Excalibur and the last stand

Submitted by Anon on 19 November, 2007 - 9:56 Author: Matthew Thompson

The Last Legion is an unusual film. It deals with the late Roman Empire and the nominal last emperor of the West, the juvenile Romulus Augustulus.

The 1964 epic The Fall of the Roman Empire and the similar Gladiator both follow the eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon in seeing the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD as marking the final decline of Rome. Yet the Empire survived for another three centuries, divided between east and west and engaged in a constant struggle to defend its borders.

By the late fifth century, the Western Empire had been reduced to Italy and a foothold in southern Gaul. Vandal fleets operating from conquered North Africa and Spain controlled the Mediterranean. Trade and agriculture declined as civil war, famine and disease decimated the population.

Without a citizenry of free peasants and artisans from which the legions had been drawn, taxation had to be raised to pay for a mercenary army who used their power to proclaim a succession of puppet emperors. The abdication of Romulus Augustulus in 476 AD and the decision of the Senate to transfer the imperial insignia to the Eastern Emperor in Byzantium marked the end of a process of economic and military decline rather than a sudden collapse.

The Last Legion captures this volatile situation although, being a Hollywood film, it distorts history for effect. The Ostrogoths are predictably presented as barbarian invaders despite having been granted land in return for military service and subsequently converting to Christianity (albeit to Arianism, the heresy that Christ was a lower order of being than God).

Whereas the real Romulus was pensioned off to his family’s estate in southern Italy, the film has him travelling to Britain where the plot fuses with the beginning of the Arthurian legend.

The swordfighting scenes are impressively swashbuckling and combined with some comic touches. The idea of a last band of warriors continuing to fight when the rest of their comrades have been killed clearly resonates with the fate of socialism in the twentieth century and Natalia Sedova”s description of Trotsky as “the last fighter of an annihilated legion”. The film's makers are to be credited for an overdue portrayal of an obscure yet decisive period in European history.

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