‘Londinium Falling’, one of fifteen stories, in Postcards from London by Tim Walker, is set in the year 64 when the young town suffered its first calamity – Boudicca’s Iceni army attacked a small Roman garrison and overran the town, massacring those within and burning down the buildings. This much is history. Tim’s story imagines that fateful day through the eyes of two world-weary legionaries, Marcellus and Septimus, who must fight for their lives against the screaming blue-painted, blood-thirsty warriors pouring over their flimsy earth bank defences…
The dockside was a mass of jostling and shouting townsfolk – sailors and slaves were carrying a variety of imperial objects aboard three galleys, and lesser traders filling a dozen or so small boats with people and supplies.
“Watch where you’re going!” A citizen carried on a sedan chair whacked Hywel on the head with a leather whip, causing him to stagger, as the jostling tide of humanity made their way to the row of waiting boats on the Quayside.
“Do not abuse my slave, sir!” Julia shouted above the din. “My husband is a legionary fighting for our safety.” She hugged her child tightly and glared at the fat, impassive Patrician.
Hywel turned and grinned his appreciation at his plucky mistress. “This way, my lady – Petronius the wine merchant has a boat. Your husband is a regular customer – he will help us. Let us make haste.” They battled through the anxious crowd as the distant sounds of battle grew increasingly louder.
Marcellus searched the crowd for Julia and Cato, but could not see them amongst the multitude of milling townsfolk and soldiers. He did see Governor Decianus and Centurion Maximius standing on the prow of a galley, the latter bellowing out orders for a defensive square. Legionaries with shields and weapons intact started to move towards the outer edges of the square and stand side-by-side, awaiting the barbarian onslaught.
Septimus grabbed Marcellus by the arm and pointed to a small boat already bobbing freely in the river. On it Julia and Cato were shouting and waving to them, their words snatched away by the breeze and hubbub. A broad smile cracked Marcellus’ cheeks as he waved back – relief was written on his blood-spattered face.
“Now we can fight barbarians,” he said, grinning at his friend. Septimus called his unit into a huddle and left them to go in search of a friendly sea captain. But no sooner was he gone than a boisterous optio commanded them to form up in the defensive wall. Marcellus duly complied with the rest of the unit, and they found themselves with members of the first cohort who had not yet faced the enemy – as they had been guarding the docks and both ends of the bridge.
“What’s it like?” one of them asked the cut, bleeding and battered unit.
Marcellus replied, “Imagine thousands of blue-painted screaming devils being chased through the Gates of Hades by the three-headed hound Cerberus. Look – here they come…!” He pointed with the tip of his gladius as the first group of warriors raced from the streets that fed into the open space before the docks, screaming and waving their bloody weapons. They stopped short of the wall of Roman shields and seemed to wait for a leader to come. They shouted obscenities and banged their swords, spears and axes against their round shields, and some threw the severed heads of soldiers at the Romans. The evacuation of non-combatants was swiftly completed and Maximius, from the safety of his galley, urged them to hold the line at all costs.
“General Paulinius is on his way!” Maximius shrieked, his words barely carrying above the racket to a doubtful Marcellus.
The warriors then quietened and parted to allow three chariots to enter from a side street. A tall proud woman with long flowing red hair and blue swirls on her cheeks, wearing a shining metal breastplate and clutching a spear, glared at the Roman Centurion. She urged her driver to ride between the two lines of opposing soldiers, periodically throwing heads over the Roman shield wall as she went. Marcellus gazed at her in awe, her authority over the seemingly wild rabble was undisputed. Some even bowed as she rode by. She lifted her spear again and screamed a command as her chariot reached the end of the line, and her faithful followers fell on the Roman shield wall with maddening ferocity.
Postcards from London is Tim Walker’s second collection of short stories and draws on the vivid history of the vibrant city of London where he has both worked and lived. Imagine Iron Age fishermen, open-mouthed to see Roman galleys rowed by slaves dropping anchor at their village on a river the Romans would name the Tamesis – at a place they would turn into the port and fortified town of Londinium. This happened two thousand years ago and those Romans were the first of many men of vision who would come to shape the city we see today. London’s long and complex history almost defies imagination, but Tim has conjured citizens from many familiar eras, and some yet to be imagined.