The Roman Centurion’s Song

(notes by Peter Keating)

Publication history

First published in the pamphlet Three Poems by Rudyard Kipling (1911) and shortly after in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L.Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling. In both of these books, the poem carries as a lead-in title ‘The Roman Centurion Speaks.’ It is included in Chapter 1, ‘From the Earliest Times to the Departure of the Romans’ where it is accompanied by an explanatory note in the right-hand margin which reads: ‘A Roman Soldier who loves Britain.’ The poem’s sub-title was added to Inclusive Verse (1919).

For the School History, Henry Ford contributed two related black and white drawings. These are called ‘The Landing of the Romans’ and ‘The Building of the Wall.’ ORG [No. 972 (b)] gives four alternative titles for the poem: (1)‘The Roman Occupation of Britain – A.D. 300.’ (2) ‘The Roman Centurion Speaks’. (3) ‘The Roman Centurion’. (4) ‘The Centurion’s Song.’ In addition to Inclusive Verse, the poem was included in Definitive Verse (1940); the Sussex Edition vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol. 27.

There were several small textual changes made to the poem between Three Poems and A School History. For the Sussex Edition, there was one change to the text: at the start of line 28 an omission mark was inserted in front of the word Mid.

Peter Bellamy’s rendition here.


As noted in the commentary on “The River’s Tale”, discussion of the Roman occupation of Britain is restricted to the introductory chapter of A School History, making Rome seem, in one sense, background to the main interests of the book which are the establishment of England’s national identity and the growth of the British Empire. But the poem Kiping wrote carries a larger significance than this might suggest. It establishes comparisons, often implicit but never far away, between the Roman and British Empires, and it also deals with the highly complex topic of an individual’s personal association with the place he regards as home.

This was something that preoccupied Kipling throughout the whole of his life, and he writes about it in many different ways, in his poetry, short stories, travel sketches, and autobiography. It clearly has its source in his own early movement from India to England, back to India, and back to England again, but is to be found everywhere. To mention only the most obvious connections – homesickness, patriotism, belonging, settling abroad, the imperial dilemma ( Roman here, but it might just as well be British ) of occupying and settling in an alien country only to find that it has come to mean more to you than your original homeland.

Very closely linked to the main themes of this poem are three stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906): “A Centurion of the Thirtieth” (with its accompanying poem “A British-Roman Song”); “On the Great Wall”; and “The Winged Hats”.

In A School History, p. 19, the poem is led up to very carefully. Fletcher – almost certainly in this instance, one imagines, with direct support from Kipling – provides some historical background that is, in effect, a summary of the poem’s main themes:

These gentlemen [i.e.‘rich Roman gentlemen’] at first talked about exile, shivered and cursed the ‘beastly British
climate,’ heated their houses with hot air, and longed to get home to Italy. But many stayed; their duty or their business obliged them to stay: and into them too the spirit of the dear motherland entered, and became a passion.
Their children, perhaps never saw Rome; but Rome and Britain had an equal share of their love and devotion, and they, perhaps, thought something like this: –
The Roman Centurion Speaks:

The poem then followed immediately, with the temporary title serving to emphasise that this is a dramatic monologue, one man’s personal experiences, deeply felt and passionately expressed.

A later echo

Jan Montefiore notes that this poem, together with the Parnesius stories, helped to inspire Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, whose young Roman hero Marcus ends up settling in Britain; also its sequels including The Lantern Bearers in which Marcus’ descendant Aquila, a young Roman decurion, deserts the Eagles when the last troops are withdrawn, so as not to leave Britain. He ends up joining the British resistance to the Saxons. [J.M.]

[P. K.]

©Peter Keating 2004 All rights reserved