Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy

Review published on April 24, 2017.

This is a novel of Roman Britain that should satisfy both enthusiasts of historical novels and the action thriller reader. I was convinced early on by the wealth of detail and the portrait of the ancient world, but the thriller/war aspect of the novel began to grip me more as the story evolved. Overall, the balance of accuracy and excitement is good and they co-exist in a pleasing and entertainment read.

Vindolanda opens at the very edge of the Roman Empire, a forlorn outpost on the northern frontier of Britannia, AD98. A neglected watch tower guards the pass protecting the major stronghold of Vindolanda, this garrison is under manned and dilapidated, the men feel forgotten. The commander of this outpost is Flavius Ferox, the centurio regionarius. He must see to the law and order of this border land, a tense posting. The guards are fearful when a small band of warriors appears out of the night from the heathen north but fortunately these men are scouts led by Vindex the Brigantian, an ally, and they bring disturbing reports of trouble among the northern tribes. The Barbarians have begun raiding and so it falls to Ferox, Vindex and a small group of men to hunt the marauders and establish the level of the threat. Are the incursions a search for food and livestock by desperate men or is their intent murderous? When Ferox encounters the foe they are already engaged in a skirmish with a small Roman caravan, there are two women in the party, a prize for any Barbarian band. Managing to rescue the women, most of the men are killed, they are pursued and only reach safety when they run into a Roman patrol bringing the new commander to the region, Cirialis, just appointed by Lord Trajan. One of the rescued women is his wife, high born Lady Sulpicia Lepidina. Ferox and Vindex continue their mission, they find that the watch tower garrison has been attacked, the Barbarians are testing the Roman resolve. Hibernians, Caledonians and many smaller tribes even German warriors are among their number and Ferox begins to suspect that something much bigger is going on. The druids and priests are fermenting trouble. Is this a plan to rid the land of Romans? Some of the loyal tribes are late with the tribute and Cirialis believes a show of force is necessary. His soldiers march on the camp of the Selgovae with the intent of making an example if the tribute cannot be collected. These are dangerous times for the army requiring courage, diplomacy and resourcefulness. Vindolanda deals with the tyranny of empire, rebellion, and the clash of cultures that shaped the ancient world.

Goldsworthy is a well established British historian of Ancient Rome. He has also written a series of novels set during the Peninsula War (Napoleonic campaign), but this is his first novel set in the Roman world. It is the beginning of a series involving Flavius Ferox, a Briton by birth but Roman by loyalty. Contemporary history is not as dry as it used to be, but it is quite another thing for an historian to step into the world of fiction. I was pleased to find that Goldsworthy knows how to make the transition because there are many pitfalls and some notable historians have failed. Bringing a novel to life is about more than being at home with the subject and period of the plot. Meticulous research and academic knowledge is only one aspect of writing a novel, which has to also be entertaining and engaging. Goldsworthy manages this well by combining knowledge with a well realised and vivid account of life on the edge of empire.

It is a major triumph of Vindolanda that Goldsworthy has recreated the world of the Roman outpost, the regional Roman town, and the Canabae, (the camp that grows up near the town to service the Roman needs). Equally the tribes, the Votadini, Vacomagi and Venicones, and the court of King Tincommius and his people feel genuine. Vindolanda is largely about soldiers and the army life in extremis that comes with a posting to a remote and dangerous place. The diverse nature of the soldiers (Batavians, Britons, Thracians, Tungrians) illustrates that Rome is a distant hub of power very detached from their lives. Yet, detail does not overwhelm or interfere with the story telling, which is where many historians fail.

I also believe historical fiction that deals in real history has an obligation to the tell the story within the bounds of what actually happened, a principal referred to in post script by Goldsworthy. He has taken documented and archaeological evidence as the base for this story (some of the evidence of life at Vindolanda has not long been unearthed). Lets face it, a novelist should give up if they can’t make the real history of the Roman Empire come to life. Vindolanda has an easy authenticity.

This makes me think that Vindolanda could be a good book for a readers group keen on an historical novel that is an exciting adventure story but that also wants to compare and contrast it with the actual history of the time, exploring the depth of the novel. To see how Goldsworthy creates a fictional story that fits into a real place and time.

If I have one reservation it is that the characterisation is not as strong as it could be; there is a slightly generic feel to some of the players. It is possible that this is because the action takes precedence and as this is the first in the series there is time for characters and relationships to develop.

There are plenty of successful examples of historical novels covering ancient European history, in my opinion Steven Pressfield and Valerio Massimo Manfredi are among the best adventure novelists. Also, in a more literary vein there is Margarite Youcenar’s Hadrian (which set the standard for historical novels) and John Williams’ Augustus (a novel about Augustus written in letter format that is truly riveting). Vindolanda falls between the two. An intelligent story led by the action that drives it to a dramatic ending. Although it is heavily action-based, it is very much the personal story of Flavius Ferox, Sulpicia Lepidina and the other characters living on the edge of empire. Action and domestic drama live side by side effortlessly.

So what we have is a solid start to a series of novels that promises much, well written and very interesting. Much more accurate than the usual action fiction about legionaries and Rome often popular and entertaining but ultimately forgettable. Vindolanda brings the reader closer to the true nature of Roman Britain.

Paul Burke 4/4

Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy
Head of Zeus 9781784974688 hbk Jun 2017

dir94 pbk?


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