Eagle In The Snow by Wallace Breem centers on the years 405 AD to early 407. It captures a key moment in the Empire’s death throes as hundreds of thousands of mostly Germanic peoples mass on the east bank of the Rhine waiting for the river to freeze and then to walk into Gaul. The tale is an epitaph for the Roman Empire with General Paulinus Gaius Maximus serving as the lone pall bearer, carrying the weight of an empire marching inexorably toward its grave.
Breem paints a very detailed and accurate picture of life in Maximus’ world. This historical novel is as solid in its history as documentation and archaeology allowed in the late ‘60s, and the liberties taken seem to be few and forgivable. He draws a very vivid exposition of existence at the ends of the Roman earth. Clearly the author was passionate about his subject matter. Breem was a warrior-poet, serving time as an officer in the British Indian Army and librarian at the Inner Temple Library in London. In “Eagle," he brings both of his disciplines into sharp focus.
It is not, however, the historical accuracy that makes this a terrific and hauntingly memorable book. Breem elicits emotion through the subtle interplay between characters and through Maximus’ monologue.
The story is structured from Maximus’ point of view, who narrates all but the prologue and epilogue. There are three main characters: Maximus, Quintus Veronius (his friend from Britannia and leader of the 20th’s Cavalry) and his cousin Julian. These characters are the most firmly drawn, slow in development but gaining in strength and color as the story develops. While other characters orbit around the key plot points and players, they are drawn more transparently.
Maximus is the consummate Roman. He was born in Gaul to Roman ancestry, raised to be a soldier. He loves Rome with every thread of his being, and despite never having been there, he loves what the city is and what it represents. Breem’s Maximus is the Roman ideal.
Maximus' parents raised Julian as Julian’s parents were forced to commit suicide by an usurping Roman Emperor. Julian also grows up to be a soldier, but at this point the cousins’ paths diverge.
Never able to forgive the Empire for taking away his parents, Julian helps lead a mutiny in Gaul that ends in the murder of Maximus’ father and their capture. Maximus is asked to mete out punishment to the mutineers. He strips Julian and his co-conspirators of their Roman citizenship and assigns them to train and fight as gladiators.
Maximus and Julian represent two sides of a Roman coin – on one side is Maximus: the Empire, staunch, disciplined, loyal and forever Roman. On the other side is Julian: the Empire in decline, resentful, living-on-the-fringe, and consumed by hatred.
Julian reappears throughout the book like the ghost of Jacob Marley to Maximus’ Ebeneezer Scrooge. Maximus leads a cohort in defense of Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britannia. Julian also ends up in Britannia after earning his freedom, where he goes native and leads an uprising of Britons against Maximus and his legionaries at The Wall. Maximus’ position is overrun, but he ultimately puts down the rebellion and Julian finds himself in exile following the failure.
Maximus is offered to pick up the pieces of the 20th Legio in Britannia and support the Empire's efforts across the channel. He rebuilds his legion and takes part in successful campaigns in Italy until he is called to hold the Rhine.
Julian appears throughout the book as an older and more sedate anti-Maximus in Germania. He supports the efforts of his new band of rebels as he looks to quench the thirst of his revenge against the Empire. Julian and Maximus meet several times in tautly written exchanges, each battling with memories of growing up together, but neither ever able to reconcile the two sides of the coin.
Maximus is pushed to break away from the Empire and lead legions as a new emperor. He declines both times, once to his Roman legion and once to the Germanic tribes. Julian intercedes on the tribes’ behalf and Maximus explains why he can’t accept: “My Empire has had more usurping Emperors than I can count…all weakened the empire they thought to strengthen. I shall not add to their number.” Julian responds: “The Empire is dying, Maximus. It is weaker than when you were a boy…”
The multitude that digs in on the Rhine is made up of Vandals, Alans, Alemanni and Quadi. But it is more than just warriors. The masses consist of entire families – women, the young, the old – entire nations looking to cross over into the mighty Empire and shake it loose from its foundations.
Maximus ultimately receives no support from any other Roman legion, reflecting the fractured, disaggregated and self-interested nature of the Empire’s far-flung nations. The ending is inevitable – though such is the emotive monologue by Maximus that one can’t help but feel hope and optimism at each turn in the ultimate series of battles.
There are relatively few battles throughout the book: the fight and flee encounter along the Wall against the Britons, border-type skirmishes between the legion and barbarians along the Rhine, and then the last masterfully crafted battle in the final 100 pages or so.
There are a number of figures in smaller supporting roles throughout the story and fortunately the Rugged Land edition of the book (published in 2004) provides a detailed list of characters, historical timeline, Roman and modern place names, and glossaries of tribes and 5th century terms. It is particularly helpful that historical figures are distinguished from those that are purely fictional. Maximus, while perhaps loosely based on generals of the time, is fictional. A more detailed map also would have been helpful.
Compared to the action adventures of Simon Scarrow, Conn Igguldon or James Duffy, the writing style of Eagle in the Snow is stark, abrupt and subtle. Eagle is deep and the prose and exposition are very genuine. Think of Scarrow and Duffy as TV movies, and Breem as an Oscar-worthy film. It’s no surprise that the book was a Bestseller, and in the realm of Roman historical fiction, Eagle justifies its praise as a classic. For those less interested in Roman military fiction, like the Rhine itself, Eagle runs much deeper.
Discuss and order this book online at Amazon