About this Recording
NA442312 - SUTCLIFF, R.: Eagle of the Ninth (The) (Abridged)

Rosemary Sutcliff
The Eagle of the Ninth


The Romans ruled Britain for nearly 400 years. To put this into perspective, it means that from the execution of Charles II in 1649 until the start of the 21st century it was a faraway, powerful city that governed the country. During all that time, the official language was Latin and the laws were Roman. Yet there was a huge difference between the Romans themselves and the ordinary Britons.

In the beginning, the Roman lifestyle must have stunned the local tribes who lived an Iron Age existence in basic huts arranged in small villages. The highly organised society that the Romans brought with them—an advanced civilisation made possible by complex government, a system of slavery and a vast international trade—would have seemed totally alien to the indigenous tribal culture.

In a relatively short period of time, the Romans transformed the island of Britain. Straight, stone roads were built through the land to allow faster communications from one town to another. Luxurious and ornate villas, with under-floor heating and mosaics, gardens and fountains, were proof of the architectural capabilities; and the magnificent togas and jewellery worn by those of the Roman population who came to live, govern and make money demonstrated how rich and powerful they were.

Above all, the early Britons must have been shocked by the Legions and their military power—especially when Julius Caesar first invaded the island in 55 BC. The regiments of the Roman army were disciplined and trained beyond the imagination of the British tribesman.

The Legions marched in order, and had highly trained military procedures. These governed all activities—from advancing and fighting, to the more mundane task of building of a camp every night to defend against surprise attacks.

The Roman infantry soldier was a fearsome opponent. He would be uniformed in light armour, with a large shield, a spear, and a short stabbing sword. These soldiers could perform complex manoeuvres, wheeling one way, then another, and they dealt death to brave but disorganised ‘barbarians’ who just rushed straight at them.

The Legions could march 20 or 30 miles a day behind their ‘Eagle’, the symbol of the Legion itself, and fight a battle at the end of it. Then they could rest securely behind the walled defences of their camp, even if they were hundreds of miles from Londinium (London) or Camulodunum (Colchester). But the Britons weren’t a pushover.

Julius Caesar first landed with 12,000 men from the 7th and 10th Legions, and, fairly easily, subdued the local area. He stayed for about a month before sailing back across the channel to Gaul (France). He realised then that to truly conquer Britain was a bigger job than he first anticipated.

So he returned the following year, landing with a much stronger force of 30,000 soldiers. He swiftly gained more control, beating all the forces paraded against him. Various tribes united under Cassivellaunus to try and rout the Romans, but Caesar again won skirmish after skirmish, battle after battle. The tribes tried diversionary tactics: they sent messengers to Gaul asking the Gaullish tribes to attack the Romans in Gaul while Caesar was in England. Their wish was granted: Caesar had to return briefly to Gaul to quell uprisings there. But in the end, after many hard battles, the Roman forces of Julius Caesar won in Gaul and in Britain.

Ten years later, on 15 March 44 BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated in Rome. It then took another 100 years before Emperor Claudius came to England (AD 43) with major forces in a determined effort to control the country. They succeeded, overcoming all opposition. Claudius wanted to make an impact on the local Britons, demonstrating the power of Rome and his rule as the Emperor. According to one report he rode into Londinium on an elephant, which must have caused a huge surprise.

New towns sprang up built in the Roman style as the civilisation exerted its influence on the tribal regions. One tribe after another was forced to capitulate. There were occasional rebellions as tribes tried forlornly to throw off the Roman yoke; but the force of the Legions was simply too great.

By AD 49 there were Roman fortresses at Camulodunum (Colchester), Noviomagus Regnorum (Chichester), Longthorpe (Peterborough), Glevum (Gloucester) and Lindum (Lincoln)—as well as Londinium, which was important because it was the best place to ford the River Thames. In AD 51, Caractacus, one of the last British kings to oppose Roman rule, was captured and sent to Rome in chains.

Unrest continued. Heavy-handed rule by the Romans made Queen Boadicea of the Icenii tribe revolt. She sacked various towns, including Camulodunum, Londinium and Verulamium (St Albans), with much slaughter. But she lost a key battle to Paulinus in AD 60 and committed suicide along with her daughters.

Over the next decades, other Roman rulers and generals strengthened their grip on the island, pushing west to Wales and the isle of Anglesey and north to Doncaster and York. The Roman forces went further north towards Scotland, where they encountered fierce opposition from the Caledonii (the Picts) yet had early successes. By AD 83, they could say that the whole island was under Roman rule.

But by AD 90, after constant guerrilla attacks by the Picts, the Romans decided to abandon their settlements in Caledonia and move south. Skirmishes continued as the Picts and the Britons harried Roman movements.

It was on one of these occasions in AD 117 that the 9th Legion, marching along the River Tay, simply disappeared. The terrain was difficult, with woods and valleys, and many places ideal for an ambush. The Legion set out…and didn’t return. In the long reign of the Roman Empire—over 1,000 years—this happened only on very few occasions. But it happened here, and it is on this true event that Rosemary Sutcliff based her classic novel The Eagle of the Ninth.

She researched her period carefully. We get a very good idea of what it was like to live in Roman Britain at this time—after Emperor Hadrian had started to build his famous wall (AD 122) to keep the Picts at bay. Hadrian’s Wall ran for 73 miles, from the Solway Firth in the West to the River Tyne in the east, and its purpose, as Hadrian himself said, was ‘to separate Romans from Barbarians’. Roman soldiers, stationed along the line, took six years to build it in its basic form. You can visit sections of it even now, and they are very interesting to see.

We can imagine what it must have been like for the young centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila and his slave Esca to go north into wild and dangerous country, far from the protection of the Roman Legions, and what a brave thing it must have been to undertake.

This is the background behind The Eagle of the Ninth.

Notes by Nicolas Soames


The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS and MARCO POLO catalogues

RAFF Symphony No 11 in A minor Op. 214

Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra
Urs Schneider, conductor

RAFF Symphony No 4 in G minor Op. 167

Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra
Urs Schneider, conductor

RAFF Symphony No 10 in F minor Op. 213

Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra
Urs Schneider, conductor

RAFF Ein Fest Burg Ist Unser Gott, Overture

Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra
Urs Schneider, conductor

RAFF Abteilung

Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra
Urs Schneider, conductor

Music programmed by Sarah Butcher

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