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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3 Comments

  1. I must say that I’m no expert on Roman British history as well, except to note that Roman rule eventually faltered there not because of hostility to the Romans on the part of the lowland Britons (who were completely acculturated to Roman ways, it would seem) but because Roman pretenders to the Imperial throne kept on denuding its armed forces to seek power elsewhere. I imagine that’s a reality the book captures rather well. The resulting loss of defenses allowed the entrance of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, and even Irish pirates to the somewhat defenseless land of the Britons.

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