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

Reviews, news and inside the world of books.

Posts Tagged ‘legion

The Hunt – Chapter 1

leave a comment »

(A RETURN TO LOCKDOWN STORIES BEGAN THIS WEEK, AND WE’RE BACK WITH TWO CHARACTERS FROM VENGEANCE, WITH NEW EPISODES EVERY WEEKDAY AND THIS COMPILATION EVERY WEEKEND. ENJOY.)

Valens shook the rain from his cloak as he stepped into the room behind Rigonorix, the warm glow of a golden fire welcoming after the torrential downpour that seemed to be the standard fare of the border regions.

The tavern held the usual collection of motley occupants they had seen in every dive north and east, ever since Derventio: a few off-duty auxiliaries, usually the worse for drink, a whore or two, each with a face like the back end of a cart ox, some fathead who was looking for men to fleece with dice, and half a dozen locals who hated everyone indiscriminately, but were far too sensible to do anything about it. A volley of unfriendly glares struck them as they stood in the doorway, a puddle growing around their feet.

‘Oh look, sell-swords,’ grunted a man in a chain shirt and a russet tunic by the door, his tone indicating a Hispanic origin.

‘Oh, look,’ Rigonorix replied calmly, ‘broken nose.’

Valens’s companion’s arm moved so fast that by the time he looked up, the warrior was walking on again unconcerned, leaving the soldier swearing and grunting, blood pouring down his face. As the soldier reeled, clutching his nose, and two others from his unit shot up from their table, chairs scraping back across the flagstones and cups of beer spilling across the rough-hewn boards, Valens sighed and held up his hands.

‘Despite appearances, we don’t want trouble. My friend here just doesn’t take criticism very well.’

The bloody-faced soldier lurched towards him, one hand going to the hilt of the long-sword at his side that marked him out as a cavalryman. Moving with a speed that surprised even him, Valens was suddenly in the man’s face, his boot pressing down on the bridge of the man’s foot agonisingly as his right hand shot out and grasped the man’s own, pressing down and keeping the blade in the sheath.

The soldier made angry, somewhat nasally-challenged noises, but Valens reached down with his left hand, fretting at the pouch on his belt, and with some difficulty produced a silver coin which he lifted slowly until it was before the man’s eyes, which went crossed trying to focus on it.

‘The very essence of negotiation, my Asturian friend. Take the coin in reparation for the nose and try not to say anything stupid until we leave and then I won’t have to explain to your superior officer why you were found lying in the mud with a boot wedged so far up your rectum you could lick it from the inside. Do we have an understanding?’

Perhaps it was something in Valens’s expression that made the man nod sourly and back down, though Valens didn’t think so. In lifting the left arm with the coin, his sleeve had fallen back, displaying the network of horrifying scars and puckered flesh marks that decorated his skin like a relief map of the Alpes. May the gods bless that miracle healer in Dervetio, he’d managed to save the arm, though there was clearly some permanent damage for Valens could only feel things as a sort of dull sensation, and he had to concentrate and push himself to do anything as complex as grip and lift a coin. Still, it was better than a charred stump. Visually, though, it left a great deal to be desired.

As Valens left the man with a last raised finger of warning against action, Rigonorix climbed onto a table at the centre of the bar.

‘Alright, you sour and ugly bunch, I want to know the whereabouts of one Aulus Pacunius, and the first person to give me anything useful gets enough coin to see him through the month.’

A dour and uncomfortable silence greeted Rigonorix’s announcement. The two men stood for a moment, one on the table, hands spread, circling slowly and encouraging the crowd, the other padding quietly through the room and keeping a wary eye on the occupants.

‘Pacunius the Corinthian?’ a hoarse voice called from near the fire. The two men looked over to the table there where a hooded figure sat, toying with an earthenware cup. Rigonorix dropped from the table and paced over to him as Valens, with a last look at the uppity soldier, moved to join him, well aware that Rigonorix could be unpredictable at the best of times.

‘You know him?’

‘Why do you want to meet Pacunius?’

‘Because there’s nobody north of Coria hiring for a job that pays more than a clipped as unless they’re recommended by the Corinthian. That’s why. You know him?’

The man at the table slowly pulled his hood back. He was pale and bearded, with a number of visible scars. A warrior, perhaps for Rome, perhaps against. He levelled a cold stare at the two men as Valens moved to stand next to his friend. ‘You come with… recommendations?’

‘Hatra at Luguvalium put us onto him.’

The man’s eyes narrowed for a moment, and there was a distinct drop in the temperature of the room. Valens found himself holding his breath and fought to keep a normal composure. A lot rode on this. Hatra had been in prison at Luguvalium when they’d dragged the Corinthian’s name from him. If that was already common knowledge then there could be a problem. Rigonorix slipped him a warning look. The Carvetian soldier had clearly noticed his uneasiness, which meant that perhaps the hooded man had too. Valens steadied himself.

Luguvalium, western end of the wall of Hadrian, was where they had picked up the job. The praepositus in command of supplies had been desperate enough to offer very good money, and Rigonorix had agreed before Valens had had a chance to consider the matter. It was seemingly simple: there was a bandit at work in the north, with considerable tribal backing, who had been picking off caravans, small military depots and the like, but had been increasing in boldness and aims recently. The two mercenaries stood to make a healthy remuneration if they could identify, and preferably stop, the bandit. Rigonorix had displayed something of his darker side in knowing immediately how to play the game. He’d taken the coin and agreed the deal, then pulled Valens into a doorway once they left the room. ‘All crime in the warzone is facilitated by maybe half a dozen slimy bastards, and there happens to be one in prison here in Luguvalium. A few well placed threats and offers and we could open a path straight to this bandit and make easy money.’

And so they had, though the money was looking increasingly less easy. Halfway along the old wall and halfway up the road to the new, they had reached Bremenium, a fort so remote that even the shitters were given spy holes so you could watch for native attacks while you crapped. Somewhere here, a former merchant-turned-‘facilitator’ had set up, and word was that if you wanted anything unofficial in the warzone, you asked Pacunius the Corinthian.

‘Sort out the troublesome fuck,’ muttered Rigonorix, sweeping up a mug and dropping it into Valens’s hand as the Carvetian stepped over to the hooded man. Valens turned to see the man who’d insulted them as they entered stomping towards them, hand on his sword again as blood continued to pour down his face. Valens sighed. Clearly this was destined to go sour.

Bracing, he flung the mug, striking the angry soldier directly on his broken nose and eliciting a shriek of pain as the man dropped to the floor clutching his face and howling.

‘Can we hurry this up, Rigonorix?’

The mood in the tavern was starting to look distinctly ugly. Far from having the desired effect of cowing the occupants, the two blows they had delivered the auxiliary at the door had instead spread a sense of anger and hatred among them, especially the other solders, who each had a hand on their weapon hilts now as they looked to one another, each waiting for another to make the first move. In response, his eyes continually on the soldiers, Valens backed over to Rigonorix, who was speaking in low tones to the hooded man.

‘If we don’t leave soon, we’re going to be facing three to one odds. And that’s before their friends hear the ruckus and come to investigate.’

Rigonorix snorted and turned to look over his shoulder. ‘When did you start having a problem facing crippling odds? Remember where we met?’

Valens simply grunted as the other two began to talk again. Twitching, he looked to the table of auxiliaries, who were resolved now and beginning to move, albeit slowly and warily, remembering the trouble their companion had suffered.

‘He was beaten because he insulted us,’ Valens said calmly. ‘All’s fair. Don’t start anything you’re not prepared to finish.’ And then, under his breath and over his shoulder: ‘are we done?’

Rigonorix was suddenly spinning round, grinning like a maniac. ‘I have everything I want, except the face of a Lingonian auxiliary on the sole of my foot.’

Valens shot the man a look loaded with incredulity. ‘What the shit are you doing?’

‘Come on, they were going to jump us the moment we got outside anyway. At least in here we fight in the warm. Come on, you Gallic pricks.’

With a roar, five men rose from the table and ran for them. Two were drawing swords, though the other three, incensed as they were, remained sensible enough to make fists with their hands and then come on unarmed. Anger was one thing. Being arrested by your unit for killing a civilian in a bar brawl was another. Indeed, one of the other two thought better of his chances as he ran, and returned his sword to his sheath.

Valens wished he’d brought his shield in with him rather than leaving it on the horse. His left arm was still not functioning at anywhere near full strength and mobility, but strapping a shield to it made it useful in a fight. He couldn’t kill any of these men. The local authorities would take a civilian murdering a soldier no better than the other way around. Resigned to fighting Rigonorix’s latest scuffle, he simply left his sword sheathed and pulled the whole thing, baldric included, over his head, brandishing it still in its leather scabbard. The enemy were limited by the space between tables and only two of them could approach at a time, which helped. As the lead pair came in Valens neatly twisted, letting the man’s intended punch fly through open air, and then smacked him around the back of the head with his sheathed sword hard enough to put him down. Before he turned to face the next figure, he just saw Rigonorix deal with the sword wielder, smacking the blade from his hand with a stool before smashing the same seat into his face.

‘Fun,’ laughed the Carvetian. Valens rolled his eyes. ‘I hate you, you know that?’

As Rigonorix set about the next man with his stool, Valens ducked a very professional right hook and smacked his sheathed sword across the second soldier’s shins, enough to bruise and cause damage, though not quite enough to break them. As his victim howled and fell, the fifth man stepped towards them, slowing, increasingly uncertain of his position in the absence of all his allies. Valens narrowed his eyes and turned to look at his companion. Rigonorix gave him a grin. ‘Last to drop him buys the beer for a month.’

‘Idiot.’

And yet as the soldier struggled to get out of the way of this pair of lunatics, Valens found that he was not entirely willing to let Rigonorix win, no matter how stupid the whole thing might be. As the Carvetian brought the stool up over his head ready for a downward strike, Valens weighed up his chances, shrugged, and smacked his friend on the back of the head with his sheathed sword. Rigonorix pitched forwards with a surprised squawk, stool clattering off to the side out of his grip, and as he floundered, the former optio leapt forwards. The Gallic auxiliary was backing away now. Valens grinned. They’d have ended the fight inside with the last man, but he had to stop the soldier getting outside to call for help. His roving eyes fell on the stool, which had bounced free, and he stooped to collect it. The soldier turned to run, and Valens was impressed at his turn of speed. The man made it halfway to the door before the stool smashed into the back of his head, sending him pitching over a table and into the corner of the room.

An obliging local kicked the door shut, more to keep the rain and cold out than to help, yet the effect was the same. Rigonorix stood carefully, rubbing his knees and hissing.

‘You tricky little bastard.’

‘You snooze, you lose. Next beers are on you, but for now we need to get out of here before this place is filled by Lingonii auxiliaries looking for a piece of us. Are you sure you got what we need?’

Rigonorix spun, looking back towards the fireplace. The hooded figure was gone. ‘Pretty sure.’

‘Come on, then.’

The two men barrelled out of the bar past the innkeeper, who was watching them with tense disapproval. The rear door led to a wide room with three exits, but a cold draft was coming from the middle one, along with the faint smell of horse manure, so they made their way through that. Outside, a stable square was slowly filling with unspeakable murk in the rain. A young slave with a face that spoke of half a decade of damp servitude was busy shovelling shit into a corner. Rigonorix and Valens ducked past him towards the open gate into the street, though the former optio found himself using his good hand to fish out another coin and flip it to the boy as they passed. Valens might be a grizzled old bastard with the sense of humour of a three day corpse, but his origins were sufficiently humble that he hated to see youth wasted so, and a single coin to the right figure was more meaningful than a king’s ransom to a rich bastard.

‘Where now?’

‘Edge of town. Big house near the circular tomb.’

The house was not hard to find, but then the Bremenium vicus was hardly a sprawling metropolis. In fact, it was little bigger than Mediobogdum, and that one had been an icy shit-hole clinging to the side of a mountain the middle of nowhere, while this was on the main route north. The entire region was a world of bogs, tufts of grass, bogs, scree slopes and bogs, the fort and its vicus crammed into one of the drier areas on raised ground. The buildings were of stone and timber, with tiles that looked to have been knocked off from a military supply, probably from Concangis or Vinovia. As the street they followed down the slope to the west from the inn gradually petered out to nothing, neither man could fail to be impressed with the large structure with the terraced gardens that rose above the river, pleasantly upstream of the baths.

It came as no surprise as they left the edge of the civil settlement and approached the palatial residence to see that the gate was guarded by two men. They bore a weird mix of Roman and Votadini in their look, in that their hair, beards and clothes were of native style, yet their armour and weapons had come from some Roman source. Looted or bartered from some dubious quartermaster, Valens wondered? The two men strolled through the constant drizzle up to the gate, where the guards moved to block their way, one of them taking the lead and holding up a hand.

‘Woyya wan?’

‘Charming,’ Valens smiled coldly through the rain. ‘We’re here to see the Corinthian.’

‘People come. People go,’ said the other in slightly better Latin and with a shrug.

‘Believe me,  Pacunius  is going to want to see us. We’ve come from Luguvalium, from Hatra.’

Rigonorix leaned in front of him. ‘Squinty in the village sent us.’

The two guards shared a look and then nodded and stepped back, opening the gate. A shambling hunchback waved at them from the path inside, then lurched back through the rain towards the main house, beckoning for them to follow. Valens cast a sidelong glance at his companion as they followed on and the gates were closed behind them.

‘Let me do the talking.’

‘I’m better at this sort of thing.’

‘No,’ Valens said patiently. ‘This is a delicate situation and doesn’t call for your particular brand of jumping in with both feet and a battle cry.’

Rigonorix said nothing, but his smile worried Valens. They passed two more half-Romanised guards at the door of the villa proper, where the hunchback passed them off to a tall and well-dressed local with a nose like a stork, down which he looked at them as though he’d just scraped them off the sole of his shoe. The man gave them a curt nod, beckoned, and then wandered off through what probably passed for an Atrium among the Votadini, and then through a small courtyard. A golden glow issued from a doorway into the failing afternoon light, and as they reached it, the stork-like servant stepped just inside and cleared his throat.

‘Two visitors, sir, who cited the factor at Luguvalium.’

Valens found himself wondering how the man knew that when nothing had been said since the taciturn idiots at the main gate, but then it was the job of a man like the Corinthian to be well-informed. At some unheard and unseen signal, the servant nodded and stepped aside, gesturing for them to enter. Valens took the lead, walking into a well-appointed office with maps of the region hanging on the wall, and a series of cabinets around the edge. At the desk sat a man, heavily-built and with the look of a Roman rather than a local, his tunic of a particularly fine cut. His beard was neatly trimmed and as he looked up there was a keen intelligence in his eyes. He was alone, but Valens couldn’t help but note a line of four weighted throwing knives on the desk near his hand, and a small bell near the other. Any attack would not last long, he suspected.

‘Pacunius the Corinthian, I presume,’ he said in a polite but neutral tone, and suddenly Rigonorix was at his shoulder, pushing past with a grin.

‘Numerius, you tricky shitbag. I should have known it was you,’ the Carvetian laughed.

Valens closed his eyes and counted to ten.

***

THAT’S IT FOR THIS WEEK, BUT IF YOU WANT TO CATCH UP ON THE ORIGINAL STORY FROM LAST YEAR’S LOCKDOWN, IT’S OUT NOW IN EBOOK AND PAPERBACK, AND ALL PROCEEDS FROM SALES GO TO THE BLOOD CANCER CHARITY MYELOMA UK. GET IT HERE AND HELP RAISE FUNDS. OVER £700 RAISED SO FAR, SO WELL DONE, FOLKS!

Written by SJAT

January 9, 2021 at 11:58 am

Spatha by M. C. Bishop

leave a comment »

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

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

Written by SJAT

May 24, 2017 at 5:59 pm

Rome’s ballistic missile

leave a comment »

Image result for mike bishop pilum

Whether you’re a reenactor or a historian or a writer or reader of Roman history, you will have come across this weapon. Along with the gladius, it is the staple of the Roman soldier. In fact, given the varied evolutionary form of Roman swords, the pilum might be the ONLY staple.

Prepare to have your horizons broadened once more. I thought I knew quite a lot about the pilum. I was, of course, wrong. I suspect Mike Bishop counts ancient Roman military facts to fall asleep at night. By the time he moved into long trousers, he was already more knowledgeable than I will ever be.

Osprey produce some of the very best works of military history. Bishop produces the best in Roman text books. The combination is always going to be good, as was proved in his earlier outing with the gladius in the same series.

Image result for m.c. bishop

This book opens by shattering the common myths of the weapon. The book moves through the disputed origin of this most infamous weapon, into its development and the many changes it underwent during the great length of Roman military power. Even relatively unexplored aspects such as the ‘throwing strap’ are dealt with – and this is something I only came across a year or two ago in my research.

The section on the pilum’s construction and manufacture is detailed enough that the reader (if he was more competent than I, anyway) could go away and make a pretty good example.

Other sections cover the methods of usage throughout Roman military history, maintenance, ownership, transportation and more. Notably, he even explores the end of the weapon’s usage, its successors and influence, but also the limitations and failures of the weapon.

Image result for pilum

Not only is the text enlivened throughout with excellent illustrations, many by the author, but is also explained and clarified with tables of appropriate details from excavations and ancient sources

One thing that always stands out for me with Bishop’s work is how clearly it is the most explored and reasoned of studious texts. Constantly Bishop compares archaeological evidence with a wealth of primary historical sources, which is as far as many historians get. But Bishop also compares the work of reenactors and utilises common sense and logic to answer questions that none of these sources could do on their own. As such, I trust his judgement on Roman military equipment above all others.

And as a final note, the section of the throwing of the weapon makes it look so easy. I’ve done it. It isn’t!

Anyway, if you like your Roman history or your military/weapon books, this is a cracking tome. I like my Osprey books, but this is one of the best, and one to which I will repeatedly turn while writing my novels.

Go get it.

Bishop

Written by SJAT

May 24, 2017 at 9:30 am

Hunting The Eagles

leave a comment »

51mvlhpts8l-_sx324_bo1204203200_

It’s been a year or two since I last journeyed with Tullus and his companions in Eagles At War. And in some way, I feel that has improved my approach to the book rather than having launched into it on its release, because as this story opens 5 years have passed since the dreadful massacre in the Teutoborg forest where 3 legions were obliterated, a few straggling survivors limping back beaten and dejected to Roman lands.

Tullus is determined to revenge himself in Arminius and the Germans who destroyed his legion and handed the survivors dishonour by taking their eagle. Back in Rome where the new emperor Tiberius is being hailed, Tullus learns that the nobke general Germanicus is planning a campaign to chastise the Germans and recover the eagles. Sidestepping the rules, he signs on with this new army and makes his way back to Germania to have his revenge.

But Arminius has not been idle, and is stirring up trouble again, and so the two peoples – age old enemies – are lining up for a set-to of immense proportions. In this novel we are treated to our familiar heroes of both sides from book 1 facing endless trouble (rebellious legions, uncooperative tribes, burned-earth tactics, immense brutality and more.) Oh and my favourite scene rescuing endangered Germanic family members before Germanicus’ army rolls over them.

As always with Kane’s books, the characters are well-drawn, the scene perfectly set, the descriptive deep and powerful, the plot pacy and strong, the writing effusive and consuming. But the thing at which Kane excels for me, and which makes his books some of the darker and more powerful in the genre, is the level of reality the reader is made to feel. Every scene is so intricately woven with the yarns of human fact, deep emotion, historical detail and raw strength that Kane’s books can leave you needing to rest and recover before pressing on. His is a rare talent in provoking such a response, and it can often feel that you are experiencing the story far more than any other way other than actually being there.

Hunting the Eagles is one of Kane’s finest tales and builds on the first in the series, covering slightly less familiar events than that first military disaster. I shall be fascinated to see what he does with the last book of the trilogy.

Buy it. Read it. Experience it.

 

Tabula Rasa

leave a comment »

tr

Only an excellent writer with a superb set of characters and an imagination full of fresh ideas can fuel a series to last more than maybe 4 or 5 books in a series. The fact that Tabula Rasa is book 6 in Ruth Downie’s series, then, is telling. The fact that, yet again, it is an absolutely cracking tale is even better.

I figure I’m past having to explain why I love Ruth’s books at this point, but to recap my view over the whole series, this is it in a nutshell:

  • Truly believable, very sympathetic and engaging characters
  • Intricate, carefully-crafted plots
  • Deep, realistic, historically accurate portrayal of the ancient world
  • Fascinating details that add colour and realism
  • Quirky sense of humour that always hits the spot
  • True historical mysteries, shot through with shrewd social observations

So there you go. That’s why I love the Ruso books. This book, in particular, brings in some of my favourite characters in the whole series. Some returning, some new. Tribune Accius, Valens, Albanus, Virana… and in particular Pertinax and Fabius. Oh, boy but Fabius is one of my fabourite supporting characters of any book I’ve read.

Tabula Rasa (‘Clean Slate’) is set in the forts on the Stanegate during the building of Hadrian’s wall. Ruso is back with the army, along with his better half, Tilla. He is serving as the medic in a tiny fort in the middle of nowhere that happens (much to his chagrin) to be close to the farm of one of Tilla’s relatives. Essentially the root of the tale is a case of ‘missing person’. Well, missing persons, at least. Ruso’s clerk has vanished, while his uncle Albinus is coming north to see him. And a local boy has vanished. As if the tension between locals and Roman invaders were not enough, the medicus pulls what I am coming to think of as ‘a Ruso’ and exacerbates the situation completely by accident. What follows is an excellent investigation that roams across the Stanegate forts and even beyond the wall, searching for the boy and trying to piece together why he was taken.

This area is somewhat home turf for me, so it was fascinating to read about places I know well. And I have to say I’d not twigged what was going on until Ruth revealed the truth towards the end of the book, so kudos there.

As usual, Tabula Rasa is pacy, clever, witty, thought-provoking and fascinating. I am starting to twitch at the thought that I now only have one Ruso book left before I will have to wait like everyone else.

Highly recommended as always. Ruth Downie’s books sell themselves.

Written by SJAT

October 21, 2016 at 9:02 am

Semper Fidelis

leave a comment »

18594372

Book 5 in my tour of the life of Ruso and Tilla. It’s a rollercoaster ride, for sure. I’ve followed Ruso and his slave/housekeeper/girlfriend/wife from Chester to Northumberland, to the south of France, then London, and now to York. It’s like a pit-stop tour of some of my favourite places guided by two of my favourite characters and penned by one of my favourite writers.

If you don’t know how much I love Ruth’s books by now then you’re clearly new to the blog. The Ruso mysteries are at the very top level of their genre – atmospheric, elegantly-plotted, immersively historical and delivered with rich prose. And yet also truly human tales, shot through with a sense of humour that never fails to make me smile and occasionally with deeper pathos. Ruso is not so much hapless as unlucky. He is skilled and clever and full of innovation, and yet regularly makes rather critical mistakes and finds himself in a mess. Tilla is practical and sensible and yet prone to headstrong decisions that show little forethought. Together they should be able to tackle any problem and yet more often than not they cause each other problems and worsen the situation exponentially. It makes for really engaging reading.

In Semper Fidelis (‘Always Faithful’, the motto of the US Marine Corps) we are brought to York as Ruso joins a small unit of the 20th legion who are there training recruits as they await the arrival of the 6th legion, who will be based there shortly. Ruso is back with the army now after his brief foray into the world of fiscal investigation, and the army is the focus of this book. For in York (Eboracum), the largely empty fortress has played host to native British legionary trainees, martinet centurions, beleaguered medics and desperate camp-followers. And a series of accidents and incidents that are believed to be a result of the curse on the unit point- to a clever investigator, anyway – to brutal and unacceptable behaviour on the part of the training officers.

Ruso and Tilla finds their selves delving into the incidents that have taken place and uncovering unpleasant truths within the army and landing their selves in deep trouble, which is only compounded all the more when the emperor Hadrian, his wife Sabina, and a unit of Praetorians arrive rather unexpectedly. Ruso knows Hadrian of old, since long before he came to power. You might think he could count on an old comrade to look after him. You might think that….

Semper Fidelis is yet again a beautiful offering from the pen of Ruth Downie and deserves to be read and enjoyed by all.

Oh, and the dog bite… Heh heh heh.

Go read it folks. It’s a treat.

Written by SJAT

October 6, 2016 at 8:51 am

Caveat Emptor

with one comment

Image result for ruth downie caveat emptor

I suspect Ruso was my favourite investigator of crimes by the time I’d finished the first book in Ruth Downie’s Medicus series. The second book expanded this world to include darker themes and the wild north. And by the time Ruso went home to Gaul in the third book he was not only my favourite investigator, but one of my favourite characters in any book series. Left with something of an uncertain future at the end of that book, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the fourth book, other than being sure it would be highly entertaining.

Caveat Emptor takes us back to Britain, where Ruso and Tilla (now man and wife) find themselves dragged into problems galore. Tilla becomes a friend and helper to a native woman who has got herself into disastrous trouble, her man the tax collector having disappeared with the money. Ruso finds himself appointed by the province’s assistant procurator to investigate the disappearance of the tax collector and his money.

What follows is a complex and thoroughly engrossing investigation taking us from the docksides of Londinium (London) to the finance offices of Verulamium (St Albans). A plot that involves a fascinating and shady cast of characters from lurking town guards to power-hungry councillors to weaselly clerks to half-blind noblemen and so on. A plot that, I might add, while I grasped parts of the solution half way through, parts kept me guessing to the end. A plot that is not all it seems at any given point.

But once more, the major wins of the book are the main characters and Ruth’s writing. Having met Ruth now, and discovered what a truly nice lady she is, it amazes me how she seems to be able to get into the mindset of hen-pecked males or vicious mysogenists or the like so well that they read as truly authentic. Ruso is at times hapless, at times heroic, mostly beleaguered and often confused. He is a man who tries to do the right thing, even though at times he’d like nothing more than to do the wrong one. Tilla is no barbarian, nor is she a Roman matron. She is not a charicature but a person, with all the complexity that implies. And as always with Ruth’s writing, the threads of gentle quirky humour that run throughout add counterpoint to the seriousness of the situations in which they find themselves and make the books something special and a delight to read.

As a last treat, here’s just a taster of the sort of writing that makes me love Ruth’s work:

As the ostler had promised, the ginger mare was keen to go – but not necessarily forward. After winning the argument over which of them was steering, Ruso urged it out under the archway and onto the wide expanse of the North road.

If that kind of writing doesn’t make you want to read, then I reckon nothing will.

Caveat Emptor. A beautifully constructed mystery. And now I go on to read the next book – Semper Fidelis.

Persona Non Grata

with one comment

 

png

(Also released as Ruso and the Root of all Evils)

I have a growing fondness for historical mysteries rather than the straightforward military novels or sagas or character biographies. Over the past year or two I have discovered Robin Blake, William Ryan, Luke McCallin, D.E. Meredith and others. But my favourite series is still Ruth Downie’s Ruso books. I read the first two a while back, but have simply not found the time to catch up with the series. Well last week I decided to change that since for once I did not have anything to read to a deadline.

The first of Ruth’s books (Medicus AKA Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls) introduced us to the Roman doctor Gaius Petreius Ruso, as well as to his friend Valens and the headstrong native British woman Tilla. It was set in Chester (Deva) in the reign of Hadrian and immediately hooked me with its clever mix of intricate plot, believable characters, well-dressed setting and gentle humour. The second novel (Terra Incognita/Ruso and the Demented Doctor) was somewhat darker to my mind, following the escapades of our favourite pair in the north, among the forts on the Stanegate where the emperor’s wall will soon take shape. Involved with a native uprising and brutal murders, there was much development in particular of Tilla’s character.

This third installment is so far very much my favourite. Why? Because it has everything that swept me away in the first book, and so much more. Summoned back to his family’s farm in southern Gaul by a mysterious note and with a medical furlough from the army with a wounded foot, Ruso and Tilla hurry back to their lands near Nemausus to find out what has happened.

Cue a beautifully involved plot involving a poisoning, a ship lost at sea, bankrupcy, double-dealing, misdirection and business deals gone horribly wrong. I won’t spoil the plot, but my minor spoiler would be that when the man visits Ruso to discuss his debts and then drops dead in front of him, I almost laughed aloud, realising what this would mean with regards to the suspicions of murder.

It is simply beautifully executed, but with a new added facet: Ruso’s family. An overbearing stepmother, a brother with his head in the sand, an enthusiastic sister-in-law, demanding and disobedient sisters, a worrying ex-wife, a disapproving ex father-in-law and a pack of small children. And more… the cast goes on, and yet each is lovingly treated. The interactions between the characters are what truly make these novels for me.

Yes the plot is excellent, this history faultless, the prose graceful and the atmosphere absorbing, but the icing on the cake is the dialogue. Ruth is plainly the mistress of dialogue.I annoyed my wife yesterday by chortling reapeatedly and interrupting her to read her the choicest snippets. Because Ruth’s dialogue never fails to raise a smile from me. It is often wonderfully light-hearted and engaging, and yet at no point is it in any way unrealistic.

Quite simply, along with one or two other authors (G.G. Kay and Prue Batten leap to mind) Ruth Downie’s writing makes me feel like a talentless hack when I go back over my own.#

I shall not leave it so long this time before I move on to book 4. If you’ve not ready Ruth’s books, do yourself a favour and start…

Written by SJAT

September 15, 2016 at 4:18 pm

Altar of Blood

leave a comment »

https://03fcd67fd51850d3ba6b-6cb392df11a341bce8c76b1898d0c030.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/large/9781/4447/9781444732016.jpg

One of the best ways, in my experience, to guage the quality of fiction is how easy it is to read. Yes, there is some crap out there that is an easy read, and yes, there are great reads out there that require concentration and work. But more often than not a book that just grabs your attention and drags you along from beginning to end is a success. I find Anthony Riches’ books to be like that. They hook you in the first few pages, relieve you of sleep, food and work and occupy your waking moments until you reach the end and close the book with a smile. Case in point: Empire IX – Altar of Blood. Started it one morning. Finished it the next afternoon. Couldn’t stop reading it.

Part of it now has become the familiarity with the characters, the setting and the writing style. By the ninth book in a series, readers know they’re going to get what they want. They’re on a safe bet. But kudos is due any author who makes it to book 9 in a series and isn’t simply rehashing old stuff. I pick up Riches’ books and I know I’m in for a treat, though. And even this far into a series, I know I’m in for new twists and fresh discoveries.

Riches, you see, is unpredictable. He cannot be counted on to give us happily ever after, to give us tested formula for all my comments about familiarity. Riches might kill off someone important any moment. He will take us to new places and may even turn the tables so that previous friends are enemies and previous enemies friends. Such keeps things fresh.

With the ninth in the empire series, there is a new feel to the start. Altar of Blood begins with viciousness and eye-watering brutality, and then settles down into an opening tale of tragedy. Then gradually, as our hero is put through the emotional mill yet again, the true tale of the book comes out. We are re-introduced not only to the usual characters but also to the wicked emperor and the snake Cleander. And then our heroes are sent off on a dreadfully dangerous secret mission into barbarian lands, following a brief ‘Dirty dozen’ recruitment session. Interestingly, where the previous books have focused primarily on our friend Corvus/Aquila with interludes carried by his friends, this book is almost entirely narrated around characters that were formerly supporting cast, with Aquila only occasionally coming to the fore.

There follows a tale of subterfuge and double dealing, insurgency and counter insurgency, chases, battles in deep forest and swamp, catharsis and healing, treachery and betrayal and heroism in unexpected places. The tale owes something in form to ‘Heart of Darkness’ or ‘Apocalypse Now’, but one thing is certain: with Riches’ own blend of adventure, action, violence, harsh language and reality born of understanding the military mind, he is becoming something of a Tarantino of historical fiction. Fresh, unpredictable, fascinating and exciting.

And Husam! Oh, Husam, you are sooooo cool.

Altar of Blood is out in paperback today. Have you read the series? No. Then get started, as you’ve a treat ahead of you. If you have, then rest assured, volume nine is far from disappointing. Go buy it now.