The ancient historian Flavius Josephus wrote admiringly of the Roman legionnaires’ fighting excellence: “Their perfect discipline welds the whole into a single body; so compact are their ranks, so alert their movements in wheeling, so quick their ears for orders, their eyes for signals, their hands for tasks.” His observations were more than academic — as a surviving leader of Zealot rebels during the Jewish war of AD 66-73 — he had experienced their efficiency first-hand.
In Nero’s Killing Machine: The True Story of Rome’s Remarkable Fourteenth Legion (John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken NJ, 2005, $24.95), Stephen Dando-Collins tracks the history of one of the most famous such units, the 14th Legion — Legio XIV in Roman parlance — which suffered disgrace in its early years under Gaius Julius Caesar, but went on to regarded by Emperor Nero as the best unit he had.
Drawing on 30 years of research for the second of his definitive histories of ancient Roman armies, Dando-Collins reveals new information about Roman military strategies and explains fascinating details of the often brutal but honor-centered daily life among legionnaires. Within that context, he starts tracing Legio XIV’s fortunes from its formation under Julius Caesar in 58 BC, the legion was attacked in its Winter quarters by marauding German cavalry and was severely mauled. Cesar himself arrived in time to compel the Germans to withdraw, but the survivors of Legio XIV were said to have committed suicide.
The author writes, “For more than a century its legionnaires bore the shame of [this] terrible baptism of fire…” He then tells the exciting story of Legio XIV’s exploits during its second lease on life. In its reconstructed form, the 14th was called Gemina, meaning “twin,” which identified it as an amalgamation of existing formations. Elements of the legion fought in Africa, Spain, Gaul, and Greece. The legion also took part in the AD 43 invasion of Britannia, and for more than a decade its troops were based in Wales on the Severn River.
Legio XIV established its distinguished war-making reputation once and for all in AD 60, during the Iceni rebellion under Queen Boudicca. Numbering less than 10,000 men, but ready to go down fighting for the honor of Rome, Legio XIV defeated 230,000 Iceni, inflicting some 80,000 causalities while suffering only 400 losses. That victory inspired Emperor Nero to honor the legion with the title Martia Victris (“victorious, blessed by Mars”), as well as Domitores Britannorum, or “Tamers of Britain.”
As Dando-Collins observers, “The 14th Legion served Rome for upwards of five centuries … Romans always remember it as the legion that overcame its shame to seize everlasting fame.” Nero’s Killing Machine is a fitting chronicle of what the author calls, “the men that made Rome great.”
This review originally appeared in Military History magazine, July 2005