I recently read an excellent novel called The Three Legions by Gregory Solon. It takes place in 9 A.D. and is basically about how the German tribes revolted against the Roman legions which had conquered them a few years previously, culminating in a huge and devastating forest battle. It was published in 1956 and I had picked it up at the flea market a couple of years ago in a nice rare paperback edition for just a few bucks.
As I started reading it and examining the cover closely, I realized by the signature that it was done by the great Mort Künstler, veteran artist of the 1950s and 60s men’s adventure magazines and now an historical painter of great repute. In fact I got to meet him briefly at a gallery showing of his men’s magazine illustrations a few years ago, and he was very friendly and personable.
Now, I like the cover as an image but it’s actually a red herring, as covers often could be in those days. It gives the book a kind of trashy aura that the text doesn’t have at all. “With a barbarian beauty lay the fate of 30,000 Roman soldiers” goes the heavy-breathing and, I must admit, exciting coverline. So when I began reading the book initially I thought it would be a fun kind of lurid historical epic; but I was pleasantly surprised when it quickly turned out to be an example of one of my favorite kinds of fiction: an intriguing combination of history with solid, complex characterizations, some thoughtful philosophizing, psychologically astute romance, and all beautifully written to boot. The author was a World War 2 veteran who flew 175 missions with the Ninth Air Force as a tailgunner in his early 20s, one of the most dangerous of all assignments; and he was awarded the Silver Star (it was difficult to find any information about Solon, but I got this from a short obit I located online). I wondered as I read if the novel was emotionally autobiographical about the experience of being a young soldier, transplanted from the author’s World War 2 life to that of a Roman legionary.
But the cast of characters in this compelling book—which would have made a fantastic movie back in the 50s days of epic sword-and-sandal cinema—is not limited to the young legionary, and covers the range of generals, commanders, tribunes, centurions, German female captives, German princes, kings, and tribesmen, and even a scribe/historian and a cameo by Augustus Caesar. It’s an epic story that combines the courageous with the tawdry, the heroic with the cowardly, the vile with the noble, all described with compassion and insight. There’s a beautiful German captive who’s desired by both the young virginal legionary and the melancholy but masterful commander of one of the legions; but the triangle is resolved in ways that are totally unexpected and uncliched. There’s a brute of a centurion who fights like a madman in the final battle even while his body is ravaged by disease; a foppish general who is more interested in how his armor looks than he is in fighting the Germans; an officer who lusts for a command in spite of the fact that he is too fearful in combat to be effective as a leader. And there is very tragically and memorably an embittered legionary, a career soldier, who taunts the young legionary about his inexperience, but then later himself suddenly commits a grievous act of drunken stupidity that echoes through the second half of the book. In short, the human condition is examined in the story of the three legions that found themselves suddenly attacked by the Germans they thought had become, if not their friends, then something like allies. Through its depiction of the Roman army and its adversaries The Three Legions shows the beginning of the decline of the Roman civilization, but despite this weighty angle it never forgets to be an exciting, visceral, and gripping story. Look for it at your library or on Amazon, as it is a novel well worth reading and remembering. I immediately ordered Gregory Solon’s second novel, Let Us Find Heroes, via Amazon, and am in the middle of it now.
I’ve been perusing many more interesting novels and non-fiction over the last few months, and I’ll be writing about them here too. I hope to give some good recommendations people might not otherwise have heard of.
Erotica is my trade, and good writing of many kinds is my pleasure.