Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy

Roman Britain before Hadrian came and built his wall, is one of those parts of our history that get skipped over in history class.  In British schools we get Caesar's invasion, (possibly) Claudius’ invasion, Boudica’s uprising, Hadrian and the aforementioned wall, the Romans leaving and then The Tudors.  Such is the curriculum that the bits in between are unimportant.  Yet those gaps are huge and if you just take the gap between Boudica’s rising and the start of the work on The Wall, that is about 62 years.  It is into these gaps that fascinating stories lay.  Adrian Goldworthy sets his at the midpoint between Boudica and The Wall in 98AD.  He introduces us to Titus Flavius Ferox, prince of a British tribe on the south coast, the Silures, educated and a sworn citizen of Rome and centurion of Legio II Augusta.  He is also, when we meet him, the owner of a monumental hangover.

Vindolanda opens in what we would now consider a Forward Operating Base named Syracuse.  The Brigantian scout Vindex arrives to find Ferox, the centurio regionarius (the regional centurion in command) rather worse for wear.  After a trip to the horse trough and the pair set out to uncover what has happened to a goat herder and his boy, the later whom was buried alive.  The pair, in the course of their investigation, stumble across increased tribal activity and get themselves caught up in an ambush of a Roman convoy.  Ferox and Vindex rescue the two women being protected by the patrol and are saved by a hunting party from the Roman town of Vindolanda.  Ferox, in combat with a huge German is told they “want the Queen”.  This is the start of a wider adventure as understanding what the German meant, what do the stallion tattooed fanatics mean and who is supplying weapons to the northern tribes.

Goldworthy’s novel, if I’m honest, does take some getting into.  In Ferox and Vindex he has two very good leads and in the newly arrived Tribune Crispinus, we have our eyes, a character who asks the questions we need to understand the place we find ourselves in.  Goldworthy’s descriptions of Roman life are incredibly detailed and vivid, as you would expect from a scholar whose work has produced some incredible non-fiction on Rome, her Emperors and her Army.  The world that he creates in the far north is once we can get into and, at times, smell a tad too vividly.  Where the tricky bit comes in is in the use of Latin names for equipment and in his cast of characters which have slightly similar name structures.  These supplement our main trio and as secondary characters, they pop in and out and I found myself skipping back to double check who was who and who was married to whom.  There is a short glossary at the back of the book, but a cast of characters would have been useful.  I do remember Bernard Cornwell telling me years ago at book signing that publishers do not like character lists as they put readers off.  This, I’ve always thought was a pity as they can be very useful, especially in a book like this where it can get a touch tricky.

This aside, the core tale once away, never stops and you really grow closer to Ferox.  The hints about his background are tantilising, his involvement in the Satuninus Revolt and its bloody aftermath as one of Domitian hounds.  Goldworthy has so much to build on and for you to understand why our hero has been abandoned by his legion in the far north.  In Vindolanda, Goldworthy has created a colourful world, one mostly forgotten by us today and has thrown in a strong group of central characters.  Once you arrive at the attack by the river, the tale takes flight, hold tight, the ride is worth every step.

Vindolanda by Adrian Goldworthy is published by Head of Zeus (who supplied this review copy) and is out now.

Matthew BoneComment