Book Review: Gladius: The World of the Roman Soldier


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 ladoyère’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 ladoyère manages to introduce us to hundreds of them, and sometimes to their kinfolk, wives, and children as well.

De ladoyère 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.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close