Book Review: Las Legiones Malditas by Santiago Postaguillo

Las Legiones Malditas (The Accursed Legions) is the second in a series of three novels by Santiago Postaguillo about the life of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Carthage in the Second Punic War. The books are written in Spanish with no English translation available, but if your Spanish is up to the task, they are well worth reading, as they are, in this reader’s opinion, the best novels in existence that deal with Scipio Africanus and the Second Punic war. This second novel spans the life of Scipio from the time he is appointed to lead the legions in Spain in 210 B.C. to the Battle of Zama, where he defeats Hannibal, in 202 B.C.
Who were the Legiones Malditas? The battle of Cannae, in 216 B.C. was an unmitigated disaster for the Romans. Some 50,000 Romans were killed, including a fair number of Senators and other patricians. Some ten thousand were taken prisoner, and the Roman Senate refused to allow them to be ransomed even by their families. They were sold into slavery. The infantrymen who survived and were not taken prisoner were thought to have been cowardly. They had pledged not to leave their battle stations and had broken this pledge. Some ten thousand such men were formed into two legions, the V and the VI and were sent to Sicily in disgrace. It was determined that they would not be released from service until the end of the war. They were not allowed to reside in towns, were not allowed to recline at meals, and were given barley, thought to be an inferior grain, rather than wheat as their staple. They did assist Claudius Marcellus in his efforts in driving the Carthaginians out of Sicily, and Marcellus tried in vain to get the Senate to ease up on their conditions. Patrician survivors of Cannae, including Scipio and the son of the General Fabius Maximus, were not punished.
Postaguillo describes in great detail Scipio’s successes in Spain, the conquest of New Carthage, and the battles of Baecula and Ilipa. In four years he drove the Carthaginian forces from Spain, defeating four Carthaginian armies.
After these phenomenal successes, Scipio’s ambition is to take the war into Africa and inflict upon the Carthaginians some of the same torments and miseries that they had inflicted upon Italy for so many years. He successfully runs for Consul in 205 B.C. despite being ten years younger than the traditional minimum age. The aged General, five time Consul and twice dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator adamantly opposes such an action, insisting that Scipio should defeat Hannibal in Italy first. In the end Scipio receives permission to invade Africa if he feels it is in the interest of the state, but due to Fabius’ machinations he is forbidden to levy forces for the invasion. He is able to enlist some 7,000 Roman and allied volunteers, but, in order to have sufficient forces, he must call upon the services of the Legiones Malditas-the V and VI legions that have been exiled to Sicily.
The Legiones Malditas are, as might be expected, demoralized and undisciplined. Scipio has one year to get them into shape for an invasion. He finds an ally in the person of the Primus Pilus of the V, Cayo Valerio (Gaius Valerius), a decorated veteran. Even Valerio is so demoralized that when about to be interviewed by Scipio, he attempts at the last moment to hide his decorations putting them behind his back, believing that in his disgraced status displaying the decorations was unseemly. Unable to hold onto them, however, they fall to the ground and are discovered.
“Why are you hiding your decorations, Centurion?” Publius asked.
“I don’t know, General. I always wear them, more to impress my men than anything else. But some time ago I lost my pride in being a soldier. These are old decorations from fighting the Gauls in the north and pirates in Illyria, but that was a long time ago, and with your speech this morning, knowing that the men of Hannibal laugh at us and ridicule us, it seemed to me that displaying these decorations is out of place for someone like me who fled like a dog at Cannae.”
“I also fled from Cannae, centurion of the V.” replied Publius Cornelius Scipio.
It took much time and effort on the part of Scipio and his devoted tribunes such as Cayo Lelio (Gaius Laelius) and Lucio Marcio (Lucius Marcius), but by the time Scipio was ready to invade Africa, the Legiones Malditas had been forged into a military force that could stand up to the best Hannibal had to offer.
While Las Legiones Malditas is a superb novel, I would caution readers that it is a novel and not to be taken as literal history. In the case of the Sucro Mutiny, B.F. Liddel-Hart maintains that Scipio handled the affair as well as it could be handled. He executed the ringleaders in the traditional Roman mode of executing traitors, going back to the days of the first Consul Junius Brutus: scourging and beheading. He pardoned the rank and file, saying “Nevertheless I will plead for you to Rome and with myself, using this plea universally acknowledged among men-that all multitudes are easily misled and easily impelled to excesses.” There is no historical evidence that Scipio decimated these troops. This would not have been consistent with the wise, moderate and controlled general Scipio always showed himself to be. Decimation was for incompetent generals like Marcus Licinius Crassus.
Was Quintus Fabius Maximus the sadistic monster that Postaguillo depicts? Granted that he was a thorn in Scipio’s side and did everything in his power to thwart him, but while Postaguillo’s subplot involving Cayo Lelio, Netikerty and Fabius Maximus is a brilliant novelistic device, it is just a novelistic device. There is no historical evidence that Fabius Maximus sadistically abused his slaves. For a more balanced view of Fabius I recommend that readers read Plutarch’s Life of Fabius Maximus, or Maximus, Warts and All by this writer.

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