“It is not the story as it was — but as it ought to have been.” So wrote the late David Gemmell in the foreword to Ghost King (1988), an Arthurian fantasy. Despite being set in sub-Roman Britain, the Ninth Legion plays an active role in Ghost King and its sequel, Last Sword of Power. Novelists can get away with that sort of thing.

Some readers may be aware of my admiration for the works of David Gemmell. I dedicated For the Glory of Rome to him, and credit him with igniting my interest in the Roman army. …

In Julius Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars centurions personify valour, endurance and loyalty. The deeds of Pullo and Vorenus, Scaeva, Crastinus, and, above all, Baculus have ensured that the Caesarian centurion is celebrated as the archetypal Roman warrior. Baculus held the line against the Nervii at the Sabis, until his many wounds caused him to collapse (57 BC). At Octodurus, Baculus led the sortie that broke the besieging army of Gauls (56 BC), and he rose from his sick bed to defend the ramparts of Aduatuca from German attackers (53 BC). …

The Roman army is often described as a ‘military machine’, but the Romans were not automatons and it took little for them to morph from disciplined soldiers into wild warriors. The Romans’ penchant for single combat, their habit of taking heads and scalps in battle, and their not infrequent bouts of indiscipline and berserk behaviour amply demonstrate their warrior credentials.

Roman centurion in combat. The Portonaccio Battle Sarcophagus https://www.flickr.com/photos/181953945@N04/50911880097
Roman centurion in combat. Portonaccio Battle Sarcophagus, c. AD 180. https://www.flickr.com/photos/181953945@N04/50911880097

A Military Machine?

The complex organisation of the Roman army, its multiplicity of specialist ranks and functions, rigorous training and, above all, its success in war, has resulted in it often being described as a ‘military machine’. …

Ross Cowan

Author of ten books and numerous articles about Roman warfare.

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