Thursday 11 June 2020

The Fosseway

Yesterday the President of the United States tweeted a link to my workplace, and I missed the excitement because it was late and I was rereading Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth. 

I now have four copies of The Eagle of the Ninth because I bought three identical copies for my homeschool writing class. As well as writing our own stories, my pupils and I are going to examine this story to see how Miss Sutcliff wrote hers.

My father gave me a copy of The Eagle of the Ninth when he returned from a work trip to Britain the year I was twelve. Images from the book have stayed with me every since then--especially the dark red rose bush that the hero believes is growing pot-bound. I realised only last night that the dark red rose bush represents Marcus' career. A lifetime of speed-reading has its drawbacks.

So instead of speed-reading, I am slow-reading. Slow-reading involves looking up words and concepts I don't understand instead of skipping over them.

"From the Fosseway westward to Isca Dumniorum the road was simply a British trackway," the book begins.

"Hold on," I thought. "What is the Fosseway?"

I typed it into the computer and behold!  It's a road that marked the edge of the Roman western frontier in Britain. Some believe it began as a defensive ditch ('fosse' in Latin), and in its heyday it stretched from Lindum Colonia (Lincoln) 230 miles southwest to Isca Dumniorum (Exeter).

I'm still a bit confused though. If the road stretched to Isca Dumniorum, where was this British trackway? Perhaps that bit wasn't built yet? Or did the Fosseway actually run further south and the marching Legions turned right when they got to the British trackway? I think I'm going with the finished part of the Fosseway ending before the final jerk to the left when the story begins. The Romans will build over the trackway later.

My next search was for the "Raven degree of Mithras,"for which hero underwent scarring. This led to the discovery that it was the most junior degree of the religion, which is certainly suitable for Marcus, as he is 19 years old, tops.

Then Marcus' old home in Cluvium: it's now known as Chiusi and it's in Tuscany. No wonder Marcus loved it so much.

Then--I'm almost embarrassed to admit this--for the first I looked up the game Marcus' vanished father used to play with him: "Flash the Fingers." Marcus would have known it as "Micare Digitis"; the Italians call it "Morra."

Yes, there's a richness in slow reading. Quite apart from forcing myself to stop and really see what Sutcliff saw when she wrote her story, there's appreciating how she did it. Here is a quick diagram of the first half of Chapter One:

1. Description of the road, movement forward.
2. Description of the people on the road.
3. Description of the cohort from above.
4. Description of the cohort from the hero's point of view.
5. Description of the hero.
6. Naming of hero & short description of his childhood, ending with the PROBLEM linked to father.
7. Results of the PROBLEM, including description of hero's disliked uncle-by-marriage. (Contrast.)
8. Shift to present, showing how hero still feels about uncle-by-marriage.
9. Explanation of why hero is in Britain--links to father's brother and father.
10. Description of father and foreshadowing of his fate.
11. FIRST DIALOGUE: Mother foreshadows father's fate; father's optimistic reply.
12. Description of father's eyes and emerald ring. (Note: light a theme in first four chapters. Mithras?)
13. Hero hopes Uncle Aquila is like his father; further description of Uncle A.
14. Career goals described.
15. Lost home described.
16. First sight of Isca Dumniorum described.
17. British town beneath described from above.
18. British town described from the road through it.

Your patience with this sketch may vary. I found it incredibly interesting, but I will note only that the chapter ends with the outgoing cohort marching off through the town in the morning sun. Meanwhile,  although I was never a girl for extensive descriptions (skimming through florid pages of the Anne books), these sucked me right into the story and never really let me go. How happy I am to live in what was once the shadow of a Roman British fort!


  1. The Eagle of the Ninth was the first Rosemary Sutcliff book I read, as a teen in the 90's. I fell in love with the characters, and devoured every one of her books that I could find at the library.