambushed the pursuing Roman army, causing large scale casualties is probably a testament to knowledge of terrain and resilience, as well as Roman lack of caution.

There is a fair bit of other stuff in the book, although the narrative section is a bit light. Varga notes, for example, that the victors tended to pick up the loser’s equipment. Thus tribesmen became more like Romans in equipment, and vice-versa. Of course, we all know that the Roman gladius was based on Spanish models, but Varga suggests that this was a two-way process and Spain’s finest were perfectly happy to throw pila at people.

Overall, despite occasional lapses in the translation (I am sure Gaelic in the text should read Gallic, for example0 this is a very interesting book on a much-neglected subject. I got it because Alexander IV is going there and I wanted to find out who he might be facing. As with many other books, of course, I have discovered a whole new set of ideas for wargaming.

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