Book Review: Marching With Caesar by R.W. Peake

If you ever wondered exactly what it was like to be a Roman legionary in the first century B.C., this is your book! The author, R.W. Peake, has a strong military background and a firm grasp of the psychology of both the common soldier and his higher ranking leaders. He also has extensive knowledge of Caesar’s army and the events of the day. Besides a thorough devouring of Caesar’s Commentaries, a whole host of historical research has obviously gone into this book. As a result, the experience of reading it is intimate and real.

The story is narrated by Titus Pullus, a legionary born in Astigi, a Roman town in Hispania. Titus and his friend Vibius yearn from an early age to be soldiers, and Titus has the advantage of having a brother-in-law, whom he calls Cyclops, from want of an eye, who is a veteran of the Roman army and is willing to theach Titus and Vibius basic military skills. Titus also has the advantage of being very large, well over six feet and solidly built. Titus’ father is a mean drunk who hates Titus because he blames him for the death of his wife, who died bearing Titus, an overly large baby. Although the age for joining the legions is seventeen, Titus, at sixteen, persuades his father to swear to the military authorities that his son is seventeen, something he is willing to do just to get rid of the son he loathes. The only affection Titus has ever received was from his sisters and from his father’s slaves, Phocas and Gaia. He determines to buy their freedom when he accumulates enough money.

Possessed of both great strength and uncommon skill, Titus makes an exemplary soldier and quickly rises in the ranks. He survives battle after battle against the Gauls through this combination of strength, skill and sometimes, luck. He develops strong emotional attachments to most of his tent mates. There are originally ten who share the tent, but, by the end of the book, at least four have perished.

Peake spares the reader nothing with regard to the viciousness and cruelty of the legionary’s life. Oft times Caesar grants clemency to the defeated, but at other times he allows massacres, rapine and plunder. Pullus describes and incident where Caesar orders the complete destruction of a tribe, and Pullus find himself pursuing and killing women and infants. He must comply with the orders, but scenes of these depredations haunt his dreams for the rest of his life. Discipline in the Roman army was also exceedingly harsh, and at one point Pullus must preside over the scourging and crucifixion of a former tent mate who has raped and killed townspeople during a drunken binge.

I highly recommend Marching With Caesar for anyone who wants a clear picture of Roman legionary life.

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