Background to my books: Roman

Roman Britain and the Brigantes

I have set most of my books in the northern half of Britain, mainly because I know the area well and can do the research easily, but it always fascinated me that the Romans left the Brigante and their enigmatic Queen, Cartimandua, alone for so long.  That was the starting point for my research.

The story as written in the first two chapters is exactly as recorded by the Roman writers.  She did, in fact, rule the northern half of Britannia with little or no interference from Rome. It was only in 69 A.D. when she divorced her husband and took up with a young shield bearer that things changed and a turma of Roman cavalry rescued the Queen and set in motion the conquest of the land of the Brigante by the Romans. Cartimandua disappears from history in 69 A.D. which is where my fiction takes over.

I have discovered many interesting websites and this section will soon contain links to some of the more useful sites as well as more background to the Roman novels. (This just depends upon my mastery of the technology!)

If you should disagree with any of my assertions in the novels or indeed have any pertinent facts then please contact me.

This is the best link as it covers everything

This web link is a good one as the page links to many others. I used this one for the background to Book 2 and 3 for Agricola’s campaigns

This is a fun page- you get to pick a Roman name.  Don’t expect a speedy response- it took them six months, but there is a nice resource which shows how to make up a Roman name correctly.  I have tried to stick to this when coming up with the names in my books.

I met a great guy in Bamburgh: Uthar Tatt. He is a specialist in coins.  He writes about them and makes them.  He has a good website.  This is the link:

General background to Roman books

Aulus Nepos was the Governor of Britannia for a short time and it was his decision to enlarge Hadrian’s original ideas. That proved expensive and his tenure was a mere three years. He was responsible for Housesteads and the other forts on the wall as well as those built north of the wall. His successor, Trebius Germanus, was a vague figure who may or may not have been Governor in 127 A.D. As the next governor we know for certain was Sextus Severus 131-133, I have used Germanus as the incumbent.

The Selgovae, Votadini and Brigante kept on revolting right up until the reign of Antoninus Pius who built the Antonine Wall to subjugate those tribes. It never quite worked out and eventually Hadrian’s Wall became the northern frontier and the Brigante finally accepted Roman rule.

The building of the two walls was the last work of the legions in Britannia and the defence of the wall was left to the auxiliaries who were sent to the northern frontier to guard it. The wall itself was built largely as described. Where there was plenty of local stone, in the east and the middle then it was made of stone. In the west it was made of turf which is why the best sections to explore are in the centre of the wall.

The vallum was added after the wall was completed. It ran along the south of the wall, on the Province side. It consisted of two mounds with a ditch between. The only crossing points were at the forts. It would not stop an enemy but it would slow him down considerably.

I have used the term bolt throwers although the machines in question were quite sophisticated and there were many sizes: manuballista, ballista, scorpio and catapulta were all names for these weapons. Here is a picture of a modern reconstruction of a scorpio as used by the re-enactors of the XXth. Incidentally this photograph was taken by the author at Cilurnum.

The early Roman ballistae were made of wood, and held together with iron plates around the frames and iron nails in the stand. The main stand had a slider on the top, into which were loaded the bolts or stone shot. Attached to this, at the back, was a pair of ‘winches’ and a ‘claw’, used to ratchet the bowstring back to the armed firing position.

The slider passed through the field frames of the weapon, in which were located the torsion springs (rope made of animal sinew), which were twisted around the bow arms, which in turn, were attached to the bowstring.

Drawing the bowstring back with the winches twisted the already taut springs, storing the energy to fire the projectiles. The bronze or iron caps, which secured the torsion-bundles were adjustable by means of pins and peripheral holes, which allowed the weapon to be tuned for symmetrical power and for changing weather conditions.

The ballista was a highly accurate weapon (there are many accounts of single soldiers being picked off by ballista operators), but some design aspects meant it could compromise its accuracy for range. The maximum range was over 500 yards (460 m), but effective combat range for many targets was far shorter. The Romans continued the development of the ballista, and it became a highly prized and valued weapon in the army of the Roman Empire.

Author’s Photograph

Roman Auxiliary Cavalry


During the Principate period of the Roman Empire (30 BC – AD 284), the all-mounted alae (“wings”) contained the elite cavalry of the army. They were specially trained in elaborate manoeuvres, such as those displayed to the emperor Hadrian during a documented inspection in Numidia. They were best-suited for large-scale operations and battle, during which they acted as the primary cavalry escort for the legions, which had almost no cavalry of their own. Roman alares were normally armoured, with mail or scale body armour, a cavalry version of the infantry helmet (with more protective features, such as completely covered ears) and oval shield or hexagonal. Their weapons could be a lance, javelins, or bow and arrow but all Roman horseman had a sword called a (spatha) and the ubiquitous pugio. The elite status of an alaris is shown by the fact that he received 20% greater pay than his counterpart in an auxiliary cohort, and than a legionary infantryman.

The favoured sources of recruitment for the cavalry of the auxilia were Gauls, Germans, Iberians and Thracians. All of these peoples had long-established skills and experience of fighting from horseback – in contrast to the Romans themselves. The alae were better paid and mounted than the more numerous horsemen of the cohortes equitatae.

Roman Auxiliary Cavalry Saddles

The saddles had four horns. They had no stirrups but the horns, apparently, held them in the saddle. They mounted by vaulting on to the backs of their horses. Shades of Ben Jonson and Harry Carey Junior in ‘Rio Grande’! Their shield was hung from one horn, their javelin case from a another and food from a third. The total weight, excluding the rider was 38.5 kilograms. The horses themselves would have been 14-15 hands high.


Roman auxiliary regiments: Type, structure and strength
Unit typeUnit commanderSub-unit
No of
Ala quingenariacavalrypraefectusdecurio16 turmae30 (32)480 (512)
Ala milliariacavalrypraefectusdecurio24 turmae30 (32)720 (768)
Cohors quingenariainfantrypraefectuscenturio6 centuriae80480
Cohors milliariainfantrytribunus militumcenturio10 centuriae80800
Cohors equitata
infantry plus
cavalry contingent
praefectuscenturio (inf)
decurio (cav)
6 centuriae
4 turmae
(480 inf/120 cav)
Cohors equitata
infantry plus
cavalry contingent
tribunus militumcenturio (inf)
decurio (cav)
10 centuriae
8 turmae
(800 inf/240 cav)


The Votadini

In the 1st century the Romans recorded the Votadini as a British tribe. Between 138–162 they came under direct Roman military rule as occupants of the region between Hadrian’s and the Antonine Walls. Then when the Romans drew back to Hadrian’s Wall the Votadini became a friendly buffer state, getting the rewards of alliance with Rome without being under its rule, until about 400 when the Romans withdrew from southern Great Britain. Quantities of Roman goods found at Traprain Law, East Lothian might suggest that this proved profitable, though this is open to speculation.

Excavations in Votadini territory, especially around Traprain Law, have unearthed silver Roman items, including several Gallic Roman coins, indicating some level of trade with the continent. It is unknown, however, whether the other items were traded for, or given to them by the Romans as an appeasement.



In Romano-British religion, Cocidius was a deity worshipped in northern Britain. The Romans equated him with Mars, god of war and hunting, and also with Silvanus, god of forests, groves and wild fields. Like Belatucadros, he was probably worshipped by lower-ranked Roman soldiers as well as by the Britons for whom he was probably a tribal god.

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall was 80 Roman miles or 117.5 km (73.0 mi) long. Its width and height varied according to the construction materials available nearby. East of the River Irthing, the wall was made from squared stone and measured 3 metres (10 feet) wide and 5 to 6 metres (16 to 20 feet) high, while west of the river the wall was originally made from turf and measured 6 metres (20 feet) wide and 3.5 metres (11 feet) high; it was later rebuilt in stone. These dimensions do not include the wall’s ditches, berms and forts. The central section measured eight Roman feet wide (7.8 ft or 2.4 m) on a 3 m (10 ft) base. Some parts of this section of the wall survive to a height of 3 m (10 ft).

Construction started in AD 122 and was largely completed in six years. Construction started in the east, between milecastles four and seven, and proceeded westwards, with soldiers from all three of the occupying Roman legions participating in the work. The route chosen largely paralleled the nearby Stanegate road from Luguvalium (Carlisle) to Coria (Corbridge), upon which were situated a series of forts, including Vindolanda. The wall in its central and best-preserved section follows a hard, resistant igneous diabase rock escarpment, known as the Whin Sill.

The initial plan called for a ditch and wall with 80 small gated milecastle fortlets, one placed every Roman mile, holding a few dozen troops each, and pairs of evenly spaced intermediate turrets used for observation and signalling. However, very few milecastles are actually sited at exact Roman mile divisions: they can be up to 200 yards east or west because of landscape features or to improve signalling to the Stanegate forts to the south. Local limestone was used in the construction, except for the section to the west of the River Irthing where turf was originally used instead, for unknown reasons; it was later rebuilt in stone. Milecastles in this area were also built from timber and earth rather than stone, but turrets were always made from stone. The Broad Wall was initially built with a clay-bonded rubble core and mortared dressed rubble facing stones, but this seems to have made it vulnerable to collapse, and repair with a mortared core was sometimes necessary.

The milecastles and turrets were of three different designs, depending on which Roman legion built them – inscriptions of the Second, Sixth, and Twentieth Legions, show that all were involved in the construction. The turrets were about 493 metres (539 yards) apart and measured 14.02 square metres (150.9 square feet) internally.

Construction was divided into lengths of about 5 miles (8.0 km). One group of each legion would excavate the foundations and build the milecastles and turrets and then other cohorts would follow with the wall construction. The wall was finished in 128 A.D.

Immediately south of the wall, a large ditch was dug, with adjoining parallel mounds, one on either side. This is known today as the Vallum, even though the word Vallum in Latin is the origin of the English word wall, and does not refer to a ditch. In many places – for example Limestone Corner – the Vallum is better preserved than the wall, which has been robbed of much of its stone.

At the time this novel is set there was just a ditch to the north of the wall and the Stanegate, the military road to the south. Over time ditches were added to the south and the only way through the wall became the forts.

Composition of garum

What is called liquamen is thus made: the intestines of fish are thrown into a vessel, and are salted; and small fish, especially atherinae, or small mullets, or maenae, or lycostomi, or any small fish, are all salted in the same manner; and they are seasoned in the sun, and frequently turned; and when they have been seasoned in the heat, the garum is thus taken from them. A small basket of close texture is laid in the vessel filled with the small fish already mentioned, and the garum will flow into the basket; and they take up what has been percolated through the basket, which is called liquamen; and the remainder of the feculence is made into allec.

From the 10th century Byzantine manual Geōponika

Roman honours


Grass crown – (Latin: corona obsidionalis or corona graminea), was the highest and rarest of all military decorations. It was presented only to a general, commander, or officer whose actions saved the legion or the entire army.

Civic crown – (Latin: corona civica), was a chaplet of common oak leaves woven to form a crown. During the Roman Republic, and the subsequent Principate, it was regarded as the second highest military decoration a citizen could aspire to (the Grass Crown being held in higher regard).

Naval crown – (Latin: corona navalis), was a gold crown awarded to the first man who boarded an enemy ship during a naval engagement. In style, the crown was made of gold and surmounted with the beaks of ships.

Gold crown – (Latin: corona aurea), Awarded to both Centurions and apparently some principales, for killing an enemy in single combat and holding the ground to the end of the battle.

Battlement crowns – These were made of gold and decorated with the uprights of an entrenchment or turrets of a city. It was awarded to the first soldier or Centurion to mount the wall or palisade of an enemy town or camp.

Mural crown – (Latin: corona muralis), Also referred to as the “walled crown”, this was a golden crown, or circle of gold intended to resemble a battlement, bestowed upon the first soldier who climbed the wall of a besieged city and to successfully place the standard of the attacking army upon it.

Camp crown – (Latin: corona vallaris or corona castrensis), A golden crown which was ornamented with the palisades used in forming an entrenchment.

Crown of the Preserver – awarded to “those who have shielded and saved any of the citizens or allies”- Polybius relates that the crown is presented by those civilians the soldier saved and adds that “the man thus preserved also reverences his preserver as a father all through his life, and must treat him in every way like a parent”.

This will be the last book in the series. For those who had read my other series you will know that the Sword of Cartimandua reappears in Saxon Dawn and again in the Dragonheart series. The exploits of the sword, Marcus and his comrades in the Roman period ends with this book. I hope that you have enjoyed the series. The Sword of Cartimandua was the first book I wrote and has a special place in my heart. My style has changed over the years. When I wrote this one it felt different to the others. It feels like the end of an era.