A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Wallace Breem's Eagle in the Snow (New York: Rugged Land LLC, 2003, reprint of 1970 edition; $24.95) starts with a fascinating historical fact. In A.D. 406, as Germanic tribes tried to cross into Gaul, the Rhine froze at Moguntiacum (Mainz), which it had not done for centuries. The narrator, the fictional General Paulinus Gaius Maximus, must stop the barbarians, and the ingenious ways he tries to achieve this and the bravery he and his men show forms the heart of the story. Breem's vivid battle descriptions provide a picture of a man attempting to prevent a human tidal wave from overwhelming the Roman Empire, from the Rhine to Rome.
This may recall the opening scene of the film Gladiator, in which an idealistic Roman general named Maximus battles hordes of Germans along the Rhine. In fact, the decision to reissue this long out-of-print novel, considered by many a must-read of Roman historical fiction, was made after the film's success.
Breem has a lilting prose style: "They could not reach us across the ditches, but their axes could, and men who had been holding shields all day grew tired, till they could hold them no longer, and then they had no need to." But problems arise when the work attempts to be both literary and historical.
The only developed characters are Maximus and his right-hand man, Quintus Veronius. A few historical characters are distinctive, but other officers or barbarian leaders are too sketchy and require frequent resort to the List of Principal Characters. Theme is equally simple: that a man of sufficient honor will sacrifice himself and those around him for an ideal of Rome, a city he has never seen.
Eagle in the Snow is a good place to start for anyone who wants to imagine life at the time Rome was starting to collapse. It has great battle scenes and a likable, honorable narrator. Despite some slow sections and a few historical and literary lapses, it is a serious novel set in a turbulent time.
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