Friday, 9 May 2014

The Silchester Eagle: Objects as Characters in Historical Fiction

In 1866, the Reverend J.G. Joyce was excavating the basilica (town hall) of the Roman town of Silchester, in Hampshire. Already, in the 19th Century, the significance of this site was clear - a substantial Roman town which (unlike London, Colchester, York or Chichester) had not gone on to be a substantial medieval or modern town, potentially leaving the archaeology undisturbed and easily accessible.

The Roman town wall of Silchester. Photo: Sebastian Ballard (licensed under CCA).

Despite his high expectations of the site, nothing could really have prepared Joyce for his most spectacular discovery, a large bronze sculpture of an eagle, its wings missing, but its feathers and feet gloriously moulded, making it, in the words of the archaeologist, Jocelyn Toynbee, "by far the most superb naturalistic rendering of any bird or beast as yet yielded by Roman Britain." It is currently displayed at Reading Museum.

The Silchester eagle. Photo: Marcus Cyron (licensed under CCA).

Objects that are truly unique, as this one is, always pose a problem for the archaeologist. So much of what we know of the distant past is based on making comparisons between one object and another, so that, if we have nothing to compare this object with, there is little we can say about it. We can't for example, date it with any accuracy, or have any certainty about the way in which it was displayed or used.

One plausible interpretation of the Silchester eagle was that it was part of a legionary aquila, a military standard. We know that every Roman legion had an aquila,  that the soldier who carried it, the aquilifer, had an important status within the Roman army, and that the loss of a legion's aquila brought shame on the entire legion and its commander. Three legions, with their aquilae, were lost in the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest in 9 AD, and subsequent generations of soldiers risked their lives to recover them, returning them to Rome, where they were probably displayed in the Temple of Mars Ultor.

Kalkriese in Germany, identified as the site of the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest. Photo: Jens Reimann (licensed under CCA).

The Temple of Mars Ultor, Rome. Photo: Louisana (licensed under GNU).

The Silchester eagle, together with what was known about legionary aquilae more generally, inspired Rosemary Sutcliff to write The Eagle of the Ninth, a novel that many of us remember from our childhoods. In her story, the eagle is the aquila of the Ninth Legion, which disappeared in Scotland in 120 AD, and her protagonist, Marcus Flavius Aquila, is on a mission to recover it. Sutcliff's novel, in turn, inspired Kevin Macdonald's 2011 film, The Eagle, in which Channing Tatum plays the part of Marcus Aquila.

Most modern scholars, however, do not believe that the eagle found at Silchester was, in fact, a legionary standard. If it were, it would have been the only one to have survived. To gain an idea of what a real aquila might have looked like, we have to rely on pictorial depictions.

Coin of Mark Antony, depicting the aquila of his III Legion. Photo: Panairjdde (licensed under GNU).

Tombstone of the aquilifer, Felsonius Verus, found at Apamea, Syria. His standard appears to be a real eagle in a small cage. Photo: Man Vyi (licensed under CCA).

If the Silchester eagle is not a legionary aquila, what is it? The curvature of the feet suggest that it originally stood on a globe, which may in turn have  rested in the hand of a god, probably Jupiter, a bronze statue in the forum of the Roman town. Close examination suggests that it was already ancient when it was buried (probably in the 3rd Century AD): its wings, and probably its feet, had been broken and replaced.

The most recent excavations at Silchester have raised the possibility that the town was destroyed by the Boudiccan rebels of 60/61 AD, and this is what inspired my reinterpretation of the eagle in An Accidental King:

"As we were riding through the burned town, one of the Thracian soldiers called out to us, and walked towards us, cradling something in his hands. He was holding it so carefully that, at first, I thought it must be a living animal, a puppy or a kitten, perhaps, that had somehow survived the conflagration.

'Who should I give this to?' he asked.

I reached out, and he handed me a bronze eagle. It was scorched and battered, and its wings were missing, but it was still recognisable.

'It is from the statue of Jupiter!' said Milonius.

I handed it to Catuarus. 'Will you take responsibility for rebuilding the town, and putting this back where it belongs?'"

In a course I am currently teaching, we explore the significance that physical objects have for people, taking examples from the present, the recent past and the remote past. We look at the complex histories or "biographies" that many of these objects have. The Portland vase is one of the objects we cover, and this also makes an appearance in An Accidental King. Every object in every museum potentially has stories to tell, although these stories change as we learn more about the objects themselves. I can't imagine writing a historical story without including real objects: with so many to chose from, it would seem rude not to!

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

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