Book 584: The Eagle of the Ninth (The Roman Britain Trilogy #1) – Rosemary Sutcliff

I picked this up on our July trip to the UK. Multiple places along Hadrian’s Wall sold it as a souvenir and I thought why not?I wanted something that wasn’t a usual souvenir and the cover of the omnibus version I have (Goodreads link) kept catching my eye, and so I bought it, along with way too many other books that visit.

I wasn’t 100% sure what to expect with a historical fiction young adult series originally published in the 1950s. How different from today’s young adult literature would it be? The closest in publication that I’ve read were L’Engle’s Time Quintet and O’Keefe Family books comprising the Kairos series.

Overall, I felt the book moved at a slower pace, similar to L’engle’s works, than most young adult literature today. I felt like it Sutcliff wrote this to a higher grade level. This could be attributed to the subject matter, but I honestly feel like they wrote them to a higher level “in the old days.” The content is similar with battles and chases, hints at love stories, and politics, but the subdued nature of this work versus something like A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is miles away.

The bulk of this book takes place in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall (more about that after the recommendation) and having just visited the wall and many of its fortifications/remaining points and the Scottish Southern Highlands, including the loch they never mention by name but that we visited (Loch Lomond) made this book a lot more interesting!

“Little that was Roman was here as yet, despite the stone-built forum. One day there would be straight streets, he supposed, and temples and bath-houses and a Roman way of life. But as yet it was a place where two worlds met without mingling: a British town huddled under the dominion of the turf ramparts where once the tribe had had its stronghold and now the Roman sentries paced up and down.” (9)

Spending time following Hadrian’s Wall this summer and seeing the Temple of Mithras and the Housesteads Roman Fort (English Heritage links) really put me into the setting of the book. When they described the various temples and the various rooms and buildings of the forts along the wall even though I’d only seen them in ruin I could still see them in my head. Maybe it was just the place and seeing the hills beyond the wall, maybe it was the well done informational placards throughout the sites, but I really felt like I was there as I read this.

The story follows Marcus from the battle and injury that ejects him from the ranks of Roman soldiers and Esca from the moment he appears in the gladiator ring into the wilds of the southern highlands and back again to retrieve the lost Eagle of the Ninth, the standard of Marcus’ father. I’m not sure how accurate the portrayal of the tribes were, but they were believable enough for me (from the various movies, books and articles I’ve seen and read).

The journey was interesting, but I felt Sutcliff jumped around more than expected. She didn’t need as much detail as Tolkien in The Two Towers, but there were a few times when I was reading when there was a dismissal of weeks/months with a throw away sentence. There is a trick to doing this in a way that’s not jarring, i.e. don’t get super descriptive of anything so you’re quickly moving forward, but Sutcliff didn’t do this.

I’m both annoyed and relieved that the next book in the trilogy/series isn’t about the same characters. I’m annoyed because I grew fond of Esca and Marcus and seeing what a peaceful life would bring them intrigued me, but I’m also relieved because it might’ve been a super boring transition book to something more action packed in the third book. If I understand the trilogy correctly, the following two books The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers are probably the descendants of Marcus (and/or Esca), but I’ll let you know when I get around to reading them.

Recommendation: It’s worth a read, especially If you’re interested in Roman history or the Roman occupation of the British isles. This is a fascinating and fun fictionalized account of historical mysteries (Wikipedia link). I’m still not sure how young adult this book is, but a high school student should easily be able to read it.

Following Hadrian’s Wall
Visiting Hadrian’s Wall was something I’ve wanted to do since I first learned that the Roman’s were in the UK. After living there for two years and visiting four additional times (including staying one time in Wallsend —the physical end of Hadrian’s Wall) and not having seen it I knew this was the visit to see it, so I planned accordingly.

We flew in to London and drove up to Newcastle to spend the night. The next day we got up early and visited Heddon on the Wall (pictured right) which has some of the best preserved portion of Hadrian’s Wall that remains standing. After that we drove along the wall stopping at various places including the Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh, Housesteads Fort, and Lanercost Priory (below left to right).

I want to go back one day and hopefully hike the wall. There were quite a few people hiking it and it looked like a wonderful walk. The entire distance is 84 miles (Wikipedia link) across beautiful countryside.

Opening Line: From the Fosseway westward to Isca Dumnoniorum the road was simply a British trackway, broadened and roughly metalled, strengthened by curduroys of logs in the softest places, but otherwise unchanged from its old estate, as it wound among the hills, thrusting further and further into the wilderness.

Closing Line: “They are rebuilding Isca Dumnoniorum.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)

Additional Quotes from The Eagle of the Ninth
“Esca thought for a while, staring straight before him. ‘Look at the patter embossed here on your dagger-sheath,’ he said at last. ‘See here it is a tight curve, and here is another facing the other way to balance it, and here between them is a little round stiff flower; and then it is all repeated here, and here, and here again. It is beautiful, yes, but to me it is as meaningless as an unlit lamp.’

Marcus nodded as the other glanced up at him. ‘Go on.’

Esca took up the shield which had been laid aside at Cottia’s coming. ‘Look now at this sheild-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.’ He looked up at Marcus again very earnestly. ‘You cannot expect the man who made this shield to live easily under the rule of the man who worked the sheath of this dagger.'” (69)

“Esca’s freedom caused less interest, and certainly less ill-feeling in the household than might have been expected. Sassticca, Stephanos, and Marcipor had all been born slaves, the children of slaves; and Esca, the freeborn son of a free chieftain, had never been one with them, even while he ate at their table. They were old and well content with things as they were; they had a good master, and slavery sat easy on them, like an old and familiar garment. Therefore they did not greatly begrudge freedom to Esca, accepting it as something that was likely to have happened one day or another—he and the young master having been, as Sassticca said, the two halves an almond these many moons past, and only grumbled a little among themselves for the pleasure of grumbling.” (98)

“Suddenly he knew why Uncle Aquila had come back to this country when his years of service were done. All his life he would remember his own hills, sometimes he would remember them with longing; but Britain was his home. That came to him, not as a new thing, but as something so familiar that he wondered why he had not known it before.” (211)


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