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What I’m Reading: Nero’s Killing Machine

I’m not sure if I should add a point or take it away for the fact that this had to be a difficult book to write. A history of a single Roman military legion is simply faced with an enormous problem: How do you make the story of what are actually many armies over hundreds of years into a unified story of an army, as if it were one living breathing beast? As one of the last chapters admits, the men of the early 14th legion would have sneered at the bearded, married, business-owning, involved-in-local-politics later legion that dared to share the same name as their beloved legion that ferociously banned all those things. This central difficulty is made worse by a peculiarity of how Rome recruited and fielded its legions: men signed up for 16- or later 20-year stints, after which they retired. Granted, some men would stay in, and be moved to the upper ranks, but the vast majority of each legion simply left. An entire new army was formed of green recruits every 20-ish years. (And you did NOT want to go into battle with that baby army for a while!) So how is this army with massive periodic turnover to be treated as the same army in one story over centuries? How do you successfully tell that story?

You don’t. At least, I don’t think that Stephen Dando-Collins quite makes the case on which this book rests: If you’re telling the tale of The Martial and Victorius Twinned 14th Legion, you’re saying there IS a tale of the fourteenth–and there isn’t. There are only tales, plural, of the 14th during certain years. It’s like talking about the Boston Red Sox. You can tell of the Cy Young years and compare them to the Roger Clemens years. At best, maybe you could structure a tale around the 86 years without a World Series win. (But really, to have the metaphor be more accurate, you’d have to have the Red Sox move from Boston every couple years to a new home city, and change coaches/generals more frequently. On the plus side, the level of looting could stay about the same.

Nonetheless, this is a reasonably entertaining and informative book of pop-history. I learned things. In fact, I learned some things that were directly in conflict with other things I’ve learned, at least one of them recently. I’d recently relayed to a friend the factoid that Roman legionaries were required to be 6′ tall–which I found remarkable! That’d be like recruiting only guys who are 6’5″ or something today, which would be pretty darn difficult, but on the other hand, I could see that recruitment strategy making a lot of sense when you’re looking to go murder people by the strength of your muscles alone. So yeah, sure, you want the tallest, strongest guys from every college sports team to go do your murder and looting work. And then one could see why armies made up of such men, also trained into believing they can kick anyone’s butt, and instilled with immense discipline would, in fact, be able to kick anyone’s butt–except this book says it’s not true at all. Crap. Sorry friend I told this factoid to. Instead, Mr. Dando-Collins says the average legionary was 5’4″, which is believable, and actually sort of remarkable in its own way. Imagine a bunch of guys 5’4″ kicking your butt and taking all your worldly goods. Plus your self-respect. Surely the Germans who averaged 5’8″ thought so.

In reading about the ancient world, I was again impressed by how fully a Judeo-Christian ethic seems to have suffused our present Western understanding of morality during warfare. War in the ancient world was incredibly brutal, and unapologetically so. Not just the fighting, but how people were treated in the aftermath, and what excuses (none) were deemed necessary to go to war in the first place. Certainly, instead of spreading the light of civilization or securing the borders so the Empire could be safe, one gets a palpable sense over and over that the men of the Roman legions just wanted to go kill people and take their stuff. (This, despite the fact that going and doing that would certainly cost a lot of them their lives.) Somehow in my mind, I’d separated the Roman soldiers from, say, Vikings. Vikings and other raiders are just thieves, murderers, and rapists, right? (Who happen to bring some good stuff along with them.) But Rome? Rome is law and order. Pax Romana, baby!

Well, that law is Roman law. Roman law provides no protection for anyone who is NOT a Roman citizen. So in the famous case of Boudica, where her dying husband Prasutagus (some say dad) tries to leave her half of his estate (the other half going to Nero, hoping that buys his good will), the law is very different from what we would think. Roman law doesn’t let women inherit, and anyone who dies without an heir leaves everything to Caesar. So to Nero, the guy tried to buy him off by… giving Nero only half of what belonged to Nero by law. It didn’t buy Nero’s good will at all–and, you know, Nero is Nero. So Nero’s little bailiffs go to evict Boudica who is “squatting” in Nero’s house with her daughters. (i.e. She hasn’t left her own house.)

She defies the bailiffs, and they beat the hell out of her and rape her daughters–and this is legal, or at least not illegal. A non-citizen has no legal protection, period. (It happens to be very unwise, but there’s no record that the bailiffs are disciplined for what will start a war.)

Boudica stokes the fires of Celtic fury at what’s been done to her–and everyone already hates the Romans anyway. (Go figure.) So they rise up, and take some towns. Now these are cities and clans aligned with Rome–which is exactly what Boudica’s clan had been, up until that month! And when Boudica’s army takes these cities, does she have mercy on the people there? Not even close.

The Roman writers, not shy about the realities of warfare, called it ‘an orgy of violence’. We’re talking non-combatants and children tortured to death literally for fun. Maybe you can try to dismiss that as propaganda, but it seems the Romans believed it was literally true. There may have been some religious significance to burning people to death and the like… but what? That makes it okay, then? Even if any of this was exaggerated, the death toll was like 70,000 in a couple weeks. Mostly civilians.

That London has a statue of a woman who murdered everyone in it who didn’t flee–meaning old people, young people, the stubborn, and those in denial that a fellow Breton would murder them–is deeply bizarre, that is, until you learn that Elizabeth I identified her as a brave figure fighting off a foreign invasion (just like herself), and later, Queen Victoria set her up as some kind of national hero (also just like herself).

Hmm, politicians abusing history to advance their own ends, how weird is that?

I guess all of us are suckers for an underdog story: brave woman stands up to defend her country against horrible guys! As far as I can tell (and I’m no expert, certainly), the real story is something like this: One, horrible men treat a woman and her family horribly. Two, horrible woman goes on to command the murder, torture, and rape of other tens of thousands of people much like herself. Three, horrible men’s army comes back, fight bravely and well, and then horribly murders the horrible murderers.

History’s awesome, isn’t it? Except where it really, really sucks.

I’m reminded of how earlier times should really be viewed as more alien than I sometimes do. People are people, sure, but culture is more powerful than we think. The Geneva Conventions seem obvious to us. They’re actually not obvious–they’re a triumph of civilization, of imposing morality on the most barbarous of human activities. (They’re often violated, sure, but they’re often upheld, too! And sometimes is a whole lot better than never.)

Excellently performed, although there was a slight technical irritant of the mic picking up the sound of Mr. Fass’s breaths, which became somewhat hypnotic: “Wow, that was a really long sentence to manage on that quick of a breath.” But this is surely a first-world audio problem–I mean, c’mon “the mic is too sensitive”? I can’t really take points off for that, can I?

3.5 out of 5.