Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Britain in 69 AD: The Year of Four Emperors

As 68 AD neared its end, the Roman Empire stood on the brink of chaos. In June of that year, the Emperor Nero, having been deposed by the Senate and declared a public enemy, wisely chose to commit suicide rather than allow himself to fall into the hands of his enemies. The Julio-Claudian dynasty, which had ruled Rome for almost a century, was at an end: Nero, having eliminated all potential rivals, had, by the same token, got rid of anyone who might have been considered a legitimate successor.

The Emperor Nero. Photo: Bibi Saint-Pol (image is in the Public Domain).

His downfall was the signal for a military coup. An ambitious but elderly general, Galba, marched on Rome at the head of a legionary force. His rule was to last for only six months. Galba, like Nero, committed suicide, and another general, Otho, seized power. In Germany, a third coup was already being planned with the backing of a larger military force. Otho, in turn, committed suicide and Vitellius took power in April, 69 AD. His power-base, however, was no more secure than those of his predecessors.

               The Emperor Galba. Photo: CNG Coins (licensed under GNU).

                             The Emperor Otho. Photo: CharlesS (licensed under GNU).

               The Emperor Vitellius. Photo: Luis Garcia (licensed under GNU).

In Britain, things were, if anything, even more unstable. Boudicca's rebellion of 60-61 AD had been suppressed by Nero's Governor, Suetonius Paulinus, but not before she had razed the three main cities of Roman Britain, Colchester, London and St Albans, to the ground. Urban life had been all but extinguished from the south-eastern corner of Britain. Eight years on, little attempt seems to have been made to rebuild either Colchester or St Albans. In London, Nero's Governors, Publius Petronius Turpilianus and Marcus Trebellius Maximus, seem to have attempted to rebuild the public infrastructure. New roads and water-courses had been laid out, but few new buildings seem to have gone up alongside them. The merchant classes of Roman Britain were not exactly voting with their feet.

Reconstruction of a Roman water-lifting wheel, based on excavations at Aldersgate, London. Photo: Martin Addison (licensed under CCA).

Only in the zone to the south and west of the Thames did city life continue to flourish. In Chichester, Nero had built a new palace for his British ally, Cogidubnus, who may also have been responsible for building a spectacular new temple at Bath.

Detail of the temple pediment at Bath, probably depicting a Romano-British god. Photo: Ad Meskens (licensed under CCA).

In 67 or 68 AD, Nero had removed one of Britain's legions to Gaul. Only three remained: the II Augusta based at Gloucester; the IX Hispana at Lincoln and the XX Valeria Victrix at Wroxeter. To the north, in the territory of the Brigantes, Venutios, the estranged husband of the pro-Roman Queen Cartimandua, seized his chance of power. His forces depleted, Governor Marcus Vettius Bolanus, newly appointed by the Emperor Vitellius, could spare only a small force of auxiliaries, sufficient to evacuate Cartimandua, but not to secure her territory. She disappears from history at that point. We do not know if she took refuge with Cogidubnus at Chichester (as she does in my novel, An Accidental King), or elsewhere in the Roman province, or in Europe. Ten years earlier, she had handed over the British Prince, Caratacos, to the Roman authorities. Now Venutios of the Brigantes was poised to take his place as the leader of the British resistance.

Romanised Britannia could very easily have slipped into history with Cartimandua and Cogidubnus, were it not for events taking place  at the other end of the Empire. Nero had appointed one of his top generals, Vespasian, to put down a rebellion in Judea. Now his victorious legions, dissatisfied with the rule of Vitellius, proclaimed Vespasian Emperor in his place. His subsequent march on Rome made him the first man to found a dynasty since Augustus in 27 BC. Vespasian had previously served in Britain, commanding the II Augusta in Hampshire and Dorset in 43-46 AD. He had probably befriended Cogidubnus at that stage, and it is likely that he now sought his advice on the situation in Britain. Vespasian restored the strength of the British legions and, during the course of his ten-year reign, his Governors committed themselves with renewed vigour both to the defeat of Venutios and to the reconstruction of the cities burned by Boudicca.  It was a turning point in the history both of Britain, and of the Roman Empire.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications. The Year of Four Emperors also forms part of the background to Nancy Jardine's novel, After Whorl, Bran Reborn, which will be published by Crooked Cat on the 16th December. These books can be purchased from www.amazon.co.uk and www.amazon.com.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Visions of Messenia: A Corner of Ancient Greece in Modern Fiction and Poetry

There are two common misconceptions that tend to intrude upon our consciousness whenever we think of ancient Greece. The first is to think always in terms of urban life, and the second is the exclusive focus on a small number of very powerful cities: Athens; Sparta; Corinth; Thebes. In fact, there were between 1000 and 2000 Greek city states (not all of which were located on the modern territory of Greece - the Greek world, even before the time Alexander the Great, extended from Cyprus in the east to southern France and northern Spain in the west) and, within the territory of each of these, more than 90% of the population lived in rural districts, making their living from the soil, as described by Hesiod in his Works and Days.

Messenia, in the southern Peloponnese, was one such polity, which retained its distinctive identity down the centuries despite the pressure exerted on it by its large and aggressive neighbour, Sparta. Far from the modern tourist trail, Messenia is best-known today for its olive-groves, in which the prized Kalamata olives are produced.

Messenia, as shown in William R. Shepherd's Historical Atlas. Perry-Calameda Library, University of Texas at Austin (image is in the Public Domain).

The Plain of Messenia from the top of Mount Ithome. Photo: Stefan Artinger (licensed under CCA).

History records a number of successive wars and uprisings in which the Messenians, sometimes allied to the Athenians, at other times to the Thebans, asserted their independence over their Spartan overlords. The famous statue of Nike (Victory) at Olympia, by the sculptor, Paeonius, was commissioned by the people of Messenia, and their Naupactian allies, to celebrate their victory, with Athens, over Sparta in 425 BC.

Paeonius's statue of Nike at Olympia: Photo: Wikipedian pufacz (image is in the Public Domain).

More important to the Messenian consciousness, however, was the revolt led by Aristomenes, earning seventeen years of freedom for the Messenians between 685 and 668 BC.

T.E. Taylor's recently published novel, Zeus of Ithome (Crooked Cat Publications) focusses on a later uprising in the 4th Century BC. Its protagonist is a young Messenian peasant, Diocles who, having fallen foul of a Spartan death-squad, the Krypteia, is forced to take refuge in the mountains. There he meets a latter day Aristomenes, who may or may not be a descendent of the folk-hero, but certainly keeps alive the tradition of his courage and endurance. Under his tutelage, Diocles travels first to the Oracle of Delphi, and then on to Thebes, where he is taken under the wing of Epaminondas, the leading statesman of his day. It was Epaminondas who, in 371 BC, invaded the Peloponnese, expelling the Spartans from Messenia and establishing the city of  Messene, the ruins of which can be seen to this day.

The theatre of Messene, with Mount Ithome in the background. Photo: Stefan Artinger (licensed under CCA).

The walls of Messene. Photo: Dimkoa (image is in the Public Domain).

In Taylor's novel, the whole of this story is told through the eyes of Diocles (a fictional character) and those closest to him. This is where fiction truly comes into its own, since history rarely has anything to say about the lives of such people.

Kelvin Corcoran's For the Greek Spring (Shearsman Books) is a collection of poetry inspired both by modern Greece (the influence of the Greek modernist poet, George Seferis, is palpable in its verses) and by its own consciousness of its roots in a distant past. The title of Corcoran's volume is, one suspects, deliberately provocative, inviting comparisons between the "Arab Spring" and the more recent economic turmoil visited upon Greece as a result of factors beyond the control of all but a tiny minority of her people. This is thrown into sharp relief by those passages of Corcoran's poetry which focus on Messenia, and specifically on the enduring folk-memories of Aristomenes:

"I am Aristomenes of Andania and I will tell you everything,
what I did and did not do, how I invented the moment of decisive action,
the birth of fear which clears a field of men, Messenia of Laconians ...
... What in the world would make me leave my village?
The buzz of bees, my olives fattening like black jewels,
the wagtail patrolling my patch in familiar light,
though the wind plays naughty in the Stenyklaros Valley."

At times, Corcoran mixes ancient and modern imagery to create a sense of a region and a people who have always struggled to hold their own course, buffeted by the winds of a history that is made elsewhere; whilst at others he both celebrates and mocks the "mysteries" that underlie the stories which sustain that region's people.

"And then a morning so fresh
like a massive wet diamond
suspended above the white sea
with the tatty mimosa blowing and
the container ships stuck on the water
we went off around Taygetos
tottering and twisting in the air."

"As for the mysteries, like a snake even nonsense bites, mock as you might;
the matter of my birth is secret, what I buried on Mount Ithome is not,
who knows what happens if you sleep in the narcotic shade of the fig?
the old goddess may arise a girl, trees thicken, the stream run fresh."

Even allowing for the influence of literary modernism, it is in the nature of prose fiction that it must reveal more than poetry does. Taylor must tell the stories that Corcoran only hints at, however aware he is that his telling of them represents only one among many possible narratives.

Between them, however, these two works shine a light on a corner of ancient Greece (and, by extension, on some of the nooks and crannies of our shared humanity) that is easily missed in the grand narratives, both ancient and modern, that have always dominated our understanding of it.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Guest Post With Nancy Jardine

I am very pleased to visit today, and especially so given that you introduced this post so well last week. Your topic, The Brigantes, is a particular passion of mine, as anyone who has read The Beltane Choice will know. I've blogged in other places, over the last few years, about why I chose to write about the northern Celtic tribes, specifically the Brigantes and Selgovae, the main reason being that I personally have come across very few novels set in northern Britannia around 71 AD. Those I have read tend to focus on the rule of Queen Cartimandua and her husbands, but I wanted to write about the lives of ordinary people. For the plot of The Beltane Choice, I focussed on the threats and advances that Rome made into Brigantian territory during the time that Quintus Petilius Cerealis Cesius Rufus was governor.

However, I have to admit that, even whilst writing The Beltane Choice, some of the evidence I read was confusing (Tacitus, other classical historians, the revised interpretations of modern scholars). The timescales of Roman activity in northern climes did not entirely make sense to me when plotted against the actions I wanted my fictional characters to take. The most recent archaeological evidence seemed to cast doubt on which governors of Britannia should be credited with fort-building, and Roman expansion into northern Brigantia and, indeed, into the Celtic territories of present day Scotland. I am writing fiction, and many would say that being a year or two out shouldn't matter when writing about events which possibly took place some two thousand years ago. My desire for historical accuracy, however, comes to the fore in such situations. The timescale of events in my own novels has to make sense to me!

The duration of writing books two and three was lengthened, as I delved more and more to find satisfactory answers to the questions I had set myself. Apart from the more obvious military subjugation of the native Celtic peoples, what was the real profit for the Roman Empire in conquering the whole island of Britannia? In a nutshell, what made it worthwhile for Gnaeus Julius Agricola, as Governor of Britannia (78-84 AD), to expend the resources of Rome to march his troops all the way to the northernmost parts of what we now call Scotland?

During the Flavian period, the military concept of conquering the then-known world  - Britannia being the westernmost large land mass - is easy for me to accept. I can see the attraction for the emperor in placing his foot on every piece of Britannia's soil. Keeping the native British tribes at peace was another good reason, but how did it all add to the wealth of the empire?

Apart from the military and political clout of conquest, I felt that there had to be some other reason for claiming this territory. Was it the natural and human resources that Rome sought to acquire? It wasn't easy to find detailed information, but I found enough to spark my imagination. Resources became an important focus in After Whorl - Bran Reborn, and even more so in the third book, After Whorl - Donning Double Cloaks.

I already knew that the southern parts of England were highly prized for their cereal cultivation, and that supplies shipped to mainland Europe helped to feed Roman troops in Gaul and Germany. There was much sense in acquiring fertile land, but what of the less hospitable parts of the island of Britannia? Much of northern Britain is not well suited to cereal cultivation, so what was the attraction?

The heather moor of Clogha, Lancashire, at the heart of Brigantian territory. Photo: BLISCO, licensed under GNU.

I'd read that the northern Celts were sheep-farmers, whose main breed was probably similar to the Soay sheep still farmed on some Scottish islands and Welsh hillsides. Would wool production have been lucrative enough to persuade the Emperor Vespasian to subdue the tribes of the north, gleaning profits to add to the Roman coffers? Perhaps this was part of the picture, but it seemed to me that there had to be more to it than this.

                                 The Emperor Vespasian.

Major sea-trading didn't seem to have been established between Britannia and mainland Europe until after the period I was writing about. Did that mean that most of the resources purloined by the Roman army in the AD 70s and AD 80s were consumed by the Roman army stationed in Britain? Seasonal crops and farmed livestock were perishable, so that seemed an economically sound notion.

                           A Soay ram. Photo: Stephen Jones, licensed under CCA.

What other commodities did the Roman army in Britain need? What about leather for their tents, flasks and storage pouches? Some leather might have been imported from the Iberian peninsula, but I liked the idea that some was probably acquired locally, and wrote the leather trade into my novels.

A reconstruction of a Roman army tent. Photo: Charlieeleven, licensed under CCA.

Metals? I found enough evidence to know that the Roman army used a lot of steel and other alloys for armour and weapons, which would have been very heavy to transport. Large quantities of iron were needed for the nails which went into the construction of the Roman forts. The towns and more developed forts would have needed lead for their sophisticated plumbing systems. Britannia had sources for all of these.

Roman fort building, leather and wool feature in After Whorl - Bran Reborn. The movement of metal features more in the third book, After Whorl - Donning Double Cloaks, where the action moves north from Brigantia into Scotland. Trade plays an important part in the plot, as do strategic and political considerations. Local tribal resistance to the dominance of Rome has not been forgotten, and remains a core part of the fervour of my novels.

I hope my readers enjoy the next two novels in my Celtic Fervour series, and appreciate my attempts to write about more than just the physical battles, although I must say I was overjoyed to take the action in my third novel all the way north to the Battle of Mons Graupius, which I have set in my own home area of Aberdeenshire.

My thanks, Mark, for inviting me here today.

After Whorl - Bran Reborn will be published by Crooked Cat Publications on December 16th 2013. After Whorl - Donning Double Cloaks will be published some time around March 2014.

The Beltane Choice is available from:
Amazon UK http://amzn.to/17y282a
Smashwords http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/221383
Barnes & Noble http://bit.ly/19SXX22
W.H. Smith http://www.whsmith.co.uk/pws/ProductDetails.ice?ProductID=978190891096&keywordCategoryId=wc_dept_ebooks&keywords=The%Beltane%20Choice&redirect=true

Nancy Jardine lives in the fantastic "castle country" of Aberdeenshire in Scotland, with her husband. She spends her week making creative excuses for her neglected large garden; doesn't manage as much writing as she always plans, since she's on Facebook too often, but does have a thoroughly great time playing with her toddler granddaughter when she's supposed to be "just childminding" her twice a week.

A lover of all things historical, it sneaks into most of her writing, along with many of the fantastic world locations she has been fortunate to visit. Her published work to date has been two non-fiction history-related projects; two contemporary ancestral mysteries; one light-hearted contemporary romance mystery and a historical novel. She has been published by The Wild Rose Press, and by Crooked Cat Publications.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Who Were the Brigantes?

The Brigantes may not have been the wealthiest or the most powerful of England's pre-Roman tribes, but they certainly seem to have occupied the largest territory, extending from York in the north to Stafford in the south, and encompassing much of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Cheshire and Staffordshire. They were less "Romanised" than many of the peoples of southern Britain, and seem never to have minted coins. The uplands which they controlled, however, produced many of the resources that the Romans craved, including hunting dogs, wool, hides and furs. They may even have controlled Rome's access to the lead of the Deceangli of Flintshire.

The likely extent of Brigantian territory in 43 AD. Image: Quijav, licensed under GNU.

Lead ingots from Roman Britain, stamped with the imprint of Emperor Vespasian.

Their queen, Cartimandua (or possibly her father), may have been among the eleven rulers of Britain who surrendered to Claudius Caesar without a fight, and she is the only British ruler referred to as Regina in the Roman sources, implying that probably, in our terms, she was a Queen Regnant, and her husbands, though they may have held the honorary title of Rex, merely consorts. Her court was possibly at Stanwick (North Yorkshire), where the remains of a large fortified settlement have been uncovered, and in the vicinity of which a number of important finds have been made.

The ramparts of Stanwick. Photo: Graham Scarborough, licensed under CCA.

Bronze "mask" in the form of a horse's head, from Stanwick. Photo: Johnbod, licensed under CCA.

Bronze helmet, probably found near Stanwick. Photo: Geni, licensed under GNU.

Cartimandua's first husband was a man named Venutios, and there seems to have been a long-standing tension between them, with Cartimandua adopting a far more stridently pro-Roman position than he did. When, in 51 AD, the Catuvellaunian prince, Caratacos, sought refuge at her court, Cartimandua handed him over to the Roman authorities, a move which seems to have incensed Venutios. Divorce followed soon afterwards and, with it, civil war among the Brigantes. Venutios's first serious rebellion, in 57 AD, was put down with Roman assistance, but he was more successful in 69 AD, against the background of the chaos of the "Year of Four Emperors."

Cartimandua had "tired of Venutios," Tacitus tells us in his Histories, "and given her hand and kingdom to his armour-bearer, Vellocatus ... The enthusiastic support of the people was at the disposal of the discarded husband, while the lover was backed by the cruel and lustful queen ... A revolt on the part of the Brigantes themselves brought Cartimandua face-to-face with extreme danger. That was when she appealed for Roman assistance ... our auxiliary cohorts ... rescued the queen ... Venutios got the throne, and we were left with the fighting."

Both Venutios and Cartimandua disappear from the record soon afterwards, and what happened to them remains a mystery. Tacitus's account, of course, is not an objective one (he had little respect for those native rulers who chose to ally themselves with Rome, and abject contempt for anyone who would consent to be ruled by a woman), and is certainly at odds with the way in which I have imagined the scenario in An Accidental King. It is doubtful that we will ever know the truth (if, indeed, there is one "truth" out there to be known). What is clear is that, by the time Agricola became governor in 78 AD, the Brigantes under Venutios were a dangerous enemy of Rome, to be subdued militarily, and so they remained into the 2nd Century AD. Juvenal, in his Satires has a Roman father exhorting his son to deeds of valour against them:

" ... Make sure the commander, Laelius, notes your uncombed head, your hairy nostrils, and admires the breadth of your shoulders. Demolish the huts of the Moors and the forts of the Brigantes ..."

Between 43 AD and 57 AD, the Brigantes under Cartimandua may have prospered through peaceful trade with the Romans, and were largely left alone by the legions, their commanders more concerned with the threat of rebellions in the south and west. After 78 AD, the Brigantes would feel the full weight of the Roman military machine bearing down on them.

Next week, I will be welcoming fellow author, Nancy Jardine, as a guest on this blog, to talk about the second volume of her Iron Age and Roman trilogy.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from www.amazon.co.uk and www.amazon.com.