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Book Review: Legions of Rome

Keeping Up with the Romans

Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of Every Imperial Roman Legion

by Stephen Dando-Collins

Thomas Dunne Books, 2012

One of the most besetting fallacies of Roman history (behind such standard canards as Tacitus being more historically reliable than Ovid, but well ahead of stuff like the ‘lead poisoning from drinking cups’ nonsense) is that the success of the Roman empire is entirely synonymous with the success of the Roman legions. And if you’re going to find such a fallacy enthusiastically propounded anywhere, you’re going to find it in a book with a title like Legions of Rome. Popular historian Stephen Dando-Collins has written a book with just such a title (originally published in 2010 and now available in wide release in the United States), and he wastes no time hitting that old familiar triumphalist note:

The long existence of the Roman Empire has everything to do with the legions. While the legions were strong, Rome was strong. Conversely, the disintegration of the Late Empire had everything to do with the disintegration of the legions as effective fighting forces.

To put it mildly, this is a simplistic view (it fails to take into account little things like money, civic organization, and trade stability), but if anybody’s entitled to it, it’s Dando-Collins, who’s spent most of his career (with a few less-than-successful side-efforts) writing rock-solid regimental histories of individual legions that contributed to Rome’s supremacy for nearly ten centuries. Those individual histories – with evocative titles like Nero’s Killing Machine and Caesar’s Legion – were uniformly superb (though at times provocative – the author’s career-long refusal to provide jot-and-tittle documentation for all of his conclusions has infuriated his more scholarly readers and will continue to, since this latest volume is equally skimpily supported), and in Legions of Rome Dando-Collins has crafted a magnificent summation to his work as the legions’ foremost living historian.

Thomas Dunne Books has done a beautiful job with this volume’s physical presentation – photos in color and crisp black-and-white, clear and elegant maps and charts, and the perfectly-reproduced artwork of William Donohoe giving accurate point-by-point illustration of the world Dando-Collins describes. Quite apart from the worth of the research involved, this is the single most visually attractive book on the legions to appear in English in a hundred years.

The research is the star of the show, however – Dando-Collins first gives readers a broad-ranging overview of life in the legions: their basic units of organization and deployment, their pay scales, food rations, camp arrangements, recruitment methods, and military honors. He takes readers legion-by-legion in quick but comprehensive sketches drawn mostly from primary sources and the pertinent monuments, inscriptions, and archeological remains (although the bibliography of secondary sources, while not by any means exhaustive, is sound). “Made famous by its commander Vespasian in the invasion of Britain,” runs a typical synopsis, this one for the scrappy 2nd Augusta Legion, “winning more than thirty battles against King Caratacus and the Celts, disgraced during Boudicca’s Revolt, it would spend many years in Wales stamping out Welsh resistance to Roman rule.”

Dando-Collins has pored over the Roman sources and turned virtually every relevant passage into an interesting anecdote – often on how little the day-to-day reality of large-scale military organizations doesn’t really change from century to century:

In around AD 85, Pliny the Younger served as a tribune with the 3rd Gallica Legion at Raphanaea on the Euphrates in southern Syria, where, on the orders of the province’s governor, he conducted an audit of the accounts of the cavalry and infantry cohorts attached to his legion (in several cases finding, ‘a great deal of shocking rapacity and deliberate inaccuracy’).

In the book’s second half, Dando-Collins abandons summary in favor of his strong suit, narrative: he tells the stories of the legions in roughly chronological order, from the early triumphs and disasters of the emperor Augustus to the wars of the emperor Trajan (regarded by our author as the pinnacle of his beloved legions’ existence), in which legionaries had to adapt to new and deadly forms of enemy combat:

To prevent the overhead blow from a falx, it was essential that Roman legionaries came close to their Dacian opponents, and quickly so, to jab horizontally with the pointed end of their straight gladius. A scene on the Roman monument at Adamclisi, later erected by Trajan beside the Danube, shows a Dacian warrior stripped to the waist and poised to crash his falx down two-handed on a Roman legionary’s head. But at the same time, the legionary, too quick for the Dacian, thrusts his gladius into the man’s exposed midriff, killing him first. In the months leading up to the invasion of Dacia, the men of the legions would have undergone intensive training to close swiftly with the enemy in this manner.

The narrative continues into less glorious times, as legions become smaller and weaker and often more poorly organized. Dando-Collins hits every victorious high point and every overwhelmed, outnumbered, or ill-equipped low point – this long section is his book’s tour de force, amounting to a military history of the entire empire in the West, a brilliant performance which in itself would be worth the price of the book.

Many of the finer points of Dando-Collins’ interpretations will meet with the rabidly fierce resistance particular to Roman military historians, and no doubt some of those interpretations will be rightly refuted (interpretations offered as conclusions – and conclusions offered without substantiation – are of course to be extra-suspected, in this work and in all works). But there’s a fantastic amount of work and thought in these 600 pages, and military history enthusiasts among the general reading public will find all of it interesting and effortlessly readable.

And there’s a good deal of audacity in these pages too – also a quality valued by the legions.