From the North African coast of Libya via Rome to Britain, Empire’s End offers a thrilling portrayal of life in the Roman empire through the eyes of Camilla, the daughter of the Emperor’s physician. 14-year old Camilla is educated by her father and from a privileged background. She is more used to having slaves than negotiating her way through the rules and expectations of Roman society. The story leaves the reader with a rounded overview of Rome and life at the very end of the empire – Britannia.
Empire’s End is packed full of well-researched details and is a rich source for Key Stage Two or Key Stage Three. With Years Three and Four, the study will need to be supported with pre-reading activities; otherwise, the pupils might struggle with the vocabulary and background knowledge required. The story also makes excellent use of flashbacks, and a less experienced reader might need to be reassured that they won’t understand everything to begin with.
Throughout, the reader is aware of the wealth and power of the Romans. In Camilla’s homeland, the magnificent, imposing arch that Septimius Severus had built at Leptis Magna is described through Camilla’s eyes: ‘As I looked at the sculpture, I could almost hear the roaring cheers of the crowd as they drove through Rome. It looked as if they were driving the chariot right out of the arch, trampling over the heads of everyone below them. Winged spirits of victory soared over their heads, dropping crowns of sacred palm leaves onto them.’ This is a rich starting point for discussing the role of monuments in the history of the empire. Later in Rome, statues and monuments play an equally important role: ‘Marble glared back the sunlight from arches built to honour great men. The straight lines of the inscriptions made me think of sword cuts, slicing down, then slashing up. Columns towered above the bustling, toga-clad officials. Upon each other, like an eagle watching for prey, perched a statue. Gods and emperors seemed to follow us with their painted eyes, their gilded crowns flashing golden in the sun.’
As well as many opportunities for developing knowledge of the Romans, there are plenty of ways to build empathy. On the journey from Rome to Britain, Camilla recalls nearly drowning: ‘After the storm, pieces of our life were laid out across the calm sea. They floated gently, bobbing up and down, silent survivors. It was as if the gods had fought like squabbling toddlers, snatched what they wanted, then tossed the unwanted toys away.’ Her subsequent grief is portrayed poignantly; every sentence and image carefully crafted: ‘The stola was almost all ruined by seawater, but I tore off a piece that rippled like the sea itself. It still smelled of her. I buried my face in it and closed my eyes and tried to imagine that she was there. I felt like Aeneas, trying to hold onto a ghost.’
There are plenty of occasions on which you could lead discussions around migration and leaving one’s homeland for a new life. Later, when settled in Britain, Camilla can appreciate aspects of her new home:
‘His wife, though, was magnificent. Tall, with long grey hair that still glinted golden in some lights, she wore a golden torc around her neck and was every inch a Brigante princess. And she rode. For British women, it turned out, rode horses. The day I saw her galloping across the fields on her strong pony, her hair flying wild in the wind, was the day I thought that maybe there might be something in Britannia I wanted.’
Scholastic has published four Voices stories: Now or Never, Son of the Circus, Diver’s Daughter and Empire’s End. This is an excellent, ground-breaking collection; however, it is Camilla’s story which offers the most opportunities for developing background knowledge and also gives more material for slightly older readers at secondary.
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