Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Mists of antiquity, fog of scholarship

A brief notice (at 200 words, it's hardly long enough to qualify as an article) in the Times Online caught my eye this week. It has the rather convoluted title, Romans and a Link to Egypt - but Scots came from Ireland, a title so lengthy as to account for a fair percentage of the word count! I was amused to see that the author, Magnus Linklater, manages to work in a reference to our own dear Ninth Legion in his first paragraph!

"The earliest written accounts [of Scotland] are to be found in the works of the Roman historian Tacitus, whose father-in-law invaded southern Scotland with the 9th Roman Legion in 81 AD."

Okay, the father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, did invade southern Scotland, but may not have been the first to do so. Archaeologists are more and more inclined to expand the role of his predecessor-but-one, Quintus Petillius Cerialis, to include a certain amount of ravaging in the Lowlands. Nor was it just the Ninth Legion that accompanied Agricola. Britannia was a four-legion province, after all. And by limiting his involvement to southern Scotland, Mr Linklater does his memory a grave injustice.

But that's only Mr Linklater's first paragraph. Here's his second:

"At that time Scotland was inhabited by tribes of Celtic origin, notably the Picts, about whom very little is known but who left behind many distinctive stone carvings."

Notably the Picts? Well, we've already scotched (ouch!) that factoid. But, from Agricola and the Ninth Legion, Mr Linklater has effortlessly drawn us onto the subject of the Picts. Where will he go next?

"Around the 6th century, the Picts converted to Christianity and some of their carvings show links with the Middle Eastern Coptic church. This image [what image?!] of two hands receiving a loaf of bread from a raven, depicts StAnthony and StPaul the Hermit in the desert. It is found on a monastery wall in Egypt and a Pictish stone at St Vigeans, Dundee."

Egypt?! Is Mr Linklater subtly suggesting a link between Pictish Dundee and monastic Egypt? I'm afraid we'll never know because, in the next paragraph, his final one, he's off on another tangent.

"Originally referred to as Alba or Alban, the name Scotland is said to derive from the Scots, a warlike Celtic race from Northern Ireland who invaded southwestern Scotland in the 3rd and 4th centuries and established the kingdom of Dalriada."

Mr Linklater should perhaps have pointed out that the Scotti (for it is they to whom he alludes!) are first mentioned in the 4th century (not the 3rd) and that the evidence for Dalriada is even later.

And that's it. A frustratingly teasing promise of Romans in Egypt that ends with an enigmatic early Scottish kingdom. Not with a bang but with a whimper ...

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The long-awaited legion

Silchester Eagle

Ever since 30 November 2003, when I read that Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth was finally to be filmed, I have been intending to re-read that childhood classic. As the title suggests, the Ninth Legion certainly lurks in the background, but if I were asked to sum up the central theme in one sentence, I would not have said: "the Picts slaughter most of the invaders, but a few survivors attempt to fight their way back"! But this seems to be the premise of the proposed movie.

The theme of the book that I recalled from childhood was quite different. And a re-reading confirmed my hazy memory.

Above all, I was struck by Miss Sutcliff's debt to Rudyard Kipling (which I had not noticed thirty years ago). Of course, in today's world of web and wiki, it is easy to discover that she had a life-long interest in Kipling, culminating in the writing of a biography (long out of print). The most striking parallel for me is the little turf altar that Marcus builds in Chapter 11, because it is surely an echo of a scene sketched by Kipling in Puck of Pook's Hill.

"Wait awhile,” said Pertinax, and he made a little altar of cut turf, and strewed heather-bloom atop, and laid upon it a letter from a girl in Gaul.
"What do you do, O my friend?” I said.
"I sacrifice to my dead youth,” he answered, and, when the flames had consumed the letter, he ground them out with his heel. Then we rode back to that Wall of which we were to be Captains.

Other readers will notice other echoes of Kipling in Miss Sutcliff's prose. But, unfortunately, she seems to have used him as a historical source, too. That is clearly where she gets the mistaken idea that the lands of the Selgovae and Votadini, in the hinterland of the Antonine Wall, were the province of Valentia. And that Agricola had built a northern wall. And other minor points, besides.

But it would be churlish to criticise a novel of 1954 for misrepresenting an archaeology that, fifty years on, is still in parts obscure. And not even a grumpy emperor can find fault with sublime prose like this (Marcus' farewell to the ex-centurion who has "gone native"):

They looked back when they had gone a few paces, and saw him standing as they had left him, already dimmed with mist, and outlined against the drifting mist beyond. A half-naked, wild-haired tribesman, with a savage dog against his knee; but the wide, well-drilled movement of his arm as he raised it in greeting and farewell was all Rome. It was the parade-ground and the clipped voice of trumpets, the iron discipline and the pride. In that instant Marcus seemed to see, not the barbarian hunter, but the young centurion, proud in his first command, before even the shadow of the doomed legion fell on him. It was to that centurion that he saluted in reply.
Then the drifting mist came between them.

I wonder if the film will manage to capture that pathos, and I worry ...