Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Eagle in the Snow

The latest read is by Wallace Breem, titled Eagle in the Snow. An historical fiction, it takes place in the early years of the 5th century, during the reign of Emperor Honorius and his general, Stilicho.

This book is a bit older, first print in 1970. While a pretty decent read, the book is riddled with historical innaccuracies. While for some people this might not be important at all (the story has primacy), in my opinion if I'm going to read a book set during a historical period, I want at least a bit of historical accuracy. As it is, in this book, the errors were enough to break the suspension of disbelief and knocked the book back a few stars.

The gist of the book centers around Maximus, an officer in the Roman army, who is given a legion and made the military governor of Germania (which in our context really centers around the western border region of modern Germany; the area around Bingen, Trier, and other towns along the Rhine). The Emperor's Magister Stilicho gives Maximus and his men the job of securing this border against incursions of several Germanic tribes. Short on resources and men, he fights a desperate battle to stem the tide.

As I said above, there were a few errors, some more egregious than others. I felt the characterization of Stilicho a bit weak. Admittedly, he has only a little screen time, but at one point, while discussing the invasion of Germanic tribes such as the Vandals, Stilicho characterizes them as his people. Stilicho had been the son of a Vandal man and a Roman woman, but had lived most of his life in the Empire, educated in Roman schools, was a Nicene Christian (as opposed to an Arian of the Vandals), and thus about as Roman as anyone else. It would be akin to me saying (as an Italian-american) that the Italians are my people. Its a bit strange, and I don't think it is something he would say. Especially given his parentage I think he would be well motivated to be more Roman than the Romans.

A more important error, especially since the book is essentially a "military adventure" is the numerous errors and omissions in organization of the Roman Army. It definitely feels like Breem did not do his homework. Maximus assumes command of the 20th Legion, some 6000 strong troops. The problem with that is the old legionary commands had been broken up, new legions formed, and the units were much smaller, perhaps 1200 men per. Although some legions maintained their old designations, it is somewhat unlikely they would maintain the same strength as in the old days. Furthermore, a lot of mention is made about Auxilia. In the time of Emperor Augustus and the Early Empire, Auxilia were equipped and trained differently than the legions, but by this time were for the most part indistinguishable from the legions, unless they were specialists. Finally, there are quite a few inaccuracies about equipment, with the legionaries described as wearing "breastplates," using short swords and javelins in a manner very reminiscent of Early Imperial Romans. By this time, Roman legionaries would be wearing either mail (Lorica Hamata) or scale (Lorica Squamata) armor, if they had any armor to begin with. Furthermore, the short, thrusting sword Gladius had been replaced by the longer, slashing Spatha, and the primary offensive weapon of the Legion was the spear. This was in response to the greater importance Rome's enemies put on cavalry, where the spear functions much better as a defensive weapon. For a bit of military fiction, it was details like this that I was looking for. Their absence and errors lessens the book quite a bit for me.

The actual story of the book is divided into 3 main sections: the 1st third of the book (roughly) details the origins and early career of Maximus (thus establishing the character), the 2nd third about the problems he faced defending the frontier, and the last third -- the climax -- about the battle against the Vandals, Marcomanni, Burgundians, Quadi, and other Germanic tribes. They payoff of the book was good, the battle scenes vividly described. But it was all let down by incorrect depictions of the army.

One fun easter egg in the book is when Maximus precipitates the death of most of the Vandal Royal family...leaving the "whelp" Gaiseric alive. He will turn up later...

Overall a decent book. Just didn't have a decent historical foundation.

1 comment:

D.M. McGowan said...

Great comments.
I try first for entertainment, but I make a particular effort to maintain historical accuracy. Admittedly it's much easier with 1866 than it is with 450. On top of that, I might not always be right.