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The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

From time to time I reread books that have meant a great deal to me. The Eagle of the Ninth was a book I loved in childhood. And I enjoyed rereading it recently for its Romano-British adventure, for the sassy female character and for Rosemary Sutcliff’s skill in storytelling.

I consumed a great deal of historical fiction after this, and wonder if Rosemary Sutcliff contributed to my decision to read history at University?

The story of The Eagle of the Ninth

Marcus Flavius Aquila, who grew up in Italy, has his first command in Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter), in the second century AD. After establishing himself as a leader he is severely wounded in an attack by the local tribes who have risen against Roman rule. Invalided out of the army he recovers at his uncle’s house in Calleva (Silchester). While there he plans to rescue his father’s reputation and the Eagle from the standard of the First Cohort of the Ninth Legion. Marcus’s father had commanded the cohort when it disappeared after marching north to deal with rebellious tribes in 117 AD.

Marcus saves a British slave, Esca, who is about to be killed at the local gladiatorial games in Calleva. Esca becomes the devoted companion to Marcus, and is freed at the start of their expedition to find the lost Eagle.

The story is a quest. They set out in disguise to follow any clues that will lead them to the truth of what happened to the Ninth and its Eagle. Their quest takes them to the Highlands of Scotland, north of the abandoned Antonine Wall. Of course they find and reclaim it, but the quest turns into a hunt as they attempt to bring it south of Hadrian’s Wall, where Roman rule is still in operation. Marcus and Esca become the quarry, but in the end …

Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92) said she wrote books for children of all ages, from 9 to 90. It is true that her fiction does not talk down to readers, is not busy providing information, although she was careful with her research. She wrote many books, some situated in pre-historic times, others in Tudor and Stuart period and is perhaps best known for her Roman Britain stories.

In the Introduction to The Eagle of the Ninth she explains how she brought together the mystery of the disappearance of the Ninth Legion and the discovery of a wingless Roman eagle in an excavation at Silchester in 1866. No one could explain how it got there.

It is from these two mysteries, brought together, that I have made the story of ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’.

I love her imaginative ability to weave adventures from the events of the past in all her novels.

Why I like the book

It’s a good adventure, with plenty of cliffhangers – at the end of almost every chapter. Here are three examples:

But to Marcus everything seemed for the moment to have grown still. For the last comer was carrying something that had been a Roman Eagle. (157)

But Esca’s suddenly widened eyes were fixed on one corner of the cloak, outflung towards him, and he did not answer; and Marcus, following the direction of his gaze, saw the cloth at that corner torn and ragged. (185)

Up over the edge of the spur, three wild horsemen appeared heading for the gateway. (209)

The storytelling is excellent, just what young readers (between 9 and 90) want. We guess that Marcus and Esca will manage to find the Eagle and to escape their hunters, but we enjoy their efforts to achieve these. Both young men are authentic because neither is perfect.

I also liked the representation of the tribes, both near Exeter and the Seal people in the Highlands. The cover of my copy of The Eagle of the Ninth captures the rituals of the Seal people in a dramatic and attractive way, better than your Roman soldier. It is by C Walter Hodges.

Is The Eagle of the Ninth dated?

The novel was published in 1954, and at the time the explanation for the Silchester Eagle given by Rosemary Sutcliff was as good as any other. Archaeology has moved on and today it is not thought to be from a Roman Army standard, but more likely was part of a larger statue and held in the hands of an important person. It can be seen in Reading Museum.

It is a little unsettling to read such an accepting account of colonialism of the Romans. The rebellions are presented as the last struggles of the ancient tribes against the superior might, economic power and civilization of the Romans. I guess, critiques of the British Empire were not yet commonplace in the 1950s. In the same way, although Marcus does the decent thing and frees his slave Esca, there is no suggestion that slavery was the dark and essential underside of the Empire.

Perhaps most of all, The Eagle of the Ninth is dated because the feisty and delightful young woman, Cottia, remains behind to wait for the return of the young men. Today any self-respecting writer would have sent her on the quest alongside Marcus and Esca.

However the novel is of its time and these reservations did not spoil my rereading.

Film

And, there is of course a movie called The Eagle starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bull and Donald Sutherland (2011). I have not seen it so I do not know how faithful it is to the novel, but it is sad that the second part of the novel’s title was omitted, because the whole has mystery in its rhythm. On the other hand, Donald Sutherland seems to me an inspired casting as Uncle Aquila.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954. I reread my own 1970 edition from Oxford University Press, which it is still on their list, not only because it has just been filmed.

Over to you

What novels from childhood do you reread? Have you any thoughts on The Eagle of the Ninth?

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