- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

By Stephen Dando-Collins
John Wiley & Sons, $24.95, 300 pages, maps

It has been said, more conversationally than seriously, that most of us are by temperament either Roman or Greek the former valuing civic discipline, social order and authority, the latter more inclined toward freedom, creativity and governance tending toward the libertarian. The schema does not bear close examination, to be sure. But for those who lean to the Roman model, even if they remember not much more than "Veni, vidi, vici" from high-school Latin, Stephen Dando-Collins's "Caesar's Legion" will be absorbing.
The 10th Legion Legio X was "certainly the most famous legion in the first centuries B.C. and A.D.," writes Mr. Dando-Collins, an Australian researcher, editor and author. He has had a "near obsession" with Roman military history, the publisher informs, and the book involved 28 years of research and two of writing.
The author's sources begin with Julius Caesar himself, who was prolific memoirs, letters, voluminous reports to Rome and, of course, his histories of his own campaigns. Mr. Dando-Collins records that Caesar often kept two secretaries busy at the same time, even dictating when riding in his chariot as the poor wretch on duty scribbled while hanging on.
Polybius, Plutarch and Tacitus are the principal historians; Appian, Suetonius and Cassius Dio are less reliable but useful for Mr. Dando-Collins in tracking the legions of the period. Then there is Josephus, the Jewish turncoat, as well as the Acts of the Apostles (St. Paul likely was escorted to Rome after his arrest by a centurion from the 3rd Augusta Legion, the author deduces). The book's maps are excellent, critical in a history such as this.
Military history is the muscle of this book, with enough political sinews to give it coherence. Dozens of savage battles are recounted in exacting detail, such as the climatic clash of Pharsalus, a close-run thing which ended the long contest for power in Caesar's favor over his intense rival Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus Pompey the Great.
Casear, in the spring of 61 B.C., was appointed governor of Baetica in what was known as Farther Spain. At 37, he was both ambitious and impatient. The 10th Legion was enrolled under his personal direction and would fight under his command in what are now Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Albania, North Africa and Britain. It would also mutiny once, during the civil war with Pompey, an episode that Caesar neatly elided in his history of campaigning.
After Caesar's murder, the 10th would fight for Mark Antony and Augustus, crush the Jewish Revolt for Vespasian, take the Temple at Jerusalem for Titus, and conquer Masada.
The illustrious history began that spring of 61 B.C. with recruits from across the province, encompassing roughly what is now Andalusia. Mr. Dando-Collins on one point is not as clear as he might be. He uses both "recruitment" and "conscription" which are not synonyms. In the later years of empire, there were apparently draftees in Roman armies. However, most of the grunts were volunteers; one of the strengths of Rome is that they were composed of free men under the inclusive citizenship that was one of Rome's abiding legacies to Western civilization.
For its emblem, Legio X chose the bull, a popular Spanish symbol then as now, and it would appear on every shield. Enlistment was for 16 years (extended to 20 under Augustus). Each soldier was paid an annual salary and promised a grant of land at the end of his tour, and there was a criterion by which legionaires shared in plunder.
In what would become the standard Table of Organization, in present terms, a legion contained six tribunes, in their late teens and 20s ranking as colonels, in the author's comparison to today's ranks. The tribunes were from wealthy and respectable Roman families, writes Mr. Dando-Collins, members of the Equestrian class, an order of knights ranking only below that of senators. It would take at least a decade for the best of young men to learn their demanding trade and advance to senior tribune.
There were 60 centurions in each legion one "primus pilus," or chief centurion, and 59 others in eleven grades. Centurions were promoted from the ranks. They were distinguished by wearing their swords on the left hip and by a transverse crest, rather than fore and aft, on their helmets, which made them obvious targets for enemies.
New legionaires were divided into "contubernium," or squads of eight men; ten squads constituted a century, two centuries forming a "maniple," the rough equal of a contemporary company, of 160 men. Three maniples formed a "cohort," or battalion, of 480 legionaires. In Caesar's time, the 10thLegion contained 10 cohorts of 600 men each, under its venerated eagle standard.
These were small men, averaging only 5 feet 4 inches in height, their diet based upon bread. Daily routine included weapons and formation drill. Discipline was ferocious, with death the penalty for ever being without one's sword belt, for instance. The legionaires were capable of marching 25 miles a day with a pack weighing up to 100 pounds and then, in the field, nightly constructing a fortified camp, walled and ditched. Engineering was no small part of the success of Roman arms, and Caesar was an engineering "genius," in the author's opinion, as well as a crafty tactician.
The legionaires' arms consisted of a stout rectangular shield, a javelin, and a sword with both blades sharpened and a lethally pointed tip, effective for slashing and jabbing. The javelin had been ingeniously improved over the years with soft metal behind the spearhead. "Once the javelin struck anything, the weight of the shaft caused it to bend like a hockey stick where shaft and head joined," and this prevented it from being thrown or made it difficult to remove from a shield (or body).
After a year in Spain, Caesar returned to Rome to become a consul. Three years later, now governor of Cisalpine and Transapline Gaul and Illyricum, Caesar ordered the 10th Legion to join him as he began his fabled Gallic wars a series of campaigns that would lead him across the Rubicon to become Dictator of Rome, engage in the vicious civil war against Pompey the Great, and to assassination on the Ides of March 44 B.C. as every schoolboy knows.
The long campaign against the Gallic tribes was brutal. Crossing the Rhine against the Seubi tribe, Caesar waged a scorched earth strategy: "Every living thing was tracked down and either killed or captured … every village, every farmhouse … was burned to the ground." On occasion, to make the grisly point that resistance to Rome was futile, both hands of every captive were sliced off. Tacitus' observation of Roman warfare is instructive, that "they make a wilderness and called it peace."
The 10th Legion survived on active service until the 7th Century A.D. when, serving under Byzantine emperor Heraclius, it was obliterated by Muslim invaders.
Mr. Bando-Collins' decades-long immersion in the history of the Roman legions leads him to think about the present. Of the troopers of Legio X, he writes, "In many ways they were not unlike us. But one wonders if we today could even begin to do what they did, to endure what they endured, to achieve what they achieved."

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times

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