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A novel of Caligula's Rome

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Book review: LEGION stands behind the idea of Rome

March 20, 2016 | from Sherry Christie's blog

Author William Altimari has clearly done his homework about serving in a Roman legion during the Augustan era—not just the day-to-day duties and occasional clashes with foes, but the inner life of the average grunt. In LEGION, Mr. Altimari tells an engaging and suspenseful story about a legion based in the imagined fortress of Aquabona facing a massive German uprising across the Rhine.

At the outset we're introduced to Diocles, a Greek writer summoned from Rome by his patron Sabinus, commander of the Twenty-fifth Legion. Although relatively young and new to his post, Sabinus is so impressed by his troops that he asks Diocles to record for posterity what they are doing for Rome: "Give these men immortality," he urges. Diocles agrees to join a group of recruits and follow them through their training, an experience that will culminate in battle against the ferocious Germans.

Mr. Altimari's device of an outsider on the inside helps readers see the discipline and dedication that awed Rome's allies and enemies. Eventually LEGION shifts away from Diocles to become the story of Quintus Rufio, a centurion newly returned to Aquabona who had transferred out years earlier after an accident that killed a local woman. What endears Rufio to Diocles and his other men is his determination not just to teach them to survive in battle, but to make them worthy of their role in Rome's destiny. "In order to win, a man has to know why he's fighting," Rufio tells his standardbearer. He continues,

"Did you know that the word freedom exists only in Latin and Greek? I mean political freedom—the liberty to speak and argue with praetors and senators and consuls. The freedom to go before courts of law and seek justice. To write or sculpt or sing whatever songs please us. You won't find that word in Egyptian or Celtic or Syriac. Mention liberty to those people and they won't even know what you mean.... And we're fighting for even more than that—we're fighting for Rome. Not the wealth of Rome but the idea of Rome. Civilization instead of barbarism.... Rome is an idea that exists beyond our own short lives. Beyond time itself."

Considering the barbarians we face today, this view of cultural exceptionalism may make the hairs on the nape of your neck stand up.

LEGION isn't a polemic, though. It's a good read, with even a romance woven in. Mr. Altimari, a literate and fluent writer, deserves kudos for the outstanding polish of what appears to have been an independently published book (in 2008). His occasional characterization of the Romans as "Italians" did grate a bit, because the troops were certainly not all from Italy and would not have thought of themselves as Italian. But that's just a little glitch in what's otherwise a terrific novel by the gifted signore.

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