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Vengeance – Chapter One

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Good morning from Casa Turney on this fine isolated locked-down day. As you may (or may not) know, during this troubled time, a bunch of authors (see the above banner and Twitter #AuthorsWithoutBorders) have been writing brand new serialised stories daily on our Facebook pages. Well, we’ve reached the end of week one, and many of us are now pulling together an omnibus of the week’s storytelling. Here, then, is my own Roman tale, week 1. If you want to continue reading, the next section will be up here on Monday and they will continue again until Friday, when I shall post week 2 here on the blog.

So without further ado…

Vengeance

The icy wind whipped across the pass like Hekate’s breath, ripping the air from the lungs with its chilly blast and carrying flakes of the day’s snowfall, which had not so much stopped for the night as paused to regroup. The grey peak of Mons Mortus hung over the fort like a pre-payday bar bill, glowering and bringing unhappiness to all who saw it. And seeing it was hard not to do, the way it loomed so against a sky so grey that, were it not for the snow, it would be hard to tell where rock stopped and heavens begun.

The middle-aged, po-faced shape of Optio Aelius Valens paused at the rampart’s southeast corner to pull his blade from its sheath, grunting with difficulty as it stuck momentarily. It was not that he needed it now, mind, but in weather of this temperature you had to keep easing the blade out every now and then, else when you did need it it would undoubtedly be stuck fast. The wind howled mercilessly across the wall top, making him shiver uncontrollably. It never ceased to amaze him that no matter how many winters you passed up here, you never got used to that wind.

‘Any activity?’ he hissed, then clamped his mouth shut, toothache already threatening.

Rubellius, his enormous muscular arms nearer blue than pink, turned a face mostly covered with frost-rimed beard to his officer, and clenched his teeth for a moment to stop them chattering before he spoke.

‘Not much. The blacksmith’s been out gathering fuel for his fire, but no one else. No movement. No one would be stupid enough to be out in this, unless it was for the senate and the people of Rome, I suppose, sir.’

Valens snorted. He’d never seen Rome, any more than anyone else in the Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians. In fact, since he’d signed up at Salona he’d seen nothing but the empire’s very periphery. And it didn’t get much more peripheral than Mediobogdum.

The fort sat on a spur of land, overlooking a deep green valley that marched off down to the sea at the edge of the world, and under a peak that towered over a pass connecting the coast to the lead mining region between here and Galava. Twenty years ago, when the fort had been built it had been important, a full garrison post that had supported a growing civilian settlement. Five hundred soldiers, with half as many hangers-on clustered outside the walls. Then the new emperor, Antoninus, had moved the border of Britannia north, and any hint of importance had been torn from Mediobogdum, all the province’s military focus shifted to this new wall of the emperor’s.

The installation on the spur had become little more than a ghost fortress. Most of the cohort had been transferred back across the sea, just one century left for a year or two as a skeleton garrison, half the men up here under Valens, half down at Glannoventa down on the coast under the centurion. The remit: look after the pass. Nothing more.

Valens looked up at the snow-clogged nightmare crossing. As if any arsehole was going to try that in winter…

The optio sighed as he leaned on the wall top beside the big soldier, the futility of it all weighing down on him almost as heavily as the mountain above. ‘It’s ridiculous… garrisoning a fort like this, I mean. As if there are likely to be any lead convoys to protect these days. And half a dozen misfit civilians languishing in that shit-hole of a rundown vicus outside too, while everyone else has left.’ He turned to the soldier, lines of irritation carved deep in his veteran features. ‘And it’s especially pointless in weather like this. We’ve got so much barrack space going spare you could quarter the whole valley inside the walls and there are thirty four of us. I’ve half a mind to invite the civilians into the fort.’

Rubellius snorted. ‘Living up here you’ll be lucky to hold on to even half a mind for long.’

‘Less of that lip, soldier,’ Valens responded, though with no real conviction. The man was right, after all. It would be easy to go crazy wintering here in near isolation. ‘Tomorrow morning, I’m going to bring them inside.’

‘The centurion’ll tear you a second arsehole if you do, sir.’

‘The centurion’s ten miles away and thirty shits that he doesn’t give away from here, and he doesn’t give a rat’s arse what we do. If he cared, he’d have checked on us at least  once since the snowfalls started.’

Slapping a hand on the big man’s shoulder, the optio turned away from the view over the silent vicus and the snow-clogged road up to the pass. Wandering back along the wall walk, he passed the east gate and made for the northern corner of the fort, where a turret stood on a rocky hump, the highest point around the entire circuit. As he walked, Valens cursed, his foot coming down badly on a patch of ice that sent him skittering in an ungainly manner until he thumped into the parapet, winding himself and bruising his arm.

A quick glance ahead as he righted himself revealed the figure of the soldier on guard up there – a short, narrow man who oozed slyness and dishonesty like a rat in an oiled snakeskin. Pollio. The optio wasn’t sure he was ready for a conversation with the rodent-like soldier right now and, shrugging off the pain in his arm from the wall, he turned instead to the stairs down to the fort interior. It was only as he placed his first foot on the top step and realised he was going to have to negotiate this carefully that he became aware of a distant voice. Glancing this way and that to identify its source, he spotted Pollio waving at him, calling him over.

It looked as though the optio was not to be spared the little man’s rabid wit after all. Stepping back onto the wall walk, Valens hurried along, climbing towards that turret at the north corner and gripping the parapet for stability on the icy surface. With some difficulty he reached the doorway and stepped inside the tower, making the most of the temporary shelter from the wind, then climbed the stairs to the turret top.

The rat-like soldier was almost vibrating with urgency as Valens stepped out into a fresh blast of bitter cold. The optio frowned. Few things got the man so excitable, except perhaps when the dice came up well and he managed to fleece his tent mates out of their silver. Valens hurried over.

‘What’s got into you? Hole in your crotch letting in draft in?’

‘You won’t piggin’ believe this, boss,’ the little man said, and thrust out a calloused finger to the north.

Valens followed the gesture, his gaze crossing the parapet, the steep hillside that fell away into the deep valley and then back up the stark, white-clad hillside beyond. It took him moments to see the small but distinct shapes of three figures half-walking, half-tumbling down the slope in the direction of the fort.

‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,’ Valens said, staring out into the bleakness.

Hurrying along the wall, Valens kept his gaze locked on the figures across the valley. Throwing a finger back up at the tower, he bellowed into the wind.

‘Pollio, sound the alarm.’

By the time he’d reached the northwest gate, the diminutive soldier back up on the tower was doing a passable impression of a musician by honking tunelessly into a horn with a result that sounded like a cow being slowly crushed to death. A bell, Valens thought irritably, we need a bell that he can’t ruin.

At the gate, the soldier on guard was no more welcome a sight than Pollio had been. Vibius Cestius was unsettling to say the least. He been a new recruit last year, one of a swathe that had somewhat bucked the age requirements. Probably fifteen summers old, and looking it, he had the style and mode of speech of a middle-aged world-weary orator, and hair as white as the snow in spite of his black eyebrows. He always seemed to be looking through Valens as if seeing something important behind him,but it was his eyes that really creeped the optio out. Like mismatched gems, glittering in dark caverns.

‘Cestius,’ he called, ‘get that gate open, just one door. We’ve got visitors.’

At the alarm, men were now falling out of barrack doorways, mostly complaining about the din, but all strapping on sword belts, tying helmet straps or shouldering shields. Valens stood atop the gate on the wall walk, and peered out into the white. Almost as if on cue, a flake of snow large enough that it ought to have its own name settled on his nose. Damn it, but the next deluge was coming any moment.

It was impossible to tell anything about the three figures he could see across the valley. It looked like either one man running from two more, or three men competing to get to the gate first, but whatever the case there was a distinct urgency to it. Valens watched them slide down a steep section and then begin to pound as swiftly as they could through the knee deep snow. They were still little more than black shapes against the white.

Friend or foe? A question as old as time, and one upon which safety and peril danced together. Should he let them it and then interrogate them, or hold them at the gate? There were only three of them, and the weather was worsening. Still, the centurion would keep the gate closed until he knew everything. That decided Valens more than anything. He was going to let them in.

Behind him, soldiers were falling into line across the road close to the gate, chain shirts still rumpled and out of shape, shields disordered, some with helmets and some just in felt hats, only half of them with scarves and maybe a third with cloaks. They were a fucking shambles and he loved them for it, because no matter what they looked like, they were mad and dangerous bastards to a man.

‘Three men incoming. They all come in through the gate, but no one gets any further without getting punctured, got me?’

‘They run for it, we stick ‘em. Got it boss,’ one of the lads grunted.

‘Looks like one native, two soldiers,’ Cestius murmured.

Valens peered out into the white. They still looked like three black stickmen to him. ‘How in Hades can you tell?’

‘Man out front is wearing furs and running. Other two gleam. Bronze helmets and chain shirts.’

‘You heard the freak,’ Valens shouted. ‘Brace yourself for a panicky native and two soldiers.’

Valens stood in the gate and watched the three approaching figures, aware of the shuffling of people behind him as the men of his half century prepared themselves for the unknown. He squinted out into the white as the moments passed, making out what he could of the three figures as they reached the bottom of the valley.

Though there was no real reason for it, what he really wanted was to be able to prove Cestius the weird bastard wrong, but as they approached, it became clearer and clearer that the lead figure was dressed more or less like a native hunter, while the men following on were dressed very much like the soldiers of the fort’s garrison.

‘Trouble comes in threes,’ Cestius murmured, glaring into the white.

‘What?’ Valens was becoming irritated with the young soldier now.

‘Trust me. Give them bread and cheese and send them on down to Glannoventa, sir.’

‘Let’s just see what they have to say, soldier.’

They waited. As the three figures staggered and scrambled up the steep slope towards them, snowflakes increasing in number with every heartbeat and all driven at gale force, horizontally, Valens watched them and made out more and more detail.

The lead character could easily be a native, but for one thing: as they came closer, Valens became increasingly convinced that the man was wearing a good old-fashioned soldier’s tunic. That made it all the more curious that he appeared to be either being chased or escorted by two men wearing auxiliary uniforms. The optio chewed his lip. In truth, it might be prudent just to send them on down to the centurion ten miles down the valley. Gah, but he wanted to know what was behind this too much, though.

The figures hurried up the slope and Valens, a moment of unaccustomed common sense creeping in, gestured for Cestius and another soldier to close in with pila levelled. No point in taking chances, after all.

The lead runner struggled up into the gateway, coming to a halt in front of the two pila points.

‘In the name of the army of the emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Pius, I seek shelter here from the men chasing me.’

Valens narrowed his eyes at the man. The runner had a short, military haircut, gone wild like most soldiers of a Britannic winter, and a beard that could just as easily be Roman as Briton these days. Blood soaked several areas of his furs and tunic, though he exhibited no other sign of injury. The optio was trying to decide what to say as the two soldiers behind the man slid to a halt. Ignoring the danger of facing the pila of Valens’ men, one of the pair immediately threw himself at the first runner, sword out, tip touching jugular as the man grimaced. The other spread his hands, addressing Valens.

‘This man is a deserter from the Second Raetorum at Alauna Brigantium.’ Even as he spoke, his friend produced a noose of rope as if from nowhere and slipped it around the lead man’s arms, pulling it tight and dragging his wrists together, drawing a grunt of pain.

Valens frowned at the man. ‘You don’t seem to be resisting them. Is this true?’

The deserter shrugged. ‘Depends on your definitions I suppose.’

He snorted in distress as his captor kicked him in the back of the knee, dropping him to the ground, where he looked up at the optio. ‘Give me the nod and I’ll send these fuckers to Hades and be out of your hair.’

Valens sighed. Yup. He should have turned them away even before they spoke.

‘You,’ Valens said, pointing at the man kneeling in the snow and glowering at his captors, ‘stand up.’ He turned to the men of his unit. ‘Get him to the capsarius for a check over. Don’t loose his bonds, though.’

As his men hurried forward to take the deserter, the two men who had chased him in lurched forward, ready to grab him, but Valens stepped forward, growling like a feral dog. ‘You two, hands off. You touch him before I get to the bottom of this and you’ll be leaving here a few teeth short.’

The pair looked at one another, and the men at the rear stepped forward. ‘Mind your tongue, soldier, when you speak to a superior.’

‘My arse.’

The man snarled. ‘Optio Secundus, Third Century, Second Raetian Cohort.’

Valens gave the man his most infuriating grin. ‘Piss off, Secundus. Optio Aelius Valens, Third Century, Fourth Dalmatian Cohort.’

The man’s eyes narrowed. ‘You’ve no optio’s crest or staff.’

‘Neither have you, knobhead.’

‘How long in service?’

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Valens smiled. ‘I’m not acknowledging any seniority from you for a sake of months in. This is my fort, not yours, so you follow my orders. Got it?’

Secundus glowered but, seeing the bristling anger among the men in the street and knowing he’d lost, gave a single nod.

‘Good,’ Valens snapped. ‘Now you and your donkey here follow me.’

As the two new arrivals stomped after him through the snow, Vibius Cestius closed the gate behind them. The lines of men separated for Valens to pass through, and then closed just enough to make it uncomfortable for the two new arrivals to squeeze past. Valens led them between the barrack blocks to the building used as a hospital by the unit’s medic. As they opened the door, a waft of warm stench rolled out over them. A combination of garlic, old socks and some kind of unguent that curled the nose hairs, Valens was used to it, though the look on the faces behind him was priceless.

Inside, Fulvius, the medic, was looking the blood-soaked fugitive over, lifting furs gingerly and examining the tunic and then the flesh beneath. ‘None of this is yours,’ he pronounced irritably in the end, stepping back.

‘No.’

‘Then whose is it?’ Valens asked, approaching.

‘A combination of a few locals and my men,’ snapped Secundus behind him.

‘Oh?’ Valens turned. ‘He killed soldiers?’

‘That’s why he’s out here. He killed our centurion and ran from Alauna. The bastard needed taking down so much that I was sent out with a contubernium into the blizzard to bring him in. We’ve been tracking him since yesterday morning.’

‘And the blood?’

‘We found him hiding in a native settlement.’

‘And?’ Valens was starting to get annoyed now.

‘And the bastard took down six of my men before he escaped again.’

‘Lies,’ the fugitive said. ‘The villagers killed four of them. I only killed two.’

Valens turned to the man, an eyebrow raised. ‘You don’t deny that? Or the centurion I take it?’

‘Centurion deserved it. Any right-thinker would have put a blade in him. The other two were regrettable, but if it’s me or them, then it’s them.’

Valens huffed and turned back to the two soldiers behind him. Go outside and ask for Lancarius. He can cook passably, and even make a rat edible. You need food and warmth. I’ll be along shortly. I need to talk to your prisoner.’

‘He’ll run,’ Secundus snapped. ‘He’s dangerous.’

‘I don’t doubt it, but there’s half a century in this fort.’

‘I’ll stay.’

‘No you won’t. Go eat and warm up. That’s an order, Optio Secundus.

The man’s lip wrinkled, but with an expression of vile distaste, he turned and left. As the two men departed and the door closed, Valens fixed his gaze on the man and gestured to the medic beside him. ‘This is Fulvius. He’s a passable medic, but a damn fine butcher and he’s got things in his kit that make a gladius look like a spongia. You and I are going to have a chat, and you’re going to tell me the truth, or I let Fulvius play.’

‘I think you might want to leave chit-chat to later,’ the fugitive smiled nastily.

‘Oh? Why?’

‘Because the tidal wave of shit coming your way will drown you all if you don’t run.’

Written by SJAT

March 27, 2020 at 8:55 am

Isolation Freebie

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Hello world.

While my life generally involves locking myself away in my home office and forgetting the outside world exists anyway, suddenly a large sector of society is suffering isolation. Hopefully you’ve all got the supplies you need to see you through and you’re not suffering. Keeping yourself busy and your spirits up at times like this is important, and so feel free to click on the links below to download my collection of short stories for free in several formats. Stay safe and stay well, people.

Tales of Ancient Rome (PDF copy)

Tales of Ancient Rome (Epub Copy)

Tales of Ancient Rome (Kindle Copy)

Written by SJAT

March 17, 2020 at 10:51 am

Posted in Short Story

Spatha by M. C. Bishop

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I’m going to guess that anyone who knows my work or reads this blog is pretty conversant with military history, and therefore probably knows of Osprey Publishing’s renown in that field. I am the owner of scores of their books ranging from the days of ancient Greece to the Renaissance war galley, though more than half of them are on the subject of Rome and Byzantium. I love my Osprey books, and while I laud them above most military history works, even I can admit that they vary a little in quality. Some are a little assumptive and bold, others more technical and trustworthy. All are good, but from the point of view of a historical researcher one has to be aware of such things. So that’s Osprey. Leaders in their field.

Mike (M. C., which I know makes him sound like a DJ) Bishop is a name I count as a go-to for all things Roman military. Along with John Coulson, he is the preeminent authority on Roman military equipment, having studied it for decades, been involved in the archaeology that has brought some of it to light, written up the excavation reports for some of the most important of Roman military sites, and been a leading light in Roman military circles for some time. His is one of at most half a dozen names that I trust implicitly when I read their work, whether it be on military equipment or a guide to walking Hadrian’s Wall (also his excellent work.)

So when Bishop signed on to do a few ‘weapon’ books for Osprey, I knew these would be up there with the best of their titles. Pilum and Gladius I already have, and have reviewed. Now, he has turned his considerable talent to informing us about the Roman longsword, the spatha.

Spatha is a book that contains everything you need to know about the weapon. There is no need to consult another source. From the archaeological discoveries, largely based on ‘bog finds’ in Northern Europe, Bishop gives us immense detail of the form, composition, design, distribution, use and value of the weapon. Backing this up with accounts from sources such as the Historia Augusta, Arrian and Tacitus, every angle is explored. I consider myself knowledgeable about the subject from years of study, and yet I learned a number of things from reading this work, not least about the development of the ‘semispatha’ as a compromise between the long slashing weapon and the short stabbing weapon, often formed from re-pointing broken spathas.

From the development of the weapon based upon the original Spanish Sword, to the influence the blade would have on following centuries of cultures right to the late Viking era, Bishop provides a detailed narrative that attempts to fill in the gaps in the historical record with source-based logic, never even leaning towards assumptions without giving caveats and explanations, and identifies a number of unexpected aspects that cannot be denied.

Complete with wonderful illustrations from reconstructive paintings, through photographs of artefacts, to technical line drawings, this is the only book you’ll ever need on the subject and joins its peers as one of my go-to texts for research when writing Roman novels.

Written by SJAT

February 21, 2020 at 8:30 pm

Finding Agricola – a review of texts (pt 2)

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And I’m back with another 4 ancient Rome texts I’ve been using to research Gnaeus Julius Agricola. My first example is

With my Agricola research, I’ve looked at the effects of his civil governance, largely through Hertfordshire and Chester, and his early campaigns against Boudicca and in Wales. But the prime evidence of Agricola is the northern campaigns, and that starts in Yorkshire, more or less with the fortress of Eboracum. As such this book was a given, because York is also my local legionary fortress and a favourite haunt.

The author is a curator of the Yorkshire Museum, and it is this fact that largely informs the book. After an initial foray into the reasons Roman York exits, its founding, its form and its archaeological history, the majority of the book covers both the Legionary fortress and the civilian settlement in terms of subject. One at a time, he covers religion, burial, art, architecture, and so on. Each subject is built up for the reader and displayed in terms of finds in the museum’s collection.

In truth, the coverage of Agricolan activity was minimal and nothing I could not have taken from another book, but as a guide to Roman York, or even as a basic text on the Roman world, it has much to offer. The images are fabulous, there are a few gem-like nuggets of info in particular, and the whole thing is well presented and authoritative.

Anyone with an interest in military history is surely aware of the books of Osprey publishing. Most of their titles are excellent, and this is, in fact, one of the best. Where Simon Forder’s book (previous review) proposes, based upon camps, a site for the final battle against the Caledonii not far from Perth, this book centres on the more traditional assumption of Bennachie.

The book covers the Roman frontier north of Hadrian’s Wall from their first arrival in the region to the end of the Severan era. Fully half the book is devoted to the Agricolan campaigns and to the Gask Ridge system, both of which are pertinent to me, and both are covered in detail and with a good deal of authority. Indeed, the rest of the book which covers the Antonine era and the Antonine Wall is also very good, if less pertinent for me at the moment.

As with all Osprey books, this is a good historical book, yet an easy read. Accurate and still light, accompanied by illustrations and maps galore. One of their best.

I’ve had this book for a long time and used it in many circumstances. Though now more than 40 years old (like myself!) it remains a solid and respectable text, and few writers could hope to better it. In truth I’ve never read it cover to cover. This remains one of my textbooks I dip in and out of for specific details.

In this case, I was studying the civic centre of early Verulamium at Saint Albans, which has supplied one of only two pieces of epigraphic evidence for Agricola’s governorship. In truth, I learned far more about the specific subject than I expected, the level of research, deep into the archaeology, exceeds what I needed, but that is Wacher’s book. It is no gleaming starter for new students, but a detailed and archaeologically informed work.

In essence I have yet to find a book on the subject that matches Wacher, whether you are looking for a more wide-spread study of the nature of Roman towns or their development, or specific treatments of individual towns to street and building level.

This is one of my most prized, go-to texts on the subject. Wooliscroft and Hoffman are the preeminent academics on the subject of the Gask Ridge frontier system, and their in-depth knowledge of Roman Scotland is hard to match. Indeed, they run the Roman Gask Project, which is revealing more of the system every year. Moreover, this book focuses only on the Flavian era, which makes the whole thing pertinent to my research.

The book is divided into two parts, with the first being the archaeology of the sites which the authors can put forth largely from personal knowledge, divided into regional groups of like sites. The second is an interpretation of this and the conclusions that can be drawn from it.

I will state at the outset that this book is not for everyone. Whereas Roman York will appeal to the beginner, and the Osprey book to most, and Wacher moves more into the wordy and academic, this book is one of the best available, but with its level of archaeological basis it might be a little dry and detailed for anyone who is not thoroughly invested in the subject,

So there we go. Four more books in my research pile. There are many more to go, so look out for a third review at some point.

Written by SJAT

October 21, 2019 at 12:42 pm

Finding Agricola – a review of texts (pt 1)

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You may or may not know that I am currently departing from the world of fiction briefly to pen a non-fiction work on the life and career of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, ‘The man who conquered Britain’. As such, I have probably read more texts on the subject than any other I have covered in my life. Seriously, the research pile might rival Trajan’s column. And having worked through many books, I am forming opinions of them as I go. Since currently I rarely seem to have time to read fiction, and my book reviews have taken a major back seat, I thought to myself ‘why not review the books I am reading, then?’ So I am. There have been many, but due to time constraints I’m going to look at them four at a time. So if you have an interest in the formation of Roman Britain and you want to know what to read, here’s part one of my review/guide to the subject:

Alright, I hear you. Agricola was in the 80s, along with bands like the Cure, while Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t built until the 120s. I make it my job to acquire all books on subjects that fascinate me, and I pick up HW books at a rate of knots. This one, being written by the most excellent Pat Southern, I could hardly miss. Her books are uniformly great. And having flicked through it I realised that there was a section in the early part on ‘Before the wall’ that delved nicely into Agricola’s time. And unlike many other books out there which have a chapter or less on the man in relation to another subject, this book was pretty sharp, in depth and challenging on our fave general. In fact, it contributed more nuggets of info to my notes than some books that are more or less centred on him. So this book is already a win, just on ‘before the wall’.

Books on the wall tend to fall into categories. ‘What it was like’, ‘What it’s like now’, archaeological treatises and suchlike. And there are many books. What Southern has done here, which was nice, is to cut across all the current literature and produce a nice one-piece book that explores almost every aspect of the wall’s history, purpose, archaeology, life and so on. Never does is dip too deeply into academia (and I have read texts that try to make analysis of pot-sherds in Agricolan Scotland sound like The Dirty Dozen and fail dismally, so steering clear of ‘too-dry’ is to be commended.) But equally it does not gloss over, or miss out. It is, in effect, just deep enough that the scholar will still find something that makes them ponder and question and say ‘ooh, I didn’t know that’, while the amateur enthusiast will not become bogged down in archaeological detail. It’s a lovely read and highly recommended.

For me, of all the texts I’ve used, this one presents me with the most problems, because there is something nagging that I didn’t like about it, but other than that it is one of my favourite books on Roman Britain. As such, I recommend it, but will provide a caveat. This book follows the history of Roman Britain chronologically, attacking each ‘era’ as a chapter, from initial Roman contact to the withdrawal and beyond. And it is really well written. I mean you could read this purely for leisure and consider it a win.

The up? Other than readability? It is fairly wide-ranging and probes well into each era and subject, providing a great deal of material (and I concentrated on Agricola, of course). It is written with occasional touches of dry humour, a lot of reference to sources and clearly a great deal of academia behind each revelation. What it does do, unfortunately, in my opinion, is occasionally make leaps in judgement. It has a tendency on occasion to state as fact something that might well be argued against, and I find that a little naughty in a textbook. It is what put me off getting more than partway through Dando-Collins’s book on the legions. But if you can either ignore such occasional points, or are happy with blissful ignorance of them, this book still has a great deal to offer and is eminently readable. Recommended, with said caveat.

To some extent this book irked me greatly, because it recently came out and covers half of what I was planning with my own manuscript. Damn the man! But then at least the angle for this book is different. The book focuses on Agricola’s great battle and the evidence that surrounds it, examining everything from geography to contemporary accounts. It covers my subject thoroughly, but from that fairly focused point of view, while my own work will be a broader subject, concentrating on Agricola more than the critical part he played in Scotland. In his own words, he has gone beyond Agricola for there is more to the subject that the man himself, while I will be doing in some ways the opposite.

Forder has done his research well, as I can attest, having done much of it myself. I now kick myself that I didn’t read this first, which might well have cut out a whole chunk of my required research. It is presented not chronologically, as a story, but more by subject, as Forder delves into what he concludes and why he does so, leading to his endgame. His reference to archaeological and historical evidence is excellent, and the book, while perhaps not having the easy readability of the previous tome, is much more accurate and laudable. Buy this book, but buy it now so that your wallet is full again when my Agricola comes out!

This book I bought on a bit of a tangent. In planning my own book, I knew I needed to revisit many sites of Agricolan interest in Scotland, and to visit some I’d never been to. This book had just come out. It is my third gazetteer-like tome of Roman sites in Scotland, but the prettiest! I’ll say from the outset that it’s also my favourite.

A listing by geographical region and then by a-z of all Roman sites in Scotland, it covers everything from the impressively visible to the ‘vanished under a housing estate’. That’s both wonderful and occasionally frustrating, but on balance I’d rather have EVERYTHING than miss something. Each site is looked at with brief history, what is known of the archaeology, its current status, and even maps. It is therefore probably the very best source for anyone wanting to visit Roman Scotland.

My only niggle with the book is that on occasion one of the sites will not be quite in-depth enough for me. In fairness, I think that’s my problem and not Tibbs’s. I am looking for a great deal of info on certain sites about which there is little interesting to write, and no guide like this could realistically be expected to cover what I want. So the upshot is this: this is the best book on the subject. It’s beautiful, informative, and eminently usable. Go buy it.

So that’s part one of my review on Agricolan books. Hope it’s of interest and use. Back soon with part two.

Book News

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So the big book news, I think, is that the 12th installment of the Marius’ Mules series – Sands of Egypt – is released today…

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Winter, 48 BC. Caesar and his small force are trapped in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Caught up in the dynastic struggles of the House of Ptolemy, the consul has sided with the clever and ruthless Queen Cleopatra. Her brother and fellow monarch Ptolemy XIII languishes in the palace, a hostage of Caesar’s, while a huge army under the command of the Egyptian general Achillas closes on the city to free him.

With both the future of this ancient land and the safety of Caesar and his men at stake, Fronto and his friends face the terrible task of holding an unfamiliar city under siege, in the desperate hope that reinforcements will reach them before the enemy break in.

But Egyptian reinforcements gather too, and with the interference of the youngest princess, Arsinoë, the future is far from written. Trapped, besieged and outnumbered, time is running out for the Romans, as shadows loom across the sands of Egypt.

The book is available from Amazon here in paperback and kindle format, here on Google Books, here on Kobo, here on iBooks, here on Nook, and here for any other digital need.

But because I’m a little bit prolific, and one book to throw your way seems too little, how’s about I draw you to this too, which is now out in kindle format, with paperback to follow:

Rubicon

You like Roman fiction? This is for you. A collection of short stories from some of the very best Roman writers, including both myself and my partner in crime Gordon Doherty. And for my part, you Praetorian fans, the story is one of our friend Rufinus, set between the last book (Lions of Rome) and the next (The Cleansing Fire)

You can buy it on Kindle at the moment right here and here’s the blurb:

“Greater than the sum of its parts… Rubicon has something for everyone: action, humour and historical insight.” Michael Arnold

Ten acclaimed authors. Ten gripping stories.

Immerse yourself in Ancient Rome through a collection of thrilling narratives, featuring soldiers, statesmen and spies. Read about some of your favourite characters from established series, or be introduced to new writers in the genre. The stories in Rubicon are, like Rome, diverse and intriguing – involving savage battles, espionage, political intrigue and the lives of ordinary – and extraordinary – Romans, such as Ovid, Marcus Agrippa and a young Julius Caesar.

This brand new collection, brought to you by the Historical Writers’ Association, also includes interviews with each author. Find out more about their writing processes and what attracts them to the Roman world. View Ancient Rome through fresh eyes. Rubicon is a feast of moreish tales and a must read for all fans of historical fiction.

Authors & Stories Featured in Rubicon:

  • Nick Brown – Maker of Gold
  • Gordon Doherty – Eagles in the Desert
  • Ruth Downie – Alter Ego
  • Richard Foreman – A Brief Affair
  • Alison Morton – Mystery of Victory
  • Anthony Riches – The Invitation
  • Antonia Senior – Exiles
  • Peter Tonkin – The Roman
  • L.J. Trafford – The Wedding
  • S.J. Turney – The Praetorian

Praise for Rubicon:

“Rubicon is a declaration of intent to intrigue, inspire and entertain. For me, this collection of stories extols the camaraderie that exists amongst the historical fiction bother and sisterhood. It perfectly encapsulates a shared passion for the subject of Rome in all its abundance and varied manifestations, taking the reader on a guided tour through the familiar and the strange. Leading us wide-eyed through a genre which has never lost its lustre. 
This is the fiction equivalent of a box of chocolates, a celebration of diverse Rome stories drawing upon all the riches of that most extraordinary and enduring of civilisations. It is a treasure trove of tales, showcasing a wealth of talent.
I have been entertained by authors whose work I know and love, and I’ve discovered new voices too, writers whom I look forward to getting to know better. Indeed, if the purpose of this collection is to delight, distract and to whet the reader’s appetite, leaving us eager for more, it is a resounding success.
Rubicon is a rare treat which I thoroughly enjoyed. I don’t know what the official collective noun for Roman short stories is, but in this case I think it’s a triumph.” Giles Kristian.

And I tell you what, folks… the news doesn’t end there! Here’s some lovely little titbits that I KNOW some of you have been waiting for:

  • I have signed the contract for the audio versions of Praetorian: Lions of Rome, as well as for book 5, as yet unwritten. Book 4 is already in production and will be out soon, so more on that in due course.
  • I’ve also signed a deal with the interactive audio guide company Bardeum, which produces immersive audio tales that guide you round historical sites. Next year you’ll be able to lose yourself in one of my tales as you walk the hill of the Palatine in Rome.
  • I’ve just completed the contract for the release of both Caligula and Commodus in the United States. Yes, the Damned Emperors will soon be available in the US too!
  • And currently, three of the four Praetorian books are available on kindle in the UK for the bargain price of 99p. That means you can own the whole set for less than £5.50. Now’s the time to get them (which you can do here)

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  • Next year you’ll be able to read my first non-fiction work, a book on the great Roman general Agricola, through Amberley publishing. The man who made Roman Britain is a figure of fascination for me. It’s also, believe it or not, the first time I’ve written a book about the Romans in my own country!

And that’s book news for today. Hope that’s enough for you, folks.

Simon.

New books!

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Grab your wallet/purse and make space on your bookshelves. Here are some recent and upcoming books you won’t want to miss:

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Well, I have to start with my own, don’t I. Commodus is released next Thursday (13th June). The second book of the Damned Emperors series is published by Orion and will be released in hardback, audio and ebook format that day.

“Rome is enjoying a period of stability and prosperity. The Empire’s borders are growing, and there are two sons in the imperial succession for the first time in Rome’s history. But all is not as it appears. Cracks are beginning to show. Two decades of war have taken their toll, and there are whispers of a sickness in the East. The Empire stands on the brink of true disaster, an age of gold giving way to one of iron and rust, a time of reason and strength sliding into hunger and pain.

The decline may yet be halted, though. One man tries to hold the fracturing empire together. To Rome, he is their emperor, their Hercules, their Commodus.

But Commodus is breaking up himself, and when the darkness grips, only one woman can hold him together. To Rome she was nothing. The plaything of the emperor. To Commodus, she was everything. She was Marcia.”

Pre-order Commodus here

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And my good friend and partner in crime Gordon Doherty has the first book of his new epic series Empires of Bronze out on that very same day. Son of Ishtar rolls out in paperback and ebook format on Thursday 13th of June. I’ve read it, too. It’s ace.

“Four sons. One throne. A world on the precipice.

1315 BC: Tensions soar between the great powers of the Late Bronze Age. The Hittites stand toe-to-toe with Egypt, Assyria and Mycenaean Ahhiyawa, and war seems inevitable. More, the fierce Kaskan tribes – age-old enemies of the Hittites – amass at the northern borders.

When Prince Hattu is born, it should be a rare joyous moment for all the Hittite people. But when the Goddess Ishtar comes to King Mursili in a dream, she warns that the boy is no blessing, telling of a dark future where he will stain Mursili’s throne with blood and bring destruction upon the world.

Thus, Hattu endures a solitary boyhood in the shadow of his siblings, spurned by his father and shunned by the Hittite people. But when the Kaskans invade, Hattu is drawn into the fray. It is a savage journey in which he strives to show his worth and valour. Yet with his every step, the shadow of Ishtar’s prophecy darkens…”

Pre-order Son of Ishtar here

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Another friend and comrade, Alex Gough, has just seen his first book in a new series released too. Book 1 of the Imperial Assassin series, The Emperor’s Sword, was released by Canelo yesterday, the 6th June in ebook format thus far. Once again, I had the chance to read this before release and lovers of Roman military fiction will really enjoy this.

“A desolate wasteland. A mission gone wrong. An impossible goal. A gripping new series of Ancient Rome

Roman scout Silus is deep behind enemy lines in Caledonia. As he spies on a raiding party, he is abruptly discovered by an enemy chief and his son.

Mounting a one man ambush, everything quickly goes wrong. Silus must run for his life, the head of the enemy leader in his hands. Little does he know the price he will pay…

As Silus is inducted into the Arcani, an elite faction of assassins and spies, he must return to Caledonia, back into the wilderness, and risk everything in the service of his Caesar. The odds don’t look good.

Failure is not an option.”

Buy the book here

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I would say that if you’re a historical fiction reader and you haven’t come across Ruth Downie’s Ruso books, then you must have been hiding in a cave for the past decade. While we wait for book 9 in the series, Ruth has treated us to a 150 page novella, which will be release in paperback and ebook format on July 9th.

“It’s AD 123 and the sun is shining on southern Gaul. Ex-military medic Ruso and his British wife Tilla are back after a long absence – but it’s not the reunion anyone had hoped for.

Ruso’s brother has left him in charge of a farm he has no idea how to manage, a chronic debt problem and a gaggle of accident-prone small children. Meanwhile his sister Flora has run away to rescue her boyfriend, who’s accused of murdering a wealthy guest at a party.

Can Ruso and Tilla save the boyfriend from the murder charge – or should they be saving Flora from the boyfriend? Will any of the guests tell the truth about the fatal party before it’s too late? And meanwhile, how long can Ruso continue to lie about what’s inside the bath house?”

Pre-order the book here

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And last but not least, fans of Robert Low will probably have already read his fab recent Roman epic ‘Beasts beyond the wall’. Well the second book in the series, The Red Serpent, is out on July 5th.

“At the edge of the empire, the hunters become the hunted…
They’re back – Drust, Kag, Ugo, Sib and some new faces – as dirt-ridden and downbeat as ever.

Drawn to the edge of the Roman world and the blasted deserts of the Syrian frontier, they are presented with a mysterious riddle from their old companions, Dog and Manius. In the scorching heat, plots and rumours breed like flies on a corpse.

To survive, Drust and the others must face all challengers along with Mother Nature’s rage. Sometimes they’ll stand and fight; sometimes they’ll run as fast as they can and pray to the Gods. For it is a mad and violent world, and they must be equal to it…”

Pre-order it here