My first impression on receiving this book was that at 214 pages it was far too short to be considered a "complete" history of the Roman Army. However, Dr. Adrian Goldsworthy is one of the finest Roman-era historians writing today and he packs a considerable amount of detail into this slim volume. Although the volume is primarily a synthesis of other existing works, Goldsworthy has taken the best materials - including recent archaeological research from Kalkriese in Germany - to provide a very balanced portrait of this subject. Furthermore, The Complete Roman Army has a very high graphic quality, with beautiful color photographs of uniforms, reconstructed and ruined fortifications, weapons and locations. Indeed, this book is easily the best one-volume work available on the Roman Army today.
The Complete Roman Army consists of five major sections: the Republican Army (25 pages), the professional army (29 pages), the life of a Roman soldier (87 pages), the army at war (35 pages) and the army of late antiquity (14 pages). Goldsworthy covers numerous topics, including recruitment, daily routines, rewards and punishments, religion, retirement, equipment, rank structure and off-duty behavior. In essence, this represents a "handbook" on the Roman army. The author also includes order of battle data on the Roman Army, maps of garrison locations, layouts of camps and sidebars on major battles like Pharsalus and the defeat of Boudicca. Although some readers might wish greater detail than Goldsworthy can provide on some subjects, the author's extensive bibliography does point to other sources for expanded information. All in all, Goldsworthy's synthesis and condensation of so much information into such a small space is impressive.
Goldsworthy's discussion of Roman battle tactics follows in the tracks of his earlier works on the subject and I do find some gaps in his otherwise superb analysis. Goldsworthy never really explains how the Romans were so often victorious in the close battle; in previous books, Goldsworthy suggested that it was a handful of "extra-aggressive" soldiers who "broke into the enemy line" but in this book he leaves it more vague. While Goldsworthy notes the importance of the reserve in a Roman army, he doesn't discuss how it was used to win battles. Furthermore, he uses literary evidence from Caesar's commentaries to suggest that Roman soldiers charged at their enemies, hurling their pilum at 10-15 meters and then crashed into their line. The idea that a soldier could run with armor and scutum, throw a javelin, then draw his sword while maintaining linear order with the soldiers on his right and left in the space of perhaps 6-10 seconds is absurd. Indeed, the idea of running with a large rectangular shield like the scutum seems pretty absurd. Given the Roman emphasis on tight discipline and the need to use the shields to cover the front rank, I think it far more like that Roman infantry advanced methodically.
In the final section, Goldsworthy spends little effort discussing the role of the army in Rome's decline and fall. While the author does mention the army's role in causing political instability in the empire and the difficulty its smaller units had in defeating Barbarian invasions, he dismisses the "Barbarization" theory and delves no further into examining the decline. Yet it is clear from the sources and evidence we have available that the Roman Army did decline in quality toward the end and that it was up against tougher opposition (Goldsworthy never mentions the Goths, Ostrogoths, Vandals or Huns). The Roman military system was based on a high level of tactical organization, skill and discipline - all of which apparently declined over time and contributed to their eventual defeat.