On Restless Pinions

Imagine, if you will, a child at a table, pen in hand. He, or possibly she, is learning to write a legible hand. But not on paper: on a thin sheet of wood, with ink made from carbon and gum Arabic and a pen with a metal nib.  One side of this sheet has been used, a letter begun and discarded, but the other side is fine for a child to use for practice.

Outside, the soldiers and officers of a Roman fort are going about their business. There are patrols to ride, to keep an eye on the Brittunculi, the soldiers’ derogatory nickname for the native inhabitants. Drills to practice, swords and armour to clean, cooking to be done, board games or dice to be played.

Would the child prefer to be out watching the soldiers drill on the practice field? Or perhaps hang around the stables, breathing in the scent of horse?  No such luck: not when you are the child of an officer. Restless or not, your education comes first.

So you write. Perhaps you are copying, perhaps you are writing from dictation. But here, in this northern fort at the edge of Empire, in the year 100, you are writing a line from Virgil:  interea pauidam uolitans pinnata perurbem (Aeneid 9:473). A line we know, can still read, can still write today. (On restless pinions to the trembling town had voiceful Rumour hied…)1

Fájl:Philo mediev.jpg
 Cours de philosophy du Paris; Grande Chroniques de France.  Public Domain

This fragment from Virgil, copied nearly two thousand years ago, is tablet 118 of the Vindolanda letters. From this brief glance into the (probable) life of a child, perhaps one of the children of the Prefect Flavius Cerialis, I have extrapolated: my characters Perras and Cillian use the ‘classics’ in this way as they teach; the children of my books, of the right rank, learn to write a fine hand, and know the words of my world’s equivalent of Virgil and others. Even at a northern fort at the edge of an Empire that never, quite, existed.

Striking Fear

A Random Research Note

File:Slingers on Trajan's Column.JPG
Slingers portrayed on Trajan’s Column.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Smooth stones shot with a sling…are more dangerous than any arrows, since while leaving the limb intact they inflict a wound that is still lethal, and the enemy dies from the blow of the stone without loss of blood…This weapon should be learned by all recruits with frequent exercise, because it is no effort to carry a sling. It often happens too that warfare is carried on in stony places, that some mountain or hill has to be defended…

Vegetius: De Re Militari

Druisius, one of the main characters in my newest book, Empress & Soldier, is a new recruit facing his first battle, defending a mountain pass. In the vanguard of the troops facing the enemy are the slingers. (No, this isn’t historically correct: what I write isn’t. It’s a created world that looks a lot like ours, but I’m not bound by absolute accuracy.)

Slings are an ancient weapon, most likely in use long before any written record. The first written record in the western world is the story of David and Goliath in the Old Testament of the Bible (1st Samuel), thought to have been written about the 6th century BCE. Used across the world, the oldest-known slings are from coastal Peru, radio-carbon dated to c. 2500 BCE.

Roman slingers, which I am using as my model, used lead sling-bullets: the density of lead means that the mass of a sling-bullet made from the metal is much greater than one of stone. Lead sling-bullets could therefore be small, able to travel further than a stone of the same mass due to less resistance in the air, and difficult to see in flight. A painful projectile, with larger ones capable of speeds up to 160 kph.  As archaeologist John Reid of the Trimontium Trust told Scientific American, it could take the top of a head off. Romans (and Greeks) literally added insult to injury: bullets were sometimes inscribed with images of snakes or scorpions, or inscriptions such as ‘catch!’.

File:Romans used also small sling bullets of lead.jpg
Peter van der Sluijs, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most interesting of all the sling bullets found from the Roman period are those from Burnswark, or Birrenswark, Hill in southwestern Scotland. In the second century CE, troops under the command of Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Roman governor of Britannia (himself following orders from Antonius Pius, the Roman Emperor) attacked the hillfort of the Caledonian people here. Archaeological investigations at the site discovered about twenty percent of the sling bullets were smaller than average, and had holes drilled into them. These bullets whistle as they fly. Their assumed purpose is to terrify the enemy: small, stinging, whistling projectiles, almost like a swarm of biting insects.

Druisius isn’t a slinger; he’s infantry, a foot soldier using shield and sword. But he sees the value of the sling in his first battle.  Will he ever use it?  You may have to read Empress & Soldier to find out!


Translated Texts for Historians Volume 16: Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science. N.P. Milner, Translator. Liverpool University Press, 1996. pp 16-17  

Whistling Sling Bullets Were Roman Troops’ Secret Weapon. Tom Metcalfe, LiveScience on June 14, 2016: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/whistling-sling-bullets-were-roman-troops-secret-weapon/

Burnswark Hill: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burnswark_Hill#Battle_details

You Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours.

A Random Research Note

“We ourselves have seen Manius Manilius walking across the forum; a signal that he who did so, gave all the citizens liberty to consult him upon any subject; and to such persons, when thus walking or sitting at home upon their seats of ceremony, all people had free access, not only to consult them upon points of civil law, but even upon the settlement of a daughter in marriage, the purchase of an estate, or the cultivation of a farm, and indeed upon any employment or business whatsoever.” Cicero, De Oratores, Book III:XXXIII 

DEA / G. Dagli Orti / De Agostini / Getty

Manius Manilius, whoever he was*, is represented in this passage by Cicero as a patron: an important position and concept in the hierarchical structure of the Roman social contract.

In the Roman world, a patron-client relationship was a form of noblesse oblige, although with the loyalty and support of the client expected. Based on the Roman ideal of ‘fides’, loyalty, the patron – (the word derives from ‘father’) – the head of a high-status family, dispensed advice, loans, and influence to his clients – men of lower status, in exchange for political support, respect, and sometimes the physical presence of their clients for protection.

In Empress & Soldier, we see this in action when Salvius, Druisius’s father, goes to ask his patron for help in acquiring certain licenses he needs as a merchant. He takes his oldest son (Druisius) with him, as part of his education. They go early in the morning, are admitted to a waiting room, where they and the others waiting are seen in order of their social status. I based this on the salutatio, the morning greeting of clients to their patrons, and also the opportunity to ask the patron for a favour.

By the late Roman Empire, the patron-client relationship had changed quite a bit, to a more self-serving relationship between the two. But one of the advantages of writing a fictional world is I can pick and choose what aspects of history I want to use and adapt – and so I’ve kept patronage in my city of Casil to reflect patronage in the Roman Republic.

(The identity of Druisius’s father’s patron is important to the story, by the way, but I’m not about to reveal that yet!)

* an orator and jurist of the Roman Republic, c 150 BCE, actually.

Lucius Primus’s Unauthorized War

A Random Research Note

Look back over the past, at the empires that rose and fell, and predict the future.  Marcus Aurelius (or Catilius, in my fictional semi-parallel world.)

There are – as there are in almost all multigenerational sagas – two areas of focus in my books: the personal arcs of my characters, and the political/social background against which those character arcs unfold, and by which they are challenged and tested and developed. In Empress & Soldier, the work-in-progress, the political plot will (perhaps) be foremost, and, as I currently envision the book, it will take place over about a 15-year period. A different challenge for me, the writer, in part because my knowledge of Roman political history outside the major events in Roman Britain and a few highlights elsewhere is fairly limited.

This entails a lot of research…which I’ll be sharing in random bits as I learn something that will feed the plot of the book. I’m doing this as much for me as anyone – this way it’s written down somewhere I can find it again 😊 – but perhaps it will entertain or enlighten someone, or provide me with feedback that will be useful! 


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The Odrysian Kingdom, which existed from the early 5th century BC at least until the mid-3rd century BC, was one of the most powerful of its time. Throughout much of its early history it remained an ally of Athens; eventually, Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, would conquer it. But in the early part of the common era it was under Roman control, and in one jurisdiction, there was a proconsul governor named Lucius Primus.

According to Dio (54:3:2) Lucius Primus (or he might have been Marcus Primus) stood trial in 22 CE for starting a war against the Odrysae. The Odrysae were Thracian, and Thrace had been an important ally of Rome, especially in the Battle of Actium. Why Lucius Primus started this war I haven’t yet been able to find out, but apparently it was ‘unauthorized’ by Augustus. (Starting a war against allies doesn’t appear at first glance to be a good move on a governor’s part.)  He swore he had Augustus’s approval; Augustus said he didn’t…and Lucius Primus was eventually executed.

The event is mentioned by Dio because it’s important in Augustus’s gradual expansion of power: the jurisdiction Lucius Primus governed was a senatorial province, and it should have been the senate that decided the governor’s fate without Augustus’s interference. That’s not what caught my attention. In furthering the history of my fictional world, I need a reason for my antagonists (a family) to have a grievance against the Emperors. So I think this little bit of history will serve as a template. A governor who starts a war he shouldn’t have, a trial and execution….and then imagination can create a son who, exonerated because he was either too young or serving in another province (haven’t worked out the timelines yet) nurses his grievance and plans a long, multi-generational game of revenge – a game he trains his nephew in as well.

Of Bere and Beer

I demand historical accuracy of my alternate-Europe: its geography, social constructs, and history may differ somewhat from the real world, but the background is as correct as my research allows. (And my interpretation of that research, of course.) But this conversation between two characters in my fifth book, Empire’s Reckoning, led me down a research path I hadn’t expected.

 “Should I put the meadows along the water to the plough, if I can find seed? They’ve been grazed, but we’ll not have sheep in numbers for a few years yet.”

“If those meadows are like the Ti’ach’s, they’re wet,” I said. “Better leave them to the sheep, and plough better drained land, if you can.”  He’d be late getting the barley in…

And then I stopped. This scene is taking place in early May, in a land that is an analogue of lowland Scotland, in more-or-less the 7th century.  Was this TOO late to plant barley?  Would it mature before winter came? (I have a graduate degree in crop science, and so I think about these sorts of things.)

I googled  ‘medieval Scotland planting date barley’…and discovered something I didn’t know. (Not terribly surprising, that, except that due to the aforementioned graduate degree in crop science, I actually do know a fair bit about the origins of cereal grains. And the professor who taught that bit was not only a Scot, but a whisky aficionado…which will become relevant.)

What I discovered was ‘bere’ (pronounced bear): a barley race introduced to northern Scotland by the Vikings in the 8th century or earlier (earlier was good). Peter Martin, director of the Agronomy Institute at Orkney College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), says, ‘Bere is probably the oldest cultivated barley, definitely in Britain and probably one of the oldest still in cultivation in Europe.’ Adapted to the climate and soils of the far north, it matures in 90 days. Plenty of time for my character to plant it in lowland Scotland in mid-May (or even June by the time he gets those fields under plough) and harvest it in late summer.

It’s also taller than modern varieties, which means it has an unfortunate tendency to lodge, or fall flat on the ground near to harvest in heavy rain or wind. I knew this about older barley varieties, so I’d already written this later scene, a different landholder and a different year than the earlier one.

In the long summer twilight, the clouds and rain now blown eastward, we walked up to the barley fields. Much of the grain lay flat. Roghan clicked his tongue. “Harder work for the men,” he said. At the greener field, he shook his head. “It will mould before it ripens. We’ll try to rake it, but likely I’ll turn the cattle out on it in the end.”

At the start of this century, there may have been less than 10 hectares of bere left in Scotland, grown only in small fields in the far northern and western islands. What has saved it is its unique flavour when used to brew beer or whisky. Small breweries and small distilleries produce short-run, expensive beverages with it, aimed at the increasing market for local-provenance food and drink. Barony Mill, a watermill on Orkney, produces flour (beremeal) from it as well. It’s a tough grain, difficult for modern machinery to handle — and would likely have ground down the teeth of people who ate it regularly (that and the flakes of stone from the grinding).

I’m visiting Orkney  in April, too early to see bere growing. I’ll look for the whisky, if it doesn’t break the bank. Well, maybe one glass, somewhere on that northern island, in honour of my constructed world and the real one it’s based on.

(Well, that visit didn’t happen, because COVID did. Still hoping to get there someday!)