S.J.A. Turney's Books & More

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The value of experience

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For those who don’t know, as well as reviewing book and writing historical fiction, one of my other hobbies is kitting myself up as a late 1st century legionary and reenacting with the 20th legion at Chester. I would heartily recommend such a pastime to anyone interested in the era. The kit’s not cheap to assemble, of course, but many units will have spare kit that you can borrow while putting together your own, and some manufacture their own. And it’s a hobby that most folk could cope with. I myself am almost extraordinarily unfit and slightly portly, and yet this past weekend I marched 10 miles in the kit seen above with my legionary brothers to raise money for the Park In The Past project. It’s great fun, it’s fascinating, and there is a level of camaraderie you’ll find in few other hobbies.

But do you know what? It’s also extremely educational. One aspect of reenactment is regularly termed ‘experimental archaeology, and for very good reason. Reenactment is the only way to even attempt to understand what it was to BE those characters about whom we write. I know a number of my peers also march in kit, or take part in civil war battles, involve themselves with living history and so on. It is possible to be truly knowledgeable without doing something like this, but to actually experience something of the life is to add life to the knowledge. I have discussed the matter at length with the superb Christian Cameron, whose works are very human and personal, and who reenacts ancient Greek, medieval and also Revolutionary War eras!


The thing is: for those of us writing in the ancient world, and particularly in the Roman era, on which I am focusing here, the documentary and visual evidence leaves huge gaps. Rome is one of the few distant worlds which has left us a wealth of sculpture, painting, written texts and buried artefacts that help us understand their world. And yet despite this, there are holes in our understanding. Here are some examples:

Military clothing. We know that legionaries wore tunics from the Republican era right through to the late empire. But even at the height of the Principate when we have the best records, there are few notable reference to the tunic’s colour (I’m not including the late empire here, as it’s a different beast entirely.) Wall paintings from Pompeii and an Etruscan tomb suggest red tunics, as do some vague references, but there is no direct text to support that. Other sources show legionaries in white or undyed tunics. It is my personal belief that only officers wore the red and that undyed was the standard for legionaries. This is largely the work of logic, since the cost of purchasing and importing red dye to dye between two and perhaps five garments for each man of a five-thousand strong legion seems unrealistic to me. Yet some reenactors will point to their white tunics and the russet stains left by wearing armour in bad weather and will use that as evidence for the need for red tunics. Some (I marched alongside two this weekend) wear blue tunics, just to outline the fact that no one knows for sure. The unit I serve with allows a wide variety of colours and fabrics, so long as there is a common element, in the belief that since legions were based long-term in a region, they would take to using whatever local sources and dyes were commonly available and cheap. This is another very reasonable assumption. The answer to the colour question might never be known, but by trial and error we can start to understand the potential of the answers.

Footwear. It is a general common understanding that Roman soldiers wore Caligae (the strapped sandal-like military boots) everywhere. More recently a wealth of evidence has begun to appear to suggest that closed boots were a lot more common that previously believed. And believe a reenactor when they tell you that boots are much more practical and sensible in damp conditions, and therefore it has to be believed that the Romans wore mostly enclosed boots in more adverse environments. Many of the men I marched with this weekend own both types of footwear, but the weekend was generally a damp one, and the number of caligae in evidence compared to boots was extremely small. Experience overturning theory. That is the value of reenactment.


Tweaks. Legionaries are shown carrying their shields on their backs in numerous depictions. And yet there is little evidence as to how that actually worked. This is one aspect in which reenactment is a prime source of information. For instance, the way I carried my shield (above) was comfortable throughout the march, and yet if we had been attacked by slavering barbarians somewhere outside Lower Kinnerton, I would have been dead long before I’d struggled with the buckles and got the shield on my arm. So there goes that theory. Len Morgan of the 14th showed me his shield strap, and things fell into place, for his was carried over one shoulder, not the neck, with a second strap around the chest. The result? Unbuckle under one armpit and the shield was already on his arm. That quick. Trial and error. The reenactor has potentially solved how this was done. Some shields’ grips within the boss are so restrictive and tight that manoeuvering with them comfortably shreds the back of the hand. It would have been near impossible for a legionary to have functioned with my shield, until I took a leaf from a friend’s rulebook and rebuilt the grip. Now it is comfy and I can throw it around as required:


There are so many other things. How were men arranged in the testudo? Think about the aspect of height! A shorter man between two taller ones will result in a hole in the defence. I discovered this last year at an event when I was hit in the face with a thrown missile. So a testudo should, for preference, be organised by height, so that when called, every man knows his place and there are no gaps. How do you stop a helmet bouncing around when it’s hanging down your front during a march? Simple: you tuck the cheek guards around the baldric of your sword. I never knew that until this weekend, but it makes so much sense.


The list goes on. I could spend all day telling you just the things I learned this last weekend, let along over the past year or two.

And that’s where it becomes more than a hobby for a writer. It becomes research, pure and simple. I’ll freely admit that in my earlier work there were mistakes and assumptions. I cannot go back and correct such assumptions at this stage, but I can try and avoid any and all such issues with every new book. Consequently, there is a wealth of detail in my more recent books that has come directly from first-hand experience with the 20th Valeria Victrix. Without that experience, I would have missed out on some gems of knowledge and colour, and a few directly-related events. There is little that prepares you to write about the difficulties of stomping up a hill laden with gear than doing it.

The effect of several contubernia of men chanting while marching under a bridge or tunnel has to be heard to be believed!

Oh and the weight of a good Celtic torc came as something of a surprise too! And as for wearing the jangling willies…. 😉


The value of reenactment and living history in writing. Ask Christian Cameron, Robert Low, Caroline Lawrence and others. I guarantee they will all have taken value from their experience and put it into their work.

Now to take my experiences of the post-march booze-up and apply it to Fronto’s experiences in the wine trade.


Written by SJAT

May 5, 2015 at 11:03 am

5 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on THE BARCARII.



    May 5, 2015 at 11:41 am

  2. I can see how that research really would help! Guess you need to go to a few more of those, huh?



    May 5, 2015 at 2:29 pm

  3. For me the biggest surprise was how comfortable a Roman saddle is. I’ve grown up with stirrups and thought I’d miss them, but that was not the case. The saddle works fine for fighting with a sword or spear, too – I would not try that from the saddle I use for cross country riding. The one disadvantage of a Roman saddle is that you can’t jump the horse as easily because you can’t lift your weight off the horseback _and_ lean forward; the horns get in the way. Maybe the Romans had a different technique, else some fallen trees in a German forest would indeed have gotten in the way of the cavalry. 🙂



    June 6, 2015 at 1:21 pm

  4. BTW how many hobnails do you lose on average during a march?

    After the finds of the Roman marching camps at Hedemünden (Drusus’ time), it turned out archaeologists could trace veritable marching routes by looking for lost nails, and that way found another smaller camp and a watch tower, plus several sites where camps or towers are suspected to have been. Same with the 3rd century battlefield of Kalefeld/Harzhorn; the movement of the Roman army after the first ambush could be traced by shoe nails.



    June 6, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    • Hi Gabriele. I’ve yet to lose a nail! I’ve lost a disc from my cingulum at one point, but as yet no nails. But then I only get to go on the marches occasionally. I shall ask the question of one of the more regulars when I get the chance.



      June 7, 2015 at 7:01 pm

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