Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The long-awaited legion

Silchester Eagle

Ever since 30 November 2003, when I read that Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth was finally to be filmed, I have been intending to re-read that childhood classic. As the title suggests, the Ninth Legion certainly lurks in the background, but if I were asked to sum up the central theme in one sentence, I would not have said: "the Picts slaughter most of the invaders, but a few survivors attempt to fight their way back"! But this seems to be the premise of the proposed movie.

The theme of the book that I recalled from childhood was quite different. And a re-reading confirmed my hazy memory.

Above all, I was struck by Miss Sutcliff's debt to Rudyard Kipling (which I had not noticed thirty years ago). Of course, in today's world of web and wiki, it is easy to discover that she had a life-long interest in Kipling, culminating in the writing of a biography (long out of print). The most striking parallel for me is the little turf altar that Marcus builds in Chapter 11, because it is surely an echo of a scene sketched by Kipling in Puck of Pook's Hill.

"Wait awhile,” said Pertinax, and he made a little altar of cut turf, and strewed heather-bloom atop, and laid upon it a letter from a girl in Gaul.
"What do you do, O my friend?” I said.
"I sacrifice to my dead youth,” he answered, and, when the flames had consumed the letter, he ground them out with his heel. Then we rode back to that Wall of which we were to be Captains.

Other readers will notice other echoes of Kipling in Miss Sutcliff's prose. But, unfortunately, she seems to have used him as a historical source, too. That is clearly where she gets the mistaken idea that the lands of the Selgovae and Votadini, in the hinterland of the Antonine Wall, were the province of Valentia. And that Agricola had built a northern wall. And other minor points, besides.

But it would be churlish to criticise a novel of 1954 for misrepresenting an archaeology that, fifty years on, is still in parts obscure. And not even a grumpy emperor can find fault with sublime prose like this (Marcus' farewell to the ex-centurion who has "gone native"):

They looked back when they had gone a few paces, and saw him standing as they had left him, already dimmed with mist, and outlined against the drifting mist beyond. A half-naked, wild-haired tribesman, with a savage dog against his knee; but the wide, well-drilled movement of his arm as he raised it in greeting and farewell was all Rome. It was the parade-ground and the clipped voice of trumpets, the iron discipline and the pride. In that instant Marcus seemed to see, not the barbarian hunter, but the young centurion, proud in his first command, before even the shadow of the doomed legion fell on him. It was to that centurion that he saluted in reply.
Then the drifting mist came between them.

I wonder if the film will manage to capture that pathos, and I worry ...


  1. Very interesting post Pius. Do we know where they're at on the filming?

    And since your talking about novels, what is your best historical novel recommendation about ancient Rome?

    My three favorites so far have been Eagle in the Snow, The Imperial Governor and The Ides of March. I am always looking for good novels about ancient Rome.

  2. I loved Count Belisarius by Robert Graves when I read it many years ago.
    I confess that I haven't read Wallace Breem or George Shipway.

  3. Pius---Thanks for the recommendation. I have a copy of Count Belisarius, but I have not gotten around to reading it yet. I thought Shipway's book superior. Suetonius Paulinus really comes alive in Shipway's autobiographical novel. Breems book was really good, though I thought the ending not so good. But then the ending probably fits the actual ending of many famous, heroic Romans...suicide.

  4. >>what is your best historical novel recommendation about ancient Rome?

    Ave Jeff! I know you didn't ask me but I couldn't resist one plug: for Alfred Duggan (1903-64) who wrote about five Roman novels, each memorable and unique.

    My favourite is "The Little Emperors" dealing with the end of Roman Britain circa AD 410.

    Most of his Roman stuff is in the so called "soft" style of historical fiction... jokey modern attitudes etc (but plausible all the same). This link explains Duggan better than I could



  5. Patrick---Thanks for the book recommendation. I've heard of Duggan but I've never read any of his books. I will look for "The Little Emperors."

    BTW, I did pick up William Dietrich's "Hadrain's Wall" and "The Scourge of God." I've only heard good things about these books as well.

  6. I like Duggan. He wrote my favorite....published in Canada as "Knight in Armour", a medieval epic.

    You don't like Jack Whyte then?

  7. I'm ashamed to say that I'd never heard of Jack Whyte. But then, he's probably never heard of me!

  8. Come to think of it, I don't think Mr. Whyte ever actually mentioned you...you lived large a bit before the time he covered in his books. The "Skystone" opens in about 320 as the Christians recon the years. But thank you for the wikipedia reference....I never knew he was the "bard for the Calgary Highlanders" for instance.

  9. You can find the latest on the movie here (Wikipedia page, added August 2009). I'm not sure I like the idea of Romans played by Americans "to achieve authenticity". ?!

  10. Gah

    Sorry to dredge up an old topic Antoninus but i just had a look at the wiki like you provided.

    An american is playing Acquilla. Oh God No. Whenever i see this happen i can't help but remember remakes of Dumas The Three Musketters with americans as D'Artagnan. I always contrast that with the fabulous 70s version with Oliver Reed playing Athos and Michel York as D'Artagnan, then cringe.

    I hope others will forgive my vehemence, but to me an American accent just doesn't work in such a setting. I'm probably an english snob, maybe, but they seem to me to jar so much. HBO's Rome i believe is an example of how english actors can work it. Well that and James Purefoy is a legend :)

    I hope to god this works, but i have the same doubts you have Caesar. I note amusingly they at least have an englishman playing Esca (token english slave), and that Mark Strong who plays Guern the lapsed centurion at least looks roman (check wiki).

    I draw some comfort from the comment that:
    "The "clash of cultures" between the Romans and the tribes is the main theme of the film, as Marcus Aquila "comes to realise that his imperial view of the world has to be reconciled with the beliefs and traditions of other people"."

    If memory serves, this is indeed what Sutcliffe touches upon in the book with the conversations between Marcus and Esca. On the other hand, if memory serves, while Marcus care of Esca is more aware of the cultural differences, he remains at heart and soul a roman. I fear the film will loose sight of that in the aim of portraying the classical perception of 'the noble barbarian.'

    Let us hope that it does not :(

    Anonymous of Durham

  11. << Sorry to dredge up an old topic Antoninus >>
    Not at all. The movie hasn't opened yet. No doubt there will be plenty more discussion.

  12. Oh dear.

    At long last the trailer for 'The Eagle' is out.

    Have you seen it Antoninus?

    I'm.....annoyed...already by just the opening titles in the trailer!!

    "In 120 A.D. Flavius Aquilla led 5000 elite roman soldiers on a mission beyond the edge of the known world"

    So.....Marcus Aquilla apparently the son of the legate, not of the chief centurion of the first cohort under the eagle. So why is he a centurion of auxiliaries and not a tribune again?

    "They and their treasured eagle standard were never seen again" Well...that's true to the book at least!

    "20 years later, the commander's son sets out to solve the mystery of their disappearance."

    So.... it was nothing to do with removing a hugely damaging object of propaganda from Rome's enemies north of the wall as well?

    Other initial problems

    "Do not let me dishonour my legion" Aquilla's a centurion of auxiliaries isn't he?

    Strong American accents :(

    "Four Cohort of Gauls, Second Legion." Ok then , so....he is a commander of auxiliaries. So why are his troops, and him for that matter, wearing legionary armour and using legionary shields?

    Channing Tatum as Marcus Aquilla comes off as an emo angst driven whiny american.

    All in all, I am not amused, in fact i'm practically sobbing :(.

    Anonymous of Durham