Sunday, 31 May 2009

The Romans in Fantasyland

Book coverI accidentally picked up a book called Cartimandua, and pretty soon regretted it.

The History Press should be ashamed of themselves. "This is the first major study of Cartimandua", they cry (by which they mean that it's the first book about Cartimandua). Call me old-fashioned, but shouldn't a "major study" set out all the evidence and draw a reasoned conclusion?

Just to set the scene: in reality, Cartimandua briefly appears in the Roman account of the conquest of Britain as the queen of the Brigantes, a tribe occupying the whole of the north of England. She seems to have become embroiled in family troubles which destabilised her realm to such an extent that Rome stepped in and annexed the whole territory. You can find the (very short and confused) story here (Tacitus, Annals 12.40) and here (Tacitus, Histories 3.45).

According to the History Press, "Her story is one of power, intrigue, scandal and accusations of betrayal ..." Err, actually her story is a couple of sentences from the work of a Roman writer called Tacitus (see above), along with whatever archaeologists have managed to discover in Cumbria/Northumberland/Yorkshire/Lancashire. But the author of this first major study prefers to create a kind of soap opera, mostly disregarding Tacitus (the only source to divulge any details of Cartimandua's life whatsoever) and completely disregarding the archaeology.

The arguments (such as they are) are laughable, with the Celtic nobility dotting back and forth to their foster families at Rome, and Cartimandua herself marrying a Roman with a made-up Celtic name!

My suspicions were further aroused by the fact that the author seems to have done rather a lot of internet research rather than dragging herself off to a real library, and has consequently made a number of silly mistakes: for example, the Twentieth Legion appears as "Legion XX Valeria" (its titles, Valeria Victrix, are only ever found together, or entirely absent, but never individually); the Roman governor Quintus Veranius has become "Veranius Nepos" (a peculiar error found only in internet sources); and, worst of all, the Latin sources are cited only through English translation, so that the author's attempts to tease out nuances of meaning are entirely fatuous.

Okay, so it's not a dry-as-dust scholarly treatise, ... but is it a good read? The answer is a most emphatic no. The emperor's advice? Stand well clear. You have been warned.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for an honest review. I'll be looking to stay far away. :)

    Chris Weimer