Just back from a top weekend in Carlisle watching many groups of experts and re-enactors coming together to put on a rather amazing Roman cavalry display. We had Legionary battles and displays, horse parades and mock-battles (Hippikia Gymnasia), all judged by Emperor Hadrian himself. And just how intimidating and spooky are the masked, plumed elite riders?!
One of the many things I took away from this was the sheer 'presence' of a turma. I have been guilty of writing about such a 30-strong group of horsemen as mere skirmish-fodder, but these guys showed just how much a unit this size, draped in full armour, standards and colours could inspire awe and fear in those they might be fighting or protecting. Here are a few pics:
I set out to write the Legionary series in order to visit the past: to walk the flagged roads, hills and meadows of Thracia and the Eastern Roman Empire; to forge further afield across wintry mountains, dog-hot deserts and dark woods of the borderlands and beyond… to see the world and all its wonders and woes as it was before the candle of Late Antiquity guttered and fell dark forever.
I realise now it was never going to be ‘just’ a visit to the past: weaving a story around the Great Migration of the Huns and the Gothic Wars which followed – and doing so convincingly – requires emotional investment. I had to put myself there with the people facing those brutal times: to experience visceral angst every time the soil trembled with the hooves of approaching horse raiders; to feel my blood run cold as ice as I walked onto a battlefield to face a huge enemy horde; to let my heart surge with pride and relief and feel a deep urge to weep in the moments after victory. That level of attachment and 'putting myself there' really anchors itself as richly as any true memory and now, six books into the series, I consider 4th century AD Thracia a second home of sorts.
More specifically, when I close my eyes I see the barracks and the marching camps of Legio Undecima Claudia Pia Fidelis, also known as the XI Claudia: legionaries gathering at their campfires outside their serried tents, grubby faces uplit by the flames and ruddy from their posca (sour soldier wine) ration. I can hear the gruff joking and singing, explosions of laughter, nickering horses, the clanking of pots and plates. I can smell the hearty aroma of baking bread, of stew and porridge… and other less savoury smells emanating from certain tents (clue: rhymes with hearty). I know the faces of the men in each cohort, century and contubernium. I remember – and will never forget – those who have fallen in the course of the Legionary series. And so I thought it was about time I turned the spotlight on this famous old legion, to explore their past and highlight just how much they went through before the few years I have had the pleasure of marching with them…
The Legionary series focuses on the late 4th century incarnation of the XI Claudia, but by then they were well over four hundred years old. It all began back in 58 BC, when Rome was still a republic and before the land of Thracia had even been incorporated into the Roman aegis. It was a little-known fellow by the name of Julius Caesar who started things. In need of fresh manpower for his impending invasion of Gaul*, he raised several new legions. One of which was granted the name 'the Eleventh Legion'.
* The Gallic Wars is a huge topic and one I can’t claim to be an authority on, but I can heartily recommend the action-packed Marius’ Mules series – penned by the expert and entertaining SJATurney.
The Gallic Wars
The Eleventh legion fought throughout Caesar’s Gallic campaign, notably against the Helvetii at the Battle of Bibracte in 58 BC, then against the Nervii confederation in 57 BC and in the famous Siege of Alesia in 52 BC. And after Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon and claiming of the city of Rome, the Eleventh Legion went with their general in pursuit of his great rival, Pompey the Great. The Battle of Dyrrhachium and the Battle of Pharsalus were fought in quick succession during the hot and bloody summer of 48 BC, with the Eleventh Legion and Caesar emerging as clear victors. In 45 BC, after thirteen years of hard campaigning and with the Roman world now stable and all neat and tidy again (mwahaha – if only they had known!), the Eleventh Legion was disbanded, its soldiers granted the old Samnite lands of Bovianum in southern Italy, to farm and live out their lives in peace…
...aaaand then Caesar was assassinated. The Roman world was thrown into chaos all over again. Fighting to avenge his slain great-uncle, Octavian recalled the Eleventh Legion from their pastoral retirement. They fought against the assassins and revolutionaries in Greece, in Sicily and through Italy and finally, they faced and defeated Mark Anthony in the naval clash at Actium which finally ended this latest bout of civil war.
But there was to be no return to the peaceful farmlands of Bovianum – the now well-scarred veterans of the Eleventh were instead sent to garrison Dalmatia (modern Croatia).
For a time, several generations in fact, the Eleventh Legion knew relative peace. Legionary fathers would have watched on as their sons enlisted in the Eleventh ranks, while back in Rome, the reign of Octavian (now Augustus) saw the Roman Republic fade out and the new system of empire rise in its place. Octavian was shrewd enough to go for a soft approach to this, never referring to himself as an emperor, only ever as a ‘Princeps’ (meaning ‘most senior of senators’ but to you and me: ‘the boss’). This era of Roman government, known as the Principate, would last for nearly three hundred years.
Fast-forward to 42 AD, when Claudius ruled the empire. A chap named Scribonianus, presumably bored with the relative stability of the time, decided to revolt against Claudius, and chose to begin his tantrum in Dalmatia. The Eleventh Legion were one of the first to react in support of the emperor and against Scribonianus. So, when the rebellion was put down, the emperor bestowed upon the Eleventh the honorific title ‘Claudia Pia Fidelis’ (Faithful to Claudius). And so, the XI Claudia proper was born!
A less-than-glorious episode followed in 69 AD – the so-called Year of the Four Emperors – when the XI Claudia sided with one of the four brief imperial claimants, Otho. They arrived at the Battle of Cremona to support him against his rival, Vitellius, late. By then, Otho had been defeated, but fortunately, Vitellius did not punish the XI Claudia, simply sending them back to Dalmatia, chastised. But that didn’t stop them from siding with a certain Vespasian when he came along to challenge Vitellius, and this time the Claudia arrived on time and helped win the Second Battle of Bedriacum to install Vespasian on the imperial throne and end the domino-like succession pattern of that year.
In the following years, the XI Claudia were stationed on the Rhine, holding that frontier and at times participating in campaigns into the boggy woodlands beyond – notably under Emperor Domitian against the Chatti in 83 AD. Over the next half-century or so, the Claudia drifted eastwards, finding a temporary station in Pannonia (roughly present-day Serbia) before following Emperor Trajan east as a vital part of his Dacian conquest (the original, north-of-the-Danube Dacia, that is, not the more southerly Diocese from the Legionary series), then finally arriving at the place that would be their home for centuries to come: Durostorum (modern Silistra, Bulgaria) on the River Danubius.
The Coming of the Dominate
While stationed at Durostorum, the Claudia were responsible for manning the lower Danube and its delta with the Pontus Euxinus (the Black Sea), as well as protecting the Roman-Greek colonies of Bosporus (modern Crimea). They and sister legions the I Italica and V Macedonica became a de-facto border garrison of those parts. And this new, more permanent role was perhaps symptomatic of the change in imperial governance and military strategy that came about in the late 3rd century AD. Bit of a tangent here, but you’ll see why it is relevant to the XI Claudia (bear with me)…
Beginning with Emperor Diocletian in 284 AD, the nature of empire changed. Emperors no longer pussy-footed with titles such as Princeps (honest guv’nor, we’re all equal), instead declaring themselves as out-and-out emperors (listen, pleb, I'm amazing and you're not). Gone too were modest ceremonial effects like the wearing of the ancient purple toga, Diocletian and his successors instead choosing to paint their skin gold, call themselves the embodiments of gods (referring to themselves as 'Sired by Mars' and the like, apparently), wear jewel-encrusted cloaks, opulent crowns and purple slippers – more akin to Persian Shahs than Roman leaders. More, subjects were required to prostrate themselves before the emperor, crawl towards him and kiss his slippers (hoping he’d washed his feet) and address him as ‘Domine’ (lord or master). This autocratic era of empire came to be known as the ‘Dominate’ thanks to its stark contrast to the earlier Principate.
You could be forgiven for thinking this was a big ego-trip for Diocletian – who probably sounds like the Cristiano Ronaldo of the Roman Empire – but like the Portuguese preener, there was substance behind Diocletian’s style. For the half-century prior to his rule, the empire had endured what is now referred to as ‘The Third Century Crisis’ – a storm of civil wars, economic collapse and pestilence. Twenty-six emperors came and went in those fifty years and the empire was in danger of crumbling away altogether. As such, a firm hand was perhaps the appropriate way to reassert control over the ailing state. Diocletian experimented with the Tetrarchic system, splitting the empire into four parts each with a clear ruler and successor. An understandable move, given the prior problems. But he got a lot of things wrong too: tinkering with the waning economy by introducing unworkable maximum-pricing edicts and ‘un-pegged’ golden coins; trying to ‘fix’ the religious strife of the time by triggering the Great Persecution of the Christians... both disastrous choices.
Militarily, it is questionable whether he got things right or wrong. The legions of old, XI Claudia included, had proud histories. Five-thousand strong armies that could oversee a stretch of imperial border, or march beyond to invade, or turn inwards to an interior troublespot in times of need. But times had changed and, as the Third Century Crisis had shown, the army of the Principate was incapable of simultaneously manning the imperial borders and keeping Roman usurpers or barbarian invaders who made it into the empire in check. Thus, Diocletian started the process of breaking down the old legions into broad ‘classes’. Instead of monolithic five-thousand-strong legions on the borders, he began to form ‘field’ armies, stationed in the heart of each of the major regions of the empire. These armies, composed of new, thousand-strong ‘comitatenses’ legions, were supposed to be the crack forces who could deal with internal strife or deal with any invaders who made it through the imperial borders. And on the borders, adding the outer layer of this new ‘defence-in-depth’ strategy, were the ‘limitanei’ legions (the ‘limes’ being the edges of the Roman Empire). It was the job of the limitanei to repel, or at least slow and track invaders until the local field army could be hastened to the trouble spot to crush them. And that is where the XI Claudia ended up – as limitanei, watchmen of the lower Danubius.
Now a lot has been said about the contrast in status and capabilities between the comitatenses and the limitanei (ranging from ‘they weren’t too different’ to ‘the limitanei were rubbish!’), and I touch on those differences here, but the fact is the limitanei were vital: without them, the empire’s edges would have been completely porous and undefined. More, it seems that the limitanei and the Claudia in particular were highly valued beyond their border watch status – over the years, vexillations of the Claudia were sent from their base at Durostorum to places such as Judea, Persia, Egypt and Mauretania, so they were clearly not just some makeshift peasant militia.
And that sets the scene for the 4th century heroes of the Legionary series. The things they face in my books may be brutal, but as you can see, the Claudia were well used to hardship and long stretches of war. So for those of you who say I put Pavo through hell – don’t blame me, it’s just the way it was!
Thanks for reading - hope you enjoyed. If there is enough interest, I'll put together a complementary blog on the future of the Claudia (i.e. what happened to them after the time of the Legionary series).
Click on any of the images below to grab copies of the Legionary books, and follow the adventures of the Claudia men in the late 4th century AD.
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 of Marius' Mules fame, 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 in the Legionary series.
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.
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).
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 instil 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 war 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.
Interviewer: You both seem to be enjoying the wine. It's a soldier thing, isn't it?
Pavo: Indeed. 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 place - they don't serve sweaty-ball bread to go with it, do they? Because if they do that's the shithole tavern by the foot of Constantinople's third hill. Hmm, perhaps a visit to this Cathain would be good.
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.
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 then pinched and shakes his earlobe) 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.'
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. (turns to Fronto) 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!
Interviewer: Ah, okay, they've gone... and in quite a hurry too. Well, I hope you enjoyed the chat, folks. If you'd like to read all about Pavo and Fronto's adventures, then this is the time to do it. Both return this week in the latest instalments of the Legionary and Marius' Mules series respectively.
Legionary 6: Empire of Shades, by Gordon Doherty (Pavo)
Marius Mules' 10 - Fields of Mars, by SJA Turney (Fronto)
Foreword by Gordon Doherty
What follows is a piece of flash fiction, set between Legionary: Gods & Emperors and Legionary: Empire of Shades. Chalcedon, perched on the eastern shores of the Bosphorus strait, was once branded 'the City of the Blind' by a 6th century BC Persian general named Megabyzus, when he contrasted the settlement with the far superior and sparsely-occupied site on the opposite shores. By Late Antiquity, Chalcedon languished in the shadows of the city that had risen on that far shore through the intervening centuries: the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople.
Yet something that happened in Chalcedon in that twilight era which suggests that ancient lessons had gone unheeded...
Chalcedon, “City of the Blind”