Thurs. 3rd March: A review of The Eagle of the Ninth

Few books are immune to the unforgiving test of time, or the passing of the generations. Most fall by the wayside within a few years, to be forgotten by all but a small number of dedicated readers. The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff is without doubt, one of the handful of books to retain its appeal long term.

It has sold more than a million copies worldwide, and is still in print more than five decades after its first publication. While the book was written for children, it appeals to all readers: as Sutcliff herself said, ‘from eight to eighty-eight’. In February and March 2011, The Eagle of the Ninth opens in cinemas all over the world as The Eagle, guaranteeing countless thousands the chance to fall in love with one of the most magical historical tales of all time.

The book’s central character is a young Roman centurion by the name of Marcus Flavius Aquila. Sent to serve in a fort in south-western England in the first third of the 2nd century AD, he is grievously wounded in his first battle and discharged from the legions. During his recovery at his uncle Aquila’s house, the lonely and embittered Marcus buys Esca, a British slave he sees fighting as a gladiator in the local arena. Gradually, the two become friends, and their comradeship is deepened by Esca’s gift to Marcus of a wolf cub he finds during a hunt. The two main characters are warmly drawn and lifelike. Importantly, they are also likeable. 

Not long after, Marcus hears a rumour from the far north, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, of a legion standard held by one of the tribes hostile to Rome. Tortured by the knowledge that many years before his father marched north into Scotland with the Ninth Hispana legion, which never returned, Marcus determines to try and find the eagle. He is driven by his desire to retrieve the legion’s honour as well as his own, to lay to rest his last memories of his father, and to remove a banner that might one day unite the tribes against Rome. The only person to accompany him on his perilous quest northwards is Esca, who has become his closest friend. No one expects the pair to succeed, or even to return, and thereby hangs the rest of the tale.

The Eagle of the Ninth is essentially a tale of the pursuit of honour and redemption in the face of great danger. The story moves along at compelling pace throughout, but it reaches breakneck pace after Marcus and Esca steal the eagle from the tribe which seized it from the Ninth Legion. Strong themes of duty, loyalty to others and courage are woven seamlessly into the rich prose, which conjures a magical picture of 2nd century Roman Britain in general, and of the highlands and people of ancient Scotland in particular. Sutcliff possessed the all too rare skill of being able to impart subtly large amounts of historical information while writing a fantastic story. Even when she had to invent material (such as the scenes with the tribes people in Scotland), it was done with a real sense of authenticity.

In short, The Eagle of the Ninth is a wonderfully crafted novel that will appeal not just to lovers of history, but those who consider comradeship, honour and loyalty to be important qualities. Pick it up and be converted!

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15 Comments

  1. John Salter
    Posted 3 March 2011 at 11:07 | Permalink

    Frustratingly I still can’t find out if the film is on at my local cinema. However, even if I’ve got to travel to ‘the other side of the empire’ to see it I will. I’ve ordered new copies of all three books as my originals are hiding somewhere in boxes in attics after too many house moves!

  2. benkane
    Posted 3 March 2011 at 11:14 | Permalink

    @John: how annoying! I think it will receive greater distribution than Centurion, but I don’t know that for sure. Must find out what my local cinema will be doing about it. Luckily, I’ve got Bristol on my doorstep, so it will be on somewhere. I too, though, would travel to the other side of the Empire to see it! 🙂

  3. John Salter
    Posted 3 March 2011 at 16:51 | Permalink

    Finished The Road to Rome at lunchtime Ben, fantastic story, thanks for a great trilogy! Now I’ve got to find something equally compelling to find to read! I’ve got a few lined up but for the time being I’ve run out of yours, Simon Scarrows, Anthony Riches and Douglas Jacksons. Maybe its time for the last Conn Iggulden I’ve got waiting on the bookshelf!

    You managed to create a great character with Romulus, someone like Macro in Simon Scarrows books (but totally different) who I could relate with fully, especially after 25 years in the forces. All three books were great and obviously Romulus and Tarquinius could ride again! They could even meet an old friend in the east last seen fighting an elephant!

    I watched the trailer again today for The Eagle and it looks better each time, except maybe for the seal people! Bristol will show it somewhere I’m sure. I did some trianing down there for a few months with Avon & Somerset police, Kings Weston! Good nights out!

  4. benkane
    Posted 4 March 2011 at 10:20 | Permalink

    @John: No problem, I’m very pleased that you liked it so much! Thank you for the excellent and swiftly placed review on Amazon too, by the way. If you’re looking for new stuff to read, have you tried Gladiatrix by Russell Whitfield, or Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem (the book upon which the film Gladiator was loosely based), or The Boat of Fate by Keith Roberts? The latter two are stand alone book, so you could race through them quite fast.

    I thnk the trailer for The Eagle looks great too, but you know the way they often put the best bits of a film in the trailer, and then the film disappoints…(I think I’m preparing myself to be disappointed, because if my expectations are too high, it will be worse :-()

  5. John Salter
    Posted 4 March 2011 at 14:48 | Permalink

    No worries Ben, the Road to Rome and the prequels were excellent books/stories, in a way I’m glad I left them to read in a ‘one’r’ well almost, I read two inbetween. It’s always the mark of a good book when you miss reading about the characters and that’s what happened after I’d finished them yesterday!

    Oddly enough that’s why I picked up Eagle in the Snow last night and started it, had to have my ‘Roman fix’. Maximus has just been ordered back to Italy after training his new legion, I’m enjoying it so far!

    I saw some reviews about The Boat of Fate and that’s in my ‘to read pile.’ I read some of his Sci-Fi books when I was a kid when I went through an Isaac Asimov phase, brilliant stories! I was amazed when I watched Avatar because the story is so close to another authors, The Amtrak Wars by Patrick Tilley, that I read at the same time!

    I’ll have a look for Gladiatrix thanks, I’ve tried to find it in hard back previously but failed!

  6. benkane
    Posted 4 March 2011 at 16:33 | Permalink

    @John: Great that you’ve started Eagle in the Snow! I’ve not read any of Roberts’ sci-fi stuff; in fact I’ve never heard of him until a member of staff in my local Waterstone’s recommended The Boat of Fate to me as one of the best HF books he’d ever read. Even when I don’t know someone, my antennae go up when I hear that. Boy, was he right! It’s in my top 5 of all Roman books, and in my top ten of all HF books.

    Gladiatrix was only published in paperback, that’s why you haven’t been able to find it! Book two – according to Russ – will be out in the next few months. I can’t wait!

  7. John Salter
    Posted 7 March 2011 at 10:05 | Permalink

    I’m quite enjoying Eagle in the Snow even though the story so far is quite slow with quite a lot of political bits and pieces. That’s what would happen though with someone in that position. I’m sure the action will start soon.

    The Boat of Fate will more than likely be the next book I read, it sounds excellent. I’ve also got Ship of Rome, Captain of Rome etc trilogy to read, although the reviews are luke warm, have you read them? The third books is supposed to be good!

  8. benkane
    Posted 7 March 2011 at 10:22 | Permalink

    @John: oh, the action starts soon enough in Eagle in the Snow, and then it’s one battle after another after another!

    The Boat of Fate doesn’t have so many battles in it, but it’s the tortured character of the hero that makes it such a good read, IMO.

    Re Ship of Rome: I just couldn’t get into them. Lots of people love the books, though. As a fellow Irishman, I wish John Stack well, but they weren’t for me.

  9. John Salter
    Posted 8 March 2011 at 11:37 | Permalink

    Haha, weird isn’t it, the action started last night oddly. Lots of nasty blacked up barbarians were trying to get across the river at night, then their fleet got destroyed. That Curator chap isnt taking heed of the warnings in the city though!

    I remember having a bash at the Ship of Rome books previously but will give them another go. I found them a bit like Harry Sidebottoms Warrior of Rome stories, the first book was excellent though.

    Just over two weeks to The Eagle! ;0)

  10. benkane
    Posted 8 March 2011 at 13:30 | Permalink

    @John: Go, Maximus, go!

    I have to say that I really like Harry Sidebottom’s books. Which tells me that I’d better go back to Ship of Rome and give it another go. But where to get the time, the time!

    By the way, keep an eye out for Sworn Sword by James Aitcheson – it’s an excellent new book about the Norman Conquest, and it’s coming out in the summer. I just had the privilege of reading it and liked it enough to give a jacket quote…

  11. Posted 9 March 2011 at 14:48 | Permalink

    No Ben Ship of Rome is really bad…and the next one is only a bit better….but you need to slog through them to get to book 3 and four, its a real case of watching a writer evolve before your eyes. I found ship of rome to be quite …well basic and juvinile isnt right but you know what i mean .. when it came to the writing.

  12. Fabitaromunass
    Posted 23 March 2011 at 22:29 | Permalink

    I’ve just come home from watching ‘the eagle’!

    I didn’t really know what to expect, i thought it might be a tad low budget and ropey. However, it’s brilliantly filmed, keeps a good pace and contains the greatest virtue for any film – atmosphere! I loved it. Really recommend it to anyone. (unless you’re a girl)

  13. benkane
    Posted 24 March 2011 at 09:56 | Permalink

    @Fabitaromunass: Glad you liked it. That reassures me a little. Still worried it’s not going to live up to my expectations, however…girls wouldn’t like it, you reckon? I know lots of girls who liked the book!

  14. Fabitaromunass
    Posted 24 March 2011 at 22:41 | Permalink

    Well I went with my sister, girlfriend & dad and us boys definitely liked it better than the poor girls. I’m sure there are loads of ladies who’ll like this film but i fear there will be a lot more bored WAGS going to the cinema in future weeks.

    Might I add I like this film having never read the series! I’d probably be picking faults with it all over if I had! I’ll have to add it to my list after I’m done with ‘fields of death’.

  15. benkane
    Posted 24 March 2011 at 23:51 | Permalink

    @Fabitaromunass: The Eagle of the Ninth is a great book, but when I recently reread the whole Roman Britain trilogy (EOTN is the first, The Silver Branch is the second, and The Lantern Bearers is the third), I was surprised to find that the third book is better than EOTN – to my mind, anyway. *shock, horror*

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