Friday, January 11, 2008

Book review: Farewell Britannia: A Family Saga of Roman Britain, by Simon Young



Spoiler: The Saxons totally take over at the end. ;)

Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC, but no invasion was successful until the Emperor Claudius' in AD 43. Roman rule lasted until 410, when the Emperor Honorius, faced with the chaos in the eroding Western Roman Empire, withdrew the British legions and told the people to look to their own defences. In Farewell Britannia, historian Simon Young fills in the centuries in between with a fictionalised study of Roman Britain, as witnessed by the members of an illustrious family, the Atrebates, descended from the royal house of the tribe of the same name.

The first story concerns Commius, the Gaulish chieftain who travelled to Britain to communicate to the British Celts on Caesar's behalf and who founded the British Atrebates. Other chapters deal with events such as the Claudian invasion, Boudicca's uprising in c. 61 AD, the Great Barbarian Conspiracy in 367, etc. These major events, however, are kept to the periphery of the narrative as Young delves into the most obscure - and more fascinating - details of Romano-British life. Every story, even if it is fictional, has a real name, inscription, or artefact at its heart, and while the Atrebates' family tree is a mish-mash of the historical and fictional, every member's name can be found attested somewhere in Roman Britain. There are "big names" to be found, such as Togidubnus, Gratian, and Lucius Artorius Castus, but equally the reader comes across lesser-known names such as Claudia Severa and Silvius Bonus. The chapters that deal with a disgraced official's suicide, or the infanticide of slave children, while fictional in themselves, still have that grain of truth at their heart. Young builds stories around tiny scraps of evidence, such as the probable theft of the Vyne Ring, Claudia Severa's birthday invitation to Sulpicia Lepidina, whilst filling out each tale with a wealth of historical detail.

Young vividly evokes the atmosphere of Roman Britain, and his erudition on the subject lends that atmosphere an added feel of authenticity. His author's notes in themselves, headed with what he terms "curiosities", are fascinating to read. Some figures, such as Julius Agricola and Magnus Maximus do not appear, but their absence is explained and understandable.

Of course, I've got some quibbles (don't I always?). Although the Atrebates are the reader's guides into Roman Britain, none of them are particularly endearing or engaging, so it was hard to feel any affinity for them. This is more than made up for in detail and atmosphere, but if you're picking up Farewell Britannia expecting to read it as an historical novel, watch your step. While no doubt true to their time and place, the characters of Farewell Britannia don't have the same warmth and memorability as, say, Rosemary Sutcliff's. This is, all things considered, a history book, albeit fictionalised, so the best bet is to read it for the history and approach the fictional aspect as you would approach a well-done docu-drama.

And I could have done without having to read "[York]" or "[Colchester]" in square brackets like that whenever Eboracum or Camulodunum was mentioned. It jarred what was otherwise a very smooth, atmospheric narrative, and was also unnecessary, considering the book contains a map with all relevant place names, ancient and modern.

And, for the love of Nodens, Mr. Young, it's Rosemary Sutcliff, not Sutcliffe. Grrrgnashsnarl...

Despite those minor points, this is one of the best evocations of Britannia I've read to date. Highly recommended, especially for people who have even a passing interest in Roman Britain.

11 comments:

Crystal said...

Ah sweet, your back;0) Glad to know that everything is well and sounds like you HAVE been busy.

Question..Did they ever explain why Emperor Honorius withdrew the British Legions? I don't know that much and sometimes I get confused with so many important people playing such major roles in History.

Anyway, I've got to run. Harassing of the kids will take place in moments, I've got to prepare;) (shakes head) I need to get a life don't I???!;0)

Kirsten Campbell said...

Hi, Crystal.

There were a number of factors that resulted in the withdrawal from Britain. Honorius' reign was pretty much characterised by invasions by the "barbarian hordes" into the Western Roman Empire, as well as numerous uprisings from within - including in Britain. In 410, Honorius was preoccupied with Alaric and his Visigoths.

The Empire's most pressing objective was to defend its heartland, and the richer provinces, hence the withdrawal of the legions. Britain itself was probably too remote to lend aid to at that time, and several ancient writers commented on how the province brought in little money. It was likely the expedient thing, for Honorius at any rate, to cut ties with Britain. They probably thought it wasn't worth it in the long run.

And I don't think the recent slew of uprisings - Marcus, Gratian, and Constantine - helped Britain's position any. Honorius and co. probably decided, "Ah, to hell with them."

That's it in a nutshell, anyway. Hope that helps!

As for harassing the kids - well - parent's prerogative, I suppose! XD

Gabriele C. said...

Well, Honorius' army was preoccupied with Alaric (the part that didn't have to deal with Constantine who'd already taken the better part of the British garrisons with him, and his successors in Gaul and Spain), Honorius himself was busy feeding his pet chicken. :)

Kirsten Campbell said...

Now how did I manage to forget that? Ah, dear little Roma... :)

K.A. Denby said...

I just read AD 500: A Journey through the Dark Isles of Britain and Ireland by Simon Young. It was excellent! It was a little short, and could've had more details for my liking. But overall, it was quite a delightful little book to introduce someone to dark ages Britain and Ireland.

Celedë Anthaas said...

Sounds like an interesting book :) I'll be sure to check it out some time (why is payday always so far away?)

Crystal said...

Thank you for getting that straight for me, it does help.

Hope you've had a good weekend and goodluck with your exams coming up, Sam has her mid-term exams as well this next week so I think we'll all be a little busy. Even though school is behind me it's always rearing it's ugly head whenever Sam brings papers home saying HELP!!LOL!

Crystal said...

Sam starts her exams today so I thought i'd stop over to say good luck on yours too!

Kirsten Campbell said...

Kristopher - I'm also keeping a lookout for AD 500 now. It seems to be very much in the same vein as Farewell Britannia, with a focus on those quirky, fascinating little nuggets of information. :)

Celedë - Yes, it's worth a look. So many books, so little money too buy 'em with... :(

Crystal - Thanks very much!

I have the same thing with my sister's Biology homework. She asks me for help, and I can barely remember anything! She eventually tries to take the paper back, saying it's okay and she'll work it out, but I keep grasping onto it going, "No! I know this, I know this!" XD

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

This book seemed such a good and original idea, but when I browsed it in a bookshop I saw that the author thought Vindolanda was at Housesteads. Such carelessness, grrr, it put me right off the whole book. If it's corrected for the paperback, I might read it - your review made me want to give it a try.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Sarah - Hello, and welcome.

Yes, that baffled me, too, especially since everything else in the book is so well researched. Even I know that Vindolanda and Housesteads are different forts!

I would still give it a go, however. Despite that annoying little slip-up, it's good.