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Legionary: The Roman Soldier's Manual by Philip Matyszak

Book Review by Ursus

Philip Matyszak seems to be applying for the lifetime achievement award in the category of "How To Write For a General Audience." His latest entry, Legionary: The Roman Soldier's (Unofficial) Manual, is a successful attempt to translate the minutiae of Roman military studies for those who may not have any prior exposure to the subject. This informative yet exceedingly entertaining read will endear itself greatly to the student looking for a friendly introduction to the mystique of the legions.

The work is structured in organization and tone much like two of Matyszak's previous books, Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day and Ancient Athens on 5 Drachma a Day. The conceit of the book is that it is written as if the reader actually were living in ancient times. In this case, the timeframe is during the reign of Trajan, at the height of the empire and its military glory, and just before the emperor's famous Dacian campaigns. The reader is presumed to be a Roman subject about to enter martial service; hence the title of the work, which really does come across as a handy how-to manual. The narrator is presented for the most part as a grizzled old veteran relaying his key experience to new recruits. However, the narrator is also somehow blessed by the gods with knowledge of both Rome's earliest past as well as the distant future, affording a broader historical perspective when necessary.

Chapter one concerns itself with actual recruitment, giving the criterion needed to serve in Rome's legions and what the recruit can expect the first few days. Chapter two outlines a historical overview of the Roman military from the days of the citizen-soldier to its "modern" professional incarnation, and gives a run down on the status of each of the empire's existing legions under Trajan. Chapter three provides a look at alternative forms of military service: cavalry for dandies, the auxilia for non-citizens, the praetorian guard for the fortunate Italian, and the Navy for those who prefer oaring to soldiering.

The next chapter discusses the various items, weapons and pieces of armor the legionary will come to know in his two decades of service. Chapter five looks at training, discipline and rank structure. A low down on the empire's various enemies, and their respective strengths and weaknesses, concerns chapter six.

The next two chapters discuss in turn the typical routine of camp life, and the lay of a campaign. The next three chapters delve into the fascinating nitty-gritty of laying siege to a city, hacking one's way through a battle, and the aftermath of a battle, including possibly a triumph and eventual discharge.

It should be noted that while everything presented is factual, this is by no means a dry study. The author will give you some very condign and practical advice in every item under discussion. For instance, in discussing the empire's Judean opponents, who could disprove of such wisdom as: "If you must kill a Jewish rioter, do so with full respect for his religious sensibilities." And also: "Try to fight Jewish religious fanatics on the Sabbath. They still haven't completely figured out what to do about this."

The prose, as hinted above, is as witty as it is erudite, lending itself to an easy read by someone of any background. Legionary has a broad visual appeal as well. There are 92 illustrations, 31 of them in color. You will find drawings of weapons, illustrations of camp life, and photos of legionary reenactments. There is also a map of the Roman Empire, a glossary of terms, a recommendation for further reading, and an index.

In his acknowledgments, Matyszak praises Roman reenactors for providing him some nuts-and-bolts information on the Roman military which academic texts alone cannot convey. I remember Pat Southern stating in her The Roman Army much the same thing, and it would seem that reenactors have an increasing role to play in Roman military studies. The author stated in private to me that in the course of writing this work, information was shared between historian, archaeologist and reenactor, with all parties having learned something from the other. This kind of interdisciplinary collaboration can only serve to refine our understandings of an important aspect of Roman culture.

Western Civilization is owed in no small part to these intrepid warriors who marched through the forests of Europe, the mist filled plains of Britain, and the deserts of the Near East and North Africa. With sword and spade they defended the frontiers of the empire. To appreciate their role in history, we must step into their caligae and march a Roman mile in them. Legionary allows us to do this with wit and wisdom.

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Book Review of Legionary: The Roman Soldier's (Unofficial) Manual - Related Topic: Roman Legion


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