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Cover to Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth Original UK edition 1954Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth is rooted in  the history of a real Roman legion. A couple of years back I noted some references about the history from a website that has now disappeared – by one Ross Cowan. He had written that

… to learn more, especially about the evidence for the legion in the period c. AD 118-161, see :

Birley, A. R. The Roman Government of Britain. Oxford: 2005, 228-229.

Birley, E. B. ‘The Fate of the Ninth Legion’ in R. M. Butler (ed.) Soldier and Civilian in Roman Yorkshire. Leicester: 1971, 71-80.

Campbell, D. B. Roman Legionary Fortresses, 27 BC – AD 378. Oxford: 2006, 27-29.

Cowan, R. For the Glory of Rome: A History of Warriors and Warfare. London: 2007, 220-234 and 271-273.  (more…)

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Let us not be solemn about the death of Rosemary Sutcliff CBE, who has died suddenly, aged 72, despite the progressively wasting Still’s disease that had been with her since the age of two. She was impish, almost irreverent sometimes, in her approach to life. Her favourite author was Kipling and she once told me she had a great affection for The Elephant’s Child – because his first action with his newly acquired trunk was to spank his insufferably interfering relations.

But it was Kipling’s deep communion with the Sussex countryside and its history that was her true inspiration. Settled as an adult in Arundel, Rosemary shared with him his love for his county as well as his vision of successive generations living in and leaving their mark upon the landscape.

Rosemary Sutcliff, at the peak of her form in her ‘Roman’ novels, was without doubt an historical writer of genius, and recognised internationally as such. (more…)

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Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins has been nominated for the short-list for the Samuel Johnson non-fiction prize. She has in the past written of her re-reading of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, ‘a childhood favourite‘. In the Guardian she has written briefly about her encounter with Roman Britain.

My academic training is as a classicist; but during my education, and for a long time afterwards, I wasn’t interested in Roman Britain – it struck me as a rather unglamorous, somewhat dreary outpost of the empire. Everything changed when, one spring, I went walking on Hadrian’s wall. I began to think about how the remnants of Roman Britain formed part of our mental and physical landscape. What had those who lived among these remains made of them? How had ideas about Britain’s Roman period shaped ideas about nationhood and empire?

The journey I took was a literal one: two summers were spent trundling around in a VW camper van in search of the physical remains of Roman Britain. I certainly revised my old, ignorant views of them when faced with such sites as the magnificent coastal military installation of Burgh Castle in Norfolk, or Hardknott in Cumbria, a spectacular fort perched on a steep mountain pass. I spent many months in libraries and archives; it was a particular pleasure seeking out antiquarian accounts of Roman Britain, from William Camden in the 16th century to writings by the learned and eccentric scholars of the 18th century.

I also became intrigued by the notion of Roman Britain as a generative place for art and ideas. Figures such as WH Auden, Wilfred Owen, Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten had been inspired by Roman Britain, not to mention authors such as Rosemary Sutcliff, but it had also sparked apparently humbler encounters: the Bristol builder who recreated a Romano-British mosaic in 1.6m tesserae; the amateur scholar who cracked an academic conundrum while running his children’s bath; the Newcastle seller of kitchens who became a full-time centurion, working in the modern heritage industry.

Under Another Sky is a book about the encounter with Roman Britain: my own, and that of others who came before me. I found Roman Britain to be an elusive, slippery place and time, offering up more anxieties and doubts than certainties. Above all writing the book was, for me, a way of trying to understand our present, by looking it at it through the lens of long ago.

via Samuel Johnson non-fiction shortlist: From the Romans to Thatcher | Books | The Guardian.

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Lindsey Davis writes detective novels set in classical Rome, featuring the world of maverick private eye and poet Falco. On the publication in 2009 of the nineteenth of what became a bestselling series of novels known for their meticulous historical detail, she chose Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth as one of her top ten Roman books.

‘Somewhere about the year 117AD, the Ninth Legion, which was stationed at Eboracum, where York now stands, marched north to deal with a rising among the Caledonian tribes, and was never heard of again.’ Hooked? If not, there’s no hope for you. A wonderful novel, for children of all ages.

via Lindsey Davis’s top 10 Roman books | Books | guardian.co.uk

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Rosemary Sutcliff crafted her historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth from two starting points: a small bronze eagle found at Silchester, which is now in Reading Museum; and the unknown fate of the Roman Ninth Legion, which, based in York, had apparently vanished from the historical record in the early years of the 2nd century. Written, as always, “for children aged 8 to 88” The Eagle of the Ninth is about a young centurion, Marcus Aquila, who takes up his first command on the edges of the Roman empire in south-west Britain. Severely injured during a fight with local warriors who have been inflamed by a travelling druid, he has to give up his military career. However, he  hears rumours of sightings of  the standard of his father’s lost legion – the eagle of the ninth –  north of Hadrian’s wall. He realises that if he can find it, he will restore the honour of his disgraced father and the legion he commanded.

Last year, at the time of the release of the film The Eagle, Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer of The Guardian newspaper, wrote a long, affectionate article about her children’s favourite.

… In an interview in 1992, the year she died, she said: “I don’t write for adults, I don’t write for children. I don’t write for the outside world at all. Basically, I write for some small, inquiring thing in myself.” I have read The Eagle of the Ninth dozens of times; and as the reading self changes, so does the book. When I last read the story, it was the quality of the prose that delighted, the rightness with which Sutcliff gives life to physical sensation. A battle fought through the grey drizzle of a west country dawn is illuminated by “firebrands that gilded the falling mizzle and flashed on the blade of sword and heron-tufted war spear”. (more…)

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Map of Roman Britain about AD410

Source: Wikipedia on Roman Britain

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UK cover of A Circlet of Oak LeavesI have been slowly updating, and I hope improving, the page here on this website with the brief  summaries of the stories that Rosemary Sutcliff tells in her books. So,  A Circlet of Oak Leaves (from 1968):

Gradually reveals the mystery behind a humble horse-breeder Aracos’s award for outstanding bravery. It tells the story of a daring exploit when Roman auxiliaries and legionnaires fought the Picts on the northern borders of England. Standing in for Felix, a legionary sick with fear before a battle, he fights with great courage and then sees Felix receive the Corona Civica for what he has been through.

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