Friday, 26 May 2017

Friday! Books read #5

It's Friday already and I've some more catch up today of books read and reviewed in April and May. 

Today's feature is The Other Side of Dusk, another novel set in Britannia, this time on the west coast of what we now know of as Scotland. The date of the story is not specified but the story features Roman soldiers, people of Scotti origin and Picts. This mixture of peoples makes it difficult to pinpoint a decade, or even a century, and introduces a certain element of creative history according to the known archaeological and historical records, as I know them. But as fiction it's an interesting blend of cultures, legacies ... and characters.

To give a flavour of what it may have been like to be living in Roman occupied territory in northern Britannia, using the known record, is an extremely difficult task for any author. In The Other side of Dusk I'm finding it very intriguing to try to match the known historical timeline that I've learned with the author's visionary fictionalised timeline!

I'm deliberately giving my thoughts on the novel first in this post...and then afterwards the multitude of questions the story has raised for me regarding the known and attested historical timeline and how an author can use parts of it for their own purposes.

BLURB: NOTE: May contain triggers. A boy sold as a slave is used by a Roman woman to get pregnant so the master may have an heir. But it all backfires when an old soldier who serves her household takes pity on the boy. He teaches him to fight and when the child is born, helps the slave escape with his son. He is home but...his people aren't sure he is fit to take his father's place when the time comes. The Picts are ready to revolt against Roman rule and the Scotti may be caught in the middle. To make matters worse, the master is seeking his stolen son.

This is my short 'no spoiler' review...

The Other Side of Dusk by Cherime MacFarlane 

I really enjoyed the story of Ualan and was intrigued by the author’s interpretation of what the situation might have been like towards the end of the Roman occupation of Britannia when the Scotti tribes were probably vying for supremacy over the Picts on the west coast of Scotland. It's a very intriguing historical era that I love to research, and to read about, though there’s actually very little written for an author to dip into to create fiction. Cherime MacFarlane has added some beautifully evocative description of the landscape which I can relate to very much since I know the west coast of Scotland very well, though admittedly I can only surmise it wasn’t too different during the time she writes about. I really like the choices of Gaelic names since their meaning can add more depth to a character, though I’ll not spoil the story for a new reader by giving particular examples. The story of Ualan’s capture and slavery is slowly revealed as the tale progresses, having been tantalisingly introduced at the outset of the story. The intermingling of Picti and Scotti tribes (and even rivalry) after the withdrawal of the Roman influence must have created some difficult times for families who essentially just wanted their own territory to farm and tend. 

...And these are the questions, and information, that came to mind as I read the novel, all of which made me want to delve back into what I've already learned of the Roman occupation of Britannia. 

A 'turf wall' is mentioned in the story. If it alludes to The Antonine Wall, that wall was constructed c. A.D. 142. It's likely from historical evidence that the forts along the Antonine Wall were manned for a couple of decades till around A.D. 165 after which the forces were documented as having been withdrawn south to Hadrian's Wall when the Romans redrew the western frontier limes of the Roman Empire. Normal Roman practice on withdrawal from the forts was to set fire to and lay ruin to the wooden buildings so that the local tribes could find nothing useful to use from them. After the withdrawal of troops from the Antonine Wall, according to experts and the archaeological record as presently known, there would have been no further Roman presence. However, the turf wall remained as a huge 'Roman' statement for the local populace for many, many centuries.

By the early A.D. 200s (some 35 years later) there may have been renewed Roman presence at some parts of the Antonine Wall in preparation for the campaigns of the Emperor Severus, though the evidence is for that to have occurred at the eastern end. According to written accounts, c. A.D. 208, Severus marched northwards from Eboracum (York) with 50 thousand troops to 'teach the tribes of the north a lesson'. The Caledonians had been unruly and had not kept to treaties for some time -of course, this is the account seen from the Roman perspective  By c. A.D. 210 Severus seems to have been campaigning in what we now call 'Aberdeenshire' though his forces seem to have been reduced to around 30,000. What decimated them is not clear- were there huge casualties as a result of local tribal attacks? Or were some of the troops sent to other parts of the empire? Or was a deadly sickness a factor? By A.D. 210, Severus was a very sick old man who appeared to have gout or some really debilitating health condition. He is documented as going south to Eboracum where he died in February A.D. 211.

From the perspective of the actual historically known timeline, and till more archaeological evidence is uncovered, it seems Severus kept his line of march up and down the eastern side of Scotland. 

Around A.D. 210, Britannia was split into 2 provinces, the northern part being named Britannia Inferior (Lower Britain). This delineation made either by Severus (or his son Caracalla who became the new emperor) meant a reduction and withdrawal of troops from the north, yet again. Both Caracalla and his younger brother Geta abandoned their campaigns to subdue the Caledonians of the north and they went back to Rome. Whether the recently refurbished or renewed Antonine Wall forts (i.e. Crammond near Edinburgh) remained manned with even the most basic legionary presence is to be proven. It's likely though that civilian use of the fort surroundings went on for decades, even centuries- though use of buildings would only have taken place if they had not been deliberately burned by the departing Romans.

In The Other Side of Dusk the author mentions a Roman Cohort- the Cohort Delmatarum. The Cohors II Delmatarum (an auxiliary regiment from Dalmatia on the Adriatic) appears on record on an undated altarstone that's thought to date from the early 3rd Century.  It was found near Carvorum by Hadrian's Wall. The Roman military influence lasted nearly 300 years at Hadrian;s Wall though the civilain use of forts along the wall continued for some time after the withdrawal around A.D 400. (Coins minted A.D. 403/406 were found at Birdoswald fort) 

Pictii and Scottii
Skip to around A.D. 250. The Scotti tribes (possible origin Iberia) are thought to have invaded the west coast of Scotland and what is now northern Ireland.

It isn't till c. A.D. 295 that the first references to a people named the Picts is recorded, those tribes likely to have come from the north and north-east of Scotland  However, the use of the work 'Pict' to describe the Late Iron Age/ Dark Ages tribes of Scotland is often confusing. (Julius Caesar c. 55 B.C. mentioned 'painted people' though I don't believe they were officially named by the Ancient Romans as  'Pictii' at this point in history.)

The term 'Picts' is often as confusing as the use of Celts to describe the cultural lifestyles of the Later Iron age tribes of Britain and Continental Europe. As an author, I personally needed to use a generic term for my characters and decided that 'Celtic' was the most descriptive. In the same way some authors use the term 'Picts'.

Some historians thought that 'Pictii' were themselves an invader people to north-east Scotland but more and more it is appearing that 'Picts' was just a contemporary term for the grouping of indigenous Late Iron Age tribes by A.D. 295. It's a reasonable enough theory that the descendants of those who survived the brutal occupation of Emperor Severus around A.D.210 would have banded together over a broader area and renamed themselves 'Picts'. This is especially relevant in the context of the adoption of the new religion of Christianity which brought its own symbolism and practices.

I'm off now to write my own version of what happened in the aftermath of the Battle of Mons Graupius because there is nothing available;e to me to know what General Agricola actually did in north-east Scotland in A.D. 84!


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