Rome’s control over Britain is swaying, and two young Roman soldiers find themselves flung unexpectedly into the power politics of British leadership. The book opens as Justin, a young surgeon newly arrived from Judaea, reaches Rutupiae and sees the lighthouse there, symbolically crumbling. From then on, Rosemary Sutcliff applies her usual skill to paint the picture of a small scene in the life of Britain in the second century AD. Rome’s power is failing but some men – Romans and natives alike – see the need to make the land strong enough to stand, come what may.
When Justin and Flavius, a junior commander in the Rutupiae fort, attempt to warn the British emperor of treachery from his closest minister, they are sent in disgrace to one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall. The treachery they warned against comes to pass, and they risk their own lives to try to join the Roman emperor in Gaul. Instead they find themselves running a resistance movement on the south coast of Britain.
The characters in this novel are firmly drawn, even less occasional faces such as Manlius, the soldier whom Flavius rescues from under a catapult and who later warns the friends of their peril. Aunt Honoria and the farm workers at Calleva are all discernible people in spite of the few words they have to say. It is in Calleva that Flavius finds the Eagle which his ancestor hid there a hundred years before, having rescued it from the “Painted People” of Scotland. This Eagle gives a unity to the ragged band and finally falls in the ruins of Calleva.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.