Head of Zeus | 2017 (1 June) | 403p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 98 and all is quiet on the northernmost fringes of the Roman empire. It’s a generation or so since the Iceni revolt led by Boudicca and Hadrian’s Wall is still twenty years or so in the future. The majority of tribes have gone quiet. They’re paying their taxes (as late as possible) and they’re even integrated into the Roman army of occupation. Flavius Ferox is a fine example – he is both tribal prince (of the Silures) and centurion. Ferox has been seconded to the northern border where his role is to help mediate with the local people to keep the peace.
But Ferox has been harmed by his service to Rome. He’s been too good at his job, used to bad ends by the now dead and damned emperor Domitian, finding refuge in wine, beer and oblivion. But now Rome has a new emperor, Trajan, and, while many greet his accession with hope, there are others who see this empire in transition as weak, open to attack. You might have thought that Britain would be far enough away from Rome to be safe from such plots. But there are ambitious and treacherous Romans serving in Britain, ready to use the northern tribes to bring disgrace and defeat to Rome’s British legions and governor. These tribes, though, have plans of their own, and leading them is a terrifying figure – Stallion, a Druid of formidable influence and cruelty.
Adrian Goldsworthy is one of Britain’s most well-known Roman historians and with Vindolanda he makes his Roman fictional debut (he is previously known for his Napoleonic fiction). A wealth of well-preserved evidence has been recovered from excavations in the Roman fort of Vindolanda and the author puts this to very good use – whether it’s the Vindolanda tablets (especially the famous birthday party invitation) or the astonishing number of shoes that have been found in the site’s waterlogged deposits. There are people in this novel who really existed, making a home so far away from Rome, and Adrian Goldsworthy brings these men and women whose names we know to life, just as he brings Vindolanda itself to life. He gives this archaeological site walls, gates, offices, roads, barracks, bathhouses and a neighbouring town of shops, taverns and brothels. You can almost hear the sound of hobnailed feet.
As you’d expect from a good historian, this is a novel supported by meticulous detail but it doesn’t take anything away from the drama of what always remains a thoroughly entertaining work of fiction. The result is a wonderfully rich portrait of clothes, armour, carriages, house furnishings and so much more, including, in particular, warfare. Ferox finds himself caught up in an increasingly tense and violent situation as the Druids call to arms the men of the tribes. Ferox can stand and watch the exodus of warriors from village to army or he can lead the Romans and make the locals fight. It’s very tense and exciting, as well as bloody. There’s nothing gratuitous about the violence in Vindolanda. Much is left to the imagination. When we are told the true outrage of what has happened – such as the cruel murder of a young Roman matron – it’s all the more horrific for standing out.
Vindolanda tells a fantastic story. It is packed full of action and thrills but this is balanced with real insight into Roman Britain and its people at the end of the 1st century AD. This is Roman military fiction written with restraint and I really admired and liked that. This did, though, lead to my only issue with the novel – the repeated use of the words ‘humping’ or ‘humped’ in place of the more expected curses! It really stood out and I wish it didn’t.
Historians don’t necessarily make good novelists but Adrian Goldsworthy has pulled it off. Vindolanda is such a well-written and authoritative novel that is always enjoyable and entertaining. Ferox is a great character (I love the repartee with Vindex) and so too are the women that we meet, especially the marvellous Sulpicia Lepidina. I really enjoyed the mix of military and civilian Vindolanda, its blend of religions and traditions, as well as its exploration of the mingling of Roman and Briton on this edge of empire. This is an excellent novel and I’m delighted to report that it is just the first in a new series.
I must mention that Vindolanda is yet another of Head of Zeus’s fine looking hardbacks – with a ribbon!