When I visited English Heritage’s Festival of History last month, I left with goodies. Among these was Wounds of Honour by Anthony Riches, the first in a new series of novels about Roman Britain called Empire. I must admit that there was a time when I treated novels about the Roman military with a little bit of distance but those days are no more and thank heavens for that – I would not have wanted to miss out on this.
About 180 AD, young nobleman Marcus Valerius Aquila arrives in Britannia to begin his military service but before he has time to draw breath he discovers that everything he has left behind him in Rome is gone. His family has fallen victim to the violent paranoia of Commodus and Marcus’ arrival in Britannia was actually his escape, unknown to him and planned by his father.
Allies of Marcus’ family hide the young soldier at the very edge of the empire, on Hadrian’s Wall, as a Centurion of the second Tungrian cohort, recruited from Gaul. But at this point cold facts are taken over by the spirit and courage of Marcus, not to mention his likeability. Almost immediately, Marcus finds himself facing a massive attack from the tribes to the north – an attack which has been fed by Roman intrigue. Risking everything for the sake of one of his men, Marcus wins over these tough fighting Gauls while also gaining the admiration of his Roman superiors. Yet, Marcus can never be too certain about who knows what about his true identity.
The plot and action of Wounds of Honour is superb. I had a lot of difficulty putting this book down. But the main reason for this immersion in the mud, stink and violence of the frontier, is Anthony Riches’ expert use of what is clearly a vast knowledge of the Roman military and of everyday details of a Roman soldier’s life. This novel is steeped in the kind of details that bring history to life. They’re not laboured and they’re not intrusive – they fit perfectly into this completely vivid and action-packed account of military life on a dangerous border. The battles are as edge of the seat as you could want, made richer and more intense by how well we have come to know and like (or hate) the men around Marcus.
It is clear from Wounds of Honour that Anthony Riches not only knows his stuff, he also thoroughly enjoys it. He sweeps the reader along with him, learning as they go. I’ve not been to Hadrian’s Wall for quite a few years but after reading this I am so keen to go back. Now I have in my mind the strange, local names of the forts, some perception of the men who patrolled the Wall, who had come from all parts of the empire, their lives and routine, and then there are the tribes beyond. If a novel makes me want to learn more about its subject then I’m grateful to it – Wounds of Honour does just that.