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Literature / Ranks of Bronze

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We're soldiers. Warriors are meat on the table for soldiers with discipline.
Centurion Clodius Afer

They were Roman soldiers—and they were still alive because there were no better killers in the galaxy.

Ranks of Bronze is a science fiction short story, later expanded into a novel, written by David Drake.

After the defeat at Carrhae, a captured Roman legion is sold into slavery ... to a guild of galactic traders. The Federation has banned the use of lasers and other high-tech weaponry against primitive civilizations, so they are looking for an army of low-tech soldiers to help them secure trading rights on alien planets. Their new masters provide them with long-life treatments, promising them

The anthology Foreign Legions, edited by David Drake, contains a number of short stories by various authors which expand the universe. David Weber's The Excalibur Alternative is based on a short story within the anthology.

The setting provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Aliens Speaking Latin: Played with. The Commander, Pilot and Medic all speak Latin, but they've all been taught it. In fact, it's heavily implied that Latin is the only common language on the ship.
  • Badass Army: The entire Legion by the end of the book, given that they've been fighting for over a millenium and have won every single time.
  • Battle Thralls: The Legion might be a badass army, but they're still slaves.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: The alien prostitutes are implied to be this, given that willowy=beautiful is a relatively recent thing.
  • Colonel Badass: Tribune Gaius Vibulenus becomes this, after a millenium of warfare. He begins the book as Ensign Newbie.
  • Cool Versus Awesome: Romans vs. aliens.
  • Continuity Snarl: To a small degree - the stories in Foreign Legions aren't all that consistent with each other, though both S.M Stirling and David Drake's short stories are easy to fit with any of the others. Thankfully, not even The Excalibur Alternative contradicts Ranks of Bronze.
  • Cyberspace: One of the leisure activities the Guild provides for the Legion between wars is simulated battles in virtual reality. The first one seen appears based on the Batrachomyomachia, but towards the end of the novel Vibulenus enters one based on their own first off-world battle.
  • Feudal Future: The Legion only ever sees these; justified as worlds with higher Technology Levels would be fair game for the guild.
  • Force-Field Door: The alien's crew quarters are protected by the nasty kind. Unless it's programmed to accept the person, the shield vaporizes them.
  • Greek Fire: One of the alien races the Legion fight use what's essentially Greek Fire, poured down murder holes or flung from ballistas in pots. Vibulenus invents a siege weapon using a bellows to shoot lit greek fire up a 120-foot hollowed log onto the top of an enemy tower.
  • Humans Are Warriors: The reason why the guild bought the Legion in the first place.
    • The novel has the Romans themselves see it as the "Humans Are Soldiers" variation - they are disciplined soldiers, not barbarian warriors, and that is why they win.
  • Lost Roman Legion: Crassus' forces, enslaved by the Parthians and sold to aliens.
  • Made a Slave: The Legion, and the women.
  • Make an Example of Them: The Commander demonstrates the force field by tossing a random legionaire into it. After the mutiny he becomes an example for the surviving crew when said legionaire's cousin crucifies him.
  • Rain of Javelins: A staple tactic for the Legion. Vibulenus orders a few of these by running in front of the Legion and waving his sword (not all of the legionnaires would hear the order otherwise).
    "A good javelin volley is like the scythe of death..."
  • Ray Gun: The aliens aren't allowed to use these against the locals, but the legionnaires are threatened with these if they look like they're going to mutiny.
  • Rubber-Forehead Aliens: The women, who Vibulenus discovers aren't actually women but a species of alien modified to look as close to human as possible. They begin as pale green with metallic scales, but are later changed again to look more human.
  • Sergeant Rock: Gnaeus Clodius Afer, who begins as a file-closer and eventually gets promoted to Centurion.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Implied to be the legion's eventual date of arrival, given the amount of time they've spent in deep sleep.
    Again, there was an exotic combination of old and new technology. The three great turrets of the ancient battleship swivelled, just as if it were still sailing the Pacific. But the guidance mechanisms were state-of-the-art Doge technology. And the incredible laser beams which pulsed out of each turret's three retrofitted barrels were something new to the galaxy.... Only a ship as enormous as the old Missouri could use these lasers. It took an immense hull capacity to hold the magnetic fusion bottles.