William Morris Archive

Peter Wright

This tale, unlike Morris's earlier romances published before 1890, is not set largely within a tribal Germanic society, nor like those produced or begun thereafter in a substantially medieval one, but in the declining Roman empire. The names of Rome or Roman are not indeed actually mentioned, but both the names of the characters1 and the social and political life represented, which Morris will have derived mainly from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, clearly indicate what polity and period is intended. In the opening account of the protagonist's home city the contrast in power between the Elders of the City with their ineffectual words and the armed force in the 'castle' reflects that which existed during the first century covered by Gibbon between the nominal authority of the Senate at Rome and the legions who in fact made and unmade emperors. The peril too which threatens the city's 'ruler', the 'Prefectus', sent from 'the master city of the world' (i.e. Rome) to gather its revenues, of being 'thrust though his purple-waled gown'2 by 'some captain or chieftain of the aliens' resembles the fate that befell most Roman emperors during the 3rd century: of some thirty emperors between 180 and 284 only two or three died 'in their beds' of sickness or old age; the rest perished violently at the hands of mutinous soldiers, conspiring officers, or victorious rivals. (It was emperors, however, rather than provincial governors, who risked such a death.)

The social structure of the city also resembles that of the later Roman period, though Morris has taken care to imply parallels with the domination of the bourgeoisie in Victorian Britain, and vigorously rebukes the numerous oppressed poor of the city for accepting the increasing doles ('dog's food') handed out to them, and not rising to overthrow their 'few ... masters', in the kind of revolution that he hoped for in his own time. There are too many rich men and 'thralls and poor folk without number' dwelling in 'lairs and dens', besides many 'bought' thralls kept in the rich men's houses for their personal service, but liable if their masters are displeased to be sent out to toil on the farms, which (as Marx taught) were in such a slave-owning society worked mainly by slave labour. Morris notes, too, that by this period the citizens have abandoned the use of arms, and entrusted their defence to a hired professional soldiery like that of the later empire. The rumours of battles in which the Roman army is as likely to be 'overcome' by barbarians as to defeat them would suggest a time during the invasions by Germanic barbarians which developed from the mid 3rd century. Morris also notices the administration of (supposed) justice in aisled basilicas, ‘like minsters', and reports 'temples of the Gods' in full activity, though notable gild 'mote-houses' were less characteristic of Roman society. The absence of Christians, while a 'bishop' appears only metaphorically in the law-courts, also suggests that the story should be set in the 3rd century before Christianity became prominent under Constantine. It should be noted, however, that while Morris has adopted a classical setting, he often chooses to use medieval terms, often of Germanic origin, to describe it, thus speaking of mote-houses, bailiffs, or thralls.

The whereabouts of the city, standing across a river of some size up which 'great ships' can reach it, is not openly specified. May Morris thought3 it might be based on Verona on the Adige, which Morris had seen on his Italian tour of 1878. But he has given his city a rather different geographical setting when describing the surrounding land, which rather suggests the Rhone valley in southeastern France. The city has to the west a wide cultivated plain with woods of oak and sweet chestnut: (Morris could have read in R. L. Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes of the growing in Southern France of chestnuts, which were made into bread).4 Close to it on the east lies a 'great forest’, and beyond that 'bare downs' and then 'rocky fells', with sometimes visible in the distance snowy-topped mountains, the 'Wall of the World', which suggest the western range of the Alps. (At Verona the Alps are close by to the north.) On his last visit to Italy late in 1892, instead of using as before the railway tunnels under the Alps Morris had journeyed down the Rhone valley and taken some note of its landscape.5 So Desiderius' city might be one of the important Roman ones of that valley, Lyons, or, more likely, Aries, nearer the river mouth.

The courtyard where we first meet Desiderius, with its surrounding pillars, central pool and walls painted with ancient legends, resembles the traditional atrium of the wealthy Roman town house as described by Vitruvius and excavated at Pompeii. The costume of the male characters, however, is not the widely enveloping toga of the late Republic and early Empire, but with its 'coats', laced, embroidered, and sleeved, suggests one trending towards the more tailored style of the Byzantine period.

Before proceeding with his narrative, Morris, who often after describing his people's appearance allows (like Homer) their nature to be revealed by their words and deeds, has here chosen to provide elaborate character sketches of the older generation of his protagonist's family. His father, desirous of wealth but generous with his gains, 'not tyrannous himself, but mostly winking at oppression by his underlings, may represent Morris's judgement of the more decent kind of Victorian businessman. Aurelian's somewhat feckless brother Tatian, active but lacking persistence, and often distracted from any task by his desires, may resemble in his relation to the head of the family who loves and employs him (but one hopes not otherwise) Morris's own younger brother Edgar, who had worked for the Firm at Merton Abbey in the l880s.6 Desiderius' mother, beautiful, but proud and foolish, and with ever changeable moods, recalls the witch's sister, luxurious but stupid, whom Morris had set as possessor of the Isle of Increase Unsought, in The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Julia's sense, as one 'of the race of kings,' that she has married beneath her to a mere merchant, might suggest that Morris intended her in some way to be connected to an imperial dynasty.7 The eunuch8 head-slave Felix, greedy, but cunning and willing to assist his young master's intrigues though perhaps ultimately untrustworthy, may derive from the ingenious slaves of classic Roman comedy, which Morris had probably read at school: cf. the references to the ‘play-book.’

Desiderius himself when we first meet him is clearly suffering severely from ennui: neither light engagement in sport nor occasional errands for his parents can adequately occupy his energies. This ‘listlessness’ is suddenly broken by the sight of his mother's newly bought handmaid (Could she be a recently captured barbarian maiden?), making him blush (and hope that his mother has not noticed). Julia is perfectly willing to have him satisfy his sexual needs with a bought slave-girl, rather than risk wooing expensively a woman of equal rank. But pride of birth, and perhaps racial prejudice, will surely lead her to oppose her son's love for this particular maiden, and, cruel on purpose or without, she will be likely to treat her as harshly as Venus handled her son Cupid's beloved Psyche when she came into her power. Desiderius may also find a rival for her in his unfriendly uncle Tatian, who has noticed her first and is unaccustomed to bridle his desires.

Beyond this amorous complication Desiderius will presumably be involved in some outward struggle, whether through trouble within the city ('change at the Castle') or perhaps more likely some incursion of barbarian warriors. Either way his manhood will be tested, and he will have to put into practice the 'swordsmanship' that he has learnt in the city's gymnasium. (Morris's other male protagonists in the romances are experienced in combat: even Walter, in The Wood beyond the World, though a merchant's son, is 'in a fray a perilous foe', and can rapidly dispose of a lion and a fierce dwarf.) Morris stopped at this early stage of his tale before, for instance, we can see how Desiderius' kindly relation with his father might alter in the context of the son's new affection. Probably this story was left thus undeveloped chiefly because of Morris's many other commitments to his Socialist activities and the Firm, besides his printing and book-collecting, and having other tales in hand. But possibly he was reluctant to continue with a narrative which must initially, like many Victorian novels, be mainly devoted to tensions within a single family or household. (The 'Novel on Blue Paper', his attempt in the 1870s at a present-day story concerned with such conflict, was also left unfinished.) The other romances after 1890 deal chiefly with the adventures of protagonists who have quitted their homes on some quest. Even when in The Roots of the Mountains we are shown a dispute between Face-of-God and his father the alderman over the son's abandoning his long-arranged marriage to the Bride, that is only a subsidiary theme. Here our view may be for some time confined within the walls of Aurelian's house, before any irruption can bear us into a wider field of action.



1.  Desiderius' father's name, Aurelian, was borne by the Emperor who reigned 270--275; his uncle Tatian's comes from a 2nd-century religious author; Ammianus has that of the leading Roman historian of the late 4th century, and the disgraced thrall Pulcheria, that of the sister and regent of the Emperor Theodosius II, reigned 408--450.

2.  Presumably the purple-bordered robe worn by Roman senators.

3.  May Morris, Introductions to the Collected Works of William Morris, ed. Joseph Dunlap, vol. 2, pp. 486, 625.

4.  In the section on 'The Country of the Camisards': cf E. Le R. Ladurie, The Peasants of Languedoc (tr. I 974-6), pp. 66--70.

5.  Letter, 18 Nov. 1892: Collected Letters of William Morris, ed. N. Kelvin, Vol. 3, pp. 469-70.

6.  Cf. ibid. Vol. 11 (l), pp. 179-80, 194.

7.  The Emperor Augustus' Julian dynasty had no known descendants after A.D. 100, successive emperors down to Nero having taken care to eliminate as potential rivals any male kin with Augustus' blood even by female descent. However, Gallic aristocrats often bore the 'gentile' surname ‘Julius' because by Roman custom they took that of the imperial family from which they had received Roman citizenship.

8.  Eunuchs would probably not have been much employed in wealthy Roman households during the early Empire, but were prominent in the emperors’ service by the 4th century.