"Eagle In The Snow" by Wallace Breem centers on the years 405 AD to early 407, capturing a key moment in the Roman Empire's death throes as hundreds of thousands of mostly Germanic peoples mass on the east bank of the Rhine waiting for the river to freeze and to walk into Gaul. The tale is an epitaph for the Roman Empire with General Paulinus Gaius Maximus serving as the lone pall bearer, carrying the weight of an empire marching inexorably toward its grave.
Compared to the action adventures of Scarrow, Igguldon or Duffy, the writing style of "Eagle in the Snow" is stark, abrupt and subtle. "Eagle" is deep and the prose and exposition are very genuine. Think of Scarrow and Duffy as TV movies, and Breem as an Oscar-worthy film. It's no surprise that the book was a Bestseller, and in the realm of Roman historical fiction, "Eagle" justifies its praise as a classic. For those less interested in Roman military fiction, like the Rhine itself, "Eagle" runs much deeper.
Breem paints a very detailed and accurate picture of life in Maximus' world. This historical novel is as solid in its history as documentation and archaeology allowed in the late `60s, and the liberties taken seem to be few and forgivable. He draws a very vivid exposition of existence at the ends of the Roman earth. He elicits emotion through the subtle interplay between characters and through Maximus' monologue.
The story is structured from Maximus' point of view, who narrates all but the prologue and epilogue. He is the consummate Roman - born in Gaul to Roman ancestry, raised to be a soldier. He loves Rome with every thread of his being, and despite never having been there, he loves what the city is and what it represents. Breem's Maximus is the Roman ideal.
His cousin Julian was brought up by his own parents as Julian's were forced to commit suicide by a usurping Roman Emperor. Julian also grows up to be a soldier, but at this point the cousins' paths diverge. Maximus and Julian represent two sides of a Roman coin - on one side is Maximus: the Empire, staunch, disciplined, loyal and forever Roman. On the other side is Julian: the Empire in decline, resentful, living-on-the-fringe, and consumed by hatred.
Maximus is pushed to break away from the Empire and lead his frontier legions as a new emperor. He declines both times, once to his Roman legion and once to the Germanic tribes. Julian intercedes on the tribes' behalf and Maximus explains why he can't accept: "My Empire has had more usurping Emperors than I can count...all weakened the empire they thought to strengthen. I shall not add to their number." Julian responds: "The Empire is dying, Maximus. It is weaker than when you were a boy..."
Maximus ultimately receives no support from any other Roman legion, reflecting the fractured, disaggregated and self-interested nature of the Empire's far-flung nations. The ending is inevitable - though such is the emotive monologue by Maximus that one can't help but feel hope and optimism at each turn in the ultimate series of battles.
The Rugged Land edition of the book (published in 2004) provides a detailed list of characters, historical timeline, Roman and modern place names, and glossaries of tribes and 5th century terms. It's particularly helpful that historical figures are distinguished from those that are purely fictional. Maximus, while perhaps loosely based on Generals of the time, is fictional. A more detailed map also would've been helpful.