Thread Rating:
  • 0 Vote(s) - 0 Average
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
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 It is comparable in its scope to the unpublished PhD by C S Lightfoot (referenced by Hassel) but lacks the latter's exhaustive archaeological research.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
Thanks - good review!

I had a flick through this book a while ago, as I noticed it pre-publication and thought it looked interesting. I was a bit disappointed by the maps too, and what they suggest of the focus of the work. Not even an attempt at a map or plan of Nisibis itself, which is odd considering the title!

Do I get the impression that this is more of a large-scale narrative history of the wars between the Romans and Persians from Constantius II to Jovian, with a lengthy excursion in Gaul? If so, does it add much to Lightfoot, or Dignas, or even Dodgeon & Lieu?
Nathan Ross
I would align it strongly with Lightfoot's superb PhD work (which I would encourage anyone interested in this period to read) in that the former has a distinctly boots-on-the-ground archaeological understanding of the local geography more than the other two. Hassel's aim is to mainly rehabilitate Shapur II (and to a degree Constantius II) as the strategical winner in the larger geo-political theatre of operations. Julian comes across as a poor commander in relation to these two.

His grasp of the larger Roman and Persian (Sassanian) issues via a historical lens is less developed than 'Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity' or indeed 'The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars' but to be fair his focus is a specific one.

If you enjoy narrative history through a particular lens - and that lens in this case being a modern military focus on logistics and strategy - then this work is strong and confident. You may disagree with some of his conclusions (for example, the first acies in the three line battlefield fought with javelins while the second used the hasta - or that the elderly Shapur II used tactics he learned from the wars on his eastern borders to masterfully hold Julian in check) but they are presented carefully and in detail.

I would suggest that this work is certainly one of the stronger 'Pen and Sword' publications - less iconoclastic than Syvanne's work, for example! Personally, I value any publication which deepens my appreciation of Constantius II and his operations in the east as I have always felt his strategies and aims have been devalued for too long.
Francis Hagan

The Barcarii
(03-03-2016, 06:23 AM)Longovicium Wrote:  Personally, I value anything publication which deepens my appreciation of Constantius II and his operations in the east as I have always felt his strategies and aims have been devalued for too long.

I can agree whole-heartedly with this  Smile

Very useful review and I've bought the book on the back of it. So many thanks  Cool
(03-03-2016, 06:23 AM)Longovicium Wrote: Julian comes across as a poor commander in relation to these two.

Interesting. I'm just reading the second half of Edward Watt's The Final Pagan Generation, which is also fairly damning of Julian, although from a civil and admin angle (according to Watts, Julian's attempts to overturn half a century of Christian legislation and neglect of traditional religion, and reboot paganism as a 'structured' religion, caused far more disruption and discord, even to committed pagans, than the Christian emperors ever had. Plus his wars beggared the treasury, and his attempts to reappropriate seized temple wealth outraged the middle classes!)

Somebody else was down on Julian recently - was it Syvanne? Seems academe is falling out of love with him!
Nathan Ross
(03-03-2016, 12:35 PM)Nathan Ross Wrote: Plus his wars beggared the treasury

Wars? I think Julian only went into Persia? It was Constantius who was 'constantly' fighting.. Wink

Yes, Syvänne is also not a fan of Julian.
Robert Vermaat
FECTIO Late Romans
(Maurikios-Strategikon, book VIII.2: Maxim 12)
[Image: artgroepbutton.jpg]
I don't know if it academe is re-evaluating Julian but it is hard to escape the conclusion that when looked at objectively Julian's Persian campaign failed strategically and also at the tactical level. Whether Shapur II and his grandee generals out classed him or his circumstances got the better of him, we will never truly know. The resultant loss of Nisibis and the trans-Tigritene provinces was a disaster for Roman foreign policy. I understand the general consensus that it ushered in a period of relative peace and stabilised a porous border region but from the Roman perspective (or ideology) it reversed decades of hard-fought determination to maintain the status-quo. The loss of Nisibis was a status-blow which proved hard to recover from.

For myself, Julian reigned too little for any definitive account of him as an emperor, a person, or his policies to hold any universal truth. Syvanne and Hassel's works in themselves do no more than add much needed corrective views to Julian!
Francis Hagan

The Barcarii
(03-03-2016, 05:51 PM)Longovicium Wrote:  I understand the general consensus that it ushered in a period of relative peace and stabilised a porous border region 

Considering Valens was overseeing war on the eastern borders from 370 until he had to march back west for his date with destiny I don't think you could say it was a period of relative peace.

Maybe true for the immediate area around Nisibis, but not the wider border.
Overall, the new boundaries proved resilient and long-lasting. The key word was 'relative'!
Francis Hagan

The Barcarii
Having now read the book I'd say it was worth getting and certainly a lot better than a lot of the other Pen & Sword offerings for the period.

It was very useful putting the eastern campaigns into the context of the whole empire, however, I do think the author spent a bit too much on the campaigns in Gaul considering the focus of the work being the eastern frontier.
Glad to read you enjoyed it!
Francis Hagan

The Barcarii

Forum Jump: