Books and films for boys and men

Michael Fassbender,
a fellow Irishman,
pursued by bloodthirsy Picts
in the film CENTURION.
I suppose that when you spend your life with children and young people it's a good idea to be able to enjoy some of the same things they do. And so it is, somehow or other, that my taste in reading and films has reverted to what it used to be when I was a teenager: Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Ancient Britons ... with plenty of battles; and always the over-arching storyline of a young man growing to adult maturity and wisdom, or at least, trying to prove himself.

I began a while back with Simon Scarrow's Praetorian, which I picked up on special offer at the airport. I turns out to be number 11 in a series, so as I enjoyed it, I suppose I am now going to have to backtrack and read the others.

The story is about a young officer and his hardy, older sidekick who get involved in political espionage in the heart of Rome. Their job is to uncover the culprits of a plot to murder the Emperor Claudius.

It has the occasional bit of colourful language, as you'd expect with soldiers, even Roman ones; but it is otherwise a great book for any boy over 14, I'd say.

A common theme in books and films of this type is devotion to the military ideal alongside a questioning of the political realities that make wars happen. It must be the same for brave soliders in Afghanistan who sometimes wonder if they are fighting in a just cause, or whether they are - at best - wasting their time.

The same feelings are expressed in Centurion and also The Eagle, both recent films that take as their starting point the mysterious loss of the Ninth Legion in Pictish territory in about 60AD. As a scholar of modern Celtic languages I enjoyed the decision of both directors to have their Picts speak Scots Gaelic (which I understand) rather than ancient Welsh (which I do not, but which would have been more accurate). In fact, the best historical evidence is that the massacre of this Legion happened much further south, in the revolt led by Boudica (Boadicea). Although they espouse the military life, its action and its code of honour, the protagonists often come to despise what (and whom) they are fighting for.

Noble way of life and noble cause come more together in a novel of the aptly named Frank Slaughter, Constantine: The Miracle of the Flaming Cross. I picked this up, while tidying the College library, and discovered a gem. It is refreshing to see such an unashamed treatment of burning ambition coupled with religious vision. As an ambitious man myself, I found myself finding much of Constantine's story strangely familiar: Am I seeking God's will or my own? Why does it make me jealous when colleagues succeed on their own merits?  How does one recognise the signs of 'empire-building' for its own sake? Can ambition ever be a real virtue? And then, what happens when everyone is ambitious in the same way - when everyone wants to rule?

The book is also incredibly fast-paced, and short on long, 'boring' descriptive passages: ideal for boys! And the military detail, the tactics (Constantine is always outnumbered yet always wins the day), the second-guessing of everyone's motives ... all these make for a thrilling and easy read. The characters of Athanasius, Arius, Eusebius (both of them) are all convincingly brought into the story and one begins to understand how Ancient Rome has been called a kind of providential seedbed for the Christian Church to take root.

Constantine's conscience is real, and so is the way in which he struggles with the corrupting effect of power coupled with the mind-numbing caused by over-work.

I'm glad that Head Masters get a long summer holiday, unlike Roman emperors ...


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