I'm delighted to host Nick Brown - top author, and easily one of the most helpful and pleasant guys I've met in literary circles - onto my blog today. I was intrigued to hear that he has branched out from his acclaimed historical fiction roots to launch a brand new fantasy novel Marik's Way. So I invited him to do a Q&A session here to find out a little bit more about his new work and his views on writing fiction in general. There's some potentially stellar (pun fully intended) news in here too. Enjoy!
For those who don't know his background: Nick grew up in Norfolk and later studied history at the University of Sussex. In 2000 he embarked on PGCE course at the University of Exeter and began a career as a teacher of humanities and English. After ten years of teaching in England and Poland, he became a full-time writer in 2011 with the publication of The Siege. Since then five more Agent of Rome novels have followed. Nick is married and lives in the fine city of Norwich.
Now, on with the Q&A...
Gordon: When did you know that you wanted to be an author?
Nick: I had dabbled since childhood but didn’t really take it seriously until after university and in fact I began with screenwriting. My first novel was science fiction and – if I’m honest – probably not very good. In fact, I seem to remember a couple of literary agents telling me exactly that! But it did get me hooked and I eventually focused on historical fiction with what would eventually become Agent of Rome.
Gordon: What inspired you to write Marik’s Way?
Nick: I hadn’t actually read any fantasy for a few years but then a good friend of mine introduced me to current authors like Joe Abercrombie and Patrick Rothfuss. I suppose it opened my eyes again to the infinite possibilities of fantasy and I liked the idea of writing without the limitations of history or contemporary reality. As with Agent of Rome, I wanted to set up a character with a lot of potential for adventures of various kinds and I eventually settled on the concept of ‘Jack Reacher with a sword’! Marik is a quite conventional hero in some ways but he has a troubled past that drives him on to try and do good.
Gordon: You are best known for your works of pacy and gripping historical fiction, so how did you find this switch into the fantasy genre?
Nick: The most obvious difference is the freedom I mentioned earlier; the flip side of which is the lack of existing material for the story. It really is a blank slate and of course there is the additional challenge of creating an entirely new environment. Having now worked on dozens of different projects as a freelance writer, I felt reasonably confident in my ‘world-building’ skills so I really just started writing and later ensured that all the detail was integrated and coherent. Having said that, I definitely used some of what I’ve learned about ancient societies to describe an ostensibly fantastical world. It’s actually a fairly gritty, realistic type of fantasy with no dwarves or magic – yet.
Gordon: If you could sell this book in one sentence what would it be?
Nick: At the risk of repeating myself – ‘Jack Reacher with a sword.’
Gordon: What are you up to next? Will we see any more sci-fi from you?
Nick: No immediate plans for any futuristic shorts or novels though I have recently had a script optioned by some Canadian producers and that is very much sci-fi. It’s early days but watch this space. As ever, I’m working on various freelance projects to pay the bills and then there is the small matter of the seventh – and last – Agent of Rome book to finish.
Gordon: Who is your biggest inspiration?
Nick: In the fantasy genre, it still has to be J.R.R. Tolkien. In terms of really transporting the reader and conjuring a fully-realised world, he remains the master. Authors like Patrick Rothfuss possess a similar skill but Tolkien was also so brilliant at crafting compelling plots. In terms of writing style, I am a huge fan of Michael Connelly and Robert Harris – both are so dynamic and precise.
Gordon: Why should readers try Marik’s Way?
Nick: Although it’s a different genre, I believe it features the same elements of action, adventure, mystery and humour that some may know from Agent of Rome. Hopefully, I’ve also managed to create an exciting, convincing new setting for the story to unfold.
Gordon: Thanks, Nick. It's always really interesting to understand the psyche of a fellow writer - sometimes reassuringly familiar and sometimes horizon-expandingly different. Some really interesting stuff in there!
Marik's Way is available now! And you can find out more about Nick at his author website or on Twitter.
When writing, I aim to provoke within myself the kind of emotions I want my readers to feel. Terror and horror have to be two of the most powerful emotions, and there was one scene in Legionary: The Blood Road that had cold shivers racing across my skin as I typed. Pavo and Sura are on the run, hiding out in the wilds with their Claudian comrades. They think they have given their darkest enemy the slip, and then, one night, this happens...
"Pavo peered through the blackness towards the nightmarish scene at the treeline: one of the Claudia sentries watching the dell’s edge now lay on his back, the snow around him black with blood. A nightmarish shape hovered over him on all fours, jerking and shuddering, pulling sinews from his belly. He remembered stories he had been told as a child: of forest demons, of creatures that lived in darkness and feasted on the flesh of men. For a moment, he felt like a helpless boy. He took a half-step forward to see better, to be sure… then stepped on a twig somewhere beneath the snow.
The Molossian hounds only play a small part in the story, but I thought they merited a little attention here - not least to show that they are more than just the demonic creatures from the scene above. They are actually noble animals with a long and distinguished history.
This ancient and now extinct breed of hound was once bred in southern Europe. Described as having a wide, short muzzle and a heavy dewlap (skin around the neck), they were employed by man long before the days of the Roman Empire - by the Greeks, the Assyrians and probably even by the Bronze Age Sumerians. It was the Molossi - a Greek kingdom founded by King Molossus, allegedly the grandchild of Achilles - who gave the dogs their name. Molossi lands stretched from north of Mount Pindus to the headwaters of the Thyamis river, on the Greek mainland, opposite Corfu. They adopted and trained the hounds for herding and for fending off cattle thieves or bandits.
Writing during the Roman Republic era, Polybius writes of generals tying pots of Greek fire to the backs of dogs and sending them running - ablaze - at enemy cavalry. They would run under the horses, causing the riders to be thrown. Cunning and extremely cruel in equal measures.
It was probably Marcus Aurelius who first formally employed the breed (known to the Romans as Canis Molossus) in legionary warfare, often equipping them in protective spiked metal collars and mail armour, and training them to run in attack formations. The Molossus was used to fight tigers, lions, elephants, and men in battle. They were a common participant in the gladiatorial arena too.
*Update* - it seems the Marcus Aurelius link is disputed. Some claim it is perpetuated myth, others are not so sure dogs were ever used by the Romans as anything more than camp watchhounds.
So, I had a hunt around for some source evidence. The ancient texts do not explicitly detail Marcus Aurelius' use of 'War Dogs', but I did find this very interesting section of the Marcus Aurelius column in Rome, a fantastic monument that depicts his Danubian campaigns:
Anyway, moving on...
"Never, with them on guard," says Virgil, "need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief, or onslaught of wolves, or Iberian brigands at your back."
Aristotle mentions them in The History of Animals, praising their bravery and physical superiority.
Later breeding saw the arrival of the Alaunt - so called because they were favoured by the Alani people (who originated on the Eurasian Steppe, but moved westwards into Europe during the Great Migration). Modern mastiffs are probably descended from these large and formidable creatures.
Now, some visual tidbits:
***Warning*** If you haven't yet read Legionary: The Blood Road, there are spoilers ahead (so perhaps bookmark this page to read later if you have still to read the book)
On the 3rd October 382 AD, after nearly six years of battle, treachery and broken oaths, the Eastern Roman Empire and the Goths met - for once with swords sheathed - in a parley tent somewhere in Thracia. At long, long last, peace talks began...
The nature of this peace deal is hotly-debated right to this day, and rightly so - because the end of the Gothic War was effectively the catalyst for many torrid events that would shake Europe for centuries afterwards - the rise of the Visigoths, Alaric, the sack of Rome in 410 AD… the Fall of the West in 476 AD can even be attributed to the seminal talks in 382 AD. So let's look a little more closely at what exactly happened that fateful day...
How did the peace talks come about?
Did it follow a Gothic capitulation in battle, or was it a pragmatic end to the war agreed by two exhausted sides well-aware that they were locked in an unwinnable struggle? What evidence we have suggests that the empire was now desperate for the war to end by any means necessary. This is evident in the changing tone of the orator Themistius' speeches: in the earlier years of the war he boomed ‘The Goths will quake. Our mighty soldier-emperor will draw every able man together, our miners will bring iron for them and we will slaughter the barbarian!’, only to change tack in 381, preaching instead that ‘It is an emperor’s job to govern, not to fight...' in an effort to manage the expectations of the imperial populace who had witnessed many reverses against the horde. After the talks, Themistius did the classic 'waving fist angrily after the bad man has vanished round the corner' routine, by claiming that during the peace talks, the Goths wept and clung to Emperor Theodosius’ knees, begging for mercy. In truth the Goths were still very potent at the time of the parley, and in any case, Emperor Theodosius was faraway in Constantinople at the time of the meeting, so it is highly unlikely that they were hugging his knees from (unless they had unfeasibly long arms).
Who oversaw these crucial discussions?
We have only sketchy details of those present. It seems that General Saturninus and Richomeres were there on the Roman side. There is no record of a named leader speaking for the Goths. Indeed, the title ‘Iudex’ (judge or dictator) was never again used by any Gothic force. However, we know of two prominent Goths, present in the horde at that time, who would go on to become rather famous in future years: Alaric and Fravitta. Given Alaric’s tender years (he would only have been a young teenager at the time), it is unlikely to have been him. Fravitta would go on to display a very pro-Roman attitude in the years to follow, so it seems more plausible that he could have been the man negotiating for the Goths.
Were all of the Goths represented at the talks, or just some?
We also do not know how far-reaching the deal was: did it encompass every Gothic tribe roaming in imperial territory, or was it a minor treaty agreed with mere splinters of the Gothic number? The fact that the war did not resume afterwards leads me to believe that it covered most of – or at a least a critical mass of – the Goths in Thracia. Of course, we must remember that great numbers of Goths remained north of the Danube, under the Hunnic yoke (and these subjugated tribes would later become the Ostrogoths).
Where did the talks take place?
What exactly did the Romans and the Goths agree to that day?
The exact nature of the peace deal is a highly-contentious matter. There are two broad camps in the debate:
Some historians, such as Halsall and Wyman, claim that the peace deal came in the form of a ‘coloni’ arrangement – i.e. a full surrender of the Goths, who went on to become fully integrated Roman citizens, paying taxes and serving in the legions as regular soldiers. Other historians such as Gibbon, Heather, MacDowall and Friel, argue that the peace deal took the form of a ‘foedus’ – i.e. more like a treaty between equals. In this arrangement, the Goths were not full imperial subjects, and were exempt from taxes. Their only obligation was to muster for war when the Roman Emperor called upon them, but not as legions: instead, they would march with their own tribal generals, retaining their own military traditions. More, they were granted Roman lands to farm as their own. Here are Gibbon's words on the matter of what the Goths got out of the deal:
If true, this was a watershed moment – the first time in the empire’s history that it had settled an entire people within its borders and allowed them almost complete autonomy.
This second theory is certainly more compelling from the storyteller’s point of view, but that alone is not what guides me to favour this option. Surely the empire – having suffered defeat after defeat to the horde since the Battle of Adrianople – would have been under huge pressure to agree peace, even at a high cost? The 4th century AD Bishop Synesius writes that the post-382 AD Goths settled in Thracia were 'brought up differently, in an un-Roman fashion'. Pacatus, the Latin panegyrist, describes how the Goths of fighting age were mobilised en-masse as opposed to being stationed in barracks like regular legions. Heather explains how Gothic bands were attested as serving in subsequent campaigns, but were not listed in the Notitia Dignitatum (a collection of sources detailing the imperial regiments of the later 4th century AD), which further suggests they were mustered and disbanded as and when needed when the emperor called upon them. Halsall – firmly in the ‘coloni’ camp – even concedes that there were irregularities about the Gothic terms and that they might not have been required to pay taxes 'in the normal way'.
In the Legionary series, I firmly plump for the foedus theory.
Whether you agree with my take on this matter or not, it is indisputable that the Goths settled under this peace deal retained enough of their identity and culture to become, over time, the Visigoths. The rest, as they say, is history...
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The Gothic War - a brutal struggle between the Eastern Roman Empire and an entire people fighting for their very existence. The timeline below charts the key 'beats' to this historic war: the rise and fall of emperors, the chaos of battle and the journey of the XI Claudia through it all...
***Warning: series spoilers ahead***
Late 376 AD: The Huns surged across the great steppe towards Europe, in what we now call the Great Migration. The Gothic tribes lay directly in the path of these warlike horsemen. So, united under the banner of a Iudex (a judge or dictator) named Fritigern, most of the Gothic groupings travelled to the banks of the Danube, seeking peaceful entry into the Eastern Roman Empire. They probably numbered at least one hundred thousand people.
Early 377 AD: The Romans settled the Goths in a temporary camp somewhere in northern Thracia… then proceeded to make an absolute mess of matters. The odious officer, Lupicinus, oversaw severe maltreatment of what was effectively a refugee population. Tales of his soldiers offering the starving Goths only rotting dog meat, in exchange for their children to sell as slaves, have stained the history books ever since. Inevitably, the refugees broke out in revolt, and the Gothic War began.
Spring 377 AD: The Goths now moved around Thracia as a horde - self-sufficient and with a colossal army that dwarfed the legions present in Thracia. Emperor Valens, engaged on the Persian front, despatched to Thracia what legions he could spare.
Early summer 377 AD: The Gothic horde rebuffed the empire's first attempt to meet them in battle at Ad Salices (the 'town by the willows'). The result was technically a draw, and this left the Goths penned into the northern part of Thracia, behind the Haemus Mountains, while the bruised legions held Thracia's southern tracts.
Autumn 377 AD: A peace was concluded between Rome and Persia, rendering the eastern frontier stable for now. Emperor Valens set about rounding up the rest of his Persian frontier forces - elite legions and crack palace cavalry - in order to personally lead them to Thracia to end the Gothic War. But this would take time, and in the interim, he despatched one of his best generals, Saturninus, to the troubled land to make sure the Goths stayed penned beyond the Haemus range.
Late 377 AD: Saturninus established stony forts and redoubts in the five key Haemus Mountain passes. He managed to marshal his scant forces and hold these passes for a time… but eventually the Goths overran the blockades and spilled into central and southern Thracia. The legions and the Roman people were forced to take refuge in southern Thracia's high-walled cities.
Early 378 AD: With the Romans holed-up behind their city walls, A Western General, Sebastianus, ventured out into the Goth-ridden countryside to try to curtail the destruction. He lead a tiny crack force of legionaries in a new-style guerrilla warfare - striking at Gothic camps in the night, executing hit-and-run raids on their supplies.
Late Summer 378 AD: Emperor Valens arrives in Thracia at last, with his finest regiments in tow. They march to a site north of the city of Adrianople and meet the horde on a baking hot summer's day. The Battle of Adrianople turned the golden fields red, and the result has echoed through history as one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the empire. Emperor Valens died in the fray, along with two-thirds of the Eastern Army.
Early 379 AD: A new emperor rose to the Eastern Throne. Theodosius I took control of a realm in turmoil. Thracia was virtually a Gothic land, and the Romans were now the refugees, with just the well-walled cities of the empire serving as islands of sanctuary. Theodosius set about reforming and rejuvenating the broken eastern legions, recruiting slaves and criminals and recalling broken old veterans. He did achieve some success thanks to General Modares and his small band of hand-picked forces, who defeated a significant wing of the horde.
Summer 380 AD: However, the first major meeting of the Eastern legions and the horde (and Theodosius' first chance to prove his mettle as a warrior-emperor) took place somewhere in Macedonia, probably near Scupi. Fritigern's forces routed Theodosius' army, and all the rejuvenation efforts were undone.
Autumn 380 AD: A major split occured in the leadership of the horde. One half left the East behind, heading West in search of fresh spoils there. But Emperor Gratian's Western legions stood against them near the city of Sirmium on the east-west border, and achieved a long-needed victory.
381 AD: Gratian's forces roved east, in search of the remaining half of the horde. A game of manoeuvring and skirmishing ensued - a struggle that lasted all year and stretched across Thracia and Macedonica. During this period, Iudex Fritigern died.
382 AD: The legions gained the upper hand and forced the Goths into a retreat, driving them into northern Thracia. Cornered, the Goths had no option but to sue for peace. The nature of the peace deal would define all of Europe for centuries to come…
The storyline of the novel is an absolute rip-roaring adventure, and while I don't want to give too much away, here's the official teaser:
"Greece, 5th century BCE. Kassandra is a mercenary of Spartan blood, sentenced to death by her family, cast out into exile. Now she will embark on an epic journey to become a legendary hero - and uncover the truth about her mysterious lineage.
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)
Gordon Doherty, writer, history fan, explorer.
Empires of Bronze: The Crimson Throne - a story of bloody and world-shaking revenge.