The Unravelling of Roman Britain

The departure of the Roman legions - a traditional view. From  Cassell’s History of England , 1909 edition

The departure of the Roman legions - a traditional view. From Cassell’s History of England, 1909 edition

Surprisingly, for a rather obscure episode of ancient history, the end of Roman rule in Britain has been in the news quite a bit in recent years. This is largely because of perceived similarities to the current situation in the UK, and the ongoing attempts of the Westminster government to disentangle itself from the European Union. But, leaving aside such comparisons if possible, what do we actually know about how and why Britain left the Roman Empire?

In the first half of the 4th century, life in the Diocese Britanniarum was apparently pretty good – at least for the wealthier inhabitants who left most of the material traces we use to determine these things. Roman Britain was firmly woven into a vast and complex empire stretching all the way to the Tigris and the upper Nile.

Compared with the Gallic provinces, devastated by civil war and invasion during the chaotic 3rd century, Britain was wealthy, stable and secure. But this very prosperity was perhaps deceptive. The growth of massive country villas – most of those that survive today date from this period – with their luxurious bath suites and polychrome mosaics, might suggest that wealth was increasingly pooling in the hands of a small elite class of landowners. The simultaneous decay of infrastructure in many towns and cities could indicate that this wealth was not trickling down to all levels of society.

This situation – rosy for some – seems to have suffered a major setback in the late AD360s. The specifics are hazy. The contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus writes of a ‘barbarian conspiracy’ of Picts and Scots, overwhelming the defences and plundering the provinces, combined perhaps with a breakdown in military discipline and major civil unrest. Recent historians have tended to question the whole narrative of ‘barbarian invasions’, which often appears as a convenient deus ex machina to explain why certain otherwise obscure things happened in late antiquity. But whatever the cause, the security of Britain does appear to have suffered, and quite possibly the confidence of the people of the province in the stability of imperial control suffered with it.

From the 370s onward, there are signs that overall quality of life in Roman Britain was declining steeply. The abandonment and downgrading of both villas and urban areas in this period suggests a reduction in economic and social complexity that to some extent is matched elsewhere in the Roman west, but in Britain appears to have been particularly rapid. While direct evidence for hostile activity is scanty, the number of buried coin hoards from towards the end of the 4th century could be taken as an indication of social unrest. Attacks on coastal areas by Saxon or Pictish raiders, while probably not too extensive, would have contributed to a sense of vulnerability among both wealthy landowners and provincial citizens alike.

St Albans hoard.jpg

Gold solidi from a hoard of 159 coins found near St Albans. They were all minted between AD388 and 408, with the majority featuring Honorius, the presiding emperor at the time that Britain was parted from imperial control. Details from the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Exactly what happened at the dawn of the 5th century to trigger the subsequent upheavals is unclear, but the results would be catastrophic. In AD406, the troops based in Britain – who had possibly not been paid for some time, and may have resented demands for manpower from a hard-pressed imperial government in Italy – threw off the authority of the Emperor Honorius and elevated a soldier named Marcus as their new Augustus. This figure, a historical blank beyond his name, did not last long. Shortly afterwards the Britons overthrew Marcus and elevated in his place one Gratianus, who appears to have been a town councillor of some kind.

Gratianus too was destined for a very brief and ignoble rule. Early in AD407, news reached Britain that, in the dead of winter, a force of Vandals, Alani and other barbarians had breached the frontier on the Rhine and were rampaging across Gaul, heading for the Channel coast. This invasion may not have been as large or as destructive as contemporaries, and generations of subsequent historians, believed. But, after only four months in the purple, Gratianus too was tumbled from precarious power, and his place taken by yet another army officer, who bore the impressively imperial-sounding name Flavius Claudius Constantinus.

Gold solidus of Constantine III, minted at Lyon. The reverse shows him trouncing a fallen barbarian.

Gold solidus of Constantine III, minted at Lyon. The reverse shows him trouncing a fallen barbarian.

However, if the people of Britain hoped that their martial new Augustus would secure the shores against invaders, they would soon be disappointed. His eyes on a bigger prize, Constantine III (as he is known today) instead collected up most of the mobile troops remaining in Britain and crossed to the continent, determined both to drive out the barbarians and to extend his rule over the western empire. This, incidentally, is probably the best candidate for ‘the departure of the Roman army’, a scenario much beloved by Victorian and Edwardian artists. But we should not imagine shiploads of Italian legionaries sailing from the British shores: the small British field army, a recent innovation, contained units from Gaul and apparently from Syria, while the frontiers of Britain were largely defended by locally-raised troops and Germanic mercenaries, many of whom probably stayed put. It does appear that the garrisons of several coastal forts, from Portchester and Pevensey to the Kent coast, were moved to the continent around this time, however, as they later turn up in a list of the Gallic field army units of c.AD420.

John Everett Milais Romans Leaving Britain 1865.jpg

‘The Romans Leaving Britain’, by John Everett Millais (1865)

With their newly-minted emperor and most of his troops off in Gaul defeating the barbarians (in fact he appears to have made treaties with them instead), securing the Rhine frontier, and then battling Honorius’s generals, the citizens of Roman Britain found themselves with little adequate protection against their own worrisome foes. Later chronicles mention Saxon and Irish raids during this period, which would have been almost unopposed with the coasts now thinly defended at best. It was due to the “negligent government” of Constantine III, the historian Zosimus writes, that “the barbarians were emboldened to commit such devastations.”

Not surprisingly for such a fractious people, it did not take long before the Britons had had enough of Constantine III. Zosimus tells the story in passing: “The Britons therefore took up arms… for their own protection, until they had freed their cities from the barbarians who besieged them… In a similar manner, the whole of Armorica, with other provinces of Gaul, delivered themselves by the same means; expelling the Roman magistrates or officers, and erecting a government, such as they pleased, of their own.” [Zosimus, New History, 6.5.3]

So this was not a rebellion against Roman rule in general, but against the rule of an ineffectual usurper, who was at that time caught up in fighting a civil war in Spain and dealing with yet further barbarian incursions on the Rhine. Those doing the rebelling, whether an elite clique of wealthy landowners or some – perhaps more egalitarian – commune of citizens, apparently set up their own government in place of the one they had overthrown, and their rebellion spread across the Channel to Armorica (Brittany) as well. Such grassroots uprisings were not uncommon in the Roman west; the rebels even had a name: bagaudae. But a well known and much-discussed note a little further along in Zosimus’s narrative suggests that there was something more going on here.

“Honorius,” Zosimus writes, “sent a letter to the cities of Britain, counselling them to look to their own defence.” The context for this comment is obscure; it comes in a passage describing the actions of a Gothic army at that time (summer AD410) rampaging around northern Italy, who had for a time besieged the emperor Honorius inside the walls of Ravenna and who were shortly to sack Rome itself. What did this have to do with Britain? The mystery has led several historians to conclude that Zosimus’s Greek text should actually read Brouttía or Bruttía (Bruttium, the toe of Italy) rather than Brettanía (Britain). But Bruttium is 500 miles away from Ravenna, and the Goths were marching in the opposite direction; why would Honorius be warning cities so far away, that were in no conceivable danger? Attempts to explain the name as Raitía (Raetia, roughly modern Switzerland) instead collapse on similar grounds.

Ivory consular diptych of Anicius Probus, AD406, portraying the Emperor Honorius in martial guise. In reality, the young emperor had no experience of war.

Ivory consular diptych of Anicius Probus, AD406, portraying the Emperor Honorius in martial guise. In reality, the young emperor had no experience of war.

There seems, in fact, little reason not to relate this odd note to the passage shortly before in Zosimus’s history about the Britons taking up arms and throwing off the government of the usurper Constantine III. The letter, which was perhaps a rescript, or response to a petition, was addressed to ‘the cities of Britain’, which suggests that there was at that time no single leader or governor controlling the island, and that Britain had fractured into a network of individual power bases, perhaps centred on larger fortified towns like St Albans, Cirencester or Silchester; several of these, we might assume, had got together and addressed a petition to the emperor in Ravenna, requesting that he send troops to defend them and to re-establish proper imperial control over their island after the rule of the usurpers. Honorius, however, had his hands full dealing with Italy, and could offer only vain platitudes. Hang in there, he was telling them. I’ll help you when I get the chance.

What seems clear from this interpretation is that Honorius was not telling the Britons that they were no longer Roman. This (in)famous letter was not a declaration that Britain was no longer part of the Roman empire. Nor, it seems, did the Britons themselves (or, at least, those who wrote to the emperor) want to cease being citizens of the empire, or for imperial rule over Britain to come to an end. Instead, these are rather desperate expedients by people whose options are limited and whose time is running out, trying to shore up the remains of a social and political structure and hoping that some lucky accident will deliver a way out of their malaise.

 But there was no way out. By AD416 Honorius’s resurgent generals had crushed the rebellion in Gaul and ended the fighting in Spain, bought off the barbarians and executed the usurpers. But their military control did not extend beyond the Channel. The Rhine frontier remained too vulnerable, and Spain too fractious, for any concerted westward expeditions, and while the ‘cities of Britain’ may have come to believe that Roman rule would return to them some time soon, in the event it seems that no imperial military reinforcements, or any restored Roman civil government, ever set foot on the island after AD410. A handful of churchmen made the trip, concerned only to protect the Christian congregations of the island from pagans and heretics; that too was a losing battle.

Surviving Roman fortifications at Portchester, a coastal fort originally built in the later 3rd century. The regular Roman garrison was probably withdrawn c.AD407

Surviving Roman fortifications at Portchester, a coastal fort originally built in the later 3rd century. The regular Roman garrison was probably withdrawn c.AD407

Roman Britain had been an integral part of a vast interconnected empire, which brought wealth, technology, cultures and peoples from across Europe, North Africa and the eastern provinces. Once those connections were severed, urban infrastructure and local economy withered and died. Post-Roman Britain became a backwater, a landscape of abandoned settlements, crumbling buildings and subsistence agriculture, ruled over by feuding warlords. Trade links with continental Europe survived only in some places, and small amounts of Roman coinage found its way across the Channel too – some of it ended up buried in hoards, presumably to keep it safe in times of crisis.

As the beleaguered western empire staggered on through the violent 5th century, the Britons addressed plaintive requests to the Roman government and army to aid them in their distress. ‘The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us upon the barbarians,’ one letter, recorded by the churchman Gildas, groaned. ‘By one or other of these two modes of death we are either killed or drowned.’ But the Romans had their own problems, and could do nothing for distant ex-provinces any more. Within another century, most of what was once Roman Britain had fallen into the hands of Germanic rulers from across the sea, perhaps former warband leaders employed as mercenaries, now kings of a new Anglo-Saxon domain.

This, then, was the end of Roman Britain. Not a single violent upheaval, one gust of wind blowing out the lamps of civilisation, so to speak, but rather a slow fade of control and influence. The few short years of truculent rebellion, from 407 to 409, were followed by decades of decline, despair, and a steady unravelling of social, political and economic structures that saw Britain sink into a period of stagnation that would last for centuries.

It is quite possible that those living at the time of the slow sundering did not even known it was happening, and many of them would perhaps not concede for decades, even generations, to come that they were no longer Romans, and that the richly cultured empire they had once inhabited was gone for good.


For the latest scholarly views on the end of Roman Britain, the 2014 collection of conference papers AD 410: The History and Archaeology of Late and Post-Roman Britain (edited by F.K Haarer) is available in pdf format from the Archaeology Data Service.

The Fates of Fausta and Crispus: an ancient murder mystery?

crispus and fausta.jpg

It is one of the most mysterious episodes in later Roman history, a puzzle that has never been solved. In AD326, a year after the culmination of a civil war that had given him total power over the Roman world, the Emperor Constantine condemned his son and heir Flavius Crispus Caesar and his wife Flavia Maxima Fausta (the Caesar's stepmother) to cruel and unusual execution. No official explanation was ever given for what happened.

Just as the deaths of these two prominent individuals were immediately hushed up by the imperial authorities, so the details of their lives were also erased, quite literally: their names were chiselled from monuments, and the historian Eusebius rewrote his major work to omit the glowing references to Crispus in the first edition.

In the absence of an official story, rumours bred, and many of these are mentioned by later writers. Gregory of Tours claims that Fausta and Crispus were plotting treason together, while Eutropius suggested that Crispus had paid for an illegal astrological reading. Orosius maintained that Crispus was killed because he favoured the heretical Arian sect, while Evagrius claimed that the executions never happened at all.

Several ancient historians allude to a sexual connection between the pair; Zonarus agrees with the 5th century churchman Philostorgius that Fausta falsely accused Crispus of raping her, and was put to death in turn when the truth emerged. Many recent commentators have followed this line, but it does not explain why neither victim was ever pardoned, nor their reputation restored.

Whatever crime Fausta and Crispus were alleged to have committed, Constantine must have believed it to be heinous, and never forgave either of them. Clearly the deaths were connected, and unusual: Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that Crispus was killed at Pola (modern Pula, Croatia) – by coincidence or sinister design, the same unimportant town in Istria was later chosen as the execution site of another Caesar, Gallus, who was killed on the orders of Constantine’s heir Constantius II.

Sidonius Apollinaris gives ‘cold poison’ as the cause of Crispus’s death; he and several others mention that Fausta died in an overheated bath. There are strong hints of conspiracy and treason, and suggestions that the emperor’s mother Helena had some influence over events, but beyond that all is conjecture. Why, for example, was Crispus poisoned in Pola, of all places? Was he taken there as a form of exile, after being condemned in Milan, or even in Rome? Was he trying to escape a death sentence, or was he, perhaps, travelling to join Constantine at the time he was apprehended? Neither poisoning nor boiling in a bath were usual Roman execution methods: did the pair die by suicide, hoping to escape imperial justice, or perhaps just by accident? Or was this a case of 'judicial murder'?

Modern scholars have little more to go on, and have been able to offer only tentative theories about what might really have happened. David Woods, in his paper ‘On the Death of the Empress Fausta’ (1998) suggests an attempted abortion as a likely cause for Fausta’s end. But as Jan Willem Drijvers puts it, “in the case of the executions of Crispus and Fausta, historians should admit that they have a mystery which will never be solved.”

For a long time, it was not even clear when the deaths happened. We know that both Crispus and Fausta were dead by the end of Constantine’s vicennalia year, the 20th anniversary of his acclamation: that would be July 24th AD326. Crispus, apparently, died first, and we know he died at Pola. We also know, from the date of a law of Constantine’s recorded in the Theodosian Code, that the emperor was still in Milan on July 6th, but he had arrived in Rome for the vicennalia celebrations by the 18th at the latest. Lars Ramskold, in his 2012 paper ‘Constantine’s Vicennalia and the Death of Crispus’, cites what could be a vital piece of evidence for the chronology of the events of AD326: a bronze dynastic coin recently found in Rome, celebrating the vicennalia and showing the head of Crispus, which was probably minted in the city after Constantine’s arrival. If so, the coin proves that Crispus must still have been alive – or was believed to be alive – on July 18th. Bearing in mind the amount of time a message would have taken to reach Rome from Pola, and the information that he was dead before the 24th, we can narrow down the possible time frame for the young Caesar’s execution to a matter of days. Fausta, then, must have been killed almost immediately after the receipt of the news; most likely, she died in Rome, where she would have been accompanying her husband for the forthcoming celebrations.

The deaths of Crispus and Fausta, together with the battles of the civil war that preceded them, form the dramatic centrepiece of my novel Imperial Vengeance. In composing the story, I tried to make the best sense of the scraps of evidence we do possess, and to devise a scenario both historically plausible and dramatically engaging. It’s almost certain that the version of events I present in the novel is a long way from what really happened – it does, after all, involve several fictional characters – but I was determined to create something that followed the course of known history to the very limits of available knowledge, and then to use those limits as a guide to invention. To create a fictional version of what happened, in other words, that at least could have been true. I leave it to the reader to judge how effective my attempts at ‘re-imagination’ have been!


IMPERIAL VENGEANCE (Twilight of Empire V)

- now available in paperback (Amazon UK)


"Aethiops quidam e Numero Militari" - Black Africans in the Roman Army

A black legionary cornicen on the northern frontier, c.AD200. Illustration by Pavel   Šimák.

A black legionary cornicen on the northern frontier, c.AD200. Illustration by Pavel Šimák.

The question of whether black Africans served in the Roman army comes up with surprising frequency on social media. It’s a contentious topic, related to various contemporary debates about ethnicity, multiculturalism, and the representation of history. Often these discussions generate considerably more heat than light, but as I was recently asked about an African centurion who appeared in my first novel, War at the Edge of the World, I though I might share a few thoughts about one of the few scraps of evidence we possess for the ethnicity of Roman soldiers.

In AD208, towards the end of his life, the elderly and gout-afflicted emperor Septimius Severus came to Britain for a last campaign against the rebellious peoples north of Hadrian’s Wall. Two years later, with no clear victory in sight, he died at York; but in the months before his death he apparently experienced several grim omens. The Historia Augusta, a much later account of various imperial lives, preserves an unusual anecdote from the emperor’s stay in the north:


"After inspecting the wall near the rampart in Britain… just as he [Severus] was wondering what omen would present itself, an Ethiopian from a military unit, who was famous among buffoons and always a notable joker, met him with a garland of cypress. And when Severus in a rage ordered that the man be removed from his sight, troubled as he was by the man's ominous colour and the ominous nature of the garland, [the Ethiopian] by way of jest cried, it is said, “You have been all things, you have conquered all things, now, O conqueror, be a god.” "

(Post murum apud vallum visum in Brittannia… volvens animo quid ominis sibi occurreret, Aethiops quidam e numero militari, clarae inter scurras famae et celebratorum semper iocorum, cum corona e cupressu facta eidem occurrit. quem cum ille iratus removeri ab oculis praecepisset, et coloris eius tactus omine et coronae, dixisse ille dicitur ioci causa: Totum fuisti, totum vicisti, iam deus esto victor.)

(Historia Augusta, ‘Septimius Severus’, 22.4-5)


The Historia Augusta is generally regarded today as only partially reliable at best, but even if the event is fictitious, it must at least have been believable. This suggests that it may indeed have been possible to encounter a black soldier serving in the Roman army in northern Britain in AD210, although we can gather from the emperor’s reaction that it would not have been a common occurrence! 

The Roman empire was both cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic, drawing in people from every territory within and adjacent to its domains, and in most cases turning them into citizens. This was certainly true of the army, just as it was of the aristocracy; for centuries, Rome had been absorbing the ruling elites of conquered nations and ‘rewarding’ them with access to the senatorial order.

Severus himself was a product of this cultural and political cross-pollination. Born in Leptis Magna, in today’s Libya, his family were of Punic (Carthaginian/Lebanese) background, and had gained Roman citizenship long before. His wife Julia Domna was Syrian, and a family portrait of c.AD200 shows the couple with their two sons – the second son’s face was obliterated some time later after his brother Caracalla murdered him and tried to erase him from history. The portrait shows Severus with a darker or ruddier complexion than his Syrian wife and son.

Severan Tondo.jpg

But the Romans had different ideas about ethnicity and geographical origins to those most common today, and often we have no way of distinguishing different ethnic groups, still less different complexions, from literary evidence. The ethnic marker Afer (‘African’), for example, which appears on tombstones, refers strictly to people from the region around Carthage, in modern Tunisia. The Roman term for someone of sub-Saharan origin was Aethiops – ‘Ethiopian’. So while Severus could be described as an African, we can see from the anecdote about the black soldier in Britain that he could not have been Aethiops himself.

   A Romano-Egyptian mummy portrait from Fayum, 2nd-3rd century AD


A Romano-Egyptian mummy portrait from Fayum, 2nd-3rd century AD

As the term suggests, the principal route of entry for black Africans into the empire would be via the Nile valley and Egypt. Alexandria, in particular, was famously cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic, and had a black population long before the arrival of the Romans. The 4th-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus describes the Egyptians of his own time as ‘swarthy and dark of complexion’. However, not all black Africans came from Egypt; Ammianus also mentions, in passing, that tribes of Aethiopi lived near Auzia in the province of Mauretania Caesariensis (modern Sour el-Ghozlane, in Algeria): there were trade routes across the Sahara into North Africa at the time, and historians have only recently begun to study the possible cultural and ethnic connections in this area.

However, for all the evidence of black Africans living throughout the Roman empire, we should not believe that ancient peoples were necessarily ‘colour blind’, or free from prejudices about ethnicity. On the contrary; it seems that many Romans were distinctly prejudiced against black people in particular. Black Africans were seen as exotic, and perhaps threateningly alien, and they are seldom if ever mentioned in Roman literature without some negative connotation. Most disturbingly, the historian Appian claims that the military commander Brutus, before the battle of Philippi in 42BC, met an ‘Ethiopian’ outside the gates of his camp: his soldiers instantly hacked the man to pieces, taking his appearance for a bad omen – to the superstitious Roman, black was the colour of death.

This brings us back to the story in the Historia Augusta about Severus meeting the black soldier in Britain. Like the funereal cypress garland he carried, the soldier’s appearance seemed to the emperor an intimation of his own approaching demise. To be scrupulous, we should perhaps note that the text does not clearly refer to the man as a soldier – he was Aethiops quindam e numero militari: 'an Ethiopian from a military unit'. Nevertheless, he was most probably an enlisted man – 3rd-century evidence from Dura Europos on the eastern frontier and Lyons in Gaul suggests that military men could have additional roles as actors or entertainers (scaenici), but the term scurrus famae may simply have meant that he was well known among his fellow soldiers for his sense of humour!

Some historians have suggested that the Ethiopian could have been serving with the Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum, a ‘Moorish’ unit stationed at Burgh-by-Sands near the western end of Hadrian’s Wall in the later Roman era. This too is plausible, although the unit is first attested in Britain in the mid 3rd-century, and probably gained its title from a previous posting at Orleans (Civitas Aurelianorum) in modern France. So there may have been few, if any, actual ‘Moors’ in the unit by Severus’s day, even if the numerus was in Britain at all at that point.

North African light cavalry in action, as portrayed on Trajan’s Column in Rome, cAD110

North African light cavalry in action, as portrayed on Trajan’s Column in Rome, cAD110

But there may have been plenty of other routes for a man of black African origin to find himself in a military unit in the north of Britain in AD210. Detachments of legions and other forces were often sent from one province to another, sometimes over great distances, and we have evidence of men apparently recruited in North Africa turning up in Britain in the later second century.

The legions II Traiana and III Augusta, based in Egypt and Numidia respectively, appear to have been used as a pool for reinforcements throughout imperial history; they alone would have contributed to a wide ethnic diffusion through the army more generally. And then, of course, there are the auxiliary forces, raised from inhabitants of the frontier provinces and given citizenship on discharge.

The irregular North African light cavalry who appear on Trajan’s Column may have a rather idealised appearance - and it is not entirely clear what the sculptor intended their ethnicity to be, beyond generically 'African' - but they certainly imply that, for all the prejudices of the metropolitan Roman, the army was far more accepting of diversity!

Our evidence would suggest, then, that the black African centurion Rogatianus who appears in War at the Edge of the World, himself a recent transfer to Britain, would probably not have been so unusual in the Roman army of the early 4th-century AD. But our vision of the ancient past is necessarily fragmented and partial; history, the method we use to try and assemble those fragments and reconstruct what they might have shown, is constantly changing. Fiction provides one way of trying to imagine what the past might have looked like, in all its unexpected variety. So whether it’s the colour of Roman soldiers, or just the colour of Roman tunics, the debates will no doubt continue.

A Biblical scene from the 6th-7th century Ashburnham/Tours Pentateuch ;  the figures are dressed in typical late Roman style .

A Biblical scene from the 6th-7th century Ashburnham/Tours Pentateuch; the figures are dressed in typical late Roman style.

The Arch of Galerius - A deleted scene.

In every book I write there are certain passages - anything from a few lines of dialogue to an entire chapter - which I realise that I don't need; they don't fit with the structure of the narrative, or they are leading the story in the wrong direction. Often I save these deleted scenes in a separate file; even if they cannot be used anywhere else, they stand as an interesting record of various roads not taken.

The scene below comes from an early draft of Imperial Vengeance. Although it didn't end up in the finished book, I still like it. Partly this is because of the link to the prologue of War at the Edge of the World, which portrays the Battle of Oxsa; partly also because of the interaction between Castus and his young son. But mainly I like it because it concerns a monument that still stand today: the Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki, all that remains of the great Roman imperial palace of the early 4th century AD.

The Arch of Galerius today (above), and a reconstruction of its possible appearance in the 4th century (below, from  this website ) - the friezes of relief sculptures would almost certainly have been painted.

The Arch of Galerius today (above), and a reconstruction of its possible appearance in the 4th century (below, from this website) - the friezes of relief sculptures would almost certainly have been painted.


‘And look here, you see the capture of the Persian harem! See – the eunuch plunges the dagger into his own neck! And here, see – the triumphant emperor!’

Leaning backwards, Castus squinted up at the carved and painted frieze on the monument. Beside him, his son Sabinus did the same; Eumolpius and a couple of slaves stood at a discreet distance. The guide, a scrawny man with bad teeth and enthusiastic Latin, was one of several who hung around the great four-sided Arch of Galerius, touting for business. Castus had passed this way many times, as the arch formed the northern gate of the palace precinct, but had never paused to do more than glance up at the frieze of vigorous scenes that covered the piers.

‘And here, Kyrios and Young Kyrios,’ the guide said, tugging at Castus’s sleeve, ‘come and you see – the submission of the barbarians!’

Castus was dressed plainly, in a simple soldier’s tunic and cloak; aside from the gold torque at his neck and his belt fittings he wore nothing to show that he held high rank. He reached into his pouch and pulled out two coppers.

‘Leave us,’ he said, holding up the coins. The guide paused, crestfallen for a moment, then took the coins with a shrug and hurried away towards a couple of newcomers.

‘Are you in the pictures anywhere, father?’ Sabinus asked.

Castus snorted a laugh. ‘Oh no!’ he said. ‘I was only a legionary when we fought the Persians. But we’ll see if we can find another battle, eh?’

He laid his arm across his son’s shoulders and they moved around the side of the pier, staring into the shadows below the arch. Eumolpius and the slaves followed.

‘There, see,’ Castus said, pointing upwards. High above them, ten feet or more, was a dramatic scene of combat. A horse reared over fallen bodies, and armoured figures clashed to either side.

‘Is that really what it was like?’ Sabinus asked, with a sceptical tone.

‘Not exactly,’ Castus told him. His memories of the battle at Oxsa were fragmented now, a shattered mosaic of bright shards. He recalled the dust and the noise, the fear as the Persian cataphracts burst through the infantry line, the pain of his wounds. Strange to see that campaign, over twenty years ago now, immortalised on this imperial monument in the city of Thessalonica.

‘Pictures like this,’ he said, waving his scarred hand at the battle frieze, ‘don’t really show what happened. They show what people want to think happened. You understand?’

‘I think so,’ Sabinus said. He raised himself on his toes, peering intently.

‘Here,’ Castus said. ‘I’ll give you a closer look.’

He knelt, and helped the boy scramble up onto his shoulders. With a grunt of effort – his son was growing fast – he straightened up. Sabinus swayed for a moment and then steadied himself as Castus gripped his ankles.

‘I can see the emperor at the top!’ the boy cried. ‘He’s riding in a chariot with mounted guards. That must be Galerius again. Who’s the man in the golden armour, fighting in the battle? Is that Constantine?’

‘Could be,’ Castus said, although he knew it was not. The guides liked to claim that Constantine was shown on the arch somewhere – he had been a tribune during the Persian war. But Galerius had never liked him, and it was unlikely he would have wanted him portrayed on his monument.

Pacing slowly, Castus circled the piers, letting his son gaze up at the reliefs in mute fascination. There were scenes of imperial triumph, parades of captives and wild animals, of sacrifice and victory. All of the emperors shown on the arch were dead now, Castus realised: Galerius himself, Diocletian and Maximian, and Constantius, the father of Constantine. He wondered how many of the other men who had fought in those battles, men he had served alongside, still lived.

They rounded the last pier of the arch, and Castus knelt again to let his son clamber from his shoulders. The boy’s eyes were wide with all he had seen, and he was smiling. Sabinus had been reticent and withdrawn during the journey from Salona, and for the last two days since arriving in Thessalonica too. Castus was glad to see his obvious pleasure in his company today; finally, he thought, they were starting to trust one another.


Meanwhile, if you want to get a good idea of what the ancient palace at Thessaloniki looked like in the 4th century, the excellent reconstructions on this website should help - The Galerian Complex.


How Christian was Constantine?


In AD312, so the legend goes, the Roman emperor Constantine saw a vision in the sky on the eve of battle: a Christian emblem and the message ‘Conquer with this’. In reality, it almost certainly didn’t happen that way, but Constantine nevertheless became the first Roman emperor to convert to the new religion, and his promotion of the faith led to a transformation of the ancient world. In my Twilight of Empire series of novels, I try to show how this religious and cultural transformation might have appeared, seen through the eyes of a man far from keen on the changes.

But was Constantine genuinely a committed Christian, or was he using religion for his own ends? Ever since the historian Jacob Burckhardt first suggested it in the 1850s, many have considered that the emperor’s conversion might have been motivated by cynical opportunism and ambition for total power, rather than by genuine spiritual belief.


The evidence for this view takes three main parts. Firstly, Constantine was not baptised until he was on his deathbed, which might suggest a certain ambivalence about the faith beforehand. Secondly, long after the supposedly crucial date of AD312, Constantine’s coins continued to display images of traditional Roman gods – Jupiter, Mars, and in particular the sun god, Sol Invictus. Thirdly, Constantine apparently made few moves to suppress or abolish traditional beliefs, and even constructed new temples in his city of Constantinople, where a statue depicted him wearing the radiate crown of Sol.

The first of these objections can be dismissed fairly easily. In early Christianity, deathbed baptism was quite common. It was, at the time, the only way of ridding oneself of sin – a one-shot soul-cleanser. For a man in Constantine’s position, obliged to take many morally dubious decisions (to say the least) while conquering and ruling a vast empire, it made sense to delay baptism as long as possible. Apparently, the emperor originally intended to have himself baptised in the River Jordan, just like Christ himself. In the event, he fell ill and died before he reached the Holy Land; but once he had finally undergone baptism he dressed himself in a simple white tunic and lay down to await death, content that he would enter heaven in a state of complete purity.

It is true, meanwhile, that Constantine issued many coins with pagan images and motifs. After AD305, when he first seems to have adopted Sol Invictus as his personal deity and protector, images of the sun god are most common. But his coins also show Mars, Hercules and Jupiter. Would a convinced Christian have allowed such a thing?

Bronze coin issued by Constantine in AD317. The reverse shows the sun god Sol Invictus, referred to as 'Companion of the Emperor'.

Bronze coin issued by Constantine in AD317. The reverse shows the sun god Sol Invictus, referred to as 'Companion of the Emperor'.

Interestingly, images of Sol disappear from Constantine’s coinage after AD319, and, following the final defeat of his last rival, the eastern emperor Licinius, in AD324, non-Christian imagery vanishes from the coinage altogether. It was the battle of Chrysopolis in that year, rather than Milvian Bridge twelve years previously, which really saw Constantine’s religious beliefs come to the attention of the world.

Christianity in the early fourth century was far from being a majority faith in the empire; perhaps only about 10% of Romans followed it. So it is perhaps unsurprising that Constantine continued to support certain aspects of the traditional religions, particularly during times of civil war, when a more vigorously anti-pagan policy could have provided ammunition for his enemies. But a letter to the eastern provinces, quoted by the biographer Eusebius and apparently written after the defeat of Licinius, makes it plain what Constantine thought of the old beliefs: “With regard to those who will hold themselves aloof from us, let them have, if they please, their temples of lies: we have the glorious edifice of truth…”

There was nothing all that ‘unRoman’ about Christianity by this stage. The traditional polytheistic customs of the Roman past had been declining in influence for decades, replaced by a multitude of new cults and philosophical beliefs, many of eastern origin, that tended towards a monotheistic outlook. The Christian hierarchy had been thoroughly Romanised, and by the early 4th century there was little cultural and no ethnic difference between a Roman Christian and a follower of more traditional beliefs.

Nor was it unusual for an emperor to identify himself with a particular god. Both Diocletian and Maximian, the senior emperors of the ‘tetrarchy’ that had preceded Constantine, had done just that: Diocletian named himself Iovius, the ‘man like Jupiter (or Jove)’, the living image of the king of the gods; his colleague Maximian was Herculius, the ‘man like Hercules’. Constantine seems initially to have adopted the sun god Sol Invictus in the same way – especially after his supposed vision of Apollo in Gaul some time in AD309-310. Ten years later, perhaps, he may have come to see Christianity as a more powerful version of Sol worship – from the Sun God to the Son of God, we might say, in one easy step!

Whatever Constantine’s own beliefs might have been, few people would have noticed an immediate difference after the Battle of Milvian Bridge. It was only during the final campaign against Licinius that we hear of Constantine praying before battle, ordering his troops to carry a Christian standard (in opposition to the pagan images still apparently used by Licinius) and even, according to the later writer Sozomen, purging the army of the rituals and the iconography of traditional religion altogether.

While certain of Constantine’s acts following his victory over Licinius – dismantling temples and apparently even melting down cult statues for coinage – may have had a financial motive, many of the emperor’s other religious and social measures appear to have been driven mainly by his own personal religious belief. Constantine, it seems, wanted a single unified religion for the empire, with himself at its head; the schisms and heresies of the church apparently pained and confused him far more than the ongoing beliefs of the traditionally-minded. "For while the people of God, whose fellow-servant I am,’ he wrote in the same letter quoted above, ‘are thus divided amongst themselves by an unreasonable and pernicious spirit of contention, how is it possible that I shall be able to maintain tranquillity of mind?

In his public declarations, then, Constantine appears to have been quite certain about his commitment to Christianity. He not only convened several church councils to decide knotty problems of dogma, but also composed the enormous speech known today as the Oration to the Saints; this would have taken a full two hours to recite, and probably served no political purpose at all – we can only pity the courtiers and ministers who had to listen to it! Meanwhile, in his reply to the Donatists after the Council of Arles in AD314, Constantine wrote that "I myself must be judged by Christ" (qui ipse judicium Christi expecto).

But while we can say with some confidence that Constantine at least believed himself to be a committed Christian, certainly after AD324 and probably before that too, working out what sort of Christian he might have been is a lot more difficult. The oration I mentioned above is rather confused in some aspects, and suggests that the emperor’s faith might have been quite unorthodox. Identifying himself with Christ, just as Diocletian and Maximian had identified themselves with Jupiter and Hercules, would have been seen as deeply heretical and perhaps blasphemous. But with Constantine ruling supreme over the Roman empire, and promoting Christianity with such vigour, it is unlikely that any of the bishops and other clerics that gathered around him would have taken it upon themselves to try and ‘correct’ the emperor’s beliefs!

The hand from the colossal statue of the emperor Constantine in Rome; originally it would have held a sceptre, probably featuring a Christian monogram.

The hand from the colossal statue of the emperor Constantine in Rome; originally it would have held a sceptre, probably featuring a Christian monogram.


I was in Split, on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, to visit the remains of the Roman palace – or fortified villa – built by the Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th Century AD. The previous evening I had gone to bed early, intending to get up soon after dawn and visit the ruins before the crowds gathered too thickly. In the event, however, I was woken a lot earlier. It was 3am, a hot night, and sleep had deserted me. Instead I got up, got dressed, and went out.

Over two hours until sunrise, and the narrow alleys of the medieval town were a labyrinth of pitch darkness and moonlight, deserted except for the occasional slinking cat. Stepping from the central alleyway I arrived at the Prothyron, the monumental entrance of the palace, with the colonnaded Peristyle before it. The effect was eerie and deeply impressive. In the warm darkness the open space appeared enclosed, like the interior of a vast basilica. My camera is not the greatest, but I took a picture anyway: the grainy result gives only a vague impression of the scene.



Later, after a stroll along the deserted seafront below the buttress walls of the palace, I returned to the Peristyle. It was shortly after 4am, and the sky was filling with light, the stone of the colonnade and the palace façade glowing with a premonition of dawn.



I remained there for another hour, as the daylight increased. By 4.30am the sky had grown pale, although the sun would not rise for another half hour. Already, though, the first other visitors had wandered through the square, taking pictures just as I was doing. Street sweepers appeared, and the owner of the Luxor Café unlocked the doors to begin preparations for the day’s business. Soon the guided tour groups would begin pouring in from the surrounding alleyways, the costumed ‘Roman soldiers’ would take up their positions, and the square would fill. It was enough: I returned to my apartment by 5am, and slept.

Later that day I went back to the palace. As the bells rang noon from the medieval campanile built onto the front of Diocletian’s Mausoleum, the emperor himself appeared - or rather, a man dressed in a loose approximation of imperial costume - flanked by guards. Before a sea of tourists, he recited a brief address in Italianate Latin, and coaxed a shout of acclamation from the crowd. Not the most authentic of displays, perhaps, but it served as an entertaining postscript to my pre-dawn visit.

Diocletian's Palace, Split, Emperor Appearance


(Anyone wanting a better idea of what an actual Late Roman emperor looked like might refer to this missorium, or ceremonial silver dish, dating from c.AD388 – the Emperor Theodosius, his two co-emperors and his guards are shown larger than life, under the arches of a Prothyron quite similar to the one in Split):

Theodosius Missorium

(One of my favourite anecdotes about Diocletian comes from the historian Aurelius Victor, who writes that the retired emperor, following his abdication in AD305, was begged by his former co-ruler Maximian to resume control of the empire, which had spiralled into chaos. “If you could see the cabbages I have grown with my own hands,” Diocletian replied, “you surely would never judge that a temptation!

The site of the ex-emperor’s veg patch has never been found, but perhaps lies somewhere in the vicinity of his palace at Split. Excavations in 2007 revealed that the sea, rather than lapping at the façade as formerly believed (or even flooding into the vaulted halls beneath, as some imaginative tour guides still claim), actually lay a short distance south-west of the palace itself. The excavators suggested that the space between palace and shore might have been filled by a hippodrome, or racetrack; common enough in imperial complexes of the era. However, the palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome has a sunken garden shaped like a hippodrome. So might it be that the seaward portico of the palace at Split looked out over just such a formal garden, and rather than watching chariot races from his front terrace, the old emperor Diocletian instead gazed down proudly at ranks of his own plump cabbages…?)


Further Reading?

The Croatian Ministry of Culture has produced a pdf of a very informative article on the Palace (available here).

For a more scholarly survey, try this academic paper (by the same author).


"Snails for the boys" - On the road with Theophanes of Hermopolis

Theophanes Carriage


Some time in early March (Phamenoth in the Egyptian calendar), around AD320, a man named Theophanes set off from the city of Hermopolis in the Nile valley on a journey to Antioch in Syria, capital of the eastern provinces of the Roman empire. Theophanes was probably a lawyer, and he was travelling to Antioch to visit the office of Dyscolius, the vicarius (deputy) to the Praetorian Prefect of the East. We don’t know the reason for his journey, but it may have been connected with a property dispute between different towns in the Hermopolis region. His round trip would take him nearly six months, but Theophanes travelled in style, staying at imperial guesthouses, bathing regularly, meeting and dining with friends and officials along the way. As a man, he is otherwise completely unknown, but his journey allows a fascinating insight into the daily life of a middle-class Roman traveller of the early 4th century AD.

We know about Theophanes today because a record of his trip, together with some letters of introduction to the officials he would meet along the way and an inventory of household possessions, was discovered in Egypt, in a cache of preserved papyri. The main document is a simple itinerary with a list of travel expenses – a dry compilation of facts, presumably compiled by his secretary. But, deciphered and studied by the historian John Matthews (in The Journey of Theophanes: Travel, Business and Daily Life in the Roman East), this basic account provides a way of reconstructing these few months in Theophanes’s life.

The document was written on the back of an official Latin petition, or subscriptio, stating the names of the reigning Caesars (junior emperors) of the day, which gives us an approximate date. Papyrus was valuable, and this would have been the equivalent of office scrap paper. The eastern empire at this point was under the rule of the Augustus Licinius, the great rival of the western emperor Constantine: fortunately, this is the exact period covered by my ‘Twilight of Empire’ novels.

Theophanes was not travelling alone, of course – wealthy Romans of his day seldom went anywhere unaccompanied. Notes in the account mention several members of his travelling retinue, most or all of them probably slaves. A man named Silvanus served as his phrontistes, or household manager, while another named Eudaimon dealt with his daily finances. There was a messenger (dromeus), appropriately called Hermes, and another named Horos. Two Egyptian slaves called Piox and Aoros seem to have acted as general helpers and baggage handlers. These, and perhaps other slaves, were collectively called paidia – ‘the boys’ – and there are frequent references to special provisions of lower-quality rations allocated to them.

Various friends and travelling companions come and go – somebody called Antoninus appears to accompany Theophanes for part of his journey. At the fortress of Babylon in Egypt (near modern Cairo) Theophanes pays for wine for ‘a Pannonian soldier’, and on the last leg of his journey, from Laodicea in Syria to Antioch, he is accompanied by ‘six Sarmatians’: these men are probably also soldiers, perhaps a military escort provided by the local governor. On that day Theophanes covered an extraordinary 64 miles, so perhaps he had joined a military group in a ride through the night to reach his final destination.

                                 Scenes of everyday life in Antioch, from the 5th century Yakto mosaic.

                                 Scenes of everyday life in Antioch, from the 5th century Yakto mosaic.

Other stages of the journey were less hectic. As an important civilian travelling on official business, Theophanes could apparently make use of the imperial post-carriage service, or cursus publicus, and stay at the network of mansiones, inns or guesthouses, along the route. This allowed him to move very rapidly: he covered distances of between 16 and 45 miles daily, averaging 32 per day. Matthews estimates that he would have used two carriages and probably a wagon as well to transport himself, his staff and his travelling baggage.

The most interesting aspect of the accounts, however, are the smaller items that Theophanes pays for along the way. He makes regular visits to the baths, taking his own bath-salts (nitron) and even soap (sophonion). He eats well – daily bread of differing quality, fruit, and the typical Roman three-course meal, sometimes with the herb-flavoured white wine called absinthion, drunk as an aperitif. He frequently buys lunch or snacks for his companions too – ‘olives for lunch with Antoninus’ at one point. At Pelusium, on his journey home, the account mentions ‘snails for the boys’ – whether this was a rare treat, or all that was available, is unclear!

All of the monetary sums are given in drachmae, an obsolete Greek currency at the time but still used as a financial unit, like the Roman denarius. Theophanes’s daily transactions – or those of his slaves and treasurer – were probably carried out in nummi, the silver-washed bronze coins in common use at the time. One nummus was worth 50 drachmae, so a loaf of refined bread would have cost two coins, an amphora of good wine fourteen. With average expenditure at 75 nummi per day, Theophanes’s money-men would have had to carry substantial quantities of heavy coinage about with them.

Some of the expenses relate to special occasions. At Antioch Theophanes buys ‘gourds for the wedding of Pellios’. At Ascalon he not only pays for tickets to the theatre and odeion, but also buys a gilt statue of the emperor (Licinius, presumably) for dedicating in a temple, while at Ptolemais he commemorates his daughter’s birthday – probably with another temple dedication. Interestingly, bearing in mind the date, there is no mention of Christianity in these documents; Theophanes’s religious world is still resolutely traditional. The snow-chilled water (chiones hudor) he pays for at Byblos was perhaps a luxury in the summer heat, while it’s tempting to imagine that the ‘wine jar in the form of (the god) Silenus’ that he buys at Tyre was the 4th-century equivalent of a trashy tourist souvenir!

We don’t know whether Theophanes’s trip was successful or not. He spent over two months in Antioch before making his way home to Egypt. Whatever he was doing has left no other trace in the historical record, and compared to the momentous events shortly to convulse the Roman world – the climax of the ongoing civil wars between Licinius and Constantine – his journey may seem of little importance. But these documents give us a narrow window into the everyday experiences of the era, and the lives of those multitudes who lived through a period of profound change, albeit distracted by their own affairs. And for a novelist trying to reconstruct the world of the early 4th century in fiction, they are an invaluable resource.



John Matthews. The Journey of Theophanes: Travel, Business and Daily Life in the Roman East. Yale University Press, 2006




Knights vs Romans?

Knights Vs Romans

Comparing the armies of entirely different historical periods or cultures, and trying to work out which would win in some anachronistic clash of arms, is generally a fairly futile pursuit. Military forces develop in response to the specific needs of their day, and rely on the available technology of their era. Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped people trying to imagine the results, and while some of these fantasy confrontations are more fanciful than others (Vikings vs. Ninjas?), the idea of a battle between Imperial Rome and the knightly warriors of the Middle Ages has long been a recurring topic for internet historians, armchair strategists and wargamers of all sorts.

Putting aside the obvious objections, therefore: if we imagined that a Roman army and an army of Medieval Europe were somehow sucked through a rent in the space-time continuum and compelled to fight a battle, is there any way of guessing who might come off best?

To try and answer the question, we’d first have to decide on some representative forces. The Roman army of the 2nd century BC was very different to that of the 4th AD, just as the armies of the 10th century differed greatly from those of the 15th. But the Roman empire was vast, far larger than any medieval state; a single legion with its auxiliaries could have outnumbered the average force deployed by a king of the earlier middle ages. So we’d need to choose opponents of a similar size, a suitable era, and of which we have a fairly detailed description.

Even so, the match would be difficult. The Roman army was based on the heavy infantry legion, developed to beat opponents who mainly fought on foot. The armies of the medieval era, on the other hand, were centred on the heavily armoured aristocratic knight, usually mounted before the 14th century, and supported by a range of foot soldiers. To make our imaginary clash more equitable, we’d have to choose opponents that had in some way adapted to fighting outside their tactical comfort zone: Romans who went up against a largely mounted enemy, versus knights with some experience of battling largely infantry foes.

For the Romans, then, I’ve selected the force described by Lucius Flavius Arrianus – better known today as Arrian – in his Acies contra Alanos. Arrian was a Roman senator and governor of Cappadocia, of Greek origin, and his Greek account details the composition and tactics of an expeditionary force he led, or intended to lead, against the invading Alanic horse nomads in AD135. Arrian appears to have led two legions, five cavalry units and around ten cohorts of auxiliaries, three of which may have been of double size. On paper his force possibly numbered about 19,000 men, but few units were ever at full strength; 15,000 seems a more likely figure, of which 8000 were legionary infantry and around 2000 cavalry. Eight of his auxiliary cohorts included a mounted component, and at least three also included archers. Crucially, his army also included an artillery section of catapults and ballistae; the late Roman writer Vegetius suggests that each legion may have had 55-65 of these machines.

                     Roman cart-mounted bolt-shooting  ballistae , shown on Trajan's Column (AD113)

                     Roman cart-mounted bolt-shooting ballistae, shown on Trajan's Column (AD113)

As a suitable medieval force to oppose the might of Rome, I’ve chosen the Anglo-Welsh army led by King Edward I of England against the Scots in 1298. The English had been beaten the year before by a Scottish army that included large numbers of infantry pikemen fighting in blocks called schiltrons – perhaps the closest medieval battlefield equivalent to an ancient infantry array. Numbers for Edward’s army are harder to establish with any great accuracy, but he probably had around 2500 cavalry – most of them fully armoured knights and men-at-arms. This time, however, he was better prepared to deal with the Scots schiltrons, and his knights were supported by around 12,500 infantry, many of whom were longbowmen from Wales and northern England.

             English longbowmen in training, from the Luttrell Psalter of c.1325

             English longbowmen in training, from the Luttrell Psalter of c.1325

Arrian’s tactics are far more defensive than the usual Roman style of fighting against opponents on foot. He first selects a suitable location with high ground on either side to prevent outflanking moves by the mobile enemy, then draws up his legions in a strong line eight ranks deep, forming a wall of shields with the light troops on the flanks and the archers and artillery at the rear. Even trained cavalry horses will not generally charge against a solid wall of infantry, and Arrian intends to hold his position and break the impetus of the Alanic assault with volleys of javelins, arrows and artillery projectiles. Once the Alans are in disarray, the infantry will open lanes and allow the Roman cavalry to charge through them and drive the enemy from the field.

Medieval tactics of the 13th century were also fairly simple, and relied on the power of the charging mounted knight. Knights were formidable warriors, trained since childhood in combat and accustomed to regular exercise in hunting and the mock battles of the tournament, even when they were not on active campaign. Edward’s horsemen would be dressed from head to foot in mail, with full helmets and plate limb defences, and armed with lances, swords and shields; some were also mounted on armoured horses. But at Falkirk, the most important aspect of the English army was the longbowmen: rather than charge directly against the Scots infantry, Edward ordered his archers to shower them with mass volleys of arrows, only sending in his knights and mounted men-at-arms when the enemy formations had frayed and gaps had opened in their ranks. The combination was deadly – but how well would it have worked against Arrian’s Romans?

Rome had faced large numbers of archers before, and large numbers of mounted cavalry too. The Parthians had beaten a Roman army at Carrhae in 53BC using massed archery to wear down the legionaries, followed by horseback charges, just as Edward did against the Scots. But the Romans had learned from their mistakes, and managed to defeat the Parthians, and later the Persians, several times in open battle. The disciplined ranks of Arrian’s armoured legionaries would perhaps have stood up to archery much better than the Scots levy pikemen at Falkirk. Besides, the Romans had archers too, and every legionary carried one or more heavy javelins as close-range missile weapons. They also had artillery, of course, although with the catapults positioned behind the infantry lines it would have been difficult to use them as sniper weapons, as the Romans sometimes did, and pick off the leaders of the enemy horsemen. Arrian does not mention caltrops (tribuli) – spiked obstacles strewn on the ground to cripple men and horses – perhaps because he intends to send his own cavalry forward through the front lines. If this was not an option, the Romans may have used caltrops as well to break up any advancing enemy.

                  Roman caltrops from the 1st century BC, found at the battle site of Alesia in France.

                  Roman caltrops from the 1st century BC, found at the battle site of Alesia in France.

We don’t know for sure whether the longbows used by Edward’s archers in 1298 were as powerful as those of the following century, but they may have had a draw weight of more than 100lb. These bows would have shot much further and harder than the smaller bows used by the Romans; only Arrian’s artillery could have matched their range. But while the 100 or so Roman ballistae could each release around 3 bolts a minute, Edward’s thousands of archers could shoot an arrow every seven seconds. If the English were supplied with unlimited ammunition, they could feasibly keep on pelting the Romans with arrows until the legionary formation broke, as the Parthians had done at Carrhae. The arrow storm would perhaps not kill too many of the Romans directly, but with the effort of keeping their shields raised against the missiles the Romans would have little strength to do much except defend themselves.

If the Romans could maintain their formation and withstand the withering volleys from the powerful English longbows, they could also hold off any charges from the mounted knights. However, their offensive capability would be gone: if they attempted a charge on foot, they would be cut to pieces, and their cavalry would be of little use: the medieval warhorse was far larger than anything known in the ancient world, and the Roman cavalrymen would stand little chance against the knights in open combat.

                            Knights doing what they do best... From the Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

                            Knights doing what they do best... From the Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

However, even with their ranks frayed the Romans would still have presented a formidable obstacle to Edward’s battle-winning knights. Barring a sudden lucky charge, the English horsemen would be unlikely to get close enough to the legionary ranks to force a gap in their line. Any individual knight who managed to brave the storm of missiles, the caltrops and the javelins and break through the wall of shields would be swiftly surrounded, brought down and battered to death with blunt instruments: the Romans’ favoured way of despatching armoured opponents.

On the face of it, the battle looks like a stalemate.

At this point, therefore, we have to consider the skill of the opposing leaders. Edward I was reputedly one of the best military commanders in Europe (even if he said so himself), while we have, unfortunately, little idea of the true martial abilities of Flavius Arrianus. Once battle was joined, maintaining discipline and morale would be as important as tactics. A Roman commander like Julius Caesar, Domitius Corbulo or the Emperor Trajan could well have motivated his troops to withstand a lengthy battle of attrition, and perhaps found a way to take the fight to the enemy. Edward was clearly an exceptional leader of men, and perhaps could have inspired or cajoled his knights into a mass frontal attack against the odds. But with their forces so evenly matched, it would take either luck or a crafty bit of generalship to force anything more than a lengthy and very bloody stand-off.

With this kind of consideration in mind, we can appreciate that warfare of any era is far more than a simple comparison of strengths and tactics. Victory is seldom a matter of calculation, but relies on an unquantifiable balance of skill, morale, discipline and plain luck. It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that while the armies of 2nd century Rome and of 13th century Europe were supremely effective in their day, both evolved to face changing threats and to reflect changing societies. And while a single battle may decide a conflict, to gain a true idea of the military capabilities of a past society, we’d need to look at the larger picture. The true strength of the Roman military lay not so much in its legions, as in the vast supply and logistics network that allowed the legions to keep on functioning during lengthy campaigns. The Romans may have lost battles, but they seldom lost wars.




I’d originally intended to include maps in my list of Ten Things the Romans Didn’t Have, but then realised that it’s not quite that simple, and the subject deserves its own post.

Picture the command tent of a Roman general on campaign, his subordinate officers gathered for a briefing. It’s difficult to imagine this scene without a map being present somewhere; how else is the general to explain his plans? Perhaps the map is drawn on a scroll, unrolled upon the table. Perhaps it’s much larger, and fixed to a frame – the general maybe has a stick, to point out the important details… Maps are so much part of our idea of strategic and tactical planning, it’s hard to see how an army could have operated without them.

And yet, the Romans apparently did just that for a large part of their history. The Latin language has no word for what we would consider an accurate scale map – mappa just means a sort of posh table napkin. Ancient literature has several examples of Romans – even high ranking ones – becoming completely lost while trying to get from one place to another, and having to rely on local guides. In one instance, shortly before his famous crossing of the Rubicon, Julius Caesar lost track of his army while travelling by night.

But this did not mean that Romans had no conception of the shape of the world around them. Far from it – late Roman mosaics from Ammaedara in North Africa and Madaba in modern Jordan show large-scale pictorial landscapes with the coastlines and the names of the cities gorgeously illustrated. But these landscapes are not maps – they are decorative rather than functional. Nobody could navigate their way around the islands of the Mediterranean using the Ammaedara map – for a start, some of islands appear more than once!

Nevertheless, the Romans were capable of visualising large spaces in a more schematic way. The so-called Forma Urbis, or ‘Severan marble plan’, was an enormous map of the city of Rome, inscribed onto marble panels and originally erected on one inside wall of the Temple of Peace, close to the Forum. Its original purpose is rather obscure, but it may have been connected to the office of the Praefectus Urbis, or prefect of the city. Fragments of it survive today, and allow us to guess what the complete plan might have looked like. The level of detail is extraordinary – even the internal walls of houses are plotted, which must have been a gift for potential burglars – and would perhaps have been enhanced by coloured paint in situ.

One of the surviving fragments of the marble plan of Rome.

One of the surviving fragments of the marble plan of Rome.

But even this plan is not drawn to an accurate scale, nor was it ever altered. In fact, it may have been as decorative in its intention as the mosaic landscapes of Ammaedara and Madaba; the ‘real’ city map, if there was one, was perhaps transcribed onto papyrus or vellum sheets and regularly updated.

The closest thing to a larger-scale map in the ancient world was the itinerary, a sort of route guide to major destinations, noting the stopping places and the distances between them. Using one of these lists, an ancient traveller could follow the excellent Roman road network from one end of the empire to another, with a good chance of arriving in the right place. Luckily, several of these ancient itineraries survive today, giving us a good idea of how people in the Roman world might have planned their journeys. One of the most famous even survives in illustrated form, albeit as a medieval copy. The Peutinger Table, as it’s commonly known, shows a plan of road routes and cities across the world, from Britain to India, although the furthest western section is lost.

Section of the Peutinger Table, showing northwest Europe, the Rhine, northern Spain and the south coast of Britain

Section of the Peutinger Table, showing northwest Europe, the Rhine, northern Spain and the south coast of Britain

The dimensions of the Peutinger plan appear strange to us today. It’s possible that the original was displayed on the wall of a public portico, perhaps in Rome: at least one such ‘world plan’ is known from ancient literature. This would explain why the lay of the land has been oddly stretched and folded, to fit a long narrow space.

The late Roman writer Vegetius mentions that written itineraries had a military function too:

[The general] should have itineraries of all regions in which war is being waged written out in the fullest detail, so that he may learn the distances between places in terms of the number of miles and the quality of roads, and examine short-cuts, by-ways, mountains and rivers, accurately described.

Some of these itineraries appear to have been pictorial, although Vegetius implies that this was a rare thing by his day:

Indeed, the more conscientious generals reportedly had itineraries of the provinces… not just annotated but illustrated as well, so that they could choose their route when setting out by the visual aspect as well as by mental calculation
Vegetius, De Rei Militari, III.6

We do have an example of this sort of ‘illustrated itinerary’, or what might approximate one, from a military context. A fragment of leather shield cover discovered at Dura Europos in Syria (dated to c.AD257) shows a part of the Black Sea coast, with the towns along the way, and even an oversized ship to provide a ‘visual aspect’ to the scene.

dura map.jpg

So can we call these ‘illustrated itineraries’ or itineraria picta ‘maps’? Probably not, in the modern sense. The view they give of the world is abstract, like a diagram. The London Underground map might provide a good analogy. Fine for tracing a route from point to point, but not much use for determining actual distances or the relation of one place to another. Anyone leaving the main arterial roads would have found their itinerary fairly useless.

Nevertheless, for the Romans these itineraries clearly sufficed, and, as Vegetius points out, they were used as we would use more accurate scale maps today. They would enable a Roman general to plan his campaign strategy, sending his troops to certain destinations and giving him a good idea of how long they might take to get there.

What about tactical maps? Obviously an itinerary would be of little use with that. But we should remember that, in an age before long-range weapons and motorised transport, most battles took place in a very limited area. The average battlefield was only a few miles square. If the general wanted to explain his tactical plan to his officers, he could very easily have taken them out of the gloom of the command tent and onto some suitably prominent place, and simply pointed at the features of the landscape that would play a part in the coming battle!

Romans and Slaves

Roman slaves

In the Roman world, slaves were everywhere. Everybody owned slaves. Even slaves owned slaves. To us, reducing another human being to a commodity seems one of the most heinous of crimes, but in all Roman literature, even into the Christian era,  there are few, if any, suggestions that it was wrong.

Slaves, Kyle Harper claims in Slavery in the Late Roman World (Cambridge University Press, 2011), were ‘the ancient equivalent of domestic appliances’, and he provides evidence of slave ownership in households across the social spectrum, from the super-rich to the comparatively poor. If this seems implausible, we might consider how many households today, living in comparative poverty, still own a car, a cooker and washing machine, a television and computer, and central heating. In ancient Roman society, slaves performed all these functions. To the Romans, they were essential for civilised existence; in fact, slave ownership was the very mark of freedom itself.

According to John Chrystostom, a man who appeared in public without a single slave thought himself ‘laughable’. The free Roman citizen was expected to be accompanied by slave attendants everywhere, even into the bath. Libanius mentions that women bathers would gossip if they saw someone enter the baths unaccompanied. Some very wealthy individuals, claims the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, might turn up at the baths with up to fifty slaves in their retinue. Slaves accompanied free Romans wherever they went, from the moment of waking throughout the day and the night too. They were the constant shadows of everyday Roman life.

    A wealthy Roman lady goes to the baths. Her two female slaves carry boxes of oils and lotions, and towels.   The two male attendants might also be slaves - based on their 'barbarian' hairstyles - or perhaps even eunuchs.   Mosaic from the Villa Romana, Piazza Armerina, Sicily. cAD320


A wealthy Roman lady goes to the baths. Her two female slaves carry boxes of oils and lotions, and towels. The two male attendants might also be slaves - based on their 'barbarian' hairstyles - or perhaps even eunuchs. Mosaic from the Villa Romana, Piazza Armerina, Sicily. cAD320

‘It is astonishing,’ writes Harper, ‘how often a slave will unexpectedly appear in a late antique scene.’ He cites a story from Augustine’s Confessions, about a young man who set out to rob a silversmith in Carthage; he took his slave with him to carry the loot. Clearly even thieves in the Roman world did not like to risk being seen carrying things around in the street… Even Christian priests had slaves, so they would not have to demean themselves by performing ‘shameful labour’.

This attitude is perhaps surprising to modern sensibilities. In our contemporary society, hard work is seen as virtuous; the adjective ‘hardworking’ is often used to connote goodness and moral worth. The work ethic is deeply engrained in almost all of us. Yet, for the Romans, the opposite seems to have been the case: they had a sort of anti-work-ethic. To perform any sort of manual labour, the sort of thing a slave might do, was to appear similar to a slave oneself, and to incur the shame of slavery. A Roman woman who did her own shopping or cooked her own dinner might have been mistaken for a slave; a commentator on the Psalms suggests that it is ‘shameful’ even for a free woman to breast-feed her own child. The same might be thought of an educated Roman man who had to dress himself in the morning, pour his own wine or write his own letters (Romans usually dictated their letters to slave secretaries, and the same secretaries would read the replies out loud. Romans had not, it seems, mastered the art of silent reading.)

Wealthy Roman families could own hundreds of slaves, even thousands of them. When in AD408 the young Christian aristocrats Melania and Pinianus renounced worldly possessions to take up the ascetic life, they freed eight thousand slaves, and that was after the rest of their family (the prominent Valerii) had taken their share. For poorer families, or for individuals, one or two slaves had to suffice. Kyle Harper mentions Egyptian papyri that document several poor households clubbing together to buy a slave between them. Soldiers, too, might own slaves, while others would be owned in common by their units. The 4th century Christian cavalry trooper Martinus – later St Martin – was thought unusual in owning only a single slave. In a rare demonstration of charity, Martinus shared his domestic chores with the slave, even cooking their meals and cleaning his own boots on occasion.

While slavery in the later Roman world was in some ways easier than it had been – imperial legislation had outlawed many of the harsher mass punishments of an earlier time – it was still an unenviable fate. Slaves were regarded as not wholly human, and could be punished and abused at the will of their owner. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus mentions a slave being given 300 lashes; 30-40 seem to have been considered moderate. Fugitive slaves could expect to be branded, or forced to wear iron collars detailing their offence. TMQF, the brand might read – tene me quia fugi: ‘Arrest Me I Have Fled’. One known collar reads ‘I am the slave of Felix the Archdeacon. Hold Me Lest I Flee’ – proof that churchmen too owned slaves. Another, from North Africa, reads adultera meretrix: tene me quia fugitivi de bulla regia – in Harper’s translation, ‘I Am A Slutty Whore. Hold Me I Have Fled From Bulla Regia’. Under Roman law, it was impossible for a slave to be raped: slaves had no legal humanity, and it was considered only a crime against the owner’s property. For the owners themselves, almost anything was permitted, and by late antiquity the Roman state had lost its monopoly on violence.

But for all this, Roman slavery differed in an important respect from the horrors of plantation slavery in the 18th-19th centuries. Roman slaves could be freed, and once free they could become Roman citizens, equal (in almost every respect) to those around them. Some freed people could amass great wealth and rise to high status. By the later Roman era, almost every family must have had slave ancestry, even the most prestigious. This too seems incredible, especially considering the very brief and apparently rather cursory ceremony required to turn a slave chattel into a free and legal human being.

In the earlier Roman era, there were a variety of manumission rituals, but Harper demonstrates that, by Late Antiquity, the usual method was the alapa – the ‘slap’. The slave owner simply slapped the slave on the face, perhaps two or three times; when this act was performed before witnesses and a magistrate, freedom was the result. According to the churchman Basil, it represented ‘the final act of violence the slave would have to bear before freedom’; the poet Claudian writes that this ‘happy’ blow would free the slave from the threat of the lash. It seems that this slapping ritual was often performed in public, at the opening of the games. The sixth-century ivory diptych of the Consul Anastasius appears to show slaves being freed in the amphitheatre with a blow on the head in just this fashion.

          Detail from the ivory diptych of Anastasius, AD517.


       Detail from the ivory diptych of Anastasius, AD517.

Oddly, the ritual of the slap seems to have carried over into both the confirmation ritual of the Catholic church and the medieval ceremony of knighthood. According to some sources, a slap or blow (the same word, alapa, is used) was given to the candidate for knighthood, perhaps symbolising the last violence he might suffer before demanding redress. Later, the blow with the hand seems to have turned into a tap with the flat of a sword blade. It is perhaps amusing to consider that when the Queen of England knights some deserving worthy by tapping a sword lightly upon their shoulders, she is unknowingly re-enacting the ancient Roman ritual of freedom from slavery!


           Galley slaves clash with vambraces: Ramon Novarro in the title role of the classic 1925 'Ben Hur'...


       Galley slaves clash with vambraces: Ramon Novarro in the title role of the classic 1925 'Ben Hur'...

There were plenty of things the citizens of the Roman empire did not have that most of us take for granted today. Potatoes, for example, or tomatoes, or universal suffrage. They rode horses without stirrups, and sweetened their food with honey as they had no sugar.

But there are still a lot of mistaken ideas about things the Romans had or commonly did. Historical novelists, of course, generally try to avoid falling into such traps, but it’s often surprising how many times I’ve had to think twice about some detail or other of the world I’m describing. So many notions about ancient or other historical societies are deeply rooted, and hard to dislodge. So here are ten things that the Romans (probably) did not have or do – I say probably, as our ideas about history are constantly changing!


1. Galley slaves

Despite the famous scenes in old films like Ben Hur and Cleopatra, Roman galleys were not rowed by chained slaves. Roman oarsmen were paid professionals, and those in the navy were enlisted in the armed forces. Galley slaves did exist, but not until centuries later; medieval ships of both the Christian and Islamic Mediterranean powers used them extensively. In fact, the French were still using chained prisoners to row their galleys until the eighteenth century.


2. Forearm ‘handshakes’

This is another Hollywood favourite. The manly clasp of forearms turns up all over the place, but has no basis in historical fact. Romans actually shook hands in the same way as we do, although perhaps not as frequently; it was a gesture of fellowship, used to agree deals and treaties. The handshake even appears on Roman coins, symbolising trust and mutual concord. It was also, apparently, part of the wedding ritual. It was probably not used as a casual greeting, though: Romans preferred to embrace, or even kiss, when they met, just as people in Mediterranean societies do to this day.


3. Noisy scabbards

Imagine somebody drawing a sword; you’ve probably already superimposed the sound effect. The shwing noise of a drawn sword is omnipresent in films and TV; even in books it’s seldom a sword is drawn without at least a rasp. In fact, scabbards were made of wood and leather, and made very little sound at all. Perhaps just a rattle, as the blade tapped against the inside. A shame, perhaps, as the schwing noise is so satisfying…


4. Ineffective armour

The Roman army was one of the most heavily armoured in antiquity. For good reason: Roman armour was very effective at keeping its wearer alive and relatively unharmed. The most famous type, of course, is the banded iron cuirass known to historians as the lorica segmentata, although mail and scale were probably more common, especially in the later era. Despite this, one would think from many depictions of ancient warfare that body armour had the protective qualities of a knitted jumper. In practice, it was almost impossible to cut or stab through armour with a hand weapon. Tests carried out on sections of mail armour (medieval, but the technology was the same) suggest that a penetrating blow would need far more energy than could be delivered by a sword or spear. A cavalry lance or heavy javelin might break through; an arrow from a powerful bow shot at very close range might puncture it. But against the majority of weapons a Roman soldier would encounter on the battlefield, his mail or scale or banded armour would prove very good protection indeed. When the Romans themselves encountered armoured opponents, they were more likely to try and batter them to death with blunt implements. An effective method, although not perhaps such a photogenic one.


5. Highly flammable oil

Battle scenes in films about Roman and medieval warfare commonly feature great balls of fire. True enough, the Romans did use incendiary weapons: combinations of pitch and naptha, or just dry straw set alight. These weapons were even used at sea; a graffito of the 1st C. BC shows a naval galley with a firepot suspended over the ram. The Romans also knew of natural petroleum: asphalt or seep oil. But the ‘oil’ of the ancient world, used in lamps and in food, and by bath-house masseurs, was derived from olive oil and was not particularly flammable. Covering something in it might make that thing very slippery, but would not cause it to burst into flames.


6. Tireless horses

Like most pre-industrial societies, the Roman empire relied on horse power. Roman horses were comparatively small by modern standards – 13 to 14 hands, pony size, being the probable average – but they were doubtless hardy beasts. But, like all horses, Roman mounts needed considerable quantities of fodder and water, and plenty of rest. There were instances in Roman history of very long journeys accomplished very rapidly, but this was only possible because the Romans maintained a system of posting stations along major roads, where horses could be rested and exchanged. The state messenger service – cursus publicus – could cover fifty miles a day, or much greater distances, using this relay system. The messengers probably did not actually ride the horses, but travelled in light carriages, with the teams being regularly replaced. Cavalry forces, unless they brought large numbers of remounts, could not match this speed. In fact, an American colonel writing in the 1860s estimated that, over long distances, marching infantry could out-distance cavalry. So unless Maximus Decimus Meridius availed himself of the imperial posting system, it’s very unlikely he could have ridden his horse all the way from the Danube to Spain in less than a couple of months!


7. Drums

Drums are so much a part of our conception of historical armies, it’s hard to imagine that the Romans did without them. In fact, the drum as we know it today was pretty much unknown in the Roman world – the closest instrument they possessed was a sort of big tambourine, like the Sicilian tamburello. Some sources suggest that the Romans thought drumming to be somehow effeminate, and associated it with certain eastern religious sects. So how did Roman armies keep in step when they marched? Possibly they used flutes, like the Greeks, or primitive bagpipes – but it’s highly likely that they didn’t march in step at all…


8. Minutes

In a world without clocks, Roman timekeeping was often a rather haphazard affair. The day and the night were divided into twelve hours each, but the length of these hours fluctuated depending on the season. There were sundials, of course, to show the approximate time in daylight, and waterclocks, commonly used in courts to measure the length of lawyer’s speeches. But the smallest increment of time measurable by a waterclock was a quarter of an hour. How did Romans talk about shorter periods of time? The idea of the minute runs so deeply in our thinking – we talk of things taking ‘a few minutes’, tell people to ‘wait a minute’, or give something ‘a minute’s thought’  that it’s hard to imagine a world in which small increments of time could not be considered. Novelists writing about the ancient world often get around this by having their characters measure time in heartbeats – I do it as well, although I have no idea whether anybody has ever really counted their own heartbeat in this way!


9. Chunky leather wristbands

The bane of conscientious historical reenactors, the leather wristband, or vambrace, is another of those anomalies that seem to have been invented by Hollywood, and to have bound themselves deeply into popular conceptions of the ancient world. They probably originated with a gold or silver armbands, called armillae, awarded by the Roman army as decorations of valour. These are often shown on Roman tombstone images. However, in film and TV depictions from the 1930s to the present day these wristbands reach incredible proportions. Often they are reinforced with buckles, studs, bit of fur, or even metal plates. Why? One theory is that artistic directors needed something to hide the visible pale mark left by a watch strap on an actor’s wrist. Possibly so – but I suspect it’s more likely that somebody decided they look tough and somehow ‘ancient’, and the idea has proven too attractive to shake off ever since.


10. Orgies

Orgies, like bloody gladiator duels and people reclining on couches eating grapes, are among the quintessential aspects of the popular ancient scene. There are fairly obvious reasons for this: sex sells. Even the comparatively prudish Victorians were nervously fascinated by Roman sexual license, although they usually drew a discreet veil over what might have been going on among the flower garlands… The Romans themselves had a pretty robust attitude to sex, as their literature and poetry proclaims. But in an age without any effective contraception, and when childbirth was often fatal, unbridled sex could never have been commonplace. While sex in itself was not considered immoral, Roman society had an obsession with self control, and to give in to lust was to lose control of oneself and become bestial, uncivilised, even unmanly. The sexual excesses of various emperors and other notables, as described by Roman historians, are probably intended as examples of bad moral practice; many of them are almost certainly exaggerations. As with so many things, we shouldn’t take the evidence of Roman literature too literally!





Italy, October 2014

A few pictures from Italy, taken during my research trip for "BATTLE FOR ROME".

The Battle of the Milvian Bridge

The battle of the Milvian Bridge, fought 1703 years ago today - 28th October 312 - is often considered one of the most significant clashes in Roman history. Constantine’s victory over Maxentius gave him control of the western empire, and of the city of Rome itself. In the traditional view, as depicted in Guilio Romano's huge fresco in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, the battle represents the triumph of a Christian emperor over the pagan gods of old Rome.

And yet the battle is more famous for something which probably did not happen. The so-called ‘Vision of Constantine’, a heavenly apparition sent to the emperor by the Christian God on the eve of battle, supposedly convinced him to convert to the new religion, and laid a path for the spiritual transformation of the empire over the following century. But this vision is not mentioned in the earliest accounts of the battle at all. Two imperial panegyrics given shortly after the event make no reference to celestial manifestations, the pagan historian Zosimus ignores the story, and the Christian writer Lactantius claims instead that the emperor was visited by God in a dream, and instructed to mark the shields of his troops with ‘the heavenly sign’.

It was the churchman Eusebius who first supplied the story of the emperor’s vision. Constantine, he claimed, had witnessed ‘with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription 'Conquer by This’. It is not entirely cynical, I think, to relate this anecdote to the solar apparition that Constantine reportedly saw in Gaul two or three years earlier, described at the time as a sign from the sun god. It does not seem unlikely that the Christian emperor of later years chose to reinterpret this older vision, and install Christ in the place of Apollo.

Maxentius has long had a bad press. His reputation was blackened by his opponents at the time, and Christian historians cast him as a satanic figure and a persecutor of the faithful. In fact, he was not particularly opposed to Christianity, and the influential congregations of North Africa were still crediting him as their saviour from persecution some years later. Ironically, while Maxentius's army at the Milvian Bridge was drawn partly from the heavily Christianised populations of Africa and southern Italy, Constantine's troops came from northern Gaul, the Rhine frontier and Britain, where the new faith had won little ground. An impartial spectator at the battle, asked to identify the 'Christian' army, might well have chosen that of Maxentius.

The site of the battle is not known for certain, but very probably lies on the plain of Tor di Quinto in the broad loop of the river north-east of the bridge (which still stands, although better known for the padlocks left on its railings by amorous couples!). The plain is occupied today by military and police training facilities, and crossed by the Via Flaminia Nuova and Tangenziale Est, while modern apartment blocks loom from the red bluffs of the heights above it to the west.

I visited the area a year ago today, researching my forthcoming book, Battle for Rome, but beyond a rough appreciation for the topography I could gain little sense of that long-distant clash of arms. Imagination, as always, made up the deficit!

   View eastwards from Via Castiglione del Lago, across the plain of Tor di Quinto - the probable site of the battle of Milvian Bridge - towards the Tiber and the Apennines. 28th October 2014.


View eastwards from Via Castiglione del Lago, across the plain of Tor di Quinto - the probable site of the battle of Milvian Bridge - towards the Tiber and the Apennines. 28th October 2014.

Did the Romans Ever Smile?

Once upon a time, historians and men of letters might have assumed that the people of the ancient past were, at heart, very similar to themselves. The Romans, for example, may have dressed in a curious manner and had strange religious habits involving chickens, but beneath the patina of culture they were an understandable people.

Nowadays, both scholarship and popular culture tends to stress the unfamiliarity of ancient worlds, the alien qualities that make them other to ourselves. Ancient Rome, as portrayed in recent films and TV dramas, is an amoral place of blood, violence and unconstrained sex; today’s Romans are viciously addicted to slaughter, and their rulers are all maniacs.

Even their minds work differently, it seems. Mary Beard, in her book Laughter in Ancient Rome, points out that Romans never smiled. Or, at least, their language had no word for it. The verb ridere, often translated as ‘smile’, actually connotes laughter. More particularly (bearing in mind the nature of their jokes) it connotes laughing at somebody else. The idea of the Romans going about in stone-faced solemnity, only cracking up at some poor fellow citizen’s misfortunes, seems shocking in its lack of human empathy. By contemporary standards, this sort of attitude would suggest a serious mental disorder. Was ancient Rome a society of psychopaths?

Not a happy man... Portrait bust of an unknown Roman.

Not a happy man... Portrait bust of an unknown Roman.

Of course, this is an exaggeration. Even if the Romans looked down on open expressions of happiness or fellow feeling (Beard points out that subridere, a ‘suppressed laugh’, might come closest to smiling), they must have been capable of it. Their portrait busts, certainly, tend to accentuate a forbidding gravitas, but less prestigious art, even some of the famous Roman-era mummy portraits from Egypt, clearly shows a much greater facial expressiveness. Indeed, some of the people depicted are undoubtedly smiling.

The ghost of a smile, at least... Mummy portrait from Roman Egypt, 2nd century AD

The ghost of a smile, at least... Mummy portrait from Roman Egypt, 2nd century AD

What Mary Beard means, I think, is that we should exercise caution in our assumptions about the peoples of the past. Language is not an accurate map of reality, but nevertheless reflects the structure of thought in a society. This is worth bearing in mind when we go about trying to reconstruct those ancient societies in fiction.

Novels, necessarily, deal in empathy. Historical fiction seeks not only to reconstruct the fabric of a lost world but also to get inside the heads of its inhabitants, examine their fears and motivations. Just as we ‘translate’ the speech of our fictional Romans or Vikings or medieval knights into modern English (the older habit of using ‘archaic’ speech in historical novels seems, thankfully, to have died out), so we translate their thought processes, their reactions and their ideologies into forms recognisable to a contemporary readership. This, of course, is inevitable. I have yet to read a historical novel that manages completely to eradicate all trace of a modern consciousness. Perhaps I would not want to.

But neither should we, in our attempts at translation, try to ignore the strangeness of historical societies, nor rely on comfortable stereotypes or received wisdom. Every age creates its own vision of the past – this is why history is constantly changing. If our visions are to be original, challenging and vital, the stories we tell about the past need to engage with the strangeness, perhaps even the alien unknowability, of our long-dead subjects. Even if, perhaps, we allow them the occasional smile.

A version of this piece was originally published as a guest post on Laura's Little Book Blog.


How 'accurate' is historical fiction?

   The Ludovisi Sarcophagus (mid 3rd century AD): an accurate depiction of ancient warfare, or just a dramatic one?


The Ludovisi Sarcophagus (mid 3rd century AD): an accurate depiction of ancient warfare, or just a dramatic one?

Novelists who write about the past are often asked about the importance of historical accuracy in their work. This is perhaps a strange question; history, after all, is not an exact science. The past no longer exists, so how could we measure the accuracy of our view of it? Instead, history is a method of attempting to understand the fragments left to us of the past, a set of tools and parameters for interpretation and speculation.

But, of course, this isn’t really what the question is about. ‘Accuracy’ (for want of a better word) in historical fiction is all about accordance with the sources, paying attention to details and not veering off into fantasy. It is about the construction of a plausible view of the past that fits with what we know and does not contain jarring anachronisms.

Put like this, the question is much easier to answer, for me at least: ‘accuracy’ is extremely important. One of the most fascinating aspects of historical fiction is the constant collision and interplay between the novelistic imagination and the raw matter of the past. Individual stories take root from the greater story of past events, and are constantly fed by it. Beyond the story itself, the structure that will get the characters from prologue to dénouement and hopefully carry the readers along with it, there is the accumulation of supporting details.

Historical research provides the furniture of my character’s world, the clothes they wear and the food they eat. It provides the thoughts in their heads. It is a liberation, not a chore. The more I know of the period I’m writing about, the more comfortable and confident I feel about imagining the bits I don’t know. And, of course, it’s those gulfs of the unknown, and the bridges we build to cross them, that makes the exercise so rewarding.

But can we take ‘historical accuracy’ too far? In this age of the internet, the raw matter of history is available to all, the sources and the speculations about any era easily accessible. So should novelists spend less time worrying about ‘accuracy’, and more on telling a unique and engaging story?

Writers of a previous generation were certainly less concerned about historical rivet-counting. Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman novels are powerfully evocative works of imagination, but at times could have historical purists wincing. Wallace Breem’s novel Eagle in the Snow concerns the fall of the Rhine frontier in the 5th century, but his Roman army seems largely transplanted from the days of Hadrian. Both Alfred Duggan and George Shipway wrote novels of the Roman past which have stood the test of time, although by the standards of modern scholarship they may default on the details.

Breem’s portrayal of the barbarian hordes menacing the Roman frontier, however, may have been inspired by own experiences with the North West Frontier Force in British India. Shipway’s painstaking narration of Suetonius Paulinus’s army on the march through Britain on the eve of Boudica’s revolt perhaps draws on his time as a cavalry commander and staff officer, again in India, in the 1930s. And Alfred Duggan’s service in the Norwegian campaign during World War II doubtless fed into his descriptions of military life in a another era.

All of these writers brought to their work a sense of authenticity: the grit and sweat and tedium of army life, the reality of combat, the sense of adventure in strange and distant lands in a time before television, the jet engine and the internet shrunk the world.

It is this sense of authenticity, I believe, that people are looking to find when they ask about ‘historical accuracy’. Not the sterile checking of facts, but the sensation of a real world, complete in all its details. Whether we achieve this by personal experience, imaginative empathy or a painstaking immersion in the minutiae of history, it should be the desired end of all our research.

Authenticity will always trump ‘historical accuracy’. Because history is changing all the time.


This piece originally appeared as a guest post on Lynsey James's blog.

The Roman Army of Constantine - Part One

   The late Roman army on the march. Scene from the Arch of Constantine, Rome, AD315.


The late Roman army on the march. Scene from the Arch of Constantine, Rome, AD315.

Between AD284 and AD337 – the era of emperors Diocletian and Constantine, and the setting of the “Twilight of Empire” novels –  the Roman army not only fought a series of bloody civil wars, but defeated every known enemy on the frontier and expanded the empire for the first time in a century. Clearly the legions of the later empire, when properly led, were a formidable force indeed. But this army appears in many ways quite different to the more familiar force of the earlier empire, portrayed on monuments like Trajan’s Column in Rome, and (albeit without a great degree of authenticity!) in films like Gladiator, Centurion and The Eagle. How did this change happen, and why?

As with most large and complex organisations over long periods of time, the development of the Roman army from the 2nd to the 4th centuries shows signs of both evolution and revolution, besides continuity. Nevertheless, by looking back at the army of an earlier era, we can perhaps identify the seeds of future developments.

During the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, the Roman army transformed itself from a strategically and tactically aggressive force of conquest and expansion, into a microcosmic military society based in permanent fortresses on the frontiers, adapted for small-scale local defence and periodic large-scale punitive campaigns. Already, though, emperors like Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius were calling on smaller detachments of troops – called vexillations – to make up or reinforce field armies in more wide-ranging campaigns across the empire.

It was during the Marcomannic wars of the later 2nd century, when the empire for the first time was invaded by large numbers of Germanic barbarians, that this use of mobile detachments really seems to have gained primacy. By combining smaller bodies of men from different legions, Roman commanders could create strong and flexible ‘offensive’ field armies without depleting the ‘defensive’ strength of the legions on the borders, maintaining security over a wide stretch of frontier while allowing for rapid reaction against incursions and reprisal strikes into barbarian territory.

But this system would be tested to breaking point in the years that followed. The ‘crisis of the third century’ saw the Roman empire beset by barbarian invasions, civil wars, plague and economic upheaval. At Abrittus in AD251, the emperor Decius was slain and his entire army destroyed by invading Goths. Less than a decade later, the emperor Valerian was defeated and taken captive by the Persians, and his troops annihilated or enslaved. These disasters could have been catastrophic for the security of the empire, and it is a testament to the strength and flexibility of the Roman military system that the army maintained itself through the decades that followed, before emerging in a new and quite different form by the century’s end.

   Roman troops at an imperial address. Relief from the Arch of Galerius, Thessalonika, cAD298


Roman troops at an imperial address. Relief from the Arch of Galerius, Thessalonika, cAD298


It was the emperor Diocletian (AD284-305) who, building on the reforms of his predecessors, established this new-style army. At its core was the comitatus, or imperial retinue, made up of select bodyguard troops. One of these accompanied each of the four emperors of the Tetrarchic system. The comitatus was reinforced on campaign by detachments from the frontier legions – often drawn from the heavily militarised Danubian provinces of Pannonia and Moesia – and new cavalry units called equites. These regular troops were frequently supported by large bodies of barbarian ‘allies’, serving under their own chiefs or kings, perhaps as part of a treaty arrangement with Rome. Galerius had a Gothic contingent during his Persian campaign, while Constantine would later make use of Frankish and Alamannic auxiliaries.

A papyrus from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt gives details of Diocletian's field force, c.AD298; it included troops from two Moesian legions, IV Flavia and VII Claudia, commanded by an officer (praepositus) called Julianus, together with another paired detachment from legions XI Claudia and I Italica. An inscription from Mauretania, meanwhile, probably dating from the emperor Maximian’s campaign of the same year against a rebel group called the Quinquegentiani, records a dedication to ‘Deo Invicto Mithras’ (the invincible god Mithras) constructed by men of the seventh and tenth cohorts of II Herculia.

Some of these legion detachments must have covered vast distances in the service of their emperors. While the two cohorts of II Herculia were on campaign in north Africa, other men of the same legion are recorded in the Crimea, while others seem to have accompanied the junior emperor Galerius on his Persian campaign of AD298. The inscription of a soldier called Aurelius Gaius records a lengthy military career that spanned the empire, from the Rhine frontier to Mauretania and from Mesopotamia and Egypt to the Danube. Gaius even claims to have served in ‘India’ – probably the region of Berenice on the Red Sea, entrepot for the Indian Ocean trade.

In time, these mobile detachments acquired a semi-independent status, losing their connection with the parent legion. They became referred to as 'legions' in their own right, some of them using variations on the old legion name: II Italica Divitensis, which seems to have formed part of Constantine’s army in Italy in AD312, were probably formed from a detachment of legion II Italica based at Divitia on the Rhine. Tombstones from Aquileia in Italy mention a unit called the Moesiaci, also known as prima italicae moesiacae, clearly formed by men of I Italica from Moesia. By the later fourth century both the ‘Moesiaci’ and 'Divitenses' appear in army lists as regular legions.

   Tombstone of an unknown soldier of the Moesiaci legion, from Aquileia. It dates from AD352, but gives a good impression of the appearance of an early 4th century legionary: crested 'ridge' helmet, oval shield and spear, patterned tunic, and perhaps a muscled breastplate.


Tombstone of an unknown soldier of the Moesiaci legion, from Aquileia. It dates from AD352, but gives a good impression of the appearance of an early 4th century legionary: crested 'ridge' helmet, oval shield and spear, patterned tunic, and perhaps a muscled breastplate.


The appearance of the Roman soldier, on both imperial monuments and individual tombstones, changes radically during this period. A mobile force would perhaps be a more lightly equipped force, but it was also cut off from the traditional legion armoury at home base. This might explain the shift from segmented armour, for example, which required skilled craftsmen to repair, to the more versatile mail, scale and even musculata (breastplate) type armours. The institution of state-run armouries (fabricae) at centralised locations by Diocletian may have been an attempt to give these mobile new armies the supply of armour and weapons previously provided by the legion fortresses. A different type of armour too, perhaps - the ‘ridge’ helmet may have been more cost-effective to build on a production line; constructed of several plates riveted together, they could also have been stronger and more durable than the traditional helmets, which were hammered from single sheets of metal.

Changed equipment suggests a change in battlefield tactics too - the late Roman 'fulcum', or shield-wall, may have developed from the old testudo (‘tortoise’), but appears to have been largely a defensive formation. Longer swords and round or oval shields may have been a response to the need for a more flexible combat style. Rather than the destructive javelin-volley followed by fast aggressive sword-charge that typifies (perhaps even defines) the military style of the earlier empire, we have a variety of considerably more static tactics, coupled with increased and sustained missile potential - a tactic of endurance and attrition, rather than the delivery of a sudden killer blow, perhaps reflecting both the increased sophistication of Rome's enemies and the increased frequency of civil wars.

But amid all this change, there was continuity, and perhaps more than appears immediately obvious. Equipment probably didn't alter suddenly - the traditional pilum (heavy javelin) was still in use into the late 3rd century and perhaps, under a different name, later. The familiar rectangular shield seems to have survived in some places into the 260s, and even the distinctive ‘lorica segmentata’ may not have died out as rapidly as once thought - fragments found at Leon in Spain and Caerleon in Britain date from the later 3rd, perhaps even 4th centuries, so perhaps it was still in use in the era of the tetrarchs.

All armies are responses to the particular military needs of their era. The Roman army repeatedly proved itself able to adapt and to survive - in doing so, it demonstrated a flexible response to military and political necessity. Just as the Roman empire, and the world surrounding it, changed almost beyond recognition over the centuries, so did its army.

In Part Two of this article, I will go on to discuss the changes to the command structure in the legions of Constantine's era.

The Roman Army of Constantine - Part Two

   A late Roman military commander and two soldiers, from the 'Great Hunt' mosaic in the villa of Piazza Armerina, Sicily. Early 4th century AD


A late Roman military commander and two soldiers, from the 'Great Hunt' mosaic in the villa of Piazza Armerina, Sicily. Early 4th century AD

While the later 3rd and early 4th centuries saw the development of a newly organised Roman army, the essential building blocks of the Roman legion remained much the same. It was in the structures of military command, however, that the greatest changes took place.

In the earlier empire, legions and other military units were traditionally led by men of the aristocracy. Legions were commanded by legates drawn from the senatorial order, while the lower aristocracy of the equestrian order supplied the cohort and cavalry commanders and the legion tribunes. During the chaos of the mid 3rd century, these aristocratic officers were withdrawn from military positions. Instead of the senatorial legati, legions were now commanded by officers with the title of either praepositus agentes vice legati, or just praefectus legionis (‘Prefect’), initially drawn from the equestrians but later from men promoted from the ranks.

Smaller units of the legion were still commanded by centurions, although by the later 3rd century these officers seem to have acquired the additional title of ordinarius (centurio ordinarius is recorded as a transitional term), and this term later came to supplant the original one. Greek documents from the eastern (‘Byzantine’) empire still record the existence of the centurion (κεντυρίων or kentyrion) and ordinarius (ὀρδινάριος) in the 6th century.

With the demise of the old equestrian legion tribunes, centurions were able to take up a wider range of command positions. The legionary detachments of the new field armies were led by praepositi, once an ad-hoc title for any small-unit commander, but now formalised as a command position for senior centurions in the field armies.

In the earlier legions, the senior centurion ranks were primus pilus (‘first file’, approximately) and praefectus castrorum, but these positions seem to have been phased out in the last quarter of the 3rd century. Instead, we see a greatly expanded centurionate, with a number of different grades in a hierarchy that still remains largely obscure. But while the old primipilate offered veteran centurions the chance to move up to higher command positions, the new army of the tetrarchy developed an alternative means of advancement, the schola protectorum, or Corps of Protectores.

   A Roman commander - possibly the emperor Constantine - with two bodyguards probably from the Corps of Protectores. The winged figure of Victory flies overhead. From the Arch of Constantine, Rome. AD315.


A Roman commander - possibly the emperor Constantine - with two bodyguards probably from the Corps of Protectores. The winged figure of Victory flies overhead. From the Arch of Constantine, Rome. AD315.

The first Protectores appeared under the emperor Valerian (AD253-260). Initially a title of high honour for senior officers close to the emperor, by the end of Gallienus's reign centurions were holding the title, and by a few decades later the Protectores were apparently organised as a bodyguard corps attached to the imperial retinue, or comitatus (protectores divini lateris, or 'protectors of the sacred flank'). The schola protectorum functioned as a promotional mechanism to move veteran soldiers and centurions into command positions. Admission carried the honorific grade of ducenarius, which signalled an elevation above the centurionate and allowed field command in the imperial comitatus. Newly appointed men would therefore gain this title upon first joining the corps and ‘adoring the purple’: in a rigidly hierarchical empire, this ritual of kissing the hem of the emperor’s robe signified that an officer had moved into the inner circles of power, and was perhaps destined for higher things.

Inscriptions dating to the early 4th century provide some evidence of this new, and rather more meritocratic, system of promotions. Florius Baudio, formerly ordinarius of II Italica, served and died in Italy as a Protector, while Aurelius Firminus, a former Protector, rose to become Prefect of Legion II Adiutrix. The future emperor Galerius reportedly served as a scutarius (guard cavalryman, probably), then Protector and Tribune before attaining the purple. Protectores, it seems, were expected to fight, and often die, in the service of their emperors: the Protector Valerius Valentus ‘fell in civil war in Italy’, while 30-year-old Viatorinus died ‘in barbarico’ during a battle with the Franks.

The subordinate ranks of the legions of Diocletian's day were probably quite similar to those of the earlier empire. We still find optiones (centurion’s deputies) and tesserarii (watch officers) right though later Roman history. One of the senior centurion or veteran positions, drillmaster or campidoctor, seems to have taken a similar role to the old primus pilus or praefectus castrorum. There were sometimes several of these men in a unit, and they also functioned as front line soldiers. Later papyri and inscriptions, plus the writer Vegetius, mention several other ranks or roles that may have appeared around this point, or some time later. Flaviales and Augustales, for example, could have been centurion grades, or (perhaps more likely) senior soldier grades; the former is most probably Constantinian. Better attested positions, perhaps dating from the later 3rd century, would include actuarius (legion quartermaster, approximately), adiutor (clerk or record keeper) and draconarius (the bearer of the ‘windsock’ draco standard).

   A Roman centurion, or  ordinarius , identifiable by his broad-headed staff, beats a slave or labourer. From a mosaic in the villa of Piazza Armerina, Sicily. Early 4th century AD.


A Roman centurion, or ordinarius, identifiable by his broad-headed staff, beats a slave or labourer. From a mosaic in the villa of Piazza Armerina, Sicily. Early 4th century AD.

By the middle decades of the fourth century, new units had developed in the imperial field armies: the auxilia palatina and the scholae. The latter appear to have been elite cavalry formations, perhaps intended to replace the old Praetorian Guard and equites singulares (‘Horse Guard’), which had been disbanded by Constantine after his victory at the Milvian Bridge in AD312. The former comprised a new front-line infantry force, perhaps developing from the irregular units of semi-barbarian troops (called numeri) of earlier centuries. These new auxilia are first attested on a tombstone from Nakolea in Asia, recording a soldier of the numerus Iovi Cornuti Seniores, who would have enlisted c.AD329. Perhaps significantly, the man was a Roman citizen, born in Singidunum on the Danube; the auxilia seem to have lost their ‘barbarian’ origins earlier in the century.

These units appear to have used a new and different structure of ranks, perhaps adopted from the cavalry. Centenarius was the equivalent rank to the old centurion, although perhaps of higher status. Biarchus and circitor also appear as subordinate positions. It would seem that these new ranks were never adopted by the traditional legions, however. One or two crossover posts used by both legions and auxilia - vicarius, for example - probably appeared later in the 4th century. Ducenarius (Greek δουκιναρίους), which began as an honorific title for centurions promoted into the Protectores, was apparently adopted (by at least c.350) by the auxilia and scholae to denote a senior unit commander.

By the end of the fourth century, the structure of the Roman army had once more metamorphosed: the units of the imperial field armies now gained a special exalted status as comitatensis troops, with an elite core of legions and auxilia called palatini. The remnants of the older legions, and the few remaining cohorts of old-style auxiliaries dating from the earlier empire, were left on the frontiers and given the lower grade of limitanei. The Corps of Protectores changed too, becoming a sort of officer training cadre for younger men of the wealthy classes (protectores domestici) and barbarian noblemen, many of whom went on to higher command positions. This later army, recorded in a document from the late 4th or early 5th century called the Notitia Dignitatum, still preserved many of the old titles and organisational structures from the Tetrarchy and the centuries that preceded it, and was to survive until the final collapse of the Roman empire in the west.


Further reading


A.D. Lee, War in Late Antiquity: A Social History. (2007)

A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social Economic and Administrative Survey. (1964)

Alexander Sarantis (ed), War and Warfare in Late Antiquity. (2013)

Ancient Warfare Magazine, Volume VI, Issue 5: ‘The Armies of Diocletian’.

J.R. Hepworth, Studies in the Late Roman Army. (Durham University PhD thesis, 1963)

Martinus Johannes Nicasie, Twilight of empire: the Roman army from the reign of Diocletian until the Battle of Adrianople. (1998)

Patricia Southern, The Late Roman Army. (1996)

Ross Cowan, Roman Legionary, AD284-337: The Age of Diocletian and Constantine the Great. (2015)

Simon James, Rome and the Sword: How Warriors and Weapons Shaped Roman History. (2011)

Vegetius, de rei militari (‘Epitome of Military Science’), translated by N.P. Milner. (1996)

Musee Departemental Arles Antique

One of the pleasures of writing the "Twilight of Empire" books has been the opportunity to visit many of the places mentioned in the stories. Arles - ancient Arelate - is one of the locations in the second book, "Swords Around the Throne". The Musée Départemental Arles Antique holds a fascinating collection of finds from ancient Arelate and the surrounding area, together with models of the city in its Roman heyday.