Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Caesarion: Victim of the wicked who whispered 'Too Many Caesars'

Colossal head thought to depict Caesarion recovered
from Abukir Bay of the coast of Alexandria by French
archaeologist Frank Goddio in 1997.

Behold, you came with your vague
charm. In history only a few
lines are found about you,
and so I molded you more freely in my mind.
I molded you handsome and sentimental.
My art gives to your face
a dreamy compassionate beauty.
And so fully did I envision you,
that late last night, as my lamp
was going out -- I let go out on purpose --
I fancied that you entered my room,
it seemed that you stood before me; as you might have been
in vanquished Alexandria,
pale and tired, idealistic in your sorrow,
still hoping that they would pity you,
the wicked -- who whispered "Too many Caesars." 
- Constantine P Cavafy, Greece (1863-1933)

Like Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, I have tried to imagine what Caesarion was like.  Surely he possessed a healthy dose of charisma like his mesmerizing mother Cleopatra VII and his inspiring father Gaius Julius Caesar.   But then again, when I studied genetics in high school back in the 60s I was told that nature tends to return to the "norm" rather than build successively on the talents of one's parents.  I was always puzzled by that since researchers exploring the boundaries of eugenics always tried to manipulate the gene pool by selective breeding.

I had never seen a sculpted portrait of Caesarion, except the highly stylized relief of him as pharaoh alongside his mother Queen Cleopatra VII on the temple of Dendera, until I attended the "Cleopatra: The Search For The Last Queen of Egypt" exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania last month.  There I saw an image of a handsome young man with hair peeking out from under the royal nemes headdress looking so melancholy as if he sensed his life would end soon without any of his dreams or ambitions fulfilled.

'Son of the avenging god, Chosen by Ptah, Dispenser of the justice of Ra, Living power of Amun' proclaims the translation of Caesarion's Egyptian name, Iwapanetjerentynehem Setepenptah Irmaatenra Sekhemankhamun.  Sadly, Caesarion, Ptolemy XV, known by his Greek subjects as Ptolemy Caesar, did not live to dispense justice or avenge the death of his father.  He was executed by his father's adopted son, Octavian, who would become the Roman emperor Augustus.


Of course, with literally the control of the Roman World at stake, Caesarion's actual paternity, needless to say, was much disputed by some ancient Romans, probably fueled by Octavian's robust propaganda machine. 

Dio Cassius, a Roman consul and historian writing in the 3rd century CE (47.31.5) claimed Cleopatra VII only "pretended" that Caesar was his father while Nicolaus of Damascus, a Greek historian who actually served as tutor to Antony and Cleopatra's children but was later patronized by Augustus, in his Life of Augustus (20) claimed that Caesar explicitly repudiated Caesarion in his will.

Suetonius[, a second century historian patronized by the Roman emperor Trajan,] is carefully neutral in his Caesar 52. He notes that he [Caesarion] was said to closely resemble Caesar, but also that Caesar's secretary G. Oppius wrote a book proving that Caesar could not be Caesarion's father. He also says that Caesar "allowed" Cleopatra VII to name the child after him, implying that he did not in fact acknowledge him as his, but then notes that Antony had declared to the Senate that Caesar did acknowledge the boy as his. - Chris Bennett, Egyptian Royal Genealogy
How painful for a young man to look so much like his famous father but be denied by him.  Of course, we must consider the real possibilities of political bias in these accounts.  Even the later historians would have been influenced by the Roman public's perception that Augustus represented the 'gold standard" for a Roman emperor.

Even if Nicolaus of Damascus was faithfully recording his observation of  Caesar's will it would not have been beyond the pale for Octavian to have discretely amended the will to reinforce his position as unchallenged heir - especially if , as Plutarch reports, Caesarion successfully escaped to India and was at large elsewhere in the world for a time before being lured back to his death.
Caesarion, who was said to be Cleopatra's son by Julius Caesar, was sent by his mother, with much treasure, into India, by way of Ethiopia. There Rhodon, another tutor like Theodorus, persuaded him to go back, on the ground that [Octavian] Caesar invited him to take the kingdom. - Plutarch, Life of Antony
Plutarch's account coincides with an oral tradition in India that Cheras of Kerala traded extensively with Egypt and the descendants of that royal family were told that letters were exchanged with Cleopatra.

The [Canadian] historian George Woodcock says that Caesarion did indeed manage to escape with a large treasure and was granted asylum in Kerala. Lucy Hughes-Hallet in her book “Cleopatra: histories, dreams, distortions” says that the Queen herself intended to flee to India but fell ill and therefore ordered her son to leave without her...whether or not he reached Kerala and survived is not known clearly, but the story assumes that he arrived in Kerala and was received as a honored guest of the royal family. In fact, such was the respect and importance of this guest that there is said to have been a matrimonial alliance between the Egyptian prince and a Chera Princess. -Cleopatra and Cheraman Perumal


 Furthermore, Nicolaus of Damascus reported ongoing communications between factions in India and Augustus at this time.

This writer [Nicolaus of Damascus] states that at Antioch, near Daphne, he met with ambassadors from the Indians, who were sent to Augustus Caesar. It appeared from the letter that several persons were mentioned in it, but three only survived, whom he says he saw. The rest had died chiefly in consequence of the length of the journey. The letter was written in Greek upon a skin; the import of it was, that Porus was the writer, that although he was sovereign of six hundred kings, yet that he highly esteemed the friendship of Cæsar; that he was willing to allow him a passage through his country, in whatever part he pleased, and to assist him in any undertaking that was just.
Were these letters part of Augustus' attempt to lure Caesarion back into his grasp?

Archaeological evidence cannot settle the paternity issue without scholarly controversy either - not so much from a lack of physical remains attesting to Caesarion's birth date but to the confusion over Egyptian regnal year notations as well as the state of flux in the official reading of the Roman calendar that was in the midst of being converted to the new Julian version.

A stele in the Louvre appears to record Caesarion's birth giving 23 Payni year 5 as the birthday of "the pharaoh Caesar".

Assuming this dates the birth of Caesarion to 23 June 47, it places his conception in September 48 = November AUC 706, which is precisely the period when Cleopatra VII and Caesar were in closest contact in Alexandria under the siege of the forces of Achillas. At this time, it is very difficult to imagine how anyone else could be Caesarion's father. - Chris Bennett, Egyptian Royal Genealogy


Bennett points out, though, that other scholars like J. Carpocino, Passion et politique chez les Césars (1958) 37, argued that Antony had been smitten by the 14-year-old Cleopatra in 55 BCE while stationed as a cavalry officer in Egypt and could have had an illicit affair with her resulting in the birth of Caesarion.  

Head of Gaius Julius Caesar from Trajan's Foru...Image by mharrsch via Flickr
Portrait of Gaius Julius Caesar
from Trajan's Forum in Rome.
The second argument (J. P. V. D. Balsdon, Historia 7 (1958) 80, 86) is that Caesar's track-record for conceiving children is poor, and therefore he was possibly sterile at this time of his life. Only one child is certainly acknowledged, his daughter Julia, and the assassin Marcus Brutus, who is sometimes claimed as a son, can be excluded on chronological grounds. This is in spite of his having had three wives and numerous affairs. But R. Syme, Historia 29 (1980) 422, correctly points out that this means nothing. Low birth rates among the Roman aristocracy were a matter of official concern, whether this was due to lead in the pipes or the increasing independence of aristocratic Roman women in that time. Short-lived children were more common than not, and rarely noticed. And "Adultery in high society is more amply documented than any consequences"; although Cicero makes many scandalous charges against his opponents he never once accuses an opponent of not being his father's son. In illustration of the point, Syme constructs suggestive arguments that Decimus Brutus and P. Cornelius Dolabella may have been unacknowledged sons of Caesar. A Gaul, Julius Sabinus, claimed descent from Caesar through his great-grandmother in 70 AD (Tacitus, Histories 4.55). This has been generally disbelieved from Tacitus' day onwards, though, with H Heinen (Historia 18 (1969) 181, 202), I see no particular reason to doubt the story. - Chris Bennett, Egyptian Royal Genealogy
 
Bennett also discusses numismatic evidence with dual dates representing periods of the joint rule of Cleopatra and Caesarion.  Although all of these speculations are interesting, the real bottom line is that the Romans at the time knew Cleopatra was making a valid claim which made Octavian's resolution to the question of his legitimate inheritance of Caesar's fortune and power base so urgent.

Colleen McCullough imagined a very poignant confrontation between Octavian and Caesarion in her bookAntony and Cleopatra: A Novel (Masters of Rome)Caesarion fearlessly approaches Octavian with a proposal to become a client king. But Octavian explains to the youth that he regretfully must take Caesarion's life. Caesarion's face reflects his confusion, disbelief, then resignation when he finally realizes his death is the consequence of looking so much like his famous father.  This scenario was strictly fictitious, of course, but it was certainly plausible and perhaps painfully close to actual events that played out in those final days of the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt.

Head thought to be of Gaius Julius Caesar recovered
from the Rhone River near Arles, France in 2007.
So, did Caesarion so closely resemble his father that he had to die to avoid future problems for Octavian?  If we compare the (suspected) colossal head of Caesarion found in Alexandria harbor with one of the stylized portraits of the divine Julius found in Trajan's forum, we can point to vague similarities in the width of the forehead and the angle of the cheekbones but, I think I see more similarity between Caesarion and a marble head found in the Rhone River near Arles, France in 2007 that is thought to be a portrait of the aging Caesar carved in 46 BCE, just two years before his assassination on the Ides of March.  Caesar's hair has receded and his face is deeply lined but this more natural looking portrait appears to reflect a similar shape of the mouth and the same innate melancholia as I saw in the head of Caesarion recovered by French divers.


When I think of Caesarion, I can't help but wonder what might have been.  Like Alexander IV, Caesarion held such promise but, as happens far too often in history, fortune doesn't just favor the bold, but the greedy and the ruthless.


A document thought to be written in Cleopatra VII's own
hand.  Image courtesy of National Geographic.
Although I was fascinated by the portrait head of Caesarion at the Cleopatra exhibit, I eventually had to tear myself away to view the rest of the artifacts that had been assembled there.


I felt a real connection to Cleopatra viewing a document written in her own hand ordering her administrators to "Make it happen" - sounds a bit like Captain Jean-Luc Picard doesn't it?


I also found a statue thought to be Cleopatra II or III, both of whom ruled Egypt during the mid-2nd century BC, to be quite breathtaking.  Near the remains of a temple that Cleopatra passed every day, divers discovered a beautifully carved sculpture of a priest holding an Osiris-Canopus jar.

"The tender way the priest carries the Osiris-Canopus vase, resting it lightly on his cheek, evokes a love for the god and a desire to forever remain in his presence." - Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt


The exhibit also included a variety of votive objects, a beautiful head of the god Serapis, and a wonderfully detailed statue of a delicate woman thought to have been Cleopatra VII herself although the head had either been broken off in the devastating earthquake that leveled and submerged the palace or perhaps stricken off by a vengeful Octavian.

The exhibit is in its final month at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.  If you are going to be in the Philadelphia area over the holidays, I would strongly encourage you to attend.
Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt   Cleopatra: A Life   People Executed by the Roman Republic: Cicero, Caesarion, Marcus Marius Gratidianus, Marcus Favonius, Quintus Tullius Cicero     A History of the Ptolemaic Empire   
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Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Tunica Molesta: Roman Execution Ad Flammas

Nero's Torches (1876) by Henryk Siemiradzki

Warning: the following passage contains a very graphic description of the execution of four criminals condemned for arson by Commodus in the 2nd century CE.  Reader discretion is advised.

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, hence the lion s...Image via Wikipedia
The Roman Emperor Commodus dressed as Hercules
"Upon each platform had been erected a wooden cross, from which hung a condemned man.  All four were arsonists, whose crimes had been committed at Brundisium and Capua in the south, Aquileia in the north, and at Rome.  They each wore a tunic, but it was no ordinary tunic: it was black, and glistened in the sunlight.  Each of the condemned wore the tunica molesta: the garments had been soaked in pitch.  The arsonists were to be punished according to the nature of their crimes; they were condemned ad flammas...they were to be burned alive in the arena.

When they saw the four convestores entering the arena, the condemned started to scream and moan, begging the crowd for mercy.  The crowd screamed back at them.  They turned to the Emperor, their faces contorted in terror.  Commodus merely smiled, gave them a friendly wave, and sat back comfortably.

Each confector carried a burning torch, which would be touched to the tunica molesta of each criminal.  As they watched the approach of the confectores, two of the condemned lost control of their bowels.  When he saw the faeces running down their legs, Commodus turned to those nearest him with an indulgent smile, as if sharing in some witticism at a theatrical performance.

The time of their death was now upon them.  The torches of the confectores touched their pitch-soaked clothes, and the flames sprang to them, as if escaping imprisonment.  Wrapped in cloaks of fire, the condemned began to scream as the burning pitch closed upon their flesh.  Four columns of black smoke rose into the air above the arena.  In revolting agony the bodies of the condemned writhed; in excitement and hilarity writhed those of the spectators.  Skulls split with the heat, revealing the grey pulp within; stomachs burst, disgorging boiling entrails.  The awful stench of roasting flesh filled the arena.  Presently, the screams ceased, and the only sound that could be heard, other than the shouts of the crowd, was the crackle of the ravenous flames. - Alan Baker, .The Gladiator: The Secret History of Rome's Warrior Slaves

I came upon this horrific description of death by tunica molesta when I was researching the history of this form of execution after reading about it in Adrienne Mayor's text "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological & Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World.  Although many of us have read about Nero executing Christians suspected of arson after the Great Fire in 64 C.E. by using them as human torches, I didn't realize that this method of execution, like crucifixion, had been used routinely for such crimes as arson and treason in the Roman world before that time.

I don't know why I had not considered this before because I knew that the Romans often used mythological reenactments with criminals to entertain the crowds at Roman games and certainly the death of Hercules, one of the most revered demigods of the Roman pantheon, by a burning poison garment would have figured prominently as a choice.

Heracles, Deianira and Nessus. Attic black-fig...Image via Wikipedia
Heracles, Deianira and Nessus. Attic black-figured
hydria, ca. 575–550 BC.
"Intending to offer sacrifice, [Hercules] sent the herald Lichas to Trachis to fetch fine raiment. From him Deianira learned about Iole, and fearing that Hercules might love that damsel more than herself, she supposed that the spilt blood of Nessus was in truth a love-charm, and with it she smeared the tunic. So Hercules put it on and proceeded to offer sacrifice. But no sooner was the tunic warmed than the poison of the hydra began to corrode his skin; and on that he lifted Lichas by the feet, hurled him down from the headland, and tore off the tunic, which clung to his body, so that his flesh was torn away with it. In such a sad plight he was carried on shipboard to Trachis: and Deianira, on learning what had happened, hanged herself. But Hercules, after charging Hyllus his elder son by Deianira, to marry Iole when he came of age, proceeded to Mount Oeta, in the Trachinian territory, and there constructed a pyre, mounted it, and gave orders to kindle it. When no one would do so, Poeas, passing by to look for his flocks, set a light to it. On him Hercules bestowed his bow. While the pyre was burning, it is said that a cloud passed under Hercules and with a peal of thunder wafted him up to heaven. - Apollodorus Lib. 2.7.7



Execution "ad flammas" was actually one of the specified methods of execution in ancient Rome's governing XII Tables.

"According to the XII Tables men might be bound, beaten, and burned alive (vivicomburium, damnatio ad flammas, vivus uri, crematio) as an ancient penalty for treachery and arson.  This was rare under the Republic, but the Roman masses knew the violent use of fire as a threat and as vengeance.  More common under the Empire, execution by fire was mostly for slaves and the lower orders (humiliores) for arson, desertion, magic, and treason, and it was an especially common punishment for Christians." - Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (Approaching the Ancient World).

Politically capitalizing on the spectacular nature of this mode of execution  probably did not occur, though,  until the "age of senatorial ascendancy" during the Punic Wars.

"Elite Romans had long used elaborate funerals to reinforce familial claims to status, and they would later use imposing monuments and tombs as more enduring symbols.  Just as the feasting and circus and theatrical games of triumphal ludi were vindications of awarded dignitas, the innovation of the gladiatorial munus on a limited almost experimental basis in 264 [BCE] allowed families, under the pretext of honoring a dead relative to display their claim to status.  With the wars against Carthage and with elite families vying for consulships and thus generalships, demonstrations of the destruction of foreign captives, rebel slaves or deserters, or exotic beasts from the expanding limits of Roman power seemed entirely appropriate fro the military leaders of a burgeoning empire.  Through the era of the Punic Wars, often called "the age of senatorial ascendancy", the nobles entrenched their control.  From the magnitude of the Punic Wars to the Roman atrocities in Spain, Romans fought "total' wars against non-Italians and became more tolerant and even expectant of public brutality.  In the same period munera [funeral games] and venationes [beast hunts] expanded in scope and frequency as the provision of spectacles of death was becoming more and more politically advantageous." - - Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (Approaching the Ancient World).

The adoption of many aspects of Greek culture that occurred after the conquest of Syracuse in 212 BCE might have also had an influence on the introduction of criminal execution in public spectacles.

Plato taught punishment in the form of pure retribution should be condemned as animalistic and pointless. As Roman nobility began to study the works of the Greek philosophers perhaps they rationalized these spectacles were a means to invoke humiliation in the miscreants thereby restoring social order, a loftier ideal than simple retribution.  This viewpoint was later expressed outright in the writings of the Middle Platonist L. Calvenus Taurus of the 2nd century CE but could have been shared earlier by Roman adopters of Greek philosophy, especially since it socially justified these activities and drew attention away from the political benefits reaped by these Roman magistrates.

In her paper, Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments, K. M. Coleman also points out that the mockery of criminals at such public spectacles also served to dissociate and distance the onlookers from the individual whose behavior had been declared unacceptable by the state.


But, without properly equipped permanent facilities for these entertainments before the 1st century BCE, large scale reenactments of mythological narratives could not be properly presented.  Perhaps this explains why the use of the tunica molesta was relatively rare until then.


A reenactment of the Orpheus myth was a
popular "fatal charade" used to execute
people sentenced to death ad bestias
Roman mosaic of Orpheus circa 204 CE
Photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art
by Mary Harrsch.
"Underground passageways excavated below the Forum Romanum bear witness to an attempt to create adequate facilities, but it was the adoption during the first century of a Campanian architectural design, the amphitheater, which greatly increased the potential for sophisticated displays, made permanent accommodation available for seating a large audience and allowed easier control and handling of the animals, with a corresponding guarantee of safety of the audience." - K.M. Coleman, Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments

When the Flavian amphitheater was finally completed under the reign of Titus, the son of Vespasian certainly took full advantage of the degree of spectacle that could be presented in the new facility.

 "...Titus celebrated his brother's birthday with great splendour, reserving in his honour for this festival much of the punishment of his Jewish captives.  For the number of those destroyed in contests with wild beasts or with one another or in the flames exceeded two thousand five hundred." - Josephus, VII.37-40
 
The Roman Emperor 1st century CE.
Photographed at the Capitoline Museum in
Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch
Some writers claimed many of the Roman people had objected to the cruelty of Nero's executions ad flammas but the people must have had a short memory!

Coleman also pointed out that executions ad bestias were the real crowd pleasers but acquiring beasts was expensive and there was always a degree of uncertainty about the willingness of animals to "do the job".  Death by crucifixion, on the other hand, was usually too slow, taking hours or even days.  So the tunica molesta could have been an alternative means of execution that still provided a certain degree of entertainment while being relatively cheap with a guaranteed result.

Coleman mentions that evidence of ongoing  "fatal charades" disappears after the Severan dynasty but executions by fire certainly continued.  Ironically, it was a Christian emperor,  Justinian (r. 527-565 CE) who decreed that heretics would be put to death by fire as part of his Codex Iustiniani (CJ 1.5.), ratifying the decrees of his predecessors the Emperors Arcadius and Flavius Augustus Honorius.  Burning was also deemed the appropriate punishment for Zoroastrians in the Byzantine Empire for their worship of fire.
 

The Gladiator: The Secret History of Rome's Warrior Slaves   Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological & Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World   Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (Approaching the Ancient World)   Roman Social Relations, 50 B.C. to A.D. 284   As The Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Centurion gripping but suffers from skeletal characters

UPDATE: "Centurion" is now available for instant download from Netflix!

I finally had a chance to watch "Centurion" about the fate of the fabled Legio IX Hispana produced in 2009 but never formally released here in the US.  I was finally able to get it from Netflix.



Modern recostruction of lorica segmentataImage via Wikipedia
Modern reconstruction of lorica segmentata armor
I've been so starved for historical ancient epics lately that I was more than willing to overlook many historical inconsistencies and just enjoy the action.  I had read initially that this film was going to be some modern interpretation of the legend of the Ninth and by that I feared film producers were going to forgo costuming and tell the story in a modern setting.  I guess I've been to too many Shakespearean presentations lately with characters like MacBeth dressed in 20th century garb which has really turned me off.   But, happily, I was able to watch my courageous Romans in their full panoply of lorica segmentata!

Bust of the Roman Emperor Domitian 1st century...Image by mharrsch via Flickr
The Roman Emperor Domitian
Of course the Roman governor, Agricola, was presented in a less than favorable light.  Historically, Agricola was recalled to Rome by Emperor Domitian in 85 CE and died a private citizen in 93 CE so he was dead and incinerated long before the film's action takes place in 117 CE.  But the film does raise questions that have plagued historians about the truth of some of the claims made about Agricola's victories in Scotland by his son-in-law Tacitus.  So we'll cut the film a little slack for that.

The fictional events seem to be related to the aftermath of the Battle of Mons Graupius in which Agricola's troops defeated Caledonii led by the revered warrior Calgacus.  Calgacus is the leader who gave us (via Tacitus in his biography of Agricola) the famous paraphrased quote "they make a desert and call it peace."

Whenever I consider the origin of this war and the necessities of our position, I have a sure confidence that this day, and this union of yours, will be the beginning of freedom to the whole of Britain. To all of us slavery is a thing unknown; there are no lands beyond us, and even the sea is not safe, menaced as we are by a Roman fleet. And thus in war and battle, in which the brave find glory, even the coward will find safety. Former contests, in which, with varying fortune, the Romans were resisted, still left in us a last hope of succour, inasmuch as being the most renowned nation of Britain, dwelling in the very heart of the country, and out of sight of the shores of the conquered, we could keep even our eyes unpolluted by the contagion of slavery. To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain's glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace. - Calgacus, in Agricola by Tacitus.
In the film the Caledonii war leader is Gorlacon, played by Ulrich Thomsen.  Gorlacon, is, as far as I can tell, purely fictional and actually has very little screen time.

The real villain(ess) is the Brigantes turn-coat Etain, a female warrior essentially presented as hatred incarnate whose family was raped and slaughtered by the Romans and whose tongue was cut out, rendering her mute.  Now, normally we would have at least some sympathy for her because of all she had endured but the producers gave us no flashbacks to emphasize her tragic background and no scenes to indicate she possessed any other aspects to her character except singleminded thoughts of butchery so you can't help but hope the Romans will make an end to her, preferably with as much brutality as she herself demonstrates.

The director used the scissors too liberally on the character of the main hero too, Centurion Quintus Dias, played by Michael Fassbender.  We get very little background information on him but we can at least admire his tenacity for escaping a brutal massacre at Inchtuthil - a real Roman fortress on the bank of the River Tay southwest of Blairgowrie, Perth and Kinross, Scotland, built as an advanced headquarters for Agricola's campaigns against the Caledonian tribes.  Centurion Dias would have been a member of the Legion XX Valeria Victrix which occupied the fort until it was withdrawn to replace Legio II Adiutrix in Deva (Chester) after that legion was recalled to Moesia to fight the Dacians.  The evacuation of Inchtuthil, like the recall of Agricola, has been traditionally dated to 85-86 CE too, leading me to wonder again why the filmmakers set the date of their story to 117 CE.  Recent archaeology does point to the fort's occupation longer than previously thought, though, so again I must cut the filmmakers a little slack.

What little characterization the film possessed was awarded to Titus Flavius Virilus, played by Dominic West, the Ninth's brawling, up-from-the-ranks commander.  Although his scenes were brief and he died in fairly short order, I liked him.

I also liked the scenes of the Ninth's ambush, with the Caledonians rolling flaming boulders upon the Romans while the legion tried desperately to maintain defensive formations.  Virilus was not lulled into complacency by his female Brigantes "guide" and his men were marching in good order - not like those of Publius Quintilius Varus in the Teutoburg Forest, so I was gratified by that.

As the Roman survivors first attempt to free their captured commander then flee their pursuers, the film devolves into a formulaic chase movie where more and more survivors succumb to their ever relentless enemies.  When they finally turn and fight at an abandoned Roman fort, I get frustrated because the Romans should cut the head off the snake by targeting Etain, the most skilled tracker/warrior among the Calendonii.  Instead she is one of the last to meet her fate.   

Still, the film made enough of an effort to portray the period accurately that I will add it to my collection and for Roman military buffs, I would recommend watching it at least once. 

The other film about the Ninth Legion, directed by Academy Award winner Kevin MacDonald,  is not set for release until February 2011, but it's synopsis makes it sound much more like the novel "Eagle of the Ninth" by one of my favorite authors, the late Rosemary Sutcliff.

In 140 AD, two men – master and slave – venture beyond the edge of the known world on a dangerous and obsessive quest that will push them beyond the boundaries of loyalty and betrayal, friendship and hatred, deceit and heroism…The Roman epic adventure THE EAGLE stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell and is directed by Academy Award winner Kevin Macdonald. 20 years earlier, Rome’s 5,000-strong Ninth Legion, under the command of Flavius Aquila, marched north carrying their treasured golden Eagle emblem. They never returned; Legion and Eagle simply vanished into the mists. Hearing a rumor that the Eagle has been seen in a tribal temple in the far north, Flavius’ son Marcus (Tatum), determined to restore the tarnished reputation of his father, is galvanized into action. Accompanied only by his slave Esca (Bell), Marcus sets out into the vast and dangerous highlands of Scotland – to confront its savage tribes, make peace with his father’s memory, and retrieve the hallowed Eagle. Along the way Marcus realizes that the mystery of his father’s disappearance may well be linked to the secret of his own slave’s identity and loyalty – a secret all the more pressing when the two come face-to-face with the warriors of the fearsome Seal Prince (Tahar Rahim). - Apple



I am really looking forward to this one so I hope it will garner screening in the US or I'll be stuck waiting for the DVD release again.  At least now, thanks to some great Black Friday deals on a new LCD HD TV and Blu-Ray player, I'll get to watch it in Hi-Def!

 
Eagle of the Ninth the  Roman Invasions The Arrival of Caesar (The Agricola and The Germania)    The Roman Conquest of Scotland: The Battle of Mons Graupius AD 84 (Revealing History)
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