Tag Archives: roman history

Caesar’s Legion, by Stephen Dando-Collins

CaesarsLegionTitle: Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome
Author: Stephen Dando-Collins
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 336 pages
Genre: nonfiction – Roman history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

I was looking for a comprehensive yet readable military history featuring the Roman legions, and Dando-Collins delivered. This book (more or less) follows the history of the famous Tenth Legion, raised by Caesar and present for most of the battles of his Spanish and Gallic campaigns as well as during the Pompeian War. Following Caesar’s death, they fought first for Antony, then for Octavian, and then fell into disuse in Syria. General Domitius Corbulo whipped them back into shape a few decades later, and they were instrumental in subduing the Jewish Revolts of the 60s and in taking the fortress of Masada in 73.

Dando-Collins walks the reader through these events with vivid attention both to military strategy and to the daily life of the legionaries. Both are valuable to me — you get the big picture from Caesar’s viewpoint. He focuses on some lesser-known battles of the Conquest of Gaul as well as the most famous, and does a particularly nice job detailing the end of the Pompeian Civil War, after Pharsalus. Most accounts just sort of take the attitude of, “and then Caesar left Egypt and mopped everybody else up.” This does a better job showing just how fierce the resistance continued to be, even with Pompey’s death and the capitulation of several other key Optimates. He seems to want to excuse the Tenth Legion from its mutinies where I’ve seen other writers come down pretty hard on them for turning on Caesar, attributing it to bad influence and a few corrupt centurions (rather than to a not-unreasonable expectation of getting paid). They manage to redeem themselves, though, and restore their reputations to one of honor and glory — just to sink back down again a few decades later.

That in of itself is an interesting view of the Roman legions that we don’t often see. Mostly you hear about how they were the finest military machine the world had ever seen (I know some Parthian cataphracts who might wish to argue the particulars, but, whatever). We hear about the ones that get obliterated (Carrhae and Teutoburg Forest, for example). We don’t often hear about those that sink into idleness and ignominy. He also gives you both sides of Caesar — the truly genius military mind, but also the one slightly in over his head after the Rubicon, prone to errors that would’ve been uncharacteristic in earlier years.

This book had two major drawbacks for me. One was Dando-Collins’s decision to replace Roman military rank with modern American military rank. Maybe it helps some readers, but for me, it just made it more confusing. I know what tribunes, legates, and proconsuls are, but I can no more decline the strata of modern major generals than I can perform integral and differential calculus The other was that this wasn’t really a history of the Tenth Legion. It was, in many places, a speculation on where the Tenth might’ve been and what they might’ve been doing, and in others, nothing to do with the Tenth at all. We spend a fair bit of time with the Sixth and the Thirteenth, for example, and a fair bit of time just unraveling political matters and personal vendettas. I understand that history leaves gaps, and that it would’ve been strange and jerky to leap from one event to another without explaining intervening matter, but then, why set that as your premise in the first place? Why not just write a comprehensive history of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey? Or of the evolution of the legions from late Republic into early Imperial Rome? It seemed strange to me to promote such a conceit when the actual narrative digressed so very often (even when those digressions were rather nice and things I appreciated, such as the chapter spent on the story of Germanicus and Agrippina). At least he admits when he speculates, though — it makes the reading a bit tiresome, with so many “if”s and “perhaps”es and “maybe”s littering the pages, but it bespeaks academic honesty.

Dando-Collins has written another book, which does purport to look at the history of every legion. That one’s on my to-read shelf, so I’ll be interested to see how it compares. He’s also written a number of other Roman histories, and I like his writing style well enough to look into them someday. It’s accessible but not childish, managing to be comprehensive without drowning a reader in dense details the way many military histories do. I appreciate how often Dando-Collins refers to primary sources, which further enhances this book as good reading material for someone with an interest in not just the mechanics but the culture of the Roman legions.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day, by Philip Matyszak

Title: Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a DayAncientRome5DenariiDay
Author: Philip Matyszak
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 144 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

This book is a great resource, though it isn’t quite what I’d expected or hoped for. Matyszak writes with his usual felicity and accessibility, but this book is not, as the title and cover might led you to believe, quite so similar to his Legionary or Gladiator. The premise does not really drop you into the role of ancient tourist. Rather, the book provides a snapshot view of Rome-at-a-glance, somewhere around the year 200.

And it just that — a glance view, with plenty of anecdotes and trivia, but not a particularly deep exploration. I do like the book’s organization, which takes you through things to do, places to go, and social customs to observe. Matyszak pays special attention to the geography of the city of the Caesars: what’s on which hill (temples, temples, and, oh yeah, some more temples), what you’ll find in the Subura (crime and prostitutes, mostly), what’s across the river (nothing you want to be a part of), which forums to hit for what activities and shopping excursions. He stresses a lot of the activities most important to Roman social life at all strata — bathing, eating, gossiping, going to the races. Roman entertainment can be beautifully poetic or utterly depraved, though Matyszak does unpack the goings-on at the Colosseum — not always lethal combat between gladiators (who were, after all, expensive investments), not necessarily to everyone’s taste (Romans throughout the centuries voiced their distaste for the more gruesome activities — though enough still approved, clearly, that they kept it up), and Christians pretty much never got thrown to the lions (they got crucified instead, because that’s the Roman sense of humor there in a nutshell). He notes the architectural genius of the colosseum, able to fill in 20 minutes and disperse as quickly, using techniques that stadium-builders still employ today.

Matyszak also does a great job of discussing the integration of religion with Roman life — all-important and yet not terribly pious, at least to a modern point of view. The gods are everywhere. Literally, everywhere. Every hill, every valley, every home, every crossroads. Celebrations in their honor dictate the movement of the calendar. Auspices and astrology inform political life. And yet the gods don’t actually care if you believe in them. So long as the rituals are observed, they’ll hold up their end of the bargain, and you can go on to merrily worship anyone you choose. “Confessing a deep love for a particular god,” however, as Matyszak notes, “is superstitio and the person concerned is probably emotionally disturbed.”

Though the humor in Ancient Rome in 5 Denarii a Day is not as laugh-out-loud funny as I found Legionary to be, or even the Classical Compendium, Matyszak’s sly humor still shines through periodically. Some of the best bits of the book, though, actually showcase the humor of the ancients, every bit as dry and ironic as the best of the BBC. Matyszak liberally sprinkles the book with quotes from Plautus, Cicero, Tacitus, Plutarch, and others — and even when those are from “serious” sources, they often highlight the absurdity of social or political life. They also provide insight into those great geological details about what sort of people you’d find in what places.

Overall, this is a nice resource to have — not particularly comprehensive, but an excellent overview, and certainly inspirational for me. There are all sorts of fun tidbits to mine and to research further. This would be a great addition to any Rome-enthusiast’s bookshelf.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews