by Guy de la Bédoyère
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. Pp. xx, 506+.
Illus., maps, tables, appends., notes, biblio., index. $30.00. ISBN: 022675023X
In the Ranks with Miles Gloriosus
There are innumerable books about the Roman army and Roman warfare, but in Gladius, British historian de la Bédoyère, author of Praetorians, Defying Rome, and many other works, gives us a very thorough look at a surprisingly neglected subject, the life and service of the Roman soldier. While he touches on some matters from the earliest days of the Republic through to the end of the Empire, de la Bédoyère concentrates on the roughly 500 years from the Punic Wars through the onset of the “Crisis of the Third Century” (264 B.C. through A.D. 238).
Following an introduction, each of de la Bédoyère’s fifteen chapters covers a particular aspect of the soldier’s life, such as “Strength and Honour – Signing on in Caesar’s Army”, “Gold and Silver – Pay, Handouts, and Bequests”, “I Came, I Saw, I Conquered – The Roman War Machine Victorious”, “Living by the Sword – Violence and Atrocities”, “Wives and Lovers – Family Life on the Frontier”, “Jupiter’s Men – Religion and Superstition”, and so forth, including the experience of defeat, naval service, engineering, retirement, and more. Each of these helps us better understand how the individual soldier – who could come from literally any part of the empire and find himself serving literally thousands of miles from his native province -- experienced life, service, victory or defeat, and even death during his time in the ranks. In the process, de la Bédoyère manages to introduce us to hundreds of them, and sometimes to their kinfolk, wives, and children as well.
De la Bédoyère naturally draws evidence from surviving ancient literature, including histories, military handbooks, legislation, and judicial decisions, even poetry and theatre. But he also makes extensive use of an impressive number of inscriptions and dedications on tombs and other monuments, graffiti, even names scratched on equipment to indicate ownership. At times these help de la Bédoyère in tracing the service of a particular soldier by connecting the dots, as it were, and he even identifies artifacts confirming the service of Pliny the Younger and Juvenal.
Well written, Gladius is a necessary work for scholars of Roman history, but will also prove interesting and informative reading for the arm chair historian as well.
Note: Gladius is also available in several e-editions.