Marcus Flavinius? Jean Lartéguy? Jean Pouget? Roger Frey? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigate: I would like your help in determining the authenticity of an eloquent letter that was supposedly sent by Marcus Flavinius, a centurion, to his cousin in Rome. Flavinius was fighting in a military campaign overseas in the 2nd Century AD, and he stated that he and his fellow warriors were willing to shed their blood protecting the glory of the Empire. But he now feared that back in Rome there was conspiracy and treachery. He wanted assurance that the citizens supported the campaign, and he ended the note with a warning:
If it should be otherwise, if we should have to leave our bleached bones on these desert sands in vain, then beware the fury of the Legions.
Apparently it has been difficult to locate any historical record of a person named Marcus Flavinius. Is this letter legitimate?
Quote Investigator: The letter was probably a fake. The earliest known appearance of the text was in the epigraph of a bestselling French novel titled “Les Centurions” by Jean Lartéguy in 1960. The book was about the experiences of French military men in Vietnam and Algeria, and it was translated into English and published as “The Centurions” in 1962. By 1966 the letter had been reprinted without a source citation in the reference collection: “Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations”.
Yet, Jean Lartéguy later claimed that he had been given fabricated information which he included in “Les Centurions”. He discussed this topic in his 1976 book “La Guerre Nue” which was translated into English and published as “The Face of War: Reflections on Men and Combat” in 1979. The supposed Roman letter from antiquity was part of the false information.
The text of the letter in French as it appeared in “Les Centurions” [LCJL] has been appended near the bottom of this post. Here is the English language version published in the 1962 edition of “The Centurions” [TCJL]:
We had been told, on leaving our native soil, that we were going to defend the sacred rights conferred on us by so many of our citizens settled overseas, so many years of our presence, so many benefits brought by us to populations in need of our assistance and our civilization.
We were able to verify that all this was true, and, because it was true, we did not hesitate to shed our quota of blood, to sacrifice our youth and our hopes. We regretted nothing, but whereas we over here are inspired by this frame of mind, I am told that in Rome factions and conspiracies are rife, that treachery flourishes, and that many people in their uncertainty and confusion lend a ready ear to the dire temptations of relinquishment and vilify our action.
I cannot believe that all this is true and yet recent wars have shown how pernicious such a state of mind could be and to where it could lead.
Make haste to reassure me, I beg you, and tell me that our fellow-citizens understand us, support us and protect us as we ourselves are protecting the glory of the Empire.
If it should be otherwise, if we should have to leave our bleached bones on these desert sands in vain, then beware of the anger of the Legions!
Centurion in the 2nd Cohort of the Augusta Legion,
to his cousin Tertullus in Rome
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.