“After Rome” is a novel of Celtic Britain, a snapshot of what the Romans called Britannia in the years after the last legions had departed. The empire was a memory, and the order that the Romans had instilled — the laws, the roads and the systems of governance — eroded after they left.
There were educated Britons, there were Christians and their were people who still worshipped the old gods. “After Rome” focuses on the lives of two brothers, the sons of a family that had prospered and even gained some measure of influence under the Romans but whose influence meant nothing when the Saxons came.
The brothers are Dinas and Cadogan. Both are honorable but they approach almost everything differently, including the newly unsettled times they in. Dinas is aggressive and wants to be a king, or at least a tribal chieftain. Trouble is, he has more charm than money and his progress in the land west of his home comes slowly. A roamer, on one of his visits back, Dinas dropped off a bedraggled woman named Quartilla at a hut that Cadogan had built in the woods some miles away from the town they grew up in. She’s quite a character, a complainer who over time becomes a useful ally for Cadogan.
Where Dinas is aggressive, Cadogan is thoughtful. During one of Dinas’s long journeys, Saxon raiders sack the town they grew up in, Viroconium. The Saxons slew most of the population, raped the women, made off with anything the considered valuable and set fire to the place.
Resourceful and lucky, Cadogan and some others survive, and it is Cadogan who, despite his relative youth, leads many of them into the forest where they could start anew. It takes time, years, but those who stick it acquire new skills and build lives that are hard but satisfying. Among many other abilities, they learn hand-to-hand combat while hoping hope they never need to use it.
Dinas, meanwhile, picks up a few followers, buys or steals enough horses and supplies for his band and offers their services to one group of warriors after another. He wishes Cadogan would join him and provide the sort of organizational talent he needs. He wins some battles, loses some men and lives a life entirely different from the one Cadogan and others have chosen. Moving to the coast to raid merchant vessels, Dinas’s band is instead ambushed and all but wiped out.
Alone, he rides back to visit Cadogan but rejects his brother’s invitation to join the settlement. Neither brother knows what the future holds, but while Cadogan is content to welcome it among the peaceful but wary group he leads, Dinas is determined to seek his fortune elsewhere.
The author, Morgan Llywelyn, has written numerous works of historical fiction, often of Britain and Ireland, Celts and Druids, won many awards and sold 40 million books. She says that the age in which Dinas and Cadogan live, the early Dark Ages, were more primitive than dark. Learning hadn’t quite died out, and wouldn’t, and though wild tribes existed, so did organized settlements.
Archeologists have uncovered the remains of a large timber hall of British rather than Roman design that was erected on the ashes of Viroconium, where Wroxeter is now.
Llywelyn writes with grace, creates plausible, multi-dimensional characters and transports the reader from the comforts of the present century back more than 1,500 years to what, though the people then didn’t know it, was a pivotal time in British and European history.
Walt Braun is the Manhattan Mercury’s editorial editor and a Manhattan resident.