Tag Archives: Rome

The King Arthur Trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliff

The first book I read last year was Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset. From there, I went through the full Eagle of the Ninth and ended with the King Arthur Trilogy. I read a lot of great books last year, and books aimed for my own age group, but rediscovering Sutcliff’s historical fiction was a bit of a highlight.

In her King Arthur Trilogy, written to introduce children to the Arthur myth, she writes:

Some time early in the fifth century AD […] the last Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain to defend Rome itself, and the British were left to hold off the invading Saxons as best they could. In the end, they failed, but they put up such a fight it took the Saxons around two hundred and fifty years to complete their occupation; and they never did take over all of the Western country. But none the less, the withdrawal of Rome was the beginning of what we call the ‘Dark Ages’…

The Eagle of the Ninth trilogy opens with this withdrawal, with the last legions shipping out from Rutupiae, their fort on the coast of Kent. In their wake came the invading Saxons, including a particular tribe called the Angles; now better known as the English.

At that point, the country was still occupied largely by Celts; descendents of the Iceni, Brigantes, Trinovantes and Catuvellauni, who had been Romanised for the better part of five hundred years. They fought the invaders tooth and nail. This is where the Arthur legend comes from; a Romanised Welsh king fighting to keep the English out of modern day England.

For a children’s author, Sutcliff does a remarkable job of unravelling the inherent multiculturalism of British and English identity. I was reading her books in Suffolk, one of the first place the Angles invaded, in a house next to a former Iceni hill fort. 1500 years earlier it would have been the front line of Saxon/Celt conflict.

Iceni Hill Fort with Hortse
                     The view from an Iceni hill fort in Suffolk.

Around the same time former Prime Minister Tony Abbott had declared “Aboriginal people have much to celebrate in this country’s British Heritage.” Asides from the obvious dubiousness of this statement, there’s an underpinning question as to what ‘Heritage’ Australia has actually inherited Britain. In London I went to a conference in which the British were discussing the various class and regional distinctions of their accents. Another Australian noted they had trouble understanding the divisions because “You all sound British to me.”

Certainly, it’s much harder in Australia to pick the distinctions between the Welsh, English, Scottish, Irish, Cornish and so on. Most of us are an amalgamation of all of the above, and various other ethnicities. Yet our debates on multiculturalism or the legacy of ‘White Australia’ still tend to assume a dominant, common racial identity. Reading through Sutcliff’s various children’s books, it becomes obvious that most of our ancestors spent longer killing each other than sharing any common heritage. I thought it was an interesting lesson to take from a children’s book.

 

Would My Mother Like This Book?

Possibly. The font is a good size, she does like Rosemary Sutcliff, it’s good holiday reading. All the main characters are mail though.

 

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Last year my esteemed publisher, John Hunter, recommended Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. In return, I’ve so far failed to produce a second book and most of my writing is now absorbed into the thrills and spills of local government.

Hadrian was, of course, one of the great emperors of Ancient Rome. Today’s he’s most famous for building a wall, but Edward Gibbon wrote of him:

Under Hadrian’s reign the empire flourished in peace and prosperity. He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all his provinces in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views, and the minute details of civil policy.

He was a brilliant policy wonk, dedicated to urban planning, administration, and good governance. Indeed, he was most renowned as the first Roman emperor who stopped invading places; who actually withdrew from the territories conquered by his predecessor, Trajan, to focus on better administration.

To that end, he’s a surprisingly good hero for lowly bureaucrats such as myself. Hadrian wrote an actual autobiography, which has unfortunately been lost. Yourcenar’s book aims to replace it; written as if on his death bed to his adopted grandson Marcus Aurelius, he explains:

Laws change more slowly than custom, and though dangerous when they fall behind the times are more dangerous still when they presume to anticipate custom.

It then takes what could be considered a quasi-feminist turn:

The condition of women is fixed by strange customs: they are at one and the same time subjected and protected, weak and powerful, too much despised and too much respected. In this chaos of contradictory usage, the practises of society are superposed upon the facts of nature, but it is not easy to distinguish between the two.

It’s almost a reiteration of Arendt’s claim that “thought and reality have parted company,” and it drives the book. In Yourcenar’s rendition, Hadrian spends most of his time trying to impose something beautiful, in the form of urban design, monuments and social policy, on something illogical, namely the Roman Empire, gradually wearing himself out in battles with Christian extremists, a Senate that hates him, and the death of his boyfriend.

 

Would My Mother Like This Book?

No. It’s about a dead old white owning class man. Also, the font is very small.

Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins

Just before I flew to London, I read Under Another Sky: Journeys Through Roman Britain, in which Charlotte Higgins documents her Grand Tour of Roman monuments in the UK. When I arrived, I enthusiastically followed in her footsteps, searching a car park for remnants of the Roman wall, visiting the amphitheatre’s ruins underneath the Guildhall, and almost falling in the Thames, where the future capital was first laid out.

Higgins book says a lot about the ambiguity behind the concept of ‘Britain’. London was a Roman outpost, and the idea of a discernable ‘British’ identity is much like our concept of ‘Aboriginal Australia’; a blanket term used by a colonising power to describe disparate peoples with their own identities, languages and land.

On the British capital, Higgins writes:

The first notable event in the history of Londinium was its destruction. The name of the city first appears on the page in Tacitus’s account of the rebellion of Boudica. There is a line of black in the archaeological layers that is said to be the charred matter from her flaming of the fledgling city.

Boudica, the marauding Queen of Iceni, destroyed London in 60AD as part of a war so vicious the Romans seriously debated leaving the whole island. Oddly enough, there’s a statue of her on Westminster Bridge near Embankment, set up in 1902 as a sort of weird homage to Queen Victoria.

The primary source on her, Roman historian Tacitus, describes a rousing speech she gave to her troops before her final battle:

It is British custom to fight under female leadership, but on this occasion I fight not, though offspring of great ancestors, after kingdom and wealth. Instead, I am one woman from the crowd seeking retribution for liberty lost […] But the gods side with just vengeance. A legion that dared battle has perished and the remaining men are hiding back at base and looking for escape. The din and shouting of so many thousands will not be withstood, let alone onset and combat. If you weigh troop numbers and war’s reasons with me, we should either win on that field or perish. That is a woman’s intention. You men may survive – enslaved!

It’s doubtful she would have described herself as ‘British’. Tacitus was writing decades after her death, using terms the Romans had invented. She lost the battle, committed suicide, and the Iceni nation was absorbed into the Roman Empire. There’s a thrilling Time Team episode on the subject here:

Higgins sums up Boudica’s legacy after visiting a statue of her in Colchester, of which she writes:

Boudica is, at best, an ambiguous heroine for Colchester, since her sole connection is that in AD 60 or 61 she and her men took and burnt the town, and massacred its inhabitants.

The process by which an Iceni queen became a British martyr says a lot about the capacity to extract narrative from ambiguity. The idea of a unified British identity, with its own history and traditions, didn’t exist when Boudica was alive.

One thing I got from Higgins’ book was a sense that a unified ‘British history’ is a relatively recent idea. The traditions that bind it together obscure the almost continual conflict between Celtic tribes, and the Roman, Saxon, Angle and Norman invasions. Today being Australia Day, it makes a nice counterpoint to the celebration of an Anglo Australian identity.

Incidentally, Charlotte Higgins is the culture editor for the Guardian. You can read some of her articles here or order her book here.

 

Would My Mother Like This Book

She’d probably read the chapters on Boudica. Whether she’d finish it probably depends on what the weather was like, what she’d picked up from Bunnings that week, and whether the dog wanted a walk.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Last year I set myself two goals for the year.

  1. To only read books by women, more on which here.
  2. To blog about each one.

The first was a great success, and the latter an abysmal failure.

One of the unexpected oddities of my year of gendered reading was a surprisingly large volume of histories of Ancient Rome, ending when I got Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome for Christmas.

Beard herself seems quite the character. She has her own documentary, which opens with her pedaling down the Appian Way.

Her history starts with Romulus, Remus and their fateful encounter with a lactating she-wolf, and ends with the emperor Caracalla giving citizenship to everyone within the empire. It’s thematic, rather than narrative, and focuses on legacy rather than historical detail. As she writes:

To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps us to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After 2000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world and our place in it.

I’ve been listening to the marathon narrative of the History of Rome podcast, and against which SPQR provided a context: the ‘What’ to it’s ‘When’. As Beard concludes:

…I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn – as much about ourselves as about the past – by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and pose, their controversies and their arguments.

This is an apt summary of the other books on Roman history I read last year, which circled less around Rome’s history and more around its trace. I thought I’d explore this through another sporadic foray into blogging; starting with Charlotte Higgin’s Under Another Sky, Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, then wandering back to the start of last year, with Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon.

You can read Mary Beard’s blog here or buy her book here.

 

Would My Mother Enjoy This Book?

No, it’s a bit too long, but she would enjoy the TV show.