Today (02/23/2016) we take advantage of the launch of Santiago Posteguillo‘s “La Legión Perdida” –the last episode of the trilogy dedicated to Roman emperor Trajan-. This is a good opportunity to carry out a small reflection on the role played by the historical novels in popularizing the Roman army.
Although this issue has been dealt in Spain, it never was as successful as in the anglo-saxon sphere. There, under the shadow of writers like Simon Scarrow -and his two main characters, the legionnaires Cato and Macro-, this subgenre focused on the Roman legions became a classic in libraries. Other authors have followed his wake, solvently developing and expanding the issue. Writers such as the italian Massimiliano Colombo (“The Legion of Immortals” and “The Purple Banner” Ediciones B. 2011 and 2014) or Ben Kane have recreated –always considering the freedom granted by the literary fiction- with these “Legion novels” the daily life of both the Roman soldiers and their fiercest enemies as well as combat tactics, weapons and fortification systems. All of this trying to integrate and appropriate to the story line of the story told.
We should emphasize that a significant documentation labour existed prior to the writing of all these books and historical and archaeological academic works served as main source to it. However, in recent years other resources such as the Historical Reenacment and specialized discussion forums -e.g. romanarmytalk– began to be used with profusion. What is more, this data collection not only was integrated into the narration, but also was reflected in the numerous annexes that often accompany the publication of those literary works. In this way, through these auxiliary sections (Glossary, Bibliography, graphs, maps, illustrations, explanatory notes…) the readers have a good opportunity to enrich their knowledge about the historical period in general and the Roman army in particular. Perhaps the most peculiar example of all this is the popularity that certain Latin military terms has achieved, such us castra aestiva, contubernium, or manipulus, among others.
We truly believe that these historical novels serve as a vital complement to our research work, since they bring people closer to our labour. Sometimes the material evidences we locate and study are not expressive enough and a great part of our societies are not able to recognize in them the remains of the former defensive sites where a significant military contingent rest during their penetration through hostile territory. In this endeavour to socialize and disclose these historical episodes the labour of writers is transcendental. So what for the specialist are systematically studied archaeological sites maybe to the general public they are not more than small rectangular structures that barely stand out from the ground. Here the novelists act to fill the gap, turning those small ramparts in a defensive enclosure along which soldiers patrol complaining themselves because of the weather on that cold night. At the same time, inside the very same enclosure a group of weary legionaries huddles inside their tents trying to sleep.
Spanish researchers devoted to the study of these conflicts had much to learn from the work done decades ago by their British colleagues, adopting concepts from Landscape Archaeology or even taking some prospecting tools for the discovery of these Roman marching camps. In a very similar way we believe that the Spanish writers of historical novels have taken the path leaded by their British colleagues when they write about the ancient Roman legions in Hispania.