Posts Tagged ‘Julius Caesar’

Of the three recent films about the Ninth Legion in Britain that mysteriously disappeared in the second century, The Last Legion (2007) was the film I was most interested in watching because it took place just prior to the time of King Arthur and was said to provide a link to the Arthurian legend. In that respect, it did not disappoint, and while I think The Eagle was a more intelligent film that raised questions about Rome and its right to occupy Britain, I enjoyed The Last Legion the most. One of my friends said it was more “predictable” than the other films, notably The Centurion, but I feel the film set out to tie the legend to the Roman emperors and successfully did so.

The cast of The Last Legion is more impressive than the other two films. Colin Firth plays the lead role, the soldier who must protect the child emperor after Odaecer of the Goths invades and conquerors Rome. Ben Kingsley plays the wise old man Ambrosinus who has come from Britain seeking Julius Caesar’s lost sword, and the child emperor, Romulus Augustus, is played by Thomas Sangster, who will be known to Arthurian film fans as playing the boy Tristan in Tristan and Isolde with James Franco playing the adult Tristan.

The story begins with mention of the sword of Julius Caesar which is fated to become the sword Excalibur. The boy Romulus Augustus has just been made emperor of Rome. The film is a bit in error timewise by saying it begins in the year 460 when Romulus Augustus reigned from 475-6 (the book the film is based on gets this fact correct–why the change?). The Goths invaded Rome and Romulus was deposed as Caesar after ten short months, although in the film it is the day after Romulus is crowned. The Roman empire then fell with a Goth taking the crown and ruling the empire, while the Eastern (Byzantine empire) would remain in power another ten centuries. History does not state what became of Romulus other than he was sent to live in Campania and then disappears from the historical record. The film takes advantage of this lost information to tie the boy to Britain. But first, he is taken as a prisoner to the Isle of Capri.

General Aurelius is determined to rescue the young emperor, and meanwhile Ambrosinus has come from Britain to Rome to seek the sword of Julius Caesar. It is predictable that the sword will be found on Capri, formerly home to Roman emperors, and then Aurelius, Ambrosianus, Romulus, and a few other companions, including a woman disguised as a male soldier (Colin Firth’s required love interest in the film), manage to escape Capri, make it over the Alps, and eventually reach Britain, where they also discover the remainder of the Ninth Legion (although it would have disappeared three hundred years earlier – the film’s largest historical inaccuracy, while in the book a fictional Twelfth Legion was actually used). Together they join in fighting Vortigyn (the film’s version of Vortigern) and his Saxon mercenaries (in the novel, but not the film, it states that it’s the legendary Battle of Badon Hill where Arthur defeated the Saxons, typically dated to about the year 516).

If you read this article farther, there will be a bit of a spoiler, although any discerning filmgoer will foresee what happens next. Aurelius is typically in legend King Arthur’s uncle, the brother to Uther Pendragon. He is often known as Aurelius Ambrosius, so the film is obviously using a version of Ambrosius for Ben Kingsley’s character. No blood relationship exists between Aurelius, Ambrosinus, or Romulus in the film, but the suggestions behind the familiar legendary names are there. In the film, in Britain there is also a young girl named Igraine who ends up later marrying Romulus, who decides to change his name to Pendragon. Guess who there child is. In the final scene, Merlin (another of Ambrosinus’ names – another big surprise) tells a young Arthur the story of his parents.

The film plays fast and loose with history, but Arthurian works always do, trying to create a historical atmosphere against which the legend could have taken place. I find the way the film links Arthur to Rome to be interesting since Arthur typically claims to be descended from a Roman emperor, although it is usually Magnus Maximus, and in Malory, it is Constantine. Arthur’s lineage also traces back to Rome through, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Brutus from whose name Britain comes. Brutus was a descendant of Aeneas, the founder of the Roman empire and one of the survivors who fled when Troy was destroyed (both the costume designer and swordmaster of the film, interestingly, had worked on the film Troy). Romulus, besides being the historical last emperor of Rome, also has a counterpart who is the founder of Rome in ancient legend.

The film has its moments of corniness and exaggerated action, but most films do, and this film at least is trying to be corny in its romantic and adventurous storylines. It is not a great film. I would not even say it is one of the better Arthurian films (it’s questionable whether there has ever been a great Arthurian film), but it succeeds in what it sets out to accomplish, creating an intriguing storyline that ties Rome and Arthurian Britain together, provides some light moments of comedy, and a lot of magic in creating a sense of wonder about how the legend of King Arthur may have happened. If you like a little myth and wonder woven into depictions of Roman Britain, this may be the film you will most enjoy, while if you like gritty realism, The Centurion or The Eagle may be more your style. I’m not sure that one of these films is better than the other–they are just different. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be The Last Legion. If I had to pick one as the best, I would say The Eagle. Interestingly, The Last Legion may be the film least about the Ninth Legion, yet the only one named for it.

For those interested in Arthurian literature, the film is based on an Italian novel of the same name written by Valerio Massimo Manfredi in 2003. It was translated into English in 2005.

In future posts, I will write about more films that tie Arthurian Britain to Rome, but more specifically in the time of Arthur. I’ll note here that Rosemary Sutcliff, author of The Eagle of the Ninth (upon which The Eagle was based) was the first author to create a novel, Sword at Sunset (1959), based upon trying to place King Arthur within his historical post-Roman world, and that effort along with continued archeological efforts, has contributed to this trend to create a more historical depiction in fiction of King Arthur and his world.


Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com


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What happened to the Roman Ninth Legion has inspired three films in recent years:

Of these three films, I’m afraid The Centurion is the one I find the least interesting. Like the other films, The Centurion is about what happened to the Ninth Legion that seemingly disappeared – although historians now think they were transferred and later destroyed on the continent. How they were destroyed remains lost to history, but authors like Rosemary Sutcliff, whose novel The Eagle of the Ninth, which the film The Eagle is based upon, have been writing books about it for many years, surmising what may have occurred. Usually the stories suggest the legion went north of the area where Hadrian’s Wall separated the “uncivilized” Britons from the territory the Romans had conquered.

The problem I have with The Centurion is not the suggestions of what may have happened to the Ninth (an interesting historical mystery) but the film’s lack of character development as well as my difficulty with identifying with the main characters. In this film, the Roman legion is led north with the aid of a Brigantes woman who is apparently going to lead them to where they can attack the Picts. Instead, she tricks the Romans and leads them into an ambush (big surprise). The sad thing is that while I just watched this film a few days ago, I can’t even remember any of the characters’ names and I can barely remember the actors’ faces. I know there was a main character Roman, the deceitful native Briton woman, and a bad guy who caused treachery, and a couple of other survivors. Eventually, the Romans who survive the attack and enslavement manage to escape from the Picts who have captured them, and the rest of the film shows their attempts not to be recaptured or killed and to get back to the Roman outposts. The villainy by a fellow Roman is almost a subplot and the overall plot is loose and not in any way complicated. Perhaps the best part of the film (SPOILER ALERT) is the end when the surviving Roman returns, only to have his fellow Romans try to cover up what happened to the legion so its defeat will not make Rome look bad.

What makes this film additionally difficult for me is that because none of the characters were strong enough for me to identify with one of them, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. When the film started, although I knew the Romans would be “the good guys,” I wanted the Picts to win. Why? Because I know I am descended from the Picts through Scottish royalty, while I do not know of any Roman ancestors in my family tree, though I do not doubt I have them, and also because the Picts and other Britons were conquered people whom Rome just felt it was their job and right to conquer and civilize or eliminate. While I did not agree with this philosophy in either The Eagle or The Centurion, at least in The Eagle, the main character played by Tatum Channing is well portrayed as a very loyal Roman who believes in his Roman traditions and duties. I may not agree with what makes him tick, but I understood his motives. The Eagle also raised interesting questions of right and wrong and Channing’s character has a slave who makes it clear that Rome is not in the right, leaving a world of questions for viewers to consider, even while Channing’s character is left staying staunch to what he believes in, too brainwashed into the Roman way to consider what he may have done wrong as a Roman, although I think the film’s viewers realize the film questions who he really is. The Eagle is still somewhat weak in this respect, but far superior to The Centurion.

By comparison, the native Britons are given almost no sympathy in The Centurion. The Brigantes woman who deceives the Romans is insulted by them as being a “she-wolf.” She seems merciless in her desire to destroy the Romans, but her behavior is completely understandable to me despite the Romans thinking ill of her. We are told that she watched the Romans destroy her family, then rape her and cut out her tongue. Despite this information, she is impossible to identify with because she is unable to speak her pain, and similarly, except for one of the Picts telling the Romans what the other Romans did to her, equally the film is unable to speak about who is right and who wrong in this film. In short, it is unfocused and uncertain if it has any agenda or message to share. I know life isn’t always possible to tie into a neat message but the woman becomes so focused on her mission and so unable to display any emotion or human characteristics we can identify with, that while she is the character I felt most sympathy for in the film, she is unable to make a real connection with the viewer, she is unable to speak her pain, and therefore, unable to make the viewer form a bond with her or anyone in the film. And I think the film itself, or its creators, were unsure themselves what if any point the film was supposed to make.

I don’t want to say this film is a mess, but it is a disappointment. It kept my attention due to some of the action as the Picts chased after the Romans, but I had a hard time knowing what to think at the end. Ultimately, I have to say that if the Roman Ninth was slaughtered by the people it was trying to conquer, well, who can blame the Britons for protecting their homeland? I don’t condone killing, but the Romans started the killing in Briton and they got what they deserved.

The film also raises questions for me about King Arthur himself, often depicted as heir to the Romans and of Roman descent, yet considering himself a Briton–and fighting against the Saxons who would conquer him. If he’s of Roman descent, is Arthur a good guy? If he is of Briton descent, then Arthur must see the Saxons as equal to the earlier Roman invaders. More likely, Arthur’s bloodline would have been a mix of Briton and Roman. In the end, did the two races not blend? Were they not allied at the least in their fight against the incoming Saxon invaders?

Eventually in all cultures, the conquerors and the conquered’s great-grandchildren intermingle and hatreds are put aside and forgotten as time marches on. Too bad the great-grandparents couldn’t learn to do that themselves to save a great deal of bloodshed.

I encourage lovers of Arthurian literature interested in the prehistory of the Arthurian legend to watch both The Eagle and The Centurion to understand what Briton would have been like in the Romans’ early years in Britain and how those events shaped the world a historical King Arthur would have been born into. And I’d welcome comments from other viewers.

And if you are interested in reading more about Roman Britain in novel form, I highly recommend Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel series, including The Eagle of the Ninth and Sword at Sunset (the first novel to create a historical King Arthur), and especially, I recommend for great reading pleasure Jack Whyte’s novel series The Camulod Chronicles, about Arthur’s Roman ancestors and how they established Camelot as a way to maintain peace in the years when Rome was pulling out of Britain.


Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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My new book King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition is now available in hardcover, paperback, and kindle editions. For more information, visit www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

King Arthur's Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition

Below is the Introduction to King Arthur’s Children:


            The subject of King Arthur’s children is not widely known even to the legend’s most avid readers. Mention of these children may make readers pause for a moment, say to themselves, “What children?” and then add, “Well, of course there’s Mordred, but sometimes he is King Arthur’s nephew rather than his son.”

My reaction was similar when I first found mention of King Arthur having any children other than Mordred. The fact is, however, that King Arthur has traditionally had children almost since the legends were first told. Over the centuries, these children were lost amid the continually increasing number of new stories, many springing up without any source in the tradition, only to be added to the legend, while the original Celtic stories were largely forgotten. Occasionally, when scholars came across obscure references to one of Arthur’s children in the earlier sources, they were unsure what to make of this curiosity. As Arthurian studies have progressed, particularly over the last century, however, efforts have been made to understand the historical time period in which King Arthur lived, around the fifth to early sixth centuries; this research has resulted in many discoveries and even more theories, some of which will now allow us to make more accurate statements about King Arthur’s forgotten children.

With the continual increase of interest in the Arthurian legends, it is time that a study finally be made of King Arthur’s children. If we wish to discover who the historical King Arthur was, perhaps we might find out something about him by studying his children. The need to study King Arthur’s children is almost as important as the study of King Arthur himself because King Arthur’s children, as we will see, are what help connect us to King Arthur’s time period. The concept of King Arthur and the golden age he established fulfills a psychological yearning for many people. Comfort and satisfaction can be derived from believing in King Arthur’s ethical code. People have a need to believe in a golden age as we saw during John F. Kennedy’s presidency when attempts were made to compare Kennedy and the United States to King Arthur and Camelot. By discovering Arthur’s children and descendants, we find a link between the age of Arthur and our own time.

At the end of The Discovery of King Arthur, Geoffrey Ashe asks why the spell of King Arthur continues to excite us and capture our imaginations (189). Ashe suggests King Arthur’s popularity in the United States may be based in Americans’ tendency to speak about their “roots.” But then he comments, “I doubt if this is the whole answer, since most Americans are not British descended” (189).

Actually, estimates of Americans of British (English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh) descent run from 50-80% depending on the study. The number of studies and results on the Internet of how many Americans have British ancestry is too many to detail, but they can easily be found. Even people who identify themselves as African American often have Caucasian blood—and those descended from slaves with white blood will generally find that the Southern white slave owner in the family tree was of British descent. If we consider that King Arthur likely lived about the year 500 A.D. and we then consider how many descendants he had and how they migrated across the globe over fifteen hundred years, it is not much of a stretch to suggest that nearly everyone on earth can potentially be a descendant of King Arthur—provided he lived and did have children. DNA analysis recently has proven that everyone of European descent alive today can claim descent from anyone who lived in Europe prior to the year 1200 A.D. In fact, as Steve Olson demonstrates in Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes, if we go back just ten generations, we each would have 1024 ancestors, so thirty generations ago that number would be 1024 x 1024 x 1024, which equals over one billion. Since that many people did not live in the world thirty generations ago—estimates for the year 1400 were 375 million—many of our ancestors repeat, meaning our ancestors married distant cousins and shared similar ancestors. In any case, we can probably all claim descent from such famous ancient people as Confucius, Queen Nefertiti, and Julius Caesar (Olson 46-47). Furthermore, even people today of predominantly Asian or African descent could be descended from King Arthur. African-American poet Elizabeth Alexander, for example, is a descendant of King John of England (reigned 1199-1216 A.D.), as recently revealed on the PBS show Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. broadcast in 2010. As Steve Olsen notes, “suppose an emissary from Ethiopia married a woman in the court of Henry II and had children. Today, all Europeans are descended from that Ethiopian” (46).

Anyone interested in genealogy knows that “race” does not really exist. In researching my own ancestry, I have found myself descended not only from people in every country in Europe but even China, India, and Persia. The human race is itself a melting pot. With these statistics, based in fact, not merely fancy, if King Arthur were a historical person, he is very likely ancestor to all of us. Our descent from King Arthur is obviously through his children, so we should learn more about them.

My own interest in King Arthur began when I first read The Boy’s King Arthur at the age of fourteen. At twenty-one, I also began to take an interest in genealogy and traced my family back to King Edward III of England, among whose ancestors, of course, was Cerdic, King of Wessex, credited with being one of Arthur’s greatest enemies. Imagine my surprise and interest when I read Geoffrey Ashe’s suggestion that Cerdic was a possible son of King Arthur (199). If this relationship were true, then I would be a direct descendant of King Arthur! Something of a boyish pride swelled up in my heart, something that perhaps non-genealogists or non-lovers of Arthurian literature would not understand, but who would not like to claim descent from King Arthur? Later, I will discuss whether or not Cerdic is a possible son of King Arthur, but Geoffrey Ashe’s suggestion was enough to spark my interest, especially when I learned King Arthur also had other children. The descendants of these other children must have multiplied so that by the 1600s, when Americans’ British ancestors began journeying to the New World, several of them may have been carrying Arthurian blood over the seas with them. Not only I, but thousands if not millions of other Americans, would therefore be descendants of King Arthur!

If there were a King Arthur, then his descendants are probably more numerous than can ever be thoroughly traced. We may never know whether Arthur’s descendants are living among us (or are us), as we may never know whether Arthur was a real person. However, both are pleasant thoughts, and I personally believe both may be more than just possibilities.

Even if it is not through blood, then through culture Americans are the descendants of Arthur and his times. The popularity of Arthurian literature can quickly transport anyone who reads a book or watches a film back to the Arthurian age. The ideals with which we credit Arthurian times, whether the period received those ideals from our time, or our time from the past, still serve to connect us.

Arthur’s children are of interest to us, whether it is through genealogy or by cultural heritage. In King Arthur’s Daughter, Vera Chapman makes this point nicely when she writes about the growth of Arthur’s descendants:

“Not by a royal dynasty but by the spreading unknown and unnoticed, along the distaff line—mother to daughter, father to daughter, mother to son. Names and titles shall be lost, but the story and the spirit of Arthur shall not be lost. For Arthur is a spirit and Arthur is the land of Britain.” (144)

Anyone who would be a descendant of King Arthur need not have a fifteen hundred-year-old pedigree to prove it; we need to tell the tales about Arthur, and when people hear these stories, he will then live on in their hearts and his line and descendants will continue to grow.

In the following pages, I will attempt to explore all the figures said to be descended from King Arthur, from the legend’s earliest versions to the most modern novels. Often these modern novels are based on earlier traditions, or they are making their own interpretations of what could have happened. Arthurian studies always leave us the problem of trying to separate what is fact from fiction, and even the most respected Arthurian stories of the Middle Ages often become as suspect as the modern novels, and the modern novels today often try to be more authentic than their medieval counterparts; therefore, we must consider all interpretations and possibilities considering Arthur’s children, whether they appear believable or not. In many cases, we will discover that what might have happened if Arthur were a historical person is not as important as how people have chosen to interpret or even rewrite Arthurian literature.

This book represents the first time King Arthur’s children will all be assembled together, along with the various tales about them, as the subject of study. After looking more closely at the children of King Arthur, we will come to a better understanding of the purpose Arthurian literature has served over the centuries and perhaps we will even become more closely connected to King Arthur and his times.


Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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