Book Review: Roman Army Units in the Western Provinces (1).

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Paperback: 48 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (16 Jun. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472815378
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Roman-Army-Units-Western-Provinces/dp/1472815378
So apart from the catchy title what does this book offer the Roman Army enthusiast and student? Men-At-Arms books focus of organisation and equipment, so that’s a given. Yet one may ask do we not already know what Roman troops looked like in the 1st Century AD? The answer would be yes, basically, but the study of Roman military equipment is subject to changing perceptions as the result of exhaustive academic and archeological study.
It wasn’t so long ago that Peter Connelly’s depiction of ring mail clad Caesarean legionaries was viewed as radical. What has transpired over the last century of study is to present an archetypal legionary and auxiliary. But what many see as the last word is really the beginning. Since the early 2,000’s historians have been slowly introducing a non uniform Roman army that many find unpalatable to think about.
There is a gravitational pull from the upper end of the atmosphere of academia to the popular reading public. Years of work and research by scholars and archeologists takes years of critical analysis and peer review to make it into accepted thought, from where an author can feel secure enough to publish. Essentially it takes an extended time to sieve down to general readers and enthusiasts, through the academic colander, and that means there are large gaps, as serried chunks of information is passed down. It’s not just history, but it affects the field. Therefore right now people who grew up with a set image of a Roman soldier are being challenged to accept the new evidence that is now arriving to say, actually they looked like this.

Raffaele D’Amato fresh from giving us his excellent New Vanguard series on the Roman Navy brings his sharp eye, clear writing and eye for detail to the Roman army. Arguing that instead of looking for a uniform army of men wearing cloned armour, we should look at the appearance of the legionary in a much more complex, fluid and geo-cultural way. In a nutshell the Roman army, though indeed mass producing equipment to an extent, made allowances for regional and national variances, especially in locally raised troops and auxiliaries or in those units long stationed in a given place.
The concept of a uniform, the author notes, doesn’t factor into the logic of the Roman army any more than it did the Greeks. Men equipped alike and trained alike was enough, but that is only a guideline, as one helmet pattern was phased out over a decade for a better model, and so on with shields, swords and armour. If you think how in a 20 year period between 1798 to 1815 the British army went through two major changes of uniform and equipment change, while engaged in a major war (and to this day provokes debate about when and how), it doesn’t seem all to strange to think the Romans didn’t also work this way.
Accompanying the text are many illustrations to back up the text, which although making its point, boils down, due to space constraints on a huge subject, to a list of archeological artefacts divided by province and region to present the case. At the heart of the book is the illustrations, expertly rendered by Raffaele Ruggeri, and show a familiar but different Roman army than we are used to. I loved that they included a reconstruction of the Auxiliary officer statue from Vachéres, probably my all time favourite military carving from this period. However I was a little surprised to see that the plates themselves no longer include any identifier on the image page save for a number reference to correlate in the plate commentary at the back.

It is a subject that deserves more space, and the MAA format just about carries it without creaking. The two Raffaele’s have done an admirable job in showing a glimpse at an increasingly mature and complex Roman army, and I think it’s about time.

Josh.

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