Wednesday 15 August 2012

Eagle Day

I read Rosemary’s Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth when I was in my early teens. It’s a bit of a boy’s own historical yarn, though not without some female interest, based on the legend of the Roman Ninth Legion, which supposedly vanished from history into the bogs and myths of first-century Caledonia, that terra incognita in Britain beyond Hadrian’s Wall and civilization. I loved it, a gripping story, well-written, well-plotted and well-told.

Now I’ve read another story of the Ninth, The Eagle has Fallen, a recently published historical novel by Brian Young, equally well-written, well-plotted and well-told.  More than that, the author has an admirable grasp of the military and political realities of the Roman world, more so than Sutcliffe.  Imaginatively structured The Eagle has Fallen may be, but Young takes no undue liberties with history, giving his fiction a very high degree of plausibility. 

With one or two notable exceptions, I’m not that fond of historical fiction.  No matter how clever and well-plotted the story, all too often it falls down in a proper understanding of the times, with people doing as many as six impossible things before breakfast.  You see that’s the curse of a specialist in history: knowing too much and letting knowing get in the way of simple enjoyment.  Licence, for me, can be sometimes a little too poetic! 

Young, I’m pleased to say, always keeps his licence within limits. His settings are as believable as his characters.  It also pleases me that he has no truck with the usual ‘great mystery’ theories over the supposed ‘disappearance’ of the Legio IX Hispania, based at Eboracum, now York, in the northern part of the Roman province of Britannia

Rather, a little like a historical detective, he assembles his evidence carefully, building up a cogent and realistic picture of a formation that was most likely defeated in battle just at the outset of the reign of Hadrian in 117AD.  His deconstruction of the events leading to this likely defeat is highly persuasive.  If I was an archaeologist I would immediately start digging around in southern Scotland for battlefield remains, particularly in the vicinity of a hill called Standard Knowe! 

As Young explains in some historical notes at the end, legions that had suffered serious defeat, including the loss of the highly symbolic unit eagle, were effectively ‘airbrushed’ out of history by the imperial authorities, the fate of the three legions that were destroyed in the battle of the Teutoburg Wald in 9AD, never to be replaced in the Roman army lists. Hispania did not vanish; it was just cast into the shadows of permanent disgrace.  

The Eagle has Fallen is only partly devoted to the likely fate of the Legio IX.  A good part is taken up with the intrigues following the death of Trajan and the accession of Hadrian.  Here the novel works very well indeed as a compelling political thriller, recalling for me some of the nefarious undercurrents in Robert Graves’ classic I, Claudius

I confess found myself frustrated with Hadrian, who seemed to spend far too much time in the east, while the real danger to his authority was in Rome.  There I was, urging him west, contrary to the advice of his closest counsellor.  Leave someone else to deal with the Parthians and the Jews!  If I had been raised to the purple in those times and circumstances, when Rome was still the centre of the political world, I would have taken my legions straight to the capital before some ambitious prefect, senator or praetorian commander started to intrigue.   And, believe me, an ambitious senior public official is intriguing away!    

Coming down to less rarefied heights, there is a human interest angle to the story.  Through the character of Marcus Valerius Quietus, a cavalry officer, the novel unites the military events in Britain with the unravelling conspiracy in Rome, a plotting device which on the whole works reasonably well, though I thought Cornelia, the female interest, not entirely convincing. 

I have no hesitation in recommending this book, a crisp, engaging, intelligent, soundly researched and gripping story, one that is well-paced and easy to read in the best page turning tradition.  For a first novel it’s a commendable piece of work.  It’s a measure of the author’s success that I now want to find out more about the whole period.  The cohorts of Marguerite Yourcenar’s long neglected Memoirs of Hadrian are advancing fast on my earth works!  


  1. Those Imperial Romans really do resonate with our times. Their problems and their outlook so thoroughly modern. I know another chap who has been able to resign his own commission to write full time on the strength of his books about Roman soldiers.

    I read somewhere recently of another lost legion - one that vanished on the Eastern frontier after disastrous contact with the Scythians and a terrible storm. Recent genetic testing in NW China suggests that some survivors went native in Central Asia, leaving descendants, some of whom feature blue eyes and red hair . . .

    1. Calvin, can you be more specific? Do you have a reference or a link. It's something I would be very interested in looking in to.

    2. Three quick links:

  2. Hiya!, I have just returned from a very interesting trip to the Portland Oregon area, the US Pacific North West is truly enchanted. I saw an American bald Eagle soaring over a mill pond while on an outing , they are not bald, just white feathers on their heads and feet and a brown body. I would very much like to relocate to that part of the country, we will see... Roman legions who were defeated or retreated from battle were often 'Decimated' every tenth man was killed as they stood in formation so who knows as they were in a bad situation either way.

    1. Anthony, it's wonderful to see you again! I'm glad your trip was successful. I've been to the West Coast but no further north than Sacramento. I would simply love to see a bald eagle. You are so lucky.

  3. Sacramento! Ana, sometimes you show the most droll taste in travel destinations . . .