Friday, April 6, 2018

Under the Eagle Book Review

Under the Eagle: A Tale of Military Adventure and Reckless Heroism with
the Roman Legions by Simon Scarrow

Simon Scarrow’s “Under the Eagle” is a nicely written historical novel. It describes the events of Roman invasion to Britain. Service in the army was a decent activity for Quintus Licinius Cato. But his colleagues considered him “rara avis” and didn’t think he deserved being in such a glorious army. Later his bravery in bloody battles gained respectful attitude of his companions. But these were only first ordeals of the expedition. Together with his companions Cato ought to overcome numerous troubles. Legionaries tried to succeed in the most dangerous undertaking ever known. Even Julius Caesar failed to conquer barbarous tribes of mysterious and gloomy British Isles. The book tells about adventures of legionary Cato under the leadership of a significant personality – Titus Flavius Vespasian, future emperor.

At the beginning of the story we got acquainted with a new centurion Macro who became responsible for millions of important affairs. The author described everyday troubles of Macro before he got used with his new position. Presence of a stranger woman among the soldiers for example was strictly forbidden. Macro however patiently reacted to such small bustles but paid attention to more significant affairs. Cato is a new recruit, who appeared to be a son of Emperor's slave. His father was wholly devoted to former leaders up to his death (Scarrow, 2001, Chapter 1). He was just a slave but managed to gain freedom for his son in case the latter would go to military service. In this way molly-coddle sixteen years old Cato became not even a soldier but an option. He got a position of centurion’s helper, and at first suffered from sneers from the side of fellow-soldiers. Nevertheless he gradually gained experience in military service and strived to become a decent employee for such a high position. The author emphasized the contrast between inexperienced Cato and Macro, who got his position after 14 years of hard soldier’s life. He had to come through numerous battles and got acquainted with all kinds of weapons. He had to possess certain personal qualities apart from military skills. He learnt to endure all the hardships of the war and proved to be ready to become a centurion. Cato however had no military experience, except perfect knowledge of literary works of outstanding commanders. However lack of practical knowledge and poor physical strength didn’t break his inner fighting spirit. He proved to be a resourceful and brave young man who managed to overcome many troubles. At first it was hard for him to get used to hard military life, which often made him sick. Besides he felt lonely, having no one to help and support. In order to become a real soldier, one ought to work hard. Despite his young age Cato finally proved to be a decent legionary. Roman legionary is the most disciplined trained and battle-hardened soldiers in the whole world (Scarrow, 2001).

Special mission of Macro and Cato
Roman Legion was prescribed to invade Britain next summer. This mission was especially important for Roman Emperor. In spite of unsuccessful attempt of Julius Caesar, Emperor Claudius decided to try once more. Those Isles were considered to be full of gold, silver and tin in particular. Merchants however said it was nothing more than a poor barbarous out-of-way place with no civilized settlements. The most important aim of Roman Empire was to conquer new lands. Britain became its next target.


The most dangerous campaign was the secret mission of Marco and Cato in Britain. They were sent to find a cart with gold, which was dampened by Caesar in order to hide it from enemies. At the beginning of the book the author briefly described how Caesar buried the cart in a swamp. Years later Marco and Cato finally succeeded to find it in spite of their savage enemies and treachery of Vetallian. He appeared to be an Emperor Spy and traitor at the same time. He gave way to temptation and wanted to steal Caesar’s gold for himself in order to promote in his political career. Gold was supposed to help him to bribe certain authorities. However Marco and Cato successfully fulfilled their duties and spoilt his plans. The Second legion managed to defeat the enemy and win the battle as well. Further events revealed one more betrayer, the one who stole an important scroll of Claudius. At first the story seemed to be rather mysterious, as several people were supposed to commit the crime. A fat soldier Puncher made an attempt to steal the scroll by order of Vitellian. The scroll however was forged. Vespasian’s wife Flavia turned out to be the real robber who was cunning enough to think over the whole strategy. She got what she wanted with the help of her slave Lavinia. She unexpectedly turned out to be the plotter against Emperor’s power.

Before the invasion started, Vespasian had to settle an affair with local “savages”. Vittellius was charged with this task. It led to a long-lasting and dangerous battle with Germans. It also was the first serious campaign in which Cato was given a fateful chance to participate. In the forest battle Cato not only gained certain military experience but also proved he wasn’t a coward. He rescued his commander and as a reward gained respect of legate Vespasian. The author gives a detailed description of that unpredictable battle in a German village. Cato steadily withstood hardships and life dangers. Cato’s first battle showed him as a brave soldier. He didn’t leave wounded Macro alone with the enemies. Instead he managed to save his life owing courage and luck in the first place.
Death is hundred times more preferable than captivity (Scarrow, 2001).

Cato didn’t let enemies either to kill his commander or take him into captivity. He bravely fought with Germans and was resourceful enough to get out of fire together with Macro. Although Roman army had a great number of casualties, still the battle ended successfully especially after reinforcement which finally came at dawn.

Life and dangers of Roman soldiers
The book described military life from the side of both soldiers and officers. Soldiers had to train hard and suffer from constant drill along with poor life conditions. In comparison with ordinary soldiers, officers had more rights and power. Although they still were under control of legate and had more responsibilities, they had more privileges as well. Macro complained about his routine responsibilities. He had to deal with various documents, which were actually signed by his helper Pisa. Nevertheless centurions had to care about numerous everyday amenities of his soldiers, not to loose respect among them. A newcomer Cato had negative impression about soldiers until he became a real soldier himself. He understood that they had to be highly disciplined. In other case, they would be severely thrashed.

Soldiers were taught to be brave enough to face life dangers and defeat the enemy. Cato possessed diligence and patience but these were not the most important qualities for a soldier. Nevertheless Cato proved that spiritual strength was often more efficient than physical one. Sometimes fighting spirit played a decisive role in the battle. Military life was undoubtedly dangerous. Soldiers often chose death and killed themselves in order to avoid captivity to enemies. They were probably aware of all the torments they would face in captivity. Soldiers always had to run risks.

Roman public considered military commanders to be fearless heroes, who led legions to fight with numerous enemies. Soldiers’ routine, however, took even more time and forces but nobody actually noticed it. Roman legion was a union of highly disciplined soldiers, who were ready to carry out rigorous orders of their commanders. Soldiers’ imagination ran high when they go to know about a new dangerous mission. They were afraid of uncertainty and vagueness of future invasion. They were given usual instructions but didn’t know what land it was and what people awaited them on those Isles. As a result rumors about legendary creatures began to spread among soldiers which brought certain bustle into the Army. In this way author tried to say how superstitious and uneducated soldiers were. They could have been sent to any part of the world and would obediently execute an order. But nobody bothered asking their opinion.

Slave life
Simon Scarrow described several types of slaves in Ancient Roman times. They had more or less responsibilities and freedoms in comparison with other slaves. Narcissus was an Emperor’s secretary, a freedman. In this way he had much in common with Cato. But in fact Narcissus behaved too arrogant. He was too self-confident for a former slave even though he was Emperor’s favorite. Even after Marco and Cato saved his life, he didn’t seem to be thankful. He showed no respect to centurion, let alone simple soldiers. As it was already mentioned Cato was a freedman, but he was a decent soldier as well and didn’t put himself higher than others. Emperor’s slaves certainly had more privileges. But they still were no authorities. That’s why when Narcissus started talking arrogantly in front of soldiers at gladiator fights, legionaries reminded him that he was no more than a former slave and didn’t have rights to talk in such a way. Unlike Narcissus, Cato led a decent life and was sufficient with what he had.

Another type of Roman slave is Lavinia. She also was a privileged slave. Lavinia once belonged to Plinius, who wanted someone more than a girl for pleasure. He wanted a clever, communicative, well-mannered and well-read friend. That’s why Plinius began to educate Lavinia. She got acquainted with history of Rome, learned reading, writing and arithmetic. Lavinia was an attractive girl. No wonder, Vetillius decided to “obtain” her. Vitellius was a Roman well-off fast liver, who thought that service in an outstanding legion would help him to promote. Poor inexperienced girl couldn’t resist the pressure of such forceful person. When Plinius got to know about their relations, he decided to sell her. Flavia soon became her new owner.

Roman politics
Emperor Claudius considered making one more attempt to conquer British Isles. Claudius failed to gain respect and love of public and couldn’t rely on anyone. Invasion into Britain was supposed to strengthen his authority and distract major part of Emperor’s armies from political life of the country. But Empire was in a more dangerous and unsteady position than ever before. Narcissus considered that Claudius had a reputation of violent, short-sighted and limited person. Major people had no regard to him. Suppression however wasn’t a way out. It would return the country to republic. There was no use in it. Narcissus once predicted the possible consequences of such change.

It would lead to fight between political parties in the Senate and violence in the streets. Republic means new civil wars, tearing apart the whole civilized world. Works of republican leaders describe this period as a Golden Age in the Roman history. It’s not so. We need Emperors; we need stability, we, Romans, need strong power. (Scarrow, chapter 28).

Marco however admitted he was just a soldier and returning to republic would hardly change anything in the military system. Armies would stay the same, except they will probably have to fight against each other if Civil war breaks out. Actually many leaders wished to get a higher position. But the most ambitious of them appeared to be Aulus Vitellius and Sabinus Vespasian who were opponents on the way to power. But this way is often treacherous. One may become too avid for power and money. Vitellius is a prominent example of how greediness may spoil a person. I consider Cato and Macro to be the most decent heroes in the entire book as they didn’t strive for gold and honors. They did their work and kept faith to moral qualities.

Scarrow’s book is intended for a wide range of readers, mostly those interested in the history of Britain and Roman Empire. Its main advantage is a nice description of Roman military system and life of ordinary soldiers. Besides the style of the book itself makes it understandable not only for historians but for ordinary people as well. “Under the Eagle” is not only a description of events, which took place in the Roman Empire and Britain in the 1st century A.D. It is a novel of war. Professional legionaries devotedly served in the Army for 25 years. The Empire expanded its territories and needed invincible armies. Soldiers led a primitive life with rude manners and customs but were strictly disciplined. Many infringements deserved death punishments. Commanders used to treat soldiers violently. Nevertheless the game was worth the candle. Winners were awarded with great triumph and calmness after all the hardships. Simon Scarrow writes in an ordinary modern language which helps to compare ancient army with modern one.

Simon, Scarrow. 2001. Under the Eagle. Headline Book Publishing Ltd. 448.