Rosemary Sutcliff’s Dolphin Ring and fictional Roman Aquila family

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In a comment on a recent post yesterday Robert Vermaat points me to a blog post from a few years ago which explores how Rosemary Sutcliff passed a dolphin ring down many generations of  the Aquila family over several books. Thus:
“Marcus took it from him and bent to examine it. It was a heavy signet-ring; and on the flawed emerald which formed the bezel was engraved the dolphin badge of his own family … ”
As to why this was a dolphin, he’s not sure it was ever explained? Does anyone know? The books, by the way, in order of century setting, not order of writing, are:
The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) – set in the 2nd century
The Silver Branch (1957) – 3rd century
Frontier Wolf (1980) – 4th century
The Lantern Bearers (1959) – 5th century
Sword At Sunset (1963) – 5th century
Dawn Wind (1961) – 6th century
Sword Song (1991) – 10th century
The Shield Ring (1956) – 11th century

10 comments

  1. Thanks for this as I have just finished “Sword Song” and was pleased and surprised to find the dolphin ring still being handed down and I surmise that Angharad’s father was Owain from “ Dawn Wind.” If anyone has made a guess at or copy of Aquila’s family tree as far as it can be guessed at, I’d love to see it mentioned here. I have yet to read “Shield Ring” so it will be fascinating to see who owned it last. I wish I could have met Rosemary Sutcliff to let her know how much pleasure here books have given me, since I first read them 60 years ago when I was 11!!!!

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  2. The above are all correct but for the last one :-). Sunday was not adopted by Christians for reference to the Sun God but simply because it was the day of the resurrection, the first day of the week in the Jewish calendar.

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    1. Sorry if I got that wrong, Robert :) I believed that the English word “Sunday” derived from the Anglo-Saxon “sunnandaeg” (sun’s day), an adaptation of the Latin “dies solis” (Sol’s day/sun’s day) – the day adopted by Constantine in law as Christianity’s official day of rest and worship. Is it possible that both versions could be right?

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  3. You’ll be wishing you hadn’t got me started on this, Anthony, but it’s such an interesting topic. Your mention of the Christian connection reminds me that in the early years of Christianity, Christ was very much seen in the Sun God role (though whether as inheritor or usurper isn’t always clear) originally taken by Mithras and the Imperial official god, Sol Invictus (The Unconquered Sun). I’m sure that Rosemary Sutcliff would have been well aware of this.

    Acording to the New Catholic Encyclopedia in an article on Constantine the Great: “Sol Invictus had been adopted by the Christians in a Christian sense, as demonstrated in the Christ as Apollo-Helios in a mausoleum (c. 250) discovered beneath St. Peter’s in the Vatican (see link below for image of this mosaic).” Indeed “…from the beginning of the 3rd century “Sun of Justice” appears as a title of Christ”. Interesting too, that we still use the title The Risen Christ when referring to Jesus.

    A festival (the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti or birthday of Sol Invictus) on 25 December is thought to be responsible for the date of Christmas, and it’s significant that 25 December (when the sun is at its height) was the birthdate of Mithras as well. Sunday (the day associated with Sol) was also adopted as the day of the week when the majority of Christians would join together in worship.

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  4. @Anthony, I’m sure Rosemary would have been aware of the dolphin’s significance in Christian art, and she so often liked to make use of symbols to connect different generations and civilizations in her stories.

    @Jane, that’s a brilliant thought. The eagle image is so inextricably linked with the Romans that the name Aquila was a perfect choice for RS’s fictional family.The eagle is indeed associated with the sun god in many different cultures. For the Greeks, the eagle was associated with Zeus- more here:
    http://www.animal-symbols.com/eagle-symbol.html

    My guess about the sun god connection is just speculation, of course, but it feels right. I was re-reading “Eagle of the Ninth” the other week, and was reminded again of the importance of the sun god in the Aquila novels – he is often seen as a source of light with which to drive back the forces of darkness. In the story Marcus twice calls upon Mithras to bring light when he’s overwhelmed by darkness, most notably when he and Esca enter the terrifying Place of Life to retrieve the eagle of his father’s legion. Here’s a quote- this piece describes Marcus and Esca making their preparations before going to the Place of Life.

    “Towards evening they bathed… a ritual cleansing in readiness for whatever the night might bring. Marcus made his sunset prayers to Mithras, Esca made them to Lugh of the Shining Spear; but both these were Sun Gods, Light Gods, and their followers knew the same weapons against the dark.”

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  5. I have been hunting around, and read on one website that “Dolphins seen in Christian art are symbolic of resurrection”. Is this so? If so, Rosemary would have known this along with the Greek and Roman connections …

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  6. Anne,

    would there be any connection between the eagle (which is what aquila means in Latin) and the dolphin? If the dolphin is associated with Apollo… something in my memory is saying, eagle, sun…

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  7. I meant to say that I don’t recall seeing anywhere in the “Aquila” novels why the dolphin was originally chosen as the Aquila family emblem, but it was a common symbol signifying luck and divine protection used by both the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was adopted by several Roman legions as an emblem, so that could be significant if the Aquila family had a history of serving with the army. The other possible connection is that the dolphin was associated with the sun god Apollo.The Sun God in his various forms is a significant element in RS’s novels, and we know that Marcus from “Eagle of the Ninth” was himself a follower of the sun god Mithras.

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  8. There is a picture of the Aquila family’s dolphin ring which links the stories on the cover of the new “Chronicles of the Eagle” trilogy, but to me it doesn’t look like authentic Roman jewellery.

    I imagine it looking more like this one which I based on an antique Roman ring and photoshopped to fit Rosemary Sutcliff’s description. (I can’t add it in directly as an image on this post, though maybe you can, Anthony).

    “It was a ring: a massive gold ring of ancient workmanship, much scored and battered, with a bezel of dark green translucent stone, on which was engraved a device of some sort.
    ‘What is this thing like a fish?’ Bjorn asked.
    ‘A dolphin’.
    Bjorn slid the ring onto his left hand, and turned it under the light, watching the green spark wake and slumber and wake again in the engraved jewel.
    ‘From my father, on to me’, he said. ‘It has come a long way'”.

    (From “The Shield Ring”)

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