‘We offered you silver, you chose steel.’
I knew on reading the first sentence of this novel, that it was going to be good. In fact, I think it is one of the best historical novels I have ever read. I have enjoyed some excellent fiction set in the twilight period of the Roman Empire, Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem, The Death of Attila by Cecelia Holland, Three Six Seven by Peter Vansittart, but Promised Land stands equal with any of them.
The focus is on the Visigoth nation in the years following Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 AD. Refugees from their homeland, given grudging hospitality by the Roman Empire, used and abused by their Roman hosts, who are too weak to remove them and too strong to be defeated by them, they wander the length and breadth of the Empire seeking land in which they can settle and call home.
One of the central themes of the novel is that of identity. The Romans hope the invaders will eventually become Romanised; the Goths are determined to preserve their own sense of nationhood. Some see value in a union of the two nations, a Rome rejuvenated by Gothic blood. Among these are the Goth king, Athaulf, and his captive, the Roman princess, Galla Placidia, who marry in the hope that their union will create a new dawn for both nations. And this might have happened but for unfortunate circumstances.
The focus of the tale is on the Visigoths and especially on their chieftains. Each is carefully drawn and their degrees of respect for, or hatred of the Romans and their empire are skilfully explored. Apart from Athaulf, there are Herfrig, Latin speaking and Romanophile, the treacherous Sergeric, displaying all the worst characteristics of the Roman enemy, the young Theoderic, prepared to work with the Romans while preserving his people, and above all the pragmatic warrior, Wallia, who accepts the crown with reluctance and eventually makes the deal with Rome which offers his people their promised land. Then, too, there is the daughter of Alaric, the intelligent and resourceful Rohilde, friend of Galla Placidia, but enemy of Rome.
The Romans play a less central role in the story, but they are important too: the cunning general Constantius, the brave soldier Lucellus who wins the respect of the Goths, the shrewd spy Euplotius and others.
This novel is a modest length but is epic in scope: violent battles, Homeric duels, the wanderings of the Visigoth nation from Gaul to Spain, attempted crossing into Africa and back to Gaul; storms at sea, famine, siege, betrayal within and treachery from the enemy – all feature in a series of powerful scenes and vignettes. But this is a reflective, humane novel, sympathetic to the plight of the Goths, and of the Romans, aware too of their many failings. The exploration of prejudice and misunderstanding between nations has timeless application. Promised Land – what a great title, in both its Biblical connotations, and what was promised to the Goths by Rome, but delayed for so long.