It was well worth the search, and the price.
Published in 1970, Eagle in the Snow tells the story of Paulinus Gaius Maximus and his command of the XXth legion in defence of the Rhine frontier at the beginning of the 5th-century AD, a period of fragmentation and decline for the Western Roman Empire. “The Fall” is still some seventy years away, but the seeds of the empire’s destruction were planted long ago.
Now those seeds have grown, and are beginning to bear a terrible fruit. For Maximus, this means he must witness the destruction of everything he holds dear. Accompanied by his friend and cavalry commander Quintus, he sets out from his home in Britain to aid the Magister Militum of the West, Stilicho, in stemming the tide of barbarian invaders that threaten to overwhelm the empire. With a single legion of six-thousand men, he is tasked with defending a frontier – and by consequence, the entire province of Gaul – that once took eighty-thousand men to pacify.
Outnumbered, but not outclassed, Maximus pursues every avenue, and uses every trick he knows, to stop the likes of the Vandals, the Quadi, the Suebi and other migrating barbarian tribes from sweeping through the Roman world like a storm.
But even he cannot contend with nature.
I won’t ruin it for you by telling you what happens next, but suffice to say the ultimate confrontation occurs in the winter of 406AD; and if you’re familiar with late Roman history, that date should be significant to you.
What’s really interesting about Eagle in the Snow – other that than the story of a heroic defence against impossible odds, played-out against the backdrop of the crumbling Roman Empire – is the way Breem manages to balance the macro and micro-elements of the story. Individuals like Maximus and his cousin Julian, Quintus and the other officers, soldiers and allies of the Twentieth legion are never lost or forgotten amidst the apocalyptic chaos of war. And because of that, I enjoyed the battle-scenes all the more.
I also enjoyed the private battles that punctuated the action: between belief in the Christian God and the old pagan ways of Maximus and his devotees of Mithras; between personal loyalty and duty; and between realism, and idealism.
Eagle in the Snow is a treat for historical-fiction fans. Some will cry-foul over its inaccuracies, and there are some (though not quite as many as I had first thought there would be, considering some of the reviews I had read), including but not limited to the fact that many characters of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds can understand each other with little difficulty; and the suggestion that anything even approximating an old “Imperial” legion could exist in the 5th-century AD. But these are minor faults when viewed against the book’s monumental triumphs – putting us, the readers, into the shoes (or caligulae, as the case may be) of a Roman general, and making us care about his beliefs, his struggles, his hopes and dreams. And allowing us to share his love for a thing – an intangible thing – called civilisation; called Rome.
You will feel it, if you read it.
Verdict: 5 stars (out of 5), and one of my new favourite books of all time (that’s no joke).