The Eagle of the Ninth Summary

Rosemary Sutcliff

The Eagle of the Ninth

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The Eagle of the Ninth Summary

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The Eagle of the Ninth, a historical fiction novel first published in 1954 and made into a feature film in 2011, is set in 2nd century Britain, when the island was ruled by the Roman Empire in the south, below Hadrian’s Wall, and by the fierce, defiant native tribes north of the Wall.

After being wounded in battle and discharged from the army, young Roman centurion Marcus Falvius Aquila decides to uncover the mystery behind the disappearance of his father’s legion, “The Lost Ninth.” His injury now preventing him from commanding a legion or buying back the family farm, lost due the mismanagement of a greedy relative, all Marcus has left is his family name. His father, a renowned commander, vanished during an expedition north of Hadrian’s Wall to subdue the local Caledonian tribes.

Marcus goes to stay with his Uncle Aquila, whom he has never met. While there, Marcus attends a gladiator game and is impressed by the bravery of the losing gladiator, whose life is ultimately spared. He decides to buy the young man, named Esca. Esca and Marcus grow close, and become more friends than slave and master. One day, Esca, who grew up in a native northern tribe, recalls a moment from his childhood when he saw a Roman legion march past. They carried a golden eagle on a pole in the front of the column. Marcus realizes that this was his father’s lost legion.

Marcus meets a young British girl named Cottia and befriends herself. He also undergoes a painful surgery to remove a piece of wood from his leg injury. One night, Uncle Aquila has a friend for dinner, an army official. The men speak about the memory of the Lost Legion, and the official mentions a rumor swirling around the legions. One of the northern tribes, it seems, have the Lost Legion’s golden eagle, which they keep on display. Uncle Aquila’s friend worries that the eagle could be used as a symbol of rebellion against Rome, and embolden other tribes to revolt. He laments that there isn’t anyone properly prepared to steal the eagle back. Marcus jumps at the opportunity, proposing that he travel north posing as an oculist, a travelling eye doctor. Esca agrees to accompany him. That night, Marcus officially frees Esca and the two set out as free, equal men.

Marcus and Esca pass the wall, which marks the end of Roman civilization in Britain. They march all summer. Late into the season, they come across a man singing a Roman song, despite being dressed like a British tribesman. It is clear to Marcus that the man, Guern the Hunter, is a former Roman soldier who deserted his legion. Guern invites them to his home, where Marcus asks him about his past. Guern admits he was once a Roman soldier and tells Marcus what happened to the Lost Legion. The legion struggled its way through northern Britain, attacked by local tribes the whole way. Their forces decimated, the remaining soldiers became angry and fearful. They appointed a representative to speak to the head commander. The man, who had no true battle experience, refused to listen, even when the men insisted that a peace should be brokered with the native tribes. The army descended into chaos, with Romans fighting each other and the native tribes joining in. Some survivors joined the local tribes, Guern included. The few loyal men left took the eagle and headed back for Rome, but Guern has no idea what happened to them. He tells Marcus that a tribe of the Epidaii has the eagle. Marcus and Esca thank him and move on.

Marcus and Esca travel on and eventually encounter a clan of Epidaii. The chieftain’s son has an eye infection, which Marcus cures with salve given to his by his uncle’s doctor. They are invited to a local celebration involving all the Epidaii clans, where Marcus sees the eagle of the Ninth Legion, with its wings broken off. He asks the oldest man in the tribe about the eagle, and the man tells him of how the clan hunted down the remaining Roman soldiers, killed them, and took the eagle. The old man shows Marcus a ring he took of the brave commander, and Marcus recognizes it as his father’s. That night, Marcus and Esca steal back the eagle and flee.

They hide the eagle in a tree hollow and wait for the tribesmen to find them. The tribesmen search them and find nothing. Marcus and Esca double back for the eagle and Marcus loses his bronze brooch on the riverbank. He fears that the villagers will find it and realize they did steal the eagle. Esca offers to claim to have killed Marcus over the eagle. The villagers will certainly kill him as well, but Marcus will have time to escape. Marcus refuses this sacrifice. The tribesmen hunt them, and the men abandon their horses and provisions to escape. By sheer luck, they come across Guern again, and he helps them escape the approaching tribes. They take refuge in a tower, but are spotted by three ranging tribesmen. Marcus and Esca overpower these very young men, and one of them, Liathan, gives Marcus his father’s ring back. The old Epidaii man realized who Marcus was, and wanted him buried with his father’s ring. Marcus and Esca escape but leave the boys unharmed.

They make it to the first Roman garrison and Marcus presents the eagle to the commander there before collapsing. Marcus and Esca return to Uncle Aquila’s house, where his commanding officer friend is again visiting. The officer tells Marcus that the Ninth Legion can never be reformed, but that Marcus has restored its honor. They bury the eagle in a hidden chamber in Uncle Aquila’s house. That winter, Marcus recovers from his journey. Cottia, who spent the winter in warmer climates, returns grown and beautiful. She asks Marcus to take her as his wife, regardless of where he travels next. A messenger arrives with news: Esca has been made a Roman citizen, with all the rights associated, and Marcus has been granted a full pension, paid half in gold and half in land. He can request land in Britain, or near Rome. He decides to build his life with his uncle, Cottia, and Esca, in Britain.