Rosemary Sutcliff and The Eagle of the Ninth

January 18, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Rarely does a historical novel, written for children, generate such controversy between archaeologists and historians, but that is what The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff, did when it was published in 1954. It continues to be the source of controversy today.

The novel concerns the Ninth Roman legion, a legion which was mysteriously lost the history. The legion served in Britain during the Roman occupation of that nation, just before and after the time of Christ. The historical record does not tell us what happened to the Ninth Legion, and historians and archaeologists have been trying to figure it out for decades.

Sutcliff’s novel provides a neat and pleasing answer to that question. It concerns a young disabled officer in the Roman army, whose father was serving in the Ninth Legion in northern Britain when it disappeared. The officer Marcus Flavius Aquila wants to discover the truth about what happened to his father. He disguises himself as a Greek occultist and travels beyond Hadrian’s Wall with his freed slave Esca. He finds evidence that the Ninth Legion was demoralized and mutinous when it was set upon by rebellious northern tribes. The Legion’s disgrace was redeemed through a last heroic stand by a small remnant of soldiers. Marcus retrieves the Legion’s eagle standard.

He is able to bring back the standard and reestablish the honor of the Legion and his father. The novel ends with his settling as a landowner and farmer in Britain with his British wife.

The novel’s story is a plausible one historically. At least, it was thought so at the time. Since then, however, historians and archaeologists have found no evidence whatsoever that the Ninth Legion went beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Its fate is a complete mystery, which is very unusual for Roman legions. Roman historians often took great care to record what legions were where and what happened to them. In the case of the Ninth, the record simply stops at some point when the Legion is in great Britain.

Since the publication of the novel, historians have felt that they are doing battle against that story . Sutcliff, of course, meant for her book to be only a novel not a historical record.

Sutcliff was born in 1920 in Surrey, England. Her father was a naval officer, and she grew up living in several places abroad where he was stationed. She was struck by Still’s Disease when she was very young, and she had to use a wheelchair for most of her life. Her schooling was often interrupted by her family’s moves and by her illness. She did not learn to read until she was nine years old, and she left school to enter art school when she was 14. After that, she worked as a painter of miniature portraits .

She was inspired to write by the children’s historical novels that she had read, and her first published book was The Chronicles of Robin Hood in 1950. The eagle of the ninth, published in 1954, was the first of a series of books that were so well received that she was nominated for the annual Carnegie Medal by the Library Association in Britain. She eventually won that metal for a later novel.

Despite her illness and disability, she continued to write incessantly for the rest of her life and was still doing so on the morning of her death in 1992. She was 71 years old.

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For more information about what might have happened to the Ninth Legion, check out this BBC History Extra on the topic.

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