Book Review: “The Silver Branch”

Sometimes historical curiosity comes from reading historical fiction. Specifically, in this case a Rosemary Sutcliff book.

“The Silver Branch,” a book by Rosemary Sutcliff (Image: Amanda Stiver)

I recently read The Silver Branch by Sutcliff (a great read, originally aimed at a teen/young adult audience, but good for all ages). The Eagle of the Ninth, its better known companion, precedes The Silver Branch, but the former was checked out of my local library so I had to jump into the middle of the series. Thankfully each part of the trilogy can stand on its own.

I was thrown back to the Roman Empire, in the 3rd century AD in the province of Britannia. As the characters, Roman, British, Irish, Dalriad, and Saxon, among others, coursed through the story from skirmishes, to escapes, from espionage, to battle the story of a rift in the Roman Empire unfolds. Three Emperors claimed three parts of the empire and the book concerns the subordinates who either undermine or support the man, Carausius, who ruled Britannia. The emperors are historical figures, but the main characters of the story, Justin and Flavius, though woven into the historical events, are fiction.

Improbable?

As fiction goes, this is reasonably legitimate. There are some flaws, as many others have noted before, particularly the eagle standard (which appears again in this book after its introduction in The Eagle of the Ninth) not being a legionary standard in actuality. An eagle was found in the ancient city of Calleva (Silchester), but it wasn’t the eagle of the ninth. Still, it’s probable.  Some historical fiction is so outlandish that the story becomes completely ridiculous. Sutcliff’s writing is believable, albeit, a number of crucial events and actions are undertaken by one fictional family, but a clear thread is necessary to make a story readable.

The Silver Branch piqued my curiosity about Roman Britain, a part of history, which was, unfortunately, the Swiss Cheese of my historical knowledge – full of holes. In high school and college the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Israelites as well as the Scythians, Chinese, and then English, European and American history from the time of Elizabeth I up to World War II was my focus, partly because those were the classes on offer, but also because the late Roman Empire seemed to be rather gasp-y and sad, so I tended to skip it, but now I find myself filling in my knowledge of this era. Rome had such an impact on so many cultures as friend or as foe that it really is essential knowledge of the world.

Finding your gateway to history

A nice piece of historical fiction like The Silver Branch is a good stepping-stone to delving into a new section of history. I’m interested enough now to crack my textbooks and get the slightly dryer, though still important details about Roman history clear in my mind.

Sutcliff is a fine writer and this book makes for a great literary-historical adventure!

– Amanda Stiver

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Invigorate Your History (And Your Family’s) Life!

Following on the heels of my historical consideration of Thanksgiving I’m back tracking to the topic of how to make history a part of daily family life (“I Beg of You… Don’t Hate History”– continued).

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

For those with a pre-existing love of history, this isn’t a problem, people like us discuss history all the time; family history, world history, military history, ancient history, etc.,… we have endless arguments about fairly trivial points of history. We (animatedly) discuss the number of soldiers under the command of a centurion in Ancient Rome – 100 or 60? (60 to 80 actually, opposed to the commonly assumed 100.) We argue about the way people dressed or the historically inaccurate firearms used in movies… and on… and on.

But what about the way people lived a mere two or three generations ago, how do you make that live?

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I’ll cut to the chase… If you want to learn domestic history for the past 70 to 80 years you can read a few good books on various subjects, or a few dry textbooks that cover all of it… or… you can get a subscription to Reminisce magazine, Looking Back, Good Old Days or one of the other nostalgia periodicals and read compelling, quaint, realistic, snippets of life from the turn of the century to the present day.

I’m not shilling any of these publications I simply like them. They remind me of the stories my parents and grandparents told me about life in past decades. Reading about these people is far from the skewed social messages of neo-socialist-Marxist education materials, you get a sense of how real, ordinary people lived… and they have pictures!

The fundamental commonality of the stories in these publications is usually expressed in this way, “We were so poor, but we really didn’t know it, we had food from the farm, a home, and a loving family.” People worked hard and enjoyed the little they had. They had a sense of hard work, and hope for the future. They were individuals, but they had compassion for their fellow man and a duty to their community that can’t be legislated by a government.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I can’t recommend these resources enough. Some of the above publishers also produce compilations of articles based on various subjects, for example the Great Depression. They include photographs and short article stories that are a great read to share with young ones (did I mention the pictures?). Getting them interested in these very human stories is an effective gateway to a lifelong love of history. True history.

– Amanda Stiver