I am a huge fan of historical fiction, especially the kind set in the fascinating world of ancient Rome. There’s something about the inherent intrigue and ruthlessness of the Empire at its height that appeals to the reader within me.
Which is why Simon Scarrows‘ Under the Eagle and it’s subsequent series is a firm favourite of mine.
The series as a whole sheds light on a brutal society that saw its place above everyone else, a place they gained and maintained with ruthless efficiency thanks to the unwavering discipline and prowess of their legions, and it is those legions that form the basis for this novel.
This is not a book about honourable heroes, or emperors calling upon the Gods to give them back their legions, this is a book about the crude common soldier, the kind of men with few scruples and even fewer morals, well except for one of them. This is about the men who shed their blood for the glorious ideal of Rome.
In this first book of the series we are introduced to our two main characters, we have the battle scarred veteran in Centurion Macro and the intelligent and bookish former imperial slave Cato who gets given his freedom if he joins the army.
This books covers the events of Cato’s initial legionary training and the Roman invasion of Britannia in 43 AD.
The books plot is essentially that, Cato must adapt to the roughness of army life and overcome bullies and earn the respect of his commanding officer, Centurion Macro. As the invasion of Britain marches off the two men are dispatched on a secret mission to recover a chest of lost Gold that Julius Caesar had buried when his invasion many decades prior had been forced to retreat to Gaul.
There a umber of subplots woven throughout the story, including romance and imperial espionage, all of which intermix with little surprises and twists as the story progresses.
Some of these subplots are given too much attention however. Cato seemingly skips from a pampered city boy into a somewhat competent solider without really undergoing enough development on the intervening plot lines as the writers attention drifts to one subplot after another. This takes away from Cato’s development somewhat and at times his new found soldierly abilities feel unconvincing. Yet those subplots pay off nicely and I didn’t resent them all that much when the final pages gave them real purpose, plus many of them are elaborated on over the entire series so they do have a place here.
My favourite parts of Under the Eagle are when it ditches the grand overarching view of a continent spanning plot and instead focuses in tightly upon the daily life of the legionaries. Here the narrative pace is quicker and the excitement Scarrow immerses us in is strongest. When the men of the legion have to fed off Germanic hordes of barbarians while hoping vainly for relief is Scarrow at his absolute best, and it’s here that our two heroes get to take centre stage.
But this is not a novel where our heroes see off a horde of enemies on their own, they won’t suddenly become a Hercules and slay a hundred men, this is a novel about the realities of the Roman Empire and her armies. And that’s why it’s best when it’s focused in on the individual, on the man on the battlefield, and that’s why it’s a shame it spends so much of its time looking at big picture events and conspiracies.
Those larger events may be more important as the series progresses but it does take away something from what is otherwise a very good book.
If you’d like to check out Under the Eagle for yourself you can get a copy on Amazon.