Military defeats, casualties of war and the success of Rome
By Brian David Turner
PhD Dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2010
Abstract: This dissertation examines how ancient Romans dealt with the innumerable military losses that the expansion and maintenance of their empire demanded. It considers the prose writers from Polybius (c. 150 B.C.E.) through Dio Cassius (c. 230 C.E.), as well as many items from the material record, including triumphal arches, the columns of Trajan and Marcus, and other epigraphic and material evidence from Rome and throughout the empire. By analyzing just how much (or how little) the Romans focused on their military defeats and casualties of war in their cultural record, I argue that the various and specific ways that the Romans dealt with these losses form a necessary part of any attempt to explain the military success of Rome.
The discussion is organized into five chapters. The first chapter describes the treatment and burial of the war dead. Chapter two considers the effect war losses had on the morale of Roman soldiers and generals. The third chapter compares the response at Rome to news of a defeat in both the republican and imperial periods. Chapter four examines the memory and commemoration of Roman war losses. Finally, the fifth chapter analyzes the inclusion of casualty figures in the sources, and pays particular attention to the Roman idea of winning a bloodless victory.
Underpinning the analysis is the explanatory model developed by military historian John Lynn in his book, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (2003). The model argues that the discourse of war, which encompasses all the cultural depictions of war (including monuments, texts, and ideologies), necessarily influences the reality of battle. While this discourse can never perfectly match that reality, it is, nevertheless, constantly evolving to mirror better how war was actually fought. This model helps explain why the Romans responded to military losses the way that they did, and why these responses were so fundamental to the success of Rome.