Book Review: Eagle in the SnowGeneral Maximus and Rome’s Last Stand.
Author Wallace Breem
Orion Books, DBA Phoenix books, London, UK 1970
In the winter of 406-407 the Rhine froze solid. The German tribes crossed on the ice into Roman territory. Not a just a raiding party, but a migration of entire nations who’s invasion completely disrupted the Western Empire. The provinces of Gaul never recovered, Britain passed from Roman rule, eventually Hispania, and North Africa and Italy were invaded. This novel is the story of the Roman commander’s account of the defense of the Rhine and his eventual defeat.
Paulinus Gaius Maximus was what we would call an Army brat. Of Equestrian (knightly) Roman stock he was raised in legionary garrisons as his father rose through the ranks to be the Legate of the Legio XX Valriea Victrix. He followed his father into the Army first as an Equestrian Tribune in his father’s legion before moving on to other assignments. From his father and this service learned the ideals of an earlier Rome and Roman Army, a loyalty he will serve the end.
Maximus is the son of a military family that ended up on the wrong side of imperial politics, a pagan when favor was increasingly going to Christians, but talented well above average and apolitical himself he is appointed as the Prefect (Commander) of a cohort at a critical fort on Hadrian’s Wall . A dead end job he will hold for over thirty years but he performs it well and occasionally with distinction. He learns the skills that will do him well on the Rhine
Sometime after 395 Flavius Stilicho, Commander of the Roman Armies in the West, visits Britain, and impressed with Maximus he offers him command of his fathers old Legio XX Valeria Victrix, which he is talking out of Britain to help defend Italy. The XXth has been allowed to run down to the point that is a parody of its old self. Maximus has a year to recruit it to full strength restore it as a fighting force, not the old heavy infantry legion but a modern force with both heavy and light infantry as well it’s own cavalry. A year later when he joins Stilicho he has force of 6000 men including 1500 cavalry disciplined to the standards of the old roman Army and trained for the new warfare.. After campaigning in Italy for five years Stilicho gives him a new mission in Germany. The Rhine is only garrisoned with enough forces to restrict raiding. The German tribes east of the Rhine are being displaced by the Huns and want to migrate into Roman territory, a migration that Rome does not have the ability to absorb. The mission is possible in theory because there is only one stretch of the Rhine from Worms to Koblenz where whole tribes could migrate as opposed to launching raids. This is for only a few months of the year in spring and fall, and without bridges there is a limit to how many can cross at one time. Unless the Rhine freezes.
For a year and a half Maximus struggles to make a backwater command into a fighting force, and uses bluff and bluster to convince the Germans not cross until he has built the army. He gets little willing support from the local governments or from the government in Gaul. Gradually he builds the army, the XXth as the strike force and enough Auxillaries to hold defenses. His single mindedness and integrity win the respect and even some support from the local government as well as the very grudging respect of the German leaders. But then in December 406 the Rhine freezes and on the thirtyfirst the tribes cross. After three weeks of fighting, holding with bravery discipline and skill, losing to numbers and treachery, he makes the last stand. The Eagle of the Legio XX Valeria Victix, which lead the legion for over 430 years, is melted to prevent capture while they await the final charge.
I think a point the modern reader should take away is how fast civilization can dissolve and how terrible the result would be. The introduction begins:
In the deep valleys between the black rain-lashed mountains of the western coast there is little to do of a winter’s night if you belong to a beaten people. Defeated sick of heart and afraid, you sit huddled in tattered cloak round the great sputtering fires and dream of a tomorrow that will never come. The women nurse wailing children and long for warm huts and a world in which milk is always plentiful; the young warriors sharpen their dulled spears and pray for just one victory against the men from the sea; while the old remember a time when no fires betrayed a burning village to the night sky, and there was peace in the lands from which they are now exiled for ever.
Seventy, even fifty years ago one would never see a village burning in the distance, a general peace from the Pillars of Hercules to the wall of Hadrian, from cliffs Brittany to the mountains of Italy. Men who did not join the army did not have to dream of defeating an all to likely enemy, and mothers could be sure they had enough food to have milk or could find a wet nurse. Old men remebered long ago harvests and places they safely gone and returned.
What brought this about? Well many factors but one that is key to the novel is that the upper classes of Rome had stopped believing in the ideals that made Rome. And not believing they did not act. We should not forget the if we lose the ideals that made western society and our country we could be not to many years from a similar collapse.
This is an excellent novel, well set in the larger reality of the time and place. The suspense is not in how it will end, (it’s in the notes on the cover) but in the fight against man nature and events. Maximus is a very believable character; the depictions of events ring true. The author served in the British Indian Army on the North West Frontier in World War II, which brings a strong sense of reality the account of border duty and role of the Auxiliary units. There is a good map that makes the major action clear as well as lists of key terms characters and historical events.
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