Having an infatuation with classical history and philosophy, I’m naturally drawn to movies, histories, and novels about the ancient Greeks and Romans. Since the success of Gladiator (2000), there have been a string of “sword and sandal” flicks. But only Troy, a movie based on Homer’s Iliad has come close, in my view, to competing with Gladiator. Other than that, most of the movies have ranged from bad to fair, though none very exceptional. I’m always hoping for another great epic.
With this in mind, I rented Centurion (2010) the other night. The story is about Quintus Dias, a Roman Centurion. The historical time period is around 60 AD. The place is Scotland. Dias has the bad luck of being assigned to a frontier fort in Scotland. The fort gets overrun and he’s taken prisoner by a band of Picts (ancient Scots). He escapes and joins—in keeping with his bad luck—the 9th Legion which is subsequently ambushed and annihilated while on its way to fight the pesky Picts. Dias an a small band of Legionnaires survive the slaughter and attempt to rescue the Roman Commander of the 9th, who was taken prisoner during the battle. Their attempt fails and the general is killed. And thus begins their long escape back to the safety of the Roman lines. A band of Picts, led by Etain, an uber warrior princess, sets out after the band of fugitive Romans. Most of the movie is one big pursuit.
Overall I thought the scenery, historical costumes and special effects were fairly good for a movie with a mere $12 million dollar budget. I thought the acting was fairly good. I’d give Dominic West the nod for best performance as General Titus Flavius Virilus.
The violence was quite graphic. This is not a movie for those with a weak stomach. Swings of the axe or sword are followed all the way to impact. The story moved so fast in the beginning that character development got pushed aside. Centurion Dias had survived two battles and was head long into the main story line within probably the first 10 minutes of the movie. Also certain situations, though possible, seemed implausible from my historical perspective. For example, would the Legions of Rome, post Varian disaster, be led by a local tribesman deep into enemy territory? And by a mute female tribesman at that? I’m doubtful. Of course we need a dramatic betrayal—a local tribesman, a non-roman—to explain why an entire Roman Legion could be so easily led into a trap and rubbed out. It makes for a simple explanation. That’s fine. The problem from a historical perspective is that it makes the Romans look naïve, which they weren’t.
Historically we don’t actually know the fate of the 9th Legion. The evidence is scant and the debate still continues. It may have marched into the wild uplands of Scotland and been destroyed without a trace. Or the 9th may have been simply moved to another roman province like so many roman army units had been and for some reason its subsequent history has escaped us.
And then there are the subtle messages in this movie. Yes, rarely ever is art just about “entertainment.” Of course it is on the surface, but artists and writers usually have some moral underlying it all. “The war without end” theme is apparent in Centurion. These very words are uttered in the movie. Sound familiar in today’s debate over Afghanistan? And then there’s the obvious, as when one character refers to the war in Scotland as “The graveyard of ambition.” Hmmmm. No attempts to hide it there. Most of us have heard the modern expression about Afghanistan being “The graveyard of empires.” There are other subtle digs at Rome and her empire—hence America and hers—if you’re paying close attention. At one point Centurion Dias discovers the emperor has decided to abandon Scotland and pull back to what is now known as Hadrian’s Wall. After all Dais and his soldiers have been through, Centurion Dias can’t believe it. He comments, “So our fighting and dying was for nothing.” This certainly could have been the lament of an imperial Roman….or make that, American soldier. Or at least that’s how the average historically informed, politically astute observer should probably take it.
I think the Rome & America comparison can be useful, even if not necessarily fair in a number of ways. Empires across history can be studied for patterns and trajectories and and other trends. And so we can find some useful comparisons between the problems and issues facing the Roman Republic/Empire and the problems and issues and choices facing the American Empire. A discussion of this would require a separate post.
Had the Romans decided to they could have subdued the Scots. The problem was reward. And Scotland offered none. Scotland is mostly a rugged terrain full of rocks and mountains covered in mist, snow and cold rain. Yes, the sun does shine occasionally, I know. But the terrain and climate, and more importantly the lack of precious metals, discouraged the Romans more so than the threat of the Scottish tribes. Roman’s war with the Scots wasn’t a war without end; it wasn’t much of a war at all. The Romans basically left the Scots to themselves and walled them in.
America’s war in Afghanistan is, of course, entirely different. We’re not there for booty or imperial conquest but out of revenge, self defense and, once we’d broken the pottery, costly nation building. (I don’t suspect the nation building is going to work–hence the lament of the American soldier–but then miracles do happen. This discussion, of course, is grist for another post all together.) Our intentions and motivations are certainly just. But I suspect our decision lacked practical wisdom. But even if Afghanistan doesn’t turn out favorably it wouldn’t consign America to the graveyard of empires. Just as Scotland or Germania didn’t the Romans. American decline, as it was with Roman, will be from the inside out.
Does this film make a fair comparison between the problems facing the Romans in Scotland and the Americans in Afghanistan? Well in a general, broad brushed way, yes it does. With the exception of a few pitched battles the Romans were forced to fight a guerrilla style war in Scotland. It was tough and costly (Like Germania) and ultimately convinced the Romans to just wall-off the Scots from the rest of the world. America, like Rome, will probably find that endless occupations and guerrilla wars are fruitless and too costly and aren’t worth the blood and treasure unless there’s a large tangible reward. Of course this seems intuitively obvious. And yet here we (America) are over a decade later still fighting a war that’s been costly in blood and treasure. A war that will most likely yield little to nothing in the way of security and nothing in tangible reward. “The only thing we learn from history,” Friedrich Hegel said, “is that we learn nothing from history.”