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Another good one, except from some avoidable glitches
on 19 November 2012
As other reviewers have mentioned, this is a good and up to date summary of the Roman legionary up to AD 69 and the accession of Vespasian.The book's structure is the standard one. First you have a short but interesting background piece on the establishment of the imperial legions by Augustus, with a nice table borrowed from Keppie (the Making of the Roman Army, 1984) that traces the supposed origins of each of the legions. This is followed by the now usual pieces on organization, size and command, enlistment, training, length of service, pay, leadership and morale, belief and belonging, sacramentum, decorations and punishments, dress and equipment, daily life on campaign and battle.
The contents are much more focused on the legionary's morale and sense of belonging than what you could find in Osprey publications some 15 years ago with three sections (leadership and morale, belief and belonging, sacramentum, decorations and punishments) making up some 10 pages altogether. This reflects Keegan's influence and a shift of emphasis on the rank and file's point of view and psychology rather than the traditional focus on the general or the army's organisation. It is, of course, perfectly apt for a little volume of the Warrior Series dealing with the "Roman Legionary", not the Roman Legion.
The section on equipment is also good with a nice description of the evolutions of swords (the several types of so-called "gladius"), helmets and armour in particular. The emphasis put on the huge burden that the legionary had to carry around. It is not for nothing that the legionaries were called "Marius' Mules" after he reformed the army and cut down on baggage. As this book shows very well, this was still the case under the Julio-Claudians and continued well after them.
The section on battle also emphasizes the "human side" of combat, including the war cry to give yourself courage and demoralize the enemy and the importance that experience in battle could have when one side was mainly made up of veterans but not the other. Nice touch was to mention lulls during battle, because there are probably few activities as taxing as hand-to-hand fighting and such fighting probably could not last more than 15-20 minutes before both sides got exhausted. Another realistic element, which you also find in other Osprey publications on the Romans, is the mention of plundering and booty, which Roman legionaries indulged in just like any other warrior during Antiquity, the Middle Ages or well after.
Finally, there are the superb plates from Angus McBride. Several are quite gorgeous, such as the legionary press gangs and the "warm welcome" which they receive from the population, or the conturbernium (a mess tent of 8) on the march, suitably overburdened with all their equipment and followed by a couple of servants with pack mules. My favourite of all, however, is that of centurion Marcus Caelius' last stand during the battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The grim determination that you can see on his face as he assaults the Cherusci warriors that are stabbing one of his men tells it all...
There are however two glitches that prevent this volume from being excellent. This is a pity because both glitches could have been easily avoided.
One relates to the period covered by this volume. While there are in the text quite a few mentions and quotes from Caesar, there is almost nothing about his campaigns, presumably because they are covered in other Osprey volumes. However, none of the plates show legionaries in the time of Caesar. The book itself starts after the victory of Octavius over Marc-Antony and Cleopatra, as the victor reorganizes the army and demobilizes more than half of the Civil War legions. Somehow, there is a bit of a disconnection between these contents, which mainly focus on the period after 31 BC, and this volume's title which is supposed to start in 58 BC.
The second glitch has already been mentioned by a couple of other reviewers on Amazon.com. I was, just like them, very much surprised to find the author picking up Isaac's somewhat contentious view, first mentioned in 1994, that the century, not the cohort, was the main tactical unit of the Roman legion. This is explicitly contradicted by both Caesar and Tacitus, to mention just these two. While the second was perhaps a bit of an armchair general (although even this is unfair because he did see some active service), Julius Caesar was certainly not. He could be somewhat expected to know what he was talking about and does not seem to have had any point to make when emphasizing the legion's cohorts rather than their centuries as the main tactical unit. At a minimum, this somewhat controversial statement would have warranted a much more thorough discussion that simply mentioning that "the cohort could not function as a tactical unit because it had no commander or obvious standard of its own." In other terms, this was too much or too little, especially since this rather controversial view flies in the face of the mainstream view and the written sources.
Because of this, it is worth four stars, but not five...