Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  Felix Dahn, A Struggle for Rome

A Struggle for Rome (German: Ein Kampf um Rom) was published in 1876, but I'm sure the novel - a veritable doorstopper - will appeal those among my readers who still enjoy books like Ivanhoe (published 1819) and The Three Musketeers (1844), or maybe Tolkien's less well-known stories like The Sons of Húrin.

The novel starts with a nightly meeting in a half-runied temple outside Ravenna in 526 AD. King Theodoric is dying, and old Hildebrand, the king's friend and battle companion, has called some men to discuss the future of a kingdom endangered by the conquered Romans who want to drive the victors off, and the emperor in Byzantium who wants to reunite the former Roman Empire under Byzantine rule. There are Witigis, honorable and loyal, the handsome, dashing young Totila, his brother Hildebad the Strong, and Teias, warrior and bard with a mood as black as the byrnie he wears. Those five men swear a solemn oath that could have been taken right out of one of the Icelandic sagas, to sacrifice goods, love, and life for the survival of the Goths and the Ostrogoth kingdom of Italy.

At the same time, another secret meeting takes place in the catacombs of Rome. Here a group of squabbling Romans is clearly dominated by one man: Cethegus. Cold, ambitious, manipulative, but a brave fighter as well, he is the most formidable antagonist Dahn invented.

The characters from Byzantium don't need any secret meetings; that place is a conspiracy all by itself, and the strings are played by the Empress Theodora.

After the death of Theodoric the Great, the struggle for Rome - on the arena of politics and intrigues as well as the battlefield - between the Byzantine general Belisarius, the Roman Cethegus, and the Gothic oath-brothers begins, a struggle the Goths soon know they will lose. But they fight on, and the men sacrifice what they hold dear: Hildebrand executes his own grandson for treason. Witigis abandons the woman he loves to marry Theodoric's granddaughter in an attempt to avoid civil war among the Goths only to nurse a snake that will bring about his downfall. Totila can for a short time stem the Byzantine tide but is betrayed by a friend on the battlefiled of Taginae where he falls (552 AD). Teias leads the Goths into a last desperate fight well worth a song, and faces Cethegus in a duel on the slopes of Mons Vesuvius where both find a heroic end. His cousin Aligern makes peace with the Byzantine, and the few surviving Goths are allowed to leave Italy in search of the mysterious Thule in the far North.

Except for Cethegus, all the main characters are historical, and the main events based on historical sources (mostly on Procopius of Caesarea's De bello Gothico), but Dahn deviated from those where the story demanded it since he was both a historian and a writer.

Felix Dahn (1834-1912) made a career not untypical for 19th century Germany. He studied law - and worked as a professor of law in Munich and Breslau - and history. He wrote a great monography about the Kings of the Germans (from the beginnings to Charlemagne, 1861-1909), a biography of Procopius of Caesarea, and an Early History of the Germanic and Romanic People (Urgeschichte der germanischen und romanischen Völker, 1889).

He also wrote poetry, plays and novels. In the 19th century, an academic and literary career were not exclusive at all. Most of his novels take place during the Migration times, like Attila, Stilicho, The Batavians, Chlodovec, and a novel about Julian the Apostate. A few times he used later settings like the Crusades. But the novel that would make Felix Dahn famous and that would remain popular long after his death is Ein Kampf um Rom - A Struggle for Rome.

A Struggle for Rome is a 19th century novel and thus the interpretation of history is somewhat idealised and biased. In particular the Goths stand for honour, respect of old customs, the courage to fight a battle already lost. Not that different from Sir Walter Scott's idealised Highlanders. But there are sufficient exceptions to avoid black and white depictions: like queen Mataswintha whose personal revenge carries her people to the brink of destruction, or Belisarius who is brave and way too honest for the court at Byzantium. Cethegus, despite his questionable methods, is willing to sacrifice everything for his dream of a renewed Roman republic.

The style is rich in description, and the chapters dealing with the Gothic Thing and some other scenes sprout a fair number of alliterations. Esp. old Hildebrand can't speak a sentence without Wagnerian wording. The English translation has carefully modernised the style; the alliterations are not carried over, and a few excess adverbs and adjectives have been cut.

A Struggle for Rome is a grand tapestry of the Ostrogoths' attempt to keep their Italian kingdom against overwhelming odds, a tale of heroic deeds and battles, of intrigues and betrayal, and of friendship and love. Into the increasing doom after Theodoric's death, after Witigis' fight and fall, shines a ray of light when Totila for a short time manages to drive the Byzantine army back, but after his death Teias with his dark songs and fearsome axe takes over until the end. He would not be misplaced in Tolkien's Silmarillion.

If you click the Search Inside feature on the Amazon link above, you can get a larger version of the English cover. It shows the final battle between Teias and Cethegus.
That sounds like a fascinating book!
Now I wonder if G.G. Kay read this before he wrote Lord of Emperors.
This sounds really interesting, Gabriele (I have to admit that if/when I get round to buying it, it'll be the English translation rather than the German original...;) I especially like the sound of the Empress Theodora's role in the novel.
Your Majesty, it is a fun read. Just the sort of book to curl up with in front of the fireplace when the weather is too bad to go hunting and you'll get tired of humouring your family. :)

Bernita, some of the same sources Dahn used, I suppose. Like Procopius.

Kathryn, it's probably not an easy to read novel for a non-native speaker. You should give someone like Rebecca Gablé a try for that purpose. Very readable prose and English settings.
Theodora is more than a handful in that book. :)
I devoured that book when a child, but I recently tried to read it again and have decided that it's horrible fiction ... ;-)
Felix Dahn's books online.
I still like it, Irene, but I can see your point. There are some scenes that make me smile and say, yes, that's so 19th century.

Thanks for the link. The English translation is not avaliable for free, unfortunately.
Not going to tackle it in German, although it sounds like it could be fun...
But, I'll just stick to Rilke. :)
Well, if you can manage Rilke, Dahn should not be a problem. I had no idea you read German - sneaky friends I have here who don't tell me things. ;)
Friends whose grasp and pronunciation of the German language would force you to reach for favorite dagger . . .
Dear Ms. Gabriele C, in the Dutch translation of "Ein Kampf Um Rom" (1905!) that I read, Hildebrand actually had his grandson with the same name as he, executed, not his son. In the first part of the book, Hildebrand said his sons died in another battle. "Ein Kampf Um Rom" is still my favorite book. Personally, I like Cethegus best, as he is a very admirable character, in spite of his (human!) flaws. Not at all a pure saint, and therefore so very human. Machiavelli would have learned much from him! What a man. We really need someone like him in Indonesia right now!
Warm greetings from Tami Koestomo, a Javanese from Indonesia! :-)
Hi Tami, it could have been Hildebtand's grandson indeed; I'll have to reread the book once again some day. ;)
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places (like Flanders and the Baltic States), with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)