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.