Glimpses of Modernity: Stephen Dando-Collins’s Legions of Rome

Dando-Collins, Stephen. Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of Every Imperial Roman Legion. New York: St. Martin’s 2010.

I’ve had my eye on this book for a long, long time. As early as high school, I’d noticed this cover on the shelves at my local Barnes & Noble, the grim visage of a Roman legionnaire staring out at me. It was enough to make this amateur ancient historian’s knees week: a history of every individual Roman legion? Sign me up! Other things always seemed more pressing, however, especially considering Legions of Rome’s price tag, but I finally nabbed it this past summer and eagerly devoured it, page by oversized page. In so doing, I discovered a book that was both more than and exactly what I’d expected.

Legions of Rome is a book unlike any other I’ve before encountered. While its first section is a fairly standard overview of Roman arms, armor, organization, and practices, and its final third a slightly-more-detailed recounting of the campaigns of the high Imperial era, its middle section is what you come for: the history of every individual Imperial legion, complete with date of founding, shield art, astrological sign, famous commanders; you name it, if we can verify it in the sources, it’s in there. The Roman legions after the Marian Reforms of the first century BC constituted arguably the first professional army in history, and it shows in these treatments. One is put in mind of reading the more extensive unit histories of Civil War or First World War regiments, and while in this case we don’t have the words of the soldiers themselves, you can easily imagine the pride or ignominy each legion’s record would have inspired in its members and its enemies.

More impressive to me than these unit histories, however, was Dando-Collins’ insight into serious ancient historiography. As alluded to above, Legions of Rome dispels the myth many of its readers, myself included, likely held: that all Roman legionnaire shields sported the twin thunderbolts of the god Jupiter. In fact, these were solely the domain of the Preatorian Guard, but modern authors took it as ubiquitous due to its use on Trajan’s Column (for which Praetorians served as sculpture models). Other fascinating debates include the origins of part of the legions’ numbering system and the fate of the IX Hispana Legion in the north of Britain. This is the kind of history one usually does not encounter in such popular military history, but unfortunately, Dando-Collins attempts to go even further only pull him back in line with his less-than-academic focus. In an audacious bit of logic, Legions of Rome claims that the health of the Empire mirrored the health of its legions, and that Constantine’s Late Antique reforms not only rendered the legions unrecognizable from their Imperial predecessors but also irreversibly compromised their integrity, leading to the ultimate doom of Rome. This claim is something more at home in the historiography of decades or even a century ago. It fails to account for the demographic, social, and economic factors that made those reforms necessary, looking at history with the tunnel vision only old-style military historians can.

Despite some of its erroneous preoccupations, Legions of Rome is on the whole engaging reading for students of the ancient world and military history more generally. It may not say anything particularly new or groundbreaking about its subject matter, but it will certainly illuminate details of Roman history seldom found elsewhere, and perhaps show you a glimpse of the similarities between that bygone empire and our own time.

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