Hollywood and History

Posted on February 2, 2011


Every now and then, I meet a young person who’s surprised that some Hollywood historical film got something wrong. As a fan of history, I’m over being surprised, but I’m still disappointed.

The Eagle

The Eagle releases on 11 Feb, 2011. As I write this, there weren’t any reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but you can check the link if you want to see any professional opinions.

In Roman-ruled Britain, a young Roman soldier endeavors to honor his father’s memory by finding his lost legion’s golden emblem. – Marketing text

Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) goes north of Hadrian’s Wall in 140 A.D. to recover the emblem of Legio IX Hispania, lost in a battle with the Scots. It’s got all the earmarks of a great, period, adventure movie. The Celtic habit of painting themselves blue with woad, spiking their hair with lime*, and fighting wearing little clothing (and no armor) makes for great spectacle. If done correctly, it could really show how the disorganized, bickering Celtic tribes fought the disciplined, professional soldiers of Rome for so long.


I might see it on DVD or television, but I won’t see it in a theater. Not only is it factually wrong, but it completely ignores a far more interesting story.


The Scots did not destroy the Ninth Legion. A few minutes of Internet research shows that this is an old idea. More recently, we’ve found evidence that the Ninth continued to exist well after AD 117. It may have fought against the Judean rebels in the Bar Kochba Revolt. It may have been stationed in Holland, near Nijmegen. The evidence is inconclusive, but there’s enough of it to suggest that the Ninth did not vanish in a disaster under Hadrian’s leadership.


In 9 AD, three Roman legions died in the Teutoborg Forest, in Germany. Arminius was a Germanic slave. He learned everything he could about the Romans. He trained as a Roman military commander, attained Roman citizenship through military service, and reached the status of equestrian (a petty noble, roughly equivalent to a knight). When he was 25, he was in the guard of the governor of the German provinces. Arminius united several local German tribes and executed a cunning plan.

While the governor and his legions toured the province, collecting taxes, they received word that barbarians were attacking a town. The governor immediately ordered the legions to detour toward the attack. This led them along a path prepared by Arminius’ allies. They had built carefully camouflaged ramparts on high ground astride the forest road. When the legions passed, the barbarians hurled spears at them from behind the walls. The Romans raised their shields to protect themselves and hurried out of the ambush…only to rush into the next one.

The battle continued for three days. German barbarians were known to strip down to breeches or a kilt-like garment, smear their bodies with ash so that only the whites of their eyes were visible, and attack sentries or other soldiers separated from their companions. They were tough people, hardened to a tough life, and fighting for their homes and independence.

In the end, 20,000 Roman soldiers, including the governor, were dead. Varus, the governor, threw himself on his sword when he knew the battle was lost. The defeat was so demoralizing that Rome retired the 17th, 18th, and 19th Legions. Those numbers were not used again. It took a generation before the Romans crossed the Rhine in force to search for the remains of their legionnaires. This one battle actually divided Europe between Latin and Germanic Europe, and set the stage for both World Wars.

This is a far darker, but far more interesting story. It has elements of friendship, trust, and betrayal in Arminius’ story. It deals with the sacrifices made to gain the benefits of Roman rule, and the struggle between the benefits of the Pax Romana and the benefits of freedom and independence.

This is a great story that Hollywood ignores for something built on falsehoods and misapprehensions. Thanks, but I’ll watch something else instead.


*Originally, this post referred to the ancient Britons spiking their hair with sap. This was incorrect. The warriors washed their hair in lime water, which bleached it blond. It was a symbolic style, indicating that the warrior had killed an enemy.

Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico reports that Hollywood gets Celtic warfare wrong, too. Some used massed archers. Some fought in highly structured phalanxes. He makes no report of massed warriors fighting with swords – and he was there.