Legionary: The Roman Soldier's (Unofficial) Manual - Philip Matyszak image

Legionaries is a light-hearted (?) look at the life and times of a Roman soldier c. AD 100, when Rome was at the height of its power and the legions were at the height of their professionalism, couched as a guidebook about what to expect for the next 25 years of the new recruit’s life.

I’ve been a student of Roman history since I was a kid and saw 8 mm movies in class about the pax Romana or TV movies like Masada so the broad outlines of its military history were familiar enough but it’s fascinating to learn about the details, gleaned from close reading of the surviving histories and archaeological evidence.

The Roman army was an extraordinarily professional and modern-looking instrument of mass destruction. An aspect of legionary service Matyszak tends to downplay in passages like this (describing the aftermath of a siege):

“Ghastly things happen during the sack of a city, but a wise general will let it go on for hours, or even days, before he calls his troops back to heel – not least because there is a good chance that no one will listen to him if he tries to do it sooner.” (p. 164)


The ethically conscious part of my soul found such dismissiveness distressing and distracting.

But as a description of life in the imperial armies for the general reader, Legionaries is well written, accessible and easy to read.

Some scattered observations:

Prospective legionaries had to be “persons of good character” (to quote Sarek from ST:IV) – no criminal record – and had to carry letters of recommendation. These requirements lapsed in latter decades as the empire’s military situation deteriorated; much like a certain modern superpower that finds itself desperately fighting a number of simultaneous wars.

Even more important than a sharp sword and well oiled armor was footwear. Legionaries marched – a lot. Forty miles in 12 hours is the standard pace (in full kit).

I think it says a great deal that the prospect of serving 25 years with little expectation of promotion or wealth, brutal discipline, and mind-numbing routine looked attractive to young Roman citizens.

Romans were fiends for bureaucratic detail: “The paperwork of a legion is managed with meticulous attention surpassing that of the corn commissioners or civil bookkeeping. Orders, military duties and finances are carefully entered every day…. To prevent too many duties falling unfairly on any man, and to prevent others getting off too lightly, the duties of each man are entered in the records, as also happens when he is granted leave, and for how long.” (From Vegetius’ Military Matters 2.19)

“A legion on the march needs about 18,000 pounds of grain per day, 12,000 gallons of water, and 40,000 pounds of forage for horses, oxen and pack animals.” (p. 148)

conscribe te militem in legionibus, pervagare orbem terrarum, inveni terras externas, cognosce miros peregrinos, eviscera eos

sunt milites veteres, sunt milites audaces, non sunt milites veteres atque audaces