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The Eagle of the Ninth

Style: Good

Attitude: Positive

In Brief: A well-researched and accessible window on life in Roman Britain. Believable characters populate an historical landscape. Loyalty of friends and respect for varied lifestyles and cultures.

Cover of The Eagle of the Ninth

Author: Rosemary Sutcliff

Series: The Eagle of the Ninth

Publisher: OUP

Published in: 1954

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: 2nd C

Setting: Roman Britain

Genres:  BoysHistorical


Characters:

  • Marcus Flavius Aquila is a resourceful young cohort commander, proud of the men under his command, and merciful on a defeated gladiator whom he buys as his body slave and treats as his friend.
  • Esca is a British tribesman captured and sold as a gladiator. When Marcus buys him from the circus the two become more friends than master and servant and he is true to his word throughout.
  • Cottia is the young British woman brought up in the Roman way by her uncle and aunt who befriends Marcus through his wolf-cub and who waits for him to return from his dangerous journey north.

Synopsis:

Marcus is invalided out of the army after his first command is overrun by tribesmen stirred up by druids into a holy war; he undertakes to travel north in an attempt to retrieve the Eagle emblem of the vanished Ninth Legion, lost when under his father's command ten years before. With him goes Esca his body servant and the two of them must pass beyond Hadrian's Wall into the wilds of Scotland hardly tamed by the Legions and now given over entirely to the Painted People, the tribesmen of the north.

Notes:

General: A mixture of historical authenticity and readable simplicity, as you expect from this author. The point of view shifts slightly between Marcus as a third-person point-of-view character and an outside observer seeing him arrive at various points, setting the scene from an outside frame-of-reference.

Historical Accuracy: As ever with books of this kind, I have no idea just how true is every detail presented, although the wealth of detail — and the reputation of the author — suggest a good deal of research. However you look at it, though, it is an impressive feat to depict a set of characters who inhabit that mixed world of Roman Britain made up of Roman Romans, British Romans, Roman Britons and British Britons. They live and move within that environment, alien and yet familiar to us, with the reader's ironic knowledge that in just a few hundred years it will all, in a sense, have been in vain. With a few well-known exceptions, Roman roads in this country are no more than a dotted line on an Ordnance Survey map, Roman towns either modern cities, ending in -chester or half-forgotten rural sidewaters.

“You are the builders of coursed stone walls, the makers of straight roads and ordered justice and disciplined troops. We know that, we know it all too well. We know that your justice is more sure than ours, and when we rise against you, we see our hosts break against the discipline of your troops, as the sea breaks against a rock. And we do not understand, because all these things are of the ordered pattern, and only the free curves of the shield-boss are real to us. We do not understand. And when the time comes that we begin to understand your world, too often we lose the understanding of our own.”

For a while the were silent, watching Cub at his beetle-hunting. Then Marcus said. “When I came out from home, a year and a half ago, it all seemed so simple.” His gaze dropped again to the buckler on the bench beside him, seeing the strange, swelling curves of the boss with new eyes. Esca had chosen his symbol well, he thought: between the formal pattern on his dagfer-sheath and the formless yet potent beauty of the shield-boss lay all the distance that could lie between two worlds. And yet between individual people, people like Esca, and Marcus, and Cottia, the distance narrowed so that you could reach across it, one to another, so that it ceased to matter.

Thursday 3rd June 2004