The light was fading fast and the museum would soon close. A crepuscular hush was stealthily invading the Roman galleries when, shockingly, came the unmistakable loud, tinkling sound of hard cash, of many coins falling from a great height. Surely there wasn’t a fruit machine in the ancient fortress of Colchester? Of course not. At the end of the room a large screen showed a vast, applauding amphitheatre, and a Roman chariot, with a shower of denarii cascading into it. A lad, strolling towards us, looked nonchalant. He had won, fair and square, loud and clear.
It was a brilliant video game. You just had to pick up and twitch the leather reins and the race was on. And it was clearly dead easy. But actually it wasn’t. I’m a good driver but those four unbiddable beasts took off like a Maserati: in my careful hands they crashed into the wall and careered into the path of other chariots, rightly earning me the derision of the whole assembled (virtual) throng and resulting, twice, in disqualification. Luckily, the museum staff signalled that it was time to leave before further humiliation.
Rosemary Sutcliff knew about chariots. In the first of her four Roman books, The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), her young hero, the centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, politely suggests to his British friend Cradoc that the British are all charioteers. Cradoc replies (accurately): ‘The British can all drive after a fashion; not every one is a charioteer.’ Marcus, however, is the real thing, the best in his Legion. Elegantly he slaloms Cradoc’s four strong little black stallions through planted spears, and then, reaching open land, he gives them their heads and they are off, at full gallop:
To Marcus, that moment was always like being born from one kind of life into another. So must an arrow feel when it leaves the bow! It had been hot and sultry in the old life, but in this one the cool wind flowed against him like water, pressing his thin scarlet tunic into his body, singing past his ears above the soft thunder of the ponies’ flying hooves. He crouched lower, feeling the chariot floor buoyant and vibrating under his wide-set feet, feeling the reins quick with life in his hands, his will flowing out along them to the flying team, and their response flowing back to him, so that they were one.
‘On, brave hearts! On, bold and beautiful!’
. . . The forest verge spun by, the fern streaked away beneath flying hooves and whirring wheels. He and his team were a comet shooting down the bright ways of the sky; a falcon stooping against the sun.
I read this chapter last week to a group of residents in a care home. A captive audience, mostly they come along just for a change of armchair; often they snooze, as if half-listening to a bedtime story. On Thursday however – for the first time in years – they all stayed wide awake, and at the end they all but applauded with sheer exhilaration.
If you ever wondered how Rosemary Sutcliff achieved such widespread, lasting and affectionate fame, this passage gives you one answer. Her imagination was unbounded by time, space or experience, and she could write better than any other children’s writer of her time.
She was a tiny woman, seriously disabled by Still’s disease before she was three. Still’s is a rare auto-immune disease, a kind of wandering arthritis, which attacks various joints, apparently at random, causing excruciating pain. If contracted after adolescence, it can disappear – in my own case for years – returning only occasionally; the damage, thank goodness, is seldom permanent. It is a different matter if caught in childhood. The damaged joints remain distorted, and the effect is crippling. Rosemary was two and a half when it began, and it lasted, in active form, until she was five. At first, arsenic in her medication caused terrifying hallucinations of wolves gathering in the shadowy corners of her room, and a black panther under her bed. Later she endured many operations and spells in hospital, eventually learning to walk again, though never easily. She came late to reading, and she left school early to become a painter of miniatures – larger canvases being deemed too unwieldy. But, as she remarks in her luminous memoir, Blue Remembered Hills, painting miniatures had cramped her style, and she took instead to writing: ‘One can write as big as one needs; no canvas is too large to be unmanageable.’
The battle scenes in the first two of her Roman books superbly demonstrate that narrative command. Sutcliff liked Westerns, and they come to mind in The Eagle of the Ninth when the Romans are attempting to defend their fort from attack by the rebellious native Britons: desperately, they summon reinforcements – whose arrival, very nearly too late, is ultimately heralded by a type of smoke-signal. Yet the scene is more dramatic than anything dreamed up in Hollywood: the British thunder towards the fray, curved and deadly knives whirling on their chariot wheels, and Marcus leads a Roman testudo out towards them in determined, disciplined formation (‘more a gigantic woodlouse than a tortoise’, Rosemary observes) before commanding it to disperse and courting certain death in a brilliant, gallant leap upon the driver of the leading war-chariot, a man once his friend, now become his deadly enemy.
Similarly, near the end of The Silver Branch (1957) comes a nail-biting, heart-pounding account of the epic battle, nearly a hundred years later, that famously ended in the destruction of Calleva (modern Silchester, where still the evidence of former glories and catastrophes can be glimpsed). As the battering-ram beats down the great gates of the basilica, and the horde of screaming barbarians pour through, with slaughter in their hearts, fire leaps up to the rafters, engulfing those sheltering there in waves of black, acrid smoke. High up in the blazing building the young surgeon Justin Aquila is, like his ancestor Marcus, careless of his own life – ignoring the advancing flames he cradles an elderly, fatally wounded gladiator and comforts him by conjuring up memories of the crowds who cheered his victories long ago, in the arenas of Rome. It is magnificent stuff.
At the same time, the attention to detail is phenomenal. Once, as a child, Rosemary was punished for refusing to eat her aunt’s pudding – which she declared both looked and tasted pale grey. They sat her on the grass at the edge of the Downs and left her there, confident that she could not move to run away. Not remotely chastened, she began minutely examining the foot or two of turf around her, discovering a tiny forest of thyme, scarlet pimpernel, clover, cinquefoil and eyebright, wherein lived snails, ladybirds, beetles. ‘Thank you, Aunt Lucy,’ she later wrote, ‘for your pale grey pudding.’
From such close observation of nature comes her gift for description. She loves describing light, for example. Candle flames are often the shape of a crocus, but the glow coming through thick Roman glass, or illuminating a face in the shadows, or beginning to disperse the darkness of night is never just yellow but the colour of a primrose or daffodil, a buttercup or marigold – or sometimes runny honey. And when Marcus, slowly recovering after that desperate leap at a British war-chariot, lies on a stone bench in his uncle’s garden, gazing up into the ‘blown, blue heights of heaven’, he hears birds, down in the forest, singing with ‘that note of clear-washed surprise that belongs to early spring’.
The centuries during which the Romans occupied Britain can seem impossibly far away. Yet the human urge to imagine what life was like here, so long ago, cannot easily be suppressed. In our part of Sussex, there is a scrubby piece of Wealden woodland sloping down to a little, once navigable river. The Romans built a road there, from some small iron-workings on the hill. Nobody goes there now and it is very overgrown, but scratch around and you can find carefully shaped and regularly placed kerbstones, and, if you really try, you can hear and see those legions marching down the hill in strict and disciplined formation . . .
Kipling saw them, and put them into Puck of Pook’s Hill, and Rosemary’s uncle read Kipling to her long before she could read herself. And she took him further. Her Romans are as real as your neighbours, as heroic or weak, as appealing or appalling. She describes their ambitions, their families and, most of all, their adventures. The first of them, Marcus, though now lame, resolves to discover the fate of the lost Ninth Legion, which had been commanded by his father. Following the Saturnalia Games (another splendid set piece) he buys a slave, only to release him into freedom, and the two of them travel through the wild north, even beyond Hadrian’s Wall, into a land of dangerous, pagan tribesmen, to discover the truth. In the course of their adventures, they retrieve the legion’s eagle, now sadly wingless, along with a great emerald signet ring, bearing an intaglio dolphin, which Marcus’s father had once owned.
In The Silver Branch, Justin, his descendant, arrives in Britain from Beersheba and encounters Flavius, a soldier who now wears that ring and proves to be his cousin. They too travel north to the Wall, though the political landscape has now changed and the Empire is beginning to fracture. Ultimately, they assemble their own ramshackle band of brothers into a legion of sorts, aiming to topple Allectus the Traitor. There are echoes of the Second World War here, as they plot to send refugees from the south coast over to France, by dead of night. Their activities are discovered, and Paulinus, the mild-mannered and generous facilitator of these escapes, helps them get away, at the cost of his own life. One of their gang is a young centurion, no longer able to countenance the cruelty of Allectus. On hearing of the sacrifice of Paulinus, he murmurs a few words: ‘Greater love hath no man . . .’ Justin thinks it sounds as though he were quoting someone else. Later, he draws a fish in the sand, and Justin remembers his own time in Judea when he saw that sign, ‘something to do with a man called the Christos . . . who had been executed more than two hundred years ago, but it seemed that he still had followers’.
How cleverly she manipulates her readers. We are suddenly reminded that these people, so real and immediate to us now, are the fictional inhabitants of a world long since almost buried and lost. At the same time, she gives them, too, a folk memory. On another occasion, the two cousins discuss their common ancestor, Marcus. As happens in families, his great heroic story has been watered down until, as Flavius puts it, ‘he was lamed in some tribal uprising or other’, while his tremendous journey in search of the eponymous eagle becomes ‘some sort of an adventure in the North, in his wild young days’. We, of course, know better.
This is the best kind of historical fiction, far too good to be limited to children’s bookshelves. Rosemary Sutcliff’s characters are immediately believable, and she conjures the lives they lead using every sense. We know what Roman Britain looked, tasted, felt, sounded and smelt like and we can even prove some of her apparently wild assertions. When Justin and Flavius manage to hide in a hypocaust, a brief visit to, say, the site at Binchester, shows just how possible that would have been. Their adventures are set among real historical buildings and events, often provoked by real figures of history. Even the wingless eagle exists still, in Reading Museum, having been discovered in the remains of the burnt-out basilica of Calleva. It is immensely pleasing to have such a plausible – albeit complicated and circuitous – explanation of how it got there.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 63 © Sue Gaisford 2019