The fading 4th century AD Roman empire has been generally well documented but evidence of the impact on its faraway province of Britain is frustratingly sparse.
Of the little that is known about this transitional period, a massive barbarian invasion of these shores in 367 is undoubtedly the most serious and the most dramatic.
This much neglected period of history has proved endlessly fascinating for researchers who have had to rely on the accounts of soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus whose glimpses of the past are frustratingly brief.
Archaeology has offered only impressionistic clues to events so step forward Dr John Henry Clay, a Durham University lecturer and expert in Anglo-Saxon history, who has used scraps of known history and a powerful imagination to bring us life, love and war in Roman Britain.
The Lion and the Lamb, his remarkably authentic, ambitious and exciting debut novel, is the epic tale of a young Roman-British soldier with a secret past, an ancient family rivalry and a barbarian conspiracy which threatens to plunge the land into darkness.
It’s 366 in the reign of the Emperor Valentinian and the island is at peace and enjoying an unprecedented age of prosperity. But from beyond the northern frontier come unsettling rumours that the barbarians are rising, eager to prey on the riches of the south.
As the shadow of war looms, Cironius Agnus Paulus (Paul), a young soldier with a secret past, is about to become ensnared in a conspiracy that endangers the home he has forsaken and the family he loves.
No one looking at Paul would ever guess that he is heir to one of Roman Britain’s wealthiest families. Condemned to a hovel, beaten by a merciless commander, crushed by the weather and forced to survive on starvation rations, he is enduring life as a private soldier on Hadrian’s Wall
Paul had his reasons for joining the army and fleeing his home in Gloucestershire and the family he loves, including his younger sister Amanda who is fast becoming a marriageable, political pawn in her father’s ambitious schemes.
But when rumours of a barbarian uprising from beyond Hadrian’s Wall begin to circulate, Paul realises that his family is in grave danger and with only the former slave-girl Eachna for company, Paul deserts the army knowing the penalty is death.
As he sets off on a hazardous journey across Britain, he soon discovers that danger lurks round every corner…
Weaving a credible and audaciously inventive path between fact and fiction, Clay’s richly detailed novel opens a window onto Roman Britain as it plunged headlong towards the Dark Ages.
Paul is a man of his brutal, transitional times… as Roman institutions and laws crumble, the Christian Church grows increasingly influential and the balance of power changes, only the fittest and the most adaptable will survive.
Clay provides plenty of background information on both history and his characters to give added depth to his epic novel and with the door left tantalisingly open for a sequel, The Lion and the Lamb could be the start of a thrilling new series.
(Hodder, paperback, £8.99)