Reading Sutcliff’s famous historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth helped enthuse University of Reading lecturer Matthew Nicholls as a child about Roman history. His article in The Guardian Notes and Queries led me to ask what it was about the famous novel which he found so ‘wonderful’
… I can remember reading The Eagle of the Ninth when I was about 7 or 8; at that age I was starting Latin at School and showing an interest in Romans, so my parents took me off to Wall near Lichfield where we lived and must have bought me the book too. It made a great impression, partly as a piece of writing, and partly for its evocation of the vanished but familiar world of Roman Britain. It’s one of the books that stands out most clearly from my childhood reading, alongside T.H.White and E. Nesbit; clearly either I or my parents (probably both) had a taste for solid, well-written children’s classics.
The book’s quest story is a conventional sort of structure, but it did not condescend to the reader by taking sides or giving us an unambiguously happy ending, and I think children’s’ books that treat their audience seriously like this are often remembered very fondly. Quite apart from its Roman content, it was an important book for me as it helped introduce me to the literary pleasures of good writing (at about the same time I was also reading Richmal Crompton, and enjoying the contrasting styles).
I recall with real pleasure the book’s descriptions of landscape and place, and of the texture of urban life in a Romano-British town. I’ve not reread it for years – though I think I will now – but I can recall (I hope correctly) an impression of a neat, civilised Romanised town and at the same time wild, rugged British landscapes, so that the town where Marcus’ uncle’s villa was located felt like an enclave or outpost in an environment that was hostile or threatening, but that was also beautiful and clearly appealed to Sutcliff and her character, and to her readers, in a different way to the comforts of the Roman town life.
I remember in particular a scene in the villa’s garden (which featured honey-cakes, too; not sure why that detail sticks in the memory), and seem to recall that the villa had a little tower of its own, and that these descriptions made sense of some of the Roman remains I was going off to see at the time, while throughout Marcus’ journey north the descriptions of landscape, lakes, plants, birds, and people were very vivid. At that age – still now, really – I had a childish enthusiasm for Roman engineering and architectural neatness, and the contrast between Roman town and British countryside helped set up an interesting comparison between the Roman way of life and that of the tribesmen who had captured the eagle. A scene with a former legionary who had ‘gone native’ (I think he was shaving when Marcus met him, and using goose grease for soap) is another detail of the encounter between two cultures, now I think of it, that’s stuck in my mind over twenty years or so.
The book certainly fed my growing interest in Rome (at that point my affections were divided between Rome and Egypt, after a visit to the mummies in the British Museum); I did Latin at prep. school, enjoyed it, took Classical A-levels at secondary school, went on to read Greats at Oxford, enjoyed that too, and stayed on for a doctorate. My research and teaching interests are now centred on Roman buildings and townscapes, and the way that these helped create a Roman cultural identity both at Rome and out in the provinces. I think at some fairly elementary level the sort of pleasure that I took in the descriptions of Roman life in The Eagle of the Ninth (Marcus’ regimental life; the brand of Mithras between his brows; his relationship with his loyal slave; the comforts of town living; the ambiguous Roman presence in Britain) have stayed with me in later studies.
Source: personal communication; used with permission