Sunday, 13 April 2014

After Boudicca: Reconstructing Britannia

The Boudiccan Revolt of 60/61 AD effectively put an end to urban life in Romanised south-east England. The three most significant cities, Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans) had been burned to the ground, as evidenced by the archaeological record as well as the historical accounts. To the west, the city of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) may also have been burned, but other cities, including Noviomagus Regnorum (Chichester), survived.

Although one legion had been virtually destroyed, and two further legions had sustained heavy casualties, reinforcements soon arrived and military control was re-established, probably within a matter of months. Restoring the civic infrastructure would take far longer. It is not entirely clear where the capital of the province was located between 61 AD and 78 AD. Colchester had been the capital prior to the revolt, but seems not to have been rebuilt before the late 70s AD. London would emerge as the capital but, again, reconstruction was slow. St Albans was not rebuilt until the Governorship of Gnaeus Julius Agricola (78-84 AD): an inscription naming him was found in the reconstructed forum, and can be seen at the Verulamium Museum.

Inscription from Verulamium (St Albans), naming Agricola as the Governor who rebuilt the forum there.

London is, perhaps, the most interesting case-study. Recent excavations have highlighted the importance of Southwark as a population centre both before and after the Boudiccan Revolt. Although evidence of burning has been found south of the Thames, the destruction seems not to have been as comprehensive as that to the north, and reconstruction took place at an early stage, with a market hall, workshops, houses and warehouses. There are also traces of one or more large and possibly public buildings, so perhaps Southwark served as a temporary home for the military and civil administration of the province.

On the northern side of the Thames, attempts seem to have been made to rebuild the infrastructure, but had only partial success in attracting people to move back to live there. Roads were re-established, and an amphitheatre built in around 74-75 AD, but most of the area formerly occupied by shops and houses remained a wasteland. Water-lifting equipment was installed, and a bath-house built, but people stayed away.

The Roman amphitheatre of London, preserved and presented beneath the city's Guildhall.

Reconstruction of water-lifting machinery of the late 1st Century AD, found at Aldersgate, London. Photo: Oxyman (licensed under CCA).

Superstition may have played a part in deterring people from re-settling the places that had been destroyed. Belief in ghosts was widespread in the Roman world, and there was a particular fear of the unburied dead, whose spirits were believed to be locked out of the underworld. If witches were able to get their hands on the physical remains of such people, it was believed that they could make these spirits their slaves, co-opting them to terrorise and harm their neighbours. If Cassius Dio's account of the atrocities committed during the revolt is even partly true, it is not difficult to imagine the terror that would have followed in their wake:

"They hung up the noblest and most distinguished women, and then cut off their breasts and sewed them into their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body."

It was probably not until Agricola became Governor, almost two decades after the revolt, that people could be persuaded to move back en masse, and he may have had to set the example by moving there himself. Beneath Cannon Street Station is a building complex which some archaeologists believe to be the palace occupied by Agricola, and by subsequent governors. The amphitheatre was rebuilt, a new forum constructed, and houses, workshops and temples grew up around them. At around the same time, Colchester and St Albans were being rebuilt, but it was London that would serve as Britannia's capital for as long as these islands remained part of the Roman Empire.

The building complex beneath Cannon Street Station, which some believe to have been the Roman Governors' Palace. Image: Udimu (licensed under GNU).

Model of the reconstructed Londinium (the bridge being roughly in the position of the modern London Bridge), in the crypt of All Hallows by the Tower Church.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications. The e-book editions can be purchased from the Crooked Cat Bookstore, and the paperback versions from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Form and Structure in Historical Fiction: Playing with the Unities

The final session that I attended at the Folio Prize Fiction Festival, held in London last month, was on "structure" in fiction, and the panellists were A.S. Byatt, Sergio de la Pava, Sarah Hall and Sam Leith. De la Pava talked about the "early decisions" faced by a writer in formulating the concept for a book: should it be narrated in the first or the third person; in the past or the present tense; from one viewpoint, or from several? A.S. Byatt had previously spoken about the ways in which she had been influenced by George Eliot (and, specifically, by Middlemarch), but De la Pava prefers to "block out" his influences, fearing that "a certain inertia" might result from "following consciously in someone's footsteps."

When I started work on my first novel, Undreamed Shores, I hadn't given much thought to structure at all. I knew that, like Homer's Odyssey, the story would be based around a journey, and I assumed that the best place to start was at the beginning. The first draft, therefore, introduced the protagonist in his home environment, thinking about and preparing for the journey ahead of him. My first beta-reader, however, found the opening of this draft much too slow. "Re-read The Odyssey," he suggested. It doesn't, of course, begin at the beginning: in fact, it begins very near the end (with Odysseus's son, Telemachus, setting out to discover what has become of his father). It was my first serious lesson in narrative structure, and one that has stayed with me.

Although neither of my published novels begins at the beginning, both tell a single story: they embody what Aristotle, in his Poetics, called "Unity of Action" (the only "unity" that Aristotle considered to be really important - the concerns with "Unity of Place" and "Unity of Time" derive largely from Renaissance re-workings of the Poetics). Arguably they also embody a fourth "unity," of which Aristotle says nothing, that of "consciousness" or "viewpoint." This "unity" is, perhaps, specific to the novel as a genre (Aristotle was concerned with narrative poetry and drama), and some of the great historical novels, from Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, tell a single story from a single viewpoint.

Aristotle, author of the World's first (and still one of the best) "how to write" books. Photo: Jastrow (image is in the public domain).

Not all historical fiction, however, follows this pattern. One could hardly imagine War and Peace told from a single viewpoint and, although it is concerned with the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars, it does not really embody "Unity of Action" either, since the very different stories of the various characters and families are interwoven.

A.S. Byatt talked about her novel, Possession, which interweaves a contemporary story with a historical one: modern scholars, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, uncover hitherto unknown dimensions to the lives of (fictional) Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Much of the story is told through the letters, diaries and poetry of Ash and LaMotte, "discovered" by Michell and Bailey in the novel but, in reality, imaginative creations by Byatt.

The creation, by a writer of one period, of texts "in the style of" an earlier period is often characterised as "pastiche," and the term is frequently used in a negative sense (its first use recorded by the OED is in an American review of Charles Kingsley's novel, Hereward the Wake - "This book is not, in our opinion, what historical novels are so apt to become - a pastiche" [Nation, NY, 25/1/1866]). John Mullan, in an article on Byatt's Possession, defines "pastiche" as "mimicry that we enjoy without being fooled," and goes on to suggest that such devices "work best while they remain merely amusing copies ... flattering the attentive reader. It is only when [Byatt's] imitations get serious that we should worry." Nobody should be "fooled" by anything in a historical novel, since it is written and promoted as fiction, but it seems to me that devices such as Byatt's (one might also mention "The Pacific Diaries of Adam Ewing" and "Letters from Zedelghem" in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas) are an important dimension of "voice," and have the potential to be something far more interesting than "merely amusing copies." As Aristotle well understood, all art is, in a sense, a form of "imitation."

Some of the most interesting recent works are those which, in structural terms, selectively abandon the Aristotelean and post-Aristotelean "unities" which dominated the novel for much of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, for example, explores the different trajectories that one person's life could have taken, based on chance occurrences (Unity of Viewpoint is maintained, all other unities dispensed with). Kristina Carlson's Mr Darwin's Gardener, on the other hand, starts with "Unity of Place" (everything happens in the small village of Downe), but skips playfully between viewpoints, including even those of the jackdaws and sparrows that observe the human dramas going on beneath them.

Some of these works (Katie Ward's Girl Reading, Sebastian Faulks's A Possible Life) have multiple narratives ("Unity of Action" rejected), and some (Possession and Cloud Atlas prominent among them) chip away at the boundaries of "historical fiction" as a genre. What they have in common, however, is that they are fictional attempts to make sense of the human past, and its relationship to the human present.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications. The e-book editions can be purchased from the Crooked Cat Bookstore, and the paperback versions from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Place in Historical Fiction: The Quest for Authenticity

In an earlier blog-post, (10th March 2014), I explored the question of "voice" in historical fiction, drawing on a discussion in the first session of the Folio Prize Fiction Festival, held in London last month. The second session at the festival was on the role of "place," and the panellists were Sebastian Faulks, Amity Gaige, Nam Le and James Walton.

Nam Le talked about place as a literary focus, including the legacies of other writers who have been inspired by the same places: is it possible, for example, to write about the Yorkshire Moors without being influenced by the Brontes? Or fully to emerge from the shadow of Wordsworth when writing about the Lake District? It was a question I faced as I walked from Abbotsbury to Stonehenge whilst researching Undreamed Shores - a journey through Thomas Hardy country, but how could I avoid my descriptions of the landscape sounding like echoes, however pale, of his? My solution, with every step I took, was to imagine everything through the eyes of my Bronze Age characters, stripping away the two and a half thousand years of clearance, cultivation and construction that had gone into the making of "Hardy's Wessex," and repopulating the landscape with the sights, sounds and smells of the creatures that had vanished from it before his time (bustard, red deer, wild boar).

The Great Bustard, once familiar on the plains of Wiltshire, and now being reintroduced (image: Takkk, licensed under CCA). They became extinct in the UK during Thomas Hardy's lifetime, and he wrote in Return of the Native - "A bustard haunted the spot, and not many years before this five and twenty might have been seen ..."

The question of the "contract" between reader and writer, raised in the first session, came up again in the second. Once we introduce a real situation, Faulks suggested, "realism is expected." Since both of my published novels are set in the distant past, this inevitably involved me in a detailed consideration of archaeological and palaeo-environmental evidence. The fictional "Shrine of Belatu," in Undreamed Shores, and the settlement of "Hirundium," in An Accidental King, are, as far as I am aware, the only locations in historical fiction to be grounded in archaeological geophysics (albeit with liberal use of artistic license in the former case). There are risks, however, in incorporating such new data into the description of a historic place, since the initial interpretations of them are not always the ones that endure.

Stonehenge (red arrow) and the location of a previously unknown henge (blue arrow) discovered in the course of a geophysical project carried out by the University of Birmingham. Details were released as I was working on the final draft of Undreamed Shores, and I wrote the site into the story as the "Shrine of Belatu." Photo: Google Maps (image is in the Public Domain).

Silbury Hill, near Avebury (photo: Gary O'Beirne, licensed under GNU). A geophysical project by English Heritage revealed the traces of a Roman settlement around the base of the mound, written into An Accidental King as the settlement of "Hirundium."

No such contract, however, precludes the introduction of circumstances, and even places, that are not real. Faulks stressed that the French villages which feature in Birdsong and Charlotte Gray are fictional, and talked about the difficulties encountered in finding suitable locations for the film and TV adaptations. Although closely mirroring reality (Charlotte Gray, for example, draws on the experiences of historical SOE operatives, Nancy Wake and Pearl Cornioley), the characters and situations in the novels are fictionalised, making it appropriate to invent the places as well.

Some novelists go much further in avoiding "real" situations altogether. Jim Crace, for example, in Harvest, takes great care not to mention any real places, people or events, giving him a free hand to fictionalise everything. The place at its heart (referred to simply as "the village") is described in sufficient detail that a reader could easily draw a map of it. It is also, to my mind, one of the most memorable evocations of place in recent English literature, but no such place exists, or has ever existed, on the ground.

When we do write about real places, however, how important is it to "get it right?" Is it always necessary that a writer should visit the places s/he is writing about? Sebastian Faulks admitted that he had not visited all of the places which feature in his James Bond sequel, Devil May Care, relying instead on the knowledge of travel writers, but he insisted that he would not do this in a "serious" (literary) novel. I have visited all of the places in Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, but my next novel will include some scenes set in places where visits were not practical, and for which my information comes from a detailed study of historical sources and artworks. There may be some who earn enough money from their writing to travel 2000 miles for the sake of a paragraph, but I am not yet one of them.

Rama (Ramallah), as depicted by Cornelis de Bruijn in 1698, one of the locations I did not visit during the research for my next novel, Omphalos. Image is in the Public Domain.

There is something to be said, however, for "writing what you know" - not that a writer should be limited to this, but it seems a pity not to do so (unless, like Amity Gaige, you grew up in the same town as John Updike, in which case "what you know" might already have "been done"). Some of the chapters of Undreamed Shores are set on the island of Jersey, and will be read differently by those who know the island as compared with those who don't, since locations all have fictional names, but can easily be mapped on to real places by those "in the know." Now that I am in my fiftieth year, however, the realisation that I have lived in London for longer than I have lived anywhere else makes me think that it is high time I wrote something set in this city, and that is likely to be the starting point for the project after next.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

The Roman Conquest of Scotland: Guest Post by Nancy Jardine

Hello, Mark, I'm delighted to visit your blog once again as part of a mini launch-tour. This time it's for the release of book three of my Celtic Fervour series, After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks, the official launch being on 25th March 2014.

The novel continues the stories of Brennus of Garrigill, Ineda of Marske and the Roman Tribune Gaius Livanus Valerius (the protagonists who featured in the earlier books), but the action takes place over a wider geographical area. It covers a period of around a decade, beginning in 74 AD, in Brigantia. The novel ends in the territory of the Taexali, in north-east Scotland, in the footsteps of the northern campaigns of Gnaeus Julius Agricola as Roman Governor of Britannia.

Agricola, as depicted in Georgian Bath. Photo: Ostrich (image is in the public domain).

During the tenure of Agricola's predecessor, Frontinus, Roman expansion within Brigantia seems to have been slow and steady. Treaties between Rome and Brigantia may have allowed the Brigantes to lead relatively normal lives, so long as they refrained from attacking Roman installations and personnel, and paid the agreed dues to Rome.

When Agricola became Governor in 78 AD, however, he seems to have been far less willing to leave the Brigantes alone, and his campaigns in northern Britain are recorded by his son-in-law, the historian, Tacitus. I have to be totally honest, and declare that I'd been waiting for a few years to write something about Agricola's campaigns in my home area of north-east Scotland. If I was going to retain the characters from the earlier books, however, that meant that they would have to do a fair bit of travelling. Conveniently for my plot, the range of hills known as Beinn Na Ciche (Bennachie), located in what was Taexali territory, is a prime contender as the site of the Battle of Mons Graupius, described in Tacitus's biography of Agricola. It may come as no surprise to readers of the earlier books in the series that the battle between the Roman Empire and a Celtic leader named Calgach is near Durno, opposite the foothills of Beinn Na Ciche.

                         Beinn Na Ciche. Photo: Nancy Jardine.

Reading about the routes taken by Agricola's legions on his northern campaigns, and learning about the extensive Gask Ridge Forts, which were built in north-east Scotland, was totally fascinating. It made even more of an impact since I've regularly travelled on the A90, a road which overlays many parts of the original "Roman" road to the North.

Key sites in northern Britain. Image: Nancy Jardine.

During the writing process, my journeys from Aberdeen to Glasgow and Edinburgh passed close to the areas where the so-called "glen blocker" forts were built, and I found it easy to imagine Agricola's legions tramping their way northwards. I could imagine how awesome (and I use that word with its true meaning) the sight must have been for the Celtic farmers who dwelt on the relatively flat, fertile plains between the glen-mouth openings and the sea.

When I read about the Roman fortress of Inchtuthil, I knew I had to find some way of including it in the novel. Reading about the hurried withdrawal from the facility, and about the way in which the area seems to have been swiftly stripped of most of the useful items, was interesting, but I was even more impressed when I read about the quantity of iron nails that had been buried in hastily-dug pits. The hiding of three quarters of a million hand-made nails, made in specified sizes for various uses, was astounding. I found myself itching to write a scene in which the wattle from the wooden buildings in the fortress of Pinata Castra (Inchtuthil) was set ablaze, the wooden posts removed and dumped onto waiting carts, the poles intended for reuse somewhere to the south. I could envisage the last cartloads of useful goods heading out of the fortress gates to begin their journey southwards. I would have liked to have written about some of the Roman soldiers smashing pottery to smithereens, whilst others filled up the drainage gullies and sewers with gravel. Sadly, this probably happened too late for inclusion in this novel, although I don't rule out including it in book four, or even book five. What I did decide, after reading about the Roman Corstopitum (the border country between present-day Scotland and England) and Inchtuthil, was that the provision of metal to the Roman forts around Britannia would form an important element of the plot for After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks.

Investigations of the "glen blocker" and Gask Ridge forts continue as I write this post, and every new revelation I read leaves me wanting to know more. Historical accuracy is very important to me, but I have constantly to tell myself that I'm writing a work of fiction, and that my writing cannot always include the newest interpretations of the past. I hope that my readers for book three of the series both appreciate it as my vision of what might have happened in northern Britannia in the 1st Century AD, and also enjoy it as a good adventure.

Ardoch Roman Fort on the Gask Ridge. Photo: Dr Richard Murray (licensed under CCA).

Remains of a Roman watch-tower at Kirkhill on the Gask Ridge. Photo: Jackie Proven (licensed under CCA).

After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks is published by Crooked Cat Publications, and is available for pre-order from Amazon.

Nancy Jardine's novels can be found in paperback and e-book formats from Amazon UK, Amazon USA, Crooked Cat Bookstore, Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, W.H. Smith and other book retailers.

Nancy can be found at the following places: Blog Website Facebook Goodreads About Me LinkedIn Twitter: @nansjar.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Voice in Historical Fiction: The Limits of Realism

Some months ago, my novel, An Accidental King, was nominated for the Folio Prize. It was not included on the final shortlist of eight books, from which the winner will be announced later today: a list that includes no works of historical fiction, and only one novel by a British author (Jane Gardam's Last Friends). I did, however, get to attend the festival organised in association with the prize this past weekend, to hear the judges, members of the Folio Prize Academy and shortlisted authors talking about the art of writing, and how great writing is achieved.

The opening session was on "Voice," and the panellists included Lavinia Greenlaw, George Saunders, Erica Wagner and Ali Smith. There can be no story without voice, Smith insisted, and we discussed the "voice" of the book as well as those of individual characters.

George Saunders identified realism as a "default option" for our times, and several of the speakers at the festival cited George Eliot's realist masterpiece, Middlemarch, as an inspiration for their own work. Saunders, however, frequently finds himself "pushing against" realism, discovering, as he writes, that "realism isn't real." He, and other speakers, also talked about "constraint" as a valuable discipline in writing. At one end of the scale, this "constraint" may simply involve seeing the world exclusively through the eyes of one character; whilst at the other end it can involve a variety of "Oulipian" experiments.

Within historical fiction, few writers have attempted to push at the limits of realism quite so forcefully as Marguerite Yourcenar, whose work I discussed in an earlier blog-post. Her pursuit of realism involved a real constraining discipline, as outlined in her essay, "Tone and Language in the Historical Novel," reproduced in the volume, That Mighty Sculptor, Time.

This discipline led her, in her novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, to avoid dialogue altogether (since we cannot know what the speech patterns at Hadrian's court would have sounded like) and, in The Abyss (set in 16th Century Brussels), to model the dialogue closely on that provided by the historical sources.

When I came to write An Accidental King, I made the conscious decision to allow myself liberties that Yourcenar denied herself. Judging that the Latin spoken at Cogidubnus's British court is unlikely to have been as formal as that of the Roman court, that it was probably influenced by the Roman military presence in Britain, and by the speech of the mariners who sailed in and out of Chichester Harbour, I took my models for dialogue from sources that Yourcenar explicitly rejected: Petronius's novel, The Satyricon, for example, and the comedies of Plautus and Terence. It is realism of a sort, at least in its aspirations, but, as Saunders says, it must always be remembered that "realism is not real."

Some authors respond to this epiphany by abandoning the pursuit of realism altogether. Bernardine Evaristo, for example, in The Emperor's Babe, freely makes use of modern idiom in imagining life in London in the 3rd Century AD, but she also works Latin terms into her poetic text:

"To form an attachment is to risk its loss,
Is it not? I have been looking for a nice,
Simplex, quiet, fidelis girl, a girl
Who will not betray me with affairs,
Who will not wear me out with horrid fights,
Unlike my pater's subsequent three wives,
Who made my life hell, and his,
Who were of the hedonistic breed
Of aristocratic matronae, determined to compete
With the husband in all spheres,
Ever boastful of their sexual shenanigans,
Humiliating the dear, gentle man in public ..."

As a poet, writing a novel in verse, Evaristo works under her own constraints, which are different from Yourcenar's or mine. The result is a very different novel, echoing very different voices (both Evaristo's own, and that of her protagonist, Zuleika).

Several of the writers at the festival also spoke about the "contract" that exists between each individual writer and his or her readers, and one of the challenges for any writer is to develop a voice that is open to new ideas and influences, at the same time as remaining true to its essence, which lies at the heart of that relationship.

Italo Calvino, in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, goes even further:

"Think what it would be like to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own, but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic ... Was this not, perhaps, what Ovid was aiming at, when he wrote about the continuity of forms?"

Margaret Atwood, similarly, leaves the last words of her book on writing, Negotiating with the Dead, to Ovid:

"... who has the Sibyl of Cumae speak not only for herself, but also, we suspect, for him, and for the hopes of all writers - 'But still the fates will leave me my voice, and by my voice I shall be known' (Metamorphoses 307.40)."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK and Amazon USA

Saturday, 1 March 2014

British "Hostages" and "Supplicants" at Rome in the Age of Augustus

When, in 14 AD, the Emperor Augustus died, two bronze pillars were placed in front of his mausoleum, giving details of his political career, public benefactions and military accomplishments. Written in the first person, this Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Deeds of the Divine Augustus) declared that he had taken power in a Rome built of clay, and left a city built in marble.

The Emperor Augustus, who reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD. Photo: Till Niermann (licensed under GNU).

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome. Photo: Ryarwood (licensed under CCA).

The bronze pillars do not survive, but several marble copies of the inscription were made, including one which has survived from the Temple of Augustus at Roma at Ankyra (Ankara, Turkey).

Copy of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti from Ankara. Photo: Berolini, Weidmann & Mommsen (image is in the Public Domain).

It lists a number of foreign rulers to whom he had granted refuge as "supplicants" (supplices), including two British kings, one named Dubnovellaunus, whose coins are found in Kent; and another whose name is incomplete, but who has often been identified with Tincomarus, a son of Commius whose coins are found in Hampshire and West Sussex.

British coin of Tincomarus. Photo: PHGCOM (image is in the Public Domain).

These rulers had been defeated by British rivals, and had been granted refuge in Rome. Others who followed the same path at a later stage included Adminius, one of the sons of Cunobelinus (Shakespeare's "Cymbeline," and quite possibly the man who had displaced Dubnovellaunus), and Verica (possibly the brother of Tincomarus). Much like the Soviet defectors in Cold War Britain and America, they are likely to have provided both intelligence and propaganda value. Verica seems even to have provided the Emperor Claudius with a pretext for invasion.

There had almost certainly been Britons resident in Rome since the time of Julius Caesar. His accounts of his military expeditions to Britain in 55 BC and 54 BC state that he took "many hostages" (obsides). We don't know the names of any of these, but they are likely to have been aristocratic men and women with close links to the royal lineages of Britain. Although technically "hostages," held against tribute to be paid, there is no record of any such individuals being harmed as a result of their relatives' failure to pay.

Prominent "hostages" from other territories in Augustan Rome included Cleopatra Selene II, the daughter of Cleopatra & Mark Antony, and Juba II, the son of the deposed king of Mauretania. Augustus eventually gave Selene in marriage to Juba, and set him up as client king to rule his father's territory. Young enough to be impressed by the grandeur that was Rome, yet old enough to provide useful intelligence, and perhaps to teach others the languages and customs of their people, these "hostages" were conspicuously well-treated, fostered into the homes of senior Roman senators or even (as with Selene and Juba) into the imperial household itself.

Lygia, the fictional heroine of Henryk Sienkiewicz's Nobel Prize-winning novel, Quo Vadis, is just such a hostage, raised in the household of Aulus Plautius, the Roman conqueror of Britain.

Illustration of Lygia leaving the house of Plautus. Picture: Alfred Noyer Studio (image is in the Public Domain).

Three or four generations separate the hostages taken by Julius Caesar and the royal dynasties which held power in Britain immediately prior to the Claudian invasion of 43 AD. It is fascinating to speculate on the intercourse that might have taken place between Britain and Rome during the intervening period. Did Cunobelinus's father or grandfather return from Rome to claim his kingdom, bringing with him a taste for Roman wine? Might other sons and grandsons of Caesar's hostages have spent time at Cunobelinus's court as ambassadors or merchants, perhaps returning to Rome with Catuvellaunian or Trinovantian brides? How much information might have been gathered from these various obsides and supplices, and presented to Aulus Plautius before he embarked for Britain?

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Cartimandua: A lost British Queen

I wrote about the Brigantes in my blog-post of 7th November last year, but said little specifically about their Queen, Cartimandua. She is one of only a dozen or so native Britons, alive at the time of the Roman conquest, whose name we know, and one of only two women (the other being "Boudicca," which may well be a title rather than a name).

Cartimandua ruled over a territory which included most of modern Yorkshire and Lancashire, as well as parts of the midlands. The triumphal arch of the Emperor Claudius, in Rome, records that he took the surrender of eleven native rulers in 43 AD, but does not name them. It seems likely, however, that Cartimandua, or her father, was among them.

Inscription from the Arch of Claudius in the Capitoline Museum, Rome. Photo: Jenni Ahonen, licensed under GNU.

Tacitus, in his Histories, tells us that she was "ruler of the Brigantes, having the influence that belongs to high birth," and that she "came to despise her husband, Venutius, and took, as her consort, his squire, Vellocatus, whom she admitted to share the throne with her."

Tacitus was probably playing to a trope, popular in Rome since the time of Cleopatra's dangerous liaisons with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, of an exotic and sexually lascivious queen, but his wording is significant in that it implies (as does Tacitus's use of the word Regina, which he does not use in relation to Boudicca) that Cartimandua was probably, in our terms, a "Queen Regnant," with Venutius merely a consort.

"Her house was at once shaken by this scandalous act," Tacitus continues. "Her husband was favoured by the sentiments of all the citizens; the adulterer was supported by the queen's passion for him, and by her savage spirit. So Venutius, calling in aid from outside and, at the same time, assisted by a revolt of the Brigantes themselves, put Cartimandua into an extremely dangerous position."

A situation that is portrayed as beginning with a marital infidelity seems to have developed into a full-scale civil war within Brigantian territory. Vellocatus is mentioned only once, so the likelihood is that he was killed in the course of the war. The conflict was probably more political than personal from the outset. Reading between the lines, it is clear that Cartimandua favoured cooperation with the Romans, whilst Venutius argued for violent resistance. The "aid" that he "called in" from outside is probably a reference to the Catuvellaunian prince, Caratacos, who had been leading a guerrilla campaign against the Romans based in Wales. According to Tacitus, Caractacos "sought refuge" with Cartimandua, who treacherously handed him over to the Romans. The reality may well be that Venutius drew Caratacos into a failed coup attempt.

This conflict, in 51 AD, may have opened the rift between Cartimandua and Venutius, but she clearly had enough support among the Brigantes to remain in power. Venutius mounted another attack in 57 AD but was, once again, repelled, only seizing power in 69 AD when, amid the chaos of the "Year of Four Emperors," Cartimandua's Roman allies could muster only a force large enough to evacuate her. "The throne was left to Venutius," Tacitus states, "the war to us." At that point, Cartimandua disappears from history.

When, in 1951, the eminent archaeologist, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, was given a free hand to excavate a site of his choice to celebrate the Festival of Britain, he surprised many people by choosing the Iron Age earthworks at Stanwick, near Darlington in Yorkshire. The BBC recently published archive footage of Wheeler discussing these excavations with a young Magnus Magnusson, and these can be seen here and here.

The earthworks of Stanwick. Photo: Graham Scarborough, licensed under CCA.

The site is located deep within what would have been Brigantian territory, and Wheeler found evidence for several phases of fortification during the 1st Century AD. He concluded that it was probably the stronghold of Venutius. A more recent survey, however, by Percival Turnbull and Professor Colin Haselgrove, concluded that it was more likely to have been Cartimandua's base.

Among Wheeler's most spectacular discoveries was the skull of a man who had been brutally executed with at least three sword-blows. Despite the circumstances of his death, however, his head seems to have been buried with respect, alongside an elaborate sword and scabbard. Had the head somehow been recovered by his own people and given a decent burial, like that of Sir Thomas More many centuries later? Could this, for example, be the skull of Vellocatus? Archaeologists and historians do not permit themselves such questions as this, but novelists cannot resist them!

The Stanwick skull. Photo: Natural History Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

The Stanwick scabbard. Photo: British Museum (image is in the public domain).

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.