Eagle In The Snow - Wallace Breem

Eagle In The Snow
General Maximus and Rome's Last Stand
Wallace Breem
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN: 0297645617 (Amazon link)

Amazon has been recommending this novel to me for a while, but it wasn't until I saw this new edition that I decided to give it a go. I now suspect that if I'd grown up reading historicals I'd already have mentally listed Eagle In The Snow as one of the genre's classics. However, given my ignorance it was actually the glowing cover quote and introduction by Steven Pressfield that decided me. Pressfield is himself the author of several excellent historicals, but is best known for his account of Thermopylae, The Gates of Fire.

This makes him an ideal choice to introduce Breem's work, as there is a pleasing contrast between their books. One is about the gates of fire, while the other is about walls of ice and snow. Both describe desperate last stands by small bands of men against much larger invading forces, but whereas Thermopylae is regarded as protecting the birth of modern civilisation, Eagle In The Snow describes a futile attempt to hold back the collapse of the fading Western Roman empire. Most strikingly of all, Pressfield's story is fiery and passionate, but Breem's prose is cold and hard, almost detached and fatalistic.

The walls of ice snow are respectively Hadrian's Wall and the Rhine, both garrisons that the veteran commander Maximus must hold against enemies of Rome. His family's standing with the Emperor is turbulent, with Maximus' devout adherence to Mithras - the soldier's favourite - seeing him initially in favour with Julian, but then falling from favour under Christian successors. Isolated in the wilds of Scotland, Maximus is a long way from the seat of power, but the demands of loyalty and duty to Rome are central to his character. The struggle to maintain the Wall against external disruptive forces desperate to tear down what Rome has built is mirrored in the collapse of Maximus' personal life. He faces betrayal from friends and family, and eventually loses even his beloved wife. Having left behind his youth, his wife and his happiness, he falls willingly into his role as General to defend the Wall from a massed rebellion by the tribes under a charismatic new figurehead.

The thing is that this is the fifth century, and Rome is weakening. The legions are not the potent force they once were, and with the decay of the central administration none of her military can operate effectively. We know how this history ends, and there is a sense of doomed inevitability running throughout this novel. The Wall falls, but Maximus survives and wins favour by fighting a fierce rear-guard action all the way south. In an empire torn apart by usurping generals, Maximus clings to his duty, refusing the troop's popular acclaim for an attempt on the purple in favour of serving the empire itself. This loyalty brings him from a rock to a hard place, as he is 'rewarded' by a posting to the Rhine, an empty title, "General of the West", and the command of a legion. Where 80,000 troops were once stationed, Maximus must hold his single legion against six nations of barbarians forced westwards by the expansion of the Huns in the east. Again, Maximus cannot possibly succeed, with the tribes waiting only for the river to freeze over before crossing...

Cold, ice and snow seem central to this book, and are mirrored in Maximus' character. He is a decent man and easy to sympathise with, but has become as hard and unyielding as any of Rome's other weapons. He doesn't hesitate to inflict punishment on friends or family who betray his Empire, or to hold women and children ransom if it serves his Emperor's purpose. There is a sense of quiet desperation in most of his narrative, told in a simple, blunt first person style. What makes this novel so incredibly poignant is the understated way in which Maximus tells of the harsh reverses which befall him. He is a stoic, private man, and not given to overt displays of emotion. For much of this book the man of iron, the general of terrible purpose and fearsome reputation is a tired old man with a broken heart, but Breem masterfully covers that with perhaps a couple of dozen words throughout the entire novel. What Maximus doesn't say is what makes his tale so powerful.

For all the colourful histroy, the heroics, large scale military set-pieces, and Machiavellian playing of enemies, this novel is all about Maximus' struggle to stay true to his beliefs and his relationships to a handful of other people - friends, family and comrades in arms. There are many pages describing the military campaign, but the most memorable and affecting events take a single line and pass almost with comment; a riderless horse, a change of title, the revelation of a name. I have rarely been as immersed in a story, as moved by a character's account of his life, or as impressed by an author's technical skill as I was while reading this novel.

Highly recommended.

Posted: Sun - March 14, 2004 at 09:08 PM