In the deep valleys between the black rain-lashed mountains of the western coast there is little to do of a winter's night if you belong to a beaten people.
–Wallace Breem - Eagle in the snow - c.1970, 2004
Banished to the Empire’s farthest outpost, veteran warrior Paulinus Maximus defends The Wall of Britannia from the constant onslaught of belligerent barbarian tribes. Bravery, loyalty, experience, and success lead to Maximusâ€™ appointment as “General of the West” by the Roman emperor, the ambition of a lifetime. But with the title comes a caveat: Maximus needs to muster and command a single legion to defend the perilous Rhine frontier.
On the opposite side of the Rhine River, tribal nations are uniting; hundreds of thousands mass in preparation for the conquest of Gaul, and from there, a sweep down into Rome itself. Only a wide river and a wily general keep them in check. (blurb from Goodreads)
I have no memory of buying this book. But I obviously did at some point, because it was sitting on my shelves as I browsed looking for something to read. And I’m not sure why I picked it up to read this time as I thought I was looking for something more light-hearted. A quick read. Still, this was the one I picked, a classic historical fiction first published in 1970 telling the story of “General Maximus and Rome’s Last Stand”. It is not quick read.
But it is a very good one.
General Maximus is our narrator, he is telling the story of his own life, and that of the end of the Roman empire. It is a quite a dense book, and at first I will admit I thought that I’d made a mistake and that I wasn’t going to enjoy it at all. It seemed on the dry and dusty side, but as I read on I realised that it wasn’t at all. It is never going to be an in-depth look at the characters or full of stirring heroics. At least not in an overt way. But the writing manages to make you care about this general and his unwavering sense of duty.
I often have issues with historical novels set in the Roman empire, especially when they tell the tales from the Roman POV. I know that the Roman Empire did many great things,1 but it was also an empire founded on blood on conquest, and a belief that the Roman way was the best, the only way. I object to that, and also to the dismissal of all other people’s at the time as “barbarians”.
Eagle in the snow does have a Roman general as it’s first person narrator, so of course it is going to give that Roman point of view, but Maximus’ perspective does allow for some recognition of the barbarians as people, and he certainly is not above criticising the empire and its corruption.
It is a book all about soldiering, but not the sword and sandals sort, this is the tactics and the actual management of men. Yes, battles feature, but so too does the important of quartermasters and supplies. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would and would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in historical fiction.
As I said, it’s style isn’t one I often enjoy, but Breem’s writing did more than enough to keep me entertained in the whole story.
thank you Monty Python’s Life of Brian ↩