The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

I loved The Eagle of the Ninth when I first read it as a child. And I enjoyed rereading it two years ago, the Romano-British adventure, the sassy female character and Rosemary Sutcliff’s skill in storytelling. Later I went on to study history at university. I wonder how much this book contributed to my interest in the subject. 

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff was published in 1954. This is the sixth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. I did not do this on purpose, but like the previous 5 choices, this novel has an orphan for its heroine. The heroes show qualities of courage and principle. The heroine has patience.

The story of The Eagle of the Ninth

Marcus Flavius Aquila grew up in Italy in the second century AD. Marcus’s father had commanded the First Cohort of the Ninth Legion when it disappeared having marched north to deal with rebellious tribes in 117 AD. Marcus follows his father into the army and does well. He is posted to his first command in Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter). 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: the Eagle of the Ninth. 

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 to the safety of established Roman rule. Marcus and Esca become the quarry, but in the end …

Rosemary Sutcliff

I have these novels written by Rosemary Sutcliff on my shelves

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 she is perhaps best known for her Roman Britain stories.  

In the Introduction toThe 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. 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. It can be seen in Reading Museum.

It is a little unsettling to read such an accepting account of colonialism by 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 do not spoil the reading.


And, there is of course a movie called The Eaglestarring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bull and Donald Sutherland (2011). I caught a short part of it some time in the last two years. It was so far from my understanding of the novel that I did not see it through. I think it is sad that the second part of the novel’s title was omitted for the film because the whole has mystery in its rhythm. On the other hand I saw enough to appreciate that Donald Sutherland was 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. 

This is largely a recycling of an earlier post.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1960-69. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

4 Responses to The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

  1. Jane Field

    Goodness me. That was certainly a blast from the past! I used to devour Rosemary’ Sutcliffe books as a child.

    • Caroline

      I still enjoy reading them from time to time. I am notice that of all my childhood books I kept hers with me, and it’s a large collection. What, I wonder, was your favourite?

  2. Gosh, I think I read this back in school too. We did the Romans and that was probably part of it. I might struggle a little with the acceptance of colonialism nowadays!

    • Caroline

      Oh yes. I suspect my vivid images of Roman Britain are formed by this author, and by frequent visits to Hadrian’s Wall. Should check it out some time.

      Great stories.

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