Douglas Jackson on Hadrian’s Wall

The historical fiction author discusses his new novel, The Wall, with novelist Derek Birks.
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Douglas Jackson, I’ve very much enjoyed reading The Wall – one of your very best books I would say. As one who has written about Britain in the fifth century, I appreciate the problems of trying to represent life in that shadowy period. How did you go about researching the area of Hadrian’s Wall in 400AD?

Firstly, I visited the Wall several times to get a feeling for the topography, the scale and the impact it must have had on the landscape and the people who defended it and lived in its shadow. That gave me a perspective on the physical entirety of the structure, but also highlighted the challenge I faced. At first glance, we appear to have a huge amount of information about the Wall, its forts, the legions who built it, the auxiliary units who manned the ramparts, even down to their names and ranks. I put together a chart of every inscription found in the vicinity of the Wall, and its location, which supplied me with my supporting cast for the book, but turned out not to be of huge value in pinpointing the era I needed. We have only a handful of inscriptions from after the Severan invasion of the early third century and the reality is, that, considering the immensity of the structure and the length of time it was occupied, our knowledge only scratches the surface. To pin down 400AD I had to get to know the men of the late Roman army who would have defended it at that point, and understand their lives and how they fought, the social structure of the Empire they served, and the material state of the forts they garrisoned. It was only then that I really had my world.

The Picts are the Roman opponents in your novel, and are often presented as a pretty savage bunch. What do we know about them?

The short answer is ‘Not a lot’, certainly at the time Marcus Flavius Victor embarks on his mission. The first reference to Picts is in an anonymous panegyric of 297AD, and a few years later another writer refers to ‘the forests and marshes of the Caledones and other Picts’, which would appear to suggest the Picts were a federation of northern tribes rather than a single entity. They’re mentioned as part of the Great Barbarian Conspiracy of ‘Attacoti, Scoti (from Hibernia), Picts and Saxons’ which despoiled Britannia in 367AD. We assume the word ‘Picti’ means Painted People, and that suggestion is reinforced by the poet Claudian’s reference around 402AD to soldiers who had ‘watched the life leave the tattoos on a dying Pict’.

How significant was the Roman presence in Britain during the time you’ve written about?

In 400AD, everything in Britain south of Hadrian’s Wall was an integral part of the Roman Empire. Its people’s lives were regulated by Roman bureaucracy, they paid taxes to Rome, they were defended by soldiers who would have vowed loyalty to the Emperor Honorius, and they would have considered themselves Roman citizens. Yet their leaders would also have been aware that Rome’s interest in their province was on the decline. The flow of luxuries – wine, olive oil, exotic fruits, fine tableware – they’d come to expect, had slowed to a trickle. A once great field army had shrunk to a few cohorts of heavy infantry and seldom-paid limitanei frontier soldiers who by now were probably little more than semi-independent war bands.

Was there a decision made to abandon Hadrian’s Wall, or was it a steady decline?

There’s no epigraphic or archaeological evidence to suggest a great mass abandonment of the Wall defences after Honorius told Britain’s civic leaders in 410AD that they’d have to fend for themselves. The reality is that the garrisons had probably been fending for themselves for years. Regular supply chains would have broken down as Rome focussed on saving itself from the barbarians beyond the Rhine and the Danube. Soldiers would have been paid in kind, if they were paid at all. The Notitia Dignitatum tells us that the First Frisians were based at Vindobala (Rudchester) and the Second Asturians at Cilurnum (Chesters), but by this time these units would have been manned mostly, if not entirely, by native Britons. The forts were their homes and provided shelter and security. The people in the attached settlements would have been their families and friends.

The book is populated by a host of vividly-drawn characters – were any of these based on actual historical figures?

Unlike my Valerius books, the only ‘real’ historical character in The Wall is Dulcitius, the Dux Britanniarum, who did occupy the post at some, probably much earlier, point in history. Sadly, all we know about him is his name. I’ve based the social structures of the northern tribes and the military roles of the soldiers on what we know or believe we know about the era, so the other major players would have existed in some form in the positions they fill in the book and faced the same challenges. The exception is Marcus. There’s no record of an officer with the title Lord of the Wall, but I think it makes sense there was someone in overall charge of the defences closer than York, where the Dux was based.

At the centre of the story is Marcus Flavius Victor. Did you always intend to make him such a complex character, or did he evolve during the writing process?

My initial motivation was to make him different from Valerius Verrens, my main character in the Hero of Rome series. Valerius was a man driven by duty and friendship, I wanted Marcus to be tougher – a bit of a b*st*rd, though a likeable one. The biggest challenge was to make him hard, but not callous. A rogue, but a rogue with principles. I suppose he owes his complexity to the fact that I was inspired to make him the product of two fathers, the one a soldier who rose to greatness, but is reviled by history, the other a great warrior whose place in that history went unacknowledged.

Among the remaining characters, I must confess I was drawn to the three very different females: Valeria, Calista and, of course, Briga who, between them, play a major part in the whole story. Each is so very distinct from the others but, in an age often dominated by men, how were you able to create three such different yet influential roles for these women?

Of the three, I suppose Calista is the easiest to explain. We know from the numismatic evidence that people were still making sacrifices of Roman coins – by then a relatively rare and presumably valuable commodity – at the shrine of Coventina around the year 400AD, more than twenty years after Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. Coventina is the goddess of the sacred waters, and of Celtic origin, and it’s quite likely the keepers of her well were priestesses. By Marcus’s time, I reasoned it would have fallen into disrepair and the keeper a focus of resentment from the followers of the official religion. In Valeria’s case, individual women of fortitude, talent and initiative have found a way to join just about every army in history. Brought up alongside Marcus by her warrior father, she learned the arts of war at his side, and when he rose to command his unit why wouldn’t he take her with him? Briga is more of a one-off. There’s little evidence of Pictish warrior queens, but I had the Celtic examples of Boudicca and Cartimandua, from a couple of centuries earlier. There have been many other powerful, ruthless women rulers through the ages, and those were traits they needed to keep them on the throne, though I doubt many were as truly savage as Briga.

You mention that you found some of the character names from gravestone inscriptions, were there any of those that you were able to get a sense of their own stories – or any that you found particularly intriguing in your research?

There were quite a few, some sad, the gravestones of lost wives and children, some quite inspiring, like the relatively low-ranking cavalryman Flavinus of the Ala Petriana, who was so revered by his comrades that they set up a huge, intricately carved stone in his image. My personal favourite though is the altar dedicated to the goddess Maponus by ‘the Germans, Durios, Ramios, Trupios and Lupios’, whom I like to think of as the Roman Marx Brothers.

Your description of the landscape both north and south of the wall is both vivid and convincing. How far was this based upon research and how much was it intelligent guesswork?

When you’re dealing with a landscape from about two thousand years ago, I’d say you’re looking at twenty-five per cent research and seventy-five intelligent guesswork. All you can really do is study the ground, delve into the known science about the impact of people around the time, strip away the shops, houses and factories and insert the type of Celtic farms and fields that would have existed then. It’s helpful that there was very little civilian urbanisation of the north of England. Almost all reasonably large settlements are associated with the forts that guarded the roads and river crossings

The main battle in the book fills a broad canvas; so choreographing such a large-scale conflict must have been an exercise in keeping a dozen plates spinning. How did you go about it?

I like to think of battles as one of my strengths as a writer. I’ve been a student of military history for all of my adult life and the books I enjoy most are those that put you boots on the ground at the centre of the action. Most of the battles I’ve written about actually happened, so you have a factual framework to work within, but this one was different. I had to write it from scratch. Fortunately, I’d done something very similar in my previous book Avenger of Rome, with the battle of the Cepha Gap. The most important thing is to find the right ground that provides you with the opportunity to manipulate your forces and those of the enemy to achieve the result you want. I’m a frustrated general really.

The Wall is a departure from your previous Roman writing which tended to focus on a much earlier period. Are you planning any sort of sequel to the Wall?

It already exists, at least in manuscript form. It’s called The Barbarian and takes Marcus and his companions on a quest to find his son, and which eventually brings him into potentially deadly proximity to Flavius Stilicho and Alaric the Goth. Hopefully it will be published this time next year.

Douglas Jackson is the author of The Wall, published by Transworld.

Derek Birks is the author of The Last of the Romans series.

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