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Literature / The Last Legion

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Anno Domini 476. The Roman Empire is coming to an end.
The eagle flies for one last time
The Roman Empire is falling, crumbling into disrepair. In the last five years there have been five Caesars, and every one was murdered.

Now the title of Caesar, highest office in Ancient Rome, must fall to the shoulders of a young boy, Romulus Augustus. Scared, naive, and unprepared, he is barely on the throne for a few days when the dreaded Goths supporting the chieftain Odoacer descend upon Ravenna and kill everyone except the Emperor, his mother Flavia and his tutor, the Briton druid Meridius Ambrosius, AKA Myrdin Emreis. Deposed and exiled to the island of Capri, Romulus is rescued by a small band of loyal soldiers, the only survivors of the legion Nova Invicta, an elite force recruited by his father Orestes. But not before uncovering an ancient sword and the prophecy attached to it. Pursued by the Goths, the heroes are led by the prophecy to the faraway lands of Britain where Romulus must find his destiny.

L'Ultima legione, as it's called in the original italian, is an action adventure novel made in 2002, freely based off the story of the last days of the Roman Empire, created by Valerio Massimo Manfredi.

This film provides examples of:

  • A Child Shall Lead Them: The last Western Roman Emperor is a boy.
  • Action Girl: Livia Prisca. She is an Archer Archetype that saves Aurelio from Wulfila alone.
  • Age-Gap Romance: between Aurelius and Livia. Livia is 10 years younger than Aurelius.
  • Ancient Rome: Technically still counts, though it covers (in a fictional sense) the final events of its history. See the Dark Age Europe entry.
  • Apocalypse How: Class 0: The novel depicts the troubled times of the final death of the Western Empire. Western Europe is torn apart by wars and famine, the Roman infrastructures are dilapidated or are fading into oblivion, Germanic tribes that formerly were mercenaries of the Roman emperors have divided the former empire into smaller kingdoms for themselves.
  • And This Is for...: When Romulus finally takes the caliburian sword of Caesar and puts it into Wulfila. And Aurelius avenging his parents killed by Wulfila in Aquileia.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • It's Very Loosely Based on a True Story since the the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire was indeed a boy who did disappear from history. But then it ends up being a prequel to the Arthurian Legend.
    • Beyond this, numerous details on the nature of the Roman Empire during its twilight years (and for that matter, its hereditary nature or lack thereof) are right, as with the conflict between the official Christian bishops and the dying pagan religion still present in the countryside the intrigue around Constantinople and their nomineés to the Western throne, and the tension between the barbarian forces of Odoacer and the Eastern Empire.
    • Odoacer was king of the Herules, not the Goths. It is not know if the Herules were a subgroup of the Ostrogoths, but they were probably of Germanic origin like most of the invading tribes.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Wulfila greatly overestimates his chances of chasing the group.
  • Big Damn Heroes: The eponymous Last Legion.
  • Big Bad: Appears to be Odoacer the Goth, but after the heroes flee from Italy it dissapears, and his erstwhile second-in-command Wulfila emerges as the true main villain of the book.
  • The Big Guy: Batiatus might look it and he uses a big sword, but he's really a Gentle Giant and the best fighter among the heroes is probably Aurelius.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Subverted. Batiatus is the only one of the crew that survives save for Livia and Aurelius.
  • The Cake Is a Lie: Odoacer's casus belli with Orestes was that Odoacer's was promised a piece of the former empire where the Goths would settle in exchange for backing Orestes’ son as emperor. Orestes never meant to keep his word, and tragedy ensues.
  • City on the Water: Livia Prisca is from a very promising village, built in a easily-defensible lagoon by refugees from all the parts of Italy. The name of said village is Venetia.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: Within the Western Empire everyone is trying to balance between their own survival, survival of the state and protection of the emperor. Eventually most of Romans dedide to simply team up with the stronger side and drop their own agendas.
  • Cool Old Guy: Ambrosinus, by the sheer virtue of being Merlin.
  • Cool Sword: The sword of Julius Caesar. Serves as the MacGuffin. Eventually became Excalibur.
  • Cultured Badass: Ambrosinus and Aurelius.
  • Dark Age Europe: Being set during the final days of the Western Roman Empire, the novel does a good job in depicting how culture was steadily shifting towards proto-medieval ways:
    • Latin spoken language is starting to collapse into different dialects, as the characters note traveling from Southern to Northern Italy. Said dialects would form the Romance languages;
    • More characters wear breeches like the Barbarians as they are actually more comfortable for horse-riding, and the pattern would keep going in the following centuries;
    • Barbarians are not one-sided characters (save for Wulfila, maybe) but some like Odoacer are willing to adapt to Roman customs and do understand that they need to compromise with the Church and the Roman institutions if they want to rule in the long run.
  • Decoy Antagonist: Odoacer seemed to be the main antagonist during the first part, until he sends Wulfila on his quest for Romulus (and partially to get rid of Wulfila himself) and never appears again on page. Wulfila takes over as the real villain.
  • Decadent Court: Constantinople. They start with sending a rescuing mission for the deposed child emperor Romulus, but end up settling in an agreement with Odoacer instead and actively hunting for the main heroes. Ambrosinus also fears that in Constantinople, Romulus will be held as a glorified hostage to be sacrificed as soon as it benefits the court, and wants him to get as far as possible from that place.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: Wulfila murders the Briton warlord Vortgyrn and wears his Iconic Item to impersonate him.
  • Dual Wielding: Demetrius uses a pair of swords.
  • End of an Age: The novel depicts the final nail in the coffin of the Western Roman empire. Rome is no longer capitol and after Romulus is deposed, there won't be another Emperor again and in the following centuries, the former empire will be ruled by one Germanic tribe after the other.
  • Face–Heel Turn: After Rome falls to the Goths, the Senate and an official of the Eastern Roman Empire secretly send people to rescue Romulus and take him to Constantinople. But later they betray the heroes anyway after recognizing Odoacer as legitimate.
  • Foreshadowing: Livia Prisca is from a little village inhabited by refugees looking to live in the Roman way, settling in a lagoon that can easily defended from raiding. She believes that their settlement will become an important city in a few generations. The little lake city is no other than the future Venice.
  • Gentle Giant: Batiatus is a Scary Blackman to those who don't know him, but he's actually one of the nicest characters, and one of the very few barbarians admitted on Nova Invicta, and one of the most feared soldiers in it.
  • Gilded Cage: Romulus’ life is spared and he's sent to the beautiful island of Capri, in an ancient and luxurious villa. Obviously he can't ever leave the place.
    • Ambrosinus theorises that Constantinople would be another Gilded Cage for Romolus, living in luxury but at the mercy of a Decadent Court that would sacrifice him the time he's not useful anymore.
  • Going Native: Upon finding a prophecy that leads them to Britain, the heroes look for the Ninth Legion, presumably the "last legion" loyal to Rome. But they've settled down as farmers. What Romulus does in the end. He becomes King Arthur’s father.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars:
    • Wulfila has a huge scar deforming his face, courtesy of Aurelius the first time he tried to free Romulus.
  • Graceful Loser: Wulfilia nearly kills Aurelius in the final battle, but knows when to back off when Romulus points the sword of Caesar at his neck. He even takes the boy into his arms when the sword goes into his heart.
  • Gray-and-Gray Morality:
    • At first, you can easily stereotype the Roman protagonists as the good guys and the barbaric Goths as the villains. Then you learn that there are Germanic people who are willing to adapt to Roman customs, and that the Eastern Roman empire (along with the Western, to tell the truth) is corrupt, greedy and suffers heavily from Chronic Backstabbing Disorder.
    • Flavius Orestes is the father of Romulus, the kid protagonist, seemingly A Father to His Men and a good husband and father, he did some cutthroat plotting to seize power putting his son in a dangerous situation. Also Odoacer claims that Orestes deceived him by making promises that he did not intend to keep, and Orestes’ conversation with his wife implies that Odoacer was telling the truth.
  • Grim Up North: The protagonists travel from sunny, decadent Naples through Alps, Gaul to war-torn Britannia, crossing un unstable continent during a particularly cold winter.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Happens to both Aurelius and the young Emperor Romulus.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Odoacer, king of the Gothsnote . When Orestes seized power and illegally made his son Romulus emperor, Odoacer put down the rebellion and restored order. Odoacer then pardoned Romulus and sent him to live with his relatives with a comfortable pension.
  • Holy City: Played straight. Rome is both the spiritual center of the empire (although the actual capital of the Western Empire is Ravenna), and the seat of the Pope. All Romans and Italics (and even the barbarians) look at it with reverence.
  • Hordes from the East: Livia recalls the destruction of Aquileia by the Huns. Also the Goths can qualify since they came Eastern Europe (and according to History, they were escaping the Huns as well, although some of them joined the Huns).
  • Identity Amnesia: Aurelius. He "always was in the Legion, and can't remember anything else". Part of his arc his finding his roots again.
  • Intimate Healing: Romolus almost dies of hypothermia during their crossing of the Alps. Batiatius, their Gentle Giant, successfully warms him back to life.
  • Ironic Name: Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor, was named after the founder of Rome and the first Roman emperor. Truth in Television.
  • Klingon Promotion: Odoacer becomes the ruler of Rome by force.
    • Wulfila murders Vortgyrn and takes his place after serving him as a mercenary for a while.
  • Language Drift: In their traveling across Europe the party note how much different the Latin dialect from Italy to Haul sound. It was pretty much Truth in Television, as Vulgar Latin was different from Classical Latin (the one still taught in schools) and was starting to fragment in different languages long before the fall of the Western Empire.
  • Last of His Kind: Aurelius and three men are all that remain of their Legion. Also Romulus is the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire.
  • Last Stand: Aurelius and his companions are the last survivors of their legion and bend to protect their emperor.
  • The Last Title: The title.
  • Lost Roman Legion: The Nova Invicta.
  • Luckily, My Shield Will Protect Me: Vatrenus uses a sword and buckler.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Seems to be superstition, legends, and old cults, and maybe just a little bit of good luck, Romulus's mentor Ambrosinus is revealed to be Merlin in the last few pages of the book. Then again, his only magical act seems to be that he hasn't aged.
  • No True Scotsman: Wulfila holds in contempt Odoacer's increasing assimilation to Roman ways. Odoacer instead thinks that Wulfila could never rule a country, as all he knows about is fighting and killing without seeing a bigger picture.
  • The Only One I Trust: After being betrayed by everyone, Aurelius declares that his small pack are the only people he still trusts.
  • Pining After Protagonist's Parent: As it turns out, both Ambrosinus and Odoacer had feelings for Romulus' mother.
  • Praetorian Guard: Aurelius is the general of the Emperor's bodyguard, comprising a legion. They're not actual Praetorians, though - those were disbanded centuries earlier.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Sadly, what happens in Derton and in Flavius Orestes' villa. The villa is burned down, every woman raped and killed and the rest murdered as well.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The Squad consist of some veterans of different ethnicities, an Action Girl, a Scary Black Man, an old druid and the boy emperor. They know they are easy recognizable and avoid traveling all together for a while.
  • Rescue Arc: After Romulus' exile to Capri, Aurelius and his men are convinced to rescue him and provide safe passage to Constantinople.
  • Rescue Romance: Livia believes Aurelius was the man who saved her life during the Sack of Aquileia, and it's partially the reason why she fell for him. She's right, but for most of the plot he's amnesiac about those events, out of guilt and trauma as it turns out.
  • Road Trip Plot: The crew travels from Naples across Europe to seek refuge in Britain.
  • Scary Black Man: Played straight. The Goths actually fear him because many of them never saw a black guy in their lives. But for those who know him personally he's a Gentle Giant.
  • Shaggydog Story: Livia tells a tale about a fisherman from Capri living during Tiberius' reign. The man fished out a huge lobster and wanted to present it to the Emperor in his fortress in Capri. The guards wouldn't let a commoner in, so he sneaked in by climbing a tower. The emperor didn't appreciate at all that a mere nobody could successfully sneak into his home, and had the lobster rubbed on his face before kicking him out.
    • Also the entire scheme of smuggling Romulus to Constantinople. They finally saved the boy when the Eastern emperor decided that after all, it's more convenient letting Odoacer ruling Italy, so he won't protect Romolus. The crew decides Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right! and flee to Britain with the boy.
  • Spell My Name With An S: Vortgyn is better known as Vortigern.
  • Sword and Sandal: Technically counts, albeit it takes place at pretty much the tail end of the timespan that "Sword and Sandal" covers.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Livia Prisca is the only woman in the "legion" and the only prominent female character.
  • Tear Jerker: fate of PO Ws from Legion Nova Invicta after battle; death of Romulus’ parents, with Romulus himself witnessing it; and Aurelius’ Dark and Troubled Past during Sack of Aquileia.
  • Token Minority: Batiatus is black African, and Ambrosinus is a Celtic Briton.
  • Token Romance: Aurelius and Livia. Their relationship stays in the background for the entire story.
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia: The reason why Aurelius doesn't remember his last. Not only he fought to defend Aquileia during its bloody sack from the Huns, but he's the one who betrayed the city to the Barbarians who viciously tortured his parents until he agreed to open the gates. The grief and guilt, and the near death experience made him amnesiac. Fortunately for him, he's surrounded by people sympathetic to him.
  • Undying Loyalty: Many Roman characters, as Aurelius or Ursinus, and many common people that help them to escape from the Goths. Also Ambrosinus with Romulus.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Ambrosinus gives opening and closing narration, and this is invoked at the end.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Zigzagged. Aurelius and Livia are attracted to each other and make love in the woods halfway in the book believing that they will be separated, but they haven't resolved yet their divergences about Aurelius' past. They become a couple just before the final battle.
  • Uriah Gambit: Odoacer sends Wulfila to his quest for Romulus hoping that if he fails he won't come back, as Wulfila disapproves his increasing assimilation to Roman ways and Odoacer wants to get rid of that noise.
  • Vestigial Empire: The film opens in literal final days of Western Roman Empire.
  • Vicariously Ambitious: Flavius Orestes seizes the throne for his young son, against the wishes of his wife and their trusted advisor Ambrosinus. In doing so he pissed off Odoacer (Odoacer says he promised him a third of Italy for his support and then retreat from the promise) leading to his death and downfall.
  • Villainous Crush: Odoacer on Flavia Serena; Stephanus on Livia
  • We ARE Struggling Together: When it's obvious the Western Empire is on a verge of total collapse, Romans find themselves fighting each other and the Eastern Empire leaves them without any aid.
  • We Can Rule Together: Odoacer, King of the Goths, offers to Romulus' mother Flavia Serena (whom he has admired for years) to become his queen, but since he has killed her husband, dethroned & captured her son and annihilated her home she flatly refuses.
  • Wham Line:
    ‘The ship isn’t coming any more.’ - Stephanus to Livia chapter 21
    ‘That’s enough!’ Ambrosinus to arguing companions, just before his ranting about his diplomatic mission from Britain to emperial court
    ‘I know you now, Roman! Time has passed, but you haven’t changed enough. You’re the one who opened the gates of Aquileia to me!’ - Wulfila to Aurelius , chapter 26
  • You Can't Go Home Again: After saving Romulus, he and the legion have no place in Rome or what is left of it, so they head to Britain looking for a new home.
  • Young Future Famous People: Although Romulus is already famous on his own, he's revealed to be the future Uther Pendragon, King Arthur's father.
  • You Killed My Father: Wulfila killed Romulus's parents , Romulus vows to avenge them and succeeds. Wulfila ALSO killed Aurelius’ parents, after brutal torture, during Sack of Aquileia