After so many books on the Roman legions and legionaries, including a number of titles from Osprey, I was a bit concerned that this one might be a "rehash" of previous titles. It is not. While Osprey titles are necessarily limited in size and the materials contained can generally be found scattered throughout the more specialized literature, this title does a good job in presenting the Roman legionary from the beginning of Vespasian's reign to that of Marcus Aurelius.
All the sections I was expecting to find are included: chronology, recruitment and terms of service, training, tactical organization, equipment, campaign, battle and its aftermath. The contents of these sections are also mostly what I was expecting. However, there were also numerous useful elements that are often not found in similar titles, or at least not explained as well. One example is the section on the formation and destruction of Roman legions, showing that, for all their vaulted invincibility, many legions suffered heavy losses and a number were destroyed over the period, sometimes entirely.
The contents of this booklet also include a number of other interesting (and often little-known) features. One example is the terms of service where the minimum age for enlisting and the ordinary term of service were exceeded, sometimes considerably, with 14-year old recruits or veterans with more than forty years of service. While the author makes good use of the information obtained from the tombstones of legionaries who served and died during this period, it is however not possible to ascertain to what extent these were common practices or exceptions.
More generally, Ross Cowan's book has two merits. One is to challenge wildly accepted assumptions made by previous historians on a number of "technical" points - statements that the senior centurion in a cohort had overall command of this cohort or that the auxiliary cohorts did most of the hard fighting while the legionaries were kept in reserve and preserved. Another is to show to what extent the legions and their subunits became a way of life, a society and a family for legionaries. This can largely explain both the troops' high morale and the fact that some of them served well beyond their normal terms of service.
The illustrations and plates are also rather good, even if perhaps not the best that I have ever seen in Osprey titles.
There are holwever a couple of limits. I was a bit uneasy with some of the author's extrapolations, particularly when he uses 4th to 6th century authors of military treaties (Vegetius and Maurice's Strategikon) to infer that certain legionary practices existed already during the 1st and 2sd century AD. This was a bit unfortunate especially since the author spends quite a few pages in showing that similar assumptions but made by other authors are questionable and it does give the impression that he somehow does not entirely practice what he preaches. A related feature is that I almost couldn't help wondering how much we really know about the Roman legionary of the 1st and 2sd centuries, as opposed to his immediate predecessors and successors.
A third but minor point is that I would have preferred if the author had provided us with as much explanations as possible instead of quoting written sources, as he tends to do in the first half of the title.
Nevertheless, this was a good one and it was worth a solid four stars.
on 19 December 2013
As usual a good small booklet which presents the main themes of the life of a legionary in the time of the Empire AD 69-161. This was a time when much of the Empire was at peace and when Roman tourism first sprang forth. The book however emphasises the life of a legionary such as his tasks, his uniform, armour, weapons etc as well as training. The artwork is quite good but does not compare to the superb work of Angus McBride much used in previous Osprey books, e.g. Roman Legionary 58 BC - AD 69. This book also changes the usual format where the artwork is presented in a central section to now being spread throughout the book. Personally I prefer the central section approach.