Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Story of London in 50 Novels: 3 - "Cast Not the Day," by Paul Waters

Between 235 and 284 AD, the Roman Empire was convulsed by a series of crises: plagues, civil wars, and barbarian invasions. When, in 330 AD, the Emperor Constantine, who had himself spent time in Britain, made the newly founded city of Constantinople the capital of his Empire, in place of Rome, he was signifying, perhaps consciously, that it would not be possible for his successors to hold the Empire together; and indicating his preference for the Eastern, rather than the Western Empire. This decision was a religious, as well as a political one: Constantine had, by this stage, embraced the Christian religion, and, in stark contrast to Rome, his new capital would be unencumbered by Pagan temples and amphitheatres.

London did not escape these convulsions. From the mid-Third Century onward, its population seems to have been in decline, some of the city's homes and warehouses abandoned, and filled up with "dark earth," probably compost, allowing ruined buildings to be pressed into new service as allotments for growing vegetables or keeping animals. The construction of a new wall along the Thames waterfront suggests a greater concern with defence than with trade: it may have been prompted by the appearance of slave-hunting Saxon pirates; or by one of the many coup attempts staged by military commanders in the provinces. Families that were wealthy enough to own country villas, as well as city houses, increasingly retired to their estates.

Coin of the usurper, Magnentius, whose rebellion lasted from 350 to 353 AD. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (licensed under CCA).

The divisions of the Roman Empire in c 271 AD. Image: Wikimedia Commons (licensed under GNU). 

Whilst the Empire was now, officially, Christian, many people in the west held fast to their older, Pagan, customs. Although there was, until recently, little direct evidence for late Roman Christianity in London, excavations on Tower Hill have revealed the remains of a large and ornate "basilica," very possibly a church or cathedral, built with marble and other stones re-used from earlier buildings, perhaps including Pagan temples. It seems to have been built between 350 and 400 AD, but London clearly had a Christian community before this, as its Bishop, Restitutus, is recorded as having attended the Council of Arles in 314 AD.

The Basilica of Saint Ambrose, Milan: London's first basilica, on Tower Hill, may have been built to a similar design. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (licensed under CCA).

Paul Waters's novel, Cast Not the Day, is set in a London riven by religious divisions. A rebellion by the army commander, Magnentius, against the Emperor Constans, has been defeated. Although personally a Christian, many Pagans have supported Magnentius on the basis that he appeared to offer greater tolerance of religious diversity. Now the new Emperor, Constantius II, has dispatched a ruthless administrator, and Christian fundamentalist, Paulus Catena, to the city to root out his former supporters, and to exterminate Paganism in London. Two young Pagan men, Drusus and Marcellus, struggle to survive the conflict.

Head of the god, Serapis, from the Temple of Mithras, London, established by a military veteran, Ulpius Silvanus, in 307-310 AD; Museum of London. Photo: Udimu (licensed under GNU).

Fourth Century figure of the god, Bacchus, from the Temple of Mithras, London (the temple seems to have been re-dedicated to him following Silvanus's death); Museum of London. Photo: Zde (licensed under CCA). 

"We came to London through the open suburb of farmsteads and villas to the south, halting at the watering place by the bridge, where the carters and litter-bearers gather. The house of Balbus lay in the heart of the merchants' quarter, off the Street of the Carpenters, close by the Grove of Isis. Everywhere was crowded. The hot air smelled of dust and unwashed bodies. Behind the street the workshops sounded with the noise of hammers and saws and engravers' chisels ... "

"At first I could not believe what I saw. I had expected, I suppose, some sort of tavern brawl. But instead I saw the crowd had with one mind set upon a building, a small antique temple with fine delicate columns and steps at the front, which I had often passed on my errands to the city dock. It was, I knew, a shrine to Mercury, of the sort one saw all about this part of town, Mercury being the god of traders and merchants ... The crowd broke out in a sudden cheer as a great slab of marble facing came crashing down from the side of the temple and shattered on the flagstones. 'But why are they doing this?' I cried, shouting into Ambitus's ear over the din ... who are these people?' He turned to me. 'Do you really not know? Why, they are Christians, of course. Who else?'"

Wall-painting from Lullingstone Villa in Kent, showing the Christian Chi-Rho symbol; British Museum; the villa also had a Pagan shrine, suggesting that the household included both Pagans and Christians. Photo: Udimu (licensed under GNU). 

Wall-painting from Lullingstone, showing Christians praying; British Museum. Photo: Udimu (licensed under GNU). 

"One day, a train of mules appeared in the street in daytime, led by a band of the bishop's supporters. They took the creatures up to the temple of Concord by the Wallbrook, tethered ropes around the slender columns, and brought the stone-roofed portico crashing down into the street. Then they set torches to what remained and danced all night around the fire. I could see the glow even from my window at the fort."

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

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