Thursday, 23 December 2021

Roman Conquests, The Danube Frontier - Dr Michael Schmitz


In the week leading up to the Christmas break, I finished reading another book in the series from Pen & Sword Books, covering Roman Conquests, with this particular volume focussed on the Danube Frontier and written by Dr Micheal Schmitz.

If this series of books might be of interest, I also reviewed Roman Conquests - Britain by Dr Simon Elliott back in early October, see the link below.

JJ's Wargames - Roman Conquests, Britain, Dr Simon Eliott

I well remember greeting the publication of this book with great anticipation at the time as I was well into my Romano-Dacian project and eagerly in search for as much information and historical input that I could find to inspire and inform that work and so I signed up for a pre-publication pre-order, with the book being promoted as authored by Philip Matyszak who wrote the volume covering Roman Conquests in Macedonia and Greece.

The last unit added to my Romano-Dacians was a cohort of legionaries back in September 2019 and work remains to finish off the other half of this collection. I love this hobby!

A frustrating delay in the publication followed, during which I took a break from my Romano-Dacians to refresh my palette for my AWI collection followed by a distraction into the Age of Sail, and so I have had this particular book on my pile of reading material since its publication in 2019.

Thus in preparation for a return to work on my Romano-Dacians, I thought I would grab some inspiration from Michael Schmitz's work and refresh my knowledge around Roman activity of this particular frontier

The back of the dust jacket summarises what the book is designed to offer:

Narrates the campaigns to conquer Pannonia, Moesia, Thrace, as well as the great wars against Dacia and their allies.
Describes and analyses the forces, strategy and tactics of both the Romans and their adversaries.
Discover how Roman Legionaries modified their equipment to minimise the effect of the deadly Dacian falx.
Illustrated with maps, photographs and stunning colour paintings.

So my thoughts after reading the book is that if you know absolutely nothing about Roman warfare in this particular part of their Imperial frontier that started to become front and centre of Roman strategy in the wake of the first civil war and the rise of Julius Caesar, through to the Marcomannic War or Northern War fought by Marcus Aurelius and beyond, heralding the collapse of the Western Empire, then this book will really set you up with all the key history points and facts required to get an understanding of what this frontier was all about.

Personally, I only partially added to what I already knew from my other reading and improved upon that with the chapters covering the early campaigns of Caesar, Augustus and Tiberius with the latter being of particular interest setting up as it does the formation of the pre Dacian conquest under the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian) and the factors that led to the decision by Trajan to solve that particular problem by a total annexation of Dacia under a Roman Governor.

Likewise the chapters covering the Marcomannic Wars, first and second, fleshed out a clearer understanding of what is known amid the academic historical speculation adding to other recent reading from sources such as the Ancient History magazine that produced a very interesting edition covering the warfare from this particular period.

I think Michael Schmitz makes a very compelling case in underlining why the rise of a united Dacia, with all its individual tribes coming together under one supreme leader, first under Burebista and subsequently under Decebalus, together with its access to superior weaponry and tactical know how provided by Roman deserters and that it was not just another barbarian confederation unable to keep its troops in the field for long before the need to service its agrarian economy interceded its need to oppose a Roman invasion, makes it very clear why it was such a threat to Roman security.

Improved head and arm protection on display in combat with Dacians and their deadly falx - Radu Oltean

These factors alone put it at the top of the Roman 'hit-list' but then added to when an opportunistic, cunning and militarily able leader like Decebalus took charge looking to build a wider confederation of local allies along the Danubian frontier only reinforced the need for Rome to find a final solution.

Of course the huge gap in our knowledge of this war is that Trajan's own history of it is lost to us save about eight words of introduction announcing where he moved to at the beginning of the war, and thus we are left with a lot of educated guesswork from the wonderful Trajan's column, probably sculpted by artisans who had never seen a Dacian or indeed a Roman army in battle panoply; partially mediated by perhaps a more reliable portrayal of the armies on the Adamklissi Monument, depicting Roman Legionaries in all the different types of armour they possessed together with the improvements to arm and head protection not illustrated on the column.

I think for me, the most thought provoking parts of this book is Schmitz's emphasis on the 'what ifs' and the implied challenges the Dacians presented. Namely, what if a more coordinated response from Dacia's allies in the form of the Sarmatian and German tribes had been formulated to oppose Trajan, mixed in with the undoubted use of Roman know-how that sadly is a point of conjecture alluded to by the sight of Dacians firing ballista at advancing Roman legionaries from the walls of their fortresses on Trajan's Column.

As a wargamer of this period, I am still not sure any rule set I have come across adequately or sympathetically quite captures how a Dacian army operated in the field, with a mix of Roman technology, more armoured troops, heavy falxes as a shock weapon added to your typical warband army as seen on the German frontier, supported by bow and kontos armed Sarmatian cavalry, which is basically what I have produced.

Romans falling in with a Dacian wagon convoy during the Moesian winter offensive in Trajan's Dacian War - Radu Oltean

The fact is that the Dacians were quite able to beat and destroy Roman armies on their home soil and that potential has to be there on the table-top to make sure the Roman player knows he faces a significant challenge to his all conquering legionaries.

On that point as well, Schmitz highlights the fact again and again, as illustrated on Trajan's column, that Decebalus seems to have forced Trajan to relegate his legionaries to an elite body of engineers building bridges, forts and roads in the wake of the real fighting spearhead, his auxiliaries, and German tribal allies carrying wooden clubs; better suited to fighting in the broken terrain of the Dacian mountains, as Decebalus wisely avoided battle in the lowland plain fronting the Danube and pulled back into his mountain stronghold to contest the few passes that allowed access to his capital, Sarmizegatusa. 

In fact the only occasion we see the legionaries in action is at the end of the campaign as Trajan uses them to storm the Dacian fortress in testudo formation.

My other key area of interest, covered by the book, is the Marcomannic Wars fought across and around the Roman province of Dacia against those same German tribes from Trajan's time, the Marcomanni and Quadi, plus a few others together with free Dacians and of course the Sarmatians. 

Again Schmitz does a good job of thought provoking with the limited information available together with a very handy review of the Roman generals that fought alongside Marcus Aurelius and his co-emperor Lucius Verus, adding some useful comments about their abilities which can only help inform those ratings on a wargames table.

I have always thought these wars would make a nice extension to the Dacian collection, with the added problems imposed on my Romans of too few troops and the occasional man dropping dead from the Parthian plague and causing the loss of even more troops. 

That together with snowy terrain and Romans facing of against Sarmatian heavy cavalry, what's not to like?

Ok so this book does the job it lays out on the cover, with a good look at the key Roman campaigns fought in this area, up to the final collapse of it and the abandonment of trans-Danubian Dacia in around 271-272 AD, less than two-hundred years after Trajan had completed its conquest.

Rome likely expended more blood on this frontier over the centuries than practically any of the others and given the threat it posed in terms of access into northern Italy by land or across the Aegean by sea, it is clear why its possession and control was so important to the Empire.

I  enjoyed reading this book and know I will refer to it for inspiration around table-top games I intend to play with my own collection, but I can't end without highlighting a few niggles and caveats that occurred to me whilst doing so.

The text is plagued with numerous mis-prints that become slightly tedious as you find yourself going back over a sentence that does not make sense due to an annoying typo. Even when preparing this review and referring to the dust cover notes, I found one there, which I corrected for this post but actually is written as follows;

Describes and analyses the forces, strategy and tactics of the both the Romans and their adversaries.

Come on Pen & Sword, this is sloppy from a professional publisher like yourselves that fulfil a very important role in publishing military titles for the general reader and our hobby and does a disservice to the work of some very interesting authors such as Dr Schmitz.

In addition, yes the book does come complete with six black and white line drawn maps of the region which is very much appreciated considering the track record of some military publishing today, but they seemed to me to be rather generic in the various towns and sites indicated on them, with many of those mentioned in the text not placed on any of the maps to help illustrate where the heck the reader was being pointed to.

The Dacians took full advantage of the terrain by constructing blocking positions on mountain sides and valleys - Radu Oltean.

Finally, yes the book does come with stunning colour artwork but, I noted with a wry smile, that said artwork was taken from another great book covering the Dacian Wars by Radu Oltean, a treasure among my library and kindly autographed by Radu after ordering it directly from him back in 2015.

I can't recommend this book more strongly and would be a good read alongside Schmitz, if you have the slightest interest in the Roman wars against Dacia and I note this is Volume I so I hope we will get a second volume in time, oh and there is more of Radu's inspiring artwork in this book. 

JJ's Wargames - Dacia The Roman Wars, Volume One

Roman Conquests, The Danube Frontier is 162 pages which includes:

List of Illustrations

Chapter 1. Illyricum: The Push Towards the Danube
Chapter 2. Julius Caesar
Chapter 3. Octavian's Illyricum
Chapter 4. The Danube as the Northern Frontier
Chapter 5. The Pannonian Uprising of AD 6 to 9
Chapter 6. The Dacians: an Emerging Empire
Chapter 7. The Flavian Danube
Chapter 8. Trajan's Dacian Wars
Chapter 9. Hadrian
Chapter 10. The War of Many Nations

Conclusion: 'The Best Defence is a Good Offence'?
Select Bibliography 

Maps include (Dacia, the Danube theatre in relation to the wider Roman Empire, Illyria, Pannonia, The Western Empire, Thrace)

My copy of the book is in hardback and has a list price of £19.99 UK / $39.35 US but I note at the time of writing can be purchased from around £14 to £15.

I quite like this series of books based on the two I've read and I think are a useful resource if the area covered is a theatre of interest to you.

That's it for now, as I'm off to prepare for a Christmas break with friends and family, and I will post my annual Christmas Eve greeting to readers tomorrow followed hopefully by a post covering some Xmas gaming fun enjoyed in the holiday and my annual year end review.


  1. I have not used my Romans much for quite a long time but thanks to your review I will probably buy these books. These days I find using most generic ancients wargames rules less satisfying but I might give DBA a go. I would need to get my hands on some Dacians but they are less of an exotic army than they used to be.

    1. Hi David,
      Thanks for your comment and if you do get a copy I hope you enjoy the read.

      For myself, I am looking forward to reigniting the ancients itch and getting back into my Romano-Dacians and broadening the collection with a large bunch of German warbands to allow for some Marcommanic Wars action with my preferred rule set, Augustus to Aurelian remaining front and centre.

      Have a great Xmas