The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown (1971 2nd edition 1989)

Peter Brown has been a pioneer of the study of the late Roman / Early Medieval world for 50 years.

His works in the 1960s and 70s are credited with bringing a new coherence to the study of the period, and a new attitude which saw it not as a story of inevitable decline and fall, but as a period of surprising vigour and innovation – as a much more complex, rich and fascinating period than had previously been thought.

Brown helped to bury the term ‘Dark Ages’ – which is now generally deprecated – and bring about the recategorising of the period as the ‘Early Middle Ages’, now generally defined as 500 to 1000 AD.

The World of Late Antiquity was published in 1971 as an extended essay or meditation on the earlier part of this period, from roughly 250 to 750 AD. It was published by Thames and Hudson under the umbrella of their Library of European Civilisation series. It is some 220 pages long, in a large format paperback, with 130 illustrations, a chronology and a map – adding up to a well-written, visually stimulating and beautifully packaged book.

And it is extraordinarily accessible and interesting right from the start, throwing out ideas and insights on every page.

Structure

The structure tells the overall story:

Part One: The Late Roman Revolution
I Society
II Religion

Part Two: Divergent Legacies
I The West
II Byzantium
III The New Participants (Islam)

Society Between 245 and 270 every border of the Roman Empire was breached by its enemies, most significantly the Persians in the east, the Goths in the north. Communication between provinces broke down and the army produced no fewer than 25 emperors in 47 years. The prolonged crisis gave rise to a military revolution which remodelled the leadership of the Roman Empire. The old aristocrats were banned from military service and leadership of the Empire became more militarised, selected from the new men who had risen through the ranks.

Thus the Emperor Diocletian, who set his stamp on the Empire from 284 to 305, came from a lowly family in Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast. During his reign the army almost doubled in size, to 600,000, making it the largest organisation in the world, and more than doubled in cost (one of the dominant themes of surviving documents from the period is everyone complaining about the high tax burden: land tax had trebled in living memory by 350 AD).

Emblematically, the new-style emperors aren’t depicted wearing the flowing toga of the leisured aristocracy of the early Empire, but wearing military outfits, generals’ costumes.

The old view was that these new men, these arrivistes, represented a decline from the leisured aristocratic class of the 1st and 2nd centuries, with its balanced prose style, its exquisite classical monuments etc. The modern view is that the late 3rd century re-organisation of the Empire led to rejuvenation and a burst of creativity in the 4th century. In this view the new style in art and mosaics is not a ‘decline’ from earlier classicism – it is a new, more expressive mode. On coins and monuments artists refer to this age as Reparatio saeculi, the Age of Restoration.

The greatest example of this comprehensive re-organisation of the Empire was the Emperor Constantine’s decision to divide the Empire in two, the West to continue being ruled from Rome, the East from the new capital city he built over the existing Greek town of Byzantium and named after himself, Constantinople.

The new city was officially consecrated in 330 AD. This division of the Empire into East and West, along with Constantine’s Edict of Milan decriminalising Christianity in 313, were the two greatest legacies of the late Roman Empire to the rest of European history.

Religion Perhaps the biggest embodiment of this new creativity was the surge in religious thought. Brown points out that Christianity didn’t experience steady growth from Jesus’ death to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312. Instead it simmered underground for two centuries before undergoing a surge in growth during the troubled late 3rd century, alongside other exotic beliefs, such as the popular Mithraism, and varieties of Gnosticism.

Again, conservative historians used to see the spread of these eastern religions as a falling-off from the purity of classic Roman paganism: the modern view is to see them as creative responses to the new political and social conditions. And Brown points out that a new generation of arrivistes – i.e. men who didn’t hail from the close-knit traditional Roman families – changed the intellectual world as much as the military: leaders of the new ways of thinking including Plotinus from Upper Egypt, Augustine from North Africa, Jerome from Stridon, John Chrysostom from a clerk’s office in Antioch.

Provincialisation The Age of Restoration, in the West especially, saw the rise of enormously wealthy landowners: the dominance of super-rich, provincial patrons who indulged in a more private lifestyle (Brown points out the abrupt falling-off in public dedications of buildings after 260). This new leisured class lived in big villas, decorated with fine mosaics, which show that they were decorated by wall paintings, tapestries and hangings. For those lower down the scale, the petit bourgeoisie, businessmen and merchants, the Age of Restoration offered a world of new stability and greater mobility.

I never cease to be amazed by the breadth of the Roman Empire and the way it enabled a tremendous cultural uniformity across such a vast area: Brown has a lovely paragraph describing how bureaucrats working at the border with Scotland in the rainy north or at Dura on the Persian border, both lived in villas built to the same plan and decorated with the same images, drinking from goblets and eating off plates produced to the same styles.

The new religious beliefs offered:

  1. a framework of belief and living and practice for people below the level of the provincial aristocracy and of the big landowners, the middle class, the ordinary people
  2. continuity and stability – bishops and their congregations became increasingly well organised at the collection of alms, the distribution of charity, for helping their growing flocks in difficult times

Brown is insightful about how the new popular religions, especially Christianity, offered ‘instant wisdom’, without the lengthy and intensive study required by the traditional training of the aristocratic class. The processes of ‘revelation’ and ‘conversion’ offered quick access to new mind-sets, complete with pithy practical ethical guidelines.

Angels and demons Pagans believed the world was alive with spirits operating under the aegis of a variety of gods and demi-gods. Brown claims the biggest intellectual change in this era was the arrival of demons, angels and demons, and the master of demons, the devil. Although historians tend to analyse the rise of Christianity in terms of its sophisticated theology and erudite thinkers, Brown points out that almost all contemporary accounts claim the really distinctive thing about Christianity was the way the new holy men, the saints and martyrs, had the ability to perform exorcisms and cast out evil demons.

This more starkly black and white view of the universe, and the notion of the earth as a battlefield between God and his army of saints and the devil and his legions of demons – this sounds like the start of the Middle Ages right there, so it’s striking to have it located so early.

Monasteries Brown makes an issue of demons as representing an intellectual turning point, but I’d have thought the invention of monasteries was as much or more important, certainly in terms of social organisation. The first monk (from the Greek μοναχός, ‘monachos’, meaning ‘single, solitary’) is generally considered to have been Anthony, who around 270 left his village in Egypt to go into the desert and live by himself. Word of his piety spread and villagers brought him food if he would pray for them. Others followed his example, some living in very loose communities of solitaries and anchorites. Within two generations the movement was widespread across the Middle East and went on to become one of the dominant forms of social organisation throughout the Middle Ages.

And it is in the East that all this takes place: the new Christian movements, the most radical Christian thinkers, the most important frontiers, the new capital city Constantinople, all this happens around the Eastern Mediterranean where passionate Greek-speakers were also reviving pagan traditions, spinning them out into new neo-Platonic mysticisms, conducting ferocious intellectual battles against the newly invigorated and confident Christians: all of this happens east of Rome.

The turning point

Into what, by now, Brown has convincingly portrayed as a complex balance of social, political, economic and military, religious and cultural forces, came a generation of military disasters.

It started with the Battle of Adrianople in 378, in which the Roman Army was soundly thrashed and its emperor, Valens, killed by the Goth army led by Fritigern. In 406 other Goths crossed the Rhine border and spread throughout thinly defended Gaul and into Spain. In 410 Visigoths led by Alaric sacked Rome itself.

Brown points out that the sack of Rome in 410 was caused by the blinkered chauvinism of the old Roman aristocracy. They had earlier given Alaric and his Vandals permission to cross the Rhine frontier to escape from marauding Huns; but they then allowed them to be mistreated by provincial governors and, when Alaric marched towards Rome, haughtily refused to buy him off with subsidies.

The Imperial government had already moved to Milan before the sack of Rome and now moved to the more easily defended Ravenna – but having lost so much territory and tax revenue, it was virtually bankrupt between 410 and the dismissal of the last emperor in the West in 476.

Brown points out how the growing sense of threat, and then the advent of actual catastrophe, were linked to a wave of religious fervour: at the end of the 4th century there was a wave of anti-pagan repression (in 382 Gratian disestablished the Vestal Virgins, in the 390s the Emperor Theodosius effectively banned pagan religion and made Christianity the official religion of the empire).

The new fervour of Christian chauvinism included an ominous new development – attacks on Jewish communities who became increasingly blamed for rejecting Christ’s healing revelation.

The decadent West

The Western Empire fell because it was decadent. If the East was made up of hundreds of coastal cities and towns in a tight web of maritime commerce, and similar webs of fierce philosophical and religious argumentation, the vast areas of Gaul and Spain and Britannia were only thinly defended and, in the century preceding the collapse, had become the playgrounds of a handful of fabulously wealthy landowning families. Their ideal was otium, a life of leisured scholarship, inviting each other to stylish dinner parties or recommending each others’ sons or nephews for posts in the increasingly powerful Church hierarchy. When the Goths invaded in the 400s, they found huge expanses of lightly defended territory, ideal for seizing, looting or, eventually, settling in.

Brown makes the point that it was the very snobbery of the Latin landowners which helped isolate the incoming barbarians and ensured they would set up their own free-standing kingdoms. He compares this huge social transformation with the way the Chinese were comprehensively invaded by Mongol barbarians in the 13th century yet, within a few generations, had completely assimilated them so that the new rulers were almost indistinguishable in style and culture from the conquered.

According to Brown, the image of Roma aeterna was a creation of the heady but impotent patriotism of this age, consciously created by the writers and senatorial poets of the late 4th century. In the same way, the growing cult of St Peter in Rome was a conscious Christian counterblow to the survival of paganism and the triumph of the barbarians. Together, nostalgic pagans and Christians helped to create the myth of ‘the grandeur that was Rome’.

Attila the Hun 434-453

Attila ruled a vast confederation of Hunnish tribes from 434 to 453. They formed the first barbarian empire the Romans had to confront and the Romans soon learned they couldn’t be withstood by full frontal military attack. Instead the Huns forced the emperor in the East to resort to buying other barbarian allies to form alliances against them.

The ongoing tribulations of the fifth century saw a significant shrinkage in the Latin cultural domain. There were fewer schools or libraries or centres of learning, and Latin shrank to become the badge of a small aristocratic elite. Local ties and local affections became steadily more important, replacing the distant emperor in Ravenna, let alone the immeasurably distant emperor in Constantinople. Thus local saints and the increasingly reliable and consistent local organiser, the local bishop, steadily grew in importance.

After the last emperor was removed from Rome in 476, coins continued to be minted in Rome but no longer showing an emperor’s head, instead depicting symbols of Roma invicta. This represented the dawning of a romantic ideology of Rome, a nostalgia for old power. The Catholic Church in the West became an increasingly beleaguered outpost of learning in the shifting seas of barbarism, transforming its officials into an isolated oligarchy. The privileged libertas of the old aristocracy, the confidence to bestride the vast territory of the empire, passed to the new cosmopolitan élite, the bishops.

Justinian 527-565

The Emperor Justinian emerges as one of the most fascinating figures in the book. He had been eastern emperor for a few years when the Great Nika Riot broke out in Constantinople, with the masses sacking the city, burning and looting.

The riot appears to have spurred Justinian to carry out sweeping reforms, improving city morals, raising the emperor and his entourage to semi-divine status, cutting away dead traditions, focusing power on himself and his advisers. This far more centralised administration, characterised by poisonous and intricate palace politics, was his chief legacy to his successors, and gives its meaning to our modern usage of the word ‘byzantine’, referring to a formidably complex bureaucracy.

Hand in hand with the reforms in the Eastern Empire went Justinian’s aggressive military campaigns: first against the Aryan heretics in the West, then in 533 he sent an army to North Africa which conquered it in one quick campaign. Thus emboldened, Justinian’s army proceeded to Italy where in 539 it drove the Ostrogoths out of Rome and in 540 his general, Belisarius, entered Ravenna.

However, events in the East brought this progress to a grinding halt. In 540 the ruler of the Persian empire, Khosrow I Anushiruwān, broke his truce with Rome and attacked into Roman territory, sacking Antioch, then slowly returning home, devastating towns and cities as he went.

In response Justinian stopped the Western campaign in mid-flow, stripped the Danube of its defences and undertook a punitive attack in the East. But the campaign was hampered by severe setbacks: 542 saw the outbreak of a devastating plague which recurred throughout the decade and ravaged the Roman army. Having denuded the Danube defences, Justinian left them exposed to attack, so that in 548 Slavic tribes carried out their first invasion across the river into the Balkans, penetrating far enough south to threaten Constantinople itself.

So, in the end, Justinian’s conquest of the West was left unfinished, while his defence of the East split his forces and required permanent attention. For the rest of his long reign Justinian was tied up in endless struggle to keep the barbarians at bay.

His general, Belisarius, was accompanied on his campaigns in the West by the historian, Procopius of Caesarea (500-554), who went on to write a history of his campaigns titled The Wars. But it is symptomatic of the times that Procopius is better known for his scandalous Secret History, which gives a lurid account of Justinian and his court. (It was these copious sources which the novelist and poet Robert Graves used to create his historical novel, Count Belisarius.)

The start of the Middle Ages

The disasters of the mid to late 500s saw a hardening of borders. For the first time Constantinople began to seem the isolated, beleaguered beacon it would remain for the next 900 years. This was accompanied by an inner, cultural hardening, with increasing persecution of ‘heretics’ and Jews. Brown says it was now, in the late 500s, that you see the emergence of the Total Christian Society which was to characterise the Middle Ages.

In the West the secular élite vanished. On the other hand, ‘the Book’ stops being a workaday manuscript and becomes a precious Codex, highly decorated and valued as a relic of a lost age. The classical past becomes perceived as irreparably gone.

One aspect of this was that it was a golden age for fakes and forgeries as authors filled in blanks in the Christian record, creating the documents, the histories and letters which they thought ought to have survived, forging the letters which which Paul ought to have written, and Peter should have dictated.

In the East, the figure of Christ rises above the merely human to become Christ Pantocrator, the All-Powerful, his image overshadowing the emperor in increasingly hieratic iconography. Throughout Christendom, the relic and the holy grave oust the living holy man.

There is a great turn towards a large and authoritative Past. Part of this was the continuing rise of the bishops; as the old secular landed aristocracy vanished, it left bishops in every urban centre as the sole focal point of their dioceses, as the main organiser, the last surviving sponsor of literacy and learning. It was they who rallied populations against the barbarians and when, in the 630s, the Muslims conquered, it was the bishops who emerged as leaders and representatives of their populations.

In the early 600s the Persian leader Khosrow’s grandson, Khosrow II ‘Aparvēz’, took advantage of the weakness of the Eastern Empire to attack and seize Antioch (613), Jerusalem (614), Egypt (619), and got as far as the walls of Constantinople itself in 620. At Jerusalem he even seized a relic of the True Cross.

The Emperor Heraclius (ruled 610 to 641) responded aggressively, buying alliances with neighbouring nations then counter-attacking deep into Persian territory, defeating the Persians at the Battle of Nineveh and marching south along the Tigris to sack Khosrow’s great palace at Dastagird. After this humiliation, Khosrow was murdered in a coup led by his own son. But the damage had been done – the Persian War had devastated territories around the Eastern Mediterranean, the populations and economies of Antioch and Alexandria were decimated. Though nobody knew it at the time, this would make them ripe for attack a generation later by the rampaging Muslims.

Islam

Brown’s brilliant, thought-provoking, vivid and insightful account ends with 20 pages on the rise of Islam and the eruption of Arab war bands into the Middle East in the mid-7th century.

I was fascinated to read Brown’s account of how the original Arab/Bedouin version of Islam was then co-opted by the Persian empire under the rule of the Abbasid dynasty, which reached its height in the rule of Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and the establishment of Baghdad as a centre for art and learning.

It is a natural culminating point in the story, heralding the end of the Mediterranean as ‘our’ lake, entirely surrounded by first classical and then Christian civilisation. This monumental shift threw increasing emphasis onto the surviving Christian kingdoms in the north and west of Europe, creating the geographic concept of ‘Christendom’ which – in the secular form of the European Union – arguably lasts to this day.

Thoughts

Living in England and being interested in English history from the Roman through the Saxon and Viking periods, I tend to think of the Dark Ages in North European terms. This book is a powerful reminder of the Eastern-ness of the Roman world. It hardly ever mentions Gaul and only names Britain once or twice.

Instead, by the 500s and the rule of Justinian, the barbarian kingdoms in Gaul, Burgundy, Spain, north Africa and Italy were well-established and ‘Late Antiquity’ means the Eastern Empire. Thus Brown doesn’t mention the Vikings, Charlemagne or Alfred, heroes of the north, because they are outside and after the era of Late Antiquity. Late Antiquity is a lot earlier, and a lot more eastern, than we tend to think.

A Late Antique chronology

284 to 305 Emperor Diocletian, typical new man of the period, rises through the ranks to become emperor and reorganise the Roman Empire.

313 Edict of Milan, the Emperor Constantine decriminalises Christianity
325 Constantine calls the Council of Nicaea to define Christian doctrine
346 The first Christian monastery was founded in Egypt by St Pachomius
376 Visigoths under King Fritigern appeal for permission to cross Danube into Roman territory and settle
378 Visigoths forced into revolt by famine and excessive taxation, leading to –
378 The Battle of Adrianople (9 August) Eastern Roman Army led by Valens destroyed by Gothic forces led by Fritigern
379-395 Theodosius, the last emperor to rule over West and East, institutes reforms which include the banning of pagan religion ie Christianity becomes the official religion of the Empire
395 Partition of Roman Empire into West Roman Empire (Honorius) and East Roman Empire (Arcadius), ruled by a Tetrachy of four rulers (an emperor and assistant for each half)

410 Sack of Rome by the Visigoths under Alaric
434-453 Attila ruler of the Huns and an empire which stretched from Holland to the Caucasus
455 Vandals raided Rome
476 September 4 – Odoacer (a Germanic leader in the Roman army) deposes the last western Roman emperor, ruling the Western Roman Empire as King in his own right
486 Franks conquered the Seine and Loire valley

507 Frankish King Clovis converted to Catholicism taking his people with him
524 Execution of philosopher and statesman Boethius at the order of Ostrogoth King Theoderic
526 Death of King Theodoric
529 Saint Benedict founded his monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy
529 Justinian closed the Academy at Athens, founded by Plato in 347 BC
535-553 The Gothic War – Byzantine invasions, and finally conquest of the Ostrogothic Kingdom
568 The Lombards leave their homeland in the western Pannonian plain and, under King Albion, arrive in Italy

600s Persian armies under Khosro I seize Antioch (613), Jerusalem (614), Egypt (619)
620s The Emperor Heraclius counter-attacks forcing the Persians to an exhausted truce
622 Mohammed and his followers migrate to Medina, the event known as the Hijra marking the beginning of the Islamic calendar
632 Death of Mohammed
635-38 Middle East falls to the Arabs
670-95 North Africa falls to the Arabs


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Dead and Alive by Hammond Innes (1947)

My sense of loneliness made the throng of life in the drab back-streets more vivid. The film of dirt on the hairy legs of the girl who shuffled ahead of me in wooden soled sandals, the urgent shrill cries of the ageless women behind the street stands, the beggars, the boys who wandered barefooted through the streets pimping for their sisters who were still in their teens, the tawdry make-up of a woman standing hopefully beneath the tinsel-decorated lamp-lit shrine of the Madonna at the street corner, the poverty and the dirt, and the sour smell of streets that had no proper sanitation… (p.127)

This is a very short thriller (158 pages in the Fontana paperback) in two starkly contrasting parts: first, the mood and feel of recently demobbed English sailors at a loose end and kicking around the Cornish coast; then a travelogue across recently liberated Italy in all its poverty and corruption. It packs a lot of description, history and feeling into a small space.

The plot

A man adrift

David Cunningham captained Royal Navy landing craft during the war. In the first few pages he is holed up in the Cornish boarding house where he and his true love holidayed before the war. While he was away serving, she married a RAF pilot who was subsequently killed and then she was killed in a German air raid. Her mother sent on a box of jewellery and trinkets. Just to complicate matters, he fell for another woman on a short home leave but now the war is over, and he’s reunited with her and her mother and family, he realises he’s not ready for marriage, he doesn’t know what he’s ready for, he’s confused and disorientated, so he’s run away to this remote Cornish house.

He stares moodily into the fire. The landlady says, ‘Why don’t you go find out about the wreck along the coast?’

Turns out a big landing craft got washed ashore onto rocks in a narrow cove the year before. Another disgruntled vet, Stuart McCrae, bought it off the Admiralty and is living in it. (In a typical Innes coincidence, their paths actually crossed during the war, when Cunningham piloted his landing craft carrying tanks onto the beach at Anzio where, amid the chaos and corpses, the very brave McCrae stood amid the shells and bullets and guided him in.)

Floating the boat

Over a scotch and war reminiscences, David says he thinks he can float the landing craft. And so the first 50 pages are a long and detailed description of how he wangles equipment off Navy mates, then rigs up scaffolding, gantries, hawsers and cables and dragoons passing tourists into helping build a rock and sand slope, with which they manage – despite various setbacks (some fierce storms destroy all their work and they have to start again) – to get the LC back into the water. Along the way they pick up another stray ex-Navy man, Dugan, an engineer who fixes the motors, and who knows another bloke, Boyd, from Plymouth who signs on as crew.

They name the ship Trevedra after the nearby village.

The Monique storyline

Turns out one of the local holiday-makers who they persuaded to help building the ramp and gantries, is a newspaperman. He publishes a piece about their epic labour in a national newspaper, along with photos which prompts a surprising amount of ‘fan mail’, which he passes on to our chaps. Among the 124 letters is a moving one from an Emily Dupont. She married a Frenchman in the 1920s and lived in Paris. In the war her husband and son were killed. At an early stage of the German invasion, she packed off her daughter to stay with Italian cousins for safety. She writes that, if the guys are travelling to Italy, as the newspaper reports, could they please please please look for her daughter, Monique. The letter encloses a photo of a pretty 15-year-old and the address of the people she was sent to stay with.

The business deal

Meanwhile McCrae proposes a simple business set-up. He and Cunningham go 50-50 in a new company. The two crew get a percentage of profits. Cunningham will be captain and have absolute authority on the ship. McCrae will negotiate cargo and business deals. They shake on it. While Cunningham finalises the ship’s refurbishment, McCrae goes off to London to do business. He comes back with the news that Italy – which they both know – is poverty stricken, and desperate in particular for all forms of transport. McCrae has fixed up with an old Army pal to buy some knackered Bedford lorries and spares. They’ll load these with fags and booze and sail to Italy, selling at a good price and use the money to buy a return cargo – probably all the rare wines and liqueurs Italy is famous for, and British soldiers came home with a taste for, but which are difficult to obtain here. A mate of his in London has agreed to distribute any fine booze they bring back and is already making enquiries about potential business customers.

Very thorough of Innes to put in these details. Very plausible account. And very typically ordinary, low level, not international corporations. Very much the man on the street, the demobbed soldier or sailor trying to start again from scratch, as in Killer Mine.

Sailing to Italy

Fairly uneventful, full of accurate and evocative descriptions of the sea which are Innes’ trademark.

Post-war Italy

The novel’s deep value may come less from its plot than from its searing and moving descriptions of post-war Italy, a corrupt and devastated shambles. Innes gives powerful descriptions of war-torn Naples, the damaged people and buildings. They dock, meet their business contact and dispose of the lorries and cigarettes on the spot for a big profit, then bank the proceeds and have a night on the town. Next day they are invited to a swanky party of a local bigwig up on the hill at Posillipo. In this swish villa, among the sleek men and scantily dressed women, Cunningham and McCrae are revolted at the contrast between the chattering rich and the absolute poverty in the city below, where people are literally starving to death.

When the bigwig, Del Ricci, takes them for a business chat and proposes buying the landing craft for double its market value, McCrae loses his temper: He knows Del Ricci is an ex-fascist, he knows he wants to use the landing craft to run guns to support his extortionate business practices, and he gives a big speech about how many British boys died horribly to liberate this country, not to give it back into the hands of fascists and crooks like him. When Del Ricci goes for his pocket pistol, McCrae lays him out with a big British punch. In the taxi back to the port Cunningham warns him, you shouldn’t have done that…

Looking for Monique

While McCrae pursues business contacts, Cunningham asks their local fixer to track down the address Emily Dupont gave him for Monique. Slowly the trail unfolds. Seems the address he was given was for a dodgy apartment block, a ristorante on the ground floor and brothel above it, with one respectable apartment where the Galliani family lived along with Monique. But the present owners say family and girl are long gone. They moved to a farm in the country.

Cunningham sets off to find her, taking Boyd, the cockney sailor, with him, telling McCrae they’ll be back in a day or two. He is so upset by the waste and horror of war, by the poverty and misery of Naples that – suddenly – finding her for her mother feels like a mission, a purpose, to try and put something right in this screwed-up world.

In fact it takes many days to follow the trail: first to a dusty farm, where Cunningham finds two old ladies. They confirm that the family from Naples came to stay here along with the girl. But at the end of the war, they describe a sickening incident when the Germans parked an 88mm flak gun by the farmhouse and used it for a while to defend a nearby bridge. When the Germans left, they set fire to the farmhouse. When the menfolk tried to intervene, the father was covered in petrol and set on fire, the others shot in the face. It is a revolting story, and typical of the violence and brutality Innes’ war-haunted protagonist sees all around him. Every road and hill and village brings back terrible memories of the war and its atrocities…

The women think Monique is in the village of Pericele. Boyd and Cunningham drive on through the killing grounds of the war, towns and cities flattened or pock-marked with artillery and bullet marks. Pericele turns out to be an impoverished dump and the parish priest a shifty creep who lies to them. After much prevarication it they discover that Monique has been sold into semi-serfdom to the village bully, Mancini. They track her down to a stream on his farm where she is dressed in rags and tells them how Mancini routinely whips her and beats her: he wants her to come begging to him for sex. She bursts into tears. Boyd and Cunningham are appalled at the humiliation and degradation of this still very young woman, but they see Mancini coming towards them in the distance, along with farmhands carrying shotguns. Boyd and Cunningham beat a hasty retreat but promise to return for her that evening.

That night Cunningham and Boyd, true to their promise, return to Mancini’s farm, parking the car some distance away and sneaking up quietly on the silent buildings. They discover Monique has been locked in the outdoor privy. But they make too much noise getting her out and Mancini comes roaring out of his house with his bullwhip. Cunningham tackles him and there is a bitter, unglamorous fight there in the farmyard muck. By wriggling free of his jacket Cunningham manages to get to his feet and run to the car Boyd has ready. They escape at top speed but, by the time they arrive back in Naples, Cunningham realises all his money, his wallet and his passport were in the damn jacket.

Stuck in Naples

Boyd and Cunningham make straight for the docks only to be stunned to learn that the Trevedra has sailed without them! What! Surely McCrae would never leave them. When they go to the bank where they happily deposited their profits a few days before, they discover McCrae emptied the account before leaving! What! I immediately suspected that McCrae has been killed by the mafioso he insulted and hit up at the hilltop villa.

Meanwhile, Cunningham and Boyd and Monique, united by their midnight exploits and their plight, pawn Cunningham’s watch and reluctantly move into the very sleazy apartment block-cum-bordello where Monique lived when she first came to stay in the city. It’s dirt cheap and has the advantage that the madam is tolerant of them. Also that it brings them into contact with the raddled old deserter who lives in one of the rooms and forges documents. The British Consul had agreed, reluctantly, to grant Cunningham a temporary passport to replace the one he left behind at Mancini’s farm, but refused point blank  to give one to Monique. Now, when Cunningham returns despondent from a day going to various offices (consulate, bank, harbour office), Boyd and Monique proudly show Cunningham her forged passport and travel documents. Job done.

The man who was paralysed

That night the forger asks them round for drinks. In a melodramatic scene worthy of Robert Louis Stevenson or Conan Doyle, he is given a long monologue in which reveals himself to be an embittered and crippled Scotsman, who got into various types of trouble in the Army, before deserting at Monte Cassino and making his way to Naples. He had always fancied himself an artist but here in a city racked by crime, discovered his true métier was forging papers, at which he has now become a master. The melodrama of his early escapades with the Army and then setting-up as a master forger, switches to lachrymose sentimentality as he starts talking about his dear old mum back in the wee Scots village of Ballachulish. He makes Cunningham swear to tell her – using his authority and swank as a former officer – that her son was a success, a prosperous businessman with a beautiful wife and bonny baby boy. But that, tragically, he was cut down in a street accident and has passed away. He’s forged the papers and even a will. He is, he points out bitterly, dying of syphilis anyway. He just wants his dear old mother to maintain her illusions.

— This extraordinary chapter is built from paper-thin clichés – how the idealistic young man slowly realises he is a rotten artist and becomes disillusioned; how he hates and loathes the Army and all its brutality; how he hates the pukka, public-school-educated officer class who had effortless confidence in everything they do; how the one and only ‘true’ work of art he ever made was the portrait of fair Monique, back when she was living with the Gallianis, and inspired by her beauty and innocence etc. Switching back to bitterness, he vents his scorn on the raddled Neapolitan prostitute he now lives with and her bastard son. The whole thing reeks of Victorian melodrama and is enjoyable as a remarkable reversion to the sensationalist fiction of the 1880s and 90s.

But it isn’t a completely random insertion: it also serves to move the plot along, because the paralysed man says that, if Cunningham swears on the Bible to take the message to his wee old mother, he’ll tell them what happened to their ship. Cunningham swears on the Bible. The paralysed man reveals that he forged papers for the Trevedra. He forged papers giving it a new name and naming its legal owner as Del Ricci. Aha. It all falls into place. Rather than buy the ship off the offensive McCrae, Del Ricci has just stolen it.

The paralysed man says it’s currently moored at Porto Giglio, on an island near Elba. He gives our chaps the name of a local ex-partisan and communist who very much wants to prevent the neo-fascist Del Ricci becoming the dominant power on this western coast. He says he’s arranged a rendezvous with this man, nicknamed the ‘Little Octopus’, at the trattoria in the Vicoletto Berio the next morning.

The Little Octopus

Our chaps meet the Octopus. When they tell him where the boat is moored, he makes arrangements and tells them to wait that night at a point on the road out of town. That night they have all their bags with them, and jump aboard the lorry carrying sacks of flour which arrives to collect them. They drive for hours north towards Rome and then west to the coast. Here they park at a harbour and load into a waiting island schooner, a filthy vessel run by an even filthier old captain, all spit and vino. The schooner sails out to Porto Giglio. Cunningham notices feet sticking out from under one of the collapsed sails. The Octopus notices and smiles cruelly. ‘If you live like a rat you die like a rat,’ he says. He shows Cunningham the cigarette tin and lighter with Del Ricci’s initials. They’ve murdered him. A little later his body is dropped overboard. Boyd comments that there is no law in this god-forsaken country and, on the evidence of this novel, there really doesn’t seem to be.

The schooner sails into Porto Giglio, where they execute their simple plan. They deliberately bump the schooner against the landing craft, which is moored in the centre of the harbour. The LC’s crew come out and start arguing and shouting, as Italians do, whereupon our lot of Italians hold them up at gunpoint. It could have been left at that, but again there is an excess of violence as, once they have tied and gagged the sailors, the Octopus proceeds to torture one of them with the tip of his lighted cigarette, stuffing a rag in his mouth to stifle the man’s screams. He is in the middle of doing this when Boyd on the bridge is overpowered by a baddy who’d been hiding below-decks. The Octopus shoots him without hesitation. Brains splatter onto Monique’s dress. She had wanted to see ‘fighting’. Now she realises she doesn’t like it.

The tortured baddy reveals that McCrae and the other crewman, Dugan, are in the lockers in the stern. Cunningham releases them, very much the worse for wear for having no food or water for two days. With that the Octopus says farewell. He has murdered his rival and deprived his organisation of a useful vessel. ‘How can we repay you?’ asks Cunningham. ‘Oh, you will return to Italy one day and maybe I will need help. That is all I ask.’ And he and his men climb back aboard the schooner and are gone.

Cunningham sets a course away from Italy out into the clean bracing air of the Mediterranean. McCrae and Dugan are recovering in the cabin. Boyd is running the engines. In an image which recurs in several later books, Cunningham guides Monique’s hands onto the spokes of the wheel and feels her warm body press back against his. They are in love. The future is going to be good.

Thoughts

As you can see the plot is pretty over-ripe, tipping into Victorian melodrama at points, but nonetheless it is gripping and well-told. It could have made a taut b&w 1950s movie starring one of the square-jawed English heroes from the time.

But the book is really worth reading for the tremendous flavour it gives you of a devastated Italy immediately after the war, the poverty and squalor and hopelessness, among which sit islands of opulence and plenty, all overlaid by the menacing presence of fascist bullies and mafia criminals. The drive through former battlefields as Cunningham relives the heat and sweat and blood and spilling guts of dying men in every village and field is very powerful. There is nothing, absolutely nothing glamorous or redeeming in the war that Innes describes. And the Italy he portrays couldn’t be further from the tourist fantasia of our times.

It’s powerful testimony to a now-distant and terrible era.


Credit

Dead and Alive by Hammond Innes was published by William Collins in 1941. All references are to the 1980 Fontana paperback edition.

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Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

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