Matyszak, Philip. Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s Unofficial Manual.

NY: Thomas & Hudson, 2009.

I had previously read this author’s two “pretend travel books” on ancient Rome and ancient Athens, and while I enjoyed their light style, I also learned some things from each volume. Matyszak is an engaging writer with a nice sense of humor but he also has an Oxford Ph.D. in Roman history.

This time, the conceit is a handbook for the soldier in Rome’s armies in AD 100, early in the reign of Trajan. This was the high point in Rome’s military development, when her legions were at their strongest and most legionaries still were Roman citizens. (This figure dropped to under five percent a century later, most Roman soldiers being products of the provinces.) He starts with the prospective recruit trying to decide which legion to apply to, since they were widely scattered and some had far more actual fighting experience than others. You’re looking at a 25-year enlistment, remember, and serving in northern Britain is also quite different from an assignment in northwest Africa, or in Palestine. There are also specialist alternatives to being an infantryman, depending on your talents and previous training, including cavalry, the navy, and engineering. Or the auxiliaries, if you’re not a citizen. There’s a discussion of the armor, equipment, and weapons you will be expected to provide for yourself, unless you want to buy whatever the legion’s armory can find for you, followed by an introduction to the training you can expect to undergo, the discipline you will have to accept, and the kind of people who will have authority over you. And the enemy? Ah, see the chapter called “People Who Want to Kill You.” Further chapters detail life in camp and on campaign, how to survive an encounter on the battlefield, and what to expect when besieging a city. There are excellent illustrations and color plates throughout, as well as pertinent quotations from the classical authors, especially the military historians. A great read, and proof that history doesn’t have to be dry.

Published in: on 12 October 2013 at 12:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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