To celebrate the release of her cracking third Rome novel (The Eagle of the Twelfth, out now), Manda Scott was kind enough to drop by and write a piece about The Eagle of the Ninth and th Roman Legions in Fiction and what inspired many writers of the genre. As such we're proud to bring this to you alongside our review of her new novel. So without further ado, Manda Scott....
The Eagle of the Ninth.... Whatever you thought of the film, for many of us, Rosemary Sutcliff's groundbreaking novel was what brought us here, to this place where the past comes alive - where we want it to come alive, where we want to explore all that happened insofar as we can, knowing our limitations, the inevitable anachronisms, the many gaps.
I first read Eagle when I was eight years old and there is no question but that it changed the course of my life. It wasn’t so much the legions that grabbed me then – let’s face it, the Ninth marches off into the mist and everyone concerned seems to think it’s good riddance when it doesn’t come back – but I lost myself in the tales of Esca and Cub and the wonder of the Seal People and spent the intervening years trying to work out what they did when the Romans weren’t around. The Boudica novels are the result; my effort to fill in the gaps in Sutcliff’s narrative even if I had lost touch with what drove me there in the first place.
And then one day years later, I turned a page in Josephus and found another lost Eagle. It’s not quite the same as discovering the historical basis for Christ (three different men, whose stories have been woven into one, since you ask), but it was a red letter day in any historical writers’ life.
Because the point is, the Eagle of the Ninth was never truly lost: Sutcliff got her idea, as so many of us do, from a news report; in this case, of a wingless legionary eagle that had just been found beneath an altar in Britain. She welded that to the supposed ‘loss’ of the Ninth legion and created the wonder we all know and love and the fact that later work showed that the Ninth had never been lost at all, doesn’t detract from the greatness of what she did, any more than does the fact that later work has shown her concepts of legionary and auxiliary armour to be faulty: She wrote with the best information she had at the time and the result was sheer magic.
So to find a real lost Eagle with a known history about it… Few things come better than that.
The known history of the Twelfth legion is patchy, but its notoriety as the unluckiest legion in the Roman Army means there’s enough data to keep everyone happy. We know the early postings, the early commanders, the monumental strategic blunders that led to the ultimate disgrace when the entire legion, such as survived, was forced to give up its weapons and walk under the yoke of raised spears held by the victorious Parthian army under Vologases, King of Kings. From a Roman perspective, it would have been better that the legion had died to a man and the Eagle been taken than that.
And so a handful of years later, when the ranks had been rebuilt and yet another inanely incompetent commander had brought them yet again to the brink of ruin, this time in the first siege of Jerusalem, it’s not at all surprising that four hundred men volunteered to remain behind and run a night’s disinformation, to let their comrades escape under cover of darkness.
At the site of the battle of Beth Horon, they kindled enough fires for a legion and kept them burning through the night and it was only come dawn that the vengeful Hebrew army under one of the grandsons of Yehuda realized that the bulk of the Roman army had left. They took out their vengeance on the four hundred legionaries and centurions left behind. Jospehus says they died to a man, and the Eagle was taken. Tacitus more or less agrees.
Neither of these ancient writers says anything at all about the Eagle’s being recovered – but they both attest that the Twelfth was part of Vespasian’s army when he returned in the next year to destroy the nascent Israel… which means the Eagle must have been recovered because that was the deal: If the Eagle lives, the legion lives. If the Eagle is lost or destroyed, as was the case with Varus’ three armies on the Rhine, then the legion dies, and all surviving men are posted into other legions.
And so we have an Eagle lost in known circumstances of utmost heroism and no clue at all as to how it was recovered; only the certainty that it must have been. It’s a fiction writers’ gift, all the greater for a writer who venerates Rosemary Sutcliff.
To do it justice meant months of research into the practical and emotional guts of a legion - or a platoon, or a brigade or a regiment. For those who want to know more on each of these, I can thoroughly recommend ‘The Junior Officer’s Reading Club’ by Patrick Hennessey, ‘Quartered Safe out Here’ by George Mackay Brown and ‘Dead Men Risen’ by Toby Harnden as well as the memoirs of Robert Graves and Rudyard Kipling. While the machinery of warfare becomes ever more intricate and the killing ever more distant, there’s a coherent thread that unites armies down the ages; when a man has saved your life in battle, the bond between you is as strong as any other human relationship.
As Patrick Hennessey says of a full 24 hours spent pinned down on the corrugated iron roof of a hut with only his sergeant and his rifle for company, ‘How was I ever going to tell the people who mattered to me most, that nothing in the world will ever matter as much as that did?’
How, as a fiction writers, do we convey the absolute aliveness that comes with the absolute proximity of death? How do we bring the reader to know the intimacy of battle, the rawness, the compassion, the courage, the solidarity of honour, the fact that down the ages, men have said that their greatest fear is not of dying, but of letting down the others who depend on them?
It’s the challenge and it’s the joy and it is what I have tried to achieve in ‘Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth.’
Rosemary Sutcliff was the best and the greatest, but those of us who follow in her footsteps can do our utmost to live up to the standard she left behind.