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Life of a Roman Legionary with Author Ben Kane

Monday, 07 November 2016

Historical fiction author and former veterinarian Ben Kane visited School to talk to Boys’ Division pupils about the Romans. Ben has written several series of books set in Roman times: the Eagles of Rome, based on real events in Germany; the Hannibal and Rome series which traces one of the most famous wars in ancient times from both sides; the Spartacus series; and the Forgotten Legion Trilogy.

Dressed in Roman costume, he gave a talk to the whole of Year 7 during the afternoon’s SPACE session about life in the Roman legion. By popular demand, his lunchtime talk to older pupils also focused on the Roman military.

He began by speaking about the fact that legionaries did not look the same throughout Roman history: in early Roman times, their armour was influenced by the Greeks, and it evolved over time through different styles to become the familiar image that is well-known from films and television. He also talked about the different types of soldier in the early Roman army and how they were separated based on age and wealth: the youngest and poorest being the most lightly armoured with basic weapons, and used mostly for skirmishes; while the wealthy and older soldiers who had more experience were more valued, had far superior armour and weapons, and were deployed only when matters were desperate.

Ben also went into detail about various pieces of armour from throughout Roman history, from the single bronze greave worn by some early Roman soldiers, to impenetrable chainmail made up of 20,000 individually riveted steel rings, to the different types of helmets. He further explained that armour would have been re-used, and this is proved by one helmet which has several soldiers’ names scratched into the neck-plate. He had replicas of various pieces of Roman armour and weaponry. The boys passed around a helmet and some chainmail to feel the weight, and were also able to look at replicas of second helmet from a different time period, Roman hobnail boots, a bronze greave, a square shield and some daggers and swords from various periods and areas.

Linked to the subject of armour, Ben discussed the equipment that each Roman legionary would be expected to carry, which amounted to 40Kg of weight. They were expected to be able to carry this for 20 miles in five hours, or 24 miles in the same amount of times at the quick step, using a yoke on their shoulder. In 2013, Ben walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall dressed as a legionary and carrying the full weight of a sword, dagger, helmet, armour padding and armour, shield and javelin: everything apart from the additional equipment carried on the yoke, which was about 20Kg. He talked briefly about this experience and the first-hand knowledge he gained through it.

He also gave a whistle-stop tour of Roman forts, including bathhouses, tactics, and military discipline in the form of the vine stick, before opening the floor to questions.

The boys in both sessions came up with some fascinating things to ask Ben following his talk, and he ended up discussing everything from his favourite of his own books, to the legionaries’ relationship with auxiliaries or soldiers recruited from non-Roman tribes, to the cause of the Roman Empire’s eventual decline.

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Ben talking about the centurion

Ben talking about the centurion's vine stick, used for discipline

Showing the Year 7 boys a Roman helmet

Showing the Year 7 boys a Roman helmet

Talking to older pupils at lunchtime about military life

Talking to older pupils at lunchtime about military life