Bad Prologue Texts, Hadrian's Wall, Movies I Love, Roman Britain, Roman Empire, Roman Scotland, Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Ninth Legion
The Eagle (2011, dir. Kevin McDonald, based on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth is at least the third movie set in Roman Scotland (along with King Arthur and Centurion), and it’s by far the best of the three. There’s a lot of things to like about this film, but the prologue text is not one of them. It might, in fact, be the worst prologue text to a historical film I’ve ever seen, because virtually every element of it is problematic.
Here it is:
“In 120 AD, the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army marched into the unconquered territory of Northern Britain. They were never seen again. All 5,000 men vanished, along with their treasured standard…The Eagle. Shamed by this great loss, the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a giant wall that cut off the North of Britain forever. Hadrian’s Wall marked the end of the known world.”
Normally in historical films, a prologue text is used to provide important historical background for audiences unfamiliar with a particular historical setting. Some films also use them to set a mood or establish the film’s viewpoint on the setting, but they almost always provide a little basic fact to orient the viewer.
With that in mind, let’s take this prologue text an element at a time.
“In 120 AD, the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army marched into the unconquered territory of Northern Britain. They were never seen again. All 5,000 men vanished, along with their treasured standard…The Eagle.”
As I’ve discussed before when I looked at Centurion, this isn’t historical fact at all. It’s entirely the invention of British children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff. When she wrote The Eagle of the Ninth, she offered an interesting explanation for what happened to the 9th Legion, which disappears from the historical record in the early 2nd century AD after being stationed in Britain. Her theory that the Legion was sent into Scotland and subsequently destroyed is certainly a possibility, but there’s literally no evidence for it. It’s more likely that it was destroyed during a rebellion in Roman Britain. There’s a bit of weak evidence that it was redeployed to the Rhineland. Perhaps it was just disbanded for administrative reasons. But it’s important to realize that the film’s scenario is entirely made-up.
“Shamed by this great loss, the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a giant wall”
If the Legion’s debacle in Scotland didn’t happen, it should be obvious that it wasn’t the reason Hadrian built his famous wall. We don’t actually know what Hadrian was thinking when he ordered the construction of the wall for the simple reason that we don’t have any documents about that decision. We can certainly make some reasonable inferences based on Roman policy toward its European frontier, but it’s not provable what the intention was.
Also, calling it a ‘giant wall’ is a bit misleading. It was a very long wall, but ‘giant’ suggests size more than length, and as far as we know, the wall probably wasn’t more than 10-12 feet tall. The surviving ruins don’t allow us to know much about its height or battlements, but what survives doesn’t really suggest that the wall was unusually tall, just very long.
“that cut off the North of Britain forever. Hadrian’s Wall marked the end of the known world.”
This is just nonsense. Hadrian’s Wall did no such thing. The Wall is the best surviving example of what the Romans called a limes, which as essentially a wall marking a frontier. But it’s not unique. Similar structures (at least in function) existed in North Africa and in Eastern Europe. Although it was garrisoned at small posts called ‘mile castles’ along its length, it probably was not primarily intended to repulse an invasion, for the simple reason that the small garrisons were a mile apart, and the individual garrisons were probably not staffed by more than a half-dozen men at a time. It would have been very easy for an invading force to simply climb the wall in between mile castles, and it would not have been too challenging for a decent force to overwhelm the garrison at a particular post. Furthermore, sailing around it wouldn’t have been too difficult. As a military structure, the Wall would simply have slowed down an invasion a little, giving the Roman forces stationed further south advanced warning of an attack.
Instead, a limes was much more like a customs station than a truly defensible position. Each mile castle had a gateway running through it (although some of the gateways opened onto such steep slopes that they can’t have been seriously intended to handle much traffic). Those gates (one of which the film shows) allowed regular passage between Roman Britain and what we’ll anachronistically call Scotland. It served to allow the Romans to control (and perhaps tax) trade with the tribes to the north of the Wall.
The Romans had no intention of cutting off all contact with the tribes of Scotland. Their first line of defense against those tribes was to maintain regular contact with them. It was standard for the Romans to reward a few tribes beyond a limes with the Roman version of ‘most favored trading status’. By singling out a couple of neighboring tribes to receive trade and periodic diplomatic gifts; this gave the rulers of those tribes privileged access to exotic goods from within the Empire, like wine, silk, and silver tableware. In exchange those tribes provided the Romans with intelligence on the other tribes and might ally with the Romans against hostile tribes. If an allied tribe became a problem, the Romans would simply make one of their enemies the most favored trading partner. By playing the tribes off against each other this way, the Romans rarely had to actually defend their frontiers.
Far from marking the end of the world, Hadrian’s Wall regulated Roman interactions with southern Scotland.
Also, Hadrian’s Wall didn’t create a permanent boundary (except in the sense of a physical wall that still survives). His successor Antoninus Pius decided to push the Roman frontier northward. He built a second wall, the so-called Antonine Wall, that ran between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde. He ordered construction to start in 142 AD. For unknown reasons, the Antonine Wall was abandoned around 162 AD, when the Empire pulled back to Hadrian’s Wall. Then in 208, Septimius Severus decided to re-occupy southern Scotland and ordered the Antonine Wall repaired. This occupation was abandoned just a few years later, at which point Hadrian’s Wall became the permanent frontier for the rest of the Roman period.
Whereas most films use prologue texts to establish the actual historical context, this movie uses its prologue text to assert a set of blatant, nonsensical falsehoods.
Let me summarize the problems with this by rephrasing the prologue text to demonstrate just how nonsensical it really is. “In 2017, the American army marched into the unconquered territory of Mexico. They were never seen again. All the men vanished, along with their traditional standard, the American flag. Shamed by this great loss, President Donald Trump ordered the construction of a giant wall that cut off Mexico forever. Trump’s Wall marked the end of the known world.”
Want to Know More?
The Eagle is available on Amazon. Sutcliff’s original novel (and its two sequels) is too.
If you want to know more about Hadrian’s Wall, you might try Patricia Southern’s Hadrian’s Wall: Everyday Life on the Roman Frontier. Amazon also has a lot of guides for walking the Wall; it’s one of England’s top tourist destinations. Having visited the Wall myself years ago, it’s definitely worth the visit if you’re in Northern England.
Matt Oldham said:
I actually preferred CENTURION over this movie. I felt the ending of this one was incredibly hard to swallow, the end fight scene of CENTURION felt way more logical. Plus I felt Channing Tatum and the movie didn’t do a good job selling us on Marcus’ motivation for going to get the Eagle. Not sure if this was in Sutcliff’s novel or this film’s adaptation but it seemed like his motivations were kinda convoluted. I mean he volunteers for a bad assignment to redeem his father’s legacy, then breaks orders to rescue his men and gets injured, then is shocked when his commission is taken away, and blames that on his father’s legacy. So he decides that he has to go find the Eagle even though the movie implies that it’s his injury that’s the real reason his commission is taken away. It just felt like he imposed more restrictions on himself because of what happened to his father and the Ninth than what the high command was actually doing to him.
I agree that Tatum’s acting skills weren’t good enough to convey much nuance or depth. To me, that made it feel very much like a movie about an American soldier, and that sort of bridges the past/present divide in historical film, like a point of contact between Americans and Romans, without losing the specifically Roman details of the setting. And yeah, the re-appearance of the old soldiers comes a bit out of nowhere. But to me Centurion was just filled with too many wild illogicalities, like Picts with fire-arrows sneaking up on a Roman fort in the darkness without being spotted.
Matt Oldham said:
Hey now you can do THE LAST LEGION and fill out the unofficial “Ninth Legion” trilogy. That movie states that the Ninth survived in England all the way to the 5th century and had a part in the beginning of the legend of King Arthur. So you get two tie ins for the price of one!
Oi. That makes very little sense. Thanks, David Franzoni!
Matt Oldham said:
THE LAST LEGION was based on a 2002 novel by Valerio Massimo Manfredi. Manfredi, who is, according to his bio: an historian, writer, essayist, archaeologist and journalist, actually has the Legion in the book be the totally fictitious 12th Legion. For whatever reason one of the four credited screenwriters on the film thought it was a good idea to change it to the 9th even though the story is set in 476 AD.
I am surprised that you did not point out the simple fact that Hadrian’ Wall did not cut off the north of Britain “forever” because all of Scotland is part of the United Kingdom..
On the other hand, although at least part of the prologue was nonsense and I agree that it is unlikely that the Ninth Legion was destroyed in Scotland and that its destruction was the reason for Hadrian’s Wall, one evidently cannot rule out either possibility based on the historical evidence. But that raises an issue: is it really a fault of a historical movie to speculate about the events it portrays, as opposed to misstating known fact? After all, the historical record is usually too sparse to fill in all of the action or dialogue (if it was, it would probably make for one hell of a documentary).
In any case, thank you for doing these movie reviews.
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No, it’s not a problem when a film speculates about unknown facts, as long as the speculation is plausible. My issue with the prologue text is that it offers speculation as fact. If it had included a sentence saying that “no one knows what happened to the Ninth but here’s our guess'” I would have really liked that.
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