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Deserts Called Peace: Towards a New Roman Way of War

The reference is unmistakably to Tacitus, Agricola 30.5, and the speech of the British war-leader Calgacus who powerfully characterizes the Roman way of war as the making of deserts later called peace. While the comment reflects a rhetorical and poetic legacy that may be traced in Quintus Curtius (History of Alexander 9.2.24) and Virgil (Aen. 6.852-3; cf. also Vell. Pat. 2.131.1), the remark has not attracted much attention from those who study the Roman way of war. Too often scholars offer a narrative approach to Roman war-making that sanitizes the ugliness like headhunting and other battlefield brutalities (cf. Roth 2009), while other studies focus on typical military topics, as battle, the role of the general and his staff, and logistics (e.g., Goldsworthy 1996).

This paper offers a different approach to the study of the Roman way of war that takes seriously Tacitus’ comment and the realities of Roman battle – headhunting and urban destruction as in the Jewish War, AD 66-70. Current discussion debating the utility of counter-insurgency operations as applied to asymmetrical warfare, for example, dominate debate regarding military operations and the conduct of war (cf. Petraeus 2006, Kilcullen 2010). These studies give the impression that such techniques are modern realities only. Yet sources as varied as Tacitus and Josephus, the reliefs on Trajan’s Column and that of Marcus Aurelius, make clear that the Roman way of war was equally complex. Phyllis Culham (2013) briefly explores these issues but without the broader context of the study of war and the understated corollary to Tacitus’s observation, that the Romans also brought education and learning with the infrastructures of civilization (Agricola 21). An exploration of these will provide an introduction to a new Roman way of war.