I’ve done four posts about The Vikings and I’ve got at least three more to go, so I thought I’d take a break and review something different, namely Centurion (2010, dir. Neil Marshall), an action film about the disappearance of the Roman 9th Legion.
In 1732, a British scholar named John Horsley noticed something curious, namely that the Roman 9th Legion Hispana disappears from the records sometime in the middle of the 2nd century AD. In the 19th century, evidence emerged that it had been stationed at York in 108 AD, and one scholar found evidence that it might have still been there in 116, but by 165, it was apparently no longer in existence (since it is not mentioned in a list of legions at that time). Since another legion was sent to Britain not long after 116, various scholars began to speculate that a revolt had happened in Britain around 116 or a few years later, and that the 9th Legion had been destroyed in that rebellion. Then in 1954, novelist Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth offered a slightly different theory; instead of being destroyed by a rebellion in Roman Britain, the 9th Legion had marched into what is now northern Scotland to suppress a Caledonian uprising, and was destroyed in the process.
Since then, scholars have continued to debate the fate of the 9th Legion, and it remains an open question. The idea that it was destroyed in a rebellion around 116 or so continues to be the most plausible explanation for its fate, although some uncertain evidence has been identified suggesting that the 9th Legion might have been on the Rhine in the 120s, which means that its demise must be sought elsewhere, perhaps in Judea or the Danube. For those interested in the debate, a nice look at the evolution of the problem can be found here.
The Romans pushed into northern Scotland in the 70s AD, encountering a people known as the Caledonians, defeating the Caledonian Confederacy heavily in 84. Despite this, the Romans pulled back soon afterwards, and in 122 began work on Hadrian’s Wall. In the 130s, they again pushed into Scotland, building the Antonine Wall, but around 160, they pulled back to Hadrian’s Wall again and gave up any interest in conquering Scotland.
Exactly why the Romans abandoned their desultory efforts to conquer Scotland is unclear. The Caledonians do not appear to have been particularly effective warriors, and so it is unlikely to be the case that Caledonian resistance forced the withdrawal. A variety of other factors have been offered to explain it. It has been suggested that the Romans concluded the region was too poor to be worth conquering, or that its lack of a market-based economy made supplying the legions more trouble than it was worth. Another intriguing explanation is that when Romans conquered a region, they preferred to adapt the existing native administrative and law enforcement structures rather than imposing their own system. They preferred to co-opt the existing ruling elites because it made social control much easier. But the Caledonians may have lacked enough of a system for the Roman model to be easily applicable.
Nor is it clear exactly what the relationship between the Caledonians and the later residents of Scotland, the Picts, was. It has been suggested that the Roman Empire’s actions in Scotland so disrupted Caledonian society that they gradually reorganized themselves into the Picts, but how and why that process happened is unclear. What is clear is that the Picts did not exist during the period of the Roman incursions into Scotland. The term ‘Pict’ is generally thought to be a Roman one, dating from the later 3rd century. In the 2nd century, Romans living along Hadrian’s Wall called the Caledonians Brittunculi (which roughly means “nasty little Britons’).
Centurion builds on Sutcliff’s novel by focusing on the 9th Legion and its fate in northern Britain. Thus the film is entirely historical speculation. There is absolutely no evidence that the 9th Legion ever went into Scotland, and the idea that it was destroyed in a rebellion is purely guesswork, although definitely educated guesswork, depending on how one reads the various scraps of evidence. The chief villains of the film are the Picts, who, as already noted, didn’t really exist at this point; they ought to be Caledonians.
The film opens at Inchtuthill in 117, where the Romans have established a fort. It’s true that the Romans established a fort at Inchtuthill in Scotland, on the banks of the Tay River, in the early 80s AD, but the fort was abandoned and entirely dismantled less than half a decade later. A prologue text tells us that the Picts of northern Britain are waging a guerilla war against the Romans, who are unable to defeat them, resulting in a stalemate. The fort is attacked by Picts, who use flaming arrows without having to actually light them, and everyone is slaughtered, except the main character, Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), who is taken prisoner and presented to Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), the Pictish king.
Back at York, the Roman governor, Julius Agricola (a genuine Roman governor, but one whose term in office ended in 85 AD) orders the 9th Legion into the north to fight the Picts. Their general, Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West) doesn’t want to go until Agricola introduces him to Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a mute female tracker from the Brigantes tribe. She’s good enough to help them locate Gorlacon’s forces. On the way, they run into Quintus, who has escaped from captivity.
Unfortunately for them, Etain is actually working for Gorlacon and leads the Roman legion into an ambush in which the Picts roll huge flaming boulders down on them to break their formation and then run in and slaughter the whole legion. They capture Titus, but Quintus and a half-dozen other men survive (including the legionary cook).
Quintus decides to rescue Titus, at which point the thus-far incompetent soldiers turn into a Roman version of Seal Team Six, capable of sneaking up on guards and killing them silently (including the cook–apparently Roman cooks get special forces training). But the rescue goes horribly wrong; they are unable to get Titus free from his chains, and he orders them to abandon him and return to York. But one of them has killed Gorlacon’s young son, so the Pictish chieftain sends Etain and a band of Picts to track them down and behead them all and the film turns into a ‘unit behind enemy lines’ story that is almost entirely predictable in its resolution.
We know fairly little about Pictish society in this period (especially since the Picts were actually Caledonians at this time, but let’s just pretend they were Picts), since they were a pre-literate people and the Romans had very little to say about them. The film gives us only hints about Pictish society, but what we see is perhaps broadly plausible apart from the warrior women, for whom there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever. I expected the Picts to be heavily tattooed or wear lots of face paint, but surprisingly the film is fairly restrained here. A few of the Picts wear small tattoos, but most have none. Later in the film, Etain and her warriors mix the ash from a funeral pyre into some woad that they paint on their faces, but it’s not as excessive as I was expecting. Quintus, mysteriously narrating this scene, tells us that this is something that the Picts do “as a sacred rite” indicating that they’d rather die than fail. This, of course, is made-up nonsense; we don’t even have any solid proof the Picts/Caledonians employed face painting at all, much less why they might have done so.
But the film isn’t particularly interested in historical accuracy. The Picts routinely wield recurve bows they must have stolen from the Romans, sometimes wear helmets they must have taken off of time-traveling Anglo-Saxons from half a millennium later, and occasionally use metal shields taken from wandering Greeks a millennium earlier. But then, this is the sort of film where Roman armor, the best available at the time, is essentially useless against the Picts just cuz.
The film routinely ignores issues of basic logic. When the Picts leap over the walls of the Roman fort in the opening action sequence, they immediately start firing flaming arrows. But how are they lighting the arrows on fire? And why didn’t the Romans notice torch-carrying Picts sneaking through the darkness? I guess the Picts also took bic lighters off of those time travelers too. Similarly, when the Picts ambush the Romans, they roll massive flaming boulders down on them, heavy enough to smash the Roman shield wall. What are these boulders made of this could be heavy enough to break a shield wall but still be flammable? Worst of all, Etain has been mute since childhood, when the Romans murdered her whole family, raped her, and then cut her tongue out. If that’s the case, how do the Picts know what happened to her? How do the Romans know her name? How does she communicate with the people who are following her? And why does she have such an absurd-looking spear?
The film resorts to two obnoxious conventions about women that I’ve already highlighted in this blog. Etain is a precursor to 300 2: Rise of an Empire’s Artemisia, a vicious female killer whose viciousness is entirely rooted in the fact that she was raped and brutalized as a child. Her only motivation is that she hates Romans because of what they did to her. The other significant female character, Arianne (Imogen Poots), who speaks English (standing for Latin) with a pronounced modern Scots accent, is basically a Woman as Prize given to Quintus as a reward for his surviving everything that happens to him. Mercifully she does actually have a separate plot function and is given a bit more agency than Isabel in Ironclad, and some degree of actual motivation for her choices. And at least the film tosses out a line explaining why she speaks Latin, whereas other characters conveniently know either Latin or Pictish (actually Scots Gaelic) with no explanation at all.
Also, as another example of the principle that films pretty much never get Roman names right, ‘Quintus Dias’ makes absolutely no sense as a Latin name, since his nomen is basically a modern Portuguese/Brazilian last name and not Latin at all. Titus Flavius Virilus almost works, except that they’ve misspelled ‘Virilis’.
The whole film is a bit of shame, actually, because the main actors all do a fine job with limited material. The Roman Seal Team is perhaps overly multicultural but is a nice acknowledgement that the Roman army was actually quite ethnically diverse and not just composed of Italians (although Tarak, who hails from the Hindu Kush, is a bit silly, since he would have had to travel through pretty much the entire modern Middle East just to enlist in the Roman army). Michael Fassbender does a particularly good job as Quintus. You actually care about him by the end of the film.
So if you’re in the mood for some mindless action set within very pretty scenery, Centurion is worth a watch, especially if you’re ok with having seen pretty much everything here before. But if you’re looking for a film that actually says anything about Roman Scotland historically, this isn’t the film for you. I’m not sure there is a film for you if that’s what you’re looking for, but it definitely isn’t this one.
Want to Know More?
Centurion is available on Amazon.
Or you could skip the film and read Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of The Ninth by Sutcliff, Rosemary (2004) Paperbackthat loosely inspired the film.
If you want to know something about Northern Britain in the Roman period, there’s David Shotter’s The Roman Frontier in Britain: Hadrian’s Wall, the Antonine Wall and Roman Policy in Scotland