Of Centurions, Love and Kipling

Thursday, March 21, AD 2013


The twenty-first in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here and here.  Kipling throughout his literary career had two great loves:  his love for England and his love for the British Army that guarded England.  A variant on these two themes is displayed in The Roman Centurion’s Song  which Kipling wrote for A Child’s History of England in 1911.  This is the lament of a Roman Centurion who has served forty years in Britannia.  His cohort, circa 300 AD, has been ordered back to Rome and the Centurion does not want to go.  After forty years Britannia has become his home and he wishes to stay.

Kipling once famously wrote in his poem The ‘Eathen, that the backbone of an army is the non-commissioned man.  That was certainly the case with the Roman Legions.  The centurions were an interesting combination of sergeant major and captain.  They were long service men, almost all risen from the ranks.  They normally commanded 60-80 men, although senior centurions, at the discretion of the Legate in charge of the Legion, could command up to a cohort, 500-1,000 men.  Each centurion had a place in the chain of command  with the primus pilus being the head centurion of a legion.  The military tribunes and legates who led the legions were Roman aristocrats, most of whose military experience was much less than the centurions under them.  If they were wise, they left the day to day management of their legion up to the centurions and paid heed to their advice in combat situations.  In the contemporary histories that have come down to us, the centurions are normally treated with great respect.  This is reflected in the movie Spartacus where Senator Gracchus notes that if the Senate punished every commander who ever made a fool of himself, there would be no one left in the Legions above the rank of centurion.

It was not uncommon for centurions to become quite fond of the people and the foreign lands they were stationed in for lengthy periods.  We see this with the Centurion Cornelius and his encounter with Peter described in Acts 10:

[1] And there was a certain man in Caesarea, named Cornelius, a centurion of that which is called the Italian band; [2] A religious man, and fearing God with all his house, giving much alms to the people, and always praying to God. [3] This man saw in a vision manifestly, about the ninth hour of the day, an angel of God coming in unto him, and saying to him: Cornelius. [4] And he, beholding him, being seized with fear, said: What is it, Lord? And he said to him: Thy prayers and thy alms are ascended for a memorial in the sight of God. [5] And now send men to Joppe, and call hither one Simon, who is surnamed Peter:

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11 Responses to Of Centurions, Love and Kipling

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  • I think you are being too literal in your reading of this piece. This is yet another pretender’s tilt are being the next new Rome. I must have some sort of paranoid delusion of Protestants under every bed, but I can not read this Kip’s lines w/o seeing a pathetic sentimental defense of Anglicanism. It is as if he says, “Oh, well, yes I know I am by nature a Roman (Catholic ), but you see, I have just become so attached to the land and tradition of England (Anglican ) that I just can’t bare the thought of leaving.”

    Never mind that his ancestors begged their king not to cleave the link with Roman tradition.

  • Darren I can assure you that Kipling had no such intentions as you have read into his poem. Kipling was many things in his life, but an enthusiastic Anglican was never one of them! The man described himself as a Christian atheist. At best he was a Deist. Oddly he does seem to have had a devotion to Mary that comes out in some of his other works.

  • I deleted your last comment Darren since you ignored the evidence I presented to you and you held to your bizarre interpretation. I have also placed you on moderation. I work fairly hard on these posts and I do not appreciate them being taken down strange byways by someone obviously bone ignorant on the subject being discussed.

  • Good post. This retired soldier can relate. Well written. Thanks

  • Don, you might be interested in checking out “The Centurion” by Leonard Wibberly (best known as the author of “The Mouse that Roared” and its sequels). It is a fictionalized story of Longinus, the centurion who attended Christ’s crucifixion, which presents him as having once been captured by Britons, and as having a British servant/slave who is also his father-in-law (meaning that he must have been married to a Briton at one time). I’ve only gotten a few chapters into it — Holy Week might be a good time to try to finish it — and it’s very good.

  • Thank you Elaine. I do not believe that I have read that and I will have to do so!

  • Don

    Good post.

    One can not but feel the pain of the Centurian.

    But he is a solidier, he will follow orders even if he can’t get the Legate to change them.

    Leslie Fish published several CD’s of his poems put to music. The videos made with these are usually pretty good. worth taking a quick look when your looking for a video.

  • Thank you Robb and Hank. Since in my mispent youth I wore Army Green, I guess I qualify as an old soldier, and the poem speaks deeply to me also.

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