Reviewed by David Maclaine
Under the Eagle is the first novel in a series whose installments have now gone into double digits, set mainly in the camps of the Roman legions and on the battlefields where they fought. It introduces the odd-couple duo who will hold the reader's sympathies as the series continues: the rough, low-level officer named Macro, and the educated young freedman named Cato he must teach to be a soldier. They meet en route to a new assignment as part of the force sent to conquer Britain for the Emperor Claudius. Plots are brewing in the background because of secret orders about a wagon-load of gold left behind decades earlier when Julius Caesar invaded the island. The soldiers discover they are entangled in political intrigues that may involve the commander of their own legion, a competent officer named Vespasian; the emperor's chief minister, Narcissus; and a scheming courtier named Vitellius who has been attached to the army but has an agenda of his own. Soon there are secret missions, betrayals and ambushes which test the protagonist's survival skills. Young Cato will soon find himself in the middle of a fierce battle where he will learn whether his training in the soldier's craft is enough to see him through. Even the knowledge that the series will continue takes little edge from the suspenseful climax.
If you're new to the basic cut and thrust of Roman military tactics, this novel will take you through a solid basic training, until you're utterly familiar with the way the initial volleys of javelins give way to tight, disciplined ranks of men with stabbing swords. But even devotees of ancient warfare will enjoy the skill with which Scarrow deploys the men of the legions, thrusting them into complex tactical situations and intense scenes of combat. The professional craft the author brings to Under the Eagle is a fitting match for the professional soldiers he celebrates. (2001, 246 pages)More about Under the Eagle at Powell's Books or Amazon.com