The Interview | With Philip Matyszak

Boot camp in ancient Rome

By Anna Mundow
May 31, 2009
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In his latest book, "Legionary: The Roman Soldier's (Unofficial) Manual" (Thames & Hudson, $24.95)," Philip Matyszak tells the potential recruit what to expect in the Roman Army in 100 AD with chapters such as "How to Storm a City" and "People Who Will Want to Kill You." A fascinating little handbook of serious scholarship and irrepressible wit, "Legionary" vividly illuminates military life in ancient Rome. Matyszak, who has a doctorate in Roman history from St. John's College, Oxford, is the author of "Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day," "The Enemies of Rome" and other works. He spoke from his home in British Columbia.

Q. Is your irreverent style deliberate?

A. It was developed with a readership in mind. As an erstwhile journalist I was taught to grab readers and pull them in. I also formed the impression that writers who use jargon are often those who aren't sure what they're talking about.

Q. Which historians influenced you?

A. There was Nigel Sitwell who wrote "Outside the Empire." [He's] somebody who knew his subject backwards and could therefore treat it more lightly. He also gave the impression of enjoying himself, and I try to communicate that sense of fun as well.

Q. Is ancient history "ancient history," meaning irrelevant?

A. As Cicero said, "Not to know history is to remain forever a child." You learn a lot about the modern world from the ancient world simply because human nature hasn't changed much in 2,000 years, but it expresses itself in completely different ways. I think that today people see ancient history as an alternative reality like "Star Trek," where you can immerse yourself in something utterly different from the present.

Q. Why did you choose this period, 100 AD, for "Legionary"?

A. This is the eve of Trajan's invasion of Dacia when the Roman Army was probably at its peak as a fighting force. Many argue that the Roman Army of the later years was a better army, but it wasn't the traditional one that we know. This is when the legionary reached his quintessential form.

Q. Did you have access to newly discovered sources?

A. A whole chunk of the world just opened up - places like Albania and Romania are now being seriously dug for the first time. The tombstones in the book, for example, are quite new discoveries. There are also people building sets of legionary kit and trying them out. I was taught by re-enactors, for example, the importance of customizing your caligae, or sandals. One gentleman who hadn't beveled the edges of his sandals developed horrible blisters.

Q. What were the Roman Army's greatest strengths and weaknesses?

A. The major weakness was always logistics, having supplies in store every step of the way for about 10,000 people. The legion was invincible, but you could beat it, as one general said, by "stamping on its stomach." Its strength was that once you pointed a legion at something, it flattened the target, and the war was over.

Q. Who was the Roman Army's most successful enemy?

A. I have a great fondness for Mithridates - I have a book out on him at the moment - who was king of Pontus in Asia Minor and who came close to cracking the Romans. Had a general called Sulla not rallied the troops, we might not have a Roman Empire to study.

Q. Did the Romans adopt enemy innovations?

A. If the opposition did something better, the Romans adopted it. Their famous short sword was Spanish; their saddle they picked up with a lot of other kit - including their helmets - from the Gauls. When they saw that the Greek cavalry was superior they adopted its arms, tactics, everything.

Q. What was the Roman soldier fighting for?

A. As you picked up earlier from my accent, I am from Zimbabwe; I fought in then-Rhodesia, so I had a fair bit of getting shot at myself. Principally what you're fighting for is your immediate unit, people you depend on. But you spend very little time actually fighting and a lot of time doing other daily tasks. For the Roman, I would say it was a job.

Q. Do all imperial armies have something in common?

A. You could sum it up in esprit de corps. They think they're the best and that makes them so.

Q. Which legion would you have joined?

A. None. I would have joined the Alexandrian fleet. I love the idea of sailing past the pyramids, escorting convoys to Sri Lanka, getting into the odd punch-up with pirates in the Mediterranean. I would have become a specialist in some arcane bit of the ship that needed little repair but constant monitoring.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at

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