Nearly two years ago I listened to a webinar in which the works of Rosemary Sutcliff were extolled. Ever since then I’ve kept that name in the back of my mind and kept my eyes open for her works, not actively searching for them, just waiting. Four weeks ago I found her book The Eagle (also published as The Eagle of the Ninth) at a thrift store. I was so excited that I spent a few weeks anticipating my enjoyment before I actually allowed myself to read it. And then I started in on the first page. Oh, my.
In the year A.D. 117 the Ninth Legion of the Roman army marched through Britain. Its mission? To subjugate the savage Caledonian tribes which had banded together in a rebellion against the august reign of Emperor Hadrian. The Legion marched in splendor and confidence across the border – and was never seen or heard from again. The Eagle of the Ninth was lost.
Now, 20 years later, Marcus Flavius Aquila, son of the late cohort commander, sets out to redeem his family’s honor from the disgrace into which it has sunk.
His first post is as commander of the northern Roman fortress, Isca Dumnoniorum. There he is to ensure the continued submission of the British tribes. Marcus forms wary friendships with a few of the Britons, enjoying their company, but bearing in mind that a blast of the horn could make them blood enemies. Very shortly that blast comes, and Isca Dumnoniorum is attacked suddenly and savagely by the very Britons Marcus had befriended. His fortress is hard pressed; many of his men are wounded or killed and they are in desperate need of reinforcements. The reinforcements arrive but not before Marcus’s right leg is shattered in hand to hand combat. Marcus is awarded a gold bracelet for bravery, relieved of his post, and sent home to his Uncle Aquila’s to recover.
It is during his convalescence at Uncle Aquila’s house that Marcus finds Esca. Esca had formerly been the son of a British chieftain before he was captured and forced to fight in gladiatorial events. After saving his life, Marcus purchases Esca and installs him as his body servant. They form a peculiar attachment to each other – as a Roman to a Briton, master to slave, man to man.
One day Marcus’s uncle has a visitor – Claudius Hieronimianus, Legate of the Sixth Legion. He brings a strange tale from Eburacum; rumors have been circulating that that an Eagle – a golden eagle – is held by the Outland tribes and is receiving divine honors in a temple there.
Marcus is sure that this is the Eagle of the Ninth. He dreams that if he can recapture it, perhaps the Senate will re-form the Ninth Legion and place him at his command where his father once was. But if the Eagle is not reclaimed and war breaks out between the nations, it will be a powerful weapon in the hands of the Britons. Marcus’s honor, his family’s honor, and the well-being of Rome all rest on the repossession of the Eagle. Marcus determines to trek across the lands pretending to be a skilled oculist and gathering information about the Eagle. But will Marcus and Esca be able to penetrate the wild of northern Britain without being destroyed as the Legion was? And even if they capture the eagle, how can two men hope to escape with an object which every man in Britain would die to repossess?
Few novels, especially modern ones, concern themselves with family honor. The family is more often portrayed as an oppressive barrier or a nonexistent appendage; something that is negative or unimportant. But The Eagle is a magnificent exception to this trend. If I were forced to name the one over-riding theme to be found in The Eagle it would be precisely that element which is so often missing from stories – the immense significance of a family’s honour. In a large sense, Marcus’s past, present, and future are shaped by his father’s life – its failures, and its successes. His desire to restore his family’s good name is what drives his actions, forcing him to choose difficult and often dangerous paths.
Most novels set in Roman times reek with lasciviousness; lecherous actions and words are considered standard, and immorality acceptable. The Eagle is, once again, an enormous exception; Marcus’s relationship with Cottia (which occupied so little of the novel that I never even mentioned it in the synopsis) is entirely honorable and, unlike most romances, is based largely on conversations. Physically, there is never even a kiss between the two. It is refreshingly clean.
My final praise goes to Miss Sutcliff for her superb storytelling. I have read a great many historical novels, but I find that The Eagle is without rival in its pacing and style. Many authors attempt to intensify action scenes by rushing through them at a break-neck speed. But this style is so disjointed that it jolts the reader out of the world of the book by its very impetuosity. Other novelists seek to creative a more impressive atmosphere by meandering along describing landscapes we never cared to see and situations which have nothing really to do with the story. Miss Sutcliff managed to combine the two so that the action – while intense – is not rushed and the setting – while comprehensively related – is not stuffy.
Note. For those of you who don’t know what the Eagle was, it was a golden figurine that served as a symbol for the Roman Empire. It was borne as a standard by the armies, somewhat like our men march under the American flag. If the Eagle was captured it was considered an ultimate disgrace.
As an accurately written historical novel set in the second century Roman Empire, I found this book to be remarkably clean. Marcus prays to Mithras, the Light of the Sun, but this is done very sporadically (perhaps on five occasions in two hundred pages) and is not fleshed out.
Marcus is present when a northern tribe initiates its boys into the status of warriors. The scene is very similar to Indian war councils; there is some dancing, much beating on drums, and the appearance of a priest in an outlandish headdress.
This next one is a bit of a spoiler. Sorry! When Marcus and Esca finally discover the Eagle, they must raid one of the pagan temples to recover it. While removing the eagle from its standard, they feel oppressed by the evil of the place and the darkness that is closing in around them. They manage to avert the darkness by concentrating intensely on Light and they then escape into the night.
I wasn’t bothered by any of these things; paganism is a reality, and ancient priests didn’t gain so much power over the people by mere charisma. There were undoubtedly powers (devils, if you will) which fueled their activities.
Conclusion. The Eagle is one of the most splendidly written historical novels that I have ever read. I commend it wholeheartedly to its appropriate audience and promise that lovers of historical fiction will find it immensely gratifying.
Review © 2012 Laura Verret