Freshman Year: The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff

So, I have not read nearly as many of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books as I should. To be specific, I have only read one of her books even though I have three in my bookshelf waiting to be read at this moment.  The fact that The Eagle of the Ninth was my first of Sutcliff’s books made it even more enjoyable to read, I think, and now one of these days I just need to sit down and read The Wanderings of Odysseus, Sun Horse Moon Horse, and Black Ships Before Troy, and it will be wonderful.  I’m already getting off track, good grief.

Okay, so yes! First book of my freshman year: The Eagle of the Ninth. It’s set in the middle of the second century (Roughly somewhere around the year 140) C.E., and follows a Roman centurion called Marcus Aquila on his journey through Britain in search of his father’s legion, the Legio IX Hispana, which disappeared without a trace (Except these days historians don’t quite think this was really the case).  Marcus’ friend and former slave Esca, whom he saved from being killed in the Saturnalia games by a much stronger opponent, goes with him on his trip past Hadrian’s Wall into the large expanse of Britain that had never entirely submitted to Roman rule.  In their search for some remnant of the Ninth Legion, Marcus and Esca learn more about each other’s cultures and their own, and become good friends.

Great glow cloud, this book is SO GOOD. You need to find it and read it right now, basically.

Again, this is the only one of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books that I’ve read, but just this one has earned all her other books my unwavering respect and admiration.  To give you an idea of how good it is, think about how good John Green’s books are. I’ve only read one and a half of his books, but they’re very good. People, especially the people of the internet, adore his books.  Rosemary Sutcliff was basically a John Green of the 1950s, and The Eagle of the Ninth was her The Fault in Our Stars.

It’s been adapted several times in several mediums since being published in 1954: Two versions of a BBC radio adaptation in 1958 and 1963, a stage play (according to Sutcliff’s Wikipedia page… Couldn’t find any verification on that, though) , a BBC television series in 1977 with Anthony Higgins playing Marcus, and a movie in 2011 with Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell playing Marcus and Esca respectively.  When I read the book last year, I found the movie pretty easily, and we all thought it was pretty neat that this great book had been made into a movie so recently.  The movie was enjoyable, and it stayed mostly true to the story.  Looking up the book to write this post, however, I found clips from the 1977 TV series and was overjoyed at just how much like the book they were.

See, the movie was enjoyable, and the actors played the characters well. My big quibble is that the characters were written wrong, and so much that I liked about the book and that contributed to the upheaval of Marcus’ instinctual “Yay Rome!” mindset and Esca’s “Rome? NOPE” mindset just got left out. In the movie, Marcus does appeal for Esca’s life in the Saturnalia games, resulting in Esca becoming his slave, but as I remember (Keep in mind I read the book a year ago) from the book, Esca was pretty grateful for the fact that he wasn’t dead, and didn’t spend so much time moping and glaring. Yes, he does hate Rome and everything that it stands for, but he’s not some kind of mindless revenge machine powered by pure spite and sulking. Esca is aware that Marcus is one man, who is not responsible for every awful thing the Romans have done to the tribes of Britain. He is grateful to Marcus and considers their lives bound together by virtue of Marcus having saved him.

And in the book, Marcus did not wait until he was literally dying in a field somewhere in Britain to free Esca, like Movie!Marcus did.  No, Book!Marcus thought and planned very carefully before rushing off into the hills, and freed Esca before asking him, as an equal, if he really wanted to go on a wild goose chase to maybe find out what happened to the standard of the Ninth Legion. In response, Esca basically says, “Yeah, sure, dude! I mean c’mon, man, you saved my life. You weren’t obligated to do that, and I’m not obligated to help you anymore, but I still owe you, bro, so let’s get going.” And after that they are bestest friends ever, with none of this “Are we best friends or do I want to kill you” stuff. Honestly, if this book was a Tumblr fandom, there would probably be Marcus/Cottia and Marcus/Esca ship wars.

And that’s another thing! In the main cast for the movie, there is not a single woman listed. In the book, there is a Roman girl by the name of Cottia (Not sure about the spelling) who lives next door to Marcus’ uncle and who befriends Marcus while he is recovering from a leg wound. I believe it is implied that they are eventually married. She was sort of the bland cookie-cutter character who the hero returns triumphant to, but bear in mind this was published in 1954, so mild cookie-cutter damsel-in-distressing of her otherwise awesome character is understandable.  But the movie reduces her to a girl seen in the amphitheater at the Saturnalia games, gasping in horror at the violence of the competitions.  She doesn’t say one word, as I remember, and the actress isn’t even credited on IMDb.

So, long story short, when I found a clip of the 1977 series wherein Marcus frees Esca, then asks him to tell “the lady Cottia” that they will be leaving, I was so ridiculously pleased with the world it was all I could do to not cry tears of joy.

God bless the BBC.

Anyhow, this has gotten pretty long, and unfortunately it’s been long enough since I’ve read it that I can’t remember any specific parts that I particularly liked. I do remember there were a couple of chapters where Guern, a surviving member of the Ninth Legion, tells Marcus and Esca what happened to the Legion. I wrote a short essay on those chapters, whether Guern should be considered a coward for having survived when the leader of his Legion died protecting their standard. Those chapters were good.

And I think I’ve defended the book rather more than enthusiastically enough, so if this has encouraged you at all to read it, please do! It is a fantastic book, the first in a series actually, and its story really deserves to be known and appreciated in all its glory.


Rosemary Sutcliff’s website

Amazon page for The Eagle of the Ninth (Roman Britain series, book 1)

Webpage with synopses of the episodes of the 1977 BBC adaptation


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