At the Ruin of the World | John Henry Clay | 2015 | Hodder & Stoughton | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book
By the mid 5th century AD, Rome’s emperors were hanging on to the western empire by their fingertips. Britannia had been abandoned to the Saxons and much of the west was under the control of Goths, Alans, Franks, Sueves and more – their friendliness to Rome unreliable, their alliances not to be trusted, nibbling into the edges of Rome’s diminishing borders. But by 448 both Rome and the tribes were faced with another threat entirely; Attila the Hun and his face-scarred horsemen were advancing from the East, Attila’s mind set on claiming the emperor Valentinian’s sister as his wife, along with half the western empire as her dowry. To stop the Huns, Romans must unite with Goths but that can be achieved only through the most delicate negotiations between powerful personalities on both sides. It’s into this fragile, violent world that John Henry Clay throws us in At the Ruin of the World. Clay focuses in particular on one Roman family, the Philagrii, who had an enormous impact on the late Roman western empire and, as a result, on the rise of the medieval kingdoms of Europe.
Everything is at stake in At the Ruin of the World, the theatre of war is huge, but the novel brings this astonishing time to live by focusing on the experiences of individuals and portraying their life in wonderful detail in cities across the west, especially Arles, a vital Roman port, Clermont to the north, and also in Rome itself. But also depicted are the Goth centres of Toulouse and Bordeaux. This Romanised Gothic world is absolutely fascinating to read about and not at all how I had imagined it. This might have been a dangerous transitional period of history but this novel shows us that education, politics, military training and philosophy and so on were still important elements of town life for those who continued to define themselves by their Roman class.
The novel has at its heart three young people whose lives we follow over a decade – Ecdicius, a young patrician of the highest order struggling to learn the craft of a soldier and commander worthy of his father Eparchius’s respect; Attica is Ecdicius’s sister, betrothed to her ambitious and flawed cousin Felix; Arvandus, a young man who has had his inheritance stolen by Rome and is now determined to make a name for himself, whether it’s by working for the Romans or the Goths, he cares little. We follow all three of these lives, as they touch and as they move apart, and through them we witness some of the key events and personalities of this dramatic period.
This is a thrilling read and there is far more to it than the Huns, who are only one of the many enemies to Rome featured in the novel. With so many tribes on the move, the beauty and splendour of a city such as Arles is threatened along with the lives of everyone in it. Not even Rome is safe. There are battles and skirmishes galore, the organised, pompous Romans contrasting with the more flamboyant Gothic princes, kings and soldiers. Politics and warfare vie for attention in this gripping novel.
But the violence is also shown on a more intimate level. All three of our heroes endure it (most poignantly, Attica) and more than one of them inflicts it, their personal stories highlighting the grander dramas of which they play a part.
During the second half of At the Ruin of the World, when the Philagrii are at their most powerful, we are taken to Rome, a city suffering from its recent sacking. This is my favourite part of the novel – Rome itself now feels as if it is that ruin at the end of the world, its glories all around but broken, sold for scrap, overrun by barbarian soldiers, the streets full of terrified citizens. The novel forewarns us that a series of deaths will take place that will have catastrophic consequences for Rome. As we watch them, one after another, the tension builds as Rome leaves its past behind. The ending is extremely powerful.
But At the Ruin of the World is also a novel of hope. It portrays the origins of medieval Europe in compelling fashion. People think of themselves in a different way, as do our three heroes, and it is fascinating to watch them live their lives, with all their personal tragedies and achievements, all set against the most exciting and dramatic backdrop of Rome’s fall. At the Ruin of the World is much more focused on interpreting the lives of real historical figures and events than Clay’s previous novel, The Lion and the Lamb (set almost a century before) and both are extremely successful and beautifully written.
The Lion and the Lamb was one of my very favourite novels of last year and John Henry Clay has done it again with At the Ruin of the World (incidentally, what a great title). Firmly routed in history, this is a compelling and addictive account of the demise of Rome’s western empire, focusing in particular on one family that was influential in both the fields of battle and politics.
The Lion and the Lamb