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Legionary (Legionary 1) Kindle Edition
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If you were expecting an action-packed historical novel taking place in the Roman Empire and set in period that is often little known by the so-called “general reader”, then this one might appeal to you. While I cannot - and will not - pretend to have read all existing “swords and sandals” novels, as they are sometimes called, this is the first one set during the reign of Emperor Valens (AD 365-378), with the series quite obviously building up to the climatic battle and disaster of Adrianople. However, in choosing this period, the author has set himself a rather big challenge, and I am not quite sure he was entirely aware of what he was undertaking when he got started. To some extent, the challenge is similar to the one he undertook at about the same time with his other series (Strategos) taking place in the Byzantine Empire and which also culminates with a lost battle (in this case the battle of Mantzikert) with far-reaching implications.
The common issue is that, in both cases, to write a novel where the historical settings are detailed, well presented and correct, you need to have a deep understanding of the period and have done a considerable amount of research on your own. The problem with the Roman Empire in the late Fourth century in general and the reign of Valens and the Roman Army at the time in particular, is that there are a lot of “unknowns”, or of uncertainties at least, and therefore quite a lot of what is presented is hypothetical, speculative and extrapolated from what we know of the periods immediately before and after.
The typical example is that of the so-called “border legions” (the limitanei), where there are varying degrees of uncertainty with regards to just about everything related to them: their deployment, the number of legions, the number of troops within each legion, their organisation, their equipment, and the quality of these troops, which might not have been as poor as sometimes mentioned, if only because they saw plenty of fighting. For instance, there may, or may not, have been a first cohort larger-sized cohort and two normal sized ones with a theoretical total of close to 1800 men at Durostorum, the headquarters of the XI Claudia legion. What is fairly certain, however, is that the effective total was lower than the theoretical by a fifth or even perhaps as much as a third.
The historical settings are a bit problematic. The depiction of a legion of limitanei on the Lower Danube is pretty good, and the 11th Claudia really had its headquarters at Durostorum. However, to make a significant detachment (or vexillatio) leave its garrison on a mission to the Bosphorus – nowadays Crimea is not really plausible, even if accompanied by a freshly raised unit of foederati Goths. If anything, with pressure gradually increasing on the Danube borders and most of the field army of Thrace of to the East, the Empire simply did not have cohorts to waster and send off on errands to conduct what seems essentially like a reconnaissance in strength. An additional element making this expedition somewhat unlikely is that the total force sent – something between 1000-1500 – is either too much for a reconnaissance or not really enough to constitute an expeditionary force. The Emperor Valens, who, in AD 376, was not even in Constantinople but already in the East, if I remember correctly, was therefore even less likely to send a second force out after the first one.
Then there is the description of the Huns, which is rather good. This comes straight out from Ammianus Marcellinus and Gordon Doherty has reflected this source rather faithfully, and with all its exaggerations. The Roman author probably never saw a Hun in his life and never operated against them, apparently retiring years before they started to appear on the steppes of what is now Ukraine. Having mentioned this, and since the Romans had never come across them before, their fearsome appearance allied with their horsemanship, their ferocity and the mounted archery for which they became so famous, was certainly enough to scare just about anyone.
The plot hatched by certain grandees in Constantinople is however implausible, with the author being asked to believe that the real instigator of the plot is in contact with a Hunnish warlord, suitably cruel and “ultra-nasty”, as you would expect, to attack the Empire while the imperial administration and the Emperor himself are essentially clueless as to what is going on in what is nowadays Crimea. I will not, however, discuss the fact that it was simply impossible to sail from Constantinople to Bosphorus or vice versa in only a couple of days, because other reviewers have already picked up this one. Suffice is to say that it would have taken at least three to four times as long under optimal conditions, that is assuming favourable winds for both trips.
Also somewhat incredible is the devastation brought by the Huns in the peninsula, and the ease with which they wipe out the Goths. This is especially hard to believe since Gothic forces make a comeback and counterattack further on in the book without the slightest explanation being provided as to where they might have come from. Even the siege of XI Claudia entrenched in a ruin fort and heroically withstand the Hunnish onslaught is rather exaggerated. They will, of course, be rescued at the eleventh hour and only a handful (almost literally) will survive.
As readers of this (and other) reviews will certainly have understood at this point, the main problem with this book is not the context, which is original, nor the events, which, although fictional, may, for some of them at least, be just about believable. It is for instance quite likely that the Huns who did invade and destroy the Kingdom of the Eastern Goths at precisely this time (AD 376) also made an incursion into nowadays Crimea.
What makes the whole story and its characters not entirely plausible and very hard to believe, however, is the author’s rather systematic tendency to exaggerate and “overdo” things. This is also the case of the cast of characters where the “goodies” are, of course, very good and all brave and dedicated and the “baddies” are not only awful or even mindlessly cruel, but they are also all cowards, including the Hun warlord. When you add to this the contrast between the noble, good and brave Gothic Prince and the nasty and treacherous Gothic chieftain, you get the impression that the characters are somewhat caricatures. This is somewhat reinforced by the strong tendency that some of the main heroes – Pavo and his commander officer Gallus – for getting absorbed in their personnel problems and feeling rather over-frequently sorry for themselves.
Despite this, there is one historical character that I found to be very well drawn and where the author clearly seems to have been inspired by Noël Lenski’s remarkable book (“Failure of Empire”) and this is Emperor Valens himself. Valens, especially when compared to his elder brother Valentinian, is often presented as a failure if only because he was killed in battle during the disastrous defeat of Adrianople. So, as usual when a general or an emperor failed and was killed, he was made into a scapegoat and held entirely and solely responsible for the disaster. In the case of Valens, he has been accused of being incompetent and not very bright. Noël Lenski, in his book of the reign of this little known Emperor (AD 364 to AD 378), clearly shows that he was neither, and Gordon Doherty’s book also portrays him as smart and cunning, which he would have had to be to survive for so long and manage successfully (except for the last one, of course) one crisis after another for about fifteen years, as he did.
Three stars for a book that was an exciting read, despite some flaws.
The story itself is spell binding; one of those books you can't put down until it is finished.
I thoroughly recommend this as a good, all round read.
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