Rutupaie, the modern Richborough Castle, in Kent, England – was once the site of a notable Roman military garrison graced by an enormous marble triumphal arch visible to ships arriving in the port, a tall lighthouse, and a thriving civilian town with an amphitheater. The lighthouse and the triumphal arch are long gone, but a large portion of the circuit of twenty-five-foot-high walls still remain visible above ground. This was the terminus of Watling Streat, a keystone in the network of carefully engineered roads which covered Britain like a net. It was most likely the site of the original Roman bridgehead in the time of the Emperor Claudius, which would in large part become the province of Britannia. Rutupaie became the major port of entry all throughout the four centuries that Roman power held sway over that far and misty isle, their ships and galleys guided into safe harbor after dark by the fire atop the lighthouse.
In one of the opening chapters of the novel The Lantern Bearers, a young Roman-British soldier makes his decision to remain in Britain when the legions are finally and officially withdrawn by order of the Emperor. Having deserted his unit as they are on the point of departure for the last time, he lights the great fire atop the lighthouse, as the galleys row away on the evening tide; a last defiant fire, as darkness descends. Peter Grant, who blogs at Bayou Renaissance Man noted this week that Rosemary Sutcliff’s series of novels about the Romans in Britain and the long, slow, painful dying of Roman civilization there were being republished at a reasonable price in eBook. This reminded me again of my very favorite historical author; The finest and most evocative historical novel ever in English is either the Rider of the White Horse or her retelling of the Arthurian epic, Sword at Sunset. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s version, The Mists of Avalon, is overwrought trash in comparison.
The haunting element of Rosemary Sutcliff’s series, which beings with The Eagle of the Ninth and ends with The Shield Ring, is the slow dying of a civilization, and how ofttimes those people in it look around, and know without a doubt that things are not as they once were and might never be again, for all that they might do. They see the unmistakable evidence, know that their world is disintegrating bit by bit, even as the Roman-built cities, garrisons and farmsteads in Britain decay or were abandoned, in the wake of continuing invasions by the Saxon tribes from the mainland. These various characters are haunted by knowledge that the best they can do may not be enough to keep the light of Rutupaie on for another night. They fought gallantly and died bravely, holding off the barbarian hordes who came over the walls and swept the old Roman laws, culture and establishments, civil and actual into oblivion and all memory, save for the archeologist’s trowel and the writer’s art. The walls crumbled, the roads were grown over, the cities either vanished underneath the green turf, or were inhabited by people who built simple timber shacks among the colonnades and walls that they no longer could rebuild, repair, or replicate until centuries later.
It’s the notion of a dying civilization that haunts, especially in this year. One has the sense of standing on a crumbling wall, looking at the odds and knowing that even if you win for the day, tomorrow there will be another assault, and another after that. Many of us are now standing on that wall, or lighting the fire in that tower, resolving to resist the barbarian horde, but there is a single overwhelming difference. In the times that Rosemary Sutcliff wrote about, the enemies of the Pax Romana were barbarians from outside, intent on conquest, wanting land and riches for themselves, and to brutally quash anyone getting in their way. In our own time, the barbarian savages, hungry for power above all and motivated by the unquenchable thirst to destroy through famine, plague, economic destruction, and open warfare against all of those who stand in their way … are none but our own ruling elite. Comment as you wish.