Early Middle Ages Done Well


Llywelyn, Morgan. (2013). After Rome: A Novel of Celtic Britain. New York : Tom Doherty Associates. 332 pgs.

Set in the fifth century AD in the immediate aftermath of the Romans leaving Britannia, Morgan Llywelyn’s After Rome is as much a post-apocalyptic novel as it is historical fiction.  The reader is faced with barren landscapes, empty cities, and a power vacuum made worse by invading Saxons.  Her main characters, brothers Cadogan and Dinas, are polar opposites who each find their own way to carve out identities for themselves in the new Britain, and each believe that they have their homeland’s best interests at heart.  This is a story of family, faith, and resilience as well as one of adventure and fear.  After Rome explores an often-neglected period in British history and brings it to life.  Recommended for ages 15 and up.

Longer Review:

Much as Mike Mullin’s Sunrise explores life in post-apocalyptic America, Morgan Llywelyn’s After Rome takes a non-fictional post-apocalypse and brings us a tale of two brothers at a time when Britain was at a crossroads.  Due to the way history has played out, it is easy to forget how frightening and hopeless life seemed in Britannia after the Roman legions left in the early 400s.  Once it became clear that they had abandoned this outlying province, other Romans also began to leave, and soon the bustling cities, towns, and forts were ghost towns.  Rome had a complex bureaucracy that soon began to disintegrate.  After four hundred years of Roman rule, Britannia was a thoroughly Romano-Celt hybrid culture, particularly in the south.  This was not a case of oppressed locals throwing off the yoke of their conquerors.  The people of Britannia were reliant on Roman rule, and without it, much of their institutions were meaningless.  Various groups vyed for power, but none of them could unite the island for centuries to come.

Is it any wonder that legends of King Arthur persisted?

This book explores the early days after Rome left, when some were still convinced that the Romans would return, when vestiges of Roman rule remained and the bureaucrats and magistrates attempted to maintain some link to “civilisation”.  Christianity was the last link that kept much of the Britons together in the face of invading Saxons (who were overwhelmingly pagan) and raiding Scots-Irish (who were a mix of both).  Unlike civil rule, the Church did not rely on legitimacy from Rome, as much as some tried to claim at the time and still try to claim to this day.  Llywelyn portrays an overwhelmingly positive image of faith and religion in this book, much to my relief.  As indicated, Christianity is shown to be one of the major factors that held British society together, albeit far from the only one.

With twenty-first century hindsight, we know that Britannia eventually united into a powerful kingdom that became the envy of the world, became an empire than spanned a fifth of the globe, invented the Industrial Revolution, and contributed many writers, performers, and artists to world culture.  Their language – as yet non-existent at the time of this book’s setting – would become the dominant trade language for at least two hundred years (and counting).

But before all of that glory, Britannia was a backwater province that devolved into many warring factions.  Romano-Celts like the protagonists of this novel, Cadogan & Dinas, would have never dreamed that their culture would merge with that of the Saxons and that their descendants would one day rule an empire stretching from the South Seas to the Americas – all unknown territories then.  It would be another six hundred years before the Norman Conquest solidified a kingdom called England, and another six hundred years before “Great Britain” ever came into existence.  Like a baby needing to learn to walk before he or she becomes a president fifty years later, Britannia took a long time to become what it is remembered as today: a plucky little island that became an empire and managed to devolve its empire much more peaceably than did Rome.

Despite all of its glories, when it did become an empire, it was the name of its backwater province that it took: “Rule, Britannia!” – take that, Rome!  And thanks for all of the help in getting us set up.

For without Rome, there would never have been an ideal of “Britannia” to start with.  After Rome brilliantly captures a time when all seemed hopeless, and yet the seeds of a new empire were already being planted.  Nonetheless, if we had no idea of how British history subsequently went, we would have no idea.  This is, first and foremost, a post-apocalyptic tale.

P.S. – I have not spoken much about the actual plot of this novel in my review. Morgan Llywelyn’s writing style is very poetic and her books are as much about the atmosphere as they about plot. However, suffice to say that the story centres on the two brothers, Cadogan and Dinas, and their two very different reactions to the loss of Roman power.

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