The Fifth Century: A Car Crash of History and Legend
By Derek Birks
Recently I wrote a new book: The Last of the Romans. For me, it was a major change of focus after seven novels set in the late medieval period, because this one is set in the fifth century.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been captivated by the period of history just after the end of Roman imperial government in Britain. But, hand in hand with that fascination, goes more than a little trepidation. Why? Because fifth century Britain is a subject about which a great deal has been said and written, but very little is actually known.
For starters, it is relentlessly repeated that the Romans ‘left’ Britain in 410 AD. Some writers have even said ‘the last Roman soldier’ left Britain in 410 AD. I mean, really - the very last one? Surely we don’t know that. Well, no we certainly don’t! But then we don’t know anything much about the end of Roman Britain. Traditional textbooks emphasised that the Romans left Britain – they abandoned those poor, defenceless Britons to fend for themselves… But did Rome abandon Britain, or did Britain abandon Rome? If the latter was the case, then surely the narrative would have been rather different? The few known events can be interpreted in both ways.
So, why then, is this idea of the Romans abandoning Britain so widely accepted and believed? The answer is very simple: for centuries, those interested in studying what happened in the fifth century, could rely only on a handful of texts by early scholars – none of whom intended to write what we would recognise as history. Nevertheless, whatever these authors said had to be respected because there was no other source of information about the period. The ubiquitous date of 410 AD, for example, is supplied by only one source, but in a landscape of hardly any sources, one is quite a lot!
Over the past fifty or so years, all that has changed because we now have a wealth of information from archaeology and scientific analysis which has provided a much needed perspective. With decades of this data analysis under our belts, we can begin to form a few different impressions about how people in the fifth – and the adjacent centuries – lived. One thing is clear from the archaeological record: the changes that occurred in Britain – and for that matter most of the Roman Empire in the west – happened not in a few short years but over centuries. There was not a sudden or rapid collapse of Roman authority but a gradual, evolutionary series of changes in the nature of the ageing empire.
Well, all this new information sounds promising, doesn’t it? And, in many ways, it is; but there is one area of the development of Britain after Rome where this new evidence sheds very little light: political life. There we are forced to fall back upon the old texts once again and though they give us plenty of names of prominent men – largely men, no surprise there – there is no political context for them. Often, these references are as misleading as they are helpful. What lands did these individuals rule? Were they kings, war leaders or simply prominent citizens? Was there a ruling class? If so, did it derive its power from wealth, military prowess or was it simply dynastic? None of this is known.
Alas, the procession of names tells us very little, so when it comes to trying to work out who ruled over whom, for how long and why, we are not much further ahead than the Victorians were. Without laboriously going through very many of them, here are two obvious examples. I have read accounts both in fiction and non-fiction about a figure called Vortigern – usually described by modern authors as a fifth century British king. But was he? We don’t even know for certain whether Vortigern was a man’s name or just his title. Are the references to Vortigern rooted in fact, or are they legend?
Two other names associated with Vortigern in the middle of the fifth century are Hengist and Horsa. These, we are told, were two brothers who were leaders of an early Saxon invasion of Britain. But surely these are just names discovered by early Saxon chroniclers who themselves were writing long, long after the events. Was the story of the brothers part of an oral history, passed down over many generations? If so then it would surely have been altered during that time. Perhaps they did exist but is it a coincidence that many different cultures share a tradition of stories in which a nation is founded by two brothers? We cannot be sure there was ever really a Hengist, or a Horsa, yet they are frequently referred to as if they are actual historical figures.
With him, Arthur brings more baggage than your average Roman Emperor: a few dubious relatives, a shed load of knights – obviously - a dodgy queen and, of course, a sorcerer with a magic sword – and let’s not forget about the sodding round table! Magic, knights, battles, ladies – what’s not to like? True enough, but is it history? No, it’s not.
The result of all this uncertainty is that the life’s work of a legion of historians, authors, archaeologists and antiquarians – not to mention a billion interested bystanders – is to attempt to make some sense out of this car crash of legend and history. Was there a real Arthur, or was he just the hero everyone wanted to believe in? The enduring enthusiasm for this period is explained not so much by a desire to find out what happened, but to explore – indeed, wallow in - the possibilities of what might have happened.
So, what are we to do? We are hooked on it – and thus we embark upon a jigsaw puzzle that not only has 95% of its pieces missing, but also includes dozens of pieces from several entirely different puzzles! It’s a hopeless task, but we just can’t leave it alone.
Yet, for the writer of historical fiction, this insoluble puzzle with so many blank spaces is nothing short of gold dust! We have such a free hand we might almost be writing fantasy!
Which brings me to my new hero, Ambrosius Aurelianus, who is mentioned by name in the writings of the sixth century monk, Gildas - and indeed given a certain amount of actual context. But still, we know almost nothing about him: his origins, childhood and young adult life are all extremely hazy. But the novelist cannot be so vague; my Ambrosius needed a backstory, a life before he became noteworthy in fifth century Britain. The Last of the Romans is an attempt to give a plausible – if not actual - life to a young 25 year old Ambrosius.
From the wealth of new information I referred to above, I have been able to attempt to recreate the world in which young Ambrosius might have lived. Ambrosius, the man, is lost to us, but I can offer a ‘virtual’ Ambrosius set in the turbulent world of the mid-fifth century.
The Last of the Romans
By Derek Birks
'The Story of Dux and his men pulled me in at once.' Peter Tonkin, author of The Ides
454 AD. Northern Italy.
Dux Ambrosius Aurelianus has served the Roman Empire with distinction.
His bucellarii, a small band of irregular soldiers, have helped to bring a fragile peace to the beleaguered empire in the west. But, with the empire now at peace, his master, Flavius Aetius, decides to chain up his dogs of war. Ambrosius and his men are left to idle away their days in a rural backwater, but Ambrosius’ boredom is brutally swept aside when old rivals seize the opportunity to destroy him.
Pursued as a traitor by the imperial guard, Ambrosius takes his loyal band, along with other dissident soldiers and a Saxon girl, Inga, into the mountains. Since nowhere is safe, Ambrosius travels north, across the crumbling ruins of the empire, to his estranged family in Gaul. But there too, he finds nothing but conflict, for his home town is now besieged by a small army of rebellious Franks.
Freedom and peace seem a world away. Whatever course the soldier takes, Ambrosius and his bucellarii will need to muster all their strength and skill to survive.
At the twilight of the empire, they may be the Last of the Romans…
'Fast-paced and action-packed.' Richard Foreman, author of Spies of Rome
The Last of the Romans, published in paperback on October 1st, is also available as an e-book, published by Sharpe Books:
Derek was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties.
For many years he taught history in a secondary school but took early retirement to concentrate on writing. Apart from his writing, he spends his time gardening, travelling, walking and taking part in archaeological digs.
Derek is interested in a wide range of historical themes, but at the start of his writing career he focused on the late medieval period. He writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history.
His debut historical novel, Feud, is set in the period of the Wars of the Roses and is the first of a series entitled Rebels & Brothers which follows the fortunes of the fictional Elder family. The fourth and final book of the series, The Last Shroud, was published in the summer of 2015 and Derek then embarked on a new Wars of the Roses series, entitled The Craft of Kings, and comprising so far: Scars from the Past, The Blood of Princes and Echoes of Treason.
The Elders will return in the fourth and final book of the series, Crown of Fear in 2020.
Derek’s most recent work, The Last of the Romans, is set in the turbulent fifth century and centres upon the shadowy historical figure of Ambrosius Aurelianus.