Children of the Wolf - Alfred Duggan Without a doubt, the best thing about GoodReads is the number of new authors I’ve discovered who would have most likely remained unknown to me. A short list includes Sylvia Townsend Warner, Ivan Goncharov, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Thomas Burnett Swann, Heinrich von Kleist, T.F. Powys and Theodor Fontane. Alfred Duggan joins that list of discoveries. He came to my attention in the course of reading Andrea Carandini’s Rome: Day One, which is an account of Rome’s foundation and – naturally enough – mentions Romulus and Remus frequently. Since Carandini didn’t provide much background, assuming the reader’s familiarity with Rome’s foundation myths, I wikied the Romulus legend and came across a section about the literary and film representations that mentioned Duggan’s novel. From there it was a short Wikipedia search to his own page, where I learned that he had been an English historian (dying in 1964) who had written a number of historical novels that ranged from the obscure origins of Rome to the equally obscure figures (to modern audiences) of Demetrius Poliorcetes (a Successor King of Alexander), Marcus Crassus (the bad guy in the movie “Spartacus”), Cerdic (the first king of Saxon Wessex) and Count Bohemond (a son of Robert Guiscard, a Norman adventurer in 11th century Italy and the Byzantine Empire). For the last few weeks, I’ve been immersing myself in these worlds (with the exception of the Cerdic novel – my library didn’t have that one).

Children of the Wolf is the story of Rome’s foundation and its first generation of citizens as told from the viewpoints of four representative characters. There’s the Latin Marcus Aemilius, a young, would-be brigand originally of Remus’ following. Publius Tatius is a Sabine who becomes one of the first Conscript Fathers (i.e., a Senator). Perperna is an Etruscan fugitive who prospers from the Roman conquest of Camerium and becomes a wealthy land-owner. And then there’s Macro, a Greek fratricide from Cumae who becomes one of the city’s first priests.

I can’t say that the writing is very good. It’s awkward, clunky; and you rarely can transcend the page to really feel you’re “there.” There are exceptions. Perperna begins life as a spearman in the Roman army and Duggan’s description of his experience as a member of the ranks is riveting:

That was why the shock, when it came, was much less fierce than Perperna had been expecting. In the last few yards every man on both sides checked his stride and hung back to keep in line; the lines themselves hesitated, until the leaders must shout again the command to charge. When the two armies collided it was at a gingerly shuffle, not in a fierce and reckless swoop....

For half a minute they all stood still, pushing with the stout ash spears. Perperna saw no blood and heard no cries of pain; it seemed that the initial meeting of two armies had not harmed anyone at all. Then he felt the shield of the Roman behind him placed flat against his back, and the five rear ranks of the army began to shove. He was borne forward unwillingly, right among the Etruscan spear-points. In terror, he doubled up behind the broad shield. He could see nothing, but with relief he felt his unseen spear-point plough free of the enemy shield. Now it was darting harmlessly in the air; but he dared not expose his face to aim it properly, for he was jammed against his adversary shield to shield. All around him was a forest of interlaced spear-shafts, stretching at every angle to that he could not distinguish Etruscan from Roman. He crouched even lower, and felt the pressure on his shoulders as the men behind him pushed their spears forward on either side of his helmet. He was wedged in the press, unable to see, unable to strike an effective blow.
(pp. 191-92)

Elsewhere, alas, Duggan’s need to tell his story about how Rome came to be the Rome of legend hinders his ability to create people we care about. The most empathetic characters turn out to be the women – Marcus’ wife Sabina, one of the girls kidnapped in the (in)famous “Rape of the Sabine Women,” and Vibenna, a ½-Etruscan widow who becomes Perperna’s wife after the sack of Camerium. While Duggan makes much of the relatively high status of Roman women compared to their Greek and Etruscan counterparts, their ultimate powerlessness is constantly in the background:

For the first time he looked carefully at his prize.

She was short and square, like most Sabines, with broad shoulders and clumsy hips. Her breasts were small, for she was not much older than fourteen. Her hair was black and straight, abundant but not very long; but her eyes were grey, and her skin white where it had not been tanned by the weather. She had a straight nose and a small mouth. On the whole her regular features might be called pleasing, though she would never be famous for her beauty. She would do.

He spoke to her for the first time since he had grabbed her. “You heard what our King said. We are to be properly married. My name is Marcus. I am a Latin, and a client of the Aemilian clan. As a free spearman I have been allotted a ploughland and a yoke of oxen; the slaves of the clan help me to look after them. Besides my shield and spear I own an iron sword, and three clay pots. The King will put us in a hut by ourselves. What is your name? Are you content to marry me?”

Anger and disgust showed on the girl’s face, but not a trace of fear. She answered readily, as though she had already made up her mind. “I shall marry you, if that’s what you want of me. Now that I have been pawed by Roman bandits no decent Sabine would take me to wife, so I may as well make the best of it. I shall not tell you my name. It is a part of myself, and a part I do not choose to share with you. Besides, it would be better if you do not know the name of my clan. Then it will be easier for my kin to take vengeance.”

“As you wish, wife,” Marcus answered cheerfully. “Keep your name to yourself, by all means. Since I must call you something I shall call you Sabina. Among the neighbours you will be known as the wife of Marcus Aemilius, and that will be enough. By the way, are you a virgin?”

“That’s a disgusting question!”

“No, it’s not. A bit direct, perhaps, but I want an answer.”

“Of course I am. Among the Sabines every girl is a virgin until she marries. But I am old enough to have been instructed in the mysteries, if that is what you mean. I know what will be done to me tonight.”

“Look here, Sabina. The King has called on the gods to unite us, and until death parts us we shall share a hut. We are more or less the same kind of people. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t get on together. Why not be friends? Then we shall live more comfortably.”

“So long as I am kept in Rome I want to be comfortable. I shall cook for you as well as I can, and keep our hut clean and warm. Death will part us soon enough, when my kin avenge the wrong done to me. Then I shall be a widow, free to marry some decent Sabine.”

“That sounds fair enough. You seem to have been properly brought up. But just go on remembering that vengeance is the duty of your kin, and leave it to them. Will you promise not to poison me, or stab me while I sleep?”

“That much I can promise. The gods punish a wife who kills her husband.”

“Splendid. In a few minutes we shall be married. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind beginning your household duties straight away? Do you see the rawhide knot on this scabbard? It’s meant to slip through that loop on the baldric, but my clumsy fingers have made it too big. Can you tighten it and make it look neater?”

As he laid his scabbarded sword on her lap Sabina smiled. It had been smoothly done. He had wronged her; but they were partners in the adventure of living and they would never know peace unless they trusted one another.
(pp. 42-43)

And in Vibenna’s case:

The six hundred Camerines slain in the pursuit had left a quantity of widows, and the population contained the usual crop of unmarried maidens. They were drawn up in line facing the army, and the bachelors among the volunteers were invited to choose among them.
Perperna was one of the first to choose. As a young bachelor without family ties he was eligible, and as a celer and adherent of King Romulus he was privileged above the majority of his fellow-citizens. For of course there were still not enough women to go around. Rome was full of surplus males, since the fugitives and outlaws who continually flocked there were all men without women of their own.

He would look ridiculous if he walked up to the first woman in the line and seized her; but it was even more ridiculous to examine them carefully, as though he were buying a cow. What were the qualities you sought in a wife? And once you had decided on that, how did you spot the external signs of them? In fact, did he want a wife at all? But he must look as though he were choosing with care, so he peered closely into a row of strange faces….

He was seeking a wife only because in Rome such creatures were rare and valuable, and it seemed silly to throw away this unexpected chance of getting one for nothing; he did not seek affection, he wanted a sensible partner to manage his household while he worked his land. This thirty-year-old widow looked sensible; she was plain and strong and could control her emotions. She wore a long tunic of unbleached wool, and her black hair hung unbound in sign of mourning.

“Where are your children?” asked Perperna, trying to smile as though he were talking to an equal.

“I had three, but they died as babies,” the woman answered in a matter-of-fact voice, lifting her head to stare indifferently into the empty sky.

“Do you know how your husband died?” he continued.

“They tell me he was wounded at the very beginning. Since after that he couldn’t run fast he stood his ground until a Roman knocked him on the head.”

“Then I am not polluted with his blood. I killed two Camerines, but both were fleeing. So since that impediment is out of the way and you must marry one of us, are you willing to be my wife?”

“Why not?” said the woman, glancing at his face for the first time. “You don’t look any worse than the others. My name is Vibenna, and my father was Etruscan though my mother was Italian. What do I call you?”

“I am Perperna, though my family need not be named since they have all been killed by savages. We are of the same race.” He spoke in Etruscan, glad to thing he would be able to speak his native tongue in this new home.

The woman answered casually in Italian. “It’s no good speaking the language of the Rasenna to me. I don’t know it. My mother was just a concubine. My dead husband was a citizen, but we were not ruling nobles. Everyone here speaks Italian, except when they speak to the gods.”

“Very well, Vibenna. My name is Perperna and we shall speak Italian together. You shall be my wife, not my concubine. Roman wives are protected by good laws. This is a new start in life. Make the best of it.”

“It’s better than being a slave. I can cook, but my children die. If you have chosen me I will lead you to my home.”...

“Unpleasant job you call it, young man?.... (I)f you see it in the proper light it’s really most humane and merciful. We could have carried Camerium by assault, raped the pretty girls, slaughtered the warriors and then sold the survivors. The town was at our mercy. Instead of that, some of the citizens keep some of their property and the women suffer nothing worse than honourable marriage.”
(pp. 180-82)

The above passages also – I believe – are good examples of Duggan’s flaws as a writer. A significant factor in why I kept reading (and why I’ve gone on to read his other novels that I checked out) is the underlying sense of frustrated idealism that runs throughout the book combined with a sardonic cynicism. There’s something that appeals to the frustrated idealist and sardonic cynic within me.

While there are several good scenes that convey this sense well, I quote from one near the end where a Roman delegation convinces the Sabine prince Numa Pompilius to become Rome’s new king. One cites the city’s constitution, its laws, the honor given to wives and children, how all citizens stand together in war and Rome’s destiny to rule the world. Another cites Rome’s fair dealings with its enemies and how so many disparate peoples have learned to live together within its walls. But the last – and deciding argument – is given to Perperna, who argues that all this will be lost if Numa refuses to become king and allows the city to dissolve, even with all its flaws.

Numa accepts, but adumbrating a theme of Duggan’s later Roman-era book, Winter Quarters, warns that all can still be lost:

“It’s funny when you come to think of it. Most of us came to Rome because no other city was open to us. We came to the second best, meaning to go back when our troubles were over. But there is something about this city, its good luck or its favour with the gods or perhaps just its fertile fields, that makes everyone want to stay.”

“It’s none of those things,” said Macro happily. “It’s the other Romans. It’s all of us. This is the home of justice. We live in friendship together, men from all over the world; and our descendants will the rule the world.”

“For so long as they do justice,” added King Numa, from his place of honour.
(p. 283)

A very strong 2 stars: I’m not going to complain about the lack of nuance in the 5-star rating system GR uses. I’ve beaten that horse too often and too well elsewhere. It would, however, be nice if GR could color code the stars; for example, 3 yellow stars would be a tepid “like,” better than “okay” but not up to a full-throated recommendation. Three green stars would be the standard “like” and 3 red (or blue?) stars would be a very strong “like.” The same would apply to the other stars and wouldn’t require a recalibration of the rating system.

In that spirit, I would give Children of the Wolf 2 red (or blue) stars. There was something about it that – despite its flaws – kept me reading. I can’t say I would recommend this book or this author to anyone but I wouldn’t discourage anyone’s interest.