Sunday 27 September 2020

#AncientRoman roadbuilding 1

Tramping the Roman roads

Over the course of writing the five books in the Celtic Fervour Series, I’ve had my characters travel on many different roads. Most of those are in Roman Britain, but in Book 5 a few are further afield in the wider Roman Empire. The reasons for travel vary, depending on who the character is and the events in the books.

In Book 1, The Beltane Choice, most of the travelling done by the main characters - Lorcan and Nara - in AD 71, is on what I’d term tracks rather than roads. Though, the Garrigill warriors who go to battle at the site named Whorl might well have travelled on some sections of paved or gravelled road laid down by the Ancient Roman invaders. If the Ancient Roman occupation of mid-Brigantia took place during the late AD 60s, under the governorship of Vettius Bolanus, then by 71 it's very possible some road construction was already in place, though not the lovely smooth cobbling that you see on the image below of the Via Appia leading to Rome. 

A strategy employed by the occupying Roman forces was to quickly create routes that would facilitate the fastest transportation of both soldiers and goods. In the first instances, these are likely to have been trackways cleared of vegetation to accommodate a marching legion. The width would probably have been as wide as needed for baggage wagons to trundle along with the necessary items for a temporary camp, perhaps something like four and a half feet for the wagon width, plus more at each side for safe passage. Over some stretches the width might have allowed the soldiers to march four-abreast, a half-contubernium grouping. I'm still investigating to find out how quickly those occupying soldiers had them stone-paved.

Via Appia Rome  -

Known Roman roads vary in width but an average seems to have been around 15-24 feet wide. A width within those parameters would possibly have accommodated two vehicles travelling in different directions when passing each other, plus military personnel on either side, either cavalry or infantry. Though, the remains of some Roman paved roads indicate deep ruts in the middle of the road indicating the vehicles might only have moved towards the cambered edges when passing each other.

Permanent roadbuilding in stone, which would have suffered less from the vagaries of weather conditions but would have taken some time and immense amounts of manpower to create, was probably mainly undertaken after the Ancient Roman legions considered an area to be under control.

After Whorl: Bran RebornBook 2 of the Celtic Fervour Series, was long published when I read that remains of a Roman road were discovered in northern Yorkshire (England) during the upgrade of the A1 trunk road. The Roman road is in one of the geographical areas I chose for Book 2. Reading the details of the excavation, when it eventually hit the media headlines, was such a buzz and it made me feel that my location decisions were well-determined. The dig also clarified that stone roads seemed to have been a big priority once the decision was made to settle in an occupied territory. 

Scotch Corner  - Yorkshire Post

Delving further into excavations regarding Roman roads in Yorkshire, I read that it’s estimated that Yorkshire had an estimated 1000 plus miles of interconnecting Roman roads during the Roman period spanning more than 300 years. And probably some more not yet detected!

I’ve recently read theories that a Roman road was maybe not built to directly connect the forts along its line. The topical thinking is that after the road was constructed, to link two far-flung major forts or fortresses, the smaller forts were then built at roughly a day's march apart, their intention being to ensure that the flow of traffic (goods and military personnel) traversed safely and unhindered. An example might be the road usually referred to as Ermine Street which runs from Londinium all the way north to the Hadrian's Wall area (though the wall was not built for another forty plus years c. AD 122). Ermine Street linked the fortresses of Londinium and Lindum (Lincoln) in the AD 60s and then by c. AD 71 it had wended its way northwards to the new fortress at Eboracum (York). From Eboracum it went further north to link up with the major supply base at Corstopitum. (Coria). Both of these sites feature in the Celtic Fervour Series. 

Map created for After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks

By Book 3 After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks which covers the decade spanning AD 74 to 84, my Garrigill Clan of 'Celtic' characters are refugees and are mainly on the move northwards. They are using the ancient trackways that the local Late-Iron-Age populations (Celtic tribes) use to get from place to place across Caledonia (Scotland).

The Roman characters who feature in the novel are traversing newly formed Roman roads, though I only imagine some of those roads being fully-paved.  Creating a nice flattened and smooth surface was easy when the Roman army was on the move during the Caledonian invasion campaign because the tramping of Agricola's approximately twenty thousand soldiers would have very quickly compressed the soil and totally squashed any vegetation!

Tribune Gaius Livanus Valerius is in charge of overseeing the safe journeying of metal supplies and other essential supplies that are needed at the permanent Roman installations which have recently been built in southern and central Caledonia. When the tribune and Ineda of Marske, his personal slave, journey into southern Caledonia they are using the Roman roads from Corstopitum to Trimontium Fort  that have been in place for a few seasons. These might well have been fully-paved by then since they were part of the main route north and a continuation of Ermine Street. Likewise, when Ineda and the tribune travel further north towards the huge Pinnata Castra supply fortress the roads are a few seasons old and might have had some form of surfacing to ensure wagons and the draft animals could move more easily. 

In Book 4, Agricola's Bane, almost all of the action for General Agricola is in temporary marching camps in Taexali territory, north of modern-day Aberdeen. He and fellow officers are often found lamenting the deplorable state of the roads around, because they are definitely only at the flattened earth, dirt-track stages.  The winter season isn't conducive to easy transportation of goods, personnel and most of all food. Supplies of grain are dire and Agricola's soldiers don't take kindly to half-rations! He is in the process of subduing the truculent natives and permanent road build isn't yet his priority. 

In Book 5, Beathan The BriganteBeathan has very different experiences from his family after he is captured by the Roman army at the battlegrounds of Beinn na Ciche. He has been used to travelling on roads in Brigantia and in Caledonia but he is to experience a whole lot more during his years of captivity. 

Look out for a second post coming soon on Roman roads travelled in Book 5! 


Monday 21 September 2020

Strong #Roman Iron Age Women

Were strong women common during the Roman Iron Age?

My image of Nara 

Since first writing about 1st century AD Roman Britain, I've often pondered the question of what women were capable of at that time. Because it’s a pre-historic era, we have no written evidence documented by the local Late-Iron-Age Britons themselves regarding any 'strong' female leaders. However, from the writings of Ancient Romans and Greeks (e.g. Julius Caesar, Tacitus) we are told that some Late-Iron-Age tribes were led by females. Examples would be the widely known Cartimandua of the Brigantes Federation, and Bouddica of the Iceni. 

Exactly how those women were proclaimed tribal leaders is a question I would love to be definitely answered. Some theories veer towards the women having been elected as leaders due to their intellectual superiority and physical prowess, having been presented as candidates alongside males. If a meritocracy was the norm amongst the tribes of Late-Iron-Age Britain, then there were probably many more women who became tribal leaders and whose names were never recorded. Speculation is a wonderful thing for an author fiction!

When I wrote The Beltane Choice – Book 1 of my historical Celtic Fervour Series saga which begins in A.D. 71 – I created a strong warrior-woman who has temporary, inhibiting, vulnerabilities. Nara of the Selgovae is the daughter of a chief and as such is eligible to be nominally named 'princess'. She also has links to the Druid priestesshood. Both of these situations would probably have given her a position of some power in a Celtic tribe but what could make such a privileged woman temporarily vulnerable? 

Nara is introduced after some momentous events have befallen her which have shaken her to the core and have forced her to embark on a whole new lifestyle. She has grown up with one future ‘career’ ahead of her, which she’s been training for from the age of seven. During fourteen apprenticeship years, she’s acquired many different skills. She's learned spiritual and religious training; leadership skills; the practical knowledge of a tribal healer. And she’s a fully-fledged ‘branded’ warrior. However, as an acolyte for the priestesshood, she’s been prohibited from certain aspects of normal life. There has been no sex with men and no prospects of child-bearing.

Highly superstitious and deeply spiritual in their druidic faith, the people of Nara’s tribe have always regarded her as different, untouchable, and chosen by the gods and goddesses for a special destiny. As such, her contact with the tribe has never been casual, familiar, or normally inclusive.

In one awful proclamation, the High Priestess declares the goddess has decreed that Nara must follow a different future path. The final steps to becoming a priestess are denied her. She’s expelled from the island home of the priestesses and sent to live in the tribal hillfort with a father who deems her a failure. Her confidential ‘doctor/patient’ importance as a healer is zapped. Available now to mate with males of the clan, the women are superstitiously wary of Nara’s new status. In short, she’s shunned, friendless and threatened in her new role From being a strong, well-trained woman she’s a square peg trying to fit into the proverbial round hole.

Nara is emotionally vulnerable from the outset, yet still able to demonstrate that her innate warrior-capabilities and learned judgements are largely unaffected as the story unravels and develops. When she’s captured by Lorcan of Garrigill, an enemy Brigante, it’s yet another dent to her highly-bruised pride. Though she wounds him during an attempted seduction, Lorcan doesn’t kill her as is his right, having been attacked by her as an enemy Selgovae ‘branded’ warrior. Instead, she’s dragged southwards to his Brigante hillfort.

Uniting normally warring Brigante and Selgovae tribes, so that they can confront the Ancient Roman invaders as a larger fighting force, is a laudable idea but as a bargaining chip Nara knows she’s useless when Lorcan hatches a plan.

Unable to escape from Garrigill Hillfort, it may seem as though Nara is capitulating too easily but…only a reader of The Beltane Choice will unravel how her innate warrior strengths don’t desert her, and she casts the insecurity aside to become that feisty female-warrior once more.

Amazon Kindle and FREE to read via KindleUnlimited

Also available to order in paperback from bookstores. 


Sunday 20 September 2020

Beathan is out blog visiting!

Happy Sunday to you! 

I'm delighted to share that Beathan the Brigante is featured on the Magic of Worlds blog today. My huge thanks to Stefanie for posting. 

You can find the promo post and an excerpt from Beathan The Brigante 

Pop over, have a read and then tell me if you think Beathan is happy to meet General Agricola for the second time! 


Wednesday 16 September 2020

Aliter Dulcia Piperata #Apicius

Food for the gods? 

Not if it turned out like mine! 

Authors who write about life during recent centuries probably have less of an issue describing a meal eaten by their characters than authors - like myself - who write about people eating in ancient times. I recently read an early-Victorian set novel where the protagonists were partaking of a sumptuous multi-course meal. The food described was extravagant, in the ingredients used, and in the presentation. I've not been able to include anything like that, to date, in my Celtic Fervour Saga series set in the 1st century AD because even my ancient Roman characters have not been eating banquets in Rome!

The full diet of the indigenous Roman-Iron-Age tribes of Britain is subject to some conjecture. Staple cereal foods that were grown locally, fruits and nuts that were foraged in the environment, and animal products can be attested to from scientific soil sampling, but that tells me little about how the food was actually presented. There are some metal Iron-Age artefacts which relate to the cooking of food over a wood fire. There are examples of pottery used for storage of foods. There are, amazingly, examples of wooden items used in cooking. However, interpretative imagination is needed for describing the actual eating of the food around the communal central fireplace in a Late Iron-Age roundhouse.

The fingers were perhaps more likely to have been used for most foods rather than the cutlery that is common today. A small knife for spearing and cutting any meats would probably have been a luxury for most ordinary people to own, the actual iron used to form it a prized commodity for some (if not most) tribes. Metal spoons have been excavated, though these may have been used more for preparation of food than for the consumption of food by an individual. Wooden spoons might well have been easy to produce and in common usage, though they don't preserve so well after two millennia. 

I confess that I’ve spectacularly failed at eating porridge from a wooden bowl with my fingers! Only when so thick that it can stand up on its own, have I found it possible to scoop it out. When it's thin and more like brose or gruel, then it can be supped like soup from a bowl without the need for any utensils.

Oats and barley would have been staple ingredients in the diet of my Celtic Fervour Series Garrigill clan and would probably have been eaten in the ways mentioned already, or baked as a flat bread or 'oatcake'. Additions of dried fruits, herbs, nuts and perhaps seasonal honey would have varied plain breads. I imagine anything to hand would have been added to broths and soups, vegetable-based or from a meat-sourced stock when possible. Perhaps a piece of bread might have been used for the scooping up of some concoctions, with the soggy remnants devoured before they completely disintegrated?

I've written about Roman and Celtic' consumption of porridge and bread on this blog before and won't repeat, but today I am moving on to something a little sweeter! 

Preparation for Dulcia Piperata 

It's a little bit different when it comes to describing what my Roman characters were eating in various locations in Britannia. The Ancient Roman writer Apicius wrote 'recipes' of foods eaten in Rome during 1st century AD. There are other ancient writers who make mentions of emperors and Roman citizens gorging on luxurious meals, though most of those foods would not have been appropriate for my characters to eat in Britannia. I imagine that Roman military personnel in Britannia could only indulge in particular ‘Roman cuisine’ if the basic ingredients could be acquired locally, and the more exotic ingredients added from a preserved state. Fresh figs and grapes would have been common items in Rome when in season, but transportation to Britannia – even at the fastest possible speed – would have taken too long for that type of item to arrive in a fresh condition. It was fortunate that the Ancient Romans were quite good at preserving foods in vinegar and wine. 

Two of Apicius’ lists of ingredients refer to Aliter Dulcia, which is interpreted as a sweet honey cake, though he’s economical on details of the method of cooking.  I have to assume the mixture would have been added to a pan and either suspended over a low-burning wood fire, or perhaps more likely warmed to final cooking state on the 'flat stones' (hotplate) - the heat having been fed through a series of channels underneath ,or from the side of the main heat source. (hypocaust-type engineering?)

1. 'In a chafing-dish put honey, pure wine, raisin wine, pine nuts, nuts, cooked spelt, add crushed toasted hazelnuts and serve.'  

2. 'Crush pepper, nuts, honey , rue, and raisin wine with milk and cook the mixture with few eggs well-worked in, cover with honey, sprinkle with crushed nuts etc, and serve. 

The mixing stages of Dulcia Piperata

I've been intrigued by these recipes since I first encountered them, but thought long and hard about whether it would have been appropriate for my Ancient Roman characters to be eating either of the above concoctions in Britannia. Would the ingredients have been available to them in AD 84?
Recipe 1 cooked with spelt (a variety of wheat) would have resulted in a more-cake-like consistency. Recipe 2 without a binding agent would have ended up more like a custard. 

Research from Vindolanda Fort (near Hadrian's Wall), from wooden tablets and other excavation information, indicates quite a surprising variety of foods were eaten, though the fort site of some nine different forts was occupied over centuries rather than years. So far, I haven’t been able to determine if the earliest forts would have been so well-stocked to have had all of the ingredients available.

In Book 5 of my series, Beathan The Brigante, Beathan spends time at Vindolanda in AD 87. This would probably have been during the time of very first fort that was built on the site. However, I’ve been cautious about what foods might have been on offer to the fort commander that I’ve named as Verecundus. (Evidence attests there was a commander in those early days named Verecundus, though dates of his actual tenure are not precise.)

The beautiful texture of my Dulcia Piperata

Pepper was very expensive but was definitely eaten at Vindolanda. Nuts sourced locally (e.g. hazelnuts) would have been possible, though perhaps not pine nuts. The wines may have been available at Vindolanda, especially the sweetened wine which might have survived longer in amphorae than a regular wine. A watered-down variety of vinegared-wine seems to have been the staple issue to the general fort soldiers. In season, honey would have been available. Milk and eggs were likely everyday commodities. (Hens were raised for eggs, but the eating of chicken seems to be rarer, though bones don’t always survive well in the ground as evidence of them being eaten)) Rue is native to Britain, and was used as an ancient herbal treatment, so it was likely to have been available. Spelt wheat has been recently re-introduced by farmers in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, as a trial commodity but it is not a regular crop (use the search facility for a previous blog post)  Spelt could, however, have been grown in Britain though around Vindolanda the soil type might have made that a challenge. Wheat and other cereals, were regularly sent around the Roman Empire to feed the troops, it being the greater part of their staple diet.

In Book 5, Beathan The Brigante, I decided that my character General Agricola would eat some Dulcia Piperata - honey cake. A temporary camp in Taexali territory, in north-east Caledonia was an unlikely setting for that.  I almost had Agricola presented with it at Trimontium Roman Fort, near what would have been a 'border' area between Caledonia and southern Britannia but decided to wait till he was journeying through Gaul, en route for Rome, with Beathan dragged along in chains. 

But what would Dulcia Piperata taste like?

I found a recipe on the internet for Dulcia Piperata (there are a few) and set to work. The one I chose takes into account modern baking techniques and is an amalgam of the two above-mentioned recipes by Apicius.

My list included: flour; baking powder and baking soda; salt’ pepper (3 tsp); coriander (fresh); 2 eggs; 1 egg yolk(no white); olive oil; honey ( a whole jar!) ; sweet white wine; chopped almonds and hazelnuts; chopped toasted hazelnuts for the topping.

My Dulcia Piperata 

The mixing was easy and the cake texture was perfect BUT it was far TOO peppery. One bite and I was reaching for thick cream to douse itmore honey… and more maple syrup… and ice cream… !

p.s. I intend to try it again but without so much pepper and less fresh coriander.