A retro review from January 23, 2009.
Review: Ranks of Bronze, David Drake, 1986.
In the year 53 BC, Crassus, the richest man in Rome, led an army to a humiliating defeat by the Parthian Empire at Carrhae. The poet Horace mentions, in the novel’s Prologue, captive Roman soldiers marrying barbarian women and growing old fighting for their new masters.
That bit from Horace’s Odes neatly sums up this story except, rather than growing old with the Parthians, the Romans become the military assets of an alien trading guild who uses them to fight the low tech wars somehow required by their political system. The Romans prove quite adept at their new duties. In between campaigns, they whore with aliens surgically altered to mostly resemble human women, watch and participate in strange combat simulations with alien beasts, and try not to think too hard about how they and their comrades are repaired after nearly every injury.
There’s plenty to like in this novel: the development of tribune Gaius Vibulenas from a callow youth to a true leader of men; Drake’s nitty gritty consideration of all the physical aspects – balance, footing, strength, stamina, sight – of battle; the understated relationship Vibulenas has with alien “woman” Quartilla; the very believable spark that finally triggers revolt and characteristic Roman terror.
The only disappointment I had with the novel was its sometimes confusing descriptions of battle and Roman military organization – even though I know something of the Roman army of the period.