Described as a young adult novel, The Eagle of the Ninth is written by one of the finest historical fiction writers I think I’ve ever read, and is worthy of the attention of youth and adults alike. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote her Roman Britain trilogy, of which this book is the first, in the 1950s, and her books’ gradual disappearance from the shelves of libraries and classrooms is a tragedy. Her plots are thrilling and well-crafted, full of action and pathos, and her attention to the details of the ancient period about which she writes—whether it be the food and clothing, the buildings and temples, battle strategy and politics, family relations or the complex social order– is as exquisite as her language.
This is the story of the young Roman centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, who has been deployed around 150 AD to Britain to man one of the Roman fortresses. He is Cohort Commander of 600 well-trained troops from Gaul (ancient France), and unbeknownst to him, the tribes of the North that Rome is trying to subjugate are plotting an uprising. Marcus has chosen to be deployed to Britain in honor of his beloved father, who had commanded the famous Ninth Legion and whose several thousand strong force had disappeared into a Caledonian (Scottish) mist many years earlier, and was never heard from again. Marcus acquits himself well in stopping the uprising, but takes a near-lethal wound that forces him to muster out of the Legion and which destroys his dream of rising to the top. He spends a lengthy time recuperating at the British home of his father’s much older brother, where he buys a defeated gladiator named Esca as his personal slave, who then becomes his closest friend.
When Marcus learns that the missing Ninth Legion’s Roman Eagle, a golden standard assigned to every Roman Legion, is rumored to have turned up in a tribal shrine way in the hostile north, he and the northern-born Esca volunteer to seek out the story of the Ninth Legion’s disappearance and, if possible, to retrieve the Roman Eagle. Their quest is both thrilling and terrifying as Marcus and Esca go “undercover” among the suspicious northern tribes, learning a great deal about the customs of these barbarians that Rome is so determined to “civilize,” and ultimately uncovering the truth about the 9th. When Marcus and Esca’s true purpose is discovered, they are in a race for their lives that is breathtaking.
In the mood for 2,000-year-old thrills and chills? Read Sutcliff’s trilogy and spread the word.