Centurion has a familiar ring about it, but it’s not because it sticks to the facts

Centurion Helmet Reconstruction: Wikimedia Commons

The Roman army’s Legio IX Hispana, known in English as the Ninth Legion, mysteriously ceased to exist at some point in the second century AD.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Centurion has a familiar ring about it, but it’s not because it sticks to the facts” was written by Alex von Tunzelmann, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 19th April 2012 09.20 UTC

Centurion (2010)
Director: Neil Marshall
Entertainment grade: C-
History grade: E+

The Roman army’s Legio IX Hispana, known in English as the Ninth Legion, mysteriously ceased to exist at some point in the second century AD.


The film is set in AD117. Its fictional centurion, Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), is kidnapped by warrior Picts from his camp on the frontier of Caledonia (now Scotland). It’s a worrying start: Picts aren’t identified in the historical record until AD297, when they crop up in a panegyric by the Roman orator Eumenius. This lot could perhaps be Caledones, who may have been Pictish ancestors or proto-Picts. History and archaeology know little about the Caledones or the Picts, so there’s plenty of scope to make stuff up. Not that Centurion needs any encouragement.


The governor of Britain, Julius Agricola, summons the Ninth Legion. This is very impressive of him, considering that by AD117 he had been dead for 24 years. It is true, as this film suggests, that Agricola invaded Caledonia, but that was between AD80 and 84. Anyway, Centurion’s Agricola is sprightly for a zombie. He orders the commander of the Ninth, General Virilus (Dominic West), to subdue the Picts. He also gives him a Pictish scout, Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a kind of gothic ninja Barbie who comes complete with eyeliner, wolfskin accessories and a big trident thingy for spearing people’s heads. Fortunately, the film has designated her mute, so it doesn’t have to go to the trouble of giving her an actual character.


The legion heads north, deep into a Caledonian forest. Somebody has been going crazy with a second-century smoke machine. It’s supposed to be mist, but it looks more like the industrial revolution has started just around the corner. The soldiers realise they’re being followed, and gather into a defensive formation. “Whatever comes out of that mist, lads, you will hold the line,” says Virilus. Like many things in this movie, this appears to be a homage to Gladiator, in which Maximus (Russell Crowe) says: “Whatever comes out of these gates, we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together.” The gladiators in Gladiator got the warriors of Scipio Africanus. The centurions in Centurion get giant rolling fireballs, a weapon probably unknown to second-century Caledones. Of course, there are quite a lot of fireballs in Gladiator too, during the opening battle in Germania. There are some things Gladiator had that Centurion doesn’t: a great screenplay, original vision, and a massive budget. The Ninth Legion would have comprised about 4,000 men. In Centurion it’s more like 200 who are attacked by the Picts.


We’re less than 30 minutes into the film, and already the Ninth Legion has been massacred. That doesn’t leave much plot for the remaining hour. To be fair, there isn’t a straightforward historical answer to the question of what happened to the Ninth Legion. It was last spotted in Eboracum (York) in AD108. After that, it disappeared from the record, though some of its officers and detachments popped up again here and there. There are various theories about its disappearance. If they weren’t massacred in Caledonia, the bulk of the legion’s men might have copped it in Parthia or Judaea.


Quintus joins up with the few remaining men of the Ninth to fight their way back to safe Roman territory. Gothic Ninja Barbie turns out to be a Pict agent. “I knew we should never have trusted the bitch,” someone snarls. Well, duh. She and her chums smear blue Adam Ant stripes across their faces. They may not get away with it stylistically, but historically they can. Julius Caesar, in De Bello Gallico, said that British tribes painted themselves blue to fight. He also noted that they “have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip”, that each British woman married 10-12 men simultaneously, and that the most civilised Britons “are they who inhabit Kent”. Sounds about right.


Note to film-makers: watching Gladiator does not count as historical research.

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