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More Worlds to Conquer: Rome's Lost Legion

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Storytellers | October 31, 2013 | Comments ()


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Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.

In 53BC, the Roman Republic was in its death throes. The masses rose again and again, with the same essential complaints two thousand years have done little to change. Demagogues stood at the front of their crowds, whipping and riling them into a frenzy that set the Mediterranean ablaze again and again. Every ancient sacred principle, every tradition that kept the peace, was broken one after the other by a succession of would-be saviors who claimed necessity while their enemies claimed tyranny.

During a brief lull in this century of blood, the three most powerful men in Rome allied themselves with each other, forming what history calls the first triumvirate. Pompey, the flamboyant general, Caesar, the political mastermind, and Crassus, the richest man in the Republic. But Crassus was discontented.

You see, in the Roman Republic, the measure of a great man derived little from his wealth and everything from his glory in war. While Pompey and Caesar, his juniors by some years, had conquered much of the known world between them, Crassus had no such honors to his name, if only because Romans didn’t think that Spartacus counted, and Pompey had a tendency to sweep in and claim credit the rest of the time. And so Crassus decided to invade Parthia (the latest in the line of various Persian Empires) and make a late name for himself.

Oops.

Forty thousand legionaries followed Crassus into the desert, and ten thousand clawed their way out. The removal of his presence as a balance was the immediate trigger for the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, which might sound familiar as the beginning of the television show Rome.

In the course of his disastrous war, Crassus made enough mistakes to fill its own television series. Crassus was offered another 40,000 men from the King of Armenia, but declined when unwilling to change his invasion route. He brought back the ancient practice of decimation as a method of punishment in his armies, in which units needing punished were required to draw lots and every tenth man was killed by the others in his unit. Then of course was the point at which a local guide betrayed the army and led it deep into the trackless wastes before abandoning it to the mercies of the desert and the Parthians.

The battle, when it came, was more a massacre than proper fighting. The Parthian cavalry simply rode circles around the legions, raining arrows, and retreating, over and over again. Crassus refused to adapt his tactics, insisting that the enemy would run out of arrows before he ran out of men. His math was off, and his men died by the tens of thousands over the course of a single day in which they only killed around a hundred of the enemy. Because of the nature of Roman formations and armor, many casualties were non-fatally wounded, often pinned to the ground by arrows.

Crassus abandoned thousands of wounded in the field, retreating at nightfall. And when the Parthians offered negotiations, it was only the threat of mutiny that forced Crassus to do so. He was killed at the negotiations, and molten gold poured down his throat.

And yet all that is only the prelude to the real meat of the story. Ten thousand Romans were captured that day, and on the principle of never wasting a good tool, were shipped a thousand miles to man the Parthians’ brutal eastern border with the Huns. Concrete evidence is lacking, but there are bits and pieces that suggest the story of a remnant of a remnant captured again and again, by the Huns and then the Chinese, but always retaining the trademark Roman tactics. It seems some few of these men came to China in due course and so impressed the Chinese that they were settled in their own city, which was given the name “Li-Jien” meaning exactly what it sounds like.

And so in the days when China was all but unknown to Europe, Roman soldiers traveled so deep into that unknown that they were swallowed up. Not even legends of these men returned to Rome, and our knowledge of their fate comes from ancient Chinese sources.

It’s impossible to tell their story with any historical accuracy, for there is no real evidence to hang a hat on, just the strange angles and coincidences that seem to line up and imply the record of their passing. There’s been a movie called The Lost Legion swirling around the development dead zone for a few years, but it’s being headed up by the writer of 300 and its sequel, so I’m not terribly optimistic of a nuanced and thoughtful tale coming from that source.

But I’d love to see it well done, the tale of these contemporaries of Vorenus and Pullo, cast beyond all imagination of their world, fighting their way into the unknown without even the chance of return to their families and familiar lands.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • yves Charpentier

    Try "Ranks of bronze" by David Drake.
    Great sci fi twist on this story.

  • e jerry powell

    I'm still voting for a Tight and Loose (get it?) slashfic film to go into production. It may only be good for porn, though.

  • That does sound like an excellent movie or HBO series. Make it happen, Hollywood!

    Oh, and those two will forever be Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus to me, I don't care what else they're in. Can we please have a spin-off that follows Polly Walker's Attia?

  • abell

    You know, I've really gotten into the 2nd Punic War of late. Cannae is just a hell of a thing.

    Below are some videos to explain that awesomeness if you're so interested.

    http://penny-arcade.com/patv/e...

    http://penny-arcade.com/patv/e...

    http://penny-arcade.com/patv/e...

  • kirbyjay

    True story. When I was in 10th grade we had a pop quiz. The answer to a question was the Punic Wars but for some sad and strange reason I wrote Pubic Wars. ????? I still chuckle over what Ms. McDuffy thought when she was correcting my test.

  • e jerry powell

    And then there are all the times that Dido and Aeneas became Dildo and Anus...

  • kirbyjay

    ....after I got over my tenth grade embarrassment, of course

  • Zeke always loves Pajiba Storytellers. Plunder history's trove! More, more, more!

  • Uriah_Creep

    The Creep wholeheartedly agrees with the pig.

  • manting

    there is a similar more modern parallel that would make a great film. Task Force Baum. It was a mission to rescue prisoners of war in WWII (one of whom was Patton's son-in-law) behind enemy lines in march of 45'. The task force traveled over fifty miles behind enemy lines to liberate the camp. They could only take 200 of the thousands of prisoners and at this point the German forces thought the task force was a large attack and they mobilized overwhelming forces to deal with the American Incursion. Of the 300 some odd troops of the task force only 30 made it back to Allied lines and all of the 60 or so vehicles were lost. It could make a great film. The mission was a failure but the raid actually had some tactical impact that distracted the Germans from the allies northern maneuver. Patton held the raid as his greatest blunder of the war (besides not the whole getting run over by a jeep thing) Okay maybe the stories arent that similar but it would make a sick WWII movie.

  • briteangl

    Best thing I've read on Pajiba in weeks!

  • That would RULE

  • Great story idea. It would make for an interesting clash of cultures' movie. What Chinese dynasty/kingdom was in charge at that time?

    Aside: the Parthians were famous as great archers on horseback. Their favorite move? As they galloped away and made their opponents give chase, they would turn around and fire back at the charging masses, striking and killing with incredible accuracy. This became known as the "Parthian shot", which is where we get our term "parting shot" from.

    /the more you know

  • manting

    I just pictured you as Lavar Burton

  • As far as it gets from me, but OK.

  • manting

    its a complement. He used to do the more you know bits on tv.

  • BWeaves

    "He was killed at the negotiations, and molten gold poured down his throat."

    Wow, makes Viserys' death seem rather tame by comparison.

  • jennp421

    I know they are for a younger audience, but Rick Riordan actually references this in his novel The Son of Poseidon. Not super relevant, but it's nice when an author does his research!

  • axis2clusterB

    This is fascinating stuff.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Oh, I looove ancient Rome. So backstabby.

    The only problem is that "lost legion" is too vague - I feel like there have been too many lost legions, in Hibernia, in the German woods (I can just hear Brian Blessed bellowing "where are my eagles?!")

    I haven't heard of these lost troops ending up in China; that is a cool story.

    Btw, I really recommend the Masters of Rome series for any lover of that period of history. Colleen McCullough (yes, of Thornbirds fame) clearly worships Caesar, but aside from that it's a really engrossing read. A touch pulpy in places, but really, that befits an retelling of Roman history.

  • jennp421

    I read those! It's super detailed. I think my only complaint was with the later novels because she was very pro-Octavian. I don't have a problem with Octavian, but I do love Cleopatra!

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Have you read Memoirs of Cleopatra? That was made into a terrible miniseries with a lovely cast (I couldn't watch it all). But it was a great book.

  • jennp421

    I read it in high school - I think it may have been the foundation of my love for Cleopatra. It's still my favorite by that author.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Yeah, her others are not as good. Mary Queen of Scots is decent, but I could take or leave Mary Magdalene or Henry VIII.

  • emmalita

    If it is made into a movie or mini-series, Brian Blessed is required to be in the cast.

  • ZbornakSyndrome

    Shouldn't he be a requirement for everything?

  • emmalita

    If you haven't seen it, watch him on What is Something I Said? I believe Richard Ayoade speaks for all of us when he says, we all should all let Brian do all the talking.
    http://youtu.be/n01-R9vwgug

  • ZbornakSyndrome

    He's just delightful. He actually reminds me a great deal of my father and uncle - only they aren't British and they only box non-celebrities.

  • logan

    Agreed! Sounds awesome. But it needs to be a HBO mini series not a movie. Too much story to tell.

  • Guest

    And boobs.

  • e jerry powell

    Not to mention huge slave peens.

  • Berry

    A large penis is always welcome.

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