My Battered Roman Eagle

The heavens opened.

And duty called, even on a Sunday. For school, a display on the Victorians, ready for a public event on Monday evening, was necessary. And I needed Victorian artefacts.

I trawled the sources of Victorian wooden toys in my mind and decided wistfully that a trip into our local market town was going to be a must. I must make a wet, crowded, expensive drive, alone because everyone else in the house had colds.

I braced myself. I got in the car. And I turned the ignition key, backed out of the drive and got on the road.

I found a parking place in a great shopping cathedral and scuttled off through the fat drops of rain to the museum, a worthy red-brick building. I walked through the doors into a museum which, with the gloom outside, looked as if the caretaker had already turned half the lights out.

My heart sank. Even one of my favourite sanctuaries felt abandoned.

I located and bought what I had to. And then, I instinctively headed for the one exhibit with which I must commune, this rainy afternoon.

It is two floors up, in a glass lift. I stepped out expecting to see no-one. There were a few straggling sightseers, grandparents with toddlers looking for rainy-day activity.

I wandered into the Roman galleries: and there he stood. My battered Roman eagle.

He is called the Silchester Eagle, and the Romans are thought to have thrown my eagle away for scrap.

The cads.

Silchester is the site of an old Roman town,Β Calleva Atrebatum. We’ve been digging it for well over a century: Reading’s University oversees it these days.

My eagle was discovered a very long time ago, on October 9, 1866, by a clergyman. The Reverend JG Joyce, who excavated the dig from 1864-1878, was certain it was a very important eagle indeed: probably part of a Roman standard.

And it was in this capacity that author Rosemary Sutcliffe used him to inspire her classic tale The Eagle Of The NinthΒ , published in 1954, a must-read for anyone who hasn’t.

In actual fact, research has revealed that he was once sitting on a sphere as part of a Roman ornament. Than the original craftsman was extremely skilled but subsequent repairs after accidents were clumsier. And that, according to his location, he was probably awaiting being melted down for scrap.

Originally, my eagle had glorious great outspread wings, but no more. He is time-battered. But he has a circumspect air, as if really, it is all one could expect from life.

He has seen a rainy afternoon or two.

Here we stood, he and I, in a darkened room on a wet September afternoon. His attitude seemed to speak much louder than words. This is life, he said. You keep going, you tread each step, you serve your masters faithfully, spend years buried under ashes and lose a wing or two: and still, a kind of immortality can be yours.

With a wisdom borne of more than a millennium of experience, I would swear he was smiling.

Hello, Eagle, I said.

Hello, he replied companionably.

And then it was time to leave: to draw away from my eagle and trail reluctantly back to the gliding glass lift, leaving him amongst the coins and pots and tiles and remains of a city which died more than a thousand years ago. Time to come down from the mountain and rejoin life in the soggy streets of an English market town.

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105 thoughts on “My Battered Roman Eagle

  1. It was rather wet, wasn’t it?! (So glad it was dry on Saturday though for our bath trip)

    I hope you got what you wanted for your display. How’s the new job going?

  2. The Eagle does indeed look a bit battered and worn, but, his lot as the object of admiration certainly offsets his physical status. Interesting how we are drawn to certain objects of antiquity, they don’t have to beautiful, just meaningful to us.

  3. Another wonderful post Kate. Thanks for great read this monday morning. I was struck by how the story of the Eagle echoed the story of the Roman Empire itself. (Just finished re-watching I Claudius and love that this little fellow was left there during that time frame.) Do you know if the movie The Eagle was based on Eagle of the Ninth? Not sure if you’ve seen that movie — it’s OK, but not great — still it would be worth checking out if only for the Eagle! (…and maybe Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell). cheers, Rita

  4. He has a weary ‘don’t talk to me about life’ vibe going on, I think. How he mustered the energy to smile and engage in conversation I’ll never know πŸ™‚

      1. I just saw you were FP’d, Kate—-congratulations!! Your blog is one of my favorites, and you make historical vignettes look so easy to write (even though I know they aren’t).

  5. This is life, he said. You keep going, you tread each step . . .

    Yup. In time, if we persist, we learn to run between the raindrops and dance in the rain in the midst of the storm’s raging fury. πŸ˜€

  6. I love your eagle, Kate! And the communication you shared with him, so meaningful. Perspectives only acquired with great expanses of time and the ability to see life with the very long view. We will soon be going to one of my favorite museums where I commune for a few moments with my Goddess Nemesis. She speaks to me. It’s an unlikely pairing, but this particular 150 A.D. Roman statue somehow grabs me each and every time. I, too, couldn’t visit the Getty without at least stopping by and saying hello. Now I’m jumping over to Amazon to check in on The Eagle of the Ninth! Debra

  7. I hate to say it, but I think that your eagles is cute. And looks like a parrot. πŸ˜‰ I haven’t heard anything of Sutcliffe for years, a lot of the good old books have disappeared from the shelves it seems. πŸ™‚

  8. Dear Kate, recently, I began a second blog–on writing. But always, when I come to your blog and read your postings, I know that whatever you wrote on writing, I’d read immediately for you are a master. Your word choice–note “companionably” toward the end of the post–astounds me for with a single word you immediately paint in my mind a person, a feeling, a time. I am in awe. Peace.

  9. Connecting with something such as this is like going back in time, imagining what this eagle saw and heard and smelled. I wonder who made him, whether his wings were clipped because he tried to fly away.

    1. True: though on a rainy Sunday people trawl desperately round for something undercover to take the toddlers to and it can be grim. No one had found the eagle, though…it was all quiet in the Roman gallery.

  10. My library has a copy of the book and I am going to put it on hold to pick up later this week. I can’t drive today as I has my wisdom teeth out this morning :-). I just returned from a two week trip to Israel, so archaeology and history are on my mind.

  11. That eagle doesn’t look very freshly pressed – haha – but you do!!!!! Congrats Kate. I think rainy days are the best for dark museums (but getting there is always a pain in the posterior). Shall we let off some fireworks! πŸ˜‰

  12. First time readers: She’s already taken, this writer of great renown. She’s ours! We will not allow the smash of humanity to rob her from us only to be put on display in some obscure fashion. Even if it is beside her beloved eagle!

  13. I haven’t thought about the Eagle of the Ninth for a while; but that book sure inspired me when I was small. So, it’s great that a) a post about an Eagle was freshly pressed, and b) that I was lucky enough to see it.

    Cool.

  14. Kate, I love your post. The Silchester Eagle is a noble, patient-looking old fellow, isn’t he? A touch of sadness in the eyes, as if he’s wondering what indignities the future may yet hold (an interactive exhibit with push-buttons, perhaps?); but you can see he’s in for the long haul. Nothing surprises him any more!
    I’m glad somebody managed to make a positive, atmospheric post out of the revoltingly rainy days we’ve just gone through – well done!

    1. Sue, thank you for coming along to read and comment. Poor eagle: I don’t think push-buttons are his thing at all . But, as you say, he has made it through 2,000 years. How many more, I wonder, and where will he go next?

  15. Hiya! I see you’ve been Freshly Pressed too, congrats!!
    You really do deserve it, the amount of work and knowledge that goes into eah day’s post is remarkable. I love the way each post starts off with something simple, or about your own life, and then heads off into something really informative.
    Congrats again, I’m really thrilled for you. Tin x

  16. Fascinating read. I love what you wrote about this remarkable artifact.
    I see life as all about moments in time-good, bad, and everywhere in-between. It intrigues me to think about the moment when this eagle was created and masterfully stood watch over some part of the Roman empire. Thanks for sharing your experience.
    Congrats on being FP! Cheers!

  17. I enjoyed your post; congrats on being FP. Your eagle brought to mind, for me at least, creative celebrity – and the mob’s fleeting interest. But true talent will out and the true artists with skill and vision will continue to produce beyond the last days of their universal hype, because they must. And they create and create even if they’ve been shifted from top billing in an enormous venue to successively smaller ones. Your eagle isn’t on top of the world and flashy any longer, but for the right audience – he is magnificent

    1. Alison, thank you – of course: the eagle is a metaphor for the writer or artist who goes on creating when there seems, simply, no audience and no point. We’re all in it for the long game.

  18. Oh I love this! Rosemary Sutcliff was my favourite writer when I was growing up, and I recently re-read Eagle Of The Ninth. I was delighted to discover that it’s still as great as I remember it being.

    I knew that it was based on the Silchester Eagle, but I’ve never actually seen him before. Thank you thank you thank you for posting this!

      1. I think I’ve read almost everything she’s ever written. One of my favourites was Warrior Scarlet, which I wrote about a while back. I said this about it, which kind of applies to how I felt about The Eagle too:

        “My main memory of this book is how insanely fascinating, beautiful and bad-ass it made Bronze Age Britain sound. I remember poring, practically drooling, over passages about midnight bonfires and sacred rituals and ancient magic, and whoa, did I ever want to live in that world. I remember this being a book that I daydreamed about a lot, and that’s something that I want for Theo. I want him to have books that he loves so much he ends up spending hours and hours imagining what it would be like to exist within the confines of that story.”

        http://bellejarblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/20-books-that-i-hope-theo-reads-when-hes-older-part-i/

  19. Your eagle is very much like the one that adorns the tip of my flag pole. He watches over me patiently 24/7 everyday of the year. What would the world be without soaring eagles to inspire us?

  20. Hey Kate, sorry I’m reading this one so late, but I somehow missed it — and this is the one you get FPed — go figure and congratulations! What a moving post about that little battered but stoic bird. What a pity that his wings have entered the ether, but it’s comforting to see that he’s still standing so you could share your encounter with him and his history with us.

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