The Roman Centurion’s Song

Notes on the text

(by Peter Keating)


[Title] Centurion A commander of a ‘century’ (originally a company of one hundred men) in the Roman Army.

[Subtitle] Roman occupation of Britain, A.D. 300. Fletcher observes that Julius Caesar first invaded England in 55-54 B.C., but did not settle here, while a second, and more permament invasion, took place in A.D 43. The date of A.D. 300 is presumably chosen by Fletcher to mark the beginning of the ‘Decay of Roman power’, not just in Britain but throughout the Roman Empire. Presumably the reason why the Centurion is being ordered home is to help reinforce the army in Rome, though it was to be many years yet before the Romans withdrew entirely from Britain. [A School History, pp. 16-22.]

[Line 1] Legate …cohort. The Oxford Engish Dictionary says that within the Roman Empire a legate was: ‘the deputy or lieutenant of a general, or of the governor of a province.’ A cohort was a tenth part of a legion compromising between three hundred and six hundred infantry.

[Line 2] Portus Itius. The port in France from where Caesar launched his invasion of southern England.

[Line 5] from Vectis to the Wall. From the Isle of Wight in the extreme south of England to Hadrian’s Wall, the fortification built 120-123 A.D. across the north of England from the mouth of the Tyne to the Solway Firth. Its purpose was to prevent the Picts from crossing into England from Scotland. There was a second similar fortification called the Antonine Wall built within southern Scotland, but it seems likely that it is Hadrian’s Wall referred to here.

[Line 17] Rhodanus. The river Rhone.

[Line 18] Nemausus. The town of Nîmes, a Roman stronghold, in the south of France.

[Line 19] Arelate. Arles. Also a town in the south of France.

[Line 20] Euroclydon. The north-east wind.

[Line 21] the old Aurelian Road. This ran south from Genoa to Rome. Aurelian was Emperor of Rome 270-275.

[Line 22] the Tyrrhene Ocean. Off the west coast of Italy. It is usually referred to as a ‘sea’ rather than an ‘ocean.’

[Line 23] laurel crowns. The Roman symbol of honour awarded for some great public or state achievement.

[Line 24] hawthorn … bracken. Together with heather (line 28), these are all hardy plants associated with northern climates and often moorland. They are not the kind of plants that a true Roman would be likely to regard with nostalgia, but for this particular anglicised centurion who has served on the Scottish border they have come to epitomise home.

[Line 27] Some Western camp (I know the Pict) or granite Border keep. For Pict see the notes to the poem “The Pirates in England.” A ‘granite Border keep’‘Western’ is not entirely clear. Perhaps it refers to the fact that fortifications were stronger and more permanent at the eastern end of the Wall, making a posting to ‘a western camp’ particularly dangerous.

[Line 28] heather. See the note to line 24.

[line 30] I’ve served in Britain forty years. What should I do in Rome? The classic cry of the imperialist who, in the actual terms sometimes used by Kipling himself, has helped conquer a country only to discover that that country has conquered him.

[P. K.]
©Peter Keating 2004 All rights reserved