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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

“Legionary: The Roman Soldier's (Unofficial) Manual”, by Philip Matyszak

224 pages, Thames & Hudson, ISBN-13: 978-0500251515

Want to know what it would be like to serve in the Roman army? Then this is the book for you. It's a very quick read, but it covers a lot: recruitment to retirement and everything in between (training, armor, weapons, organization, administration, battle tactics, enemies, etc). Matyszak uses an entertaining, lighthearted, and often humorous approach, but backs it up with reference to the primary sources (Polybius, Livy, Tacitus, etc.). Overall this is a fun, but accurate and detailed account of what it must have been like to serve for the glory of Rome. For all that, this is a surprisingly solid and accurate overview of the Roman army c.100AD for a book written in such a breezy, tongue-in-cheek style (which I loved). The illustrations - both line drawings and reenactment photographs - are very nice and generally accurate and provide a wonderful complement to the text, which packs in a surprising amount of detail for its brevity. Are there more encyclopedic books out there? Yes. Is this a good book for an overview of the Roman Republican (or later Imperial) army? No, and it's not meant to be. But it does what it sets out to do quite well.

The author covers recruitment, training regimens, equipment and armament, the officer corps, daily camp life, basic tactics, and examples of different types of combat situations the soldiers might encounter, along with various enemies of Rome. All of this is done through prose that is brisk and exceedingly droll. It really comes across like the advice of a canny old veteran to a newbie, giving the raw recruit the inside dope on how to successfully shirk where possible and definitely how to both avoid the attention of officers and to stay alive in battle.

I have a few small criticisms: 1) The assertion that it's "unusual" that Roman stabbing swords didn't have a fuller ("blood runnel" in the text, and I would like that phrase stricken from the English language). It is a thoroughly debunked myth that lack of a fuller will create a vacuum seal upon stabbing. What fullers actually do is create a lighter, possibly more flexible, stiffer-feeling blade without sacrificing too much strength--they're simply a technological innovation in bladesmithing, and as such, not universal. 2) Since the book focuses on the Roman army c. AD 100, the section on the "Picts" is misleading. The term "Picti" does not appear until late in the 4th century. Prior to that, the Romans referred to many (but not necessarily all) British tribes north of Hadrian's Wall as "Caledonii" (Caledonians). 3) I would personally have liked a little more information on command structure, especially in the auxiliaries, and perhaps a little mention of numeri and foederati, but I suppose there was only so much space, and we know even less about those than about the auxiliaries.

Summing up, if your interest is ancient Roman, this is a great little guide about life in the army. If you've enjoyed the HBO miniseries about Rome, or if you have read Colleen McCullough's excellent series about the end of the Roman Republic, then you're going to want this book for your collection. It helped me fill in a few gaps, gave me quite a few laughs, and has spurred me on to read more about Rome's armies.

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