The Great Illyrian Revolt was one of the longest and most hard fought wars fought during the reign of Augustus. It came at a key point in the ongoing Roman conquest of Germany, forcing the abandonment of a planned invasion of southern Germany. It ended just before the famous Varian disaster, the destruction of three legions at the battle of the Teutoburg Forest, and had played a part in weakening the Roman garrison in Germany. As many as fifteen legions were involved at some point in the war, and the Roman war effort was led by Augustus’s heir Tiberius, at that date seen as an able military man and not yet tainted by the events of his reign. This was also the first war for Germanicus, who later rose to fame in Germany, and whose early death played a part in the decline of the dynasty.
This isn’t a very well documented war, so many of the details are lost to us. Here the author has chosen to make educated guesses to fill the gaps in the documentation. Some of these are perfectly valid, based on the geography of the area, which won’t have changed in too many details (although rivers do move, and the ‘obvious’ route through a mountain range now might not have been possible at all 2,000 years ago, while the clear route at the time might now be entirely blocked). Sometimes I feel that the author goes too far. Very few details have survived for the campaign of 8 AD, including the starting point for the campaign led by Marcus Lepidus, and the route that he took. The author comes up with a suggestion for the starting point, which is fine, but then produces a detailed route for the rest of the campaign based on that earlier guess. While his original starting point may well be valid, it is worth remembering that there are many Roman sites that are entirely unknown to us, so the absence of a convincing known alternative doesn’t mean there isn’t one (in my area we know there is an entirely lost Roman fort, placed between two known sites in Roman lists of forts). We are thus presented with a list of tribes that might have been attacked by Lepidus. The danger of this approach comes when the conclusions from one guess are used to inform the next part of the narrative, leading to the production of a historical structure based on too many suppositions. We don’t quite get to that stage here, but the danger is present. Fortunately the author always makes it clear when the speculation begins and the sources run out, so we can make our own mind up about his conclusions.
I don’t agree with one aspect of the author’s conclusions – the idea that the Romans got very little of this war. In fact his own text makes it clear that this was the last major revolt in Illyria, so the Romans gained a peaceful province on the key land route between the eastern and western Empires. Illyrian soldiers also went on to form an increasingly important part of the Roman army, and the province provided a series of late Emperors, including Diocletian, whose reign marked the end of the Third Century Crisis and probably extended the life of the Western Empire for another century.
Despite these quibbles, this is an interesting look at a relatively unfamiliar war with a big impact (I’d only heard of it a few weeks before reading this book, when reading a book on Augustus’s wars). The background material gives us a useful picture of the area before the outbreak of the revolt, tracing the history of the area before the Romans first appeared on the scene, the slow process that saw Rome slowly get dragged into the area over the course of three Illyrian Wars, and the mismanagement that helped trigger the revolt. The style of writing during the history of the war is unusual, but still effective, and it helps fill a gap in the military history of this crucial period.
1 – The Illyrians
2 – Rome and the Balkans
3 – Outbreak
4 – The Tide Turns
5 – A Long Hard Slog
6 – The End of the Road
7 – The Aftermath
Author: Jason R Abdale
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military