Thursday, March 17, 2011

Imperial Overstretch

 Movie Poster for The Eagle



Recently I saw the film The Eagle, which concerned the efforts of a young Roman military officer to get back the lost Roman Eagle of the Ninth Legion Hispana.

In the story Marcus, the Roman military officer is the son of the Commander of the 9th Hispana Legion that was lost in the northern Britain, (modern day Scotland) late in the reign of the Emperor Trajan or early in the reign of Emperor Hadrian, (c. 117-120 C.E.). Young Marcus is appointed a commander of one of the garrisons along Hadrian’s Wall in the north of Britain and in repelling an assault by local Britons he is seriously wounded.

Marcus is sent south to recover from his injuries at the house of his uncle Aquila. While there he learns that although he as been honoured for his courage and good sense in commanding the garrison that he has been retired from the army due to his injuries. This sets up a conflict because he had been hoping to recoup his family name which had been damaged by the loss of the legion and it’s Eagle. We here learn that Marcus had requested being appointed to Northern Britain in the hope of somehow getting back the Eagle.

With too much time on his hands Marcus and his uncle take in the local gladiatorial games where Marcus encounters Esca a Brigante nobleman who has been enslaved for his family’s part in rebelling against the Romans. Esca refuses to fight his opponent and on the point of being killed, Marcus steps in and saves Esca’s life because he is impressed by Esca’s bravery.

Uncle Aquila then buys Esca and gives him to Marcus to be his personal slave. Esca tells Marcus that since he has saved his life he Esca will loyally serve him. Esca does, however, tell Marcus that he despises Rome and all Rome stands for.

Marcus at his wits end about restoring his family name and honour decides on the mad scheme of going north and finding the Eagle and bringing it back. He decides he can trust Esca to be his interpreter and guide. Uncle Aquila thinks the scheme is mad and advises against it.

So Esca and Marcus head north. The terrain is wild and only thinly populated by poor people. Gradually has they head north they find out that the Eagle of the ninth is being held by the Seal people. During this journey Esca and Marcus run into Guern who had managed to survive the destruction of the Ninth legion and now lives among the Caledonians. His description is a lot like ancient descriptions of the battle of Teutoburg Wald.1 He tells of the destruction of the Ninth and how he escaped. He has no news of Marcus’ father’s fate. Guern also shows Marcus and Esca the battlefield in a forest. During their meeting Guern tells Marcus that Esca knew all along where the Eagle is. Esca admits this saying that he did not feel the need to tell Marcus since to him it is  a given that the destruction of the Ninth legion as a great victory for the Britons.

So Marcus and Esca journey to the Seal people; Marcus now feeling distrustful of Esca. When they meet the Seal people they are on the point of killing Marcus when Esca tells them that Marcus is his slave and that he had tricked him into coming north. Marcus is treated with contempt and almost killed again one more time. Marcus is so infuriated with his treatment he threatens to kill Esca when he is able. The prince of the Seal people takes a liking to Esca and gradually Esca learns of the location of the Eagle of the Ninth in a sacred site nearby. One night Esca wakes Marcus and together they manage to steal back the Eagle killing the ruler of the Seal people in the process.

They flee for their lives with the Eagle, with the Prince and his warriors giving chase. Esca's and Marcus’s horse gives out and Marcus can no longer go on, so Esca, after Marcus frees him, goes to get help.

Esca returns with Guern and a few other survivors of the Ninth Legion just in time to save Marcus from the Prince of the Seal people and his warriors. After a bloody conflict in which the Seal prince is killed along with his warriors Esca and Marcus return to Roman territory with the Eagle.

Later Marcus and Esca personally return the Eagle to the emperor who suggests that the ninth legion be recreated with Marcus as commander. Marcus turns this down and as he and Esca leave asks what do they do now?2

The film is actually well shot. The Scottish scenery is effectively used and quite breathtaking. In many ways the landscape of Scotland is the star of this film. The bleak, austere landscape helps to emphasize the sheer futility of sending a military unit into this landscape. Some of the long shots especially in the middle of the film are breathtaking in their beauty. The use of cutting and editing is pretty effective also.

Costumes and sets are pretty accurate and attention has been paid to having them match the time period of the film. The clothes look like they have been worn and sets like the Seal people village and the fort at the beginning of this film look like real places.

The violence in this movie while fairly graphic is in general tame by modern day standards, which fits the origin of this movie in a novel for children.

The script while not brilliant is fast paced where it should be and avoids the mistake of having long scenes of exposition describing the reason things are, have, or will happen.

The acting is another story. Channing Tatum who plays Marcus is a disappointment. His acting lacks conviction in most scenes and we almost never see any real feeling about why he wants the Eagle back; why he wants to restore his families honour. The performance is at best acceptable and at worst mediocre, although never bad. Given that Marcus is supposed to be the pivotal character of the movie this is a serious weakness.

Jamie Bell who plays Esca is much better. This actor, who got his start playing the title role in Billy Elliot, gives a convincing performance as a man who is very angry with the Romans have done to his family, deeply resents being a slave and who yet feels a strong bond of liking and obligation to Marcus. The way this character gradually becomes the focus of the action is intriguing. Jamie Bell gives a nuanced performance of a character whose motivations and loyalties are complex and perhaps undecided until near the point of no return.

Donald Sutherland indisputably gives the best performance in the film in the role of Marcus’s Uncle Aquila. The character’s combination of old world weary wisdom and imperial arrogant hauteur is quite good. There should have been more screen time for this character.

Tahar Rahim who plays the Seal prince is the villain of the piece so to speak. He is a man who is devoted to his own code of honour and by his society’s lights quite honourable. The character is portrayed with a good deal of charisma and force. The character is also capable of considerable brutality. His rage at Esca’s betrayal of his hospitality by killing his father and taking the Eagle makes sense. The character is quite convincingly portrayed.

Mark Strong who plays the fugitive / survivor of the Ninth Legion Hispana Guern is unfortunately on the screen too short of a time. Mark Strong does however manage to convey the conflicted emotions of a man who has made a new life and quite unexpectedly is reminded of old loyalties and duties and not happy to be so reminded.

The Film is based on the classic children’s adventure novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff.3 The movie follows the book fairly closely, although of course the plot is simplified. For example Guern’s description of the destruction of the Ninth Legion is drastically simplified.

One interesting piece of plot is how the writer(s) plays with Marcus’ desire to know if his father died honourably. Guern tells Marcus during his description of the battle that he didn’t see the end so he does not know. Later when Esca and Marcus take the Eagle, the ruler of the Seal people has he is dying tells Marcus that his father died pleading for his life. Esca pointedly does not translate the comment for Marcus. Later when Esca returns with Guern and other survivors of the Ninth to rescue Marcus Guern informs Marcus that out of shame for his fleeing the battlefield he didn’t inform Marcus that his father died heroically. Since Esca got Guern and the others he would have had ample opportunity to tell Guern about Marcus’ concern over his father’s fate and the Seal people’s ruler’s dying statement. So did Marcus’ father die heroically? Who knows! All in all a nice little puzzle for the viewer.

The movie takes a rather jaundiced view of imperialism. Just why the Romans would want to conquer the very poor people living is such a bleak unforgiving landscape is a real question. There are more than occasional references to Roman atrocities and brutality. It is made very clear that the “Barbarians” regard the Romans as ruthless savages, who murder, pillage and rape women. The question arises just what were the Romans doing there? The “Barbarians” are not prettified has heroic, virtuous freedom fighters. They sacrificed members of the Ninth legion to their Gods and the Prince of the Seal people kills his own young son in front of Esca for not telling him that Esca and Marcus had fled, and on top of it the boy had accepted a gift from Esca has payment for silence. Further the “Barbarians” are capable of torturing and murdering captives. However the message remains just what were the Romans doing there?

The historical basis of the movie is rather flimsy unfortunately.

There was a Ninth Legion Hispana stationed in Britain until at least 108 C.E. It used to be thought that late in the reign of the Emperor Trajan the Ninth Legion was destroyed in fighting in northern Britain. And it appeared that all mention of the Ninth legion ceased at this time. Certainly by the time that we have something like a complete list of Legions, early in the reign of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, (161-180 C.E.), there is no mention of the Ninth Legion Hispana.4

Various accounts mention fighting in northern Britain during this time. One brief mention by a philosopher friend of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius named Fronto who says:

Again under the rule of your grandfather Hadrian what a number of soldiers were killed by the Jews / what a number by the Britons!5
The Augustan History records that late in the reign of Trajan and early in the reign of Hadrian the following was happening:

For those nations which Trajan had subjugated were defecting, the Moors were aroused, the Sarmatians were making war, the Britons could not be kept under Roman control, Egypt was being pressed by insurrection, and finally, Libya and Palestine were exhibiting the spirit of rebellion.6
The above along with the lack of mention of the Ninth legion after 108 C.E. in Britain is the source of the idea that the legion was destroyed late in the reign of Trajan or early in the reign of Hadrian.

Unfortunately it faces a couple of serious problems. We know the careers of several men who served in high political positions later in the empire, (in the 170’s C.E.’s); it is highly unlikely that they were in a legion that was destroyed c. 117-120 C.E. This would push any date for the destruction of the Ninth Legion Hispana to about 130 C.E. instead. Finally a tile stamp and a mortarium stamp of the Ninth Legion were found at Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Those are very unlikely to indicate units of the Ninth Legion just passing through and probably indicate the stationing of the Ninth Legion in the area. It appears that the Ninth Legion Hispana was, sometimes between 108 and 126 C.E., transferred there and it appears the Ninth Legion Hispana was later on moved even further east.7

Now it does appear to be the case that the Romans did indeed suffer serious losses in Britain, including some reverses during the later part of the reign of the Emperor Trajan. However it does appear to be the case that the more serious reverses, and fairly heavy losses, occurred during the latter part of the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. It does appear to be the case that these reverses did not involve the destruction of the Ninth Legion Hispana or even involve the Ninth Legion at all. Still the idea of a serious Roman reverse in Britain at this time seems to be true.8

It is likely that the building of what we call Hadrian’s Wall, (so-called because it was built in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, 117-138 C.E.), was at least in part a response to a series of reverses in Britain.9

What happened to the Ninth Legion? We are not sure but it appears that it may have been destroyed during the 3rd Jewish revolt, (Bar Kochba Revolt), 132-135 C.E., or it may have been destroyed during a war with the Parthians c. 160 C.E. Whatever happened to it by 165 C.E., it no longer existed.10

All in all a pretty good movie about the consequences of an Imperial power going a little too far and underestimating the enemy. At another time I may discuss a movie made a bit earlier called Centurion which is about the destruction of the Ninth Legion.11

Scene from The Eagle

1. See Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin Books, London, 1959, Book 1, s. 60-62, pp. 67-68, Dio, Cassius, The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus, Penguin Books, London, 1987, Book 56, s. 18-23, pp. 235-239, Cloutier, Pierre, The Battle of Teutoburg Wald, Xibalba Here.

2. The website for the movie is at The Eagle Here.

3. Sutcliff, Rosemary, The Eagle of the Ninth, Penguin Books, London, 1954.

4. Lendering, Jona, Legio VIIII Hispana, Livius Here, Breeze, David J., Dobson, Brian, Hadrian’s Wall, Penguin Books, London, 1978, pp. 28-29, Frere, Sheppard, Britannia, 3rd Edition, Pimlico, London, 1987, pp. 122-124.

5. Fronto, Marcus Cornelius, The Correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto, v. 2, Loeb Classics, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., 1929, p. 23. The reference to Jews is to the 3rd Jewish revolt, (132-135 C.E.), also called the Bar Kochba revolt after the leader of the revolt.

6. Spartianus, Aelius, Hadrian, Lives of the Later Caesars, Penguin Books, London, 1976, pp. 57-95, s. 5, p. 62. The name given by the author is almost certainly spurious.

7. Footnote 4, Mattingly, David, An Imperial Possession, Penguin Books, London, 2006, p. 90.

8. IBID.

9. Breeze, pp. 28-78, Frere, pp. 110-122, Mattingly, pp. 154-160. The sole literary evidence for Hadrian ordering the wall built is the following from the Augustan History:

Having completely transformed the soldiers, in royal fashion, he [Hadrian] made for Britain, where he set right many things and – the first to do so – drew a wall along the length of eighty miles to separate barbarians and Romans. (Spartianus, s. 12, pp. 68-69.)
10. Breeze, p. 29, Frere, p. 123, Lendering.

11. See Centurion Here.

Pierre Cloutier

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