“The Original Imperial Stormtroopers”
Ancient Rome remains my favorite area of study. I have twenty-odd books about the Republic and Empire, both seasons of HBO’s Rome, and five computer strategy games that allow players to build and expand the Roman Empire as they see fit–demonstrating that Rome can be built in a day, or even with just a few clicks of a mouse button. There are so many facets of the people and their history that I find fascinating on many levels. From the early days of the SPQR to the fall of the Western Empire, I continue to regularly study and enjoy the Romans and the stamp they left on three continents.
Years ago, I got to house-sit for my aunt and uncle, with their ginormous entertainment system, during a week when the History Channel was having a week-long series of specials on the Romans. That was a good week for me. I missed the special they did on the Roman navy, unfortunately, but got to see some neat programs about Roman daily life and their numerous marvels of engineering. I particularly loved the specials they had on the Colosseum and the Pantheon. I didn’t care as much for the special on Roman vice–the fact that the Romans may have invented condoms was kind of interesting, but I wasn’t particularly interested in learning about what a bunch of dirty old men some of the emperors were.
But I think the program I enjoyed the most was the special they did on Trajan’s armies during the Dacian Wars. I believe the term the narrator used was the ‘original Imperial Stormtroopers’–which, as a long-time Star Wars fan, tickled me to no end. The legionaries are just fun to study, all around. He kept calling them boots, grunts, and squaddies, which, for me, helped paint a picture of the legionaries as just regular fighting-men, rather than the soulless, ethnocentric butchers that twentieth-century anti-imperialist scholarship tends to portray them as. The program drew other effective comparisons, equating the extensive legionary training with that of the British Special Forces.
I recall one discrepancy from that video that bothered me for several years, however. At one point the narrator stated that the average height of legionaries in Trajan’s army was close to six-feet tall. This baffled me because I remembered from high school history classes that the Romans were a relatively short people. I’d assumed initially that my high school text book was wrong and moved on. A couple years later, I had the opportunity to finally sit down and read Caesar’s Commentaries and was given pause by Julius’s comment that the Gauls called the Romans ‘pigmy soldiers.’ Naturally, I wasn’t dense enough to assume that the Gauls were so monstrously tall that six-feet is ‘pigmy’ to them. Eventually, I figured out that by Trajan’s time a large percentage of the legionaries were Gauls. Thus it made sense that they’d be at least as tall as the Dacian warriors they were fighting.
Contrary to what Edward Gibbon would have readers think, the late-era legionaries were about as bad of dudes as Roman soldiers had ever been, even up to the eventual fall of the Western Empire. (Though that’s hardly the worst of Gibbon’s crimes against history. Eddy-boy needs a good, hard kick to the stones for some of the misinformation he popularized.) And, to be fair, the literary evidence from the late Empire suggests high levels of sloppy barbarism in the frontier legions. The physical evidence, however, suggests differently. Modern archeological excavations, such as camp layouts, equipment remains, and quartermaster records indicate that the legions of the late Empire were just as disciplined, well-trained, and well-equipped as those of Augustus’s time. So, what makes up for the disparity between the literary and archeological evidence? Modern scholars such as Adrian Goldsworthy point out that, while most educated noblemen from Caesar’s era spent time in the legions as officers, by the later days of the Empire, the disconnect between civilians and the military was so great that it was extremely rare for those of the aristocracy to have ever even seen an army camp. Thus to the chroniclers of the late era, knowing virtually nothing of military life and service, these dirty, long-haired, bearded legionaries on the frontiers must have appeared as a devolution from the splendid, polished legions described in the histories from the height of the Empire.
Were the Roman legionaries the baddest warriors in history? Who the hell knows? I think you could make a good argument that they are. But I think good arguments could also be made for the Vikings or the Teutonic Knights or the Cossacks or the Spartans or the Mongols or the Apache. The argument isn’t ‘who would win in a fight between X versus Y?’ but ‘what did X and Y do with the hand history dealt them?’ The Roman legionaries took the hand they were given and used it to conquer the entire world from the Scottish Lowlands in the north to Numidia in the south and from Spain in the west to Syria in the east.
I’d say that counts for a lot.
Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars, by Caius Julius Caesar
Legionary: the Roman Soldier’s Unofficial Manual, by Philip Matyszak
In the Name of Rome: the Men Who Won the Roman Empire, by Adrian Goldsworthy
Rome at War: Caesar and his Legacy, by Kate Gilliver, Adrian Goldsworthy, and Michael Whitby
Roman Warfare, by Adrian Goldsworthy