Review of ‘Swords Against the Senate’ by Erik Hildinger (2002)

Hildinger, Erik. 2002. Swords Against the Senate. Cambridge: Da Capo.

At its core, Erik Hildinger’s 2002 book Swords Against the Senate seeks to recreate the events which shaped the first stages of the Roman Republic’s collapse, spanning the half century from before the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BCE to Sulla’s rise to the dictatorship in 82-81 BCE.  In so doing, Hildinger is drawn in two directions in trying to tell a single narrative.  The first is the social and political process whereby the Roman military became increasingly politicized as political violence became regularized in Roman society.  Ultimately the land reforms and other popular measures which ultimately brought down the Gracchus brothers were directly tied the issues surrounding the Roman army in the years following campaigns in Spain, culminating with the sack of Numantia in 134 BCE.  Having been away for so long, Roman soldiers returned to farms devastated by a lack of upkeep, forcing many to sell their lots to large estates and move to the urbs at Rome.  This formed the basis of the popular “Roman mob,” whose fickle attention was both the weapon and ruin of popular leaders.  The battle between those in power – particularly the senatorial aristocracy who held oligarchic sway in Rome – and the populists led to the rise of “strongmen” characters like Marius, Cinna, Carbo, and Sulla.  Ultimately the people who cast their lot with these leaders who yield far less benefit than they were promised or had hoped to receive, particularly in the counter-revolutionary measures taken by Sulla during his dictatorship, measures aimed at tamping down on the power of populares and their vehicle, the tribunate.

Competing with this narrative are detailed, but largely pointless tangents on the structural developments of the Roman army.  If these developments were employed more appropriately, such as emphasizing the “equalizing” effect the dissolution of classes with the ranks (e.g. velites, hastati, principes, triarii) had on the peasant-soldier’s political psyche, then the tangents would have felt like they truly contributed to the narrative.  Much of the telling of the wars is, admittedly, of a military nature and does not exactly fit well with the social and political narrative I have summarized all-too-briefly above.  That aside, giving the reader, for example, an explanation of the way Romans lined themselves for battle, and why in one battle they may have employed the triple line formation (triplex acies), while in another they employed a double line, feels strangely out-of-place and – quite frankly – like little more than filler.  If the author could explain to his readers the relevance of these small facts – besides being literal trivia – then I might not have as much of an issue with this text.

Another “problem” with this text is its reliance on very old scholarly materials.  This is not a problem in and of itself, and it is actually rather common with books written by independent scholars who might not have access to university-level research databases, but it nevertheless means that much in the way of recent scholarship – even up to 2002 – has been left out.  That aside, the general ideas presented in the book seem sound, and besides better incorporating the factoids about the Roman army into the larger narrative, the book would also have benefited from more vigorous editing.  Still, the book is relatively inexpensive and a very easy read.  For those who are interested in this period in ancient history, or are interested in the subtle ways in which republics are transformed into autocracies, this is a book well-worth reading.  Although Mr. Hildinger is himself not a scholar, he is clearly academically trained, and a reader who enjoys a combination of both scholarly and popular history will not be disappointed.

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