by William Napier
Edition reviewed: Headline Review, paperback, 2002, ISBN 0-7472-3135-4
Julia is set in Roman Britain and Spain, with excursions to Persia, in 340-353 AD. There are minor parts for historical figures including Emperor Constantius, Emperor Magnentius and the notorious Imperial enforcer Paul Catena ("The Chain") (whom I always think of as being rather like Thomas Cromwell to Henry VIII). Most of the main characters are fictional. The central character, the Julia of the title, is rather unusual in that she could be described as an archaeological figure. She is based on an intact Roman burial excavated by the Museum of London Archaeology Service in Spitalfields, London in March 1999 (scroll down to the second article in the link).
The burial was that of a young woman in her early twenties, dated to the mid fourth century AD. She was 5 feet 4 inches tall (which was tall for a woman of her time), with no evidence of disease or trauma to her skeleton, and her bones and teeth were in good condition, which is interpreted as meaning that she probably died of an acute infectious disease. She had never borne a child. Analysis of her tooth enamel showed that she had spent her childhood in Spain, Southern France or Italy. The burial was lavish, indicating that she probably came from a wealthy family. A stone sarcophagus contained a sealed lead coffin decorated with scallop shells, a pagan symbol of the soul's passage to the underworld. She had been buried wearing silk and wool clothes decorated with gold thread, with her head resting on a 'pillow' of bay leaves. A glass phial and a group of jet ornaments - expensive objects normally associated with high-status burials - had been buried at the foot of the sarcophagus. The presence of grave goods and the scallop shells on the coffin suggest that she may have been a pagan, which is of interest as the Roman Empire at that time was officially Christian. Nothing is known of her identity or history, beyond what can be deduced from her burial. Julia is an imaginative reconstruction of what the life and death of this unknown woman may have been.
The novel falls into two very different parts. The first part tells of Julia's childhood in Spain, her adventurous journey to Britain after her parents' deaths, and her upbringing with her uncle Lucius in London. This part is reminiscent of Rosemary Sutcliff's children's fiction, and the author credits Rosemary Sutcliff in his Author's Note as one of his inspirations.
The second part focuses on Julia's friend Marcus and his military training and army service. This part is more Simon Scarrow than Rosemary Sutcliff, complete with wimpy upper-class recruit gradually finding his feet to become a respected officer and foul-mouthed veteran centurion with a heart of gold. Towards the end of the second part, both strands of the story come together when Marcus and Julia venture into hostile territory in Caledonia (north of the Antonine Wall) in an attempt to rescue Julia's uncle from the savage Attacotti tribe.
This episodic structure makes Julia a slightly strange novel to read, apparently aimed at children to begin with and then suddenly shifting into adult gear. I presume the reviewer on Amazon.co.uk who considered the book "a wonderful read for children" hadn't got as far as the straightforwardly explicit homosexual sex scene in a legionary bath house (page 194, since you ask).
One of the most attractive features of the novel, for me, was the character of Julia herself. She is clever, vivacious, warm, attractive and imaginative, growing up in a society that has no real place for her. One of the characters comments that, "every man who met her had probably fallen a little in love with her." I also liked the characterisation of Julia's uncle, the stoic, philosophical, incorruptible Lucius Fabius Quintilianus. There are some rather charming Pollyanna-like scenes as Julia's presence disrupts and warms Lucius' cold and well-regulated household.
The story has plenty of colour and life, with vivid descriptions of Julia's sea journey, Roman London and the client British tribes living immediately north of Hadrian's Wall. A folklore retelling of Boudica's revolt as it might have been remembered in 4th-century London was a nice touch. Humour brightens the narrative and dialogue; for example, the Britons north of Hadrian's Wall refer to the Roman soldiers as "The Iron Hats". The author also provides a helpful Author's Note giving some indication of what is documented and what he made up.
Although the client tribes immediately north of Hadrian's Wall are depicted convincingly, to my mind the portrayal of the Attacotti tribe veers into cartoon territory. Very little is known of this tribe, who are mentioned in passing in a handful of late Roman sources and who are thought to have lived in the far north of Scotland and/or in the Scottish Islands. The author quotes St Jerome (writing in Gaul) as a source for Attacotti cannibalism. I am not qualified to say whether St Jerome is or is not a reliable source, but I can say that I found the Attacotti too extreme to work well in the story. The Attacotti as portrayed reminded me of the 'Injuns' in formulaic Westerns, which for me detracted from their effect and made them less fearsome enemies.
I also had trouble with suspension of disbelief over some elements in the plot. The nefarious political machinations that result in Lucius' capture by the Attacotti felt a little contrived, as did Julia's presence with the rescue party. I suppose the whole book up to that point has been setting Julia up as an unusual woman, but her presence with the rescue mission does little to alter the outcome, so it felt to me like a gratuitous adventure invented to provide a role for a character who does not fit the accepted female roles of her time. Perhaps that was the point.
The Roman Empire had adopted Christianity as the official religion a generation before Julia is set, yet the evidence from the excavated burial was consistent with the occupant having been a pagan. This raises the question of how a prominent and wealthy pagan family was affected by the change in the official state religion. Were they under pressure to conform? Were their opportunities and social position constrained if they did not convert? Were they ostracised in polite society? Did her religion limit Julia's marriage prospects? Or did the official religion make little difference, with society paying it lip-service and no more? The novel mentions the religious issues from time to time but never really explores them in depth, which seems to me rather a shame.
A colourful story with plenty of action and a most attractive heroine.