Simon Elliott, Roman Warriors: The Paintings of Graham Sumner (Greenhill, 2022)
Have you ever wondered how Roman soldiers dressed over the whole period of their Empire? If so, you are in for a treat with this collection of prominent military artist Graham Sumner’s authoritative illustrations brought together in a coffee-table style book.
Before we get into the main body of Sumner’s artwork, Simon Elliott introduces the man himself through a potted biography and appreciation of his work. The illustrations are arranged in chronological order, beginning in the pre-Roman era of the Villanovans and Etruscans and extending into the post-Roman, so-called Dark Ages, and the Byzantine period in the East. Most of the illustrations are of standing soldiers from all points of the Empire, highlighting their clothing, weapons, and armour. Some auxiliaries and enemies are included, the latter in dramatic combat pictures. Sumner deviates at times to showcase Roman installations such as forts, watchtowers, a blacksmith, a bath house, and a street scene in occupied Britain.
The accompanying text by Elliott provides background information on the figures and their context, including the organisation of the army and the campaigns they fought, and many have a description of the colour plates complete with sources. Along the way, Elliott drops in little snippets of Roman army life, such as rates of pay, what soldiers did on their ‘down time’ etc. An epilogue showcases some of Sumner’s latest work that extends outside Rome to other historical eras, and a useful bibliography closes the book.
It almost goes without saying that Sumner’s illustrations are uniformly excellent. Each of them offers a little insight into the world of the Roman soldier, and Elliott’s text complements them well. Sumner bases his artwork in the archaeology, and each figure looks as if they have been lifted from an historical scene. These are not mannequins, however, because Sumner has a particular talent for expression, animating his figures and making the viewer aware of a narrative happening just below the surface. The best coffee-table books have that almost passive educational element to them, and Roman Warriors succeeds admirably in that regard.