11 February, 2006

The Little Emperors, by Alfred Duggan. Book review

The Little Emperors is set in Britain in AD 405–411 and tells the story of the decline of Roman government in the diocese of Britannia.*

This book paints a convincing picture of the end of Roman administration in Britain. No cataclysmic barbarian invasion. No official withdrawal of the legions. Instead, the political class destroys itself in internecine squabbles and ill-judged military adventures, while the rest of the population ignores them and gets on with life.

The central character is Felix, the Praeses (treasurer) of Britannia Prima, based in London. He is trying to balance the government books, despite a moribund economy and constant demands for extra military spending. Preoccupied with bureaucratic minutiae, Felix finds himself embroiled in a succession of ever more disastrous military coups. First his wily British father-in-law, Gratianus, conspires to declare Britannia independent of the rest of the Roman Empire and elevates a soldier called Marcus to Emperor of Britannia. Marcus proves to be an unsatisfactory puppet, so Gratianus and his daughter, Felix’s wife, assassinate Marcus and replace him with Gratianus. Felix, who is not nearly as good at high politics as he thinks he is, now finds himself surplus to their requirements and in danger of assassination himself.

Meanwhile, the machinery of Roman administration in Britain is grinding to a halt under its own weight. Progressively less of the island is under the control of the Emperor of Britannia, and progressively more is handed over to ‘barbarian’ client kings, who very soon stop being clients. Poor Felix slowly comes to realise not only that his orderly bureaucratic world has ended, but that it was irrelevant to most of the population in the first place.

The character of Felix, the pompous, well-meaning civil servant getting increasingly out of his depth, is very well drawn. All the events are told from Felix’s perspective, and as he is a stoical individual who doesn’t like hurry or excitement, some readers may find the pace a little slow, although I thought it suited the book. I would have liked to see some other perspectives on the collapse of the Roman governmental system. Apart from a peasant family, who seem blissfully unaware of all the political turmoil, we only see the effect on Felix and his political colleagues. How did it affect the craftsmen and traders? Did the client kings consciously manoeuvre for power or did it fall to them by default? How did the less-Romanised or non-Romanised populations in other parts of the island react? But these questions are outside the scope of the book.

One very welcome feature is a helpful Historical Note, in which the author sets out what is documented history (not very much) and what he made up to fill in the gaps. Much appreciated by this reader.

An excellent read for anyone interested in the end of Roman administration in Britain.

*Note: at this time, Roman Britain was a diocese divided into five provinces, of which the most important was centred on London. Alfred Duggan calls this province Britannia Prima. Other historians have argued that Britannia Prima was elsewhere and the London province was called Maxima Caesariensis, but this doesn’t matter for this book.

Has anyone else read this? What did you think? And have I covered the sorts of things you find helpful to see in a book review?


Alex Bordessa said...

I haven't read the Little Emperors (haven't got hold of a copy yet), but the author's name alone would recommend it to me. Good to see a review though - now I have a better idea of what it's about, I'm stirred into tracking down a copy!

btw, another hurrah for Radio 4: I heard Duggan's 'The Conscience of the King' read there sometime in the 1970s. The novel is still one of my favourites and has not really 'aged' as much as other novels about the era. It's possibly equally as influential for me as Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset. The latter is poetic, the former is a heavy whiff of reality. They complement each other.

Rick said...

I had a little mental glitch and started out thinking Little Emperors was a nonfiction book. :) It was your second paragraph that did it - I could see exact para in a nonfiction review.

Synchronicity, too, since we were just talking about this period in the comments thread of Gabriele's blog.

Oh, yes, and it does make me interested in reading the book.

Carla said...

I borrowed it from the library - it's a recent re-issue from Orion, but bookshops seem to have a much narrower range than libraries. 'Conscience of the King' is next on my list to find. I only discovered Alfred Duggan very recently, via a recommendation on a discussion board; maybe his books have been out of print for a while? Otherwise I'm sure I'd have found them before.

Rick - would it be useful if I put 'Fiction review' or 'Non-fiction review' in the title, instead of just 'Book review'?

Rick said...

No, no, don't sweat it! I figured it out quickly enough. I hadn't had any coffee yet, and the book is striving for realism - it momentarily succeeded with me, in a roundabout way.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Ohh, I have to get that one. It covers the years before and during The Charioteer just nicely. TC starts 408 with most of the Roman army under Constantine leaving Britain.

Alex Bordessa said...

Duggan's books were out of print for quite a while. Conscience was only re-issued in 1999 (Methven), though there were definitely re-issues of other Duggan novels in the 1970s. If they did Conscience then, I missed it. It's currently in print by Cassell Military; I've not seen in the shops, but it's on Amazon UK.

You are in for a treat! It will be fun while it lasts ;-)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Little Emperors is on Amazon.de. For 13.50 €. Hm, seems I have to whine a bit about book prices at a time when my father listens. ;-)

Carla said...

Thanks for the Amazon reference, Alex, much appreciated.

Gabriele, it would be an even better fit with 'The Charioteer', because the main story of 'Little Emperors' ends with Constantine's accession. The final few years are covered briefly in a sort of epilogue, so the main story finishes more or less where you start. List price over here is £7.99, which is about 12 Euros, so not much difference. Good luck persuading your father to buy you a copy!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Hey, our University library has Conscience of the King, Three's Company, and the Medieaval ones: Count Bohemond, Lady for Ransom, and Knight in Armour.

So I can read those and see if they're keepers I should buy one day.