Book Review – Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of every Imperial Roman Legion

Stephen Dando-Collins, Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of every Imperial Roman Legion. New York: St Martin’s Press. 2010. 608 pp.

Stephen Dando-Collins is a well-established author, of both historical and fictional works. This weighty tome is an authoritative and engaging piece of work on the legions.

The title’s boast that the book is definitive is an accurate one. The book is divided into three sections: ‘The Men’, ‘The Legions’, and ‘The Battles’. The first section is concerned with the men who filled the ranks of the legions, from the top of the command structure to the bottom, and covers recruitment, discipline, pay, conditions of service, equipment and weapons, food, leave, ranks and responsibilities, and retirement, as well as mentioning other smaller matters in passing. Dando-Collins successfully packs a great deal of information, including the nuances of change over time, into a small number of pages (29 sections, each its own distinct sub-topic, are dealt with in 40 pages) without letting it descend into a mere litany of facts. By the end of it, there is scarcely a facet of legionary life that has not been touched upon, and the main topics have been thoroughly but succinctly discussed.

The second section focuses on the legions themselves, concerning their internal organisation, how they were numbered, their standards and emblems, auxiliary units, artillery, logistics, camps both temporary and permanent, and the Imperial guards. Again, a great deal is included in a relatively short space, and again the changes between Caesar’s times and the twilight of the Empire are included without resort to chronological recitation. This section, however, is the weakest of the three. Although it is less than half the length of the third section, it drags. More than 100 pages in the middle of the section are devoted to little potted histories of each imperial legion. The strengths of these are just the same as the rest of the book; they are thorough but concise, and exhaustively researched. But they feel out of place, and certainly disrupt the prior brisk pace of the book. The book would be weaker without these histories, but they might have been better placed in an appendix, or at least at the end of the second section. However, after they finish, the rest of the section concludes as it began, packed with insight and progressing rapidly.

The third section is the longest of the three, but a huge scope of material and Dando-Collin’s style keep it moving along. It covers the campaigns and battles of the legions from the beginning of the Empire to the sack of Rome. Each section follows on from its predecessor, but they could just as easily be read alone as vignettes, as each sets the political and strategic scene before covering the details of the campaign and its battles and sieges, and ends with concluding remarks on what the military outcome meant and what happened next. This is military history at its best; weaving together strategy and tactics, the plans of commanders and the thoughts of their men, and rulers’ political considerations, Dando-Collins brings all that is best about newer military scholarship to his writing, without losing any of the details of military manoeuvrings and battlefield events which were the main (and some scholars would say only) appeal of old-fashioned military history. Once again, the style is clear and concise, the writing authoritative, and the research is evidently both broad and deep. Despite the relative scarcity of sources which concern the lives of centurions or legionaries compared to those which cover their generals and emperors, Dando-Collins draws on such sources to provide pertinent examples, and this strengthens the book by providing a human connection between the musings of emperors and the movements and battles of their armies.

In a work which covers such a large subject, over such a stretch of time, a great deal of editing must have been required to condense such a volume of research into a suitable span of pages. The brevity and clarity of the writing stand as tribute to how successful this editing was; while the book is just shy of 600 pages before the index and sources, etc, are included, it doesn’t feel lengthy. Not only is the book concise and bursting with historical and historiographical information, it is also a pleasure to read. It is such a shame, then, to find errors in the text which should have been caught and removed, like the conversion on p 355 which gives 880 metres as the equivalent of 695 feet, or on page 310, which gives 30 centimetres as equal to 3 feet. Errors like that, although they are minor, distract from the book’s significant strengths.

At various points, Dando-Collins refers to historiographical debates, briefly sketching the controversy then setting out his own position and the evidence for it, before carrying on. From the point of view of someone who takes a keen interest in the subject, but is in no way an expert, it was useful to see debates highlighted in this manner, and it is one of the features which allows the book to appeal to academics and the public with equal success. That it is written in a straight-forward and engaging style also helps considerably. The book is an excellent one, and despite a few minor faults, will be a worthwhile addition to a bookshelf in a library, a study, or an academic’s office.

By Andrew Duncan, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

Printable version can be downloaded here.

Citation: Andrew Duncan ‘Review of Stephen Dando-Collins, Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of every Imperial Roman Legion’, Birmingham “On War”, 17 August 2012


One response to “Book Review – Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of every Imperial Roman Legion

  1. Pingback: Get your Book Reviewed! « Birmingham "On War"·

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