Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth
by M.C. Scott
Bantam Press

Imperial Rome and war are a powerful combination skilfully handled in this novel.

Set in the Middle East during the reign of the emperor Nero, it concerns the soldiers of the XIIth Legion, which has some of the toughest assignments and most humiliating defeats. It is told by an initially reluctant, 19-year-old conscript, Demalion of Macedonia, from a family of horse traders, who gradually becomes a competent and brave soldier dedicated to his companions and the legion's eagle standard, which symbolisesits identity.

After various adventures in the borderlands between the Roman and the Parthian empires, in what are now Syria, Armenia and Turkey, the legion loses its eagle to the Hebrews in Judea during their revolt against Rome. The book ends with a successful attempt by Demalion and two companions to enter Jerusalem in disguise and then go to desert caves to steal back the eagle.

Roman historian Tacitus recorded the loss of an eagle standard and implied that it was recovered, but without saying how, which left room for Scott to imagine what was done.

Demalion and his two companions comprise a Tricky Trio somewhat like the Dirty Dozen of film fame. One is Sebastos Abdel Pantera, an enigmatic spy from an earlier Scott novel set later than the events of this book. It is a series prequel.

Their exploit is backed by the newly appointed army commander, Vespasian, who has been expelled form Rome because he was sleeping during a speech by Nero. He rewards Demalion after his exploit by appointing him to his personal bodyguard so a sequel with Demalion in Rome close to emperor Vespasian is likely.

This novel is cannily set in the outskirts of the empire and Scott shows her legionaries hunting, and haggling in markets, toughing it out amid snow and heat, good fortune and bad, their culture both Latin and Greek.

She provides detailed, convincing information on Roman weapons and war tactics, sets scenes well and empathises with horses as one might expect from her years as a veterinary surgeon. She also understands male bonding, including Demalion's homosexual relationship with a handsome fellow legionary, and the solidarity which emerges after shared danger and hardship.

Scott writes of an era whose salient virtues were valour and honour, when soldiers killed more enemy soldiers than civilians but they were still smashing heads, knifing guts, rabid for 'hot bloody flesh' as she says approvingly of the eagle on the Legion's standard. I would have liked some characters to have more complexity through misgivings about serving a monstrous emperor.

But for those who are satisfied with a well-paced story of Roman legionaries which does not raise too many questions, this is the book for them.