The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff – #1954Club

The second book I’ve read for Karen and Simon’s 1954 Club this week is a children’s classic by Rosemary Sutcliff. This book has been on my TBR for years because, although I’ve enjoyed a few of Sutcliff’s other novels set in other time periods, the Roman period has never been a favourite of mine and I wasn’t sure whether I would love this book the way everyone else seems to have done. Of course, I needn’t have worried; The Eagle of the Ninth is a beautifully written novel with wonderfully vivid and colourful descriptions, a gripping plot inspired by historical fact, a very likeable young hero and even a touch of romance – what’s not to love?

The novel tells the story of Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young centurion posted at a fort in Roman Britain. When Marcus is badly injured during a battle, he is discharged from his duties and goes to stay with his uncle while he recuperates. Here he forms three new relationships, all of which will have an impact on his future life: the first is with Esca, a defeated gladiator Marcus purchases as a slave at the Saturnalia Games in order to save him from a worse fate; the second, with Cub, a tame wolf-cub adopted by the household as a pet; and finally, with Cottia, a young woman from the Iceni tribe who is being raised as a Roman, something she resents very much. Marcus also listens to tales of the Ninth Legion who, several years earlier, marched north to suppress a rising of the Caledonian tribes and disappeared into the mists of Northern Britain, never to be seen again.

The story of the missing Ninth Legion has special significance for Marcus because it was his father’s legion and his father was one of the men who vanished. When his injuries heal enough for him to be able to travel, Marcus decides to head north himself in the hope of learning more about the legion’s disappearance and of retrieving the eagle standard of the legion, which was also lost – and in the hands of Rome’s enemies could take on new symbolic meaning.

Esca is freed from slavery by Marcus, but the two have become good friends and he chooses to accompany Marcus on his journey. The second half of the novel follows their adventures as they travel beyond Hadrian’s Wall and further north into Caledonia. Although there is plenty of drama as they encounter hostile tribes and search for the lost eagle, I particularly enjoyed watching the changes in the relationship between Marcus and Esca as their bond grows stronger while at the same time their difference in status forms a barrier:

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.

Sutcliff based this novel on the fact that the Legio IX Hispana (Ninth Legion) disappeared from historical records around the year 117 and at the time when she was writing, it was thought that the legion had probably been destroyed in what is now modern-day Scotland. Historians have other theories now, but the way Sutcliff depicts the loss of the legion in this book still feels believable to me. She was also inspired by the discovery of a wingless Roman eagle in Silchester.

I also loved her descriptions of the places Esca and Marcus see as they travel north through Roman Britain, like this one as they approach the mountain Ben Cruachan:

It was an evening coloured like a dove’s breast; a little wind feathered the shining water, and far out on the dreaming brightness many scattered islands seemed to float lightly as sleeping sea-birds. In the safe harbourage inshore, a few trading-vessels lay at anchor, the blue sails that had brought them from Hibernia furled as though they, too, were asleep. And to the north, brooding over the whole scene, rose Cruachan, sombre, cloaked in shadows, crested with mist; Cruachan, the shield-boss of the world.

The Eagle of the Ninth is a lovely novel and I never really felt that I was reading a book for children – I think it’s one of those books that can be enjoyed equally by readers of all ages. I know there are other books in the series following later generations of the Aquila family, but the only one I currently own is Sword at Sunset, which I’m hoping can be read out of order.


This is also book 18/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

30 thoughts on “The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff – #1954Club

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    Rosemary Sutcliff is one of my top four historical fiction writers, and I read all her children’s books when I was growing up. The Eagle of the Ninth is one of my favourites, but all her writing is beautiful, and totally convincing. Also totally astonishing, when you consider that because of chronic illness, she was confined to a wheelchair for most of her life. You don’t have to have read others in the series before reading Sword at Sunset, which for me is still the definitive account of Arthur. Her ‘adult’ novels are also brilliant, especially The Flowers of Adonis (about Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War) and The Rider of the White Horse (about Sir Thomas Fairfax).

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, Pam. She does write beautifully and I feel as though I should have read a lot more of her books by now! It’s good to know that Sword at Sunset can be read out of order if I don’t manage to read the others first. I’ve read a few of her adult novels – I enjoyed The Rider of the White Horse and Blood and Sand, but haven’t read The Flowers of Adonis yet.

  2. Cyberkitten says:

    I’ve heard of this and it’s been on my ‘interest’ list for a while now. As I love anything Greco-Roman (especially when based in Britannia!) I really need to finally get around to reading this one. Thanks for the prompt.

  3. Jane says:

    `My husband is aways talking about this and how brilliant it is and we have his old copy so it’s a book I always think I should read but it’s a long way from the books I choose, until now! It’s going on my next classics list, I’m sold!

  4. piningforthewest says:

    I’ve read quite a few of her books now, she did write beautifully and I think the best books for children can be enjoyed by everyone.

    • Helen says:

      I think this is only the fourth book I’ve read by her, but I do have a few others on the TBR. I hardly ever read children’s books, but I do find that the classic ones can usually be enjoyed by people of all ages.

  5. MarinaSofia says:

    I was a keen fan of Sutcliffe as a child, and was somewhat disappointed my boys did not quite get into her when they were of the right age. However, it provided me with an excuse to go out and buy a beautiful edition of her Eagle of the Ninth series in a slipcase.

  6. Lark says:

    The Roman time period has never been my favorite setting for a book either, but you make this one sound really good. I think I would like Marcus and Esca and their travels. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Marcus and Esca are great characters. I don’t think Ancient Rome will ever be my favourite time period to read about, but I did love this book anyway!

  7. Lory says:

    Sword at Sunset can be read as a standalone — I did! All the Dolphin Ring books can be read independently, I think, although they complement and enhance one another. Sutcliff is just marvelous and definitely should be enjoyed by grownups as well as children. I do hope children are still reading her.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, Lory – I’ll try to read all of them, but might be tempted to read Sword at Sunset first. I think most classic children’s books can be enjoyed by adults too – which is good, as there are so many I seem to have missed out on reading as a child!

  8. JaneGS says:

    I read this a few years ago when I was training for my Hadrian’s Wall walk and reading up on Roman Britain. I agree that it was a tremendously fun book to read. I haven’t read anything else by Sinclair, though I fully intend to.

      • whatmeread says:

        A few years ago, I read all of the books in the Eagle of the Ninth trilogy and a few more. Then I stopped for some reason. It must have been quite a few years ago, actually, because I’ve been blogging almost 9 years and Eagle of the Ninth is not one of my posted reviews, so I read it earlier.

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