Monday, 5 March 2018

Vindolanda, by Adrian Goldsworthy

British historian Adrian Goldsworthy’s debut novel is a labour of love, for the history of Iron Age Britain under Roman occupation, Rome’s military power abroad, and the Pax Romana – a high level of peace which as he states, was maintained by force.

It is A.D 98; Centurion Titus Flavius Ferox is drowning his considerable sorrows in a mouldering far-flung garrison in Britannia’s North. He has been banished for being too close to a conspiracy which deposed Emperor Domitian; now Trajan is in power, but for how long? He doesn’t know and cares even less: he has lost his true love and life holds no pleasures except the booze – until his scouting party, led by his reluctant friend Vindex arrives back with some tortured corpses in tow and the news that the locals are being exhorted by shadowy figures of the Druid priesthood to rise up against the Roman Oppressors – and they seem to be having some success.

Ferox is not a Roman by birth; he is a Silurean, born in what is now South Wales, but his tribe was eventually defeated after a long siege by the Roman Army and as was the custom, he was given as a hostage, trained in the military and eventually given Roman Citizenship in exchange for his Sacred Oath of Allegiance. His loyalties lie with the Empire now, and to that end he must carry news of the impending unrest to the nearest seat of Roman government, the huge fort of Vindolanda near the River Tyne.

Vindolanda’s modern excavation has revealed many fascinating details of the everyday life of a Roman military outpost, and Mr Goldsworthy has cleverly included real life figures mentioned in wax tablets painstakingly translated from the Latin. Commander of Vindolanda, Prefect Cerialis and his wife Sulpicia Lepidina actually existed in the correspondence; now they live again as Ferox saves Sulpicia and her maid from ambush on his way to the fort – while her husband is off hunting with guests.

Which sets the scene (naturally!) for a budding romance between the rescuer and the rescuee. Rescuee? Anyway. I have to say that Mr Goldsworthy’s characters, while as historically accurate as he can draw them, are pretty predictable: Vindex, Ferox’s friend and Scout Supreme uses a lot of very modern swear-words; he’s a likeable rogue and the perfect brave sidekick; Sulpicia is noble, beautiful, posh, Patrician and so far out of Ferox’s league that he can hardly believe that they do have a stolen night of lurve together while Cerialis is off having his wicked way with a slave girl. The local tribes as they mass together for the great rebellion are well characterised and the battle scenes are detailed and suitably bloody, with Ferox learning to his great discomfort that the tribes know so much about Roman battle plans that a traitor must be supplying them with information. Who and why are the mysteries that must be solved before the suppression of the rebellion turns into a massive defeat from which Roman military might may never recover.

For the layperson Mr Goldsworthy has produced a detailed Glossary and a helpful section of Historical Notes to illustrate the authenticity of his story, and Ferox and Vindex will ride the Iron Age Range again in a promised sequel. Good stuff!


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