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Episode 35: Decline and Fall: A Literary Guide

The Dark Ages, Late Antiquity, the late Roman . . . however you define the years spanning the fall of Rome, the period is rich in stories, real or reimagined.

In this episode Dr Andy Merrills, Associate Professor of Ancient History, joins the Slightly Foxed team to cast light on the surviving literature. We begin with Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire before delving into 4th-century accounts by the Latin historian Ammianus Marcellinus, a spiritual autobiography by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, ecclesiastical chronicles by the Venerable Bede, Gallic tales of Christian miracles and relic-looting with Gregory of Tours and an alternative look at the period with the modern-day master of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown.

From there we venture into fiction with Rosemary Sutcliff’s adventures inspired by archaeological finds and a retelling of the old British folk ballad ‘The Twa Sisters’ in Lucy Holland’s Sistersong, as well as Gore Vidal’s Julian and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. We swap tales from Icelandic sagas and set sail on a tenth-century Viking long ship with Frans G. Bengtsson before heading beyond Hadrian’s Wall for a glimpse of the Lindisfarne Gospels on Holy Island and a hunt for second-hand gems at Barter Books in a converted Victorian railway station in Northumberland.

And there’s more historical fiction to be found in further reading recommendations too, as we plunge into the seventeenth-century Essex witch trials with poet A. K. Blakemore’s novel The Manningtree Witches and follow the fortunes of a group of friends in wartime Europe in Olivia Manning’s classic Balkan Trilogy.

Comments & Reviews

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Show Notes

Please find links to books, articles, and further reading listed below. The digits in brackets following each listing refer to the minute and second they are mentioned. (Episode duration: 42 minutes; 49 seconds)

Books Mentioned

We may be able to get hold of second-hand copies of the out-of-print titles listed below. Please get in touch with Jess in the Slightly Foxed office for more information.

A Countryman’s Winter Notebook, Adrian Bell (1:02)

Letters to Michael: a father writes to his son 1945–1947, Charles Phillipson (1:12)

The Rosemary Sutcliff Novels, Slightly Foxed Cubs. The final two in the series, The Shield Ring and Sword Song, are now available (2:00)

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon (4:18)

The Later Roman Empire, Ammianus Marcellinus (9:30)

The History of the Franks, Gregory of Tours (10:41)

Confessions, Saint Augustine (13:54)

City of God, Saint Augustine (14:46)

Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede (15:34)

The World of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown (17:34)

Julian, Gore Vidal (22:14)

The Dream of Scipio, Iain Pears (22:54)

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (23:38)

Dawn Wind, Rosemary Sutcliff (25:06)

The Long Ships, Frans G. Bengtsson (26:08)

Beowulf: A New Translation, Maria Dahvana Headley (27:13)

Sistersong, Lucy Holland (27:30)

Le Morte Darthur, Thomas Malory (30:53)

The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell (32:11)

The Manningtree Witches, A. K. Blakemore (38:17)

The Balkan Trilogy, Olivia Manning (40:47)

Related Slightly Foxed Articles

Scaling Gibbon’s Everest, Richard Crockatt on Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Issue 68 (8:17)

A Frank Look at History, Andy Merrills on Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, Issue 65 (12:48)

Last of the Pagans, Patrick Welland on Gore Vidal, Julian, Issue 45 (22:50)

The Sound of Chariots, Sue Gaisford on the Roman Britain novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, Issue 63

Light in the Dark Ages, Sue Gaisford on Rosemary Sutcliff, Dawn Wind, Issue 69

Magical Talisman, Sue Gaisford on Rosemary Sutcliff, Sword Song & The Shield Ring, Issue 71

Adrift on the Tides of War, Patrick Welland on Olivia Manning’s Balkan trilogy, Issue 63 (40:47)

Other Links

– Listen to Episode 18 of the Slightly Foxed Podcast: An Odyssey Through the Classics (0:20)

Barter Books, Alnwick (36:12)

Opening music: Preludio from Violin Partita No.3 in E Major by Bach

The Slightly Foxed Podcast is hosted by Philippa Lamb and produced by Podcastable

Comments & Reviews

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  1. Andrew Hypher says:

    What an extraordinarily interesting podcast with guest speaker Dr Andy Merrills, perhaps the more so because he illuminated periods of history that are very close to my heart. If only we could have touched on some of this when I was at school in the 50s and 60s of the twentieth century. The nearest any of my secondary school teachers allowed us to get to history remotely interesting to adolescent boys was Tennyson’s highly onomatopoeic poem Morte d’Arthur, which still resonates with me more than fifty years later.
    So a big thank you for such a brilliant podcast, and particularly to Dr Andy Merrills. If only I’d had him as one of my teachers back then . . .!

  2. Cate Nunan says:

    Hello from sunny Australia as we welcome in the Spring. I found you through a literary acquaintance, Cindy Rollins who is a host of The Literary Life Podcast. How glad I am that she chose to read ‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman and to talk about it because now I have ordered your magazine and a book. I await them with much anticipation. I am catching up on the podcasts but each one brings a fresh new insight into your world, of artists, editors, forgotten authors, past history which absorbs me. Today it is the 17th of September and the feast of St. Hildegard of Bingen so I am playing instrumental adaptations of her music and very glad that this episode introduced me to the knowledgeable Dr Merrills. I want to also say thank you for the recommendation of ‘Mrs Harris Goes To Paris’ as it was just the ticket for my reading needs last week. What a woman! Your episodes are now my secret bliss and i am glad I have time to catch up on the previous ones. Thank you for all you do!

  3. Jennifer Fry Thompson says:

    Thank you for a fascinating podcast. I studied Late Antiquity, first as an undergraduate and then as part of a master’s degree. Peter Brown’s book, ‘The World of Late Antiquity’ is magical. I’m so glad your guest recommended it. Many historians since Brown have challenged his views, in particular, the idea that the decline of the Roman Empire was slow and at times imperceptible. After 9/11 several new histories were published along that vein. Bryan Ward-Perkins’ ‘The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization’ presents a very concise and compelling version of this view, based in large part on archaeological evidence. But Brown remains great fun and shows the importance, or rather the necessity, of bringing imagination to historical inquiry. And it is beautifully illustrated.

  4. David Brock says:

    Thank you for this sparkling introduction to a period that if not dark is certainly still eccentrically lit. I was briefly taught by Peter Brown and am ashamed – now – that I never read The World of Late Antiquity which I must do, and take courage also to try Gregory of Tours. Since you then range into fiction which is about the period and which may draw on the style and character of its own literature, I wanted to mention a really remarkable example, and one of my favourite historical novels, ‘The Golden Warrior’ by Hope Muntz. This is about Harold and William, told in a tight-lipped style that draws on the sagas (and of course with a walk-on part for Hardrada, who really does appear in a saga). Especially when it reaches Hastings, the restraint of the writing is extremely poignant. A passionate book – there is no mistaking who is the hero – it is also as deeply researched as any novel ever was. I see Jon Stallworthy wrote it up for you, very handsomely, in 2007, but it’s not been re-published since 1966 (the anniversary year) when I first read it. Any chance of a re-issue? It really should be better known.

  5. Margaret Taylor says:

    I so enjoyed this podcast! This period in history is fascinating and I have been introduced to some treasures that I am searching for now. Even Rosemary Sutcliff wrote a retelling called The Black Sips of Troy. My present to myself will eventually be a lovely set of her novels. I am just reading a book about Icelandic sagas and so glad that Gail mentioned them in the discussion. Your guest was a fountain of knowledge, thank you!

  6. Mrs. Ainee C. Beland says:

    Hello. I enjoyed listening to this podcast fully earlier this week while doing some chores around the apartment; ironing to be exact is when I plug and tune in to the old podcast that I am able to download; although this one is the recent/latest. I am contemplating the book titled: The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore; Abebooks is where I try to snag of some books and most likely might be where I purchase this one as well. I am so thankful to Slightly Foxed as a whole; the group has given me such delight, something to look forward to once in a while; they’ve me into a podcast junkie of sort. Stay well everyone!

  7. Isabel Miller says:

    I loved your late antiquity podcast. Just sat down and listened to it. I completely understand your desire to keep away from the controversies surrounding the origins of Islam (I’m an editor and historian and Middle East history and Islamic studies are my business) but what about the great Persian empires? Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian? Their lands went from Iraq to Central Asia. Did you see the Epic Iran exhibition? Amazing. I’m also utterly shocked that Augustine’s City of God is out of print. It was a standard Penguin publication when I was a girl. Decline and Fall of civilisation. And I am noting your recommendations for novels about late antiquity. I may be tempted by your Rosemary Sutcliffs. She was a great novelist. Thank you!

    • Anna Kirk says:

      Hello Isabel. Thank you so much for listening to this episode and for your thoughtful comments, greatly appreciated. You are absolutely right that City of God by Saint Augustine was originally listed as out of print (an unfortunate error on our part, apologies) but it has since been updated, listing the Penguin Classics edition. And we do hope you enjoy reading (or re-reading) Rosemary Sutcliff in the future too! With best wishes, Anna

  8. Isabel Miller says:

    Just thought I’d add a slightly controversial note re the dark ages and the decline and fall of Rome – it could be said that the Islamic empire was the continuation of the Roman empire in the east!! So no decline just a realignment and continuation of things.

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