Eagle's Egg
Hamlyn paperback edition




Short story



Historical era



Victor Ambrus

Eagle's Egg is a short story for children first published in 1981 and illustrated by Victor Ambrus. It draws heavily on Tacitus's account of Agricola's Caledonian campaigns, and is the last of Sutcliff's stories set in Roman Britain, the period she was best known for.


The narrator, a Roman who spent his youth in Britain, proposes to tell a story to his grandchildren. He, Quintus, was posted to Eburacum as the standard-bearer of the Ninth Legion. At the well in the street behind the Temple of Sulis he meets a British woman, whose brother Vedrix had come from Lindum to lay the mosaic floor of the Council Chamber, part of a building program sponsored by Agricola. The girl's name proves to be Cordaella, and over the course of the spring she and Quintus continue to meet, but soldiers below the rank of centurion are prohibited from marrying. On the day that Quintus explains the situation to Vedrix, who is skeptical but disclaims any authority over Cordaella, the Ninth Legion is called up to join Agricola at Corstopitum.

The Ninth, Twentieth, Second, Fourteenth, and the Fleet pass the summer building a naval resupply base on the Firth, then a string of forts between the firths the next. As they press into the highlands the following year, they encounter heavy resistance led by Calgacus, and the troops grow restive under the constant threat and constant fort-building. While the Ninth spends its third winter of the campaign at Inchtuthil, a minor mutiny breaks out. Quintus, sent to show the standard before the soldiers, pulls a duck's egg from his tunic and jokes that they've upset the Eagle, which defuses the mood of the crowd and ends the mutiny.

The following year's campaigning pushes to the Grampians, where they meet the Caledonians in pitched battle for the first time. Calgacus and thousands of Caledonians are killed, as is a centurion of the Ninth Legion. Quintus is promoted to centurion of the Sixth Century, Ninth Cohort, partly on the strength of his management of the nascent mutiny. In the autumn the Ninth returns to Eburacum, where Quintus finds Vedrix still working and Cordaella still waiting. The next year, Agricola is recalled to Rome and the northern forts abandoned.


The story takes as historical backdrop Agricola's Caledonian campaigns of 79-83 CE. Quintus meets Cordaella in late winter of 80, the winter following Agricola's first summer of campaigning in Caledonia and building program of the following autumn and winter. Their courtship takes place over the spring of 80, and the Ninth Legion leaves Eburacum in late spring of 80 (ch. 3). The summer of 80 is spent building a naval base on the Firth, then a string of forts in 81, preceding a push into the highlands in 82. The winter of the mutiny in Inchtuthil is that of 82-83, and the battle of Mons Graupius takes place the following year in 83.

  • c. 60 CE: Vedrix breaks his leg "when he was a boy" (ch. 1)
  • c. 70s CE: Cordaella and Vedrix's father dies (Ch. 2: "'In all the years since our father died, I have never yet found the way to make Cordaella do anything she was set against.'")
  • 77 CE: Tribal unrest. (Ch. 2: "'I'd have been out with the fighting men during the Troubles three years since, but for this short leg of mine.'")
  • 7? CE: Quintus arrives in Eburacum. (Ch. 1: "Eburacum was a frontier station in my father's day; your great-grandfather's. But Roman rule spread northward in one way and another; and by the time I was posted up there as Eagle Bearer to the Ninth Legion it wasn't a frontier station anymore,")
  • 79 CE
    • spring-summer: Agricola's campaigns in lowland Caledonia. (Ch. 1: "It was just about a year since the General Agricola had come out from Rome with orders to bring Caledonia, away north of us, within the frontiers of the Empire. He had taken the Second and Fourteenth Legions and pushed up through South Western Caledonia, and pegged the country down with a handful of forts and marching camps.")
    • autumn-winter: Public works program begun. (Ch. 1: "At summer's end, when Agricola came back out of the wilds, he let it be known that there would be help from the Treasury for any town that liked to smarten itself up,")
  • 80 CE
    • late winter: Vedrix and Cordaella move to Eburacum. (Ch. 1: "It had been a mild winter, and so the work had gone forward most of the time, and by winter's end most of the work was done and the thick fluted roof tiles were in place, so that the floor could be begun... And so up came Vedrix,")
    • late winter: Quintus meets Cordaella: (Ch. 1: "on one of those dark edge-of-spring evenings"; "'But indeed I have not long been in Eburacum.'"; "The picture-floor was only a few days begun when I first saw my red-haired girl at the Well of Sulis. I spent a good deal of time watching it grow in the next few days also,")
    • spring: Quintus and Cordaella meeting. (Ch. 2: "for quite a while I was not off duty at the right time again. But at last the waiting was over, and we both chanced together once more at the Well of Sulis;"; "in one way and another, we contrived to see quite a bit of each other as that Spring drew on,")
    • late spring (2): Quintus asks Vedrix's consent; the Ninth receives marching orders (3)
    • 3 days later (3): the Ninth marches north, to return three years later
    • campaign season & winter (4): Agricola's army builds Naval Base [Theodosia]
  • 81 CE (4)
    • Spring: begin forts across Antonine Wall line
    • Winter: Calgacus unites the Caledonians
  • 82 CE (4)
    • Spring: Push into the Highlands
    • Summer: Heavy fighting.
    • Winter: Ninth at Inchtuthil. Legate absent.
  • 83 CE
    • Late winter (4): mutiny at Inchtuthil
    • Spring (5): Campaign
    • Summer ("the nights are short in the north at that time of year"), one morning: battle of Mons Graupius
    • 3 days later: Quintus promoted centurion
    • Late autumn (6): Ninth returns to Eburacum
    • Next day: Quintus reunites with Cordaella and Vedrix
  • 84 CE: Agricola recalled to Rome; the Fourteenth leaves for Germany; Northern forts abandoned
  • Before 117 CE and the loss of the Ninth: Quintus tells the story to his grandchildren


  • Quintus
  • Cordaella
  • Vedrix
  • Agricola (Gnaeus Julius Agricola)
  • Kaeso, sells fighting-cocks in Eburacum (1)
  • Manlius, fort surgeon at Eburacum (2)
  • Old woman owned by Cordaella (2)
  • "Daddy" Dexius Valens, Senior Centurion of the Ninth Legion (3)
  • Lucius, a friend of Quintus's (4), promoted to standard-bearer (6)
  • the Legate (4), indisposed
  • Vipsanius, duty centurion during the mutiny (4)
  • Calgacus (4)
  • Valarius, a centurion of the Ninth killed at Mons Graupius (5)
  • Young tribune killed at Mons Graupius [Aulus Atticus] (5)
  • Gaurus, centurion of the Ninth Legion, Sixth Century, Ninth Cohort, promoted after Mons Graupius (6)
  • The Ninth, Second, Fourteenth, and Twentieth Legions

Places Edit

  • Britain
    • Eburacum (1), HQ of the Ninth Legion
      • the fort
      • the Temple of Sul, Cordaella and Vedrix's street
      • the Council Chamber
    • Lindum (1), Cordaella and Vedrix's home
    • the south (2), relatively civilised
    • Corstopitum (3), depot town
    • Caledonia (1), uncivilised
      • the Naval Station [Theodosia] (4), supply route
      • the Highlands (4), uncomfortable
        • Inchtuthil (4), highland fort
        • the Grampians (5), a northerly mountain range
          • Mons Graupius (5), Caledonians brought to battle
  • Rome
  • Germany (6), northern continental frontier, restive

Literary and historical sourcesEdit

Agricola's campaigns and the Battle of Mons Graupius are related in Tacitus's De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, or On the Life and Character of Julius Agricola.

Vedrix's work on the Eburacum Council House (ch. 1) refers to Agricola 21, "Agricola gave private encouragement and public aid to the building of temples, courts of justice and dwelling-houses". Agricola 22 summarises the campaigning of the year before Eagle's Egg begins (ch. 1), and Agricola 23 the construction of the Cluta-Bodotria line (ch. 4). Calgacus and the battle of Mons Graupius (ch. 5) are introduced in Agricola 29, and chapter 5 adapts the speeches of Calgacus (A.30) and Agricola (A.33-4). Agricola 36-7 describes the battle, including the "one young fool of a Tribune who rode right into a rear-guard fight at the edge of the woods" (ch. 5).

Publication historyEdit

  1. 1981, Hamish Hamilton, Great Britain.
  2. 1982, paperback, Hamlyn.
  3. 1995, Eagle's Honour (omnibus edition), paperback, Red Fox.
  4. 201?, Eagle's Honour (omnibus edition), ebook, Red Fox.