This week marks the 100th anniversary of Rosemary Sutcliff’s birth.
Born on 14 December 1920 in Surrey, Rosemary Sutcliff spent much of her youth in Malta. At a young age she was affected by Still’s disease and spent much of her life in a wheelchair.
Sutcliff had a profound imagination perhaps from her childhood experience of interrupted schooling and being read stories by her mother. Although she went on to become a prize winning author, she didn’t learn to read until nine. She carried on writing throughout her life, even on the morning of her death in 1992.
Eagle of the Ninth
Sutcliff is most famous for her historical novels set in Roman Britain. The Eagle of the Ninth is the first in a loose series exploring a single family at key points.
It is set in the 2nd century CE.
Marcus Flavius Aquilla’s father disappeared 12 years before the book’s beginning. He was the commanding officer of the Roman Ninth Legion which disappeared in action in Northern England and Scotland.
Now 19, Marcus is sent to the province of Britain, to begin his military career as a centurion. Severely wounded in battle, he is discharged from the army. While convalescing with his uncle in Silchester he buys a slave, Esca, with whom he develops a friendship. He also meets a feisty young British girl.
Once healed he plans to set off to the North to find out what happened to the lost legion and its eagle, and to save his father’s name if possible.
It is the precis for a dramatic plot, but just as rewarding is the richly imagined world and the deeply humane portrayal of rounded characters. Even the baddies are sympathetic and the heroes have their flaws and blindsides too.
The plot of the novel is based on a theory that the Roman Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana) was destroyed in a battle in modern day Scotland. The legion disappeared from the historical record from about 120 CE. Linking this to other evidence pointing to a rebellion in what is now the North of England, led the historian Theodore Mommsen to argue that the Legion was destroyed in war.
Since Mommsen, further evidence has been found which has complicated his theory however, the story has influenced many creative works.
Sutclffe was also inspired by the Silchester Eagle (now in the Reading Museum). Some have identified this Eagle as a military eagle, although most scholars now dispute this. It matches the description in the novel. A replica of it was also used in the film from 2011.
The date of the novel is given as the second century, but some details complicate this. A second wall is mentioned beyond Hadrian’s Wall from which Roman forces withdrew. This could be the Antonine Wall (built in 142 CE, the Romans withdrew c. 210s CE). In the book, the land between these walls is called the former Province of Valentina (which follows William Camden). Even the location and date of this province is unclear and historians have located it as far away as North Wales.
This is not to discredit Sutcliff. A historical novelist needs to create concrete realities from historical uncertainties to make her plot believable. It is also clear that she was deeply knowledgeable about Roman Britain. The world she creates encourages readers to find out more.
An important theme in the novel is the impact of Roman colonialism on the British inhabitants. The British characters react in various ways to the Roman conquerors. One early character, Cradoc, takes Marcus hunting and although it feels like a friendship is forming, the differences between the two men are too strong. Valaria, a British woman, adopts Roman fashions (even if they are a little behind Roman fashions).
That Britain is a land to be exploited is implicit in the novel. Parcels of land are given to retiring soldiers. Several British characters also make their living as hunters or guides to Roman hunters. This follows the model of North American colonialism where Native Americans and people from the First Nations would guide European hunters. The historical reality was more complex, but this model would have been well known from the histories of Francis Parkman and the novels of James Fennimore Cooper amongst others. These writers created an ambiguous idea of indigenuous people which stressed the pros and cons of European civilization.
“But these things that Rome had to give, are they not good things?’ Marcus demanded. ‘Justice and order, and good roads, worth having, surely?’
‘These be all good things,’ Esca agreed. ‘But the price is too high.’
‘The price? Freedom?’
‘Yes – and other things than freedom.’
Although the differences between Romans and non-Romans is explored, racial differences are not a major theme in the book. At one point Marcus reflects that he would not be able to disguise himself as a British person due to his darker skin. But otherwise it is not important to the plot or characterisation. An important figure in the province, the legate Claudius Hieronimianus, is African (from Egypt), although he makes only a single reference to the “Fields of Ra”.
The Roman Britain depicted by Sutcliff is racially fluid. One character, originally from Gaul and who served in the Roman army, tells Marcus:
“I am of the Selgovae. I have a woman of the tribe, and she is a good wife to me. I have sons, born into the tribe, and my life is here.”
This combination of mobility and cosmopolitanism reflects what we know from the historical evidence.
Another aspect of identity, religious adherence, is even more fluid. Marcus is a follower of Mithras (which claimed Persian origins).
In one scene, Marcus and Esca prayer alongside each other, Marcus to Mithras and Esca to Lugh of the shining spears:
“but both these were Sun Gods, Light Gods, and their followers knew the same weapons against the dark”.
Syncretism, the increasing association between gods of different traditions, was a notable if complicated trend in this period. Yet, religion is also a source of difference. The druids are presented as rogue characters riling up peaceful British people to “Holy War”.
The reality of the Roman Empire was slavery. It was the economic base on which the whole economy hung. The lived reality for many slaves would have been brutal. Roman masters essentially had full rights over the bodies of their property, although laws were in place to protect slaves.
The slavery in the novel is relatively benign, as befits a children’s book.
Many modern depictions of slavery are informed by the slavery in the USA (although other states like the UK were slave societies for the same period). Slavery is often portrayed in a domestic setting with a cosy intimacy between the whites and their slaves (sometimes related by blood to the master). The experience of House Slaves was often grim and the experiences of House Slaves and Field Slaves were distinct.
We see this influence in Uncle Aquilla’s domestic slaves, who are close to the family. We are told that “slavery sat easy on them, like an old and familiar garment”. It can be assumed that he also owned land which was farmed by slave labour.
One character, Sasstica the cook, is a formidable presence in Uncle Aquilla’s house.
“She was a tall and gaunt old woman who could hit like a man, and frequently did when either of her fellow slaves annoyed her; but she treated Marcus as though he were a small sick child”.
Sutcliff was perhaps inspired (consciously or not) by the racist stock figure in white depictions of the American south: the Mammy (see Kimberly Wallace-Sanders’ book Mammy for more information). The Mammy figure was developed during the post-war Reconstruction era, perhaps as way to justify the slavery of the confederacy. She is often depicted as a kindly black woman who is fiercely caring towards the white children in her care. The comparison can only go so far, as the race of Mammie was an important part of her make-up and Sasstica’s race is never mentioned. Nevertheless, I would suggest we can see in Sasstica many of the same characteristics. To me this complicates how we read her character today.
This is not to say that the portrayal of slaves in the novel is racist. In fact, Sutcliff gives some characters their own voice to articulate their own experiences of both being a slave and living in a slave society:
Marcus had never thought of it either, but he knew that it was true. You could give a slave his freedom, but nothing could undo the fact that he had been a slave; and between him, a freed-man, and any freeman who had never been unfree, there would still be a difference. Wherever the Roman way of life held good, that difference would be there.
The Eagle of the Ninth is a fast paced book which is a pleasure to read, but it also has important questions for readers to think about. This makes it even more relevant in 2020, as history is being politicised by the right.
What do you think about The Eagle of the Ninth? Let us know in the comments.
Book cover used as Fair Use.