The Literary Legacy of Silchester’s Eagle

Archaeologist Michael Fulford has been excavating Silchester, perhaps the most well-known town in Roman Britain, since 1974. A large part of his life’s work has involved the radical re-examination of the find spot of Silchester’s Eagle made famous by Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth.

Here, he traces the literary legacy surrounding the eagle to explain the evolution of its discovery and ongoing research.

The very fine bronze statue of an eagle was discovered during excavations of the forum basilica, the principal public building of the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester, Hampshire, UK), in October 1866.  The excavations were led by Revd Joyce, the rector of Stratfield Saye, on behalf of the landowner, the 2nd Duke of Wellington.  He made quite a detailed account of the find in his diary.  It was his belief that the eagle had been part of a legionary standard which was hidden in the ceiling of the treasury of the forum basilica when Silchester came under attack by Roman forces regaining control of Britain from the usurper Emperor Allectus in AD 296.  The eagle was finally buried when the basilica was destroyed by barbarian attackers at the end of Roman control of Britain in the latest fourth or fifth century.  This story was taken up by James Thompson in his A Great Free City: the Book of Silchester published in 1924 and this is the likely source from which Rosemary Sutcliffe based her story and its sequel, The Silver Branch, published in 1957.

For Sutcliffe, the Silchester eagle was indeed a legionary standard which she decided to associate with Rome’s Ninth Legion which, at the time she was writing in the early 1950s, many people believed had been completely destroyed, its standard seized, fighting the native tribes of northern Britain early in the second century AD.  Her novel describes how, in the course of trying to find out more about the fate of the legion, the (fictitious) son of its commander, Marcus Flavius Aquila, travelled beyond the northern frontier and discovered the standard.  He returned with it and, eventually, it found its way to Calleva.  These are the adventures described in The Eagle of the Ninth and made the subject of the film, The Eagle in 2011.  Many years later, in the late third century, descendants of Marcus find the eagle in Calleva and what happens to it then is taken up in the sequel, The Silver Branch.  The story links closely with Joyce’s account and his idea of how the standard came to be hidden in the forum basilica of Calleva.

“…the Eagle remains ‘by far the most superbly naturalistic rendering of any bird or beast as yet yielded by Roman Britain.”

More than 150 years after its discovery, we now know more about legionary standards, the Silchester Eagle, and its find spot in the forum basilica. Silchester Revealed sets out what we now know and places the Eagle in its wider context in the history of Calleva.  There is widespread agreement that the Eagle formed part of a life-size imperial statue, not a legionary standard, and that it was probably buried, divorced from its parent statue, as a foundation deposit during the construction of the forum basilica in the early second century.  Nevertheless, the Eagle remains ‘by far the most superbly naturalistic rendering of any bird or beast as yet yielded by Roman Britain’.  It can be seen in the Silchester Gallery of Reading Museum.

Silchester Revealed
By Michael Fulford

With its apparently complete town plan, revealed by the Society of Antiquaries of London’s great excavation project, 1890-1909, Silchester is one of the best-known towns in Roman Britain. In this highly accessible volume written for a popular audience, Silchester’s development from the establishment of the Iron Age settlement, through the phases of the Roman town, up to its decline and collapse in the Saxon period is detailed. Modern archaeological methods allow the exploration of a number of themes demonstrating change over time, and the role of the town as communications centre, economic hub and administrative centre of the tribal ‘county’ of the Atrebates.

9781914427084 | Hardback | Windgather Press | £16.99
Available to order through Oxbow Books

Author: Michael Fulford is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading. His research interests are in the archaeology of the Roman world, particularly in its economic activity and urban life. He has devoted much of his career to Silchester where he began excavating in the first year of his appointment to Reading as lecturer in archaeology in 1974. null