Rotten Romans and The Eagle of the Ninth | Sutcliff Review of the Week

Rosemary Sutcliff's famous novel was first published in the UK in 1954 in hardback by OUP

Zbigniew Tycienski  grew up in south-east Poland but after time in Greece and Italy he migrated to the United Kingdom and settled in Edinburgh. Along the way, he read The Eagle of the Ninth and posted this intriguing article about one of Rosemary Sutcliff’s best historical novels.

One may at first conclude that Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) is a book for boys about men and masculinity. The women of the book inhabit a shadowy, backstage world, of service and mothering, and the hero of the story, Marcus Aquila, only finds an ally in the twelve-year old Cottia because she is not so much a girl as a friendly, faithful dog. Marcus calls her a “little vixen,” she comes when he whistles, she bites a slave who will not let her pass, and Marcus rather damningly observes that she and his pet wolf “understand each other.” When Marcus returns home from the business of the book, however, he finds that Cottia has become a woman, and it is all rather disconcerting. He feels a “little ache of loss” – she was much nicer as a dog!

Aside from Cottia, The Eagle of the Ninth features a lot of men. There are men striving and sweating together in grimy, sweaty brotherhood. There are men hacking each other apart in the thick of battle, or fighting in the ring for the entertainment of the men who have enslaved them. There are men who parade, or, as Cottia puts it, “march about in straight lines with all their legs working together, and make silly patterns of themselves while a man with a voice like a bull shouts at them.” But before all the testosterone goes to our heads, we should recall that these fables of masculinity were presumably as distant to Rosemary Sutcliff as the roads of Roman Britain. As a child, she was afflicted with Still’s Disease – a sort of juvenile arthritis – and she would be consigned to a wheelchair for the rest of her days. Poor Rosemary Sutcliff, toiling away in a library to authentically replicate the world of Roman Silchester, whilst her characters were out living and fighting like men!

Except that this is not quite on. Although one does not particularly wish to write about Sutcliff herself, her novel is at its most powerful when observing how the male will is frustrated by bodily failure. Injury transforms Marcus from a man of action into a sort of historian, and if Sutcliff is imagining the fate of the missing Ninth Hispania Legion, then he is her man in the field. It is incidental to this interpretation that the assumption upon which Sutcliff’s book was founded – that the Ninth legion perished north of Hadrian’s wall – is now believed to be completely wrong.

Yet Marcus is not a disinterested, objective historian. As the son of one who went missing with the Ninth legion, he wishes to restore his father’s name and honour, which were by association implicated in the “ugly stories” which surrounded the legion’s disappearance. Once, however, Marcus did not merely serve his father’s memory, but he was himself a hero:

To Marcus, running with the rest, it seemed suddenly that there was no weight in his body, none at all. He was filled through and through with a piercing awareness of life and the sweetness of life held in his hollowed hand, to be tossed away like the shining balls that the children played with in the gardens of Rome… It was a slim chance, but if it came off it would gain for his men those few extra moments that might mean life or death. For himself, it was death. He was quite clear about that.

Marcus was in command at Exeter when it was attacked by rioting Britons. On the battlefield, his men were charged by a column of chariots, but Marcus flung aside his sword and hurled himself at the chariots headlong, leaving them in disarray and allowing his men to escape. Although apparently a tabula rasa yet to be marked by the events of the book, Marcus leaves Exeter as a hero. With a torturous wound in his leg, however, Marcus is consigned to the home of his Uncle Aquila in the suburbs of Silchester, and he will never serve in the army again. When Marcus finally resolves to retrieve his father’s missing Eagle from the north, it cannot be as a solder, but only as a thief.

As if the dead father’s shadow had taken a life of its own and slipped off to revise history, Marcus follows the road taken by the Ninth legion. He will eventually learn that the legion fell apart through mutiny, leaving it helpless, undisciplined, and destined to be massacred. Yet whilst the progress of the legion was merely shambolic, Marcus’ actions seem actually ignoble. The tribe which captured the Eagle, in the belief that it was a god, did so through a fair fight, and one in which many men on both sides died. Although the fortunes of the Eagle have been determined by the deaths of soldiers, it is finally seized in the dead of night by thieves. Marcus’ former hosts accost him on the road home and search his bags, but they do not find the Eagle, which has been concealed in a nearby loch. Having abused the hospitality of the tribe, Marcus humiliates them to boot.

The recaptured Eagle no longer has any wings: it is a flightless bird for a dishonoured empire. The remote Senate and its groaning bureaucracy aspire to cover the known world with suburbia, where Romans can lead comfortable but aimless lives. Whilst Cottia’s suburban home is a prison, one elsewhere encounters those who have settled in their cages: the “bored” and effeminate Tribune Placidus, who only becomes briefly alive at the thought of accompanying Marcus on his “insane expeditionary force”; the “fat physician” who “is like the white pulpy things one finds under stones”; and Uncle Aquila’s slaves, who are resigned to slavery and no longer have any kick to them. Uncle Aquila himself spends his retirement writing the History of Siege Warfare in a mock watch-tower. His head is full of the past, and the image of his unseeing watch-tower is echoed in that of the derelict signal-tower in which Marcus and Esca shelter whilst being hunted by the Caledonians. We thus glimpse the death of Rome amid its awful life.

When Marcus returns the Eagle to this world, he is told that his father’s legion cannot be reformed: “By now more than half the men will have finished their military service, and those that have not, will have changed their allegiance to their new Eagles, long ago.” Many of the old legionaries are now tending their crops, just as Marcus is destined to become a self-sufficient, smallholding peasant. Marcus is consoled by the thought of a propaganda victory: “Thanks to you, a weapon which might one day have been used against the Empire will never be so used.” Although it has been carried for hundreds of miles, the Eagle ends up in pretty much the same place as when in the hands of the tribe: a hole in the ground. In the words of Uncle Aquila:

“When I had this house built, there had lately been a flare-up of unrest hereabout, and I had a small hiding-place made under the floor of the shrine, to take my papers in case of further trouble. Let it lie there and be forgotten.”

Although he has only carried home a useless lump of a bird, Marcus has learned that there is more to history than a narrative of advancing Roman civilisation. The slave Esca cherishes tender memories of home, whilst under Roman captivity he experienced the madness of gladiatorial combat (which is itself proffered to mitigate suburban tedium). Esca condescends to serve Marcus as “a slave,” whilst making it perfectly clear that he could kill the Roman with his bare hands if he wished. Perhaps the figures of Cub, the tamed wolf, and Cottia, the tamed Briton, should provide neat examples of Roman mastery, but taming wolves is a British rather than a Roman custom and Cottia pleads to go to Rome with Marcus, despite “hating all things Roman.” The course of history does not seem to run smooth, and “conquered” characters such as Cottia and Guern will lapse back into speaking their native tongues without realising it.

Marcus and Esca debate why the frontier tribes will not accept Roman rule: “Justice, and order, and good roads; worth having, surely?” Esca attributes British resistance to “other things than freedom” and he points to the pattern on a native shield:

“Look now at this shield-boss. See the bulging curves that flow from each other as water flows from water and wind from wind, as the stars turn in the heaven and blown sand drifts into dunes. These are the curves of life; and the man who traced them had in him knowledge of things that your people have lost the key to – if they ever had it.”

Esca delivers an eloquent indictment of Roman imperialism and, considering that it was actually written during the Mau-Mau emergency, a good condemnation of imperialism generally.

In Exeter, the Centurion Quintus Hilarion warns Marcus about the Britons who “preach holy war… the most deadly kind, for it recks nothing of consequences.” “They are keeping faith with their gods… when you get men into that state there is apt to be trouble coming.” The implication is that the Britons are wild fanatics, whilst the Romans are sensible secularists, and yet the Eagle will become much more of a god to Marcus than his pet deity Mithras, and Uncle Aquila calls its rescue mission “Sheer unmitigated lunacy!” Knowing nothing “of consequences,” Marcus will risk life and limb for this gewgaw, oblivious to the reality that it will be “forgotten.” Yet Marcus is also disturbed and compelled by the beauty of the Caledonian tribe’s “Feast of New Spears”: “Without knowing that he did so, Marcus stumbled to his knee; beside him Esca was crouching with his forearm covering his eyes.” Perhaps galloping away to partake in “lunatic” quests and wild rituals is infinitely preferable to remaining in the dreary world of the Roman suburbs.

Marcus learns that the differences between peoples can be transcended through rituals such as the “Feast of New Spears.” The “Horned One” – a “man with the antlers of a stag set into his head-dress so that they seemed to grow from his brow” – an “unforgettable figure of nightmare beauty” – becomes the potent symbol of an achievable unity between man and Nature. And although it is often described as a historical novel, The Eagle is as much about the original richness of the British countryside as its human stories, and Marcus and Esca travel through landscapes of incredible power and beauty, devouring boar and venison for every meal, and living in an accord with the natural world unattainable to the enfeebled suburban Romans. Marcus finds something redemptive to his camaraderie with Esca and Cottia, and he ultimately concludes that:

…between the formal pattern on his dagger-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.

Source : here, used with permission

2 thoughts on “Rotten Romans and The Eagle of the Ninth | Sutcliff Review of the Week

  1. Dear Mr Lawton
    I saw your piece in The Guardian today; hence this letter.
    I remember “The Eagle of the Ninth” from decades ago, when it was serialised on the radio – and I still hear the clang of the dismembered aquila falling to the ground; it was a stirring story.
    But what about the truth? Well, when at school I used to live quite near York and often went to see the Roman antiquities. I heard that “it used to be thought that the Ninth Legion had ben defeated”, till its transfer to the Rhineland was discovered. And more recently I discovered a further transfer. Someone told me about the Apostle Paul berating his correspondents as “you foolish Galatians”; were Galatians proverbially stupid? I asked myself – and I found that they were! Severianus, Roman governor of Galatia and a native of the province, was scapegoated for the Roman defeats that opened the Parthian War in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, and the satirist Lucian of Samosata calls him “that foolish Celt”. He died in Armenia, where his single legion was overwhelmed. “Single legion”? – The Ninth, I presume!
    Best wishes
    David Stead


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