Monday, 6 August 2007

The pride of the Roman cavalry

I am an old, grumpy emperor and, often when I read a new book, I am easily irritated.

Chiefly, I dislike badly written books. I realise that different writers have different styles, but there's no excuse for poor grammar. Here's an example: "The pride of the Roman cavalry was the horsemen of the alae." The subject of this sentence is plural -- there were lots of horsemen in the alae -- so the verb must be plural, too. The pride of the Roman cavalry were the horsemen of the alae. See? That's a lot better. (By the way, alae is just a technical term for the Roman cavalry regiments.)

I also dislike inaccuracy, which can take many forms from 'typos' to outright factual errors. For example, the Latin word tironis does not mean "recruits"; Roman socks were not called undones; and the Latin plural of lancea (a lance) is not lancae. (Before you reach for your Wheelock, the correct answers are: tirones, udones, and lanceae.)

Roman Auxiliary Cavalryman, (c) Osprey Publishing


All of these mistakes were extracted from the latest book to land on my desk: Roman Auxiliary Cavalryman AD 14-193. (That's the title on the cover; on p.1, the inside title-page, it's called "Roman Auxiliary Cavalry". At least the author's name is spelled correctly.)

The Latin mistakes I'm willing to classify as simple gaffes (although I am suspicious of their recurrence, along with others, in the book's glossary). Another example -- the Latin document known as De munitionibus castrorum ("About fortifying camps") is repeatedly cited as De muntionibus castrorum -- might just be a publisher's typo. But there are more fundamental errors that should perhaps have been nagging at the back of the author's mind as he wrote them.

As an exemplar for a typical cavalry regiment name, he gives us the ala Gallorum et Thracum Classiana invicta bis torquata civium Romanorum. He tells us that it was formed in AD 21. (How does he know?) He tells us that its first commander was a Gallic nobleman called Classicianus! (If its title "Classiana" really does indicate the founder, then his name was Classius, not Classicianus!) He tells us that it transferred from Britain to Germany in AD 122. (True, we have no evidence of it in Britain after AD 122, but that's not proof that it left the province in that year.) And so it goes on.


If I were writing a book review, I'd tell you the basic breakdown of the book. So, after a brief "Introduction", there are short sections on

  • "Recruitment" : Table 1 on p.7, labelled "Cavalry recruitment", details "Numbers" totalling 39,500 from 11 provincial areas, but doesn't really explain what this represents (Recruits in a year, maybe?) ;
  • "Organization" : if a cavalry "troop" (turma) is consistently given as 30 men + 2 officers, why isn't the infantry century (centuria) given as 80 men + 3 officers?;
  • "Equipment and Appearance" : we are told the weight of a pair of boots (!) but not the weight of a helmet, which seems slightly more important;
  • "Training and Exercises" : I know it's nit-picking, but surely Xenophon's Greek text is called Peri hippikes, not Peri Hippikis (and Arrian's Techne taktike has been mangled by the typesetter);
  • Conditions of Service : short sections on pay, rewards, and diet;
  • Military Life : in the military calendar of celebrations, the "festivals associated with the leading deities and members of the imperial family" were not called dies imperii! ;
  • On Campaign : short sections on rations, fodder, before battle, and during battle ; and
  • After Service : it seems odd that honourable discharge was granted "only after a thorough medical examination" !

Easily irritated?

I think my enjoyment of a book is inversely related to the number of times I have to mentally correct the text, like a belated proof-reader. I'd like to know more about Roman cavalry, but there must be a less stressful way to do it!


  1. I'd like to know more about Roman cavalry, but there must be a less stressful way to do it!

    Em, learning German and reading Marcus Junkelmann's books? :)

    I'm very careful around the Osprey books; the quality varies a lot, and they're too expensive to risk buying a sucky one.

  2. Like the helmet, Gabriele! Which legion are you in?!

  3. It's a borrowed helmet from the Segedunum Museum, Newcastle, unfortunately. I'd love to get me a complete set of Roman armour, but I can't afford it right now.

  4. Have you read, The Roman Cavalry, by Karen Dixon? I haven't read it in a while, but I remember it as a nice scholarly treatment of the subject.

  5. Thanks for the suggestion, Andrew. It would be interesting to compare the two books.

    (And I like your website.)

  6. I cant remember how heavy my cavalry helmet was??? or my infantry ones for that matter, but I know for a fact it was a whole lot heavier than my boots :)

  7. This book is succinct; wasting no words whatsoever in its description of life in a Roman auxiliary cavalry regiment. The topic here is quite specific even within the realms of the Roman army, so if you already know something about Rome it will be a distinct advantage to your enjoyment.

    The book covers many aspects of life for such a cavalry man from his recruitment right through to his death or retirement. The information on the equestrian side of life is very good. There is a detailed description of a saddle which was quite different to those common today. Snippets, such as how far a horseman may have been expected to ride in one day are great too.

    This book deals best with, equipment and clothing and is supported admirably by some excellent photos and art work. The colour plates provided by Adam Hook are fantastic but become even more fascinating when looked at in conjunction with the accompanying commentary.

    One slight niggle here is that the commentary would be best presented on an opposite page to the picture, rather than at the end of the book causing one to turn back and forward.

    There are one or two errors which I spotted but these are minor and in no way take anything away from the book as a whole. Perhaps they will be rectified in later editions.

    Overall then, this is a great visual resource for those who want to get a feel for what things actually looked like. I already have my eye on one or two other Osprey books about different aspects of this period.