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Legion at the British Museum reviews: what the critics say

Updated: Apr 21

The British Museum’s new legion exhibition is billed as an epic exploration into what life was like in the Roman army. It promises to take visitors into the heart of the massive fighting machine which expanded and defended the extensive empire of Ancient Rome.

There's over 200 objects on show, including the world’s only perfectly preserved legionary shield and armour made from crocodile skin.

But the question is, is the exhibition as good as the Roman army was?

Well, the critics unanimously say 'YES!' All the Legion exhibition reviews have raved about it.

“A triumph” proclaims Alastair Sooke.“Legion is… an exhibition of iron and blood, not gold or finery” he writes in his Telegraph review, highlighting that the show is very much centered on the thousands of rank-and-file foot soldiers of the army rather than the leaders or military commanders.

This comes across clearly in the ‘toughness’ of the objects on show he says: “If these artefacts had voices, they’d growl or holler battle cries, not sing.”

A metal standard in the shape of a dragon's head. The copper has turned blue
Dragon Standard (Draco) from Legion: Life in the Roman Army, at the British Museum CREDIT: Koblenz Landesmuseum

Ultimately, Sooke offers the highest praise a critic can give an exhibition — he calls it “among the most powerful exhibitions at the British Museum” in memory.

Jonathan Jones was equally effusive in his review in the Guardian. "Wildly enjoyable" is his verdict of a show which he says "delivers a Rome for everyone."

He particularly praised the curatorial and design work of the exhibition, saying that it is "perfectly laid out" and "[a] satisfyingly stuffed blockbuster." He highlights that the curators have managed to deliver — through the artistry of the exhibition itself — a show that manages to bring modern day visitors incredibly close to the anonymous foot soldiers of Rome.

"This is not just a blood and guts orgy of Roman military might. It is one of the warmest encounters with individuals from the remote past you could ever hope for" he said.

The Times' Laura Freeman also applauded the curators in her review. "You feel the unstoppable enthusiasm of the curators at every new find" she says, adding that "the labels are clear, packed with facts and written with flair."

She's not as convinced by the graphic design and lighting choices however. "It’s not the prettiest of shows. The palette is a moody mix of rust, iron, blackened leather and stone" she says, adding that the darkness almost made her come perilously close to falling into a number of display cabinets.

But overall she awards it five-stars, concluding that it's "a muscular show, but a moving one too."

The scale and richness of objects is a recurring theme in the positive reviews. In the Evening Standard, Nick Clark writes that it is "breathtaking and exhaustive" and that there are "genuine spine-tingling" artefacts.

A full suit of armour made of skin with a golden colour helmet also made of skin
Suit of parade armour (crocodile skin) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Clark does offer a few quibbles — he would have liked a "bit more theatricality," that it has missed a trick to not bring offer some of the "key battles brought to life", and that the first section is the weakest bit before a welcome "gear change" when the first armour is displayed.

Yet his review is still overwhelmingly positive and he predicts that "anyone — man, woman or child — who visits this show will be thinking about it a whole lot more" after they leave.

Legion: life in the Roman army runs at the British Museum in London until 23 June 2024. Buy the accompanying catalogue by exhibition curator Richard Abdy here.

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