Author: L. Sprague de Camp
Publication Information: New York: Ballantine Books, 1983
ISBN: 0-345-31016-0 (i.e., 978-034-5310-16-3)
Library of Congress Classification: PS3507.E2344
Library of Congress Subject Headings:
This is an old one, and a good one.
When I was young, I used to be an avid science fiction reader. I remember L. Sprague de Camp’s The Tritonian Ring fondly. I still have the book. It was so much, with the protagonist being a cynical hero that, in the end, just gave up and walked away from a potential drawn-out fight with his brother for the rule of their city.
The protagonist of this book is Martin Padway, an American graduate student in Rome doing research for his Ph. D. On the first page, the idea of time travel is introduced as Padway’s host, Tancredi, discusses his idea of time “pockets” simply appearing here and there and people, who just disappear and are never seen again, having fallen through and into the past. Thus the entire premise of the book is introduced.
Padway falls into one of these holes, going from fascist Italy (the original copyright is 1939 and explains why there’s a remark about Mussolini) into Ostrogothic Italy. Rome is in ruins and civilization is slowly sinking into the Dark Ages. Now known as Martinus–to the general public he will later be known as Mysterious Martinus–Padway begins his attempt to save Western civilization from decline.
The first order of business is to get money, so he sells the coins he has for their gold and silver, making friends with a Goth who knows Latin. Slowly, Martin learns the Germanic spoken by the Ostrogoths, and secures a loan (after teaching modern math to the accountants of the banker) at a high interest rate–far higher than today’s rates. With the money, Padway invents brandy, which quickly becomes a hit and makes him a wealthy man. Then Padway “invents” a printing press and then a telegraph.
Right away Padway runs into problems with religion. The Ostrogoths, converts to Arian Christianity, are heretics in the eyes of the the mainstream Christians, being the Romans and the Byzantines, who later enter the picture. Nonetheless, the Goths tolerate the range of Christians and their beliefs. Padway knows history, and he knows that Justinian, an orthodox Christian and a zealot, would be a horrible master. Also, the disastrous war waged by Justinian’s armies lasted two decades, bringing Italy back into the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire but at a terrible price. The peninsula was completely ravaged and it would be centuries before the damage could be undone.
Sorcery is leveled at Padway, so he has to fight for his survival, eventually using his wealth to bribe an influential bishop. In the end, Padway ends up serving as the quaestor of the king whose life he saves. He’s able to defeat Justinian’s armies, throw back an attack by the Franks, and also crown a new king. He explains away his “gift” as not so much being able to see the future but to see “paths” that can be changed if those around him listen and act accordingly. He tells them his religion is Congregationalist, coming from America, which no one has ever heard of.
What is perhaps most interesting of all in this book is the alien nature of Ostrogothic society, and that of the last of the Romans living under Gothic rule. There is no sense of a nation-state as we are used to; identity at this time was very fluid. Vandals and Alemani serve in Italy under the Ostrogoths. The “kingdom” as such is held together by the nobles who follow the king; a council of nobles elect–and can depose–a king. The Goths overall distrust those who read and write; they are mostly illiterate.
The Ostrogoths have no idea of cohesion; the reason to fight is for honor and booty, nothing more. Padway desperately tries to introduce military organization and tactics from the far future, but the Ostrogoths do not understand the purpose. Even the idea of the early type of Roman government is alien; the Romans resent Gothic rule and refuse to help, preferring the orthodox Justinian as their ruler. There is no other word for it: these medievals are stupid by our standards, seeing nothing past what already exists. There is no interest in being inquisitive and no interest in discovering the unknown or questioning the status quo; religion explains everything.
A really fun book, and a quick read.