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More Worlds to Conquer: Rome's Lost Legion

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Storytellers | October 31, 2013 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Storytellers | October 31, 2013 |

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.


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 You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.