Book Review: Legion Versus Phalanx by Myke Cole

The Good: Entertaining, educational, easy to read, eye-opening and (this might sound strange but it’s true) emotional. The most accessible military history book I have ever read.

The Bad: This isn’t your average non-fiction military history, and whilst for me this was a VERY pleasant surprise, there will be some readers looking for more in-depth historical exploration, and there will be some put off by the heavy lifting up-front before getting to the good stuff beyond the first hundred pages.

The Ugly Truth: I didn’t know what to expect from Legion versus Phalanx, but it certainly wasn’t this! Myke Cole does more than just scratch the surface of the strategy of ancient warfare and the tactics of the time, getting stuck in at the boots-on-the-ground level (or should I say sandals?) and giving an account not just on the nature of war, but that of the warrior.

Legion versus Phalanx is a love story.

And I say that with all seriousness.

Myke Cole’s love for the period, the cultures, and indeed the way of life turn what could be misconceived as a reference book into a romance. Don’t get me wrong, Legion versus Phalanx delivers exactly what it says on the tin, providing a non-biased account of the subject matter; but Cole’s love of the warrior way – but not war, a key distinction he makes clear early on – his study of ‘what it is to be a warrior’ presents a factual commentary with feeling.

Some might recognise Cole from his previous publications in fantasy and science fiction, or from the television. But it is from his background in the military, intelligence and policing that Cole really shines, drawing upon these combined experiences to bring to life not just the legion and the phalanx, but the individual soldiers within them. His account is the closest experience to standing shoulder-to-shoulder, shield-over-shield, sword-against-spear you can achieve in the pursuit of Legion versus Phalanx, short of a Hollywood budget, an army worth of volunteers, and a very comprehensive insurance cover (to include dysentery, prickly heat, and blisters as well as stab wounds).

LvP has something for everyone. From the uninitiated (his words), to the neophyte soldier of history or hobbyists, to the veteran scholars and fans of the period. To achieve this Cole entertains and educates in equal measure, exploring both the technicalities and mechanics of the subject whilst doing so through a narrative. This approach had me thinking about the topic even when I had finished it – and in my opinion, if a book gets you thinking, especially when you’re not reading it, then it’s a damn good book. The inclusion of maps of the battles and the units involved is something of a must-have in military history books, and their presence in LvP is not surprising. They are easy to understand and give an overview of the layout, structure, and size of the battles.

This being military history, Cole covers the required reading of composition, tactics, and equipment up-front, before getting down and dirty on the front lines with the reality of ancient warfare. Not just what the soldiers did, and how they did it, but the feeling of being one. The growing pressure within the ranks long before the battle has even begun, and then the push and pull of the fighting lines when they crash together. The weight of a shield, the length of a pike, the jarring thrust of a sword against an enemy, or worse, on your own armour. The fear of facing down a horse – the terror of standing fast against an elephant charge.

Whilst the titular rhetorical question ‘Legion versus Phalanx’ is a foregone conclusion, in my honest opinion, Cole’s exploration should be read in advance of making up your own mind. The two have more in common than you first might think, especially at an individual level; and millennia later, the challenges that soldiers face in modern warfare remain similar, if not the same in many regards. This book isn’t just a book on warfare. It covers politics, social details, the character of the commanders, terrain, weather, and more. All of these things are vital for understanding the period, and what it meant to be alive during that time, let alone try and survive on a battlefield.

Speaking personally, as an ex-soldier, Cole is something of a role model to me. Someone who has made the military-to-civilian transition and embodies what it is to be a warrior not just at a time of war, but in the day to day world of cooking, cleaning, shopping, sleeping, washing and working. And in part because of this, I probably enjoyed LvP even more than I would have had I been from a different background.

Speaking generally, this is a book for fans of Cole, historians, fantasists, or anyone with an interest in the topic. Even those with only a passing intrigue will find this easily accessible as it is immediately arresting. As a fantasy fan myself (reader – reviewer – writer), I strongly believe that anyone looking to bring to life the battles in their own work, or breathe life into those they are reading, should read LvP. Not just because its about war and warfare, but because it’s about warriors. And if you want to experience the blood-pounding action of the battlefield then no one is more qualified than someone with the blood of the battlefield running through their veins.

You’d struggle to find a better man to stand beside in a shield wall than Myke Cole.

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