Product: Nero’s Killing Machine: The True Story of Rome’s Remarkable 14th Legion
Author: Stephen Dando-Collins
Publisher: Wiley, Hoboken, 1 November 2004
Price: $21.23 (US), £11.33 (UK)
I love this book.
I happen to be someone who reads books constantly, and has a particular fondness for historical fiction. That being said, I hadn’t honestly expected much from this one when I first saw it in paperback a few years ago in some second-hand bookstore in Vancouver, B.C.
The overall subject material was familiar enough to me, but only vaguely. I enjoyed reading about ancient Rome and the Roman army, of course, but I didn’t know much about either the author or the 14th Legion. After buying the book mostly on a whim, I brought it home with me and started to read.
From that point on, I couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it. Even long after that, I still found myself drifting back to reread it every once in a while.
Nero’s Killing Machine: the True Story of Rome’s Remarkable Fourteenth Legion is a fantastic addition to the historical fiction genre. Roman military historian Stephen Dando-Collins’ novelized account of the 14th Legion and the men who served in it is both extensively researched and completely engrossing.
Dando-Collins’ tale follows the legion closely from its worst tragedies to its greatest triumphs. His account begins with the founding of the legion in 58 BC by Julius Caesar, progressing on through the stories of successive generations of the legionaries that filled its ranks.
The story highlights in particular the events of the century after the legion’s founding. Explored in fascinating detail is the legion’s service under Caesar during the conquest of Gaul and the civil wars of the late Republic, its campaigns in Germany and defense of the imperial frontier, the conquest of Britain, Boudicca’s rebellion and the Year of the Four Emperors. Beyond this, it also covers (in brief) the subsequent history of the 14th Legion through the rest of the Roman imperial era.
The book is so loyal to history that it’s a little difficult for me to call it historical fiction. The events and significant characters that affected or interacted with the legion are all true to history; it’s only some of the minor character perspectives that have been created by Dando-Collins in order to novelize the book. This approach, however, has an appeal of its own: it offers the reader a colourful myriad of perspectives great and small from emperors and politicians in Rome to the army officers and common soldiers that served in the 14th Legion, bringing the story and its characters to life.
The use of multiple perspectives brings the reader a remarkable insight, not only into the legion’s military campaigns and accomplishments in war but also into its more peaceful moments. The book captures a portrait of everyday life within the 14th Legion; of a thousand simple worries, cares and pleasures that occupied the soldiers’ attention when they weren’t busy trying not to get killed by Rome’s enemies.
Many technical terms, such as the ranks of army officers or the names of cities, are translated into modern English equivalents of their original Latin. Thankfully, the reader doesn’t have to wonder which English term corresponds to which Latin term because the book includes a thorough glossary of terms, as well as maps and an index.
In summary, this book is an absolute personal favourite of mine; a compelling account of war and peace through the eyes of the mighty and the humble, and a tale that any reader is sure to enjoy whether they’re intrigued ancient history, historical fiction, or just enjoy a good book about war.
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