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The Nisibis War 337 - 363: The Defence of the Roman East AD 337-363

My review on Amazon:

John S Harrel marshals an impressive display of knowledge in this overview of the Roman and Sassanian Persian conflicts in the 4th century. Focusing primarily on the campaigns of Constantius and then Julian, he discusses and elaborates the sieges, battles and deployments throughout this period, using the hinge-pin, as it were, of Nisibis as a focus. For anyone who wants an insight into the broad strategical and tactical issues played-out through this period, it would be harder to find a better work. Harrel's strengths lie in his incisive summing up of the Roman and Sassanian forces, their strategical strengths and weaknesses, and the broader terrain within which these two empires clashed. The work as a whole is primarily a narrative history of these conflicts placed within a specifically military context where the strategy and tactics are evaluated.

This brings both strengths and weaknesses to the work. One the one hand, his analysis of the long-term military and operational issues underlying the long conflict between Shapur and Constantius (and then Julian) entitled by him as the 'Nisibis War' is detailed and astute. Harrel brings a clear understanding of the local terrain, geopolitics and the religious/cultural issues which inform both. It is comparable in its scope to the unpublished PhD by C S Lightfoot (referenced by Hassel) but lacks the latter's exhaustive archaeological research. His grasp of Late Roman army structure and the issues which bedevil a modern reader (unit sizes, origins, etc.) is comprehensive but does not overburden the main narrative. What Hassel is able to do is illustrate how the theatre of operations played a crucial role in the larger Roman Empire and how army groups were deployed both in it in relation to the larger operational command across the Roman Empire and its various emperors and usurpers. As a result, Constantius, Julian and Jovian (to a degree) are re-evaluated and their actions understood primarily in a military and strategic context.

The weaknesses are mainly bound up in its strengths, however. For a narrative history which focuses mainly on the Nisibene theatre of operations over a quarter of the work details battles and campaigns outside this area. While I understand the need to contextualise such operations to highlight decisions made in the East, I did feel that the sections on Julian in the West and his usurpation were overly detailed and unnecessary. Hassel gives equally detailed insight into his campaigns against the Franks and the Alemanni and the complications brought to bear as a result of being under Constantius II's patronage but these insights add little to the Nisibene focus. More importantly, the usurpation against Constantius II and the subsequent manoeuvres against him by Julian is given short shift in a manner which seems abrupt and out of place.

While I do not disagree with much of his analysis of Julian and the Gallic campaigns, I did wonder of the depth given to them in the context of a narrative history focused on the border with Persia.

On a personal level, the map graphics were small and crowded and lacked topographical clarity. For a book which deals in such detail in an area often glossed over in modern histories, I felt this was a missed opportunity. Had Hassel included maps with far more detail in terms of local topography, the book would have been vastly improved in my opinion. Equally, the images of modern re-enactors and lead wargaming figures seemed somehow out of place and lessened the impact of the work.

However, those personal observations aside, this is a serious and well-researched work which deserves its place on the shelf of any student of Late Roman history. It is sober and confident in its tone and benefits from an author who understands military logistics and their application. It sheds a much-needed light into a complex and often-misunderstood period in history.
Francis Hagan

The Barcarii

Messages In This Thread
The Nisibis War 337 - 363: The Defence of the Roman East AD 337-363 - by Longovicium - 03-02-2016, 08:09 PM

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