‘EAGLE OF THE NINTH’:
I first discovered her in the school library around 1962.
After all, Rosemary Sutcliff (14 December 1920 – 23 July 1992)
is most widely known as the author of fine historical books
for juveniles. Yet her greatest novel – ‘The Eagle Of The Ninth’,
made a powerful adult movie in 2011.
Andrew Darlington explores her extraordinary literary legacy.
Ancient Rome has a way of exerting its mystique. So advanced, so like us. So barbarically bloody, so unlike us. Here, in the film, there are severed heads and lopped-off limbs. The corpse-victims of rogue warriors are suspended naked from trees like strange fruit. And centipedes crawl over human skulls in ‘the killing ground’ of an old battlefield. This is not gratuitous content. These are violent times. The Roman Empire is big business. It has been for some time. But even more so now. From the latest in Conn Iggulden’s ‘Emperor’ series, ‘The Blood Of Gods’ (Harper Collins, 2013), through David Anthony Durham’s ‘Hannibal: Pride Of Carthage’ (Bantam, 2006). From Harry Sidebottom’s ‘Warrior Of Rome’ series (Michael Joseph) through Ben Kane’s novel-series drawing in ‘The Silver Eagle’ (Arrow, 2009) and ‘The Forgotten Legion’ (Arrow, 2008). It was ever thus. Back as far as Robert Graves’ richly-plotted chronicles of ‘Claudius’, and beyond.
Truth to tell though, I came to such fiction by way of Rosemary Sutcliff, poet-novelist Henry Treece (1911-1966), and Geoffrey Trease (1909-1998). I must have been around twelve years old, maybe a tad younger. Snuck into the school library high in Cottingham Secondary Modern on Harland Rise. Although I guess that’s not entirely true either, for I’d already been prepared and ensnared by the heroic escapades of ‘Olac The Gladiator’ in ‘Tiger’, the lavish picture-strip epics of ‘Heros The Spartan’ in ‘Eagle’ and ‘Wulf The Briton’ on the cover of ‘Express’. But yes, Rosemary Sutcliff’s books were always special. And particularly ‘Eagle Of The Ninth’ (1954), the novel in which all the greatest elements come together most perfectly.
Long acknowledged as a children’s classic, it nevertheless transfers seamlessly to screen as an adult movie – ‘The Eagle’ (2011), with very little plot tinkering and no concessions to age differences. In the DVD-bonus ‘Making Of’ documentary, director Kevin Macdonald explains how ‘I knew the book as a kid. And I loved it’. As the movie-ads used to proclaim, it is ‘Ripped from the pages of History’. With Channing Tatum acquitting himself convincingly as Marcus Flavius Aquila, the young Roman Officer and dark star of this unquiet masterpiece. His objective is to vindicate his father’s reputation by restoring the honour of the lost Ninth legion he’d commanded. By retrieving the ‘regimental standard’, the treasured Eagle of the legion which had marched into the mist of Scotland, and never come marching back. Sharing his adventure is Jamie Bell as Esca, his more conflicted British slave, and companion.
The film opens with Romans aboard ships gliding upriver through a green wilderness, into a heart of darkness. An analogy that Macdonald makes clear is deliberate. Beyond the ‘white cliffs of Dubris (Dover)’, Britain is not only at the rim of the empire, but the outer fringes of the known world. Cold and dark, thinly-populated, a place of rain and endless forests. In a kind of early north-south divide, according to Rosemary Sutcliff, prior to invasion the southern tribes were already half-seduced by what Rome had to offer, and fell easily into occupation. The Henry Treece novel ‘Legions Of The Eagle’ (1954) shows this Roman invasion of Britain witnessed through the eyes of the boy Gaius. But the northern tribes were obstinately different.
She balances out their opposing ‘Two Worlds Meeting’ attitudes with beautifully effective simplicity. As Marcus refurbishes a Celtic shield, Esca uses the wave-break curves flowing from its boss to illustrate their contrast to Roman straight ordered lines. ‘These are the curves of life’ he argues, ‘and the man who traced them had in him knowledge of things that you people have lost the key to.’ As native Americans would later represent the mystical power of nature against the cold mechanised culture of European expansion, so the native British tribes were to Rome. Something had been gained, and something lost in the civilising process. But there are comparative cultural standards that also apply to Rome. Marcus bows ‘to my god, to Mithras, the Light of the Sun.’ Slyly making the point that the 24th evening of December is not only the eve of the winter solstice, but the eve of the birth of Mithras too. No truck with that upstart Christian cult.
For his first posting Marcus discovers that ‘Rome was a new slip grafted on an old stock – and the graft had not yet taken.’ The outgoing commander – Centurion Quintus Hilarion, warns him of travelling Druids stirring up old resentments, and with inevitable precision, soon after Marcus assumes command, there are sinister rumours of just such a holy man. Despite modern claimants to the tradition, little is known for sure about Druidism. The only written records are those left by Caesar and Tacitus, Roman writers who just may have had an agenda. Rome had an equal-opportunities attitude to deities, more than happy to draw elements of other people’s religions into their pantheon, from Greek and Egyptian gods to the Persian cult that Marcus follows. The Roman poet Ovid makes that quite clear. The awkward squad of Christianity was only suspect because it refused to coexist with others on an equal-but-different basis. So why did Rome choose to eradicate the Druids? Supposedly because of their ‘wicker man’ practice of human sacrifice. We can’t be sure. To Sutcliff it’s enough that they represent the ‘old religion’ simmering resentfully beneath the façade of Roman rule.
Soon after the rumours, comes the attack. With the chariot that inflicts such terrible wounds on Marcus ridden into battle by Cradoc, a Briton he’d hunted beside (in a ‘deleted sequence’, Cradoc is played by Douglas Henshall). ‘For a splinter in time their eyes met in something that was almost a salute, a parting salute between two who might have been friends.’ In light of what results, the use of the word ‘splinter’ is particularly apt. But the passage also establishes the uncertainty that must underlie Marcus’ later friendship with Esca. Does Esca, too, harbour deeper tribal loyalties that will lead to treachery? When Marcus’ life – as Placidus asserts, will hang ‘by so slender a thread as the loyalty of a slave’.
Invalided out of the legion Marcus painfully recuperates with his Uncle Aquila (an authoritative Donald Sutherland in the film) in Calleva (Silchester). It’s here that he rescues Esca – son of Cunoval of the Brigante, from the arena, and purchases him as his body-slave. Strapped to the table, and held down by Esca in their first close physical contact, Marcus endures excruciating secondary surgery carried out by Rufrius Galarius, to extract deeply embedded splinters, saving the ruined leg botched by the ‘blue-jowled Spaniard’ field-medic. The interdependence of Marcus and Esca is now established. The slave Sassticca compares them to ‘the two halves of an almond’. When Marcus later consents to Esca joining a wolf-cull, there’s a clear message that’s repeated, as if to add further clarity, when Marcus attempts to free the orphaned wolf-cub that Esca brings him. Both are tests of loyalty, to determine if the need for kin and freedom outweighs the obligations of friendship. Cub provides the link. Both it – and Esca, are offered the opportunity of escape. Both return. When Marcus gives him his papyrus of manumission – his freedom, Esca counters with ‘I have not served the Centurion because I was his slave.’ If there are currents of homo-eroticism in this relationship, hinted at more strongly in the movie, that can scarcely have been Rosemary Sutcliff’s intention. Although in many ways cleaving closely to the original text, the film significantly omits Cottia, the young auburn-haired Iceni who resents her Aunt’s attempts to Romanise her. It’s her tentative affection for Marcus that adds a balance missing from the strictly masculine bonding seen onscreen. Nevertheless, if we are to believe Petronius’ ‘Satyricon’, values were different in ancient times. They saw no necessity for strong emotional connections to be absent from the bond between warriors.
There’s little condescension to young readers. When Marcus orders his troops to ‘Form Testudo’, there’s no explanation what a ‘testudo’ is. The formation becomes clear as the narrative continues, but there’s no patronising those unfamiliar with Roman strategy. Yet when we see rioting protesters assailing a Police Perspex shield-wall, we are seeing Roman military formation. These things persist. Born in Surrey in 1920 Rosemary Sutcliff writes of her own childhood in ‘Blue Remembered Hills’ (Bodley Head, 1983). Due to her father’s various postings as a naval officer she grew up in maritime bases from Malta to Sheerness. Her mother was stern and unyielding. Yet above all, her childhood was overshadowed by Still’s Disease, a debilitating arthritic condition that would limit her movements throughout her life. This necessitated escape into the fantasy alternative worlds of books. She devoured Rudyard Kipling, but also read Scots novelist George Whyte-Melville’s ‘The Gladiators’ (1863) and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s ‘The Last Days Of Pompeii’ (1834), which conspired to ignite her interest in antiquity.
‘The Eagle Of The Ninth’, not her first book, but the breakthrough novel which first revealed her genius, was conceived as she nervously awaited still-further medical treatment. She began writing within three days of the operation, meticulously researching it from a lengthy bibliography at the County Library. As a result, her books are richly-detailed, inserting the telling minutiae of daily Roman life with deceptively casual authority. The libation to the households gods ‘whose bronze statues stood with the salt-cellars at the corners of the table.’ And, when they return, there are crocuses scattered on the table – in the Roman style. Her writing also has a direct descriptive simplicity that is never less than apt, the military trumpet-call ‘piercing through the unreality like a sword-blade through tangled wool’. Uncle Aquila who’s ‘joints appeared to be loosely strung together as if with wet leather’, yet carrying an ‘authority (that) seemed to hang on him in easy and accustomed folds, like his toga.’
Uncertain of his future, it’s the arrival of two guests, Aquila’s friend Senator Claudius (played by Dakin Matthews in the film) and his haughty tribune Legate Placcidus (Pip Carter), who seed the idea of a mission north of Hadrian’s Wall, the barrier that marks ‘the end of the known world’. Placcidus sneeringly suggests that the ‘Hispanas’ – the Ninth Legion mutinied, butchered their officers, and joined the local tribes of ‘Painted People’. That there’s ‘wind-blown market-talk’ of their standard, the Eagle ‘receiving divine honours in some tribal temple in the far north’. And that the Eagle could be used by its captors as a weapon against Rome. ‘Britain is full of nothing but rumour’ argues Aquila dismissively. But there’s a clean moral simplicity to the venture Marcus now envisages.
As she explains in her brief Foreword, ‘R.S.’ based her fiction around a genuinely intriguing historical conundrum. The real-life ‘Legio IX Hispana’ was certainly active in the suppression of Boudica’s rebellion in Norfolk, after which they were garrisoned at Eboracum (York). Then, she writes ‘sometime about the year AD117’ (AD120 in the film) they ‘marched north to deal with a rising among the Caledonian tribes, and was never heard of again’. Historians continue to debate their fate. Some make claims founded on the slightest hints of evidence that they were subsequently stationed in Germania, others suggest they were lost even later during campaigns against the Persians. While there are those who continue to cleave to their annihilation by Picts in the ‘swirling mists of Caledonia’. Another, less nuanced and altogether less satisfying film – ‘Centurion’ (2010) also utilises the story of the AD117 march north, with Michael Fassbender as Quintus Dias. But for the purposes of fiction – as in John Ford’s much-quoted movie ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (1962) ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’
Marcus and Esca reach Eboracum to find it ‘ghost-ridden’ with memories of the departed legion. With Marcus in the guise of Demetrius of Alexandria, they travel beyond the Wall through Valentia, an area briefly under Roman occupation following Agricola’s campaign, but now a hinterland before the darker Caledonia, ‘the great emptiness beyond the frontier’. ‘Didn’t they tell you, this is the end of the world’ mocks the wall-guard, ‘see you in the afterlife, Roman’. They are venturing into primitive mystery in every way as threatening as Conan wandering into the supernatural dark of Robert E Howard’s imaginary realms of Hyboria. They are entering a place where the Ancient People and the little Dark People had left their long barrows. As Esca warns him, ‘5000 men can disappear in a single glen. There are thousands of glens.’ For the film, the Celtic chants, Uillean pipes and bodhran scored by Atli Orvarsson and Dave Fleming add eerier atmospherics. Matched by the novel’s vivid prose. The evening sky above what is assumed to be Loch Lomond – which provides one of the film’s actual on-location sites, is ‘coloured like a dove’s breast’ (the bleak Coigach Peninsula in NW Scotland is also listed in the credits, as well as the forests of Hungary). Above ‘the Loch of Many Islets’, they witness ‘far out on the dreaming brightness many scattered islands’ that ‘seemed to float lightly as sleeping sea-birds’ within the mist-crested shadows of Cruachan ‘the shield-boss of the world’.
Eventually they encounter Guern the Hunter, who Marcus correctly identifies as a Senior Cohort of the Hispana by a tune he whistles (in the film it’s Esca who spots Guern as a former legionary, not Marcus). Reluctantly he’s persuaded to tell how his ‘doomed legion’ was cursed by Boudicca, queen of the Iceni. How they marched north suffering continual guerrilla attack, until they were encircled at Agricola’s old northern headquarters. With the remnants retreating south, wounded, he’d dropped out, and been taken in by Selgovae tribal villagers, nursed back to health by Murna who became his wife and the mother of his children. It’s from Guern that Marcus also learns the name of the tribe who took the Eagle, the Epidaii.
Back in Calleva, Cottia had mocked the Roman troops as they do drill. This is not how warriors fight. Yet historically, every military encounter the legions fought north of the wall, they’d won. Only they were never able to make Caledonia a Roman province. There’s no civil structure for them to requisition. Only tribes with loose affiliations to family and warlord. Much like American troops in Afghanistan, they fight elusive phantoms against which military technology and discipline are ineffective. The same scenario is seen in the ‘Gladiator’ movie (2000), with the legion of General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) pitted against equally decentralised Germanic tribes.
Following Guern’s directions, their quest takes them into ‘the green woods, beyond the snowy mountains.’ For the movie there’s no pretence of Marcus being an Alexandrian Eye Doctor, something I always viewed as a dubious proposition anyway, instead there’s an effective role-reversal. Esca leads, with Marcus the silent partner. The Celts – including the Druid, speak in subtitles. The Romans, presumably speaking Latin, do not. Esca speaks the native language. Marcus does not, and his accent would give him away. In the novel, Marcus gains favour by saving the eyesight of the chief’s son of the Dergdian tribe. In the film, Marcus is introduced to the convincingly terrifying Pictish seal-people as Esca’s slave. Marcus must kneel to maintain the pretence. And when Esca explains ‘my heart hurts for a place to be free’, even Marcus himself is unsure of his motives.
As guests they watch the ‘Feast Of New Spears’ presided over by ‘The Horned One’ – an antlered priest, as possessed animal-spirits dance within the flame-shadows of an ancient Henge. Yet, lest we assume a Roman cultural superiority to this pagan ritual, Marcus recalls ‘the smell of bull’s blood in the darkened cave of Mithras’ during his own initiation. Soon after, there’s a doom-laden swords-and-sorcery frisson as the two furtively enter the ‘many-fingered dark’ of the secret chamber where the Eagle has spent its twelve-year captivity. As if it’s a living thing – ‘Marcus felt that at any moment he would hear it breathe, slowly and stealthily, like a waiting animal’.
Although there’s greater bloodshed in the film, there’s more coincidence in the book. Fleeing back towards the wall with the retrieved Eagle, pursued by ‘the hunters of souls’, they encounter Guern the Hunter again. Then, seeking refuge in an abandoned Roman signal tower, the first of the pursuing tribesman they overpower proves to be Liathan, whose cousin Marcus had cured in his healer’s guise. He also happens to have the ring of ‘green fire’ belonging to Marcus’ father. Coincidence, or something more – ‘a link of fate.’ In the film Marcus kills the chief/priest who wears his father’s ring. As he dies he mocks Marcus’ father as ‘the coward who knelt and begged for his life’. Esca refuses to translate this.
In a harrowing film variation, hindered by his lame leg, their horses gone, the two are swirled and stumble down a river-torrent between towering mossy-dark stone cliffs, surrounded by pursuing Seal warriors in drenching rain. Esca kills and skins a rat. Revolted by the idea of eating it raw, Marcus protests that he’s no savage. Esca retorts ‘so die a Roman!’ Marcus eats it. By now weak and hallucinating, there’s an effectively moving sequence where the ragged remnants of the scattered legion, gathered from their various places of concealment for one final battle beneath their Eagle, materialise like wraiths from the mist. In the ensuing fight Marcus kills the chief’s son by drowning him in the stream, the water cleansing away the paint from his dead face, leaving just a young man. After which, there’s a choice of endings. His father’s honour is vindicated as Guern tells Marcus the truth about the legion’s heroic last stand, that ‘the last Roman holding the Eagle was your father’. In a deleted alternate ending he then consigns the Eagle to the funeral pyre of the fallen. As it melts away in tears of gold, his funeral oratory recognises their kinship, and resolves their differences. The Eagle does not belong to Rome. It belongs to the men who died fighting in the name of honour. ‘Let us remember the men who fought and died in the name of honour. Romans and British. My father and yours.’
With the duo safely back south of the wall, in the less convincing multiplex film-version, Marcus and Esca brandish the Eagle into the Senate, presenting it ‘for my father’. The legion will be reformed. Marcus is offered command. But he declines, and instead leaves for fresh ventures with Esca at his side. In the novel, ‘there is no way back through the Waters of Lethe’ for the legion. Instead, Marcus is rewarded with a Centurion’s gratuity, and Esca with Roman citizenship. Yet Marcus chooses not to return to his family-lands in Eturia, but to stay in Britain with Esca, and with a grown Cottia. The Eagle is interred in the floor of Uncle Aquila’s villa in Calleva. The mission’s reward lies not in the retrieved standard, but the understanding that had grown between former antagonists. This accords with the second historical strand that Rosemary Sutcliff skilfully entwined to create the novel, when, ‘during the excavations at Silchester nearly eighteen hundred years later, there was dug up under the green fields which now cover the pavements of Calleva Atrebatum, a wingless Roman Eagle’. She reiterates that ‘no-one knows what happened to the Ninth Legion after it marched into the northern mists’, but ‘it is from these two mysteries, brought together, that I have made the story of ‘The Eagle Of The Ninth’.’ And it is a tale that continues to resonate down the decades. To my twelve-year-old self snuck into the school library high in Cottingham Secondary Modern. To director Kevin Macdonald who also ‘loved the book as a kid.’ And for those who will use the movie or the DVD as a route to follow Marcus and Esca into Rosemary Sutcliff’s enticing worlds of antiquity
But for Esca, their great shared adventure was just ‘good hunting’.
‘BEYOND THE EAGLE’
‘Eagle Of The Ninth’ series:
(1) ‘The Eagle Of The Ninth’ (1954, Oxford University Press, Puffin paperback 1977) illustrated by C Walter Hodges. Adapted for BBC Home Service ‘Children’s Hour’ as a six-part radio serial 27 February to 3 April 1957 (repeated 7 September to 12 October 1958). The subsequent book-series is linked by the Aquila family’s Dolphin ring
(2) ‘The Silver Branch’ (1957, OUP) illustrated by Charles Keeping. ‘Continuing the story begun in ‘The Eagle Of The Ninth’. It is Collen The Fool, with his strange musical instrument of silver apples, who brings a most unexpected message to Justin, and Flavius’. The first Saxon attacks on Britain are bringing grave new perils, but the real danger lies with traitors within. Flavius (a descendent of Marcus) and his kinsman Justin lead a resistance movement which eventually brings the Province of Britain back to the Roman fold
(3) ‘Frontier Wolf’ (1980, OUP). ‘In disgrace after a mistake that had lost a fort and the lives of half his men, Alexios (a scion of Marcus’ blood) arrived in Castellum, a beleaguered garrison beyond Hadrian’s Wall. As a senior officer soon told him, the Frontier Wolves who manned this outpost in the far north of Roman Britain were a fierce and savage bunch, a far cry from the regular legions he’d served in before. He would only survive if he learned to understand them and win their respect – and he was determined to try.’ He saves himself and his men when they’re cut off by rebellious tribesmen
(4) ‘The Lantern Bearers’ (1959, OUP) illustrated by Charles Keeping. ‘A historical novel set in Roman Britain, full of stirring incident and bitter conflict.’ During the coming of fierce Anglo-Saxon invaders, the nineteen-year-old Aquila (also a descendant of Marcus) sees his home and family destroyed, he becomes a slave before escaping and making his way to join the free men in Wales where he meets youthful leader Artos the Bear, and a grim struggle begins against the barbarians
(5) ‘Sword At Sunset’ (1963, Hodder and Stoughton) ‘officially for Adults’, following the character of Artos the Bear (Rosemary Sutcliff’s interpretation of King Arthur) from ‘The Lantern Bearers’, although Aquila’s son plays a minor part
(6) ‘Dawn Wind’ (1961, OUP) illustrated by Charles Keeping. ‘Owain was fourteen when the British war-hosts gathered in a desperate attempt to hold what territory they still had against the Saxons. He could never stop hoping that one day the dawn wind might blow and some part of the Britain he had known might be restored.’ Owain – descended from Marcus, is the only survivor of the great battle that kills his father and elder brother, but after attempting to save Regina, a waif he has befriended, he voluntarily becomes a slave. Eventually, his new Saxon masters becomes his friends, and through his self-sacrifice he is rewarded with his freedom
(7) ‘Sword Song’ (1997, posthumous) exiled for killing a Christian holy man, sixteen-year-old Viking swordsman Bjarni Sigurdson becomes a mercenary, travelling through England to Dublin, then fights among the clan chiefs of the west coast of Scotland. After five years he attempts to return home, only to be shipwrecked, and becomes involves with a girl facing execution as a witch
(8) ‘The Shield Ring’ (1956, Oxford University Press) illustrated by C Walter Hodges. A group of indomitable Vikings, including Beorn – last descendent of the Marcus line, though with Norse blood, lives in the Fells of Lakeland, trying to hold out against the resources of Norman England
‘Three Legions’ (1980) or ‘Eagle Of The Ninth Chronicles’ (2010) collects the first three published titles, ‘The Eagle Of The Ninth’, ‘The Silver Branch’ plus ‘The Lantern Bearers’
‘The Eagle’ (Universal/ Focus Features in association with Film 4, 2011) Directed by Ken Macdonald, Producer Duncan Kenworthy, with a Jeremy Brock screenplay based on the Rosemary Sutcliff novel. With Channing Tatum (as Marcus Flavius Aquila), Jamie Bell (as Esca), Donald Sutherland (as Uncle Aquila), Mark Strong (as Guern, aka Lucius Caius Metellus), Tahar Rahim (as ‘Prince Of The Seal People’), Denis O’Hare (as Lutorius), Dakin Matthews (as Senator Claudius), Pip Carter (as Legate Placidus), Ned Dennehy (as ‘Chief of the Seal People’) (114 minutes) DVD, Universal 2011