Category Archives: Reviews

A Guide to the History of the Legions of the Roman Army

Book Review – The Complete Roman Legions

The Complete Roman Legions

Rome’s Army and its famous elite Legions are one of the best known aspects of the Republic and Empire that had such an influence on our history. The Legions were units of well trained, well armoured and well-disciplined fighting men, who helped to create and to defend the Republic and Empire of Rome over many centuries. The Complete Roman Legions, by Nigel Pollard and Joanne Berry, published by Thames and Hudson, provides an excellent introduction to the current state of our knowledge of the Roman Legions.

The introduction to the book gives an excellent explanation of what the Legions were and how they developed over time. While the Legions were not the only soldiers employed in the Roman armies, they were the best organised and equipped, enjoying considerable privileges as elite professional soldiers. After introducing the history of the Legions from the earliest Republic and their expansion as an instrument of politics and civil war, the book gives a narrative history of each Legion, based on historical and archaeological evidence.

Reading the long series of descriptions of the origin, bases and major battles of each Legion, it is difficult not to be impressed by the scale and complexity of the organisation of the Roman Army. One of many interesting aspects revealed by the book is the career path of Legionary Centurions, who appear to have been recruited from a higher social class than ordinary soldiers and were regularly transferred to serve in different and unrelated Legions as a junior officer class with a high status and considerable authority in military and civilian life. The last two chapters of the book give a brief account of the changes to the organisation of the Legions in the later Roman period and their often obscure later histories, involving surprising continuities, occasional disappearances and in most cases an unrecorded end after some centuries of existence.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book are the sub texts that raise questions that are left unanswered even by such a carefully laid out and well-illustrated work as this is. There is little in the book about the day to day organisation and communication between the Legions and the political and military authorities of the Empire. The involvement of the Legions in civil wars in support of one or another aspirant to the Imperial power must have challenged loyalties and ultimately the coherence of the military system. In setting out such a comprehensive list of the known facts about the Legions of Rome, the book ultimately lays bare the limits of our knowledge of the full history of the Legions as part of the story of Rome. Of the Roman Legions in the 4th and 5th century very little appears to be known, or represented in historical texts and archaeological evidence. One of the real problems for this late Antique period is tracing the transition to the new forms of political and social structures that emerge from the Roman Empire in the Early Roman period. The absence of evidence for the decline of one of the dominant institutions of the Roman period is clearly a major issue in this historical problem. Perhaps one answer lies in the strength of the evidence for the organisation of the Legions in the period from the 1st to the late 3rd century when the iconography and history of the Roman Legion is most familiar to us from contemporary culture.

The forts, weapons and armour of Legionary are all well attested in contemporary evidence, most strikingly illustrated in the carved tombstones of Legionaries that record both career histories but also express genuine affection from family members who are often also serving soldiers and from comrades. The establishment of many of the Legions in permanent fortified bases, which became towns and cities as generations of Legionaries served, settled and even provided the next phase of recruits to their home unit over spans of centuries. The narratives for each Legion in this book suggest that the sheer longevity and organisational sophistication of the Army meant that the units as a component of the community, the root and driving force of community formation not an alien force imposed on it. This is surely a fruitful line of enquiry into the whole structure and functioning of the Roman Empire, which has often been viewed as a coherent super-state, whose armies have been seen as mobile and capably of being disposed to any region or struggle that occurred within its boundaries. The Army also appears in conventional narratives to be rootless and fickle, lending its support here and there to one usurper or another without any sense of what this meant in practice to their organisation, supply and recruitment in the long term.

From this book we can see that the Legions evolved into a network of strong regional forces who lent detachments of their men to the causes they supported but remained rooted in their home bases where they derived their strength and a local and increasingly hereditary supply of recruits. Eventually the close integration of the Legionary system into the evolving Empire required a re-organisation to provide precisely the sort of mobile and rootless forces that the fragmenting Empire and its warlords required and the old system was superseded, living on only in the occasional continuity of unit names, given to much smaller and radically differently organised forces. These existed among units with titles that reflect the ad-hoc recruitment for the partisan support of various usurpers, break away Empires and units recruited from the leaking borders of the Empire.

The Complete Roman Legions - inside the book
The Complete Roman Legions – inside the book

The book is in a large format (review is of the hard back version) with 224 pages and contains tabulated information inserted within the text as well as excellent block sections with supplementary information and it has many good colour illustrations (212 illustration, 204 in colour). There is a useful glossary, a comprehensive guide to further detailed reading and it is well indexed.

This is a well-produced volume which is essential as a basic guide to the structure and historical development of the Legions of Rome which would suit a general reader as well as a specialist looking for a handbook to the data and sources for regions which are perhaps less familiar. As a general guide to the Roman Legions it would be an essential book for anyone studying the period, or with a general interest in this significant aspect of a Roman past we all share.

GM  26.05.14

Understanding Anglo-Saxon ideas about life and death

Book review – Signals of Belief in Early England

An interesting collection of studies has been added to the Anglo-Saxon section of the Trust’s archaeological library.

Cover of the book Signals of Belief
Signals of Belief

Edited by professor Martin Carver, Alex Sanmark and Sarah Semple, Signalsof Belief explores the history and character of ‘pagan’ Anglo-Saxon belief before and after Christian ideas began to spread after Augustine’s mission to covert the English arrived in 597 AD, The subject is significant to the archaeology of Thanet because of the number of important Anglo-Saxon cemeteries located on our chalk downland landscape. The Island would have been an important cultural community, linking the ideas of the people of north Germany and Scandinavia with what remained of the Roman world in Britain and on the continent.

Of course, Augustine’s mission sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was one of the most significant events in the story of ideas and beliefs in the Anglo-Saxon period and, the 8th century historian Bede tells us, the first connections between the two cultures took place somewhere in Thanet.
Although Bede gives us a general account of the progress of Christian ideas through the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms based on contemporary accounts, starting with the great King of Kent Aethelbert, we know little more than hints and glimpses of the beliefs held by the Anglo-Saxon people Augustine met.

What were their beliefs about life and death and what lay beyond the material world that held before the ideas of Christianity entered the culture so strongly? It is hard to discover because little pre-Christian written evidence survives that allows us to enter the minds of the people, and we can only examine the possible answers from the records left by observers from the outside.

In eight essays, Signals of Belief examines the hints given by contemporary Christian observers of the culture they met with in England and the clues that can be extracted from archaeological evidence and contemporary artistic representation. The essays look at the light that can be cast by poetry and other literary works and later documentation that discusses the beliefs of people of the German and Scandinavian lands where the Saxon English drew part of their ancestry. However most of this literary evidence all comes from a later period and has to be distilled by the writers into themes that they try to recognise in the early Saxon culture that are revealed by archaeological studies of the art and artefacts of the Anglo-Saxons.

There are attempts in some essays to take the hints and fit them with anthropological understandings of Shamanism and magical practise of some of the people of Scandinavia and Siberia. The book contains a useful discussion of how the ideas of Historians and archaeologists about the date and nature of Anglo-Saxons has developed over time, from the 16th to the 20th century, as they realised that the period after the Roman Empire and before the better known history of the later Medieval period had to be examined and researched using new ideas on the lifestyles and beliefs of the period.

Some of these attempts at projection, and conjectural reconstruction, are more convincing than others. A few pieces use a complicated style of language to say some fairly simple things; the Saxons used Horse imagery extensively; their halls may have had a religious as well as political role; they believed that all the things around them had some form of spiritual character. However some of the signals are louder than others, it is striking and important to Thanet’s archaeological and historical record that the ancient burial mounds of prehistory remained significant places to the Anglo-Saxons. However, a later writer warns that some of the anthropological ideas applied to the problem are spread so thinly as to have lost their significance.

In an afterword, the well-known historian of cultural beliefs Ronald Hutton warns that while the essays point the way to undertstanding the beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons, without new evidence we can never really know the internal world of their ideas. Using a telling analogy he compares the search to trying to find out the contents of a tin with no label. The discussions in the book are edging closer to a better description of the size and shape of the container, which could tell us something about the contents, but we do not have the tools to open the tin and really get to the inner contents. A lesson that applies to many historical periods that are known only through archaeological remains.

This book is not an easy read, the academic style of some of the pieces is quite dense, but it is an essential work for anyone who wants to explore in depth the inner life of the one of the population of one of the most important periods represented in Thanet’s archaeological record. Despite the dense texture the content is though provoking and stimulating and worth working through.

Image of the contents page of the book
Contents page of Signals of Belief

In the foreword Professor Martin Carver provides a coherent summary of the problems of understanding Anglo-Saxon mentalities from archaeological data and a good overview of the ideas that might lead to solutions, as well as adding insightful comments of his own. Ronald Hutton’s afterword brackets the essays with his warning on the potential limits of our knowledge and the potential of the research which is a sobering round off to the wide ranging content of the book.

Carver, M., Sanmark A., Semple S. (eds), 2010. Signals of Belief in Early England, Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited. Oxbow Books. Oxford.


Reading more about Anglo-Saxon Thanet

There’s a useful overview of Thanet’s Anglo-Saxon archaeology on our Virtual Museum website and wider overview in Ges Moody’s book The Isle of Thanet from Prehistory to the Norman Conquest. The landing of Augustine in Thanet and the effect on the contemporary Anglo-Saxon culture of Thanet is dealt with in depth in St Augustine’s First Footfall, also by Ges Moody and published by the Trust for Thanet Archaeology.