Fiction Book of the Month: Alistair Tosh on Siege

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Alistair Tosh, Siege is set in Britannia during the reign of Antoninus Pius. Was the Roman province pacified with Hadrian’s Wall, and so this was a cushy number for Roman soldiers?

Far from it. Whilst the south of the province lived in peace and relative prosperity, the north was quite different. During this period the Romans were forced to maintain a vast militarised zone. Even after Emperor Hadrian had built his new wall on the Solway Firth – Tyne line, a dense series of forts were maintained as far south as Lancaster to keep a watch on the ever restive Brigantes, and two of Britannia’s three legions were based in the north of the province at present day Chester and York to be called upon if needed. The challenges were greater north of Hadrian’s Wall, even after his successor Antoninus Pius moved the empire’s frontier northwards to the Forth – Clyde isthmus, and his governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus built a new wall, numerous large garrisons, including significant and expensive cavalry units, had to be maintained between the old and new walls to keep the major tribes quiet.

Siege begins in 139AD, it’s perhaps a slightly unfamiliar period for some, what state is the Roman Empire in?

It is a period of relative stability for the empire. Under Hadrian it has undergone an extended period of consolidation, with the building of physical border defences such as Hadrian’s Wall and others along the Rhine and Danube following the previous centuries of expansion. The Third ‘bar Kokhba’ Jewish Revolt had been put down mercilessly ending centuries of conflict in Judea. Antoninus Pius, Hadrian’s adopted son and successor, ushered in a further period of political stability and economic prosperity, even if not entirely a time of perpetual peace.

What did the Romans do for us in Britain?

A big question, here are just a few things; they built new towns with public baths and sanitation such as Gloucester, Worcester, Colchester, Doncaster, Manchester and not forgetting London. They constructed roads to connect them, some of which are still in use today. The legions ended the perpetual conflict between the multiple celtic tribes bringing in new laws and both central and local government. They introduced new fruits and vegetables including; turnips, peas, garlic, cabbages, celery, onion, grapes, leeks, apples, cherries and plums. Quite some influence that still echoes down the centuries.

Tell us a bit about the hero of Siege, Lucius Faenius Felix?

Lucius existed. We know from altar stone evidence found at Blatobulgium fort (Birrens, near Lockerbie, Scotland) that he was a Tribune and Roman citizen. He commanded the 1st Nervana Germanorum, a double strength cohort of a thousand auxiliary troops, a quarter of whom were cavalry. His men were recruited from the fierce Nervii tribe, a Germanic people from present day central Belgium. In the story Lucius starts as an inexperienced young officer and over time and many battles he becomes a grizzled veteran. In reality the real Lucius was likely to already be a highly experienced and decorated officer when he took command. He would have to be, to lead a regiment of hardened warriors that had a specialist role in maintaining order in present day southwest Scotland.

In Siege, they are fighting the Novantae – what do we know about them?

The Novantae were an Iron Age people located roughly in the area of the present day county of Dumfries and Galloway. They are pretty enigmatic. We know very little about them other than from the writing of the ancient geographer Ptolemy who gave us their location and name of their capital, Rerigonium, which is believed to have been located on the shores of Loch Ryan, close to the town of Stranraer. There are some interesting remains, particularly in west Galloway that have been associated with the Novantae tribe including the sites of several fortified farmsteads and villages.

It’s the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius, how do you rate him, and which emperor do you most admire?

Along with Hadrian, Antoninus Pius is lauded as one of the Five Good Emperors. Whether he was good or just lucky is open to some debate but his 23 year tenure is typified by political stability and economic prosperity that was so missing in the latter centuries of the empire, at least in the west. It’s really hard to pick a favourite as there were so many interesting characters. But, if I’m pushed I’d have to go for Vespasian. A man of relatively humble beginnings that rose through ambition and military prowess, seizing his chance in the year of the Four Emperors to capture the top job. He led the Second Legion Augusta during Claudius’s invasion of Britannia, conquering the many tribes of the south and west. A highly experienced general, he was leading forces against the Jews in Palestine when declared emperor by the soldiers of his legion. He also gave us perhaps ancient Rome’s greatest remaining monument, the Colosseum.

You’re a frequent visitor to Roman sites, and have written about your top 3 – what do we know about Roman soldiers stationed on Hadrian’s Wall?

Although it was the soldiers of the legions who built the wall they were not the troops that manned its many garrisons. That was left to the auxiliary. These troops were drawn from the conquered peoples of the empire from places such as modern day Algeria, Croatia, Syria, Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, Greece and many more. They were paid less than their flashier colleagues in the legions but were still well trained and equipped. Upon serving a term of 25 years they were granted full Roman citizenship along with their family and heirs and their marriages recognised. In the latter years of the empire serving in the auxiliary in Britannia appears to have became more of a family trade with troops being recruited locally and sons joining the regiments of their fathers and grandfathers.

Siege was your first novel – quite an achievement, many have never written a book. Were you daunted before lifting your pen, or powering up the laptop?

A little perhaps, though once I started writing, and found the discipline to set aside time each day, the story came together pretty quickly. If I am honest, it was getting the book published that I found most daunting, though the support and encouragement of fellow writers really helped.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently drafting Book Three of the Edge of Empire series (Book Two, Hunt was published in October 2022). The story sees Lucius return to his home province of Baetica (roughly equating to modern day Andalusia), along with his friends Cai and Hrindenus, seeking the restoration of his family lands and justice for his murdered father. But dark forces are conspiring against the friends and many dangers stand in their way.

Alistair Tosh is the author of Siege, published by Sharpe Books.