The Silver Branch
In Brief: Politics & adventure in Roman Britain. Courage & loyalty to friends and family.
Series: The Eagle of the Ninth
Published in: 1957
Age Range: Pre Teens+
Period: 3rd C
Setting: Roman Britain
- Justin is a young Roman surgeon, recently arrived in Britain from Judaea. He makes friends with Flavius a junior commander in the Rutupiae fort on the south coast.
- Evicatos is a native of Britain, an outlaw from his own people, who finds friendship with the two young Romans.
- Cullen is a native, fool to the British emperor Carausius whose self-imposed task is to make Britain strong enough to stand alone when Rome falls.
- Paulinus is something of a resistance leader, risking his own life to help true-minded Romans escape the corrupt British leader.
Rome's control over Britain is swaying, and two young Roman soldiers find themselves flung unexpectedly into the power politics of British leadership. When Justin & Flavius attempt to warn the British emperor of treachery from his closest minister, they are sent in disgrace to one of the forts on the Wall. When the treachery they warned against comes to pass, they risk their own lives to try to join the Roman emperor in Gaul, and instead find themselves running a resistance movement on the south coast of Britain.
The book opens as Justin, newly arrived from Judaea, reaches Rutupiae and sees the lighthouse there, symbolically crumbling, its ornamental marble being taken away to strengthen the newly-rebuilt fortress, guard against attacks from the Sea Wolves. From then on, the author applies her usual skill to paint the picture of a small scene in the life of Britain in the second century AD. Rome's power is failing but some men — Romans and natives alike — see the need to make the land strong enough to stand, come what may.
The characters are firmly drawn, even less occasional faces such as Manlius, the soldier whom Flavius rescues from under a catapult and who later warns the friends of their peril. Aunt Honoria and the farm workers at Calleva are all discernible people in spite of the few words they have to say.
The story falls into four parts: Rutupiae, where they meet the emperor; the Wall, where they meet Evicatos and learn of Allectus' treachery; Portus Adurni, where they help to run the underground resistance against the new emperor; and Calleva, where they battle to save the town and its people. It is in the third part that the group of men comes together which will fight and die as comrades to defeat Allectus and to save Calleva. And it is in Calleva that Flavius finds the Eagle which his ancestor hid there a hundred years before, having brought it back from Scotland where it had been dishonoured. This eagle gives a unity to the ragged band and finally falls in the ruins of Calleva.
One of the band, an honourable centurion who is not prepared to serve under a corrupt leader, makes the sign of a fish in the ash on a hearthstone, prompting Justin to reflect that “you would need to be a good leader for people to follow you still, after two hundred years: not just priests out for what they could get, or silly women; but men like Anthonius”.
They spent five days at the farm, and it was during those five days that Justin first really discovered Britain. The bare winter woods dappled like a partridge's breast, the slow, broad voices of the farm-hands, the lapwings on the winter ploughland; the low, long house itself, built on to by succeeding generations but holding still at its heart the smoke-blackened atrium, used as a storeroom now, that had been the original houseplace, built by another Marcus Flavius Aquila making a home for himself and his British wife and the children that came after — these were all Britain to Justin.
Saturday 20th August 2005