Ancient Romans in Fantasyland? What?!

I recently signed up for a test of Amazon Prime, and there are many free books attached to that test.  I began to read Stiger’s Tigers (Chronicles of An Imperial Legionary Officer Book 1). The selection criteria: First, free (borrowed, as they say at Amazon), second, it had an officer in Roman armor on the cover. The guy is wearing a lorica segmentata, and the sword is worn on the left (milites wear theirs on the right), and he has on a helmet with a fore-aft crest. That’s semi-accurate, I suppose – there is no evidence officers wore anything but chain or scale mail rather than the segmented armor, but they could wear whatever they wanted. And that means the cover was okay, but that segmentata niggled at me. (Yes, this is going to be a nitpicking post. That’s just how I was made. It’s a character flaw.)

Beyond the art abilities of the artist, though, is what’s in between that makes the book accurate or not accurate to a Roman simulation. As you may not know, I have a hobby of Roman reenacting, and that involves putting on accurate reproductions of armor and weapons (and sometimes making them) and then going on hikes or standing about at presentations to teach people about Rome’s armies.  I’d say I have a few dozen hours of time wearing a lorica segmentata (just like the one on the cover). I’m fairly knowledgeable about the grunt in the field, although I also seek to expand my knowledge as I go. There’s always something new to acquire and learn.

With that in mind, I began to read. Within a few hundred words, there was an anomaly: The main character is accompanied by an elf. Beyond that, the titles of the military ranks were modern- captain, lieutenant, sergeant, general.  The elf thing told me that whatever the cover might tell me, the insides weren’t classic Rome. The modern ranks also telegraphed some differences.

I read on, because I wasn’t going to be that big of a stickler. Obviously, we’re in a fantasy, a sort of “What if the Roman Legions were plunked down into a fantasy world?”  They’d take over, of course. Anyway, I settled down to see if things would be worth reading, and was reminded of a sort of napoleonic kind of army, at first.

Things managed to change within a chapter or two, and then we see the men training. And they’re training right, with heavy practice shields and swords. However, practice shields were wicker with weighted frames.  “Wicker work was utilized for the construction of practice shields. These were designed to be double the weight of the normal battle shield.” (Pg. 247, Bishop, M.C. and Coulston, J.C.  Roman Military Equipment from the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome, second edition. Havertown: Oxbow Books, 2006.) M.C. Bishop is a leading authority in the field of Roman archeology, and I believe this statement is based off the writings of Pliny the Elder.

Okay, so the author took some liberties. Or, perhaps, wicker wasn’t available to the fantasy legions. I like to give some leeway, though it’s apparent from my reading that the author got huge swaths of Roman stuff correct, and that means he was no slouch of a researcher. So why get this thing wrong? I don’t know.

And the other big sin was that he had the legions locking shields together. There’s only one time the men “lock” shields, and that’s to form a testudo, which is designed to keep arrows out. There are no mechanisms for the shields to lock together or even be operated in close proximity.  You need space between you and the guy to your right or left to fight. If you have your shields in tight, then you simply cannot fight effectively.  Figure that about a foot gap between each miles, and you’re golden.

I passed this one off as, “eh, it’s fantasy. He can have locking shields if he wants.”

It occurred to me that maybe this was a case of legions-out-of-time-and-space thing, like Harry Turtledove did in one of his books.  And legions in space was done in, I believe, in Janissaries by Jerry Pournelle. So back in the mists of time, the legions maybe were portalled in to wherever-the-heck-we-are and they’re using the systems and materials they found there.  Tactics change over time, as well, so maybe these guys found locking shields to be a good thing.

Nah. Doesn’t work for anyone except ancient Greeks and the Macedonians in their phalanxy glory.

As for the titles, this could be a function of the author making it easier for us to grasp the roles of the people involved, so instead of centurio, we get captain, and instead of optio, sergeant, etc.

And does the captain have greaves, or a vitus staff? Nope.  So those things are missing.

So, for overall historicity, the thing gets 8 stars out of 10. He was so close, but then that locking shields thing knocks off 2 stars.  Everything else is spot on.  I wish, however, he’d put some of his guys in chain mail (lorica hamata) because those things were as common as dirt and much easier to wear than a segmentata. And he ought to put his officers in scale or chain mail.  Throw in some phalarae and you’re good to go.

For Romans in a fantasy world, though, it’s excellent. Because, it’s fantasy. You don’t have the same rules as real life, and you can do stuff like locking shields, wrong armor, and wooden practice shields. Toss out the rules! 😀

I picked up book 2 and 3 of the series, and read through those in successive days, and it’s clear that the author did a lot of setup and preparation for the later books to come together.  Plotwise, it’s got the hero character with a destiny stamped all over it, and while the predictability of that plot will be obvious to anyone, it’s still a good read overall.  I can’t knock a guy for using a tried and true formula. That’s just smart writing, and I suspect Mr. Edelheit is making a few dollars on his books, he is.

I enjoyed the series, and will read the next couple of books he publishes.





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