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Review: Legion exhibition catalogue from the British Museum

The book accompanying the British Museum’s current Roman army exhibition is very comprehensive.

With a huge 320 pages and an extensive 260 images, this catalogue is a must-read for everyone who wants to take home the exciting historical story of Legion: life in the Roman army, which is on show at the British Museum until 23 June 2024.

This book has everything featured in the exhibition, plus so much more.

If you don’t know the museum show it accompanies — and be assured you don’t need to have seen it to enjoy this publication — it’s a huge blockbuster which takes visitors into the heart of the massive fighting machine which expanded and defended the extensive empire of Ancient Rome over 2000 years ago.

The critics loved Legion according to their reviews, and I’m sure most of them took home a copy of this book too.

Showcasing both dazzling ancient objects and intimate, first hand testimonies, the Legion exhibition catalogue reveals the everyday lives of Roman soldiers as they’ve never been told before.

Book cover with a Roman helmet laying on the dirt on the ground with a blue sky above
Cover of Legion exhibition catalogue

Because while the Roman army has been immortalised in heroic art and big screen epics, these don’t really tell the true story of what life was really like for an ordinary soldier.

It's been written by the exhibition’s curator Richard Abdy, and across eight chapters Roman army life is explored in great detail. There are chapters on:

  • Enlistment

  • The archaeological evidence from the bodies of soldiers

  • Ranks and pay

  • Promotion in the service

  • Uniforms and weaponry

  • Life in encampments and on the move

  • Life in forts

  • Life in retirement and in the public sphere

The publication deep-dives into how forces were split into legions of citizen-only troops and auxiliary units of non-citizen troops (and how the latter were offered a chance at citizenship and social advancement after around 25 years of service).

It explores the social forces behind the army too, including addressing the violent reality for civilians and troops through battle tactics, weaponry and even the risk for convicted soldiers of becoming amphitheatre entertainment.

Some of the stories it covers are truly remarkable.

These include the world’s only intact legionary shield which is now in the collection of Yale University — and which is stunning — and the oldest and most complete classic Roman segmental body armour, unearthed from the battlefield in Germany just five years ago.

There’s also the story of a soldier, whose remains were found at Herculaneum and is believed to be one of the marines commanded by Pliny the Elder who were attempting to help citizens flee when Vesuvius erupted. It is incredible to think that it was only in the 1980s we discovered that not all of the residents of the Italian town escaped the eruption, and these included the military personnel who were trying to help with the rescue effort.

Pages showing a Roman building under a blue sky, and a marble frieze on the opposite page
Inside pages of Legion catalogue from the British Museum

Here are some of the some best aspects about the book:

  • It's hugely comprehensive and detailed. This is a thorough in-depth look at the lives of those who served in the Roman army through the prism of objects that survive to this day. Its scale is likely never going to be repeated in a publication for a long time.

  • It’s written by Richard Abdy who also curated the exhibition, which means you know it's written by a top expert who has done extensive research.

  • For those who saw the exhibition and want more time to go deeper into the subject — or who just wanted to revisit certain aspects — it’s the best way to do this. Everything featured in the show is here, so it really is like taking the exhibition home with you.

  • There some helpful reference sections, including a succinct timeline of some of the key moments in the Roman Empire that the book covers, from its founding in 27 BC by Augustus to the rise of Maximinus Thrax who was the first soldier who rose through the ranks to become Roman emperor. It also has a useful map of the Empire at its height.

The Legion catalogue has a small number of weaker points:

  • While there are plenty of images of incredible objects, some are not the most-beautifully shot. More striking photography would have been a real bonus.

  • The on-page design and layout is clean, but perhaps a little too simple. A few more graphic design flourishes would be a welcome addition.

  • Its comprehensiveness also means it covers A LOT of ground. The sheer amount of text can make it look overwhelming, and does mean it can take a while to get through. But, the images and the clear chapters do help when wanting to dip in and out.

Overall, the British Museum's Legion: life in the Roman army catalogue is detailed and fascinating. It can be enjoyed by both experts and non-specialists alike. But one factor to consider is that there is so much within its pages, it may take a while to get through. Thankfully, there's never a dull moment in what we know about the soldiers of Rome's great army.

*When you purchase an independently reviewed book through this site, we earn an affiliate commission.


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