“There was a rich haul in last summer’s excavations, and no doubt there will be plenty of surprises once they are deciphered.”
“(1st hand) Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present (?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings. (2nd hand) I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.”
Sometime between the years 97 and 103 AD, the wife of one senior Roman officer dictated an invitation to a birthday party in the far north of the Roman province of Britannia. Under her secretary’s formal message she added her own, heartfelt postscript.
19 centuries later, this everyday example of life on the Roman frontier inspired British historian and novelist, Adrian Goldsworthy, to spin a yarn. To the slender threads provided by such miraculously preserved writing tablets as Claudia Severa’s invitation, he has added the steadily accumulating wealth of archaeological evidence documenting the Romans in Britain. Goldsworthy brings his readers to the borderlands, two decades before the first builder sucked his teeth, shook his head, and told the Emperor Hadrian that his proposed wall “was gonna cost ya.”
Goldsworthy, a celebrated academic with several shelf-benders to his credit, is also the author of two previous novels – both set during the Napoleonic Wars. His latest novel, Vindolanda, takes its title from the Roman Fort to where Claudia Severa’s invitation was sent. Vindolanda is the first adventure for Titus Flavius Ferox, centurion of Legio II Augusta and a man torn between two worlds. His grandfather was one of the great chiefs and war leaders of the Silures, the tribe living in what is now Goldsworthy’s native South Wales. The young Ferox was sent away as a hostage, to be educated and raised as a Roman, and was made a citizen and later commissioned into the Roman army. Years later he returns to the province of Britannia, oathsworn to the emperor of Rome, but still in his heart a warrior of his own people.
Vindolanda was published in June 2017 by Head of Zeus. To find out more click here.
First and foremost because of the writing tablets discovered there. When you read something like the invitation to her birthday party sent by Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina it lets you glimpse something of ordinary life nineteen centuries ago. These two women were married to Roman army officers, and if it was not for this and a few other tablets we would never have known they existed. Instead, we can read as they ask about each other’s health and families, and plan visits.
It is all very human, very normal, reminding us that these were people just like us – even if they came from a very different society with very different attitudes. When I first read the tablets many years ago, I could not help wondering about these people and wanting to know more about them and their world. So the novel is an imagined version of this. It’s an adventure story, not meant to be a searing examination of the human experience, but a good story in a world that seems real. I think of it as a Western, but set in Britain at the end of the first century AD. It’s about a frontier, and all the people brought together in a place like that.
If you could plug one gap in our knowledge of Roman Britain what would it be?
The first instinct of a historian is to wish for more written sources. So little of the literature from the ancient world has survived that one of the commonest phrases writing about it is always ‘well, we don’t really know.’ Roman Britain is worse than many other areas, with just a handful of accounts. It would be nice to have the missing pieces of Tacitus’ Annals and Histories even more to have detailed narratives of more of Roman Britain’s history. Vindolanda is set at a time when we know next to nothing. We probably never going to find anything like this, but you can wish.
Still, that’s a modest ambition compared to the big missing piece in almost all of the Roman Empire’s history, because we only really get the Romans’ side of the story. The peoples who lived in Britain in the Iron Age did not write anything down. To have stories from their point of view, of what it was like when the Romans turned up on your doorstep and did not go away, would be truly wonderful. Short of a time machine, that’s never going to happen, so as a novelist you do your best to guess.
What’s the most unexpected item ever found from Roman Britain?
I’ll have to say the writing tablets themselves. We were used to inscriptions on stone, but no one thought we would be lucky enough to find something like this. Since then, some have turned up at other sites, notably in London and Carlisle, and more keep being found at Vindolanda. There was a rich haul in last summer’s excavations, and no doubt there will be plenty of surprises once they are deciphered.
The unusual conditions at these sites allow preservation of things you simply don’t get elsewhere – the wood, leather etc. There are more Roman shoes from Vindolanda than any other single site in the rest of the empire, but one thing that stands out is how fashions were the same throughout the empire. All these everyday objects do suggest that people from opposite ends of the empire dressed in a similar way, ate and drank similar things, and maybe laughed at the same jokes or hummed the same tunes.
Double entry bookkeeping or the steam engine – which might have done more to transform the fortunes of the Roman Empire?
Well, of course, in Alexandria they made a working steam engine, but never seem to have thought of it as anything other than an interesting experiment. The Romans were of their time, used to doing things in set ways, relying on human or animal power. On the other hand, there was progress in technology and some very sophisticated uses of water power. For a while, there was a tendency to underestimate the accomplishments of craftsmen in the Roman period, so that it has taken archaeological finds to demonstrate for instance that carriage was pretty much as sophisticated as anything in the eighteenth century.
Rome was huge and lived in a world without serious economic or military competitors on the same scale, which did not encourage rapid innovation. Even so, its problems had more to do with political instability than economic failure. From the third century AD onwards the Romans just keep on fighting civil wars until the empire rots away and vanishes in Britain and the West. That this process went on for centuries shows how strong and complacent the Romans had become.
What did silphium taste like?
No idea. We don’t really know what it was. A problem generally about food from the ancient world is that even if we have an idea of ingredients, we never get the sort of really detailed recipes a cook would want.
What’s the biggest adjustment required transitioning from writing fiction set in the Napoleonic period to Roman times?
Flippant answer is no guns. For an adventure story, this really makes a difference. You can plausibly have a character point a pistol or musket and tell two or three others to drop their weapons and do what they are told. That’s less convincing if all he has is a sword. However, the really big difference is the wealth of information. For Wellington’s army, you have a host of personal accounts, letters, diaries, etc, and they are written by junior officers and sometimes ordinary soldiers. These tell you about the little details of life on campaign, as well as the battles and skirmishes. You can describe a uniform with confidence, even include jokes and slang that were doing the rounds at the time of the story.
None is this is available for the Roman world, so you have to guess and invent or lift from other periods. Time and again someone would ask me how I came up with the idea for an incident in one of the Napoleonic stories and how on earth did I think of it. Usually, the answer was that it was true. I may have made it happen to one of my characters, but that was what they really did. You cannot do that to anything like the same degree with a story set in AD 98 in Roman Britain. So writing the two sets of stories has been very different, which has been nice. Hopefully someday before too long I’ll complete the Napoleonic series as well as keeping Ferox busy.
The snow that falls on a battlefield settles on the fallen rather than the damp ground – where do details like that appear from?
That sort of thing comes from accounts from other eras, and looking at film and pictures and what you see around you. I have always had a interest in most of history, with a particular fondness for military history. My mind seems good at remembering the obscure – and less good at something like remembering a phone number. For Vindolanda I have lifted bits and pieces from other periods and cultures to fill in all the gaps in our knowledge. I’ve seen horses close up to the one in front so that its tail helps waft the flies away, so there doesn’t seem any reason why the Batavian’s mounts in the story would not do the same thing.
One thing that is important to me in both Vindolanda and the Napoleonic series is that there is a sense of humour running through it. Partly this is because I find a thriller or adventure story without humour rather dull, but mainly it’s because all the soldiers I have known and read about have laughed a lot. The humour is often quite black, but it helps them to cope. So to me, to make the story and characters plausible the characters need to joke and laugh.
You’ve got a one-way ticket to the Roman Empire for you and your family. When and where are you taking them?
So many choices. It would be something to see Rome at its height – both the grandeur and the squalor. Some the slums probably resembled the poorest areas of Calcutta than our imagined city of gleaming marble. I suspect the smells would be pretty overpowering. Be nice to see an army base and see how close we have got to the reality from the archaeological remains – or Hadrian’s Wall. Still, if you wanted a holiday, perhaps just a comfortable villa somewhere.
You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the Library of Alexandria. Which do you choose?
As a historian hard to resist a library, although an archive somewhere less famous or at an army base might provide fascinating if less dramatic information. Hadrian was probably tough to be around, and I suspect you would spend most of your time listening and saying how right he was. Caesar had charm, and giving my interests seeing the real Roman army in action would answer a lot of questions. It would be a grim business though.
What’s next for Flavius Ferox?
A new novel, The Encircling Sea comes out on 1st June. Without giving too much away, this takes Ferox to the far north and across the sea, and features some old and some new enemies. I’m finishing off the third novel at the moment and that will be out in 2019.