Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Review - Soldier of Rome: The Legionary by James Mace

A history resource article by  © 2014

The first book in James Mace's Artorian Chronicles opens during the dramatic final moments of the disastrous ambush in Teutoburger Vald when Germanic tribes under the leadership of one-time Roman auxiliary officer, Arminius, wipe out the 17th, 18th and 19th legions of the first Roman emperor Augustus.  A few desperate survivors struggle through boggy marshes trying to rejoin their unit and defend their last few brethren from sacrifice to the barbarian's blood thirsty gods.

Ambush in Teutoburger Wald courtesy of Total War: Rome II by Creative Assembly
The scene changes and we meet a young Roman boy named Artorius who lives happily on his father's farm near Ostia.  His father, once a Primus Pilus in the legions, was grievously wounded and forced to retire.  But, he takes pride in his older son, Mettelus, who serves with the legions in Germania. Artorius, too, is fiercely proud of his older brother and dreams of joining the legions one day himself.
Then word arrives that Mettelus died heroically saving his Centurion at Teutoburger Vald. Artorius is crushed and vows to take revenge on the Germanic barbarians that took his brother's life.  He trains diligently to strengthen his body so he will be ready to join the legions when he assumes his manly toga.

1909 depiction of the defeat of Arminius' victory at Teutoburger Wald by Otto Albert Koch.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The day finally arrives for Artorius to enlist.  His father has signed the necessary documents and written a letter of introduction.  Artorius reports to the recruiting station in Ostia and soon finds himself on the way to Germania.

As Artorius undergoes training in basic weapons usage and close combat, the reader has the opportunity to learn about the proper handling and deployment of a pilum (Roman javelin), the movements to overcome the longer barabarian swords with the short, stabbing gladius and how the scutum, the distinctive rectangular shield, is maneuvered to batter an opponent or slice an enemy with its edge.

Artorius is also given instruction in the operation of siege weapons like the onager, a type of Roman catapult, and scorpion, a kind of automated cross bow.

The onager allowed the Romans to employ
fairly large projectiles at relatively long range.
It fired not only solid projectiles, but also a form
 of grapeshot made from smaller stones baked
in a clay ball. - Howtobuildcatapults.com


Artorius discovers that a childhood friend, Pontius Pilate, is one of the legion's artillery officers.  I thought that this was interesting as there is little information about Pilate's early military career. However, in the Russian satire, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, it is mentioned that Pontius Pilate fought in Germania during this period.

Mace vividly describes life as a legionary recruit, including their daily chores like  cooking  a breakfast of wheat cakes and bacon, as well as daily visits to the bath house.  Artorius makes friends of the other seven men in his tent and meets his instructors, centurions and commanding officers, so we also learn about their pasts, their motivations and any ambitions they may have.  Mace does an outstanding job of characterization and clearly his own military experience has given him insight into the development of comradery within a fighting unit.

Finally, Artorius is sworn into the Legio XX Valeria Victrix 2nd cohort as a full fledged legionary. But, his comrades and training officers are concerned about his anger over his brother's death and desire for revenge.  This becomes apparent during the first raid on a Germanic village when Artorius wounds a barbarian then, rather than giving the man a quick death, grinds a flaming torch into his face.

As the novel progresses, Artorius' legendary commander, Germanicus, leads the army of the Rhine on a vicious campaign of revenge against the Cherusci, the tribe of the traitor Arminius, as well as their allied tribes.  This campaign historically occurred between 14 and 16 CE.  Mace handles the battle sequences very well and you hear, see and smell combat from the viewpoint of those fighting in the front ranks, both Roman and German.

1st century CE portrait of legendary commander
Germanicus at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.
Image by  © 2009
Artorius also helps recover the remains of the earlier Varian disaster, tracing the final struggle described by a surviving Centurion to his brother, giving his brother proper burial and releasing his shade to eternal rest.

Gravestone of Marcus Caelius, 1st Centurion of the
18th legion killed in Teutoburger Wald at the age
of 53.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The final battle at Idistaviso on the banks of the Weser River was not only riveting but an excellent description of Roman battle tactics employing infantry, cavalry and both types of Roman artillery. Although Tacitus gives us a general outline of the battle, Mace filled in the details quite expertly. Finally, Artorius' desire for revenge is more than sated as the legions slaughter thousands  (10,000-20,000 according to Tacitus).

Mace has obviously done extensive research in preparation for this novel and rarely deviates from the historical record.  One exception I noticed was Artorius kills Arminius' uncle, Inguiomerus, in the final battle of Idistaviso and garners his first silver torq for valor.  But, both Arminius and Inguiomerus escaped the battle of Idistaviso.

Although the famous monument to Arminius in
North Rhine-Wesphalia, Germany depicts the
Cherusci war leader as bearded and mustached,
this portrait bust shows him clean shaven.  If this
bust is properly identified, it may depict Arminius
while he was an auxiliary Roman commander.

Tacitus says, "As for Inguiomerus, who flew hither and thither over the battlefield, it was fortune rather than courage which forsook him." (Tacitus, Book 2.21)

I see how this somewhat vague statement gives Mace an opportunity to interpret Inguiomerus' loss of fortune on the battlefield.  However, as I read Tacitus further I found that Inguiomerus could not have been killed, because Tacitus tells us he later deserted Arminius in a war with Maroboduus, king of the Marcomanni.

"For when the Romans had departed and they were free from the fear of an invader, these tribes, according to the custom of the race, and then specially as rivals in fame, had turned their arms against each other. The strength of the two nations, the valour of their chiefs were equal. But the title of king rendered Maroboduus hated among his countrymen, while Arminius was regarded with favour as the champion of freedom." 
"Thus it was not only the Cherusci and their allies, the old soldiers of Arminius, who took up arms, but even the Semnones and Langobardi from the kingdom of Maroboduus revolted to that chief. With this addition he [Arminius] must have had an overwhelming superiority, had not Inguiomerus deserted with a troop of his dependants to Maroboduus, simply for the reason that the aged uncle scorned to obey a brother's youthful son." - Tacitus, The Annals, Book 2.44-45 
Modern statue of Roman historian Tacitus at
the parliament building in Vienna, Austria.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
However, for the purposes of drama, Mace's choice increased the esteem for the young legionary in the eyes of his comrades (important for subsequent novels) and was not disruptive to the main historical events that occurred in the narrative.

I recommend this novel not only for entertainment but as an excellent introduction to what life was like for a common soldier in the legions (so many other novels are written from the command perspective instead),   I also definitely look forward to reading the other books in this series. That is actually a pretty tall order in itself as James Mace is such a prolific author he has penned twelve books since publishing The Legionary in 2006 and only retired from a full-time career in the U.S. Army National Guard just three years ago.  Although he has now branched out into writing books about the Napoleonic Wars and the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, he has not abandoned ancient Rome entirely and just released book 2 of a new trilogy about the Roman-Jewish War of 66 to 73 CE.