'Eagle of the Ninth' is the first in a bestselling series concerning ancient Rome by Rosemary Sutcliff, the famous and award-winning author of many historial novels and re-tellings of ancient myths.
In the prolouge of this novel Sutcliff tells her inspiration for this novel - the mysterious disappearence of the Ninth Legion who marched north to deal with the Caledonian tribes in 117 AD and were never heard of again, and the remains of a wingless Roman Eagle that was uncovered in modern times at an excavation at Silchester. The Eagles of Roman Legions were of uptmost importance to the soldiers within them, as the eagle symbolised their strength, their union and Rome itself. In the wrong hands it could spell disgrace or loss of moral should it ever be marched against Rome. For this reason Romans went to great lengths to protect the Eagle, even at the cost of their lives, and often an 'eagle-bearer' would march with the troops in order to protect and care for the precious token.
"The hunting ground is a wide one, and who knows into what strange covers the hunt may led us."
So says Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila and his freed slave Esca at the start of their journey. Marcus's father was the leader of the Ninth Legion, and Marcus takes up the chance to find out exactly what did happen to him and the lost Ninth Legion that he had led, by crossing the safety of the Hadrian Wall and following the rumours of a Celtic tribe said to hold a strange Roman artefact of war. Wounded in battle and so stripped of his dream to become a First Cohort like his father, Marcus applies himself fully to restoring the honour of his father's Legion and prevent the Eagle from becoming a weapon of propaganda.
The two cross into dangerous territory, first disguised as a medicene man and his spear-bearer, and then as fugitives as they hurry back towards the Wall. Although the long first chapters that relay Marcus's first command and leg injury are rather long and probably unnessarsary (the quest doesn't actually begins until chapter eleven), those that hang in there will be rewarded with a nail-biting theft of the Eagle and a riveting final chase to safety.
Sutcliff creates a sympathetic character in Marcus, readers of this day and age will nod in approval at his treatment of his 'slave' Esca, but he has a touch of arrogance that will make scholars of Roman History smile. Backing up this protagonist is the fascinating character of Esca, who is often identified with the wild wolf that Marcus raises as a tame animal, Marcus's jovial uncle Aquila, and the frustrated 'girl-next-door' Cottia. All are interesting and genuine people, and all their relationships are handled well - there is no sappy romance, easy friendships or mushy uncle/nephew bond here; it is, to put it simply: real.
Like all her books, Sutcliff's writing is infused with potent imagery (the olive wood bird, the Celtic shield and 'Roman' dagger, and the Eagle itself) and poetic language that is blissful to read. Sutcliff had a gift in provoking images of landscape and imagery, and again she never distances the reader from the characters even when teaching them something about history - I was especially interested by the Feast of Spears in chapter fourteen. She juggles melancoly and despair perfectly with hope and renewal, and anyone who does make it through those first few chapters (which unfortunatly really do bring the rating down) might find themselves enjoying this unique story.