Of Centurions, Love and Kipling

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The twenty-first in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here and here.  Kipling throughout his literary career had two great loves:  his love for England and his love for the British Army that guarded England.  A variant on these two themes is displayed in The Roman Centurion’s Song  which Kipling wrote for A Child’s History of England in 1911.  This is the lament of a Roman Centurion who has served forty years in Britannia.  His cohort, circa 300 AD, has been ordered back to Rome and the Centurion does not want to go.  After forty years Britannia has become his home and he wishes to stay.

Kipling once famously wrote in his poem The ‘Eathen, that the backbone of an army is the non-commissioned man.  That was certainly the case with the Roman Legions.  The centurions were an interesting combination of sergeant major and captain.  They were long service men, almost all risen from the ranks.  They normally commanded 60-80 men, although senior centurions, at the discretion of the Legate in charge of the Legion, could command up to a cohort, 500-1,000 men.  Each centurion had a place in the chain of command  with the primus pilus being the head centurion of a legion.  The military tribunes and legates who led the legions were Roman aristocrats, most of whose military experience was much less than the centurions under them.  If they were wise, they left the day to day management of their legion up to the centurions and paid heed to their advice in combat situations.  In the contemporary histories that have come down to us, the centurions are normally treated with great respect.  This is reflected in the movie Spartacus where Senator Gracchus notes that if the Senate punished every commander who ever made a fool of himself, there would be no one left in the Legions above the rank of centurion.

It was not uncommon for centurions to become quite fond of the people and the foreign lands they were stationed in for lengthy periods.  We see this with the Centurion Cornelius and his encounter with Peter described in Acts 10:

[1] And there was a certain man in Caesarea, named Cornelius, a centurion of that which is called the Italian band; [2] A religious man, and fearing God with all his house, giving much alms to the people, and always praying to God. [3] This man saw in a vision manifestly, about the ninth hour of the day, an angel of God coming in unto him, and saying to him: Cornelius. [4] And he, beholding him, being seized with fear, said: What is it, Lord? And he said to him: Thy prayers and thy alms are ascended for a memorial in the sight of God. [5] And now send men to Joppe, and call hither one Simon, who is surnamed Peter:

[6] He lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea side. He will tell thee what thou must do. [7] And when the angel who spoke to him was departed, he called two of his household servants, and a soldier who feared the Lord, of them that were under him. [8] To whom when he had related all, he sent them to Joppe. [9] And on the next day, whilst they were going on their journey, and drawing nigh to the city, Peter went up to the higher parts of the house to pray, about the sixth hour. [10] And being hungry, he was desirous to taste somewhat. And as they were preparing, there came upon him an ecstasy of mind.

[11] And he saw the heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending, as it were a great linen sheet let down by the four corners from heaven to the earth: [12] Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts, and creeping things of the earth, and fowls of the air. [13] And there came a voice to him: Arise, Peter; kill and eat. [14] But Peter said: Far be it from me; for I never did eat any thing that is common and unclean. [15] And the voice spoke to him again the second time: That which God hath cleansed, do not thou call common.

[16] And this was done thrice; and presently the vessel was taken up into heaven. [17] Now, whilst Peter was doubting within himself, what the vision that he had seen should mean, behold the men who were sent from Cornelius, inquiring for Simon’s house, stood at the gate. [18] And when they had called, they asked, if Simon, who is surnamed Peter, were lodged there. [19] And as Peter was thinking of the vision, the Spirit said to him: Behold three men seek thee. [20] Arise, therefore, get thee down and go with them, doubting nothing: for I have sent them.

[21] Then Peter, going down to the men, said: Behold, I am he whom you seek; what is the cause for which you are come? [22] Who said: Cornelius, a centurion, a just man, and one that feareth God, and having good testimony from all the nation of the Jews, received an answer of an holy angel, to send for thee into his house, and to hear words of thee. [23] Then bringing them in, he lodged them. And the day following he arose, and went with them: and some of the brethren from Joppe accompanied him. [24] And the morrow after, he entered into Caesarea. And Cornelius waited for them, having called together his kinsmen and special friends. [25] And it came to pass, that when Peter was come in, Cornelius came to meet him, and falling at his feet adored.

[26] But Peter lifted him up, saying: Arise, I myself also am a man. [27] And talking with him, he went in, and found many that were come together. [28] And he said to them: You know how abominable it is for a man that is a Jew, to keep company or to come unto one of another nation: but God hath shewed to me, to call no man common or unclean. [29] For which cause, making no doubt, I came when I was sent for. I ask, therefore, for what cause you have sent for me? [30] And Cornelius said: Four days ago, unto this hour, I was praying in my house, at the ninth hour, and behold a man stood before me in white apparel, and said:

[31] Cornelius, thy prayer is heard, and thy alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God. [32] Send therefore to Joppe, and call hither Simon, who is surnamed Peter: he lodgeth in the house of Simon a tanner, by the sea side. [33] Immediately therefore I sent to thee: and thou hast done well in coming. Now therefore all we are present in thy sight, to hear all things whatsoever are commanded thee by the Lord. [34] And Peter opening his mouth, said: In very deed I perceive, that God is not a respecter of persons. [35] But in every nation, he that feareth him, and worketh justice, is acceptable to him.

Caesarea was the Roman capital of the province of Judea and the “Italian band” in which Cornelius was a centurion was Cohors II Italica, an auxiliary cohort.

I can understand such a fondness that grows up between a military man and the land and people of a foreign country in which he is stationed.  I would not be writing this post without the existence of this human emotional attachment.  My father was stationed in Newfoundland, an Airman Third Class, a buck sergeant, when he met my mother.  He grew to love both my mother and Newfoundland.  I think they would have spent their entire lives there if my father had been able to find steady work.  Instead they moved back to Paris, Illinois, my father’s home town, where I and my brother grew up.  No, I find the emotions expressed in Kipling’s poem quite easy to understand and here is the text:

LEGATE, I had the news last night – my cohort ordered home

By ships to Portus Itius and thence by road to Rome.

I’ve marched the companies aboard, the arms are stowed below:

Now let another take my sword. Command me not to go!

I’ve served in Britain forty years, from Vectis to the Wall,

I have none other home than this, nor any life at all.

Last night I did not understand, but, now the hour draws near

That calls me to my native land, I feel that land is here.

Here where men say my name was made, here where my work was done;

Here where my dearest dead are laid – my wife – my wife and son;

Here where time, custom, grief and toil, age, memory, service, love,

Have rooted me in British soil. Ah, how can I remove?

For me this land, that sea, these airs, those folk and fields suffice.

What purple Southern pomp can match our changeful Northern skies,

Black with December snows unshed or pearled with August haze –

The clanging arch of steel-grey March, or June’s long-lighted days?  

You’ll follow widening Rhodanus till vine and olive lean

Aslant before the sunny breeze that sweeps Nemausus clean

To Arelate’s triple gate; but let me linger on,

Here where our stiff-necked British oaks confront Euroclydon!

You’ll take the old Aurelian Road through shore-descending pines

Where, blue as any peacock’s neck, the Tyrrhene Ocean shines.

You’ll go where laurel crowns are won, but -will you e’er forget

The scent of hawthorn in the sun, or bracken in the wet?

Let me work here for Britain’s sake – at any task you will –

A marsh to drain, a road to make or native troops to drill.

Some Western camp (I know the Pict) or granite Border keep,

Mid seas of heather derelict, where our old messmates sleep.

Legate, I come to you in tears – My cohort ordered home!

I’ve served in Britain forty years. What should I do in Rome?

Here is my heart, my soul, my mind – the only life I know.

I cannot leave it all behind. Command me not to go!

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  1. I think you are being too literal in your reading of this piece. This is yet another pretender’s tilt are being the next new Rome. I must have some sort of paranoid delusion of Protestants under every bed, but I can not read this Kip’s lines w/o seeing a pathetic sentimental defense of Anglicanism. It is as if he says, “Oh, well, yes I know I am by nature a Roman (Catholic ), but you see, I have just become so attached to the land and tradition of England (Anglican ) that I just can’t bare the thought of leaving.”

    Never mind that his ancestors begged their king not to cleave the link with Roman tradition.

  2. Darren I can assure you that Kipling had no such intentions as you have read into his poem. Kipling was many things in his life, but an enthusiastic Anglican was never one of them! The man described himself as a Christian atheist. At best he was a Deist. Oddly he does seem to have had a devotion to Mary that comes out in some of his other works.

  3. I deleted your last comment Darren since you ignored the evidence I presented to you and you held to your bizarre interpretation. I have also placed you on moderation. I work fairly hard on these posts and I do not appreciate them being taken down strange byways by someone obviously bone ignorant on the subject being discussed.

  4. Don, you might be interested in checking out “The Centurion” by Leonard Wibberly (best known as the author of “The Mouse that Roared” and its sequels). It is a fictionalized story of Longinus, the centurion who attended Christ’s crucifixion, which presents him as having once been captured by Britons, and as having a British servant/slave who is also his father-in-law (meaning that he must have been married to a Briton at one time). I’ve only gotten a few chapters into it — Holy Week might be a good time to try to finish it — and it’s very good.

  5. Don

    Good post.

    One can not but feel the pain of the Centurian.

    But he is a solidier, he will follow orders even if he can’t get the Legate to change them.

    Leslie Fish published several CD’s of his poems put to music. The videos made with these are usually pretty good. worth taking a quick look when your looking for a video.

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