The books in this series are based primarily on classical texts; inscriptions; and, to a lesser extent, coins. Some epigraphic material is on stone monuments small and large. Some source material is in the form of documents inscribed on metal, velum, and papyrus, such as the discharge notices of legionaries and citizenship certificates of retired auxiliaries, and the pleas of soldiers to the gods associated with temple offerings. The letters of officers’ wives on the British frontier even exist, exchanging gossip and dinner invitations, and the letter from an Egyptian cavalry officer to his mother at home in Egypt asking her to send him more money.
Inscriptions and written records can generally be taken at face value, even if some inscriptions raise more questions than they answer. In the late first century B.C., for example, a number of former legionaries had honorific titles inscribed on their tombstones relating to the legions in which they had served, but frequently those honorifics were neither official nor in widespread use.
Classical coins can be an invaluable guide to the stations and movements of Roman legions. The men of the legions were paid once a year, the gold coins of their pay generally being minted with the name of the legion in question as well as sufficient information for the era of the minting to be determined as well as the place where the issue took place.
Classical texts, however, have to be approached with the eye of an historical detective, for some classical authors hovered between the worlds of novelist and historian, tending to spice up their narratives with exaggeration and anecdote. Many speeches in classical texts were invented by their authors—even if basing them on firsthand sources—and few writers could escape coloring their writings with personal prejudices and preferences. So in trawling classical sources for the facts, comparison, analysis, and objectivity are essential tools.
In the thirty-four years of research and writing that went into this book, the many classical and contemporary written sources listed below were consulted. Primarily, this work was made possible by the following classical sources, listed alphabetically.
Acts of the Apostles from the Holy Bible. These provide a contemporary insight and an on-the-spot account, albeit from a layman’s point of view, regarding several aspects of legion activity during the first century.
Appian. Born in about A.D. 95 at Alexandria, of Greek stock, Appian worked as an advocate in the courts at Rome and later served as a financial administrator in the provinces. In the middle of the second century he wrote a number of books on Roman history, of which his Civil Wars is the most helpful to writers interested in the legions. He is the least well regarded of the Greek historians of the Roman Empire, but for the historical events in the Roman Empire between 133 B.C. and 70 B.C. he is considered the only continuous source of any reliability.
His work is at times disjointed; at others, error-strewn. He sometimes also lapsed into what have been described as rhetorical flourishes, or just plain fiction. Despite this, Appian used many well-placed sources and his work provides a useful basis of comparison, particularly when considered alongside Plutarch, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio.
Recommended English translations: Appian: Roman History, trans. H. White (1889), rev. for Loeb series by I. Robinson (London: Loeb, 1913); and Appian: The Civil Wars, trans. J. Carter (London: Penguin, 1996).
Julius Caesar. The Gallic War and The Civil War, together with The Alexandrian War, The African War, and The Spanish War by other hands. Caesar wrote his Commentaries, his memoirs, with the first volumes, dealing with his conquest of Gaul and covering the period 58-51 B.C., being published in his lifetime. He was still working on his account of the civil war, which leaves off after the Battle of Pharsalus, when he was murdered in 44 B.C. At the urging of Caesar’s former chief of staff Lucius Cornelius Balbus, these published and unpublished works were collated by Caesar’s loyal staff officer Aulus Hirtius shortly after the dictator’s death. Hirtius, promoted to general, would himself be dead within another year. Hirtius combined them with additional material, some of which he wrote himself, the rest apparently penned by officers who had been on the scene for the last battles of the civil war, before they were published by Balbus.
Caesar’s own writings are in the third person, as if produced by an independent observer, and strive to paint Caesar in the best light possible while denigrating his opponents. Despite the propagandist overtones, they still provide a fascinating insight into one of history’s most brilliant generals and engineers, and of his campaigns. Most importantly to an historian seeking data on the legions of Rome, Caesar regularly identifies the legions involved in his various campaigns and battles.
In the associated material, Hirtius strove to both emulate and praise his master, sometimes distorting the facts to paint Caesar’s adversary Pompey the Great in a bad light. Other authors, such as Plutarch, occasionally give us a truer picture, such as the time Pompey loaned Caesar a legion, the 6th, in 52 B.C., when Caesar was in trouble in Gaul, without the approval of the Senate. Plutarch tells us Pompey was greatly criticized by the likes of Cato the Younger for helping Caesar in this way, but you wouldn’t know it from Hirtius’s narrative.
Often, where there were passages in Caesar’s original text that told of an error of judgment or setback on Caesar’s account, Hirtius—or possibly Balbus—cut it out. We know this because there are several instances where Caesar says “as mentioned before” or the like, and the before-mentioned material is missing. Fortunately, sufficient references were overlooked by the editors in their hasty editing for the truth to emerge. In their haste, too, the editors missed passages in the additional material that don’t exactly flatter Caesar, with a picture of an impatient and sometimes petty man emerging.
Another of Caesar’s loyal staff officers, Gaius Asinius Pollio, who features in this particular book, is quoted by Suetonius as writing that he felt Caesar’s memoirs showed signs of carelessness and inaccuracy. Pollio, who became a consul and gained renown in his own time as an author—although none of his works has come down to us—said that in his experience Caesar didn’t always check the truth of reports that came in, and he had been either disingenuous or forgetful in describing his own actions. But Cicero, also quoted by Suetonius, said that Caesar wrote admirably, composing his memoirs cleanly, directly, and gracefully. Cicero added that Caesar’s sole intention had been to supply historians with factual material, and that subsequently “several fools have been pleased to primp up his narrative for their own glorification.” The fools in question were Hirtius and Balbus.
Despite the distortions of the “fools,” and the fact that Caesar himself wasn’t entirely honest in his writings, with himself or with his readers, Caesar’s memoirs are still a rare, lively, and informative resource.
Recommended English translations: Among the best are The Commentaries of Caesar, trans. W. Duncan (London: Dodsley, 1779); Caesar: Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars, trans. W. A. M’Devitte and W. S. Bohm (London: Bell, 1890); Caesar: The Gallic War and the Civil War,trans. T. Rice Holmes, Loeb series (London: 1914-1955); Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul, trans. S. A. Handford (1951), rev. J. F. Gardner (1967) (London: Penguin, 1967); and Caesar: The Civil War, trans. J. F. Gardner (London: Penguin, 1967).
Cicero. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) was one of the most noted orators of his day. A leading senator and famous defense counsel, he was a prodigious author. Cicero’s younger brother Quintus served on Caesar’s staff in Gaul in 54- 52 B.C., commanding the 14th Legion during one disastrous period, and he no doubt kept Cicero informed of Caesar’s activities. Having served as a military tribune under Pompey’s father, and owing his life to Pompey’s intervention, Cicero allied himself to Pompey through much of his career, deserting him when he felt that Caesar would win the civil war. Cicero despised Mark Antony and badly misjudged the ability of young Octavian, which resulted in them ordering his death. Many of his works have come down to us, but it is his collected letters that are of most interest when it comes to the legions. Cicero’s letters provide insight into the tumultuous events surrounding Caesar’s invasion of Italy and Mark Antony’s quest for power on the death of Caesar.
Recommended English translations of his correspondence include: Cicero: Letters to Atticus, trans. O. E. Winstedt, Loeb series (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1912-1958); Cicero: Letters to His Friends, trans. W. Glynn Williams, M. Cary, and M. Henderson, Loeb series (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1912-1958); Letters of Cicero, trans. L. P. Wilkinson (London: Hutchinson, 1949); and Cicero: Selected Letters, trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey (London: Penguin, 1986).
Cassius Dio. Also referred to as Dio Cassius and Dion Cassius (his father also was a Cassius, his grandfather a Dio), his full name was Cassius Dio Cocceianus. This Greek historian was born in the Roman province of Bithynia in about A.D. 150. Son of a proconsul, he joined the Senate under the emperor Commodus. Twice a consul, and governor of Africa, Dalmatia, and Upper Pannonia during his long career, he had military experience and was well versed in the ways of the legions. He wrote a history of the Roman Empire in eighty books in the years leading up to his death in 235; the history took the form of a year-by-year synopsis of major events, with occasional diversion into anecdote.
Dio worked from existing sources and obviously based much of his first-century narrative on Tacitus. With the A.D. 37-47 chapters of Tacitus’s Annals lost to us, it is from Dio that we glean much of what we know about Claudius’s invasion of Britain. We also can see where Dio borrowed from Suetonius in his books on the first centuries B.C. and A.D., although some of his errors and exaggerations are glaringly original—for instance, he has Titus save his father, Vespasian, on a Welsh battlefield in A.D. 47, when the boy was only seven. Dio also assumed, incorrectly, that some customs of his day had been current in earlier times.
Unlike Tacitus, Dio rarely makes reference to individual legions, but he provides an invaluable list of all the legions in existence in his day, with brief background information on each, which serves as a proverbial bookend to any history of the legions of the early imperial era. Despite his failings, Dio is still a valuable source.
Recommended English translations: Dio’s Roman History, trans. E. Cary, Loeb series (London: 1914-1927); and Cassius Dio, the Roman History: The Reign of Augustus, trans. I. Scott-Kilvert (London: Penguin, 1987).
Josephus. Born in about A.D. 37, Joseph ben Matthias was a young Jewish general who commanded Galilee for the partisans during the first year of the Jewish Revolt of A.D. 66-70, and who later took the Roman name Flavius Josephus after being captured at Jefat in A.D. 67 and becoming a Roman collaborator. He claims he won his freedom and the favor of Vespasian and Titus by predicting that both would become emperor of Rome. He wrote extensively over twenty-five years, under the patronage of all three Flavian emperors. Josephus’s coverage of the A.D. 66-70 Jewish Revolt, his Jewish War, is very useful to those interested in the legions. Several glaring errors in that work—he puts legionaries’ swords on their left hips, for example—may be those of later copyists. Josephus’s Life (of Josephus) provides more on the Jewish Revolt. Jewish Antiquities,published after the death of Titus in A.D. 81, provides rare information about the participation of Jewish troops in the relief force that helped Julius Caesar conquer Egypt in 47 B.C., about the favors Caesar subsequently granted Jews because of this support, and also rare verbatim quotations from letters of Mark Antony.
Vespasian gave Josephus an estate in Judea, a pension, and use of an apartment in his own family house on Pomegranate Street in the 6th Precinct at Rome. The year of his death is uncertain. Some scholars make it in A.D. 100; others place it in A.D. 92 or 93.
Recommended English translations: The Jewish War, trans. H. St. John Thackery, R. Marcus, and L. H. Feldman (London: Loeb, 1926); also, the trans. of G. A. Williamson (London: Penguin, 1959, rev. 1970); The Complete Works of Josephus, which includesJewish Antiquities, trans. W. Whiston (1737; repub. as The New Complete Works of Josephus [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1999]).
Pliny the Younger. Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, nephew and heir of Pliny the Elder, was a consul in A.D. 100 and governor of Bithynia-Pontus between A.D. 111 and 113. His correspondence, in particular with the emperor Trajan at Rome on matters that came before Pliny for judgment, give a fascinating insight into Roman provincial government. His legion-specific usefulness is limited—he only had auxiliary troops under his control, and sought the emperor’s approval for even minor troop movements.
Recommended English translations: The Letters of Pliny the Consul, trans. W. Melmoth (1746; rev. W. M. Hutchinson [London, Loeb, 1915]); Pliny’s Letters, trans. A. J. Church and W. A. Brodribb (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1872); and The Letters of the Younger Pliny, trans. B. Radice (London: Penguin, 1963).
Plutarch. Plutarchos (A.D. 46-c. 120), was a Greek scholar who wrote in the reigns of the Roman emperors Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian. Shakespeare used Plutarch’s Parallel Lives as the basis for his plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. This, Plutarch’s great work, gives short biographies of numerous historical figures and provides background material on key players in the history of the legions: Sulla, Marius, Lucullus, Sertorius, Cato the Younger, Crassus, Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Brutus, Cassius, Cicero, and the emperors Galba and Otho.
Plutarch, who considered himself more biographer than historian, occasionally makes reference to his sources, most of which have not come down to us, such as Emphylus, a rhetorician and colleague of Caesar’s assassin Brutus and who, in Plutarch’s words, produced “a short but well-written history of the death of Caesar” titled Brutus.
The author of hundreds of books and essays, Plutarch was well respected in his own day. Occasionally biased, often colorful, but only once in a while making a demonstrable error, he remains a valuable resource on people and events related to the legions.
Recommended English translations: Sir Thomas North’s 1579 translation—the one used by Shakespeare—can be heavy going with its Tudor English, but sometimes presents a different picture than later versions. Easier reads are John Dryden’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans(1683-1686; reprint, Chicago : Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952); Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men, trans. J. and W. Lanhome (London: Chatto & Windus, 1875); and Plutarch’s Lives, trans. B. Perrin, Loeb series (London: Loeb, 1914-1926).
Polybius. This Greek statesman and historian lived between 200 and 118 B.C. At Rome, initially as a hostage, he became a friend of and adviser to Scipio Aemillianus, the Roman consul and general who conquered Carthage. Traveling widely, Polybius wrote hisHistory of Rome after returning to Greece in 150 B.C. With broad experience of Roman political and military matters he wrote with intelligence and authority about the Roman army of the mid-second century B.C. Some chapters are so detailed they read like a legion owner’s manual. It’s from Polybius that we know so much about legion practices and procedures, many of which remained essentially unchanged for centuries after, from camp layout to bravery decorations, sentry details to punishments.
Recommended English translations: The Histories of Polybius, trans. E. Shuck-burgh (London: Macmillan, 1889); Polybius: Histories, trans. W.R. Paton (London: Loeb, 1922-1927); and Polybius: The Rise of the Roman Empire, trans. I. Scott-Kilvert (London: Penguin, 1979).
Suetonius. Biographer Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was born in A.D. 69, in the middle of the war of succession that followed Nero’s demise. At the time, Suetonius’s father was serving as a tribune and second in command with the 13th Gemina Legion. Young Suetonius apparently had no taste for army life. When his friend Pliny the Younger obtained an appointment for him as a tribune of the broad stripe, which would have made him second in command of a legion, he asked that it be given instead to a relative, Caesennius Silvanus.
Suetonius pursued a career in the service of the Palatium, rising to be briefly in charge of the imperial archives at Rome, which were closed to the public. Married but childless at age forty-three, through Pliny the Younger he obtained from the emperor Trajan the financial privileges of a father of three. After Pliny died in about A.D. 113, Suetonius found a new patron, the powerful Septicius Clarus, a Prefect of the Praetorian Guard early in Hadrian’s reign before falling from grace. Suetonius dedicated his post-A.D. 117 book on the Caesars to Clarus. Through the prefect’s influence he won the position of senior correspondence secretary to the emperor Hadrian, but in about A.D. 123 was fired for disrespect to the empress Sabina while Hadrian was away touring the empire.
After this, out of favor, Suetonius was denied access to the official records, but it is clear from his collection of pocket biographies, Lives of the Caesars, that he had begun researching a book on Roman leaders while running the archives. His biographies of Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Tiberius are filled with detail that could only come from official sources—excerpts from emperors’ private letters, for example—while his later biographies rely on gossip, hearsay, myth, exaggeration, and sensational anecdote in place of hard fact, suggesting that his researches had only reached Tiberius at the time of his dismissal. Even in territory where he had good source material to work with he managed glaring errors; mostly, it seems, from sloppiness.
Suetonius wrote a number of books, including those aimed at capturing a broad market, such as The Lives of Famous Whores, The Physical Defects of Mankind, and Greek Terms of Abuse. But his Lives of the Caesars captured most interest down through the ages. Despite his errors and imperfections, his access to official records makes him a source that cannot be ignored, even if a critical eye must be employed.
Recommended English translations: Lives of the Twelve Caesars, transl. P. Holland (1606; reprint, New York: New York Limited Editions Club) (1963; rev. trans., London: F. Etchells and H. Macdonald, 1931). A 1796 translation by A. Thompson, reprint, Williamstown, Mass.: Corner House, 1978; Loeb series, trans. J. C. Rolfe (London, 1914); and The Twelve Caesars, trans. R. Graves (1957; rev. M. Grant [London: Penguin, 1979]).
Tacitus. Publius Cornelius Tacitus was the king of Roman historians. His Annals and Histories and, to a lesser extent, his Agricola and Germania are treasure troves of information about Rome and her empire in the first century A.D. Living between A.D. 55 and 117, Tacitus, an intimate friend of the writer Pliny the Younger, was a consul in A.D. 97 and governor of the province of Asia in A.D. 112. With apparently unlimited access to the official archives, his hugely detailed books abound with facts and figures taken directly from the records of the proceedings of the Senate and other sources as varied as back issues of the Acta Diurnia. He acknowledges liberal use of the work of numerous other writers, much since lost—men such as Pliny the Elder, whose twenty-volumeGerman Wars, commenced while serving with the legions on the Rhine, helped shape Tacitus’s attitude to Germany, Germanicus, and Arminius. Tacitus also acknowledges the works of serving soldiers such as Vipstanus Messalla, second in command of the 7th Claudia Legion during the crucial war of succession battles of A.D. 69, who went on to write his memoirs.
While his Agricola was rushed—it is sometimes inaccurate, contradictory, or just plain vague—his Annals and Histories, completed two decades later, are products of detailed research and careful construction. For the period A.D. 14-70, Tacitus can be read as the unrivaled authority on the legions of the first century. He identifies the legions taking part in wars, campaigns, and battles, inclusive of their names, commanders, and frequently the names of individual officers and enlisted men. Usually resisting gossipy anecdote in favor of documented fact, Tacitus renders any imperial legion history possible.
Recommended English translations: Annals & Histories, trans. A.J. Church and W. J. Brodribb, London (1869-1872); reprint, Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952; also trans. W. Peterson, Loeb series (1914-1937); reprint, Franklin, Pa.: Franklin Library, 1982; Annals, trans. M. Grant (London: Penguin, 1966); Annals, trans. D. R. Dudley (New York: Mentor, 1966); History, trans. A. Murphy (London: Dent, 1900); The Agricola and the Germania, trans. A. J. Church and W.J. Brodribb (London: Macmillan, 1869-1872); Tacitus, trans. H. Mattingly and S. A. Handford (London: Penguin, 1948); Tacitus, a combination of all his works, trans. C. H. Moore and J. Jackson (London: Heinemann/Putnam, 1931).
Virgil. Publius Vergilius Maro was Rome’s most revered poet. His Aeneid was said to have been read by every Roman schoolboy subsequent to its publication. He was born in 70 B.C. on a farm on the banks of the Mincio River, near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul. His father, a farmer and pottery works owner, sent him to the school of Epidius at Rome, whose pupils also included Mark Antony and Octavian. Virgil’s references to the 41 B.C. land confiscations for discharged legion veterans in the Ecologues, and his contemporary references to Egypt in the Aeneid have been used in this work.
Among the many English translations available: The Poems of Virgil, trans. James Rhoades (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952); and H. R. Fairclough’s translation for the Loeb series (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1935).
Additional Sources: A Selected Bibliography
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