Eagle of the Ninth (first of the Roman Britain Trilogy)
Rosemary Sutcliff, 1954
When Marcus Flavius Aquila was ten years old, he and his mother had been preparing to join his father in Britain when word came that his father’s Legion, the Ninth Hispana, had marched north of Hadrian’s Wall to put down a rebellion. The Ninth Hispana never came back.
Now Marcus is a Centurion. “He had asked to be sent to Britain . . . partly because his father’s elder brother had settled there when his own years of soldiering were done, but mostly because of his father. If ever anything became known of the lost Legion, it would be known first in Britain, and it might even be that here in Britain he would find out something for himself.”
This story is about Marcus’s quest for the lost standard, the eagle, of his father’s legion. Finding it could mean restoring honor to his father’s name and to the Legion. It would also keep the rebellious tribes of the north from using the standard as a talisman around which to rally the rebels.
Rosemary Sutcliff draws a detailed picture of Roman Britain without belaboring description or being condescending in her use of authentic vocabulary. You may need to keep a dictionary handy, but you won’t miss much of the story’s intent without one.
This is a story about ancient Britain under Roman rule. There is bound to be violence. However, Sutcliff manages to convey the necessary details of battles without gore.
- During a battle, there is mention of soldiers pushing the dead off the ramparts “to get them out of the way even if they are your best friends.”
- A man refers to someone who has “gone to meet his gods.”
- Marcus is told that another man is, “dead as we thought you were when we pulled you from the wreck.”
- Esca tells Marcus that his father killed his mother “before the Legionaries broke through. She wished it so.”
- Someone tells about a baby being taken by wolves.
There is a subdued romance between Marcus, who is about 19, and a girl who is 13 when he first meets her. They are neighbors who become friends. When he goes away, she waits for him, and when he comes back they plan to be married. She is perhaps 15 by then. There is no romantic discussion and no physical contact between the two.
- In the description of the town in the first few pages of the book, the “flesh-pots of Durinum” are mentioned in passing.
- An old soldier sings a verse or two of a song about “girls the maker of the song had kissed in different parts of the empire.”
- Marcus witnesses a religious rite in which the priests dance, “stark naked save for the skin of a grey dog seal.”
Remarkably, for a story about soldiers, there is no foul language. At one point there is, “a loud burst of swearing.” Someone else “makes an indescribable and very vulgar noise.”
Part of Sutcliff’s depiction of her setting involves the gods her characters worship. She makes no comment on whether the gods are true, she merely draws her picture of the time and place.
Marcus worships Mithras, Esca worships Lugh, and the men in the north worship The Horned One. Marcus mentions praying to his god and there is an incident where he makes an offering to Mithras. He builds a small fire and burns an item that he values.
I finally read this book, after seeing it on lists for years, because it is in the Veritas Press Omnibus I, which I am teaching through this year. I find value in Sutcliff’s vivid picture of ancient Britain, but wouldn’t put the book on a must-read list. Though Marcus is a likable enough character, his former slave is a better example of selfless friendship than he. Marcus goes through some tough circumstances in order to reach his goal, but I was never truly concerned that he might not succeed. He did have to learn to subdue his pride and impatience in order to get to the eagle. The young girl waits faithfully for him, which I expected, but the faithfulness seems to be mostly on her side. There are signs of character growth in Marcus, but there are other stories that show this more plainly.
Perhaps there is a bit of rebellion in my opinion because Marcus, one of the Roman invaders, is the hero of the story. His success means failure for the indigenous, freedom-loving people. By making Marcus the hero, Sutcliff asks me to root for the conqueror rather than the subjugated people who are fighting for their homeland.
Did you love the story or Marcus? I’m interested in your viewpoint.
This excellent book is available via Audible.