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Book Review: The Last Legion by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

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It's been ages since I heard of the movie The Last Legion, and the history buff in me was fascinated by the screenshots. And the fact that the movie stars Aishwarya Rai in the role of the fighter Livia, and that she stars in the movie with Ben Kingsley, had nothing to with it. But after that, there was no news of the movie for a long time and I started to think that I would never see it. So it was but natural that when I came across the book, I grabbed it at once.

And I did not regret the choice. The book was my introduction to the great historical fiction writer, Valerio Massimo Manfredi. But more than that, The Last Legion is the story of legends.

The days of the mighty Legions are just a memory. Barbarians are knocking on the walls of once-majestic Rome. The last legion, Legio Nova Invicta, trained in secrecy to protect the last emperor, is routed by the overwhelming barbarian forces. When the legionary tasked with getting help reaches the emperor's villa, he finds everybody within massacred and the emperor captured by the barbarians with his mother and his tutor. The emperor's father tasks the soldier with protecting the child emperor with his last breath.

His first attempt fails miserably, with the child emperor's mother getting killed and the soldier getting apparently mortally wounded. Nursed back to health by his attractive rescuer, he frees his colleagues from the legion. And goes for another attempt. After narrowly escaping from the prison with the child emperor and his tutor, the band continues across Europe, while being hunted by the barbarian king's right-hand man, heading towards British islands. The child's tutor is a druid, who is convinced that the legion of the tartan is still alive there.

They reach the British shores a step ahead of their hunters, and find the legion of the Dragon disbanded. While the barbarians following them collaborate with the Saxon king, the druid tries to gather the survivors of the legion together against the conquerors.

Aurelius, who is a soldier tormented by his forgotten past (he has lost his memory, but the flashes he gets and the events lead him to believe he has a dark past), is a loyal and brave man. He continues to remain lonely, haunted by his history. He is loyal to his fellow soldiers, and is ready to risk his life to save them or his Emperor, and is convinced that the child will be safe in Gaul, or in fact, away from Rome.

Livia is an orphan, living in a secret canal city, who pushes Aurelius to fulfill his mission (and his promise) when he loses the heart. She was once saved while fleeing a fallen city with her mother, when a brave soldier gave up his place in the boat, and she carries his symbol everywhere. She is conspiring with a courtier in the now barbarian court of Rome, and would like to take the child emperor to Constantinople where he will be safe, if under the control of Holy Roman Emperor.

The tutor Ambrosinus, is the fellow charged to bring military help to the dying British colony of Rome. He is convinced that taking his charge to British islands will be discharging his duties, and will get the Emperor an empire and an army. He is also not so much taken with Aurelius, since the first escape attempt caused the death of Emperor's mother.

Thus, these three main members of the band are all pulling in different directions with a common goal, and yet they have to work together just to survive. The survivors of Nova Invicta are common soldiers, but they continue to perform their duty of protecting the emperor, without any positive end in sight and no safe place to stop. Yet, these are ordinary characters doing extra-ordinary things. Remaining no more than half-a step away from their enemies, the band stumbles from fight into treachery into misfortune. And it it just their bravery and legionary training that keeps them alive.

The book also is the starting point for other legends, perhaps better known. The child finds Caesar's legendary sword in his island prison (with the inscription Cal. Jul. Caes. Ensis Caliburnus – the Calibian sword of Julius Caesar on it), and throws it in the lake after the final battle, pronouncing the beginning of peaceful era. The narrator of the story, the tutor of the Romulus Augustus is called Myrdin in his own land. Remember anything?

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About Fleiger

  • Disappointed

    No need to read the book after the whole plot has been described in thsi review