Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers: a reflection on the decline of the British empire?

One of the texts we looked at last week as an introduction to our MA module on British Children’s Literature, 1960s to the current day, was Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers (although this was written in 1959). I thought I would add a few observations about the book as a kind of review and a summary of what I think I learned about it this week!

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What it’s about:

This is the third in a series of historical books about Britain under the Roman empire, often referred to as the ‘Marcus’ or ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ series, the first of which was recently made into a film called ‘The Eagle’. 

The Lantern Bearers is set during the fifth century, as Roman troops completed their withdrawal from Britain during increased Saxon attacks on the island. The novel’s hero is Aquila, a young Roman soldier who, after being asked to leave England and return to Rome with his troops, abandons his regiment to return to his family in England and help protect them against the Saxon invaders. However, after shortly after returning home, his family home is ransacked by Saxon marauders, his father, dogs, and servants are murdered and his sister is carried away, screaming. Aquila is beaten and left for dead, tied to a tree, until more invaders discover him and bring him home to serve as a slave in Ullasfjord.

After three years of servitude, the Saxons he is in thrall to return to Britain to live after disastrous harvests. Shortly after arriving, Aquila plans his escape and is aided by none other than Flavia. He begs her to join him but she refuses, saying she has a son and husband now and her place is with them. Aquila flees but with a heavy heart, carrying bitterness and rage as he vows to avenge his family alongside the Prince of Britain, Ambrosius Aurelianius. He is not only furious with the Saxons, he is also bitter towards his sister, whom he thinks has committed the ultimate betrayal. The book then focuses on how Ambrosius’ Roman sympathisers forge allegiances with the Celts to overcome Saxons but is mainly an intimate portrayal of one man’s struggle to come to terms not only with the new order in the country but also with his own demons.

The book won the Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, which recognizes the year’s best children’s book by a British writer.

Empirical evidence

When I first started reading The Lantern Bearers I admit I struggled – I found the language rather stodgy to begin with. However, I soon started appreciating the book for its incredibly poetic narrative – Aquila’s love for his land shines through Sutcliff’s beautiful natural descriptions – and the depth with which Sutcliff portrays Aquila’s struggles. It’s not just about who wins on the battlefields – enough proof is given to show that victories are short-lived and allegiances even more tenuous.

What astounded me about the book is Sutcliff’s ability to convincingly portray the psychological anguish of a male protagonist, and a Roman one at that. She makes him a believable and rich person and it is hard not to take on his pain as your own as you read.

Our course materials suggest that ‘Sutcliff constantly uses the past as a safely distanced environment in which to explore her concerns about the present time’ (Pinsent). I didn’t necessarily get this when I read the book and only could draw parallels when I read in the course materials about the issues affecting authors of this time, a large one being the decline of the British Empire. Apparently the book can be seen as mirroring the experience of British colonialists, especially in countries such as Kenya, where they were torn between staying behind as Britain withdrew or returning home to what would seem like a strange culture.

Realistic relationships

Another big theme running through the book, which I could see more clearly, is that of the tensions in familial relationships. What is interesting is that while Aquila has a good and solid traditional relationship with his father, built on mutual respect and admiration, his son Flavian turns into something of a rebel. He chooses to ignore his father’s wishes for him to remain with his group of soldiers during a major battle and rides off with a younger soldier he admires more. This is teenage rebellion in Roman times and the awkwardness between father and son is gently and non-judgementally portrayed as Aquila wishes for a closer relationship, suspecting his taciturn nature and bitterness as a cause for their estrangement. Their difficult conversations and the scowls Flavian shoots at his father can be found in any age, one imagine, but certainly have been featured more heavily in more modern books.

Our materials state that there is a ‘good deal of contrast between the situation of Aquila and his sister Flavia’  but I am not entirely in agreement with this. What we witness mainly are Aquila’s anger and hurt towards Flavia for choosing her Saxon husband and son over her Roman brother, particularly in light of how she was captured and forced into marriage, and one would assume she would be desperate to escape this predicament. Instead she simply says that her husband is her husband and she feels bound to him.

Aquila cannot grasp this until his wife, Ness, refuses to leave him to live again with her people when they abandon Ambrosius’ cause. There is no love lost between Aquila and Ness – they were both thrown into the marriage to prove allegiance between her father and Ambrosius – but she declares herself true to Aquila because of their son Flavian. Slowly, Aquila starts to realize that his sister’s decision was not one of betrayal of her old family but of being tied to her new one. When he rescues her son – his half-Saxon nephew – from almost certain death, his bitterness dissipates and he finds the peace that has eluded him for so long.

Since all this is shown through the eyes of Aquila and not much space is given to the women’s predicament, one cannot really say that equal treatment is given to Aquila’s and Flavia’s situations. This is not a criticism – this is, after all, Aquila’s story – but I think there’s not enough to support any claims of equal balance between the two.

Slaves and servitude

The main message (or was it a feeling?) that I got from reading The Lantern Bearers was that everyone was in thrall to someone else – even the leaders of the warring sides:

  • Aquila was literally in thrall to his Saxon captors for three years
  • Flavia is in thrall to her Saxon husband
  • Ness is in thrall to Aquila to seal her father’s commitment to Ambrosius’ cause
  • Ambrosius is in thrall to his father’s reputation and legacy in trying to keep Britain in the hands of the Romans instead of falling victim to the Saxons.

Being a slave isn’t just about being captured and forced to work for another. It’s about being tied to an emotion, as Aquila is in his bitterness, about being dependent upon the fluctuating loyalties of others, as Ambrosius is, about knowing your place and not being able to physically escape it, as are Ness and Flavia, who cannot shake the shackles of servitude off as Aquila is when given the chance. It’s how these characters deal with their situation that makes this book so fascinating and gripping and makes it more than a simple war story.

Fred Inglis said in his notes to the 1976 edition, ‘Aquila is much less confident, much more morally adrift than the earlier heroes…’ (pp 171-172). He is a hero in many more ways than brandishing a sword and cutting down the enemy; he is flawed but sympathetic and certainly not one-dimensional. I take my hat off to Sutcliffe for creating such depth, warmth and sadness in such a great, male character.


Have you read any books by Rosemary Sutcliff? What are your favourites? What do you think of her characterization?


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