A Centurion of the Thirtieth

These notes are based on those written by Donald Mackenzie for the OXFORD WORLD’S CLASSICS edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies (1995) with the kind permission of Oxford University Press. Except where stated otherwise, the page numbers below refer to the Macmillan Uniform Edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906, and frequently reprinted since).



This story was first published in the Strand Magazine of May 1906, and the McClure’s Magazine for the same month. It was collected in Puck of Pook’s Hill in 1906 and in numerous subsequent editions of that collection. It was accompanied by the poems “Cities and Thrones and Powers” and “A British-Roman Song”.

The Story

Through Puck, Dan and Una meet Parnesius, a Centurion in a Roman Legion in the later days of Roman Britain, when the Empire is threatened by barbarians without and rivalry within. This is the first of three tales about Roman power, and the qualities that were needed to defend it.

His family had lived in Britain for generations, and – like his father before him – Parnesius had decided to become a soldier. His father had spoken for him to Maximus, the great general with ambitions to become Emperor of Rome, and he is made Centurion of the Seventh Cohort of the Thirtieth Legion. The Legion’s headquarters are at Pevensey (then called Anderida), only twelve miles from the children’s home, but his cohort is stationed on Hadrian’s Wall, on the northern border of the Roman Empire.

Parnesius is thought well of by Maximus, but encounters him on the march northwards to Hadrian’s Wall. and loses the General’s favour by refusing to kill an insolent soldier at Maximus’s command. Parnesius is destined to spend his career as a legionary on the Wall, the scene of the two stories that follow.

Historical Background

Maximus, a Spanish soldier of humble origins, commanded Roman troops in Britain against the Picts and Scots. Proclaimed Emperor by British troops in the spring of 383, he crossed to Gaul to confront Gratian, who had been Emperor of the West since 375. Gratian was slain; Maximus negotiated a settlement with his co-emperor Valentinian II and with Theodosius, Emperor of the East. But in 387 he invaded Italy. War broke out with Theodosius, and Maximus was defeated and executed in 388.

For discussion of the historical accuracy or otherwise of Kipling’s stories, see Carrington, “Pedantry about Parnesius”, in KJ 166 (June 1968), 8-10, and “More Pedantry about Parnesius”, KJ 167 (Sept. 1968), 8-9 (reproduced in ORG vi. 2711-15); and A. L. Rivet, Rudyard Kipling’s Roman Britain: Fact and Fiction (Keele, 1978).

The main criticisms made by the latter are:

(1) Kipling exaggerates the height

(probably about eighteen feet against Kipling’s thirty) and width of Hadrian’s Wall. The latter marked the line of the frontier and was not designed as a defensive fortification.

(2) Christianity is `presented as an obscure minority religion’ when it had been officially recognized and supported since the Edict of Milan in 313. Mithraism had correspondingly declined: `all the mithraea in Britain, like other pagan temples, had in fact gone out of use earlier in the fourth century’

(3) Kipling’s conceptions of an Old Roman Stock and of Parnesius’s legionaries as Roman-born Romans are misleading.
Andrew Rutherford analyses these stories in the context of earlier Kipling in his `Officers and Gentlemen’ in Rutherford (ed.), Kipling’s Mind and Art, 171-96 (revised version in his Literature of War, 11-37).

Notes on the text

[Page 141, line 6] Lays of Ancient Rome A series of poems by Lord Macaulay (1800-1859) based on tales of battles in ancient Rome, written in a vigorously heroic style. Una is quoting from “Horatius” which tells how a Roman soldier and two comrades held the bridge across the Tiber against an invading Etruscan army, long enough to give the Romans time to cut it down and save the city. The quotations are from ‘Horatius’, stanzas 4, 17, and 51.

[Page 143, line 10] Faun woodland deity in classical mythology.

[Page 143, line 11] Painted People Picts (Latin Picti); an ancient pre-Celtic people inhabiting part of modern Scotland. They are first noted in AD 297 when a Roman writer speaks of Picts and Irish attacking Hadrian’s Wall.

[Page 143, line 30] Seventh Cohort of the Thirtieth Legion – the Ulpia Victrix a Roman legion at full strength consisted of some 5,000-6,000 men, divided into ten cohorts. Each cohort was subdivided into six centuries; the centurions who commanded these were normally experienced soldiers promoted from the ranks, but a minority were directly commissioned, as Parnesius is in this story. Keppie (The Making of the Roman Army, 1984, 179) observes that `centurions should not be thought of as sergeants, but as middle ranking officers, company commanders’.

In order of seniority, the centurions of the tenth cohort were, basically, junior to those of the ninth and so on (cf. Parnesius’s first encounter with Maximus below). The XXX Legion was raised by the Emperor Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus) for his Dacian wars (AD 101-2 and 105-6) and takes its name from him, with the further epithet `Victorious’ (Victrix). After serving on the Danube it was stationed in Germany. It never actually served in Britain.

[Page 144, line 1] Catapults the Roman army used catapults of varying sizes and construction. The largest was the onager (i.e. wild ass, so named, according to the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, from the ass’s practice of kicking stones back at pursuing hunters). Smaller catapults, known by various names, operated on principles akin to those of the cross-bow. See e.g. Webster, The Roman Imperial Army (3rd edition, 1985), 242-54.

[Page 147, line 7] Our Villa’s on the South edge Rivet [Rudyard Kipling’s Roman Britain: Fact and Fiction, Keele, 1978] proposes that this was the Roman villa at Brading, excavated in 1879-81. He notes that Kipling’s father was on the Isle of Wight during this time, working on the Indian suite in Queen Victoria’s residence at Osborne.

[Page 147, line 12] Agricola Roman general (AD 40-93); governor of Britain AD 77-83. He completed the Roman conquest of England and carried the occupation to the edge of the Scottish Highlands.

[Page 147, line 19] Numidian `From North Africa, now Tunisia’ (ORG).

[Page 147, line 21] are you free, maiden ? Parnesius was asking Una if she was a free woman – like his nurse – or a slave, an important distinction in Roman times. Una did not realise this, and Parnesius was understanding enough to accept the word in her more limited sense; a small example of the different layers of meaning to be found in these stories.

[Page 148, line 13] Demeter of the Baskets goddess of the crops.

[Page 148, line 6] Roma Dea the city of Rome viewed as herself a goddess.

[Page 149, line 10] Vectis The Isle of Wight.

[Page 149, line 18] Aquae Sulis Bath; the name, meaning `the waters of Sul’, derives from Sul, one of the gods of the Celtic pantheon. This elegant town in the west of England, now called ‘Bath’, has been a fashionable spa ever since Roman times.

[Page 150, line 9] City of the Legions ‘Isca Silurum, now Caerleon (Castra Legionum)‘. (ORG).

[Page 150, line 14] Antinoe `On the bank of the Nile, about 250 miles from the sea’ (ORG).

[Page 150, line 32] Clausentum `Bitterne, near modern Southampton’ (ORG).

[Page 151, line 29] bow of Ulysses in Homer (Odyssey, xxi), Odysseus (in Latin ‘Ulysses’) has a bow which only he can string or bend.

[Page 152, line 8] Bath buns Like ‘Bath Oliver’ biscuits, these classic English buns are still sold today nearly a hundred years after Puck of Pook’s Hill was written.

[Page 152, line 21] Dacian Horse The Dacian Horse were ‘auxiliaries’ (see the note below). `The 1st Cohort of Dacians (infantry) were stationed at Camboglana on the Wall (now Birdoswald)’ (ORG).

[Page 152, line 30] Old Stock see headnote.

[Page 152, line 32] split the Eagle in AD 364 the Roman Empire was divided; the Emperor Valentinian I took the West, his brother Valens the East.

[Page 153, line 7] Gratian (AD 359-83); ruled first as co-emperor of the West with his father Valentinian I, and on the death of the latter (AD 375), as sole emperor until overthrown by Maximus in AD 383. For his sporting enthusiasms see e.g. Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ch. 27.

[Page 153, line 17] painted himself blue The Britons traditionally decorated their bodies with tattoos, in woad, a blue vegetable dye, as – by Kipling’s account – did the Picts in what is now southern Scotland. [see page 179 line 12]

[Page 153, line 22] war with the Painted People in AD 367 a concerted attack by Saxons, Picts, and Scots overran Hadrian’s Wall. They were defeated and the Roman frontiers restored by an army under Count Theodosius in AD 368-9. Theodosius was executed at Carthage in AD 376. His son became the Emperor Theodosius by whom Maximus was finally defeated.

[Page 153, line 23] year the temples of our gods were destroyed We have not found a specific referent for this. Paganism was in decline through the later fourth century, with an attempted revival by the crusading pagan emperor Julian during his brief reign (AD 361-3). Scullard (Roman Britain, 1979, 167-8) notes that some temples in Britain were built or restored during this period. Kipling may be dramatizing this situation.

[Page 153, line 27] Diocletian Roman emperor (reigned AD 284-305) under whom the last imperial persecution of Christianity (AD 303) took place.

[Page 154, line 16] Theodosius see above.

[Page 155, line 4] Gauls and Iberians inhabitants of the areas covered, respectively, by present-day France and by Spain and Portugal.

[Page 155, line 14] Deucalion in classical myth the survivor, with his wife Pyrrha, of the flood in which the rest of mankind perished for their wickedness.

[Page 155, line 26] cohort The main fighting unit of the Roman army was the legion, of up to 6000 men. A legion was commonly divided into ten cohorts of between 300 and 600 men, commanded by a Centurion.

[Page 156, line 16] the Gods know I put aside the games cf. 1 Cor. 13,11?

[Page 156, line 21] Good Shades the souls of the dead (Di Manes), viewed as having a collective divinity. They were later identified with the family ancestors (Di Parentes).

[Page 157, line 4] Auxiliaries ‘Auxiliary’ troops provided the light infantry and cavalry of the Roman army. Recruited from the provinces, especially the frontier ones, they took a local name from their place of recruitment, as with the Dacian Horse (from the region of modern Romania) mentioned earlier in this story. As provincials, the auxiliaries would originally not have been Roman citizens, but the extension of citizenship had removed this distinction well before the time at which Kipling’s story is set. They were professional soldiers, but did not have the elite status of legionaries.

[Page 157, line 4] Abulci a `Numerus Abulcorum’ is recorded as having been stationed in the Roman garrison at Anderida (Pevensey).

[Page 158, line 6] Light of the Sun See Parnesius as a worshipper of Mithras [note below on Page 61. line 28].

[Page 158, line 11] the Purple `A purple robe or cloak, worn only by the Emperor’ (ORG).

[Page 159, line 8] Prefect under the later empire an official with judicial, financial, and (at one stage) military functions. The Provinces of the Roman Empire were commonly governed by Prefects on behalf of the Emperor. They were thus very senior officials.

[Page 159, line 21] blue borage An aromatic herb, used to flavour wine.

[Page 159, line 22] borage plant used to flavour wine.

[Page 160, line 4] Tribune one of six officers in a legion, ranking directly under its commanding officer.

[Page 160, line 15] as Theodosius died see above.

[Page 161, line 9] Carthage A city of traders and seafarers on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Tunisia; it rivalled Roman power until the Carthaginians were defeated by the Romans in a series of wars, ending in 146 BC

[Page 161, line 10] Cyclops A one-eyed giant in classical myth. See e.g. Odyssey ix. in which Odysseus and his men blind Polyphemus, the Cyclops, so as to escape from him.

Philip Holberton notes: in later mythology the Cyclopes were also smiths, who forged the thunderbolts of Zeus under Mount Etna, so the nickname is doubly appropriate.

[Page 161, line 16] Road Book the surviving Roman Road Book, the Antonine Itinerary, makes no mention of a road from Anderida to the north. Kipling is thought to have been misled by the spurious Chronicle of Richard of Cirencester (actually a mid-eighteenth-century forgery) which gives a route from Anderida to London. (See Carrington in ORG, 2740-2.)

[Page 161, line 28] Mithras god of the sun, war, justice, and contract in the ancient Persian religion. Mithraism had a sudden flourishing in the Roman world from the early second century AD onwards. It was popular among soldiers (cf. Kipling’s story The Church that was at Antioch” in Limits and Renewals); dedications and sanctuaries have been found along the military frontier in Britain and elsewhere. Most of the adherents known from inscriptions are soldiers, officials in the service of the emperor, imperial slaves, and freedmen. Cf. headnote above and notes to “On the Great Wall” and “The Winged Hats” later in this volume.

[Page 162, line 6] `Cur mundus militat … ubi Tullius–‘ the lines are from a thirteenth-century poem of disputed authorship. They may be translated as follows:

`Why does the world, whose prosperity is fleeting,
battle for vain glory?
Its power slips away as swiftly
as the potter’s fragile vessels
[are broken].
Where has Caesar gone, lofty in sway?
Or Dives, all splendid at the feast?
Say where is Tullius…’


[D. M.]
©Donald Mackenzie 2012 All rights reserved