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Nero's Killing Machine by Stephen Dando-Collins

Book Review by Antiochus

Dubbed “The Most Effective Legion”, the XIIII Gemina Martia Victrix' wonderful history is told within each page of this book. Stephen Dando-Collins’ years of research into the legions shows as the 14th Legion’s footsteps are followed from its bloody creation by Julius Caesar, to its end some two hundred years later.

The first thing one notices when the book is picked up is the striking imperial purple of the cover. Once it is opened, one only closes it to eat or go to the bathroom.

The book closely follows the 14th Legion across the known world from winter camp to battleground to province, etc. Sometimes whole chapters divert from the 14th Legion to discuss other events such as the Varian disaster or a provincial political episode that will ultimately involve the 14th Legion in future involvement events - this is where the book shines. Collins sometimes takes guesses at what might have been going through the legionnaire’s minds. He does a wonderful job capturing the mood of the soldiers before and during the battles: “…Today the Anker plain in front of the 14th Gemina was firm and dry, solid enough for Petronius to plant his standard if worst came to worst…across the field, with a wave of her arm, Boudicca sent her chariots foreword.”

One feature the book offers is several maps with key locations discussed in the book. Don’t know where Mainz is? Look at the map! At the back of the book there is a list of all the legions created and a summary of their existence. Collins also included a section dedicated to the Praetorian Guard and night watches at night forts. There also is a glossary of Roman military terms. This book is wrought with details, but is written so well that it sounds like a storybook. “So, [Pius] Scipio, do you really expect me to take up arms against Caesar?” the centurion scoffed. “I won’t. And what’s more, I strongly urge you to abandon your plans, for if you haven’t already realized what you’re up against, you’ll soon find out.”

One small complaint I had was Collins’ use of modern military ranks. He specifically stated in the author’s note that he had done this to please a wider audience. While at some times it can be a minor detraction calling the legatus a brigadier general, it is a tiny complaint from a romanophile.

I can say I learned a lot from this book, not just on the 14th Victrix, but on Roman military history in general. I learned how the legions were conscripted, that they sometimes made stupid mistakes, and that they had a daily newspaper! I commend this book to any and all who are interested in Roman history. With these plaudits, I can imagine the grizzly veterans of Watling Street at the end of their second 20-year enlistment exclaiming, “Valete et plaudite!”

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Book Review of Nero's Killing Machine - Related Topic: Emperor Nero


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