THE LAST LEGION by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

22 01 2014

Last Legion coverThis book’s basic premise is that the deposed boy emperor, Romulus Augustus, last Emperor of the West, did not die in captivity under Odoacer but was rescued (a real “mission impossible”) by a small group of surviving legionaries loyal to the throne, and then taken north-west to Britain.

Why Britain (and remember this book is by an Italian, not a British, writer)?

Partly because they had nowhere else to take the young emperor, and partly because the boy’s tutor (now standing in loco parentis after the murder of both his parents) is a British druid in exile. He naturally feels that in Britain he will be better able to protect the boy, but he has also come to believe that the boy is the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy:

Veniet adulescens a mari infero cum spatha,
pax et prosperitas cum illo.
Aquila et draco iterum volabunt
Britanniae in terra lata.

(A youth shall come from the southern sea with a sword, bringing peace and prosperity. The eagle and the dragon will fly again over the great land of Britannia.)

The action is gripping, the boy emperor and the druid, Meridius Ambrosinus, are vividly drawn and totally credible, the small band of Roman legionaries, especially their leader, Aurelius (who, because of a head injury remembers nothing of his mysterious youth) are truly heroic, but my favourite character – the one I dentify with, of course – is the archer and “amazon” Livia (played in the film by the Indian actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan!)

This beautiful girl is one of the refugees from the Fall of Ravenna who have been living and building a community in the swamps that will one day be Venice – my favourite part of the book. She is actually the leader on the original mission to rescue the emperor, and, that accomplished, decides to stay with the group and accompany them on the long journey to Britain. They need her, she knows, but more importantly (to her), she has come to believe that Aurelius was the young soldier who saved her life outside Ravenna when she was nine years old. He does not remember, does not believe, but she does …

A wonderful story with a strangely convincing ending in a pre-Arthurian Britain writhing under the gruesome dictator “Wortigern”.

Now I’m going to try to get hold of the film I mentioned above. From what I can garner around the net, it was not a great success, commercial or otherwise, but with Ben Kingsley as the druid, Colin Firth as Aurelius, and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Livia it must have something going for it! More on that later.

Aishwarya Rai in Last Legion

I have now seen the film and enjoyed it very much. Recommended!

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