When most think of the Romans in Britannia or Caledonia, almost always the first thing that comes to mind is Hadrian’s Wall.
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 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, watchtowers, 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.
In writing Warriors of Epona, the trick was 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 mid-second century.
The Romans definitely knew how to pick a strategic location along the perfect line of march, so it’s 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 legionary fort at Carpow, on the banks of the Tay. 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 – Rome was going to stay this time! Severus was a military emperor who liked to prove his point. He was in Caledonia to finish what other Roman emperors had started, just as he did in Parthia.
The Gask Ridge plays a key role in Warriors of Epona, especially the forts that may have seen re-use during the third century, among them the forts at Camelon, Ardoch, Fendoch, and Bertha, the latter being where Lucius Metellus Anguis establishes his forward base.
Of course, one of the exciting things about writing historical fiction, after the research, is filling in the gaps and exploring possibilities.
Because research on the Gask Ridge is relatively new, we can certainly look forward to learning more from Hoffmann, Woolliscroft, and everyone else on the Roman Gask Project team who are leading the charge to further our knowledge of this ancient frontier.
One thing that I have discovered over the years is that even though the history and research are very important, at the end of the day, in fiction, the story must come first.
With Warriors of Epona, history and story have come together nicely, and that has been pure magic!
Cheers, and stay tuned for the fifth and final part of The World of Warriors of Epona.
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: http://www.theromangaskproject.org/
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.
But remember! If you have not yet read any of the Eagles and Dragons novels, and if you want to start off on an adventure in the Roman Empire, you can pick up the #1 Best Selling prequel novel, A Dragon among the Eagles. It is a FREE DOWNLOAD on Amazon, Apple iTunes/iBooks, and Kobo.
As with The World of Children of Apollo, this blog series will take a look at many of the people and places that the series protagonist, Lucius Metellus Anguis, encounters throughout his journey.
So, let’s step back in time to the early 3rd century A.D., and explore the first place Lucius comes to in Book II.
The ruins of Leptis Magna are located at what is now Khoms, a site by the Mediterranean Sea at the northwestern corner of Libya. As a Roman city and archaeological site, it is not really familiar to the average person. Mainly academics have studied it, and excavated its wealth of cultural treasures.
It was founded around 1000 B.C. by Berbers and Phoenicians. Later, Carthage held sway over the polis until that great civilization finally succumbed to the Roman war machine at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C.
It was during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) that the city was officially incorporated into the Empire’s province of Africa Proconsularis. In A.D. 110, the Emperor Trajan (c. A.D. 98-117) made Leptis Magna a colonia, an official settlement for retired men of the Legions and Roman citizens. From then on, the city experienced a period of growth and success, making it the third largest city of Roman North Africa after Carthage and Alexandria.
It had a theatre that was built during the reign of Augustus (27 B.C. – A.D. 14), and one of the most flourishing North African markets of its day. In Leptis Magna, you could buy slaves, exotic animals, olive oil from the rich estates that surrounded the city, garum (Romans’ favourite fish sauce), salted fish, ivory, precious gems, spices, etc. etc. etc.
There was also a forum, the heart of every city, which had a curia, a basilica, a Temple of Liber Pater, a Temple of Hercules, and a Temple of Rome and Augustus.
Finally, what’s a Roman city without a bath complex? In A.D. 126, on his tour of the Empire, Emperor Hadrian had a huge bath complex with a palaestra (exercise field or hall) built for the city. It certainly seemed like the emperors paid attention to this hot, wind-kissed settlement on the south side of the Middle Sea.
But the real heyday for Leptis Magna came when her own favoured son, Lucius Septimius Severus, became Emperor (A.D. 193-211). It was through this half-Punic (Carthaginian), and half-Roman ruler that the city truly felt the warmth of the sun on its face.
Septimius Severus did what most rulers will do for their favourite cities – he gave it infrastructure, and he gave it beauty. Give a city these two things and it will attract population, trade, and the Empire’s attention.
Around A.D. 203 the imperial family and court descended on Leptis Magna; the Emperor had returned home and there were festivals, banquets, and the unveiling or dedication of monuments.
The ruins that have been uncovered in Leptis Magna reveal an ancient city that was wealthy, efficient, and enjoying the good life.
Among the things that Severus built in Leptis Magna were a new harbour and docks, complete with a lighthouse, warehouses and a Temple of Jupiter. For a city involved heavily in trade, this was a big bonus.
Leading from the docks to the nymphaeum (a monument, spring, or fountain dedicated to the Nymphs), Severus ordered the building of a long colonnaded street that was sixty-five feet wide.
He added many new public buildings too, including a large basilica which was decorated with red granite columns with white marble capitals. And even though Leptis Magna already possessed a forum, Severus built a new one that was graced with the enormous Medusa heads that remain to this day.
One of the most interesting pieces of new architecture that appeared in the city during Severus’ reign was the four-sided Arch of Severus. Its design was something new, the friezes and political and religious scenes displaying an artistic style that had not been seen before.
It must have felt like a true ‘Golden Age’ to the citizens of Leptis Magna.
You can imagine the palpable excitement among the people in the streets as the Emperor, Empress and their sons disembarked from their ship in the harbour and processed to their palace. The entourage would have been enormous, as well as the force of Praetorians who would have followed the Emperor. After all, Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, was also a son of Leptis Magna.
It is in the midst of all this excitement, among all these powerful and wealthy people, that Lucius Metellus Anguis’ journey in Killing the Hydra begins.
There is a lot going on in the world, and many dangers lurking in the shadows about Lucius.
He will have to tread very carefully indeed…
Thank you for reading!
In the meantime, here are a few more stunning photos of the magnificent artwork discovered at Leptis Magna: