Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Eagle of the Ninth

The Eagle of the Ninth is a 1954 novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, about a Roman family in Britain in the second century, that was recently made into a film called The Eagle.   Marcus Flavius Aquila is a young Roman Centurion who has asked to be posted to Britain so that he may find out what happened to his father's legion, the Ninth, that famously disappeared north of Hadrian's Wall.

Shortly after arriving at his fort in Britain, Marcus becomes seriously injured in a battle with native British, and the injury ends his military career.  While recuperating from his injuries, Marcus hears that the bronze eagle standard of his father's legion has been seen in the north and is in the possession of an unknown tribe.

Upon his recovery Marcus, along with Esca, a slave he has freed, heads to the north, in the guise of an Greek eye doctor to move among the tribes and find the eagle.  Marcus is well received by the tribes, as he has received some rudimentary training in eye care and successfully provides some treatment to the natives.  While there, Marcus and Esca learn more about the location of the standard and follow it to a remote coastal village that is a religious center among the tribes.  During a religious ceremony, Marcus and Esca see the eagle displayed and decide that night to sneak into the nave where it is kept and recover it.

After taking the standard, the two flee to Hadrian's Wall with the villagers in hot pursuit.  After a tumultuous chase, with several close calls, Marcus and Esca finally make it safely to south Britain with their prize.  Due to the circumstances of the loss of the standard a Roman official recommends that the eagle be buried and tells Marcus that there is no way the Ninth Legion will be re-formed, but he is successful in petitioning Rome for a land award and a pension for Marcus for the services he has provided.  The book ends with Marcus, Esca and Marcus' beau deciding to take the awarded land in Britain and to farm it, as Marcus comes from a long line of farmers.

If not for the recent film I would have never heard of this little book.  As usual, the book is better than the movie.  In this case, the movie was over dramatized and much less believable than the book.  In the film, the natives are little more than bloodthirsty savages, in an Indiana Jones way, whereas in the book they are much more sophisticated, more human and less cartoonish.  Likewise, the book presents the Romans as more realistic and not in a "Rome Rules!" kind of way.

Overall, a pleasant book to read: a good story, light reading but informative about that era in British history. 

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