Thursday, 24 February 2011

Why History should not be written by Film-makers

Sometimes one post sparks off another. This has been particularly true where the subject of the "lost" Ninth Legion is concerned. (Over the years, I have blogged about it here, here and here.) One of my readers (thank you, Juliette) recently drew my attention to a press item which heralded exciting new information about the Lost Legion.

More fact than fiction

According to The Daily Mail, "experts have revealed that the children's book [Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth] is more fact than fiction".

The report claims that "a group of experts" -- presumably including "historian and film-maker" Phil Hirst and "historian" Neil Faulkner, both named in the press release -- have brought "dramatic new evidence" to light, proving that "the elite infantry force [i.e. the Ninth Legion] was indeed defeated by a band of barbarians in a military catastrophe that shamed the empire, prompting a conspiracy of silence"!

A bold claim. So what is the "dramatic new evidence"?

Dramatic old evidence

The Daily Mail report announces that "the dramatic new evidence hinges on a single gravestone tribute and was brought to light by historian and film-maker Phil Hirst". So much for the press hyperbole. What about the truth?

RIB 3364

At the end of April 1997 -- roughly fourteen years ago --, an inscribed slab was found during excavations at Vindolanda, a Roman auxiliary fort in Northumberland (England). The slab formed the lefthand side of a funerary inscription, which had been re-used as a building stone during a later phase of refurbishment at the fort.

The inscription (officially designated RIB 3364) appears to commemorate a centurion named Titus Annius (or possibly Annaeus), "killed in war". But was he a centurion of the cohort, commanding a squad of 80 men, or was he a high-ranking legionary centurion, seconded from his legion to command the entire regiment? The real experts are divided on this. Professor Anthony Birley, who first published the inscription in 1998, believed that a substantial part was missing; perhaps as many as 20 letters from each line, allowing the insertion of a legion's name. However, Professor Roger Tomlin, who included the inscription in the official Roman Inscriptions of Britain publication in 2009, took a different view; he believed that only half-a-dozen letters are lost from each line. The resulting interpretation differs radically from Birley's.

So Titus Annaeus (or perhaps Annius) was killed in war. But which war? And when? This time, the real experts are in broad agreement. The auxiliary unit mentioned in the inscription (the First Cohort of Tungrians) is attested at Vindolanda over roughly a fifty year period (broadly AD 90-140).

Which war, and when?

Film-maker Phil Hirst is quoted as saying that "the discovery of a tombstone of a centurion stationed at the Northumbrian fort of Vindolanda shows the Romans were under attack from the north 20 years later [than the battle of Mons Graupius]" (i.e. AD 104). But the stone does not mention a date or a dateable event, and Professor Birley has noted that "there are not enough securely dated stones from the area to draw inferences about date from the style or quality of carving". In essence, it cannot be dated within the Tungrians' fifty-year occupation of the fort. Professor Birley's own preference was to link the stone with known unrest in Britain under Hadrian (r. AD 117-138). Professor Tomlin is in broad agreement, based on his observation that the word stipendiorum on lines 4-5 (usually abbreviated to STIP) is unlikely to occur "later than c. 125".

Of course, as seems to be standard practice, tentative suggestions have a habit of becoming historical facts, and facts get blurred. One recent handbook of Roman Britain claims that "a centurion's tombstone was found at Vindolanda which suggests the date of death as AD 118". (In reality, nothing on the stone suggests any date.) Another recent book, referring to the Hadrianic troubles in Britain, is more economical, claiming only that the Vindolanda centurion was "killed in a war about this time". (Of course, we have no idea precisely when he died.)

More fiction than fact

You may have noticed the singular absence of the Ninth Legion in all of this. The "dramatic new evidence" of its demise turns out to be rather old evidence of an auxiliary unit's involvement in an unknown war. Meanwhile, Neil Faulkner (according to the Daily Mail report) piles conjecture onto already shaky foundations by adding: "My guess is that the Ninth Legion was destroyed in a carefully executed ambush by northern tribes".

Well, at least we have established that the "dramatic new evidence" solving "the 2,000 year riddle of Rome's lost Ninth Legion" comes down to a guess. History really shouldn't be written by film-makers.


  1. While there have always been those who seek to 'use' history for they're own agenda,in the current era we now have the added motive of lucre. To sell a good story no hint of possible evidence is to small and no 'fact' to obscure. The popularization of the past inevitably leads to people believing what they want to hear and seeing themselves as educated because they watch too much TV. As one of Mark Twains charecters once said "nothing sells like tellin people what they wants to hear".

  2. Spot on.
    I think Neil Faulkner and Phil Hirst are working on a project for the History Channel which is associated with the film.

    Need I say more.

  3. The UK (and US) History Channels must be worse than the German one, and ours is bad enough to begin with. Don't get me started on some of the nonsense they sprouted in 2009 (anniversary of the Varus battle).

    The bad news (or not so news) is that people will believe such nonsense. I've spent weeks trying to convince an online acquaintance that some obscure essay on the net and a mention in a HC report of an Artorius Castus in the 2nd century AD having been the model for King Arthur doesn't make this true in any from. Thank you, Mr. Bruckheimer. *insert very ironic grin*

  4. Very true, Gabriele.

    For Artorius Castus, you could point your friend here.

  5. As my famous ancestor SERGIVS LEO ne'RVFVS - the 5th cent. writer of such timeless classics as 'Bonus Odium et Fugliarum'(which tells the legend of a mysterious Goth named Blondi and his Vandal sidekick Tuccus Uglianus) and the lesser known work'Fistfull of Sestertii' - left carved on his tomb (across from the famous centurion Arcius Stantoninus) "Never let facts ruin a good script"

  6. Gideon Nisbet16/3/11 4:39 pm

    And here we go again:

  7. Gideon Nisbet17/3/11 8:32 am

    And don't you just love the way the phrase "elite military unit" gets passed from one version to the next? Those plucky Picts didn't just defeat any old legion, they saw off the Roman SAS!

  8. I'm afraid that "elite military unit" appears again in my next post, Gideon, courtesy of Dr Miles Russell!

  9. cam anyone give me a quote from antonius pius?

  10. << cam anyone give me a quote from antonius pius? >>
    You've just read a blog full of 'em!