S.J.A.Turney's Books & More

Reviews, news and inside the world of books.

Archive for the ‘Writing & Publishing’ Category

Soldiers of Rome

leave a comment »

 

Interviewer: We’re joined today by two stalwarts of Rome. From the first century BC and the days of the glorious Republic, Marcus Falerius Fronto, Legate of the Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh legions and from the fourth century AD and the troublesome times of Late Antiquity, Numerius Vitellius Pavo, Tribunus of the XI Claudia legion.

* * *

Interviewer: So tell me about the places from which you have travelled.

Fronto: Eh? Er… Massilia. Sort of. And Tarraco. I’ve come hotfoot from Massilia, via Tarraco. The campaign season’s over and I’ve managed to slip away from dangerous lunatics and oppressive proconsuls long enough to actually be a father again for half an hour. Didn’t someone say there’d be wine?

Pavo: From Thracia. (frowns when interviewer seems nonplussed). You haven’t heard? The land is like an open grave. The Goths are running riot there: last summer we fought them near Adrianople. Thirty thousand men on either side, and the hairy bastards won the day. They killed Emperor Valens and nearly two-thirds of the Eastern Army. (grips sword hilt) And when I get back there, I’ve got some scores to settle.

Fronto: (laughs) Welcome to my world! (lifts jug of wine from table and swigs) Bastards the lot of them…

Pavo: (charges wine cup to Fronto) Bastard barbarians.

Fronto: (nonplussed) I meant officers. Never mind.

3

Adrianople

Interviewer: Pavo, I hear you fourth century legionaries, especially limitanei, are the weak link of the later imperial army? Not like the all-conquering Republican legions.

Pavo: *Says nothing, gives interviewer burning stare*

Fronto: (chuckles and jabs thumb towards interviewer) And they wear trousers. Some say they don’t even wear armour.

Pavo, head swivelling to Fronto: Have you been listening to that arsehole, Vegetius? The vet who thinks he understands the necessities of war in the Fourth Century? Me and the Claudia lads trekked through the desert once, and in the hostile regions near the Persian frontier – even when it was so hot you could fry an egg on the sand – we’d have our mail and helmets on. Always – iron and shield. Vegetius should have stuck to shoving his hand up cows’ arses.

Fronto: Not like Marius’s Mules. Carrying everything you need, right down to the sudis stakes to make camp for the night. Not me, mind you. A legate has enough weight on his shoulders without that. And look at your sword. What happened to your gladius? That looks like a Gaul’s sword. Long as a German’s dick. Seems to me like you’re compensating for something.

Pavo: Well you’re the one who mentioned it. You should meet my Primus Pilus, Sura; he’s obsessed with the length of his cock too… (chuckles, takes draught of wine for himself)… and the thing is, it’s absolutely miniscule!

Fronto: You’ve been peeking? All a bit Greek for me, that! (Takes another swig of wine)

Caesar

The standard bearer of Caesar’s legions landing in Britannia

Interviewer:  But the way of war changed so much between each of your eras, did it not? Tell me about battle tactics…

Fronto: It’s all about discipline. Doesn’t matter how well armed you are or how clever your tactics. Rome wins the day when they have a general and an army that do not yield and will not break into melee and chase unless specifically instructed to do so. You could take a bunch of papyrus-pushing Aegyptian eunuchs and turn them into a fearful legion if you can instill discipline. Hades, they might even be better. After all, Pullo does spend way too much time playing with his balls. I think in my time we have the edge over Pavo’s lot. We still have Romanitas, albeit backed up with a Spanish sword, Gallic armour, Greek tactics and a Punic navy. But we took the best and made an unstoppable killing machine with it. Pavo’s lot took some close harmony choral stuff as their main influence.

Pavo: So your boys come steaming in, gladius in hand… but our lot are no barbarian rabble who’ll look for ‘glorious’ one-on-one combat. True, our Greek and Latin is sprinkled with Germanic words and phrases, and lots of the men of the ranks are sons of tribesmen, but when we stand together as a legion, we’re like a wall of iron. Have you seen us? Shields interlocked – sometimes two storeys of them – and a maw of spears – break into that if you can! And you’ll hear us long before you see us. The draco standards trill and moan and the barritus, another tribal influence, is a cry that you will hear once and never, ever forget. (stops and tuts at Fronto) Choral harmony indeed. More like Hades unleashed: tens of thousands of us, roaring in a crescendo, swords beating on shields and all manner of sharp pointy things flying out at you from behind our shield wall: lead-weighted darts, slingshot, arrows, javelins. Quadratus even threw a turd at a Gothic reiks once. Hit the bastard right in the mouth. He claims he found it on the ground. I suspect otherwise.

Fronto: Sounds like a phalanx. My forefathers gutted the Greeks when they tried to face us like that and we beat the Helvetii phalanx near Bibracte. A phalanx is not secure. Round the side, spill round the back, tear ’em to shreds!

Pavo: (grins) Then you weren’t paying attention to our cohorts positioned in the woods? The ones waiting to fall on your backs? Ah, of course, you wouldn’t have spotted them: faces and limbs smeared with dirt, bright shields armour left behind – tactically, in case Vegetius gets too excited. Great for surprising an enemy. A vicious bastard of a general by the name of Sebastianus taught me this.

Fronto: Now you’re putting me in mind of the Nervii. Bastards. Alright. I concede the point.

goths

Goths assailing the legions of Late Antiquity

Interviewer:  You both seem to be enjoying the wine. It’s a soldier thing, isn’t it?

Pavo: Numbs the mind. (eyes cup thoughtfully for a moment). My men indulge more than me these days, but still, after a long march or a bruising skirmish, you can’t beat a spicy wine or a foaming beer. Yes, beer. Now the Goths have a lot to answer for… but damn, they make good barley beer. We trade with them when we’re not fighting with them, you see. In the better times it’s all wine and beer, beer and wine.

Fronto: Common ground at last – excellent!… Actually, I’ve tried Gallic beer a number of times. It varies in taste from dirty baby water to armour polish. Never yet found a truly acceptable brew. That being said, I’ve had times when I will swear it is the sweetest nectar ever to pass my lips. But then we’ve all been there. Actually nothing ever will beat a good wine. I always thought I knew good wine, but it turns out I was all about quantity. Let me introduce you to Cathain. He will wean you off beer for life with his wine selections. And this from a land where they drink things that taste like feet.

Pavo: Feet-brew? Now I think we’ve been drinking in the same places – do they serve sweaty-ball bread to go with it? Perhaps a visit to this Cathain would be good.

drunk

We drink like Satyrs…

Interviewer:  What about barrack-life: the soldiers there must be like a family of sorts?

Pavo: No of-sorts about it. I mentioned Sura. He’s my oldest friend in the legion. I trust him with my life. But, by Mithras, he doesn’t half talk out of his arse: winning a pole vaulting competition with his – miniscule – tackle instead of a pole has to be his most absurd claim yet. Still, I look forward to his stories, especially on a long march – anything to raise the spirits. And speaking of people talking out of their arse, there was Quadratus, and his arse was rarely quiet. He was built like an ox, and he smelt like one too. Seriously, three men of his contubernium were admitted to the fort valetudinarium for medical treatment after suffering “a foul fog of Quadratus’ gut-gas” every night. And the ones in neighbouring contubernia rooms were not spared; they had to suffer the sound effects – parp, parp, honk, quack, splatter… all night, every night! He blamed the barley beer. Told you the Goths had a lot to answer for.

Fronto: It would be nice to say I knew what you were talking about. I’m a legate. We have our own tent and a veritable army of slaves to maintain it. ‘Course, I send most of the slaves away and my tent is often full of Galronus snoring or Antonius helping himself to my wine stock. That being the case, I would have to say that despite having lost some of my closest friends over the years – Priscus, Velius, Crispus, Palmatus and so on – my best friend is a man who, strictly speaking, is a barbarian. Galronus of the Remi. Always has my back. And sometimes my sister’s, but that’s a whole different story. It doesn’t matter whether you’re from Pavo’s time or mine, or whether you’re one of his ‘Goths’ or the Carthaginians or the Romans or the Gauls, you learn who your friends are when the iron is unsheathed. Seriously.

Pavo: By the God of the Light, I’ll drink to that.

fort

Roman fortresses are all rather similar

Interviewer:  You are both men of the legions, but what about the states you each serve: Fronto, you fight for the Republic, Pavo, you march under the banner of Empire.

Fronto: (turns to Pavo) So am I right in understanding that you have one man in complete control of Rome? An Emperor, you said.

Pavo: Not at the moment, the emperor is dead, as I said, (eyes Fronto’s cup) less drinking and more listening. But soon, I hope, someone will emerge to take the empty throne and steady the chaos.

Fronto: Isn’t that basically a king? We drove out the kings and instituted a new political system entirely to avoid having a king again.

Pavo: That system failed. Way before my time, but I’ve read the histories. The Republic was a fine thing in theory, but first necessity then greed turned it all back to how it had been. Princeps, augustus, imperator…. yes, they are like kings. Still, a king can be wise or wicked, just as a republic can be strong or weak.

Fronto: In my day we fought tooth and nail to stop that very thing. We drove out Crassus and Marius and their like. With Caesar we reconstituted the true value of the republic.

Pavo: Hmm, you’re from 49 BC, aren’t you? Are you perchance travelling close to the River Rubicon this year?

Fronto: (Taking a large swig of wine) ‘La la la la la… I’m not listening.’

v

Valens

Interviewer:  What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?

Fronto: For me it’s Verginius. Simply: Verginius. Let me tell you a story of a brother who became the worst enemy imaginable…

Pavo: A brother? I watched my only brother, Dexion, die, and shed not a tear. That same day, Gallus – the leader of the Claudia Legion before me – died too. Plenty of tears then. We should talk.

Fronto: (after a long silence) Is there a tavern nearby? We could blow this place. Where are we? Hang on… Wall slogans. Brutus sucks donkey.... This is the Suburra. We’re round the corner from the Laughing Swordsman.

Pavo: Sounds like one of Sura’s nicknames. Well, what are you waiting for? How does it go in Latin again: Nunc est Bibendum – to the tavern!

tavern

The tavern! Image by Dave Slaney from the forthcoming Pirate Legion

Advertisements

Written by SJAT

May 24, 2017 at 5:59 pm

Ruth Downie on the journey to Rome

with 4 comments

I am fortunate indeed today to play host to a guest post by the marvellous Ruth Downie as part of her Blog Tour, celebrating the release of her latest masterpiece ‘Vita Brevis’. As you may be aware, I’m currently reviewing the whole series of Ruth’s books, which will continue this week with Semper Fidelis, followed by Tabula Rasa and then the new book. But that can all wait for now while I let Ruth inform and entertain you in her own words. Over to you, Ruth…

9781620409589

 

Travelling to Rome – the long way

Medicus, the first book in the series that features legionary medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla, has this printed at the front:

O diva…

serves iturum Caesarem

in ultimos orbis Britannos.

Which roughly means,

Oh Goddess…

safeguard Caesar as he sets off

for the remotest regions of the Earth—Britain.

(Horace)

Most of the stories in the series are set in those “remotest regions:” the Wild West of the Roman empire.

“Are Ruso and Tilla going to Rome?” the editor would ask from time to time, and I would keep very quiet. Anything was better than admitting, “I don’t dare, because other writers do Rome so well.” Besides, there was plenty to write about here.

What drives the first half-dozen books is the tension between Roman and Briton, occupier and occupied—all the clashes, compromises and misunderstandings that ensue when foreign boots land on native soil. All, in some way, connected to the attempts of Ruso and Tilla to forge a life together.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We come in peace…

Even in times of relative peace, there was plenty of drama going on in Roman Britain without me having to make it up. The sale of people into the sex trade isn’t new – it’s something Hadrian tried to restrict. The use of religion to whip up violence goes back at least as far as the Druids.  The connection between power and greed comes out in a hundred subtle ways: the official traveller who bullies the innkeeper into giving him a horse he isn’t entitled to; the tax collector who demands that payments in wheat be delivered so far away that it’s impossible to avoid paying him exorbitant fees to transport them; the town councillor who tries to vote for a contract knowing one of his relatives will rake in the profit that follows. Then there’s the casual violence of soldier on civilian, and the use of false measures, loaded dice and fake coinage, some of which is on display in the British Museum.

Add in the splendid locations on offer—Chester, York, Verulamium, Hadrian’s Wall, Roman London and a brief trip to the South of France so Tilla could shock Ruso’s family—and there didn’t seem much reason to send anyone to Italy. Besides, how would the story work without the Roman-vs-Briton tension?  I’d already painted myself into enough of a corner by giving them a baby to look after.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ah, the family pile…

But… there are stories you can tell in cities that don’t work as well in a rural society. Stories about slum landlords with horrible agents (at last, revenge for that gruesome student flat!). Stories about arriving as an immigrant and an outsider. Stories about vast buildings that reach up to trap the sky. Stories about watching your fellow-countrymen offered up for auction in a slave market. In a city of a million people it’s quite possible that an abandoned body could remain anonymous, whereas in Britannia it’s hard not to believe that somebody would know somebody else who knew the dead person’s cousin. And then there’s Pliny’s assertion that doctors are “sharks using medical practice to prey on people” and that “only a doctor can kill a man with impunity.”

wp_20140804_054-2

There’s no shortage of material. So when Ruso’s former commanding officer invited him back to Rome at the end of book six, it felt as though it was time to take the plunge. Never mind what other writers had done. Rome was a massive city, and there would be plenty for Ruso and Tilla to get their teeth into in “Vita Brevis”. Provided, of course, they could find a babysitter.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ruth-downie-author-photo-may-2014-credit-steve-nuth

Ruth Downie is the author of the New York Times bestselling Medicus, as well as Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, and Tabula Rasa. She is married with two sons and lives in Devon.

Follow her at ruthdownie.com and on Twitter @ruthsdownie.

9781620409589

 

Vita BREVIS

A Gaius Ruso Mystery

By Ruth Downie

22nd September 2016
hardback – £16.99

Bringing both the majesty and depravity of ancient Rome to life, Ruth Downie concocts a delicious mix of crime novel, mystery, and history lesson in the latest novel in her bestselling Medicus series, VITA BREVIS.

 “Downie writes with her usual humor and depth . . . Perfect for fans of the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis, this entertaining New York Times best-selling series and its endearing characters deserve as long a run” —Booklist

“A deftly crafted and consistently compelling read from beginning to end, ‘Vita Brevis’ clearly establishes author Ruth Downie as a consummate and accomplished master of historical crime fiction” —Midwest Book Review

*****

Ruso and Tilla’s excitement at arriving in Rome with their baby daughter is soon dulled by their discovery that the grand facades of polished marble mask an underworld of corrupt landlords and vermin-infested tenements.

Ruso finds that his predecessor Doctor Kleitos has fled, leaving a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep with the warning, ‘Be careful who you trust’. Distracted, Ruso makes a grave mistake, causing him to question his own competence and integrity.

With Ruso’s reputation under threat, he and Tilla must protect their small family by tracking down the vanished doctor – and discovering the truth behind the man in the barrel.

VITA BREVIS is brimming with humor, clever plot twists, and evocative historical details, as Ruth Downie follows her beloved characters in their next adventure.

 *****

And check out the next stop on her blog tour: A Fantastical Librarian

vitabrevis_blogtourdocsmaller

Praetorian: The Price of Treason

leave a comment »

HiResPraetorian2ArtworkFrontCover

An empire controlled by an evil powermonger. An elite fighting force clad in white. A small band of rebel heroes racing to bring freedom and truth to the empire… sound familiar?

No, not Star Wars. But while you’re standing in the queue today, eager to see Kylo Ren, you can order Praetorian: The Price of Treason online  for £2.49 on Kindle or £8.99 in paperback.

396 pages of intrigue and danger in the Rome of the emperor Commodus. Good Praetorians, bad Praetorians, weird prefects, vengeful sailors, ambitious legates, defiant senators, wicked politicians, Rufinus, and a dog…

Yes, Rufinus is back.

Two years have passed since the emperor’s loyal Praetorian guardsman Gnaeus Marcius Rustius Rufinus foiled Lucilla’s great assassination plot. Plagued by the ghosts of his past, Rufinus has enacted his own form of justice upon the praetorian cavalrymen who murdered the imperial agent Dis two years earlier.

But the Fates will not let Rufinus rest. Rome is beginning to seethe with rumour and conspiracy as Perennis, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, and Cleander, the imperial chamberlain, continue to play their ‘great game.’

With the tide of opinion turning against their commander, Rufinus and his friends embark upon a mission to save the Prefect’s family, only to uncover a plot that runs deep… to the very heart of the empire. Armed with rare and dangerous evidence, Rufinus faces insurmountable odds in an attempt to bring the truth to light. To save his prefect. To save Rome. To save everyone he cares about.

You can buy it here

Merry Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Winter to everyone.

Si

Written by SJAT

December 17, 2015 at 11:27 am

Of Greece and Rome and heroes galore

with 3 comments

It’s always a thrill when you have a new project on the horizon. I always have at least one new project on the horizon, mind, so it’s a thrill I get daily. But every now and then something happens that really grabs a writer by the ears, grins into his face and whispers ‘this is the best thing ever.’ I am engaged in an ongoing collaboration with Gordon Doherty that is creating a wonderful tale. And soon the collaboration I took part in with 6 other great authors to tell the tale of Boudica’s revolt will be released (A Year Of Ravens). That was a project that swept me up in the glory of it all.

A Year of Ravens Cover

Something new and superb is now on my horizon, and although we’re still in the very earliest stages, I think I and my fellow conspirator are just too enthused about the idea to hold our peace. It’s like trying to hold in a belly laugh.

I write about Rome. Oh yes, I’ve dabbled with fantasy and with medieval, but even they were heavily flavoured with Rome. Between the projects I’ve released and those already written but waiting to be unleashed upon the world, I’ve covered the late Republic (58-50 BC) with Marius’ Mules. I’ve hit the late Antonine era (180-190 AD) with Praetorian. Two as yet unreleased projects cover 122 AD and the end of the 3rd century AD. And I’ve dabbled in Byzantine and have plans to cover the 8th century with that soon. One thing I’ve never done is to go back to the salad days of Rome, during the height of the Republic, before the rot set in and one man ruled as first among equals. It’s not because it doesn’t interest me. Indeed, it does, and quite a lot. It’s because it’s far less familiar ground for me, so I’ve skirted around it thus far.

The_Death_of_Paulus_Aemilius_at_the_Battle_of_Cannae

But one thing that does really interest me is the cultural situation in the mid Republic, when Rome is busy fighting Carthage, and yet Rome owes much of her culture and most of her military style to the Greek nations and to the Etruscans. This is an era when Rome is separate from Greece, a city-state expanding rapidly into an empire, but when, if you put a Hellenistic commander from Achaea and a Roman commander side by side, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell which was which until they opened their mouths. There is a world of Rome that is not the legions stomping around in lorica segmentata, founding fortresses and Romanizing the barbarian. There is a world of Rome where Carthage is still a player in the Mediterranean world that Rome must take into account, where the former Hellenistic empires of the east are crumbling and decaying but are still making waves and producing formidable folk.

Thus was born the idea for two people to work in concert to tell two tales that were really one story, one from the world of the Roman and another from the land of the Greek. The very idea that the same time and the same events could be seen through the different eyes of two of the world’s most important and influential cultures is just riveting to me. The concept was a raw thing at that point. I nice idea, but still just the skeleton of an idea. It took a conversation with one of the greats of Historical Fiction to take that skeleton and turn it into a grand, magnificent beast.

800px-Roman-Empire_200bc_sm

Christian Cameron, author of such excellent tomes as the Long War series, the Tyrant series and God of War (as well as many non-Greek novels!) has become a good friend of mine over recent years, sharing a passion for the ancient world – even if our eras of interest differ – as well as a belief in the value of re-enactment in unpicking the truth of history.

Christian writes Greek tales. Not Roman. Greek. I write Roman tales. Not Greek. Roman. But in that odd world where both cultures are still viable and are influencing one another in the politics of the Mediterranean, well, our interests collide.

And Christian had the muscle and flesh to put on the bones of the idea.

Philopoemen, considered to be the ‘Last Greek hero’ was a fascinating figure and to be honest, until Christian drew my attention to him, he was but a name to me. And one of his contemporaries – his greatest contemporary most would say – was the Graecophile Roman general Titus Flamininus. Plutarch wrote of the pair in his ‘lives’. The two men lived very different lives at the end of the 3rd century BC and the start of the 2nd but, despite that, they meet several times and their careers run parallel for a while as both friends and adversaries, navigating the complex politics of the Greek world and Roman interference therein. As soon as Christian had thrown me the names, I was hooked and I knew it had to be done. One great Greek and one great Roman, living at the same time, fighting in the same wars? How could any writer pass up the opportunity to tell that tale.

p1 p2

And so that is what we propose to do. Late next year, Christian will novelise the life and trials of the last great Greek, while I tell the tale of his contemporary, sometime friend and sometime enemy Flamininus. The books will weave in and out, telling two different tales of one sequence of events, but will often collide, with both novels sharing scenes where the two characters meet. It’s a daunting prospect, but a damned exciting one.

Time for me then to explore a new world before the influence of the late Republic and to delve into a world that is as much Greek as Roman, and as much Punic as either.

I for one can’t wait to start. And because this idea has not been sold yet, please do tell us if you like the concept.

You can read what Christian has to say (and as usual it’s fascinating and informative) HERE

(All images except ‘Ravens’ cover courtesy of Wikimedia commons)

Written by SJAT

October 19, 2015 at 2:00 pm

A Year Of Ravens

leave a comment »

A Year of Ravens Cover

Coming 17th November:

Britannia: land of mist and magic clinging to the western edge of the Roman Empire. A red-haired queen named Boudica led her people in a desperate rebellion against the might of Rome, an epic struggle destined to consume heroes and cowards, young and old, Roman and Briton . . . and these are their stories.

A calculating queen foresees the fires of rebellion in a king’s death.

A neglected slave girl seizes her own courage as Boudica calls for war.

An idealistic tribune finds manhood in a brutal baptism of blood and slaughter.

A death-haunted Druid challenges the gods themselves to ensure victory for his people.

A conflicted young warrior finds himself torn between loyalties to tribe and to Rome.

An old champion struggles for everlasting glory in the final battle against the legions.

A pair of fiery princesses fight to salvage the pieces of their mother’s dream as the ravens circle.

A novel in seven parts, overlapping stories of warriors and peacemakers, queens and slaves, Romans and Britons who cross paths during Boudica’s epic rebellion. But who will survive to see the dawn of a new Britannia, and who will fall to feed the ravens?

* * * *

This is one great story told in seven separate tales by some of the best writers in the business. I’ve read all the tales myself and you’re in for a treat.

The book is now up for pre-order. You can get is at:

Amazon.com here, Amazon uk here, iTunes here, Barnes & Noble here, and Kobo here

Just over a month to go, folks.

🙂

Writing about history–and trying to live it, too

leave a comment »

Excellent short video by the superb Christian Cameron here. Give it a watch and learn something, folks. 🙂

With Pen and Sword

I thought I’d try a different media.  This video was made by my friend Allan Joyner of Allan Joyner Productions.  The music is by Schola Magdalena .  The thoughts are almost entirely my own.

And by the way, I’m all to aware of the many inaccuracies the camera catches, despite all of our best efforts.  Reenacting is always, at best, a compromise.  But there’s a lot we can learn from it, anyway.

View original post

Written by SJAT

May 26, 2015 at 8:57 pm

The value of experience

with 5 comments

me

For those who don’t know, as well as reviewing book and writing historical fiction, one of my other hobbies is kitting myself up as a late 1st century legionary and reenacting with the 20th legion at Chester. I would heartily recommend such a pastime to anyone interested in the era. The kit’s not cheap to assemble, of course, but many units will have spare kit that you can borrow while putting together your own, and some manufacture their own. And it’s a hobby that most folk could cope with. I myself am almost extraordinarily unfit and slightly portly, and yet this past weekend I marched 10 miles in the kit seen above with my legionary brothers to raise money for the Park In The Past project. It’s great fun, it’s fascinating, and there is a level of camaraderie you’ll find in few other hobbies.

But do you know what? It’s also extremely educational. One aspect of reenactment is regularly termed ‘experimental archaeology, and for very good reason. Reenactment is the only way to even attempt to understand what it was to BE those characters about whom we write. I know a number of my peers also march in kit, or take part in civil war battles, involve themselves with living history and so on. It is possible to be truly knowledgeable without doing something like this, but to actually experience something of the life is to add life to the knowledge. I have discussed the matter at length with the superb Christian Cameron, whose works are very human and personal, and who reenacts ancient Greek, medieval and also Revolutionary War eras!

legion

The thing is: for those of us writing in the ancient world, and particularly in the Roman era, on which I am focusing here, the documentary and visual evidence leaves huge gaps. Rome is one of the few distant worlds which has left us a wealth of sculpture, painting, written texts and buried artefacts that help us understand their world. And yet despite this, there are holes in our understanding. Here are some examples:

Military clothing. We know that legionaries wore tunics from the Republican era right through to the late empire. But even at the height of the Principate when we have the best records, there are few notable reference to the tunic’s colour (I’m not including the late empire here, as it’s a different beast entirely.) Wall paintings from Pompeii and an Etruscan tomb suggest red tunics, as do some vague references, but there is no direct text to support that. Other sources show legionaries in white or undyed tunics. It is my personal belief that only officers wore the red and that undyed was the standard for legionaries. This is largely the work of logic, since the cost of purchasing and importing red dye to dye between two and perhaps five garments for each man of a five-thousand strong legion seems unrealistic to me. Yet some reenactors will point to their white tunics and the russet stains left by wearing armour in bad weather and will use that as evidence for the need for red tunics. Some (I marched alongside two this weekend) wear blue tunics, just to outline the fact that no one knows for sure. The unit I serve with allows a wide variety of colours and fabrics, so long as there is a common element, in the belief that since legions were based long-term in a region, they would take to using whatever local sources and dyes were commonly available and cheap. This is another very reasonable assumption. The answer to the colour question might never be known, but by trial and error we can start to understand the potential of the answers.

Footwear. It is a general common understanding that Roman soldiers wore Caligae (the strapped sandal-like military boots) everywhere. More recently a wealth of evidence has begun to appear to suggest that closed boots were a lot more common that previously believed. And believe a reenactor when they tell you that boots are much more practical and sensible in damp conditions, and therefore it has to be believed that the Romans wore mostly enclosed boots in more adverse environments. Many of the men I marched with this weekend own both types of footwear, but the weekend was generally a damp one, and the number of caligae in evidence compared to boots was extremely small. Experience overturning theory. That is the value of reenactment.

boots

Tweaks. Legionaries are shown carrying their shields on their backs in numerous depictions. And yet there is little evidence as to how that actually worked. This is one aspect in which reenactment is a prime source of information. For instance, the way I carried my shield (above) was comfortable throughout the march, and yet if we had been attacked by slavering barbarians somewhere outside Lower Kinnerton, I would have been dead long before I’d struggled with the buckles and got the shield on my arm. So there goes that theory. Len Morgan of the 14th showed me his shield strap, and things fell into place, for his was carried over one shoulder, not the neck, with a second strap around the chest. The result? Unbuckle under one armpit and the shield was already on his arm. That quick. Trial and error. The reenactor has potentially solved how this was done. Some shields’ grips within the boss are so restrictive and tight that manoeuvering with them comfortably shreds the back of the hand. It would have been near impossible for a legionary to have functioned with my shield, until I took a leaf from a friend’s rulebook and rebuilt the grip. Now it is comfy and I can throw it around as required:

shield

There are so many other things. How were men arranged in the testudo? Think about the aspect of height! A shorter man between two taller ones will result in a hole in the defence. I discovered this last year at an event when I was hit in the face with a thrown missile. So a testudo should, for preference, be organised by height, so that when called, every man knows his place and there are no gaps. How do you stop a helmet bouncing around when it’s hanging down your front during a march? Simple: you tuck the cheek guards around the baldric of your sword. I never knew that until this weekend, but it makes so much sense.

helm

The list goes on. I could spend all day telling you just the things I learned this last weekend, let along over the past year or two.

And that’s where it becomes more than a hobby for a writer. It becomes research, pure and simple. I’ll freely admit that in my earlier work there were mistakes and assumptions. I cannot go back and correct such assumptions at this stage, but I can try and avoid any and all such issues with every new book. Consequently, there is a wealth of detail in my more recent books that has come directly from first-hand experience with the 20th Valeria Victrix. Without that experience, I would have missed out on some gems of knowledge and colour, and a few directly-related events. There is little that prepares you to write about the difficulties of stomping up a hill laden with gear than doing it.

The effect of several contubernia of men chanting while marching under a bridge or tunnel has to be heard to be believed!

Oh and the weight of a good Celtic torc came as something of a surprise too! And as for wearing the jangling willies…. 😉

torc

The value of reenactment and living history in writing. Ask Christian Cameron, Robert Low, Caroline Lawrence and others. I guarantee they will all have taken value from their experience and put it into their work.

Now to take my experiences of the post-march booze-up and apply it to Fronto’s experiences in the wine trade.

Written by SJAT

May 5, 2015 at 11:03 am