Peter W. Mitsopoulos

Centurion : a novel of ancient Rome

s. l. : XLibris, 2001

(zur deutschen Fassung)

(straight to assessment)


Glaxus Claudius Valtinius is a senior centurion in the 19th legion, stationed in Vetera on the Rhine. He wants to leave the military after a last campaign and rejects a chance to remain as chief centurion. The new general Varus leads his legions into the Germanic territory east of the Rhine; he disregards Glaxus' warnings regarding the Germanic auxiliary commander Arminius (or Herman). In the middle of woods and marshes, the legions are ambushed by the barbarians under the leadership of Herman. Glaxus and his century can fight their way to the general, but the battle is lost. Varus is forced to take his life, and Glaxus is one of very few survivors captured by the Germans after heavy resistance. Herman sets his former centurion free, and Glaxus can return to the Roman controlled area. Here he learns that the tribune Cornelius has committed treason and thus won his freedom. Glaxus decides to return to Rome, but has to fear for his life from Cornelius, since he knows that the tribune has ambitions for the emperorship. An incriminating tablet is brought to Rome on another route by the Greek physician Pindocles. In the capital, Glaxus (together with his former optio and the woman he wants to marry) tries to intercept Pindocles and bring the tablet to the emperor. He manages it only after escaping Cornelius' assassins. Augustus, although still under shock after Varus' defeat, decides to punish Cornelius, while Glaxus at last finds peace in the civilian life with his new wife and an adoptive daughter he brought from Germany.


The story of Arminius and Varus is told from a strictly Roman point of view, thus painting the German side in rather dark colors. Although Arminius still has some positive sides, he appears as a traitor, just as in the view of his Roman contemporaries.

The first part of the plot depicts the well-known events leading to the battle in the Teutoburg Forest (with some adjustments, see below). In the second part the novel becomes a political thriller, in which the future of the empire is at stake. There are no major surprises in the plot, but nevertheless a new view on situations often treated. In a similar but even more complex way David Wishart (in Ovid) has already connected the defeat of Varus with a conspiracy to overthrow the emperor's rule.

In some passages the novel seems somewhat contrived and stylistically rather simple (as far as can be judged by someone not a native speaker), but appropriate to the story. The personalities appear one-dimensional at times, so in the scene when Glaxus and Calvinia meet again. Glaxus is depicted as nearly perfect, but appears quite convincing in his professional quality as centurion.

The historical events have been changed in some ways: Varus had been governor for two years when he was defeated; the 17th and 18th legion had belonged to the Germanic army for some time; Arminius has not had such a lightning career; according to Tacitus, he had become Segestes' son-in-law against his will.

The chronology seems rather hurried, including the fictional parts regarding Glaxus. In the year 9 AD, Caesar had been dead for 52 years, not for 53. The letters use a modern system of counting the days of the month.

Initially, the reader is irritated by the seemingly indiscriminate use of "Gaul(ish)" and "German(ic)", but this is not without ancient parallels: for Greek-speaking authors, the German people lived in a land called "Keltike". In fact, the Romans had learned since Iulius Caesar's time to make a distinction between the Celts of the left side of the Rhine from the Germans on the right bank, but a people like the Treveri still puzzles modern scholarship: were they Germans, Celts or a mixture of both? So our author can justify his usage, but he transfers some traits only known from the Celts in a proper sense to the Germans, e. g. the naked and painted warriors.

Roman names appear sometimes in unusual forms. As has unfortunately become the norm in historical fiction, "patrician" is taken as a general term for the Roman aristocracy. "Imperial Majesty" is a misleading titulature for Augustus (who insisted on being nothing more than the princeps, the first citizen), although its parts "imperator" and "maiestas" are of course Roman concepts.

The Latin is faulty in "filia meus" (p. 138), "mater meus" (p. 100), "Via Mercurius (p. 144).

In the last chapters several amounts for lodging are mentioned, which must be much too high: three aurei for a room (p. 156) were a third of a legionnaire's pay in a year! Later, a landlord receives even 100 aurei (partly as hush money, p. 171). Other amounts (p. 160) are lower, but seem still too high.

On the positive side, the novels paints a very convincing picture of military life, e. g. regarding the numerous stages of advancement or the restricted choice of writing material in a camp on the frontier. But Roman generals didn't ride in a chariot (p. 102), and is unlikely that armed soldiers were allowed to enter Rome, as Glaxus does. The depiction of Varus' battle and the following actions is true to the ancient sources. Whereas the treacherous Cornelius is a fictional person, Seius Strabo, father of the notorious Seianus, was indeed the praefectus praetorio in Augustus' last years.

There are some typos: "Marcommani" (p. 117), "you're" in stead of "your" (p. 127, 139), "capitol" for "Capitol" or "capital" (p. 140).

To sum up: this small novel, which has appeared in a new publishing house using primarily the internet for distribution, has some weaknesses regarding its historical content and its narrative style. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining read and deserves the attention of readers with an interest in this crucial period of the Roman empire, not least because it is one of very few works depicting Arminius not written by a German.

Other opinions

Andrew Brozyna, (last visited Nov. 3, 2002):

"This novel has all the action and adventure you could want. [...] These historical facts flow naturally in the course of his characters' actions and conversation, so the story is as much educational as it is entertaining."