21 May, 2006

Julia, by William Napier. Book review

Edition reviewed: Headline Review, paperback, 2002, ISBN 0-7472-3135-4.

Julia is set in Roman Britain and Spain, with excursions to Persia, in 340-353 AD. There are minor parts for historical figures including Emperor Constantius, Emperor Magnentius and the notorious Imperial enforcer Paul Catena ("The Chain") (whom I always think of as being rather like Thomas Cromwell to Henry VIII). Most of the main characters are fictional. The central character, the Julia of the title, is rather unusual in that she could be described as an archaeological figure. She is based on an intact Roman burial excavated by the Museum of London Archaeology Service in Spitalfields, London in March 1999 (scroll down to the second article in the link).

The burial was that of a young woman in her early twenties, dated to the mid fourth century AD. She was 5 feet 4 inches tall (which was tall for a woman of her time), with no evidence of disease or trauma to her skeleton, and her bones and teeth were in good condition, which is interpreted as meaning that she probably died of an acute infectious disease. She had never borne a child. Analysis of her tooth enamel showed that she had spent her childhood in Spain, Southern France or Italy. The burial was lavish, indicating that she probably came from a wealthy family. A stone sarcophagus contained a sealed lead coffin decorated with scallop shells, a pagan symbol of the soul's passage to the underworld. She had been buried wearing silk and wool clothes decorated with gold thread, with her head resting on a 'pillow' of bay leaves. A glass phial and a group of jet ornaments - expensive objects normally associated with high-status burials - had been buried at the foot of the sarcophagus. The presence of grave goods and the scallop shells on the coffin suggest that she may have been a pagan, which is of interest as the Roman Empire at that time was officially Christian. Nothing is known of her identity or history, beyond what can be deduced from her burial. Julia is an imaginative reconstruction of what the life and death of this unknown woman may have been.

The novel falls into two very different parts. The first part tells of Julia's childhood in Spain, her adventurous journey to Britain after her parents' deaths, and her upbringing with her uncle Lucius in London. This part is reminiscent of Rosemary Sutcliff's children's fiction, and the author credits Rosemary Sutcliff in his Author's Note as one of his inspirations.

The second part focuses on Julia's friend Marcus and his military training and army service. This part is more Simon Scarrow than Rosemary Sutcliff, complete with wimpy upper-class recruit gradually finding his feet to become a respected officer and foul-mouthed veteran centurion with a heart of gold. Towards the end of the second part, both strands of the story come together when Marcus and Julia venture into hostile territory in Caledonia (north of the Antonine Wall) in an attempt to rescue Julia's uncle from the savage Attacotti tribe.

This episodic structure makes Julia a slightly strange novel to read, apparently aimed at children to begin with and then suddenly shifting into adult gear. I presume the reviewer on Amazon.co.uk who considered the book "a wonderful read for children" hadn't got as far as the straightforwardly explicit homosexual sex scene in a legionary bath house (page 194, since you ask).

One of the most attractive features of the novel, for me, was the character of Julia herself. She is clever, vivacious, warm, attractive and imaginative, growing up in a society that has no real place for her. One of the characters comments that, "every man who met her had probably fallen a little in love with her," and I suspect that extends to the author. I also liked the characterisation of Julia's uncle, the stoic, philosophical, incorruptible Lucius Fabius Quintilianus. There are some rather charming Pollyanna-like scenes as Julia's presence disrupts and warms Lucius' cold and well-regulated household.

The story has plenty of colour and life, with vivid descriptions of Julia's sea journey, Roman London and the client British tribes living immediately north of Hadrian's Wall. A folklore retelling of Boudica's revolt as it might have been remembered in 4th-century London was a nice touch. Humour brightens the narrative and dialogue; for example, the Britons north of Hadrian's Wall refer to the Roman soldiers as "The Iron Hats". The author also provides a helpful Author's Note giving some indication of what is documented and what he made up.

Although the client tribes immediately north of Hadrian's Wall are depicted in a way that seems reasonably convincing to me, the portrayal of the Attacotti tribe veers into cartoon territory. Very little is known of this tribe, who are mentioned in passing in a handful of late Roman sources and who are thought to have lived in the far north of Scotland and/or in the Scottish Islands. The author quotes St Jerome (writing in Gaul) as a source for Attacotti cannibalism. I am not qualified to say whether St Jerome is or is not a reliable source, but I can say that I found the Attacotti too extreme to work well in the story. The Attacotti as portrayed reminded me of the 'Injuns' in formulaic Westerns, which for me detracted from their effect and made them less fearsome enemies.

I also had trouble with suspension of disbelief over some elements in the plot. The nefarious political machinations that result in Lucius' capture by the Attacotti felt a little contrived, as did Julia's presence with the rescue party. I suppose the whole book up to that point has been setting Julia up as an unusual woman, but her presence with the rescue mission does little to alter the outcome, so it felt to me like a gratuitous adventure invented to provide a role for a character who does not fit the accepted female roles of her time. Perhaps that was the point.

The Roman Empire had adopted Christianity as the official religion a generation before Julia is set, yet the evidence from the excavated burial was consistent with the occupant having been a pagan. This raises the question of how a prominent and wealthy pagan family was affected by the change in the official state religion. Were they under pressure to conform? Were their opportunities and social position constrained if they did not convert? Were they ostracised in polite society? Did her religion limit Julia's marriage prospects? Or did the official religion make little difference, with society paying it lip-service and no more? The novel mentions the religious issues from time to time but never really explores them in depth, which seems to me rather a shame.

A colourful story with plenty of action and a most attractive heroine.

Has anyone else read it? What did you think?


Tony Keen said...

The Roman Empire had adopted Christianity as the official religion a generation before Julia is set

And a generation before that, Christians were being persecuted. I'm a bit wary of the term 'official religion' in the Roman empire. It's misleading for the pre-Constantinian empire, and may be so after him. And the emperor was not head of the Church, no matter how much he may have tried to interfere with it.

Constantine, for all his edicts in favour of Christianity, hedged his bets and didn't convert until his deathbed. Any banning of pagan rituals cannot have been earlier than his assertion of sole control of the empire in AD324, so possibly within the lifespan of the Spitalfields woman. (And David Potter's The Roman Empire at Bay raises questions about how extensive such a ban actually was.) Constans issued an edict banning superstitio, but another that pagan temples should be left undisturbed.

I suspect that Christianity in the fourth century was a bit like membership of the Communist Party is in modern China - no-one forces you to be a party member, but you're not going to get very far if you're not. I imagine it was the same in Rome. You could get on if you remained a pagan, but it was a lot harder. Actual total banning of pagan ritual seems not to actually come in until Theodosius' reign. (Or at least, even if there had been bans before, enough people ignored such edicts that they needed to be repeated.)

Alex Bordessa said...

I didn't like the book at all. It was certainly a story of two parts and they didn't mesh well together. From the use of the London burial to using Hadrian's Wall it was all too contrived. I think he loved the idea of the burial, but really didn't do much with it. I wanted to like the book, but it fell into all sorts of cliches (right down to the author saying that he was inspired by Rosemary Sutcliff, but managing to spell her name incorrectly, if memory serves ...) Did I say I didn't like the book ;-)

Bernita said...

One can forgive a certain amount of gratuitous adventure if the characters are engaging.
As far as the Christianity element is concerned, things are slow to change in the outposts of any empire. A hundred years is nothing, as I know from my own experience in the boonies.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Sounds like an interesting book, Carla!

Gabriele C. said...

I don't think it sounds like something I'd read. I'm not fond of books about girls growing up, not even Roman girls. Now, the Marcus and Roman baths stuff would be another matter, but I can't get the book in a library here and I don't want to spend money on it. ;)

Carla said...

Tony - thanks for your comment. I've heard the 'party card' analogy for post-Constantine Christianity in the Roman Empire, which seems quite a plausible idea. Religions don't change overnight, and the process was probably long, complex and interesting. I was hoping the novel might explore some of the potential ramifications of not having your 'party card', and was a bit disappointed that it didn't really do anything with it at all.

Alex - yes, I think I get the idea! I didn't read it as harshly as that and quite liked it, on the whole. As Bernita says, much can be forgiven for an engaging character, and I did like Julia.

Bernita - indeed, religions take ages to disappear altogether. There's an arguable case for seeing a continuation of Iron Age (some argue even Bronze Age) beliefs in the numerous holy wells revered in England in medieval times, and in the well dressing ceremonies in the Derbyshire Peak District - which if true is continuity spanning thousands of years. My problem was not that there were pagans in high places in 350 AD - it would have been more astonishing if there weren't - but that the author didn't take this potentially fascinating story element and run with it.

Gabriele - I thought of you when I read the bath house scene! If you can tell that the book isn't something you'd like to read even though it's in your period of interest, then the review's done something useful.

Susan - I liked it and thought it was a good story, on the whole. I'd say it's well worth giving it a whirl if you're vaguely interested in post-Roman Britain, especially if you can get it from a library.

Gabriele C. said...

Carla, your review did help me to decide. Loan yes, but not buy. And since loan isn't possible (at least not without a lot more trouble and probably fees than I'm willing to put into) I'll have to do without the bath scene. *sniff* ;)

Rick said...

There's be something very depressing to me about getting to know an appealing young woman, knowing in advance that she'll get run over by a bus at the end, still in her early 20s!

As for religion, my hazy recollection is that Christianity only became the formal religion of the Empire, with real pressure against pagans, with Theodosius, around 400 or so. Christians had the voltage, but I suspect that pagans were still the majority in just about all regions and classes in the period around 350.

Carla said...

Gabriele - the bath scene is very short, only about half a page, so don't mourn overmuch :-)

Rick - I know what you mean, but oddly it never bothers me if I know the central character isn't going to survive. Maybe it comes from reading historical fiction where the fate of the characters is often known in advance - e.g. books on Mary Queen of Scots or Lady Jane Grey. Which reminds me, I forgot to put in my usual note about whether the characters are historical or fictional; I'll edit the post.

Rick said...

Perhaps it bothers me because (if the book follows the archeology) she just gets sick and dies - an all too common occurrance, but it still amounts to getting run over by a bus, rather than a tragic consequence of the plot.

(I realize that I may be wrong in ways that would require a spoiler to explain!)

Carla said...

Er, yes, you are, and yes, it would a bit - though I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that her final illness is a tragic consequence of the plot.

Alan Fisk said...

I thought I was the only historical novelist to have used the Atacotti. I bet Napier got them from the same source that I did: "The Age of Arthur", by John Morris.

Carla said...

Well, the Author's Note only mentions St Jerome, but primary sources always sound more impressive :-)

What did you think of The Age of Arthur, Alan? I loved it. Speculative of course, but what book about the period isn't? I've seen it heavily criticised in some circles, and that seems a shame to me.

Which of your books features the Attacotti? I'd be interested in seeing another portrayal.

Alan Fisk said...

"The Age of Arthur" is a fascinating source for the history of the period, Carla, and well written, but it needs to be used with caution. When Morris goes off on his dream that Arthur founded a Roman-style imperial government in Britain, I can't accept it; but if you tune out the mad bits, the book is very valuable, and one of my own favourites.

The Atacotti appear in my novel "Lord of Silver", set in Britain in 366-7 A.D. It went out of print at my own request last year, and another publisher is looking at it, so perhaps it will become available again.

Years after writing it, I read Rosemary Sutcliff's "The Eagle of the Ninth", and found that there was a plot element that was almost the same. I didn't steal it from "The Eagle of the Ninth", but I wouldn't blame anyone who thought that I had.

I'd be happy to send you one of my copies if you will give me your postal address (which I will keep confidential, of course). Don't post the address publicly here, but send it to me at: