Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Sword of Julius Caesar

In the 2007 film The Last Legion, [spoiler alert, I'm about to give away the entire movie], a young Romulus Augustulus, dethroned as the final Roman Emperor in the West, finds the Sword of Julius Caesar hidden, mirabile dictu, on the Island of Capri, and travels to Britannia to locate the "Last Legion" of Rome. There's a final battle. The Romans win. And we find out that young Romulus is actually Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur. And the Sword of Julius Caesar, on which had been inscribed CAI • IVL • CAES • ENSIS CALIBVRNVS (Sword of Steel of Gaius Julius Caesar), is shown covered in moss, the only letters visible being ES CALIBVR. That's right, the Sword of Julius Caesar was Excalibur!

I actually enjoy the movie for what it is, and even show it to my Latin classes from time to time. I personally don't care if a

movie contains anachronisms or outright non-historical events. Either way I can make a teaching moment out of it.

And the movie has a surprisingly strong cast with Colin Firth, Ben Kingsley, Thomas Sangster, and Aishwarya Rai.

But the movie does raise the interesting question of what sort of sword Julius Caesar himself really would have used.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, the author of the 12th century AD Historia Regum Brittaniae (History of the Kings of Britain), describes Julius Caesar has having a notable sword when he

invaded that Island in 55 BC. He tells the story of how Julius Caesar was in single combat with a British prince named Nennius. When Caesar's sword got stuck in Nennius' shield, the Briton took control of it. In the ensuing battle, every person Nennius attacked with the Sword of Caesar died, either beheaded or mortally wounded. Unfortunately for Nennius, he himself had received a head wound from this same sword while fighting Caesar and died fifteen days later. Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that Caesar's sword was named Crocea Mors, Latin for Yellow Death. And Crocea Mors was buried with Nennius (Historia Regum Brittaniae (4.3-4).

Even though Geoffrey of Monmouth is writing quite a long time after the events in question, the name of the sword he describes seems to preserve knowledge of a likely detail about the actual sword Julius Caesar would have used.

Many people assume that as soon as the Iron Age began, bronze weapons were replaced with the newer metal. But the fact is that iron is not really so superior to bronze that it won out based solely on its merits. Until later steel refinement became more commonplace, iron weapons had a number of disadvantages. They rusted. They lost their edge quicker. The only thing they had going for them was that they were cheaper than bronze. As a result, the common soldier would have been issued an iron sword, but people with money, such as the aristocratic Julius Caesar, would certainly have been carrying his own personal bronze sword. 

And so, what finally happened to the Sword of Caesar? The answer is, he probably had several of them, none of which he particularly favored. He probably lost some in battle from time to time. That's why he kept spares. And in the course of time they would have been melted down and repurposed. 

But if archaeologists in Britain ever dig up a 1st century BC Celtic tomb and find a bronze Roman gladius inside, there might just be a chance that the legend Geoffrey of Monmouth passed down had a basis in history.


If you're interested in Latin or ancient history, or even just an entertaining read, check out the time-travel thriller In Saecula Saeculorum. Click to learn more.

You'll travel back to ancient Rome on a harrowing mission to save the modern world. It's the adventure of four lifetimes.


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