The Restoration of Rome – Peter Heather

Barbarian popes and imperial pretenders

This is the third book in a series about the end of the classical world and the development of modern Europe.  The first centered on the fall of the Western Empire, and the second was on the change in Europe from a Germanic dominated to a Slavic dominated eastern Europe and Balkans.

The Restoration of Rome covers another aspect of post-Roman Europe – the attempt to recover the idea of the Empire in a new world.  First, came the attempts to physically duplicate the Empire – starting with Theodoric the Ostrogoth.

Within 20 years or so of the Fall of the West, Theodoric took a faction of Goths into the Eastern Empire to make their fortune, just as many other groups had in the last several hundred years.  With a little luck and cleverness, his faction grew to be powerful enough to be considered a threat to the Empire.  Thus they were ‘invited’ to move into Italy to take it away from Odovacar, who had put the final nail in the Western Empire.

Theodoric succeeded very well, and managed to dominate the successor states and become the arbiter of the region.  For a short time he even acquired south France and Spain.  He and his court saw himself as a true successor of Rome.  And he might well have pulled it off – except he did not produce an heir.

This left an opening for the second attempt to physically recover the Western Empire – Justinian’s attempt to recover the West.  He managed to destroy the Ostrogothic state in the end, but did not have the strength to hold on when faced with the subsequent threats of the Lombards in Italy and the Muslims in the East.

The third successor to claim Imperial honors was Charlemagne and the Frankish Empire in North France and Germany.  This was the first successor to move beyond the Mediterranean core and set up an Empire in Europe proper.  Again, they managed to produce a mini Enlightenment that lasted a while, but soon the power of the Empire faded, this time for structural reasons.  Dr Heather notes that a feudal state has a fundamental issue with rewarding followers – a state like Rome can give jobs and money from tax revenues perpetually.  A feudal state leader needs to give land to followers, which results in a permanent transfer of power from the central government to the aristocracy. Eventually, central power fades away.  This happened to the Frankish Empire, and the subsequent Ottonian Empires in Germany.

The final chapter is a new take on claiming the mantle of Rome – the Papacy. Rather than using force to make a physical copy of Rome, that could not be sustained in a post-Roman world, the Papacy claimed a moral successorship to Rome and became a moral arbiter of the successor states in Europe.  They had to pull some interesting tricks to pull it off, but the Middle Ages until the Reformation and later centered around the power of the Papacy in Europe.

This is a great, readable series on not only the history of this period, but also its reflection on other times.

Infantry Attacks – Erwin Rommel

Yes, this book was written by that Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox’.

In the early 1930s, Erwin Rommel, then a middling officer in the small German army, wrote this book about his experiences as a small unit leader in World War I to help train new officers in what works and what does not work in war.  Rommel had received several medals for his actions so a lesson coming from him would be that much more impressive.

Rommel fought in France, Romania, and Italy, often in difficult terrain in operations carried out on a shoestring. The story of each action describes the situation, and what the unit did and how it worked out.  After each is a quick summary listing some lessons that could be derived from the battle.

But it isn’t just a dry tactical lesson – he also goes into the personal details of how he and his men felt at the time, how it felt to be stuck in a tight place like a mountainside without much food or equipment during these actions.  I suppose in a way that might be just as essential a preparation for a new officer as the arrows on a map.

The book shows in miniature the traits that he would use to thwart the Commonwealth in the Western Desert and France in the next war.  Making activity and enterprise overcome an enemy with a superiority in numbers and materiel.  If the Allies had read this, they might have had an idea of what they were in for.

The Path to Victory – Douglas Porch

The Mediterranean Theater in WWII is often viewed as a waste and a distraction for the Allies.  In this book Porch tries to correct this view and boost the importance of the various fronts in the overall war effort.  To me, he partly succeeds in this, but then carries the argument a bit farther than it can be reasonably sustained.

In the early war, of course, the front was the only place that the British could even face the Axis.  But only in Africa could the distance allow them to remain in the field at all, as the debacles of the Greek intervention and the Crete operation showed.  Bouncing the Italians out of Ethiopia and wrestling with the Afrika Korps was about all they could handle.  But it was vital to show the populace and (in this case) America that the British would fight on.

But even in this stage of the war, the overreaching of the strategists caused more problems than just leading to a failed campaign.  The diversion of troops from North Africa to Greece also led to Rommel having an open field to begin his counteroffensive.  So the political benefits were dissipated because of a lack of a clear strategy of what the goals were and what means the British had.

Another of the author’s themes is that the campaigns led to giving the Allies ‘live fire training’  and experience that would vital later on.  This is true to some extent.  But outside the minds of the British generals, the true benefits are a lot less clear.  Certainly the 8th Army didn’t show itself to be hugely more adept even in Tunisia than the other forces that had not fought in the desert, both British and American.  After Kasserine, the Americans learned rapidly.  And by the time of Normandy, the units that had been fighting in the desert were no better than those that had not.

Another point is that the Allies needed something to do in 1943, as the main invasion was not ready at that date, and the Med was made to order for that.  On the other hand, rather than just grab ‘low hanging fruit’ , the campaigns in Italy after Salerno were just a waste of lives and resources that could have probably been used elsewhere to better effect.

At the time, the Americans were worried that the British were trying to avoid a confrontation in France and were shoring up their empire by wanting to concentrate there.  In this, they were probably partially correct.  But the arguing over policy to the last minute meant that the operations they did do were less well planned and supported than they could have been.  Nobody said coalition warfare was easy.

One thing I did find jarring were the sections on peripheral areas inserted into the text that continued to the end of the war.  So around 1941, there is a chapter on Tito and the  partisans that continues to the end of the war.  Then, blink, you are back in 1941 again.  There is another long section on the French that slides back to 1940 and also goes to the wars’ end.  Then we are back to 1944.  It’s even harder to sell the last years of the Italian campaign as important when you dropped it yourself to talk about Charles DeGaulle.

Another matter that Porch brings up that in a way counters his argument is that every town and city that the Allied took over was one that had to be governed and fed by us and not by the Axis.  This puts different light on the value of advancing up Italy, because it added more civilians to the list of those that needed to be supported.

So lets rate the operations:

  • North Africa (pre Rommel) – easy
  • Ethiopia – not important, easy
  • North Africa with Rommel – important to hold Suez, job training?
  • El Alamein – not important because of Torch.
  • Torch – useful to ‘do something’, job training for US
  • Tunisia – capture some Germans, job training
  • Sicily – useful ‘do something’, clear the shipping lanes, air bases
  • Salerno – useful to knock Italy from war
  • Cassino/Anzio – useless
  • Anvil – extra ports for France operations.
  • North Italy – useless

So in the end I remain partly unsold.  I am also not in the ‘total waste’ camp either though.  And the book does give a pretty in-depth look at this part of the war.


Vanished Kingdoms – Etruria

This chapter in Norman Davies‘ book on lost nations in Europe concerns Etruria, a little statelet in Italy that was set up by Napoleon and the French in 1801 and later un-set it up in 1807 and incorporated it into “Greater France”.  All of this went down when Napoleon fell from power in 1814, of course.

In the previous 5 years before 1801, England, France and Austria had been using the Po Valley as a convenient battleground in their wars.  Without Napoleon, Austria and Russia had made it all the way to Switzerland.  When Napoleon was there, matters were far different, with his armies reaching nearly to Vienna.

After the third campaign in the area, the First Consul decided to shake things up.  Redrawing the map wasn’t a French invention, as it was common for provinces to be traded, swapped, or swallowed up as a result of wars for hundreds of years.  The statelets in the Po Valley were swallowed  up, some into France, some into dependent republics.  On the fringes, he made some changes to try to protect his borders.  The Grand Duchy of Tuscany, ruled by an Austrian Grand Duke, was reconstituted into a Kingdom under the Bourbon Dukes of Parma.  Parma itself was ceded into the satellite republics of North Italy.  The intent was to reduce the use of the port of Livorno by the hostile English and settle down the Italian Front.

While having Napoleon set up a Bourbon King has its ironic side, the Kingdom itself staggered along under its new rulers. The King died and the Queen became regent. One of Napoleon’s sisters used the area as a private playground, building Museums and the like.  In only a few years, though, matters had changed enough that a new settlement of the area was put through.  The Kingdom was abolished, part going to his sister and part being incorporated into France.

When Napoleon fell, the winners set up their own little galaxy of statelets in Italy, which lasted until the Unification in the middle of the 19th Century.

Like Galicia, this chapter seems an odd choice for a chapter.  There are thousands of these kind of states in history. none amounting to much.   I suppose I prefer ones that had a  moment that mattered in history, rather than those that never did or could have.

Vanished Kingdoms – Sabaudia

Sabaudia is the next chapter in Norman Davies‘ Vanished Kingdoms.  Sabaudia, like Burgundia, is another area on the ‘seam’ between France and the central European regions of Germany and Italy.  Later it became known as ‘Savoy’.

As a mountain region, it was safer against the growth of France than its neighbors, but could not expand in that direction.  Across the Alps, however, with time it took control of the plains region of Piedmont. Playing both sides for gain in the wars of the wars of the period was a major means of growth.

One treasured gain was the Kingdom of Sicily, which promoted the Prince of Savoy to the big time as an actual King.  Holding the region was tougher, so in the next peace treaty Savoy swapped Sicily for Sardinia and kept the King part.  It was in this form that in the 19th century Sardinia became the focus of Italian unification, which was achieved in the

Kingdom of Sardinia map

Kingdom of Sardinia map (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

mid-century.  Ironically, one thing that was traded away on the road to being King of Italy was the district of Savoy itself, which was dealt to France along with Nice in the process.

The heyday of the King of Italy did not last long – after defeat in World War II the kingship was scrapped entirely.  The family had played one side in a war against the other one too many times.

Death of the Wehrmacht – Robert M. Citino

I recently picked this book up on the German strategy in WWII and read through it pretty quickly.  It cut ahead in line, so to speak.  It is about the year 1942, where the situation passed from Germany seeming to be on the brink of victory to the long retreat to the end of the war.

The author has an explanation that goes beyond the post war excuses that it was all Hitler’s fault or that it was any particular decision in itself, it was just that the German ‘way of war’ was unsuited to the demands of the situation.  When faced with a shortcoming, the response was not to pull back, but to get in deeper.  This was a view shared by Hitler and the Generals.  Their divergences were on details, not essentials.

Citino brings it all back to Prussia and Frederick the Great, who grew Prussia to a major power by swiping provinces quickly with a good army, then getting out of the war quickly.  This way, the weak nation would not be prostrated by a long war’s demands in men and production.  This can serve you well if you can knock out the other side quickly, but in WWII Germany could never do this with first Britain, then Russia, and finally the United States.   When the first strike failed, the Generals’ answer was a second, and a third.  Eventually the opponents learned enough to parry the blow and the rout was on.  In Africa, Rommel basically trained the Western Allies in armored combat for two years for no strategic benefit to the Axis.  In Russia, each offensive killed a lot of Russians but gave the Germans more ground to protect and defend with the same or fewer men.   Eventually, something would give.

This fits in well with the new histories of the East Front I have (or are in the process of  reading) that show that even after the first months this operation was in trouble.  Citino is taking this theme to the next year, where again apparent success is also revealing a pattern of muddled objectives and plans, and aims that don’t seem to make a lot of sense.  If you wanted to fight in a major city, you hardly need to drive all the way to Stalingrad when Leningrad is only 10 miles from your front line.

I’ve noticed this before over the years from both World Wars – the Germans are touted as great planners and strategists, but in reality, they are bad ones.  The army can fight well tactically and operationally better than almost anyone, but the high command and worse yet the political leaders don’t seem to be addicted to gambles and operations that are thrown together at the last moment.  And there is no sign of a coherent grand strategy anywhere to be found.

Roman Conquests: Italy – Ross Cowan

This book is the first in a series put out by Pen and Sword publishing about the expansion of the Roman state.  This book is the expansion from a tiny city-state in 753 BC or thereabouts to the final conquest of Italy below the Po Valley in the 250 BC time frame.

The book is not a long one, and the information is packed thick, even though there isn’t a lot of source material to work with – mainly Livy.  The author does a good job of putting out more realistic theses and pointing out possible spin by the Roman mythmakers without scoffing.  He has the habit of translating the cognomens of Romans – ‘nicknames’ that Romans used to distinguish men, and the separate lines of a large extended family.  For instance, the cognomen ‘Caesar’ means ‘fine head of hair’, which kind of embarrassed the balding Gaius Julius Caesar.  It gives a different feel to the narrative when Cornelius Cossus Arvina is set down as “Greasy Worm Cornelius”.  It sounds more like a Mafia Don than a regal, staid movie Roman.  It probably is a closer picture of reality in 350 BC, though.

To sum up the whole period, Rome grew and prospered because they were far more determined than rival states.  Often wars started out badly, but rather than quit, Rome kept on until victory finally came.  They learned and adapted better than anyone else around to changing conditions.  It served them well in this period, and even more so when Hannibal came a bit later.

For me, this hit the mark a little better than the Rise of Rome by Everitt.  I like the concentration of the book on a single subject instead of trying to hit everything in a 700 year period.  I hope the next books in the series do as well as this one.

The Ghosts of Cannae – Robert L. O’Connell

Hannibal Barca counting the rings of the Roman...

Hannibal Barca counting the rings of the Roman knights killed at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC). Marble, 1704. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This book is subtitiled Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic.  It is built around the battle of Cannae, Rome’s greatest defeat.  It follows Hannibal to the battle, and then follows the ‘ghosts’ of the battle for the rest of the war and even beyond.

At the start of the Second Punic War, Hannibal led an army into Italy and inflicted defeats at the River Trebia,  and again at Lake Trasimene.  For a year Fabius Maximus, the “Delayer” avoided defeat by avoiding battle.

This didn’t suit the Roman character well, and in 216 BC they decided to create the largest Roman army ever formed, some 80000 men, to eliminate Hannibal.

At the end of the day at Cannae, 60000 or more of these men were dead, Rome’s allies in the area were defecting to Hannibal, and few doubted that the war would end.

Nobody told the Romans, though.  Showing how different they were from other nations, even this disaster did not make them give up.  The survivors of the battle were exiled to Sicily, never to be disbanded or allowed to return home.  They went back to avoiding battle and managed to subdue the defecting cities under Hannibal’s nose, and took away his base in Spain.  The war began to turn in their favor.

By 204 BC, Scipio Africanus was ready to invade Africa himself, and used the Ghosts in Sicily as the core of his new army.  Hannibal was still in Italy, but after Scipio was camped before the city of Carthage he was recalled to face Scipio.

At Zama, in 202 BC Scipio and his ghosts defeated Hannibal at Zama, ending Carthage as a threat for good.  For this, they were finally allowed to go home after fifteen years of exile.

The Frankish Empire – Thomas Hodgkin

Finished the final book in Hodgkin’s Folio Society series on The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire.  This takes the situation in the West up to the death of Charlemagne.

The earlier alignment of the Papacy with the Byzantine Empire has been replaced by one with the Franks, who were strong enough to remove the Lombard threat for good.  The Pope received land in central Italy that would become the Papal States, which formalized the dual nature of the Papacy as both a religious leader and a secular one for the next thousand years or so, tempting Popes to muddle church matters with political ones.  Although the Franks rule supreme, already the signs are there of the future struggle between the Papacy and the German Holy Roman Emperors that would pop up in the future.

Meanwhile, the political exclusion of the Byzantines fueled the future religious separation into the Eastern Orthodox church that would be finalized in a few hundred years.

I always like reading this series even more so as I become more familiar with the period.  The breakup of Rome has become increasingly interesting to me in recent years.  I wonder if there is a similar overview of the next five hundred years available.

The Frankish Invasion – Thomas Hodgkin

Its Volume VII in the “Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire” from the Folio Society, and the balance of power between the Byzantines, the Pope, and the Lombards is fatally broken by the fall of Ravenna to the Lombards.  Now there is no Exarch to be the Pope’s political superior, even nominally.

Under a series of strong Popes at this time (720-760 AD) the Papacy realigned itself to find a new counterbalance to the Lombards – the Franks.  Its king, Pippin, the father of Charlemagne, wasn’t hugely interested in intervening in Italy at first, but as a good Christian was influenced by the Pope’s cries for aid.

The point of contention was the Pope’s demand to get back part of the area around Ravenna.  However, this time the towns would be under the rule of the Pope and not Constantinople.  The King of the Lombards agreed under pressure, but then found reasons to delay turning over the cities.  Pippin even defeated the Lombards in a few small wars but once the Franks returned home the king returned to his foot-dragging.

Then a new king, Charlemagne, took over the Franks.  He soon had enough of the situation, and conquered the entire Lombard Kingdom and decided to rule it himself. Now the three-way split was the Pope, the Franks, and the Byzantines.  And the Papacy was aligned firmly with the West and the Franks.  But while the rift between East and West would continue to grow, the current happy relations between the Papacy and the Franks would not.  However the breakdown would only happen outside the scope of these books.