REVIEW – Gladius: living, fighting, and dying in the Roman army

4 mins read
Guy de la Bédoyère
Little, Brown, £25 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1408712382
Guy de la Bédoyère
Little, Brown, £25 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1408712382

The author is a renowned scholar of the Roman Army and has written many books, both on this topic and related Roman subjects. The present work will be an absolute delight for those who are fascinated by the life and achievements of the world’s first and probably greatest professional army.

It is not, as the author states, a history of the Roman Army, nor indeed a handbook about organisation and equipment, but rather a deeply researched attempt to know what it was really like to be a soldier in the army that conquered most of the ancient world.

Placing great reliance on ancient sources, epigraphic evidence, and the latest archaeological finds, the author brings the subject to life with an engaging style and a very obvious passion for the topic. In fact, he states in the introduction that his research could ‘have gone on indefinitely’, such is the depth of the source material, particularly the ever-increasing epigraphic evidence, especially the plethora of gravestones and memorials that have been, and still are being, found across the Empire.

It is these gravestones, with their terse, poignant inscriptions, even to the humblest of soldiers, that tell us so much about them, their lives, service, decorations, and sometimes their hopes and fears. Nothing like this would be seen again in Britain, for example, until at least the 17th century.

Divided into 16 chapters that cover every aspect of a soldier’s life from recruitment to service in an astonishing number of roles to perhaps a very comfortable retirement, it becomes obvious that the army was the microcosm of the Roman state.

The soldier, in the absence of any other, was the agent of the state who could be deployed as tax-collector, policeman, fireman, road builder, structural engineer, hydraulic engineer, mining expert, explorer, and in many other non-military tasks, while still defending the Empire.

All this required the army to create an efficient bureaucracy and achieve a high standard of literacy and organisational skill that would be unsurpassed until the modern era. A substantial number of the Roman Army’s monumental works still stand, of course, much to the delight of the modern antiquarian.

From mud huts to global empire

For most readers, an enthralling question is how an unknown people living in a collection of mud huts, grouped on seven hillocks, surrounded by a malaria swamp on the east bank of the Tiber, managed to conquer most of the ancient world.

The author tells us that the historian Florus, writing in the early 2nd century AD, put it down to the fact that the Republic had been almost continually at war for centuries. The doors of the Temple of Janus were symbolically closed only twice to announce peace in the years before 29 BC, the arrival of Octavian and the establishment of the imperial system.

The driving ideals that made it all possible were Virtus et Fortuna, ‘Valour and Fortune’. An anonymous late 4thcentury poet went even further, stating that ‘a protracted and oppressive peace is the ruin of Romulus’ people’. This, as the author correctly states, was the cultural backdrop of every Roman soldier’s life, and goes far to explain their phenomenal success.

Every aspect of the soldier’s life is explored in detail, starting with the recruitment process, where it was his legal status that determined whether he served in the citizen legions, or the non-citizen auxiliaries. The rigorous training that won the admiration of otherwise hostile observers produced an army unequalled in close-quarters battle, using the lethal gladius Hispaniensis – the ‘gladius’ of the title – a short stabbing/slashing sword, ideal for the ‘thrust of steel into unprotected groin’.

The monotonous garrison life served on the frontiers of the Empire – the fate of most of the army – is discussed in depth. Normally this was ameliorated by living in a relatively comfortable, hygienic, fortified barracks, with civilian distractions close at hand. The boredom and tedium, axiomatic to such a life, was more than compensated for by reasonable rates of pay, which became astonishingly generous for middle and senior ranks, together with an unprecedented retirement grant that equalled 13 years gross pay for the ordinary legionary after 25 years’ service.

Nor is the soldier’s personal life – religious practice, relations with women, the raising of children, and more – neglected. Officially, marriage was forbidden (at least until the early 3rd century AD), but gravestone evidence indicates that illicit unions were commonplace and obviously tolerated.

Gladius is not, however, a eulogy, and the author is correctly scathing of the violent, mutinous behaviour that occasionally erupted in the early days of the Principate and became lethally endemic by the mid 3rd century AD, nearly destroying the Empire in the process.

A chapter is also devoted to major Roman defeats; most are well known, but the inclusion of the defeat of XII Fulminata at Beth-horon in AD 66 seems odd when the far more serious, near contemporary Batavian Revolt, which led to the destruction of at least two legions, receives only brief mention; major defeats by, say, the Sassanians are ignored too.

This book comes with an excellent collection of perfectly reproduced, apposite colour illustrations. The map of the Roman world is adequate. The detailed plans of a legionary ‘fortress’ (Inchtuhill) and an auxiliary fort (Wallsend) are very good. The notes are clear and copious, and essential in a work such as this. The index is thorough and helpfully subdivided into names, places, and general. (Curiously, although both Christ and (St) Paul are mentioned in the text, they have both been expunged from the index.)

For those ‘geeks’ who delight in unearthing trivial errors, there are a few. For example, was Valens the ‘first Roman emperor to be killed in battle by a barbarian force’? I would have thought that honour went to Decius, more than a century earlier.

However, none of this in any way diminishes what is a really splendid book that brings to life in its scholarship and animated style the lives of some of the most remarkable soldiers the world has ever seen.

Review by Mark Corby

This is an article from the April/May 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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