Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth: An Example of Historical Fiction’s Possibility or Its Limitations?

Written by Thomas Soden. Edited by Emma Ward.

In an academic field as broad and representative as History, it seems inevitable that otherwise independent and contrasting subjects such as literature, art or psychology will get melded with the ‘pure’ study of the past, indicated by the many new subfields of research present today in History departments across the world. While the success of these combinations often ranges from failure, struggling to carve out its own research niche between other existing subjects, or popularity, like that of the ‘History of Ideas’ and social science approaches, the genre of Historical Fiction seems to provide a dialogue between popular representations of History and Literature and actual History books. To some the area is the polar opposite of ‘true’ History, simply a twisting of facts and romanticising of historical figures that misleads the reader as much as informs them, but to others it is also a chance to be both historically speculative and provide a engaging narrative. In this sense the children’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe is an interesting case of fiction that is both firmly rooted in a historical setting yet sensibly speculative of real historical events.

Published in 1954, The Eagle of the Ninth is the story of a relatively young Roman officer, Marcus Flavius Aquila, who after being discharged from the Roman army because of a debilitating leg wound travels to the post-Hadrian Roman Provence of Britainnia to investigate the disappearance of his father’s legion, the historically existent Ninth Legion ‘Hispana’. After crossing Hadrian’s Wall into modern day Scotland, he finds not only that through the attrition of local tribal attacks the legion was apparently completely wiped out, but the symbolic bronze eagle topped standard that defined it as a legion has been stolen and ritually worshipped as a symbol of Roman defeat, leading him to attempt to repatriate it in Roman soil.

While being an enjoyable and thrilling read, the book both addresses themes of cultural tension and loyalty, such as the relationship between Marcus and his indigenous Celt manservant Esca, which arguably is symbolic of the waning of British imperial power contemporarily relevant to the date of the book’s publication, and uses on real historical locales and archaeological evidence from Roman Britain. A historically accurate map for example is included showing the journey of the characters, making the book much more interesting as an interpretation of historical Roman events while ambiguous in its actual accuracy. While the eponymous Eagle itself is based on a real Roman bronze Eagle figurehead found in Silchester and preserved in the Museum of Reading, and there is a clear absence of mention of the Ninth legion (based in Eboracum, or present day York) in contemporary Roman accounts after AD 108, which could indicate its disappearance, it is acknowledged by several commentators that the events of the book are at best wide extrapolations from historical fact. Sutcliffe herself describes the book as a ‘historical imagining’ which ties two relatively unrelated events together. Furthermore the factsheet for the Silchester Eagle on the Museum of Reading’s website describes it as ‘not a legionary eagle, but was immortalized as such’ in the book, and there it is likely the eagle came from a statue. Further poetic license is used in the depiction of the northern tribes in what is now the lowlands of Scotland, as with an absence of existing cultural artefacts and unreliable contemporary descriptions Sutcliffe imagines a warrior culture dominated by rituals like ‘the Feast Of New Spears’, a communal event that mirrors similar aspects of early Native American and indigenous African cultures.

The Silchester Eagle

As such, it could be argued that there is no debate around the historical merit of The Eagle of the Ninth at all, and it is perhaps only a fully fictional, if engaging children’s book. However, this avoids perhaps a deeper question surrounding historical literature: namely whether there are degrees of historical merit in fiction, and unlike other more recent additions to the genre such as Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel Wolf Hall, which is based around the life of King Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell, it is the semi fictionalised versions of real locales, objects and organisations and not principally historical figures that defines the book’s narrative. Furthermore, while a speculative take on the whereabouts of the Ninth Legion, the lack of other evidence for its disappearance (if it did occur) could make the ‘theory’ of the book in some ways a valid historical explanation. Is this interpretation, relying as it does on scattered evidence and imagination, really so far from the speculation of hotly historically debated yet chronologically distant periods such as the fall of Rome or the 14th century Black Death?

Indeed, it is arguable that the discipline of History, largely governed by contemporary perspectives on the time period, is merely a more rigorous and accurate incarnation of Historical Fiction, using existing evidence to build a picture of the past that like in The Eagle of the Ninth is only a representation of reality .While it is undeniable that Historical Fiction is by definition loosely realistic at the best of times, and at the worst a clichéd and unconvincing plot device, it may be said that to an even greater extent than academic History it magnifies current events and contemporary cultural issues onto a backdrop of an imagined past, becoming an important historical document in itself.