The Books Interview: Stephen Dando-Collins

Your book is a history of Roman legions. What is their greatest legacy?
Organisation was certainly the key to Roman military success - and not only on the battlefield. From recruitment, through equipping and training mass enlistments of recruits, to swift transfer of units to trouble spots, to logistics in the field, the Romans' organisation was regimented and thorough.

The other legacy was strict discipline. In the legions, military law prevailed and discipline was brutal, with a long list of service regulations enforced by centurions' vine sticks and capital punishment. Discipline on the battlefield kept units obedient, intact and fighting, even when the odds and conditions were against them.

Is the influence of the legions felt in the way modern national armies are organised?
The organisational structure of today's armies stems directly from that of the Roman legion. Similarly, a self-contained battle group that does not have to rely on outside support, as was the case with the legionary armies of the 1st and 2nd centuries, is an ideal military force today.

Can we draw any parallels between the legions of the Roman empire, and the US army and the American imperium today, such as it is?
The US military has come to rely on superior numbers, superior technology and superior firepower. Occasionally the legions did possess all three, but more often than not they didn't - yet still they won enough battles to keep the empire intact for several centuries.

Modern wars such as those in Vietnam and Afghanistan today have shown that, in a conflict where you can't always be sure who your enemy is, numbers, technology and firepower can be meaningless. If several Roman legions were dropped into Afghanistan today, they would be brutal, bloody and ruthless. But they were trained for set-piece battles, as are armies today, and in the end the nature of insurgent warfare would defeat the legions.

In the introduction to Legions of Rome, you seem to attribute the "disintegration" of the Roman empire to the withering of the imperial legions.
Numerous fierce neighbours are bashing down your front and back doors and sneaking in the windows. Your equally fierce family is capable of throwing them out again, but the men of the house are frequently distracted by fighting among themselves. The injuries caused by infighting reduce the householders' ability to resist the threats from without. What is the house's future?

Agreed, the empire's decline in the west was due partly to political and economic factors, but the decline in military strength was all-important. Who knows how much longer the empire would have lasted had there not been so many civil wars that drained treasuries, removed able leaders from the stage and cut swaths through the Roman military ranks?

To what extent, if any, is your account of the Roman decline influenced by Gibbon?
I do quote Gibbon, but only half a dozen times in 200,000 words, and then usually to repeat a sage observation. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is not a particularly useful resource for information about specific legions. Nonetheless, Gibbon's years of labour have always inspired me.

Which other historians of the Roman empire do you admire?
Tacitus, first and foremost. It is true that he was both a snob and a misogynist, but as a recorder of Roman people and events of the 1st century, and of the movements and battles of individual legions, he is unparalleled. There are also many fine British historians today whom I admire, people doing excellent work on the minutiae of Roman military life.

Do you have a favourite legion?
The XIV Gemina Martia Victrix Legion, which rose from shame during Julius Caesar's day, after walking into a trap in Gaul and being wiped out, to fame, gained during the 60-61AD Boudiccan revolt in Britain by forming the mainstay of the vastly outnumbered Roman army that defeated the rebels. The mere mention of the legion's name after that victory was enough to make opponents quake in their sandals.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
Stephen Dando-Collins's "Legions of Rome: the Definitive History of Every Roman Legion" is published by Quercus (£35)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide