Peter Parsons, Literary Review, June 2007
AD 410, and the lamps were going out all over Europe. German tribes had finally broken through the Rhine frontier; Alaric and his Goths were about to sack Rome itself, 1163 years after its foundation. The Roman Emperor Honorius, in his safe retreat among the marshes of Ravenna, had enough to do to guarantee his own safety. When, therefore, the cities of his most northerly province appealed for help against the raiding Saxons, he replied in a letter that his Greek historian summarises in two words: ‘Defend yourselves’. And so, for a time, they did, quite successfully. But twenty years later war and diplomacy had only confirmed their isolation from the Empire: Roman Britannia was mutating into Anglo-Saxon England.
It’s from this point that Simon Young’s ‘family saga’ begins. The narrator attends his father’s funeral. There (in accordance with Roman custom) the funeral masks of his ancestors are paraded, and he looks back over twelve generations which have witnessed the rise and decline of ‘Roman Britain’, from the first reconnaissance which the Gaulish chieftain Commius conducted on behalf of Julius Caesar. (Commius later rebelled, escaped to Britain, and settled as ruler of the Atrebates from the Thames southward to the sea.) Two generations later, in AD 43, the Roman army arrives in force, despatched by the Emperor Claudius, a stammering pedant much in need of military glamour. And so (as the Romans saw it) a third-world patch of tall, tattooed, beer-drinking trouser-wearers joins civilisation. King Togidubnus, himself a Roman citizen, proclaims himself, in Latin, ‘Great King of Britain’; Chichester sports a Temple of Neptune and Minerva, and imported craftsmen create mosaic floors for a seaside palace at Fishbourne.
With time the Roman army advances into Wales and Scotland, undeterred by the rebellion of Boudicca (AD 60/1). The Scottish Highlands defeat them, and in the end (towards AD 200) they pull back to Hadrian’s wall, where they maintain the frontier for two hundred years. Two centuries, by and large, of peace, assimilation and increasing prosperity. All the inhabitants have Roman citizenship. Celtic gods merge with Roman ones in temples built in Celtic style, even as Christianity establishes a foothold. Oxfordshire potters export to France; the studios of Cirencester supply their own style of mosaics for handsome villas. Yet there are external enemies in waiting, and in AD 367, ominously, those enemies combine forces, the Picts from the north and the Scots from Ireland (‘peoples partly different in habits’, wrote Gildas later, ‘but agreeing in one and the same greed for shedding blood, their villainous faces more concealed by hair than their private parts by clothing’) – and, finally and decisively, the Saxons from across the North Sea. The Roman garrison, once a full tenth of the imperial forces, drains away: in 383 and again in 407 an ambitious commander proclaims himself Emperor, and takes his troops across the Channel to fight for the supreme prize. By AD 410 Roman Britain stands empty of Roman authority.
Simon Young is a professional of things Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, who commands the sparse ancient sources and the extensive modern literature with ease and insight. His ‘family saga’ unites real people, or at least real names, in a family which is (except in the first two generations) fictional. The fiction proceeds by vignettes, with an afterword and notes to reveal the facts, historical and archaeological, behind each one. Some picture the major events of local history. Others sketch scenes of peace: dinner at the villa, bathing at Bath, Claudia Severa’s birthday party near Hadrian’s wall, for which we still have the invitation - written on a postcard-sized slice of wood, since papyrus was not to be had out here on the periphery.
Enthusiasts of Roman Britain will admire the virtuosity with which Young conjures new life into old bones. Other readers will simply enjoy the infancy of the island race, presented with such verve and immediacy. ‘The past is another country’, but one whose realities Young reinvents with a rare combination of scholarship and imagination. The stage fills with figures who now survive only through passing references in literature or chance archaeological finds. We meet Paul, inquisitor to the paranoid Emperor Constantius II, nicknamed ‘the Chain’ from his ability to weave complex webs of calumny; and Silvius Bonus (‘Good Silvius’) the critic, who incautiously attacked the arriviste poet Ausonius of Bordeaux (‘No Brit is a Good Brit’, replied Ausonius). We meet Iamcilla, whose name is engraved on the Christian silverware buried at Water Newton, and Victorinus, who appears as ‘interpreter of dreams’ on a religious mosaic from Lydney, and Lucius Artorius Castus, whom we know from a memorial plaque far away in Croatia, general of cavalry in Britain and thought by some to be the original King Arthur. We meet them in the landscape they inhabited, with its wolves and bears, its farms transformed by such Roman imports as apples and plums, carrots and cabbages; and in the society of their time, with its abandoned babies and its secret police, its veteran soldiers whose calloused necks showed twenty years of wearing the chin-strap, its imported slaves whose chalk-whitened feet identified them for customs-duty.
Young’s chronicle, a fictional history more than a historical fiction, vividly recreates the four centuries of Roman Britain, a short episode long to be remembered. Rome remained a name to conjure with, and Roman buildings littered the landscape like dinosaur bones. In the Anglo-Saxon epoch, a poet meditated on the ruins of a Roman bath, ‘works of giants’. Not long after the Norman conquest, William of Malmesbury noted in York the signs of ‘Roman elegance’. Over long centuries, we have clawed back some Roman comforts: roads and concrete, piped water and central heating. We still stop short of the common currency. And we are working hard to reform away the most central and continuous of all our links with Britannia, the knowledge of the Latin language.