by William Dietrich
Category: Fiction / Historical
356 pages; ISBN: 0060563710
Rating: 10/10 (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Norman Goldman
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, historian, and author, William Dietrich, recent poignant novel is set in Northern England in 367 A.D, where Hadrian’s Wall, which incidentally is the title of the book, once stood. Today, it is a world heritage site in recognition of this magnificent Roman civil engineering project. Built of stone, it was wide enough to permit centurions to march three abreast along most of its length of 55 miles.
During this era, Rome had much difficulty in defending their northern British frontier against the barbarians.
Dietrich crafts an action packed novel making for some heady reading.
A Roman senator, who is deeply in debt and wishing to maintain his career and social status among his peers, pawns off his beautiful young daughter, Valeria, to Lucius Marcus Flavius.
It is a marriage of convenience, for Marcus gains the position of Praefectus and commander of the Petriana Cavalry at Hadrian’s Wall, due to his future father-in-law’s influence. I guess the adage, who you know and not how much you know, was as important during Roman times as it is today.
Brushed aside for this honorable position was Galba Brassidias, who had waited patiently for years to take over the command of Hadrian’s Wall.
Galba cannot hide his rage, when he is told that a new alliance of families had taken place and a position had to be found for a new officer. Apparently, Marcus specifically requested the post of commander of the Petriana cavalry.
And so the drama unfolds as Valeria rides to meet her future husband, who is stationed at the wall, unaware of the brutal events that are about to be unleashed.
To add a little more spice to the plot, Dietrich introduces another character, Arden Caratacus, the barbarian chieftain, who once served Rome, however now disdains all that is associated with this mighty empire, and is determined to smash its power and win Valeria for his own.
This is a powerful story-driven novel, and Dietrich never loses sight of his characters’ fundamental flaws, all of which are intertwined with tantalizing themes of love, lust, seduction, treason, revenge, cowardice, conspiracy, expediency, opportunism, and bravery. It is also the story of the passions of women and the yearnings of men.
Moreover, Dietrich must be commended for successfully blending into the saga philosophical discourses pertaining to cultural and sociological differences between Romans and the barbarians.
As the author states in the Epilogue: “one of the challenges of this novel was to convey the prejudices Romans had toward the world outside their empire while suggesting that Celtic tribes were not quite the troglodytes that Roman commentators would have us believe.”
Which leaves us to the observation made by the Roman investigator, who was sent to find out what actually happened at the wall, and who asserted, “I could write it in four words: She fell in love. But in love with what? A man? Or a place outside the suffocation of my own empire.”
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