British Museum Press (2024) h/b 320pp £45 (ISBN 9780714122939)
Richard Abdy is the Curator, Roman and Iron Age coins, at the British Museum and has previously written extensively about that subject. This book has been written to accompany the current exhibition with the same title at the British Museum. This is not a review of the exhibition, but the reviewer has paid that a visit in order to understand the context in which this book has been written.
A. aims to give a comprehensive overview of the life of the ordinary soldier in the professional standing army maintained by the Roman state from Augustus to about AD 300. In arranging this synthesis, he has drawn information from a wide range of experts as listed in the Introduction.
The account is cast in eight sections, broadly in the same order as that in which one progresses round the exhibition: enlistment; the archaeological evidence from the bodies of soldiers; ranks and pay; promotion in the service; uniforms and weaponry; life in encampments and on the move; life in forts; life in retirement and other contacts with civil society.
While all the items displayed in the Exhibition are referenced in the texts, the information imparted in the book goes far wider. The description of the complicated organisation and pay scales of each element of the standing army—legions, auxiliaries (cavalry, infantry and marines) is a case in point. The measured progress of a centurion (often moving between legions in the process) from the lowly cohorts of the hastati to the primus pilus (Regimental Sergeant Major) is another.
Where feasible, A. prefers to explain the detail with reference to particular individuals. Thus the letters of two men who enlisted from Egypt and whose letters have survived (Apion and Terentianus) make several appearances as does the correspondence between the ladies in Vindolanda. His style is splendidly direct, clear and jargon free, although there is an occasional nod towards the current professional bête noirs—the Roman state is frequently ‘plutocratic’ and Tacitus is arrogant, racist and misogynistic. There is no discussion of academic differences of opinion, but the notes indicate where to locate the competing views.
There are a few gaps in the coverage. There is no mention of the cultic (e.g. Mithraic) habits of the legionaries. There is little coverage of the higher command (although we are told that centurions might retire to become equites) but this is perhaps understandable because the focus is on the ordinary soldier.
More surprising is that, while there is much information about what the army did when it was not fighting, there is very little reference to the actual business of fighting itself—how the Roman Army obtained and retained its formidable reputation as a fighting force. You get little guidance from the text as to whether this reputation derived from superior courage, better training and technique, better tactics, or better leadership. The closest one gets to real fighting are the relatively few pages describing how awards for meritorious service were made. One might of course seek to justify this imbalance by observing that any standing army experiences at least 90% boredom or contrived occupation compared with 10% actual action.
As might be expected the production values are superb. Virtually everything that is on display in the exhibition features as an illustration in the book and is comprehensively captioned, plus many more. There is one very clear map of where the various legions were stationed at the Empire’s peak; a short glossary and bibliography; and 18 pages of notes, which mainly identify sources.
Overall, this book is to be much welcomed. If you read it before you visit the Exhibition your appreciation of the displays will be greatly enhanced. Even if you never go to the exhibition but are interested as a non-specialist reader or an undergraduate student in what made the Roman army tick you are unlikely to find a clearer or more comprehensive account. It is rather pricey as a hard back but the paperback version at £30 is better value. Both the book and the Exhibition are commended to the followers of Classics for All.