The Last Legionary: Life as a Roman Soldier in Britain AD400 by Paul Elliott
Book Review by Ian Hughes
In ‘The Last Legionary’, Paul Elliott has attempted in an introduction, eight chapters and a ‘post-script’ to describe the routine daily life of a Roman legionary based in Britain in the twilight of the Roman Empire. After the short introduction, each of the chapters focuses primarily on a single aspect of army life, including ‘Joining Up’, ‘Training’, ‘Perks of the Job’, ‘The Fort and Work’, ‘On the March’, ‘Belief’, ‘On Campaign’, and ‘To War!’.
At first the read is a little difficult: the author’s method of interspersing a fictional account of a Roman soldier in Britain with an overview of historical events coupled with archaeological evidence and his own experience of being a re-enactor takes a little getting used to. However, once the reader crosses this hurdle it is possible to settle down to an interesting narrative which sees Gaius, the ‘hero’ of the story, at work in northern Britain – more specifically Yorkshire – in the years up to AD 400.
In each chapter the tale is accompanied by explanations of the historical validity of the story. Yet it is the blending of the narrative with tales of the author’s own experiences of re-enacting that bring novelty to the book. These anecdotes bring the everyday life of ‘Gaius’ to the fore, examining such details as daily routine in a small fort, the types of food available in the north of Britain, and especially the experience of marching fully-laden with gear across the bleak moors of northern England.
It is with the description of the drab day-to-day existence of the Roman soldier that the book comes into its own. The description (p.73f) of the – to modern eyes – rather bland meals that were often all that was available to Roman troops will be of interest to any individual interested in cooking staple Roman dishes rather than the ‘high-class’ dishes described by Roman writers such as Apicius. Incidentally, it is rather sad to note that the author does not seem to have used either the ubiquitous garum, or its modern equivalent ‘fish sauce’.
The author also describes the efficiency –or lack thereof – of Roman clothing and footwear. Most interesting is his description of marching in reconstructions of the hob-nailed boots used by Roman troops in this period. The fact that the reconstructions often lost hobnails will help archaeologists to understand why the rusted remains of such hobnails are a common feature on Roman military sites, either singly, where they have been lost, or in groups, most likely intended to act as replacements for repaired footwear.
Elliott’s descriptions of small-scale raiding and large-scale battle are convincing and again these aspects are based on his experience as a re-enactor. The fact that little of a battle would be visible to the average legionary, whose main focus would remain on the enemy to his front and his friends to the side, is worth repeating, especially to ‘armchair historians’.
Yet despite these positive aspects there are several slight problems with the book. One of the main drawbacks of the book is the author’s inability to step back from his personal experiences as a re-enactor in order to place his hypotheses in context. For example, when describing the marches across country equipped as a legionary Elliott does not note that the majority of the actual troops will have spent time training and achieving a level of fitness beyond that attained by the average male in modern Britain. In fairness this is touched upon earlier (p.6, 17-18), but a restating of the high levels of fitness in the Roman army would have been valuable at this point in the text. As a consequence, although Roman troops may have had complaints about carrying their equipment, it is unlikely to have been to the same degree as the author and it is likely that Elliott would have the same complaints if carrying the equipment of a modern soldier.
In a similar manner his claim that the ‘best’ cuts of meat would be reserved for officers and so unavailable for the average legionary reflects the modern Western viewpoint rather than being based on the tastes and peculiarities of the fourth-century diet, never mind the foibles of individual officers who may have had a weakness for ‘lesser’ cuts of meat.
In addition, for anybody interested in the period itself Elliott’s historical accuracy is sometimes in doubt, and may have been based more on secondary rather than primary texts. For example, the claim that the Roman commander Stilicho led the assault at the Battle of the Frigidus (p.135) or that ‘Fullofaudes, the military commander in charge of the frontier forces … had been besieged at Eboracum’ (p.11) are unsupported in the primary sources. Although it is possible that these details are included simply as uncorroborated detail for the background story, they may still be assumed as factual by the unwary.
As a final point, the picture painted by Elliott in his chapter on ‘Belief’, which has Christianity as being ‘extremely popular amongst the ruling elite’ (p.126), is misleading: such a definitive statement is deceptive. Thankfully, in the remainder of the chapter he goes on to note the divisions in the Empire between those wanting to retain their old beliefs and those desiring a change to the new religion. Elliott also points out the difficulty in deciphering an archaeological record in which any attempt to specify religion based on grave-goods or burial alignment is open to question, which brings a much-needed level of balance to the chapter.
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Despite these minor problems I would not hesitate to recommend the book to those interested in either Late Antiquity in general or the Late Roman Army in particular. The novel blend of the three disciplines of re-enactment, archaeology and history in a fictional account give the book a distinct feel of its own. The harsh realities of life on the northern frontier of the Roman Empire are vividly described and the reader is placed in an unusual position: that of empathising with a lowly soldier rather than one of the major military and political players that are the more usual focus of studies in Roman history.