Military Might and Political Upheaval in Roman Britain Explored in Twilight of Empire: War at the Edge of the World by Ian James Ross
Ian James Ross’ masterful new novel Twilight of Empire: War at the Edge of the World explores the life of a Roman centurion transferred to Britain in the early days of the 4th century and his involvement in the rise of Emperor Constantine, who was elected by the soldiers, rather than following the strict Roman rules of succession. At the time, Britain was considered a backwater territory at the end of the known world. An assignment there was more of an exile than something to be coveted.
Ross’ book is extremely accessible military fiction, meaning you don’t have to know a lot of intricacies to enjoy the book. However, a working knowledge of Roman Britain and its military is helpful. If you’re already an expert, you probably don’t need to read this, but if not, a primer will help you follow along more closely and appreciate how well-researched Ross’ book truly is.
The Roman army was comprised of two groups of warriors: legions and auxilia. Both units were known for discipline, especially the legions, a rigor formed in part by conducting daily outdoor drills year-round, even in winter.
A few titles which may be helpful to know:
- Miles – an ordinary solider
- Optio – served the centurions and were their second in command
- Tesserarius – gave the orders to the guard, including the day’s password
- Signifer – carried the standard in battle and was the pay clerk
- Centurion – usually promoted from the ranks. They were supposed to be over 30 years of age, but earlier promotion was possible for very able men. Promising centurions could be promoted to the Protectores, the imperial bodyguard corps, which was the gateway to higher levels of command.
- Campidoctor – the legion’s drillmaster, one of the most experienced veterans, responsible for training the men. They also stood in the front line of battle, and were considered elite soldiers.
- Tribune – legion officer, often placed in command of small mobile detachments.
- Prefect – the commander of the legion. Usually a military man promoted from centurion.
Legionaries were originally only Roman citizens, but as the empire expanded, they also came from the provinces, like Britain. Each legion was given a number and if several had the same, an epithet. Titles were also given as battle honors, so the XX Legion (original name) was also known as the Valeria Victrix, an honorific given for their role in fighting against Boudicca’s rebellion.
Standard issue clothing included a linen or woolen tunic, with scarf worn around neck to prevent chaffing, and a woolen cloak. Legionaries wore brown and officers wore red. Socks or wrappings of cloth stuffed with wool or fur protected the feet in cold. They also wore heavy sandals or shoes with soles several layers thick bound by hobnails. At first, Roman soldiers didn’t wear breeches, but rather covered their legs with leather-lined metal plates called greaves. But as native British Celts joined the army, breeches became more common.
Body armor consisted of mail tunics or scale armor, which was made of small pieces laced to a leather or fabric jerkin. Officers wore a metal cuirass shaped like a human torso that was intricately decorated.
All legionaries fought with the same weapons:
- Spatha – A sword, which by this time was longer than the original Gladius (short stabbing sword)
- 2 javelins that would bend on impact
- An oval shield that replaced the Scutum, the rectangular shield we associate with the Romans
- Plumbata – a throwing dart unique to the 4th-century army
Originally, the auxiliaries were a mobile military force recruited from the natives of anywhere the Romans ruled. Conscripted military service was one of the ways the Romans subdued hostile tribes. They were often sent to other countries so they couldn’t raise trouble in their homelands. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that auxiliary soldiers in Britain could have been from Belgium, Germany (as they are in the book), or even Turkey, in addition to the local tribes. Foreign soldiers often settled locally, intermarrying with the local women, just as legionary soldiers did after retirement.
By the early 4th century, the auxilia more closely resembled irregular bands of barbarian warriors, often led by their own tribal leaders, who joined the regular Roman army for a campaign before returning home. After a while, these auxilia units were taken on as permanent formations, and later in the century they acquired elite status and were recruited from Roman citizens as well as non-Romans.
Auxiliary units included cavalry and infantry and were unique in that they incorporated native styles of fighting alongside Roman techniques, making their units very powerful.
Many units were allowed to wear their own uniform, which usually included breeches, a tunic and socks, and use their own weapons to reflect their native fighting style. Numori on scouting or strategy missions might shed their armor and wrap up with a cloak to blend in with the natives.
Infantry men wore a coat of mail that covered them to the hips. Later, two lorica squamata (suits of scale armor) were sewn into their tunics. They often wore scale as an alternative to mail – the two ‘breastplate’ pieces that join at the neck were probably part of the scale cuirass. Cavalry soldiers wore helmets with elaborate cheek pieces, a nose guard and jointed neck guard. Their standard clothing included a tunic, which was split down the side for comfort when riding, breeches and mail that covered them to the waist.
Auxiliary weapons were more varied than those of the legionaries. They had a dagger and sword like the legionaries, but may also use specialized weapons like slings, bows or axes. The Celts brought with them long slashing swords and longer spears that allowed them to thrust down on the enemy, especially from horseback. Auxiliary shields could be flat or elongated ovals.
Relationship with the Men of the North and the Picts
Another strong component of Ross’ book is the interplay between the Romans and the natives north of Hadrian’s Wall in the area we today call Scotland. There were two main groups:
- The tribes between the walls – These groups – the Votadini, Damnonii, Novantae and Selgovae tribes – lived between Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall in what is today southern Scotland. They are also called by some “the Men of the North”, and later in history, formed the tribes of the Gododdin. While the Romans occupied this area for the first two centuries AD, after that they pretty much left the tribes in peace. As a result, these people were much more like other Romano-British citizens than their wild neighbors to the north, and many, especially the Votadini, were loyal to Rome.
- The Picts – These are the people of the Highlands. Not much is known of them other than they were a war-like people who kept to pre-Roman traditions. “Picti” was a Roman name for those living north of Antonine Wall. They were known in their own lands as Cruithni, and the Britons called them Prydein or Pritoni. They regularly caused battles with the tribes to the south and the Romans tried several times to subdue them, including the devastating defeat at Mons Graupius in 83 AD. But they continued to cause trouble well into the 3rd century, which is what we see in Ross’ novel.
Ross’ novel deftly puts a dramatic human face on a world that can seem dull compared to the glory of more famous Roman territories. More than simply the geographic limits of Roman ambition, the Roman occupation of Britain was a clash of cultures that continued for four centuries and profoundly affected the futures of the countries that would one day be called England and Scotland (Wales remained mostly untouched by Roman influence). If you are at all interested in Rome, the Celts or the Picts, you’ll enjoy this adventure into an obscure period in British history.
For more information about the Romans in Britain, I recommend Joan Alcock’s short but information-packed book, Life in Roman Britain. Additional information on the Men of the North and the Picts can be found in Kings, Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests by Leslie Alcock (not an easy read), Land of the Gods by Philip Coppen and Pictish Warrior AD 297-841 by Paul Wagner.
About the contributor: Nicole Evelina is a historical fiction and women’s fiction author, as well as a book reviewer for HNS, Historical Honey and Sirens. She can be found online at http://nicoleevelina.com.