The Little Emperors

by Alfred Duggan

The Little Emperors is set in Britain in AD 405-411 and tells the story of the decline of Roman government in the diocese of Britannia*.

This book paints a convincing picture of the end of Roman administration in Britain. No cataclysmic barbarian invasion. No official withdrawal of the legions. Instead, the political class destroys itself in internecine squabbles and ill-judged military adventures, while the rest of the population ignores them and gets on with life.

The central character is Felix, the Praeses (treasurer) of Britannia Prima, based in London. He is trying to balance the government books, despite a moribund economy and constant demands for extra military spending. Preoccupied with bureaucratic minutiae, Felix finds himself embroiled in a succession of ever more disastrous military coups. First his wily British father-in-law, Gratianus, conspires to declare Britannia independent of the rest of the Roman Empire and elevates a soldier called Marcus to Emperor of Britannia. Marcus proves to be an unsatisfactory puppet, so Gratianus and his daughter, Felix's wife, assassinate Marcus and replace him with Gratianus. Felix, who is not nearly as good at high politics as he thinks he is, now finds himself surplus to their requirements and in danger of assassination himself.

Meanwhile, the machinery of Roman administration in Britain is grinding to a halt under its own weight. Progressively less of the island is under the control of the Emperor of Britannia, and progressively more is handed over to 'barbarian' client kings, who very soon stop being clients. Poor Felix slowly comes to realise not only that his orderly bureaucratic world has ended, but that it was irrelevant to most of the population in the first place.

The character of Felix, the pompous, well-meaning civil servant getting increasingly out of his depth, is very well drawn. All the events are told from Felix's perspective, and as he is a stoical individual who doesn't like hurry or excitement, some readers may find the pace a little slow, although I thought it suited the book. I would have liked to see some other perspectives on the collapse of the Roman governmental system. Apart from a peasant family, who seem blissfully unaware of all the political turmoil, we only see the effect on Felix and his political colleagues. How did it affect the craftsmen and traders? Did the client kings consciously manoeuvre for power or did it fall to them by default? How did the less-Romanised or non-Romanised populations in other parts of the island react? But these questions are outside the scope of the book.

One very welcome feature is a helpful Historical Note, in which the author sets out what is documented history (not very much) and what he made up to fill in the gaps. Much appreciated by this reader. I wish every author would do the same.

An excellent read for anyone interested in the end of Roman administration in Britain.

*Note: at this time, Roman Britain was a diocese divided into five provinces, of which the most important was centred on London. Alfred Duggan calls this province Britannia Prima. Other historians have argued that Britannia Prima was elsewhere and the London province was called Maxima Caesariensis, but this doesn't matter for this book.