Saturday, March 1, 2014

From the Sands of Africa to a Hidden Frontier in Roman Britain

by Adam Alexander Haviaras

The streets of Thugga
One of the great pleasures of writing historical fiction is the research that goes into it. Every period in history is a warren of rabbit holes. You can get lost, confused, or run into dead ends. You can also experience the joy of discovery, and the enrichment of your own knowledge.

No matter your level of experience, there is always something new, something to turn your previous views on end.

I’ve trained for years as an historian, but I’m a firm believer that historical fiction is often the best way for readers to learn about history. It’s not only entertaining, but it helps one to connect with history on a more emotional and visceral level than any classroom experience.

The onus is on the author to make it as accurate as possible with the information available, and that means research!

Sahara landscape
I’m definitely enjoying the research for my current novel, Warriors of Epona – Eagles and Dragons Book III. For some years I’ve been researching and writing about the world of Rome itself and the provinces of Roman North Africa. It’s been fantastic, and I’ve travelled to some pretty amazing sites in the Sahara for my research.

But as much as the historic novelist must put the story first, he or she must always be guided by the historical timeline. The first Eagles and Dragons novels take place during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, the North African emperor who won the civil war and defeated the Parthian Empire. It’s an extremely exciting time in Roman history with the world in great flux.

In my current novel, the battlefield has moved away from Mesopotamia, North Africa, and the marble palaces of Rome, to northern Britain for Severus’ campaign to conquer Caledonia once and for all.

And so I find myself in familiar territory once more. I’ve traded the sweat and sand of Africa Proconsularis for the green plains and grey skies of central and eastern Scotland.

Having lived and studied in St. Andrews for a few years, I was happy to get a new perspective on an area I thought I had known very well.

Of course, I knew that the Romans had invaded Caledonia prior to the 3rd century. Many of you have probably heard of the invasion of c. A.D. 71 under Governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola which culminated in the much debated victory at Mons Graupius in A.D. 84.

Hadrian's Wall
And there is absolutely no doubt that you will be familiar with that most famous of monuments, Hadrian’s Wall, which was built in the 120s A.D. This, and the later Antonine Wall, which was built around A.D. 142, were intended to keep the troublesome Caledonians at bay.

For myself, I was aware of and studied all of these events and monuments that are a part of Roman history in Scotland and the Borders. They occupy some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen, from stones of Hadrian’s Wall, to the fortress at Newstead (Trimontium), and on to the Antonine Wall which stood in the shadow of the Highlands.

But there is another frontier that many people may not know of. You may have heard of some of the forts or camps that make up a part of this frontier, such as the legionary base at Inchtuthil.

I’m talking about a line of forts and camps known as the ‘Gask Ridge’.

Research on this particular frontier has been less in depth than either the Antonine or Hadrianic walls. However, over the past ten years or so, the Gask Ridge has received its due attention thanks to the efforts of Birgitta Hoffmann and David Woolliscroft who have spearheaded the Roman Gask Project.

The importance of this frontier cannot be over-emphasized.

The Gask Ridge
The Gask Ridge frontier has seen action in every one of Rome’s Caledonian campaigns and some of the research even shows that it was the first chain of forts in northern Britain, predating the other walls. Some believe it is the first such frontier in the Empire!

It consists of a long line of forts and temporary marching camps that run from the area of Stirling, on the Antonine Wall, past Doune, along the edge of Fife and up into Angus, all the way to Stracathro.

This is a very impressive line of defence built by Rome with the intent of holding the Caledonii at bay, and separating the highlands from the flatter plains leading to the North Sea.

The trick for me as a writer and researcher is finding out which forts may have been in use during the campaigns of Septimius Severus in the early 3rd century A.D.

The forts of the Gask Ridge were used mostly during Agricola’s campaign in the late first century, and then by Antoninus in the late second.

The Romans definitely knew how to pick a strategic location along the perfect line of march, so it is likely marching camps would have been reused in later campaigns. But some of that is supposition.

One site that we know was built as part of the Severan campaign was the fort at Carpow, on the banks of the Tay, in Fife. With a large part of a legion stationed there, the supply chain could be maintained by sea with Roman galleys coming up the Tay. It was also at this time that some believe the first Tay Bridge was built when Severus ordered the creation of a boat or pontoon bridge to the Angus side of the river.

Carpow was a large base of operations intended to make a statement, and according to Cassius Dio, one of the main contemporary sources for the period, when the inhabitants of the island revolted a second time, Severus “summoned the soldiers and ordered them to invade the rebels’ country, killing everybody they met; and he quoted these words: ‘Let no one escape sheer destruction, No one our hands, not even the babe in the womb of the mother, If it be male; let it nevertheless not escape sheer destruction.”

Cassius Dio did have a flair for the dramatic, true, but Severus was a military emperor who liked to prove his point. The quote may not be far off. He was in Caledonia to finish what other Roman emperors had started, just as he did in Parthia.
The Gask Ridge will play a key role in my story, and I have something of an idea as to which forts may have seen re-use during the third century, among them the camps at Camelon and Ardoch, and possibly Bertha and Fendoch.

Of course, one of the exciting things about writing historical fiction, after the research, is filling in the gaps and exploring possibilities.

My research journey on the Gask is not yet finished, and I’m certainly looking forward to learning more.

One thing that I have discovered is that though the history and research are very important, at the end of the day, in fiction, the story must come first.

When history and story come together, well, that is pure magic!

Cheers, and thank you for reading.

If you are interested in reading more about the Roman Gask Frontier, or about the Romans in Scotland, do have a look at the following resources:

The Roman Gask Project:

Further Reading: Rome's First Frontier: The Flavian Occupation of Northern Scotland. By D. J. Woolliscroft and B. Hoffman. Pp. 254. ISBN: 0 7524 3044 0. Stroud: Tempus. 2006.

Dr. Fraser Hunter Documentary (Scotland: Rome’s Final Frontier):


Adam Alexander Haviaras is an author of historical fiction/fantasy set in the ancient world. He has studied history and archaeology in Canada and the United Kingdom. Adam blogs weekly on his website, Writing the Past, about ancient and medieval history and historical fiction. You can Tweet him at @AdamHaviaras or find him on Google+ and Facebook. He loves to hear from readers, writers, and fellow history-lovers.


  1. Adam,

    Parts of this post were like reading my thoughts out-loud!

    I couldn't agree with you more that one of the delights of writing historical fiction is being able to do research "on location." I'm absolutely thrilled to think that a week from today I'll be in Jerusalem to do research for my book on Balian d'Ibelin, who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187. I've found research on location can be mind-bending. My understanding of Ancient Sparta, for example, was transformed after discovering that Lacedaemon, far from being an austere and barren place, is a blooming, fertile valley of incomparable beauty. (For more on my views about Sparta, see my blog:

    Like you, I am a trained historian with a PhD and I am fanatical about historical accuracy. That sometimes makes it difficult to put the story first, as you rightly recommend, but I hope I'm learning how to balance the demands of history and literature.

    Anyway, thanks for a great entry that I will certanly be sharing!

    1. Cheers Helena! It does really help to get all the stimuli in a place you are writing about. And yes, Sparta was definitely an eye-opener for me too. So lush - another world! The Balian story is a fantastic one and I envy you your trip to that part of the world. Do enjoy and be sure to share some pictures!
      Balancing the historical detail and story is a fine art, to be sure. It took a while to strike a balance in the early days, but it was also a lot of fun getting there. Cheers and bon voyage! So glad you enjoyed the post :)

  2. Dittos to what Helena wrote - I have discovered periods of history that were not only exciting and new to me, but enhanced what (limited) knowledge I already ways I never would have thought. I am currently fascinated by a part of the history of the Silk Road that predates Marco Polo's excursion and a culture that is just beginning to 'reveal' itself - the Sogdians...all because I wanted to put some characters on the Silk Road. Unfortunately I do not have the finances or ability to travel to some of these places, so I have to rely heavily on the internet, (there's always Google Earth!) but even that has been wonderful. 30 years ago, I would have concluded it would be impossible for me to find what I wanted.

    Ive downloaded Children of Apollo to my Kindle, so I look forward to reading your book(s)!

    1. Cheers, Esgaroth! I hope you enjoy Children of Apollo. Book II is coming out this Friday, so that's good timing.

      I find that there is always, always more to learn, to discover - and that makes history a life-long love of mine, so to speak. The Silk Road cultures are fascinating and enigmatic too. I only know of the Sogdians from their fighting against the Greeks on Alexander's campaigns there. If you have a book recommendation for that, I'd love to hear it.

      It is very difficult to get to places with the price of airfare now, to be sure. Add to that the fact that many ancient sites lie in war zones, and, well, Google does become a good friend.

      One thing that I have done for some of my research for an Alexander the Great trilogy I'm writing is to connect with some troops who have been on tours of duty in Afghanistan (or similar areas) and asked them about the environment (sight lines, smells, winds, vegetation etc.) to get a better sense of things. Some are willing to share their experiences, others are understandably reticent. But any extra input can add to your online research if you can't get to those places. Documentaries are also great.

      Good luck with your research, and thanks for reading!

  3. "I’ve trained for years as an historian, but I’m a firm believer that historical fiction is often the best way for readers to learn about history. " I agree. And more still, I've met a lot of folks who didn't think they were interested in history until they read historical fiction.

    1. That sounds about right, Danny! I'm also a firm believer in using popular history such as fiction, movies, and living history, to lure people in so that they can get interested. Once they are hooked, they pursue their own research and the rest is, well… erm, history :)

      I've learned as much from good historical fiction as I have from courses at university. The two certainly are, in my opinion, complimentary. I've always thought that historical fiction should be a part of the curriculum or reading list in high school and undergraduate university courses. Thanks for your comment!

  4. 'One of the great pleasures of writing historical fiction is the research that goes into it.' Absolutely! And you have to get it right, even if you're writing the most commercial of fiction.
    If you can visit, I think you do it even better. The internet is amazing but it simply can't compete with seeing the history for yourself. My current trilogy is based in India and though I've only visited once, that trip gave me a sense of the country and the way it negotiates its past, that I couldn't have got any other way.

  5. I agree, Isabelle. There is absolutely no substitute for a site visit. I'm actually guest posting on my friend Roberto Calas' site about just that later this week.

    All it takes is one trip and those memories, the stimuli of that experience, will stick with you for years and years, and feed your fiction in ways that you just cannot experience on the internet - that is until someone can create a real holodek. Now that could be the best friend of many an historical fiction writer!

    I wouldn't trade my safari of Roman sites in the Sahara for anything, despite some desperate haggling in French, a bout of food poisoning and fever, and almost being trampled by some Berber horsemen in Douz wielding some very large rifles.

    It was all fodder for fiction!


    1. That sounds adventurous, Adam! Glad you got to go.


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