Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Silver Branch and Carausius, Rebel Emperor of Britain

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In front of me lies an unopened copy of Rosemary Sutcliff’s  The Silver Branch, the second book in The Eagle of the Ninth sequence. I’m just about to start the story and thought I’d do a little research about the period in which the book is set.

The year is 284 AD, 150 years later than the first book, The Eagle of the Ninth. Britain has been occupied by Rome since AD 43, but has now been declared a sovereign state by the military commander Marcus  Carausius, now turned renegade emperor of Britain.

Carausius is a very interesting character in Roman history.  Here’s what www.roman-emperors.org has to say about him.

Although he had initially earned his living at sea as a helmsman, he served with honor in the military against the Bagauda e under the Emperor Maximianus Herculius. Because of his naval background, he was commissioned by the emperor to build a fleet and clear the seas of Saxon and Frankish pirates in the autumn of 286; he operated from out of Boulogne (Bononia). Although he carried out his commission with speed, for one reason or another he did not turn over to imperial treasury all of the loot that he obtained. Due to these financial irregularities, Herculius ordered his arrest and execution. Rather than submitting to the emperor’s will, Carausius fled to Britain with his fleet and declared himself emperor. His realm included Britain and perhaps the area around Bononia (Boulogne).

So it looks like Carausius was a bit of a crook, possibly in cahoots with Saxon pirates, stealing enough loot and aquiring enough boats and crew (possibly the same Saxon Pirates) to become a significant power himself, enough indeed to create an enemy of the emperor of Rome, and then become self appointed ruler of Rome for 7 years. Wow, I can’t wait to read the book!

3 comments

  1. There’s a poignant and prescient moment in “Silver Branch” when Carausius speaks to Justin and Flavius, showing him clearly as doomed hero and perhaps Arthurian prototype:

    ‘“If I can make this one province strong enough to stand alone when Rome goes down, then something may be saved from the darkness. If not, then Dubris light and Limanis light and Rutupiae light will go out. The lights will go out everywhere.” He stepped back, dragging aside the hanging folds of the curtain, and stood framed in their darkness against the firelight and lamplight behind him, his head yet turned to the grey and silver of the starry night.’

    This image of the lights going out is, of course, is picked up to compelling effect in “Lantern Bearers”.

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  2. It’s a great book. I’m not sure if you can label it ‘volume 2 in the Eagle of the Ninth sequence’, because she did not write them in chronological order. Isn’t there another book inbetween that deals with this family? Events certainly hark back to the event of the ‘Eagle’ though, that’s true. The reason I believe was partly due to archaeological research, which revealed that the Silchester eagle was not buried under a house, but inside the basilica, so she wanted to change that I guess.

    Carausius, or rather the opinion you’ve read, may have been less than a crook than you think. He was commander of the Classis Britannica and would therefore not have been using the loot to hire Saxon pirate ships – he had enough Roman ships under his command!

    The story that he took recvered loot for himself may just be a result of slander; all too often Roman commanders became the victims of court intrigue, and had little option but to rebel instead of facing arrest and almost certain execution. It’s easy to imagine that not all loot taken by Saxon raiders could be returned to every rightful owner – imagine the problems involved in that! Any wronged owner or heir of slain civilians could lodge a complaint, giving easy opportunities to a jealous competitor of Carausius.

    Carausius is credited by some as the initiator of the Saxon Shore, the naval system intended (we think) to defend the coasts of SE Britain and NW Belgium and France against the developing threat of Germanic sea-borne raiders. Well, something must have made Carausius popular enough to win over the troops and citizens of Britain.

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    1. I think that chronologically “Silver Branch” follows “Eagle of the Ninth”, but “Frontier Wolf” comes between “Silver Branch” and “Lantern Bearers”, which is usually listed as Book 3 in the “Eagle of the Ninth” trilogy.

      Rosemary Sutcliff didn’t necessarily provide specific dates in her novels, but Eric Eller helpfully put her Roman Britain series in historical context on the Green Man Review website
      http://www.greenmanreview.com/book/book_sutcliff_romanbritain.html

      It’s a while since I read “Silver Branch”, but I seem to recall RS’s treatment of Carausius as sympathetic, a leader who had the potential to hold Britain together as a strong entity separate from the divisive conflicts of the Western Roman Empire.

      I particularly loved the remarkable eccentric character of little Cullen, Carausius’ “Hound”/court fool. Here he is with his musical instrument, the silver branch of the book’s title, in Roman Pisarev’s illustration for the Folio Society edition of “The Silver Branch”
      http://prints.foliosociety.com/art/360150/The_Silver_Branch_by_Rosemary_Sutcliff_Illustration_10

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