Roman Wall

by Bryher

Reviewed by David Maclaine

Roman Wall is another of Bryher’s compact, beautifully written stories about ordinary people whose lives teeter on the brink of great events. This time her setting is a Roman province in what we now call Switzerland, a border land whose defenses have decayed. Its inhabitants know it is ripe for invasion from restless tribes massing just beyond the Empire’s edge. But as in real life, everyone’s first concern is with daily existence, including a crumbling estate and love affairs both old and new. Most live in a cloud of wishful thinking, hoping the invasion will come next year or perhaps the year after, brushing aside the signs that this will be the summer the barbarians arrive. The author knew the landscape well and the mindscape too; she lived in Switzerland under similar circumstances a millennium and a half later when the Western world tried hard to ignore signs of another German attack.

As always Bryher’s great gift is her precise, meticulous description of people, characters sketched in with a few perfect strokes but giving the immediate impression of complete lives lived outside her pages. She captures the mood of a backwater, a place to which people have drifted, which some have come to love. These must cope with the knowledge that what they treasure most will soon be gone. Because the author’s eye is so honest and her art so believable, the novel's climax generates real suspense. When the great invasion by the Alemanni finally arrives and the Roman wall is breached, we understand that her characters will live or die as real people would, according to the whims of fate, with no arbitrary protection from the conventions of popular fiction. We are left at the end to ponder the fragility of our own walls against the darkness, and to cherish the lives that survive after a way of life is swept away. (1954, 219 pages)

More about Roman Wall at

Roman Wall appears on the list of The 50 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Roman History

Other novels set in the wider Roman Empire:

Winter Quarters by Alfred Duggan (1956), about two men from Gaul who travel across the Roman Empire as far as Parthia. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Josephus by Lion Feuchtwanger (1932), about Flavius Josephus, a Judean who witnesses the fall of Jerusalem and writes a history of Rome's suppression of the Jewish revolt. See review or more info at

Dark North by Gillian Bradshaw (2007), about an African scout in the Roman Army sent to Britain to help put down a revolt. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Nonfiction about Switzerland in the Roman era:

Switzerland: From Roman Times to the Present by William Martin (revised edition, 1971). More info

History of Switzerland: The First 100,000 Years by James Murray Luck (1986). More info


Switzerland in the Roman Era at Wikipedia

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