Compelling historical fiction relies on characters welded so smoothly to actual events that the seams are nearly invisible. A smooth blend of fictional and historical figures provides the depth of a documentary with the sweep and emotion of a good yarn. This mixing makes Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman Britain novels (The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, Frontier Wolf, and The Lantern Bearers, along with the Romano-Celtic Sword at Sunset and Dawn Wind) the great books that they are. Their re-creation of Roman Britain is vivid and exquisitely detailed. The result, novels that convincingly transport the reader back to the Empire, is compelling reading. The family connection of the main characters in all but Sword at Sunset (where the Aquila family plays a minor role) builds on the historical details to create a personal connection between the novels.
The Aquila family’s story in Britain begins with The Eagle of the Ninth. One of Sutcliff’s best-known novels, it introduces Marcus Flavius Aquila and Britain in A.D. 133. At this time the island has only a superficial Roman veneer. Aquila is a Cohort Commander in the Roman Auxiliaries when his formal military service is cut short by a severe wound received during a British uprising at Isca Dumnonorium (modern Exeter). Discharged, Aquila is bereft of purpose until a chance set of circumstances provides new inspiration. He attempts to recover the lost Eagle of the Ninth Hispana. The Ninth Hispana vanished beyond Hadrian’s Wall in A.D. 119, seemingly in fulfillment of Boudicca’s curse. The Ninth Hispana put down her revolt in A.D. 60 (the subject of another Sutcliff novel, Song for a Dark Queen). Marcus’ father was a centurion in the Ninth, and this mission is an opportunity to regain his father’s honor by recovering the lost eagle, the legion’s standard. In the process, he finds a proper place in the developing Roman Britain. The Eagle of the Ninth introduces a theme central to all of the Roman Britain books — the maturation of an inexperienced young man under difficult circumstances. From Marcus in A.D. 133 to his descendent Owain in A.D. 597, Sutcliff follows this pattern. Military men all, each plays a part in the struggle to Romanize Britain and then defend what’s left of Roman Britain. Though classified as “young adult” books, there is more than enough depth to sustain any adult reader. The only leaning towards younger readers is the consistent youthfulness of each main character. All of the main characters start out within a few years of twenty, with only The Lantern Bearers carrying the story into middle age. As this book is a direct lead-in to Sword at Sunset, the only book in the series clearly written for adults, this deviation from the other Roman Britain novels serves to strengthen the thematic link between these two books.
One hundred fifty years after The Eagle of the Ninth Roman decline is clear in The Silver Branch. The empire is under increasing pressure from barbarian invasions. Central authority is weakening, with separate emperors in Rome and Constantinople as well as an upstart “emperor” in Britain. Two descendants of Marcus Flavius Aquila, Justin (a junior surgeon) and Flavius (a centurion) are caught up in the plots surrounding the British emperor, Carausius. Their struggles to defend the Emperor and the Empire from both the Sea Wolves (the Saxons in their first appearance) and internal enemies are the proving ground for their development as Roman soldiers and as young men. The lost Eagle of the Ninth Hispana also makes a crucial appearance, though its significance to Justin and Flavius’ family is forgotten. Customarily, Sutcliff uses history and small archeological details to spin a great story. Sutcliff has a special talent for taking these bits and making them foundation stones for the plot. The Roman Eagle found under the ruins of the basilica in Silchester, whose existence gives The Eagle of the Ninth its historical context, becomes a crucial item in The Silver Branch. The end of The Silver Branch is still hopeful, but the clearly coming decline clouds the hopefulness of Justin and Flavius.
Frontier Wolf, the next story of the Aquila family, takes place near the ruins of the Antonine Wall in A.D. 343. The conditions on the frontier have declined considerably since the events of The Silver Branch sixty years earlier. The on-again, off-again occupation of the territory between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall further north is in its final stages. Regular legion patrols are a distant memory. In their place, irregular troops provide a haphazard guard for Rome’s northern frontier. Their commander is Alexios Flavius Aquila, a disgraced soldier cashiered out of the regular army for abandoning a fort on the Danube in the face of a barbarian attack. The influence of his uncle, the governor of northern Britain, barely saves his career. Alexios is sent to command an undisciplined and half-wild ordo (160 men) of frontier scouts. Alexios’ growth as their leader, along with the challenge of declining Roman authority, is the focus of the book.
The Lantern Bearers sets the stage for Sutcliff’s great retelling of King Arthur’s tale, The Sword at Sunset. Aquila, a young cavalry officer in the Roman Auxiliaries, is faced with an agonized choice. It is A.D. 450 and the last of the Eagles are being withdrawn from Britain. The lights are going out all over northern Europe. Rome, not really recovered from the sack of forty years earlier, is pulling every soldier back to the heartland. After 400 years Britain is once again on its own. Though he considers himself Roman, Aquila’s true allegiance is to Britain. When he deserts, he discovers that what he really cared about was not Rome, but what Britain had become under Roman influence. Three hundred years in Britain has transformed the thoroughly Roman Aquila family into a mostly British family. This change will be completed by the time that Aquila’s great-great-grandson Owain appears in Dawn Wind. Aquila abandons the Eagles and returns to his father’s farm with the hope of joining the young British prince Ambrosius. Disaster strikes soon after he reaches home, with his farm destroyed by Saxon raiders, his sister carried off, and Aquila a thrall in Jutland. Aquila becomes a dark, brooding figure, unable to build close relationships with anyone. This is a significant break from the style of the earlier Roman Britain novels, where the main characters retain something of a happy-go-lucky attitude. The Lantern Bearers shows a darker side to Britain, and this is reflected in Aquila.
Dawn Wind closes the story of the Aquila family and Roman Britain. Opening the morning after Cealwin of Wessex defeats the British at Dyrham (about A.D. 577), and ending with the arrival of Augustine in Kent in A.D. 597 (though only fourteen years pass in the book), Dawn Wind is the story of Owain, the great-great-grandson of the main character of The Lantern Bearers. After his father and older brother are killed at Dyrham, Owain must find his way into a land that is no longer Britain but isn’t quite England. With Cealwin’s victory, Britain is all but gone. Only Cornwall, Wales, and Strathclyde are free of the invaders. With nothing left, Owain hits on the idea of crossing to still-free Brittany, but the hopelessness of the task for a fourteen-year-old boy defeats him. To save the life of a British girl he found in the ruins of his home city, Owain sells himself into thralldom. He grows to adulthood on a Saxon farm, gaining an understanding of their culture that none of his ancestors had. Owain finds acceptance and freedom with the Saxons, but in the end he still identifies with the British. His return to the hills of Wales after the arrival of Christian missionaries to the Kentish kingdom completes the transformation of the Aquila family from Roman to British.
Though presaged by Aquila’s captivity as a Jutish thrall in The Lantern Bearers, Owain’s experience shows a new, hopeful side to the Saxons. Where they had been ravening Sea Wolves since The Silver Branch three centuries earlier, the beginnings of a settled English culture are apparent in Dawn Wind. Owain eventually learns empathy for the Saxons, even fighting alongside them. With the appearance of Augustine and the birth of Christianity amongst the Saxons, Sutcliff strikes a hopeful tone. The series is brought full circle from the hopeful start of Roman Britain in The Eagle of the Ninth to the hopeful birth of a Romanized Christian England in Dawn Wind.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman Britain series is historical fiction at its best — excellent historical details, interesting characters, compelling stories, and a seamless blend of fiction with history. Though ostensibly for young adults, these books are excellent for adults. Sutcliff successfully brings the struggle between Rome and the barbarians to life, covering the back-and-forth battle under changing circumstances and across the centuries. Through this, her concern with how her youthful main characters address the first difficult times of their lives links the books together. Their availability varies, but these novels are well worth the effort to track down. The strategic and tactical concerns of each successive defender of civilized Britain, as he struggles to hold back the dark, give the series an epic sweep that makes the books hard to put down. Dive into any of these books for a first-rate historical recreation, with living, breathing characters who will leave you as passionately wedded to the defense of Britain as they are.
(The story of Marcus Flavius Aquila’s descendants doesn’t end with the breaking of Britain. It continues with his last Welsh descendent in Sword Song (Sutcliff’s final novel) and concludes with his even more distant Danish-Saxon descendent fighting against the Normans in the 11th century in The Shield Ring.)