Under the Eagle
© 2000 Simon Scarrow
If given the choice between being attacked by foul-smelling, weirdly-painted Germans, and being attacked by foul-smelling, weirdly-painted Celts, which would you choose? For Centurion Macro, it’s rather obvious: the Germans! At least monitoring the Rhine doesn’t involve crossing a temperamental sea and fighting on the edge of the world, where foggy bogs hide all manner of monsters and men. But the Emperor Claudius says, “Invade Britain!” and so it’s off across the channel and into the slime. To make matters worse, his second in command is a gangly boy who the emperor wanted appointed centurion despite the fact that he was a palace slave who knows more about literature than combat. The boy can’t even throw a javelin without almost decapitating the man in front of him! But you can’t defy the emperor, not unless you’re plotting to assassinate him, and it’s hard to do that in Germany. So it’s off to Britain, and so starts a fairly entertaining series of Roman military fiction.
Under the Eagle is the first book by Simon Scarrow, and he makes it easier on himself and readers by having his Romans speak what makes for contemporary English. That’s British English, of course, complete with slang, reinforcing the Hollywood-based conceit that the Romans went around chatting in RP. (New recruits’ induction features a screaming DI who might as well be R. Lee Ermey in sandals.) That slight absurdity, coupled with the author’s deliberate humor — including some physical, like the aforementioned javelin foul-up, but mostly rendered in dialogue — provide plenty of laughs. Part of that is laughing at little Cato, the aforementioned gangly youth, for whom army life is a decidedly harsh adjustment. He is a prim and proper boy in the company of rough and tough men, and worse yet, in a position of trying to force them to take him seriously as their commander despite the fact that he’s still going through basic training. The amount of danger the plot throws at them (ambushes by screaming Germans, ambushes by screaming Celts, ambushes by scheming Romans, and every altercation ending with something on fire) offers him plenty of opportunity to prove his Roman manliness, often to his own surprise.
It’s an interesting start to the series, no doubt; my sympathies are wholly with both of the leads, Marco and the boy-on-his-hero’s-journey, and considering that the invasion of Britain just started there’s a lot more to look forward to. Most of Under the Eagle takes place in Germany, with the final chapters featuring the British landing and a quest to recover something buried during the last Roman invasion of Britain, led by Julius Caesar. It’s part military fiction, and part political intrigue which is unavoidable given the setting of Rome. The battles are more interesting at this point, though I hope the Britons become more than just generic screaming hordes; considering how new the invasion is there is plenty of room for them to develop as proper antagonists. I’ll be continuing in the series, no doubt about that!
The British History Podcast; season one covers the Roman period. I’m up to the aftermath of Boudica so far.