Fiction Book of the Month: Derek Birks on the Last of the Romans

The novelist discusses the first in his bestselling series set in the dying days of the Roman Empire.
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Derek Birks, The Last of the Romans is set in the dying days of the Roman Empire. What was it about this time that interests you, as there’s so much that is seemingly unknown?

I’ve always had an interest in the fifth century perhaps because it was such a turbulent period in European history where the political, cultural and social landscape of the western half of the continent was continually evolving. Historians used to describe it as a period of crisis for the Roman Empire but now the view seems to be that the whole period from the third century to the sixth was one of evolution. In terms of what we actually know, it is very patchy. We do know a reasonable amount about what was going on in Rome itself, but far less about the western provinces.

I was especially drawn to the achievement of the Roman Magister Militum, Flavius Aetius, who held the western empire together against all the odds. He was by no means perfect, but his achievement was still, I think, rather heroic – especially considering that he served a foolish and feckless emperor, Valentinian III, who eventually stabbed Aetius to death.

Your hero is Dux Ambrosius Aurelianus – what sort of man was he?

Ambrosius is something of an historical wraith. We can reasonably safely assume that he existed and that he exerted considerable influence over events in the post-Roman Britain of the fifth century. It’s likely that he came from a high-born Roman family – so perhaps his father was a magistrate or a military commander. Of his origins, we know very little more. Since he managed later to unite the squabbling British tribes to resist the Saxons for a generation, we can assume that he was not only an effective commander in the field, but blessed with a persuasive personality.

I’ve made him the commander, or dux, of a company of bucellarii – a private army, basically. The rank of dux appears to have been rather fluid but often involved responsibility for a region. In Ambrosius’ case, I’ve made him an agent of Aetius – a fixer, perhaps – and given him a roving brief. Most Romans of any power or status would have bucellarii – sometimes hundreds of them. They were oath-sworn to the emperor but also to their individual masters which was bound to cause problems.

Because we don’t know a huge amount about him, presumably that gave you a lot of scope with regard to creating his character?

I’ve created a man who was exceptional in his abilities and outlook because he would need to have been to marshal the divided Britons. I’ve started him off in the empire because that gave him both his military experience and his understanding of the world outside Britain. He was almost certainly a Christian with a strong belief in ‘doing the right thing’ – however difficult that was.

I suspect he could be quite ruthless so I’m not sure he was a character that a modern audience would find it easy to empathise with. I’ve given him a Roman Gallic father and a noble British mother because I feel he would have needed such status to be influential in Britain. In the trilogy he is a young man, still learning and working out what he wants to do. He had to be a character who could inspire the loyalty of others and this is a thread running through the trilogy as he interacts with different tribes – not only British but also Saxon and Scotti.

The Last of the Romans begins in northern Italy, and moves to Gaul. What were these places like as the Roman Empire disintegrated?

Gaul, like most provinces, had been changing for many years as imperial power contracted and Rome relied increasingly upon quasi-barbarians to enforce order in the provinces. As the ability of central government to collect taxes became ever more compromised, it could not afford to police the empire. Over time, the Roman army was reorganised and slimmed down. It no longer attempted to defend the long, fortified frontiers but instead was more mobile. The idea was to respond swiftly to major incursions from outside or rebellions from within. There were an increasing number of both in the 5th century.

The Rhine, once the northern bulwark of the empire, was now a very porous border. In northern Gaul, there were Franks and other tribes, many of whom came as foederati – allies of Rome – to help in defence. Soon they settled in greater numbers and needed more land which created new tensions with the locals.

Across much of the empire, towns were shrinking – often some buildings were levelled to use the land for agriculture or horticulture. Society was more diverse culturally and – like the army – now included many people from outside the empire. Some parts of the old empire were lost such as North Africa, Spain and Britain; but that does not necessarily mean those areas were chaotic. In such regions there was still organisation – often employing the Roman model – but Rome’s overarching authority was gone forever. Rome itself was sacked and, in the middle of the fifth century, the threat from Attila the Hun threatened the stability of the whole western empire.

There is much speculation about Ambrosius being the origin for King Arthur. What is your view?

I think it’s pretty clear that Ambrosius was an actual historical figure whereas Arthur exists almost exclusively in legend. Our primary written source for the period is the monk, Gildas, and he does not mention Arthur at all whereas he heaps enormous praise upon Ambrosius. It seems likely that, if Arthur had led the Britons, Gildas would have included him. I suspect Arthur’s origins lie in Welsh legend and, almost always, he was inserted into the history after the event. It’s a bit like the fictional Forrest Gump manages to appear with well-known political figures.

I would love him to be real, but the Arthur of legend did not exist. That’s not to say that some of the exploits associated with him do not belong to a contemporary of Ambrosius – an ally or even a deputy. In my books, I’ve adopted this solution by inventing a character called Arturus!

What historical records and historians did you use for research?

Given the sparse written record – which I’ve examined carefully – I’ve made considerable use of the increasing archaeological evidence for the fifth century. It’s a period that used to be regarded as something of an archaeological wasteland; but modern science has helped us to find and interpret new forms of evidence. New items come to light all the time now and create a clearer picture of the period – as well as posing new questions, of course.

There is plenty of evidence of the survival of Romano-British culture and administration in the first half of the fifth century. There is also, however, clear evidence of conflict between some of the major British tribes. How the Saxons fit into that conflict is one of the issues I’ve dealt with in the books; though we still do not even know for certain when the first Saxons came to Britain, or what their role was exactly.

Places are particularly difficult to nail down: if they existed, what were they like? Were all towns ruined? Did villas still exist? Were places called by Roman names, or British? In the end, I had to make my best guess on the strength of the current evidence and go with that.

The Last of the Romans is the first in a trilogy – what happens in Books 2 and 3 for Ambrosius?

Spoiler alert!

In Book 2 Ambrosius finally gets to Britain and finds it a dangerous place to be. Much of Book 2 is necessarily about Ambrosius himself as he first survives, and then establishes a power base, in Britain. The history here is wafer thin as any accounts of the period are very unreliable and quite possibly fiction themselves. While readers might want more actual historical content, it just isn’t known.

In Book 3, Ambrosius becomes involved in a pivotal conflict with the most prominent British ruler, often called Vortigern. I’ve only used the spurious written evidence where it seems to support what the archaeology tells us – which is not easy. None of the names used can truly be relied upon; but I have, where possible, tried to introduce real characters who may well have interacted with Ambrosius. For the whole trilogy, I could have invented a lot more which readers might have enjoyed, but I was keen to stick as close as I could to what I believe might have happened.

What are you working on at the moment?

Recently, I’ve been working on a novel set in the 12th century during what is now called the Anarchy. It is centred upon an actual person, Thomas FitzRobert, who was the illegitimate son of Robert, Earl of Gloucester. The earl himself was also illegitimate – his father being King Henry I.  Robert supported the claim of his half-sister, Matilda to the English throne which was then held by King Stephen. The book focusses on how this affects his son, Thomas. The good news for readers is that we know almost nothing about Thomas so I’ve got a lot of scope to invent!

Derek Birks is a bestselling novelist and author of The Last of the Romans.