Eagle in the Snow

Bob’s Pick: Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem

One of my most favorite genre of books is historical fiction. This book has been hailed as a classic and deservedly so in depicting military life during the fall of Rome’s Rhine frontier around 406 AD. The whole Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 AD *.

At this time, the Roman Empire could be described as a barrel of apples. Not only was the barrel starting to rot, but so were some of the apples. Like strong iron nails, what was keeping this barrel from falling totally apart were some of the Roman Legions that were still loyal to Rome and the emperor. Over time, these nails sadly also started to decay due to overuse, apathy and lack of maintenance. This book recounts the story of one such legion, the 20th, and its struggle for survival amid times of political and social upheaval.

The story is narrated by the legion’s legate, general and commander, Maximus. Maximus was also the prototype used for the general portrayed in the Ridley Scott movie, “the Gladiator”. He is an “old school” general. He is not political and runs his legion like a Marine Corps battalion, no nonsense, no frills and deeply mission oriented.

His mission is to hold the border between Gaul (France) and Germania (Germany). Germanic tribes are being pushed westward into Roman territory as their eastern borders are also being collapsed due to the advance of the Huns. It is like watching a row of dominoes on the map of Europe topple over from right to left. With only one legion (6000 men) at his command, his job is to stem the tide of thousands of Germanic tribesmen taking the path of least resistance and fleeing in his direction. He is like the little Dutch boy who had 20 holes in the dike but could only plug them with his ten little fingers.

Yet, Maximus is a stoic. Reminiscent of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, against overwhelming odds, he is determined to take whatever measures necessary to complete his doomed mission.  Both leaders were trying to buy time until reserve forces could arrive. In both cases, however, none ever did.  Leonidas’ sacrifice was meaningful as it allowed Greek forces time to reorganize and recover. Maximus’ heroic stand did nothing but temporarily delay the inevitable.

Still, there is much to admire about Maximus. Not only was he a general but he was also the governor of the territory he presided over. In his territory were tribes that were loyal and allies of Rome. These included Franks and Burgundians. He treated all fairly, kept the peace, settled disputes, negotiated treaties and provided for the common defense. 

He was also a great strategic and tactical commander. With what little he had in terms of resources, Maximus lived up to his name and was able to maximize. Like a chess grandmaster, he was always planning a few moves ahead of his opponents. Everything was under his control except the unforeseeable and the uncontrollable. Unfortunately, it was just these that were his undoing.

In this story, the Roman emperor, Honorius, chose his commander well. Maximus was incorruptible, intelligent, resolute and loyal to Rome and its ideals.  What made him a great soldier, however, did not necessarily make him a great person.  He was loyal to Rome, not to the current reality of Rome, but to his idealistic vision of what Rome had been. In dealing with his friends and allies, he was cold, dispassionate and lacking in empathy. He was not a “people” person but someone akin to Mr. Spock. He vowed to remain a bachelor, eschewing the prospect of marrying and getting close to someone. This was because he had been previously married and for many reasons that experience had left him withdrawn and emotionally numb.

Given more time and adequate resources, a general like Maximus could have undoubtedly been able to temporarily check the advance of the German tribes by even a few years or decades. Still, it was not to be. The Dark Ages would soon overtake Europe and the former Roman Empire. Great engineering and architectural achievements would all fall into decay. Infrastructure such as roads, aqueducts, sewer systems, temples, theaters and villas would all crumble into ruin. Scholarship and Western civilization would succumb to the overwhelming power of force and violence. In their turn, humble monasteries would succeed proud Rome as centers of learning.

I believe the fall of Rome is best summarized by analogy to Percy Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias”.  Despite his best efforts, Maximus could not save his outpost nor the Roman Empire. Empires rise and fall. Ultimately, the tides of history swept his accomplishments away into the sands of time.

*Grant, Michael, “The History of Rome”