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Eagle in the Snow

From the Publisher...

The Legate's Daughter

Profile of Wallace Breem by Alan Fisk


Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem

Wallace Breem's Eagle in the Snow is widely recognized as a modern classic in the historical fiction genre, creating living characters, set in a factually correct past, that is brought to life through the skill of the writer.  He has inspired historical novelists since this novel first came out in 1970.  You'll find many elements of his novels and characters in the books by Lindsay Davis (Marcus Didius Falco Mystery Series) and Steven Saylor (Gordianus the Finder Mystery series).  And the Italian novelist Valerio Massimo Manfredi's book The Last Legion, which was made into a film of the same name, takes up the Excalibur plotline that is suggested by a line near the end of Eagle in the Snow.

Eagle in the Snow was recently re-released in both hardback and paperback (although it is still hard to come by).  And there are plenty of second-hand copies in circulation.  There is, again, talk of adapting it to film.

Interest in the book was renewed partly because the character of Maximus, Quintus and others that appeared in the Oscar-winning film Gladiator, were inspired at least in part by Mr. Breem’s characters.  And the opening sequence of the film, on the Eastern border of the Roman Empire, was straight from Mr. Breem’s book.

Many Eagle in the Snow fans regret that Gladiator only took a few characters and settings, rather than adapted the whole novel.  They all agree that Breem’s story is far superior to the Gladiator story, which is mainly a mash-up of old Hollywood Roman-Swords-and-Sandals movies.

Wallace Breem's book covers most of the life of Maximus, a fictional Roman General, who recounts his story to some defeated peasants in Cornwall, England.  As he recounts, over the course of Maximus's career, he defends the Roman Empire from invasion by hordes from the North, and then the East under Roman General Stilicho (roughly present day France from present day Germany). 

Maximus is a perfect Roman soldier:  brave, orderly, rigorous, dedicated, honorable and dependable.  He is a staid and stolid man whose greatest pride is in his self-discipline and the forces under him.  So he is understandably shamed  to see the poor state of Rome's famous legions as the Empire crumbles under the continued attacks from tribes outside the Empire's frontiers (limes). 

He puts up a thankless struggle against a unified force of invaders both in the North and in the East.  But the winter invasions by barbarian tribes over the frozen Rhine River in 406-407, which he attempts to counter, are often sited as the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire, as Breem recounts in his book through stolid Maximus's account.

You should read the rave reader reviews at both and Barnes and Noble.  Because we know in advance the sad outcome of all of poor Maximus's commands, I found the book rather sad and depressing, but also full of painfully real characters set in a meticulously imagined past that is painted with a light touch.  Maximus's stolid character produces many moments of poignancy.  I had to read the book in small doses so as not to become to depressed by the story.

One reader-reviewer wrote: "...there is a poignant Latin coda at the end of the original text, along the lines of a Roman funerary inscription, that is MISSING from both Rugged Land editions (hardback and paperback) -- how do these things happen? Shame on the publisher. This ties up some lingering questions about how Maximus' narrative came to be and is a fitting sign-off to this powerful story."

Here is that funerary epitaph, that is an answer to Maximus's near final statement that none of the soldiers from the Eastern front were commemorated on funerary (grave) stones, as was a Roman tradition, just in case your edition is missing it:


And a rough translation (please contact me if you have a better one):

To the spirits of the departed (To the gods of the afterlife, or in today's wording 'In Loving Memory')

For Paulinus Gaius Maximus son of Claudius Arelatis,

Prefectus of the First Cohort of Tungrians, and Legate of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix,

Commander in Chief at Mainz, Count in charge of the defense of Gaul

who died aged 57, and for Quintus Veronius, Prefectus

of the Petriana Wing, and Prefectus of the Second Cohort Asturias, and

Master of the Horse (Head of the Cavalry) for Upper Germany, who died in his 56th year

in the Battle of the Rhine.

Their friend Saturninus erected this.

The womanizing, drinking, gambling, master-horseman character of Quintus Veronius, one of Maximus's closest friends, appears to be a precursor of the protagonist of Breem's next novel, The Legate's Daughter, Curtius Rufus, who may be based on the Roman senator, historian and self-made man of obscure background, Quintus Curtius Rufus.

If you're into battle scenarios and war-games, check out this fan's analysis of Maximus's battles to defend the Roman Empire's Eastern flank.


From The Publisher:  

"Banished to the Empire’s farthest outpost, veteran warrior Paulinus Maximus defends The Wall of Britannia from the constant onslaught of belligerent barbarian tribes.  Bravery, loyalty, experience, and success lead to Maximus’ appointment as "General of the West" by the Roman emperor, the ambition of a lifetime.  But with the title comes a caveat:  Maximus needs to muster and command a single legion to defend the perilous Rhine frontier.  

On the opposite side of the Rhine River, tribal nations are uniting; hundreds of thousands mass in preparation for the conquest of Gaul, and from there, a sweep down into Rome itself.  Only a wide river and a wily general keep them in check.

With discipline, deception, persuasion, and surprise, Maximus holds the line against an increasingly desperate and innumerable foe.  Friends, allies, and even enemies urge Maximus to proclaim himself emperor.  He refuses, bound by an oath of duty, honor, and sacrifice to Rome, a city he has never seen.  But then circumstance intervenes.  Now, Maximus will accept the purple robe of emperor, if his scrappy legion can deliver this last crucial victory against insurmountable odds.  The very fate of Rome hangs in the balance.

Combining the brilliantly realized battle action of Gates of Fire [by Stephen Pressfield] and the masterful characterization of Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine, Eagle in the Snow is nothing less than the novel of the fall of the Roman empire.

Wallace Breem's The Legate's Daughter

I have read this book (C.M.) and I found it an intriguing read.  The author departs from his first book (Eagle in the Snow) which shows in intimate detail the skills and character needed to head an Ancient Roman legion at the border of the Empire.  Instead, The Legate's Daughter shows in intimate detail the skills and characters needed to run a diplomatic mission at the edge of the Ancient Roman Empire.

The reader is put in the position of a diplomat, someone who must collect gossip, read people, and read between the lines in this third-person narrated novel.  Nothing is spelled out for the reader.  We must move along with the characters and try to cipher out the truth, the good guys and the bad guys from the events, glances, words, sighs, and chance encounters.

The protagonist is Curtius Rufus.  He is spotted by Maecenas, a real-life master diplomat, and by Marcus Agrippa, a real-life soldier and administrator, who has had to rely on Maecenas's diplomatic skills more then once.  The two men tutor Curtius, then send him on a delicate and impossible mission:  to recover the daughter of a Roman patrician and senator, who has been taken by force from Spain and who is likely hidden somewhere in North Africa.

Breen has created in Curtius Rufus a whole character, full of contradictions, talents, weaknesses and all the natural skills needed by a diplomat who has to deal with the tribes at the edge of the Roman Empire:  guile, intuition, sharp reasoning, people reading, languages, gossip mongering, seduction, conversation that convinces and that induces confidence, patience, tactical tricks, leadership, sacrifice, friendship, loyalty. 

Curtius is a man in a man's world, but he also understands those at the weak end of the harsh society:  the slaves (his father was one), the freedmen (he is one), the Roman outsiders (his best friend is one), the women (his greatest skill is his ability to seduce and please women).

It is possible that Breem created his character with the historian/politician Quintus Curtius Rufus, sometimes called Curtius Rufus, in mind.  The Roman writer Tacitus tells us what little we know about Rufus, and it fits very closely with Breem's character, in moody temperament and ambitious new-man status, which was a self-made man from obscure birth.  That would mean that Breem's Rufus goes on after the end of the book to have a very long life and career leading to a Praetorship, a Consulship, a Triumph (not for military triumphs but for commercial ones), and as a writer, and lastly as Proconsul of Africa, where he presumably died, a very old man.

The book is rich with period detail, so rich that it seems to be written by someone who lived through the events described.  No, I mean REALLY lived there.  So many historical novels purport to be first person accounts of events and fall short, but we make excuses for the writer, saying "Well, it is set in in a date from before the birth of Christ...".  This book has the richness that leaves you feeling that you have visited the times and places described.

This is not an easy read.  Many times I had to set the book down and head for the Internet to look up the history, geography and people of Ancient Rome.  I'm not complaining.  I enjoyed that.  But a warning to readers who like everything handed to them on a plate:  to read the book without the historical information would be a waste of time.  Breem's first novel was written as a gift to his wife.  This novel reads like a gift to every classicist on the planet.  There is so much for the knowledgeable reading to enjoy.  This means that you, the reader, must assemble the plot in your mind as you read, as if you were decoding a diplomatic message. 

Challenging, yes.  Rewarding, most definitely yes!  It is the kind of book that you read to the last page then you start all over again at page one, to make sure you've really understood everything that happened.  I read it, did lots of research, then read it again, and I enjoyed it even more the second time around!



Profile of Wallace Breem by Alan Fisk

(This profile was published previously in Solander, the the magazine of the Historical Novel Society, and is authored by Mr. Alan Fisk (see below).)

In 1970, the Times Literary Supplement ran a dismissive review of a new historical novel called Eagle in the Snow, by an unknown writer called Wallace Breem.

            The review was read by no less a personage than Mary Renault, who sent a scathing letter to the TLS, praising the book and lambasting the reviewer. Eagle in the Snow became a major success, being reprinted twice within the same year, and Wallace Breem seemed set to become one of the big names in historical fiction.

            In July 2002 Eagle in the Snow will be reissued by Phoenix Press. (A full review of Eagle in the Snow will appear in a future issue of The Historical Novels Review.) Negotiations are in progress for a possible film. Sadly, Wallace Breem himself cannot enjoy this success, having died in 1990, but his widow Mrs. Rikki Breem kindly granted an interview to Solander to help with this article.

            The interest in the novel and a film partly arise because the Roman general Maximus, the hero of Eagle in the Snow was an inspiration for the Roman general Maximus, the hero of the film Gladiator.

            Eagle in the Snow covers a period of over 30 years, starting in late fourth-century Britain, and finishing in a harrowing climax when the freezing-over of the river Rhine on 31 December 406 allows a vast horde of Germanic barbarians to pour into the western provinces of the Empire. Maximus is a loyal officer and husband, and a devotee of the cult of Mithras, but his steadfastness is not repaid by loyalty on the part of those close to him. This Maximus is no tiger-fighting gladiator, but a passionate and unhappy man driven into deep waters against his will.

            Wallace Breem was born in 1926, and went to Westminster School. As a boy, he developed a desire to serve in the Indian Army, a desire which was kindled by the books of Rudyard Kipling and by seeing Gary Cooper in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. The 1930s Saturday cinema matinées have much to answer for.

            Breem achieved his ambition, and was commissioned into the Queen Victoria’s Own Corps of Guides, a very distinguished regiment that had long served on the Northwest Frontier.

            He looked forward to a lifelong career in the Guides, apparently not foreseeing that there would be no place for men like him in the independent India that was soon to come into being. His years in the Guides would always haunt him.

            Upon Partition in 1947, Wallace Breem left the Army and sailed back to England, with no plan at all for his life. He had so wanted to make a career in the Guides.

            On the voyage home, Breem began writing the novel that would one day appear after many revisions as his third novel, The Leopard and the Cliff, of which more later.

            When he arrived home Breem took a series of short-term casual jobs, not really knowing what to do with himself. He worked as an assistant to a veterinary surgeon, spent some time working in a tannery, and for a while he was a rent collector in the East End of London, a job which was perhaps nearly as dangerous as his combat service on the Northwest Frontier.

            Eventually an acquaintance suggested that he join the staff of the Inner Temple legal library. Breem had no training or experience in legal librarianship. Today nobody would get such a job without a handful of appropriate certificates, but in the 1940s character counted for more than paper qualifications. Wallace Breem settled into the Inner Temple library, where he would work for the rest of his life.

            There was much to do. A large part of the Inner Temple’s 500­-year-old collection had been lost to enemy air raids in 1941/2, because of a stubborn decision not to move it out of London. Breem started as an Assistant, and then became a Sub-Librarian in 1956.

            While he spent his working life in the library, Wallace Breem had never lost his interest in writing and in history. He had kept the manuscript of The Leopard and the Cliff, and planned several other novels.

            As he rose through the ranks of the Inner Temple library, Breem was also busy writing. Over the years he experienced frustration as a succession of promising schemes came to nothing. At one stage a publisher had asked him to write a book for children, but it was cancelled.

            In 1965 Wallace Breem became Chief Librarian and Keeper of Manuscripts, and in the following year he married his Deputy Librarian Daphne “Rikki” Parnham. When asked to list his interests, he cited “Books and Reading, Poetry, Music, Theatre, Early Cinema, Ancient, Mediæval and Military History, Travel, and Cats”.

            Oddly, the list does not include any reference to writing historical fiction. Eagle in the Snow had originated as a short story that he had written as a Christmas present for Rikki, but as he worked on the story it became longer and longer until it turned into a novel.

            When Eagle in the Snow became Wallace Breem’s first published novel, he was already 54, but it had been worth waiting for. After that first scornful review in the Times Literary Supplement, the praise rolled in from all directions. Mary Renault described it as “Pure pleasure... I had to stop reading it at night - its intense reality kept me awake”, and R.C. Sheriff said “It springs to life on the first page and never falters”.

            Eagle in the Snow was reprinted twice in its first year, and there was already talk of filming it. Breem himself always wanted Charlton Heston to play the part of Maximus!

            Wallace Breem set his stories, where possible, in places that he had visited himself. If that was not possible, he researched them thoroughly. His second novel, The Legate’s Daughter, was largely set in Tunisia, a country that he did not see until after the book had been published.

            The first half of The Legate’s Daughter is set in Rome in 24 B.C., where the former centurion Curtius Rufus is working as an unenthusiastic civil servant in the water-supply office of the city.

            The character of the ex-soldier Curtius Rufus, and the louche Rome in which he lives, oddly prefigure the “Falco” novels of Lindsey Davis.

            Curtius Rufus and his friend the unsuccessful Macedonian poet Criton are forced to travel to North Africa, ostensibly to help the young Mauretanian client king Juba to set up a programme of building works, but really to try to recover a teenage girl, the legate’s daughter of the title, who has been abducted to unknown whereabouts.

            Curtius Rufus strives to understand the complex tribal politics of the North African kingdoms, and establishes a close but troubled relationship with Juba’s queen, Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra of Egypt. (Breem was always fascinated by Queen Cleopatra, and planned to write about her one day.)

            The Legate’s Daughter was published in 1974, but did not match the success of Eagle in the Snow, although it has at least as many interesting and memorable characters. Breem’s gift for creating images that communicate the atmosphere of a distant time and place was as strong as ever, but the book does not quite have the grip of Eagle in the Snow.

            After another four years, The Leopard and the Cliff, which Breem had first written on that unwanted voyage back from India 30 years before, was published in its final form.

            It is based loosely on a real incident from the nearly-forgotten Third Afghan War, which lasted for only 26 days in 1919.

            Major Sandeman of the Khaisora Scouts, a regiment recruited from Pathans and other tribes of Waziristan on the Northwest Frontier, is in acting command of the fort of Khaisora when he receives a signal that a large force has crossed over from Afghanistan and is attacking the scattered outposts.

            Sandeman considers himself to be a mediocrity and a failure. Apart from his own situation, he is also concerned for his much younger wife Sophie, who is expecting their first child. She is 300 miles away, and Sandeman has not seen her for four months.

            He has to recall his officers and men to the fort at Khaisora, and to try to keep the Scouts together although they are drawn from several tribes with a history of mutual distrust. Sandeman has to abandon Khaisora and lead his column on a long march through territory where both the land and its inhabitants are their enemies.

            If you think that all Northwest Frontier novels are the same, this one is different. Major Sandeman’s struggles against his enemies, against the harsh conditions of Waziristan, and against his own doubts about his abilities, make an intensely moving story all the way until the very last pages of this novel, when the last survivors of the Scouts struggle to the end of the march at Fort Gumal.

            The Leopard and the Cliff shares a common theme with Wallace Breem’s other two novels: a man has great responsibilities thrust upon him that he did not seek, and does his best to discharge them and protect his companions. His heroes also always face treachery and betrayal from those whom they should be able to trust.

            Breem planned a fourth novel, about the disaster to the Roman general Varrus who lost three legions in the Teutoberg forest in Germany in 9 A.D., but he never completed it. The success of Eagle in the Snow had proved a false dawn, and he never became a full-time writer of historical novels.

            In any case, Wallace Breem’s time was filled by his work as a legal librarian. He used his writing skills in that field as well, making an important contribution to the standard Manual of Law Librarianship.

            Breem never lost his love of historical fiction. He acted as an adviser on military matters to Rosemary Sutcliff, notably in her Frontier Wolf. He planned a novel about Richard III, with his usual high standards of research. Rikki Breem remembers accompanying him around the site of the battle of Barnet. He still dreamt of a novel about Cleopatra.

            Meanwhile, readers who had been delighted by Eagle in the Snow and its successors wondered what had become of the promising Wallace Breem. Few of them knew that he was probably the country’s leading law librarian, an occupation which most people would have thought suited to a dry-as-dust pedant, not to a man of action like Wallace Breem.

General Maximus honored by his legionnaires in the film Gladiator.  

(Roman history buffs and film pundits have pointed out that Romans did not use stirrups at that time.  But the actors did, because riding a horse Roman style is very, very difficult!  Others point out that the Roman costumes in the film are all from the wrong time periods.  One person even complained that the point on the top of a helmet wiggled as the fighter ran, showing it to be made of rubber.  And a spectator in the Forum was spotted wearing designer sunglasses.)

            After his death, the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians set up the Wallace Breem award for legal librarianship in his honour.

            In Wallace Breem’s obituary in The Independent, Bruce Coward wrote that “...writing of his quality is seldom found in historical writing today. All his books have long been out of print, but deserve reprinting, because they would surely delight those readers who look for integrity as well as excitement in their historical fiction”.

            The reissue of Eagle in the Snow, and the film of it if it is made, will attract a new audience for the historical novels of this thoughtful writer, who was so skilled at creating characters and atmosphere that always live on in the memory of his readers.

(As well as thanking Mrs. Rikki Breem, Solander would like to express its appreciation to Ms. Margaret Clay, the present Librarian and Keeper of Manuscripts at the Inner Temple, for her help in the preparation of this article.)

Alan Fisk is the author of The Strange Things of the World (1988), The Summer Stars (1992 and 2000), Forty Testoons (1999), and Lord of Silver (2001), and Cupid and the Silent Goddess (2003). His website.

Cupid and the Silent Goddess by Alan Fisk

From Reviews: 

"...captures the atmosphere of sixteenth-century Florence and the world of the artists excellently.  this is a fascinating imaginative reconstruction of the events during the painting of Allegory with Venus and Cupid." Marina Oliver, historical novelist. 

"A witty and entertaining romp set in the seedy world of Italian Renaissance artists." Elizabeth Chadwick, award-winning historical novelist.  

You can read the first chapter on-line, and reviews from other authors. 

The painting on the cover, and described in the book, is by Bronzino and is currently in the collection at the National Gallery in London

Another look at the painting...


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