Part I – Epona: Goddess of Horses
Writing the Eagles and Dragons series has been a fantastic and exciting adventure thus far, for me and for the characters inhabiting this world. And with each new book, I’ve tried to explore new realms, new areas of thought and belief, and to plumb new depths of the human experience.
In Warriors of Epona Lucius Metellus Anguis’ journey leads him down a very different path to a place that is both beautiful and terrifying.
I do hope that you enjoy the next phase in this adventure.
In Part I of The World of Warriors of Epona, I want to introduce you to a new character in the series, a goddess.
In Warriors of Epona Lucius has started the next phase of his military career as the praefectus of a Sarmatian cavalry ala. To read more about the Sarmatians, CLICK HERE.
Originally, Epona was a Celtic horse goddess, and some believe that her worship spread out from Alesia, in Gaul, at the time of Caesar’s conflict there with the Celtic war leader, Vercingetorix.
The interesting thing about Epona is that she came to be widely worshiped by Romans as well. This was a truly unique circumstance for a Celtic goddess, for worship of such deities was usually local in nature, and then they were often combined with a Roman god (for example the worship of Sulis Minerva at Bath).
However, the worship of Epona spread across the Roman Empire, especially among cavalrymen, and dedicatory inscriptions and altars to her have been found largely along the Rhine and Danube frontiers, but also in Gaul and Britannia.
She was also associated with plenty, and some of the few representations that survive show her holding sheaves of wheat. She was also associated with apples.
The Roman festival of Epona was celebrated on December 18th.
I have always been drawn to Epona since I read the Mabinogion, the compilation of early Welsh tales, or ‘Triads’. In the tale Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, the otherworldly woman, Rhiannon, is a reflection of the Goddess Epona, riding a brilliant white horse, followed by three white, red-eared hounds, and of course the birds of Rhiannon.
In Warriors of Epona, I chose to portray the goddess, who is Lucius’ new protector, as Rhiannon is portrayed in the Welsh Triads. If you have never read Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, I highly recommend it as it beautifully portrays some of the strongest archetypes of ancient Celtic myth.
Here is an excerpt from Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed:
Once upon a time he [i.e. Pwyll] was in Arbeth, a chief court of his, with a feast laid out and great hosts of men all around him. After the first course, Pwyll got up to go for a walk and made for the top of a mound which was above the court and was called Gorsedd Arbeth.
‘Lord’, said one of the court ‘it is a peculiarity of the mound that whatever high-born man might sit upon it, he will not go away without one of two things: either wounds or blows, or his witnessing a marvel.’
‘I have no fear of wounds or blows in the midst of this host. A marvel, however, I would be glad to see. I will go,’ he continued ‘ and sit on this mound’. And he went to sit on the mound.
As they were seated, they could see a woman on a large stately pale-white horse, a garment of shining gold brocaded silk about her, making her way along the track which went past the mound. The horse had an even, leisurely pace; and she was drawing level with the mound it seemed to all those who were watching her.
‘Men’ said Pwyll ‘ is there any of you who recognizes that lady on horseback over there?’
‘There is not, my Lord,’ they replied.
‘One [of you] go up to her to find out who she is’ he said.
One [man] got up, but when he came onto the road to meet her, she had [already] gone past. He went after her as fast as he was able to on foot, but the greater was his speed, the further away from him she became. When he could see that following her was to no avail, he returned to Pwyll and said to him:
‘Lord, it is no use anyone in the world [trying] to follow her on foot.’
‘Aye,’ said Pwyll ‘go back to the court, and take the fastest horse that you know, and go after her.’
He took the horse and off he went. He got to smooth open country, and he began to set his spurs to the horse; but the more he struck the horse, the further away she became. Yet she still had the same pace with which she had begun. His horse flagged, and when he noticed his horse’s slackening pace, he returned to Pwyll.
‘Lord,’ said he ‘it is no use following that Lady over there. I haven’t known any horse in the land faster than this one, but [even on this] following her was to no avail.’
‘Aye’ said Pwyll ‘there is some kind of a magical meaning to this. Let us go [back] to the court.’
[So] they went [back] to the court, and passed the rest of that day. The next day they arose and that [too] passed until it was the hour to eat. After the first meal [Pwyll spoke thus]:
‘We will go – the company that we were yesterday – to the top of the mound. And you,’ he said to one his retainers ‘take with you the fastest horse you know in the field.’ And that the retainer did. They [then] made for the mound with the horse.
And, as they were sitting, they could see the woman on the same horse, with the same apparel about her, coming up the same road.
‘Look!’ said Pwyll ‘here comes the lady on horseback. Be ready, boy, to find out who she is.’
‘Lord, that I’ll do gladly.’
Thereupon, the lady on horseback drew level. The boy then mounted his horse, but before he had [even] settled in the saddle, she had already gone past, and there was a distance between them. Her pace was no different from the day before. He [too] put his pace at an amble, supposing as he did that however slowly his horse went, he might be able to overtake her. But it was no use. He loosed his at the reins, but got no nearer than if he had been on foot; and the more he beat his horse, the further away she became. [Yet] her pace was no greater than before. Since he saw it was useless [trying] to follow her, he returned, coming back to Pwyll.
‘Lord,’ said he ‘there is no more this horse can do than what you have seen.’
‘[So] I saw’ replied [Pwyll] ‘ its pointless anyone pursuing her. But between me and God,’ he continued ‘she has a message for someone on this plain, if obstinacy would [only] allow her to say it. Let us go back to the court.’
They came [back] to the court and spent the evening in song and carousel as they pleased.
The next morning, they passed the day until it was the hour to eat. When they had finished the meal Pwyll announced ‘Where is that group of us that went up on the mound yesterday and the day before?’
‘Here [we are], my Lord’ said they.
‘Let us go [then],’ said he ‘to sit upon the mound. And you’ he said to his stable-boy ‘saddle my horse well and bring him to the path, and bring my spurs with you.’ And that the boy did.
They came to sit on the mound. They had hardly been there any time before they caught sight of the lady on horseback, coming along the same path, with the same apparel, at the same pace.
‘Ah, boy, I can see the lady on horseback coming!’ said Pwyll ‘Bring me my horse.’
Pwyll mounted his horse, and no sooner than he had done so, she had passed him by. He turned after her, and let his lively horse prance at its own pace. He guessed that he would catch her up on the second or third bound. [But] no nearer did he get to her than [any of the times] before. He spurred on the horse as fast as it could go. But he saw it was useless following her [in this way].
Then Pwyll spoke: ‘Maiden,’ he said ‘for the sake of the man you love the best, wait for me!’
‘Gladly I’ll wait’ said she ‘but it might have been better for the horse if you had asked me a good while before.’
The maiden stopped and waited and drew aside the part of her headdress that was there to cover her face. She looked him in the eye, initiating conversation with him.
‘Lady,’ he asked ‘where are you from? And where are you going?’
‘Going about my business’ said she ‘and glad I am to see you.’
‘And you are also welcome to me,’ said he.
And he realized at that moment the faces of every woman and girl he had ever seen were dull in comparison to her face.
The first time I read this passage, it was like a spell was cast over me, just as Rhiannon’s beauty overcame Pwyll in the tale.
Epona, in the guise of this otherworldly woman, has been in my thoughts ever since, and so beautiful goddess of horses has finally come into the Eagles and Dragons story as a mother and protector of Lucius and his elite group of horse warriors.
They will certainly need her in the battles to come…
Part II – Trimontium: The Place of Three Peaks
The Legions are on the move once more in this second part of The World of Warriors of Epona.
In this post, we’re going to take a brief look at the site of Trimontium, which is located at Newstead.
Trimontium is the site of a Roman fort in what are today the Scottish Borders, north of Hadrian’s Wall. This was not a full legionary base, but rather a fort that housed about 1500 troops at its peak usage, cavalry in particular!
However, it was a major stopping point on the route north, located as it was along Dere Street, the major Roman road in the region.
I first became aware of Trimontium as part of my master’s degree thesis research while at St. Andrew’s University. In researching a theory about the activities of an historical ‘Arthur’ in the region, I came across this remarkable Roman fort set in a beautiful and dramatic setting.
A site visit was definitely in order!
If you have ever been to the Borders, you will know that the region’s pastoral beauty belies its warlike past.
As I drove south from Edinburgh on the A68 (which follows the line of Roman Dere Street, bulbous green and treeless landscapes gave way to fertile fields lined with hedges and accented with summer wildflowers. It was a bright, sunny day, which was often not the case in Scotland, and so I could see for some distance.
As we approached the River Tweed, the three peaks of the Eildon Hills came into view with the river sparkling in the summer sun. I was finally there, having followed in the footsteps of the legions.
This area is loaded with wonderful places to see such as Scott’s view, a favourite place of reflection for Sir Walter Scott and a great spot from which to see the Eildon Hills, Dryburgh Abbey, Melrose Abbey (where the heart of Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried), and myriad country paths.
But it was the Roman presence that concerned me on this trip.
The fort at Trimontium was used as a marching camp by Agricola’s troops c. A.D. 80 and had eight subsequent phases of Roman occupation all the way to the time of Septimius Severus’ campaigns into Caledonia in the early 3rd century, the latter being the time in which Warriors of Epona takes place.
Trimontium is so-named because of the three peaks of the Eildon Hills that overshadow it. It was on the marching route to the north and provided a visible and central meeting place for the legions and auxiliaries. Some of the most important finds to come from the area are the horse harness and ornamental cavalry armour of the troops that were stationed there.
These finds are wonderful and some can be seen in the museum in Melrose, but mainly in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The cavalry masks discovered at Trimontium inspired some tweaks to Lucius Metellus Anguis’ own armour in the book.
It was the obvious presence of Roman auxiliary cavalry that gripped my imagination then, and so it quickly became obvious that Lucius and his Sarmatian cavalry ala would be based at Trimontium during a portion of Severus’ Caledonian campaign, the final phase of use for Trimontium.
Though today almost nothing remains of the Roman fort (it’s mainly a great field), during the Antonine period, the fort at Trimontium had three defensive ditches and a rampart, a principia (headquarters building) that may also have served as an exercise hall just off of the via Decumana, barracks, stables, a commander’s house, and granaries.
There were also annexes on every side of the fort with a parade ground on the east side, and a mansio (a sort of hostel) and bath house on the west side.
Trimontium did not only have a military presence. Wherever the Roman army went, there were others who followed – wives and children, merchants, prostitutes and others.
Outside the walls of the fort, as with many Roman forts, there was a vicus, a civilian settlement on the north side where the people mentioned above would have lived.
But one of the most interesting features of Trimontium’s fort is the presence of an amphitheatre beyond the north-east corner of the fortress, near the banks of the River Tweed. The outlines indicate that it was elliptical rather than round, and because of its location next to the military installation, it was likely used not only for games, but also for drills.
When you visit a site like the fort of Trimontium, there actually isn’t much to see when you are ‘on the ground’. It helps to do a bit of research beforehand so you know what you are looking at.
For someone like me, who is interested not only in the site, but the smell of the air, the sound of the wind and the view of the surroundings, it is magic for my creativity. But it also helps to get a bird’s eye view of the site.
If you don’t have a helicopter or bi-plane, the best way to do that is to climb Eildon Hill North, the biggest, broadest peak of the three and that which overlooks Melrose and the fort at Trimontium.
I drove the car as close as I could get to the base of the hill, having left the fort behind, parked, and began to climb.
From a distance, Eildon Hill North doesn’t seem so big, but when you get up close, you realized you have quite a workout ahead of you. I was glad of my hiking boots, let me tell you.
Once at the top, the world opens up before you. The view is magnificent.
But after the calm beauty of the farmlands down around the fort, the howling winds at the top of Eildon Hill North made for quite a contrast. It wasn’t a place to picnic when I finally got up there.
This was a sacred hill to the Britons during the Bronze and Iron ages, and was the site of a hill fort that housed up to two-thousand people of the Selgovae, the tribe against which Lucius does battle at the beginning of the book.
When Rome came to the region and took the hill, they constructed a signal station at the top which had a round enclosure about it. However by the time of the Severan invasion of Caledonia, it seems that the signal station might have been out of use. That’s not to say I didn’t have plans for Eildon Hill North in Warriors of Epona!
After the long trek up and back down again, I made my way into Melrose for lunch, after which I visited the lovely little Trimontium Trust Museum.
If you have the time, you should definitely visit this little museum, if only to try on some Roman arms and armour, heft a scutum, unsheathe a gladius, and sit on a four-horned Roman cavalry saddle.
When I finally sat down to write Warriors of Epona, my memories of the fort at Triumontium, the setting, and the wind atop Eildon Hill North all rushed back into my mind as if it were only yesterday.
The site features at the beginning of the book, and though my time there is at an end, the memories of it will always be fresh and inspiring.
Part III – Combatants: The Tribes of the North
In the last post we looked at one of the sites that was right in the middle of the war zone beyond Hadrian’s Wall, a place that Rome used to good effect as it marched north over Britannia.
But who were the tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall that caused Rome such misery and bloodshed for over a hundred years? Who was Rome fighting?
In Part III of The World of Warriors of Epona, we’re going to look at the various combatants in our story.
On a couple of occasions in the second century, the tribes north of the wall rebelled against Rome, and by the time Septimius Severus had finally defeated the Parthian Empire in the East, the time had come for Rome to deal once-and-for-all with the tribes of Caledonia.
This was no small venture.
Severus marched into Caledonia with at least six legions, his Praetorian Guard, plus numerous auxiliary units and cavalry ala, to deal with the rebellious tribes.
In this major offensive, the legions had to deal with bad weather, rough terrain, mountains, bogs, and river fords, as they attempted to take back strategic positions Rome had once held in previous campaigns.
Rome’s foes were also cunning and highly skilled at their unique guerilla tactics, never meeting the legions in open, pitched battle. They were mostly infantry, but they also used war chariots. Their weapons often consisted of small round shields, short spears, and swords.
Their devices lured many a legionary to his doom too. Livestock would be used as bait to lure Roman troops into swamps or ambushes, and warriors would lie in wait submersed beneath the surface of water when the Romans were marching by.
It was all about hit and run and hacking away at the edges of Rome’s forces. And they were so good at it that, by the end of the campaign, the Romans are said to have lost around 50,000 men.
So who were these expert guerilla fighters who proved such a thorn in the side of Rome for almost the entirety of its time in Britannia and Caledonia?
Let’s find out.
Most of what we know about the names of the tribes at this time in Caledonia and northern Britannia comes down to us from Claudius Ptolemaeus, or Ptolemy as most know him.
Ptolemy was a Greco-Egyptian mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and geographer who lived c. A.D.100-170. It is his work, known as Geographia, which compiles geographical coordinates and knowledge of the Roman Empire in the second century, and which mentions many of the tribes and locations we are dealing with during the Severan invasion of Caledonia.
Other sources for places during this period and in this region are the Ravenna Cosmography, which is an early eighth century list of place-names from Ireland to India, and the second century Antonine Itinerary. The latter was created under Antoninus Pius and likely finalized under Caracalla at the beginning of the third century. The portion of the itinerary known as Iter Britanniarum was a list of Roman place names and roads in Britain.
Rome was anything but invincible in this fight, so we need to look first at those who fought alongside the legions in Caledonia.
One of Rome’s allies in this fight were the Votadini, and they play a large role in Warriors of Epona.
This tribe of Celtic Britons held the territory of what is now south-east Scotland and north-east England, and they had been Roman allies for generations by the time of the Severan invasion, and may well have been one of the key Romano-British fighting forces.
The Votadini came under Roman alliance in the mid-second century, and proved to be a great stabilizing entity between the Antonine and Hadrianic walls, mainly the region we know today as the Scottish Borders.
Their capital, named ‘Curia’ by Ptolemy, was called Dunpendyrlaw, which meant the ‘fort of the spear shafts’. Today, the massive hill fort at this place is known as Traprain Law. This place was occupied by the Votadini and their descendants until about A.D. 400 when the capital was moved to Din Eidyn, that is, Castle Rock in Edinburgh.
One of the most magnificent finds from the Votadini capital of Dunpendyrlaw is a hoard of Roman silver plates, cups and more. Some believe this was given to the Votadini in thanks for service to Rome, others that it was a bribe to keep them in check and fulfilling their role as allies.
The Votadini’s descendants were none other than the Gododdin, those Britons who made an heroic last stand at the battle of Catraeth around A.D. 600 when the Saxons were poised to overrun the island. This final battle is chronicled in the poem, Y Gododdin by Aneirin.
The poem was certainly an inspiration for me when I was writing about the Votadini in this book. It seems quite romantic in a sense, the Votadini, loyal Rome, standing against the enemy tribes after Rome pulled back from Antonine Wall.
The other allies in this fight with Rome, although perhaps a little more reluctant, was a tribe known as the Venicones. Their lands covered what is basically modern Fife, in eastern Scotland, and where, funnily enough, my alma mater, St. Andrews University, is located.
The Venicones are known to us from Ptolemy who mentions a town by the name of ‘Orrea’ which many have come to identify as the Roman settlement of Horea Classis. This is believed to be the site of the Severan legionary base at Carpow, along the Tay estuary, and it is from here that the emperor likely oversaw the Caledonian campaign, when not in the northern capital of Eburacum (York).
The Venicones were in a tough position. On the one hand, they were neighbours with Rome’s enemies, the Caledonii to the West, and the Taexali to the North.
They chose to side with Rome in the fight, but one wonders how much of a choice that was? As it turned out, the legionary base and ports at Horea Classis (Carpow) and the forts of the Gask Ridge frontier (the topic of our next post), were all in the lands of the Venicones.
What must the Venicones have been thinking when they agreed, or were forced, to become a Roman client state?
I wouldn’t have wanted to be the one throwing those dice!
Now we come to Rome’s adversaries in the Caledonian campaign.
Even though we have some hints from Ptolemy and the other sources, it is difficult to be exact in naming the tribes that Rome was fighting on this far northern frontier. Many Roman writers, including Cassius Dio, use the name ‘Caledonians’ for all the tribes rebelling against the Empire.
In writing Warriors of Epona, I had to pick and choose which tribes I would write about, and which to leave out.
There are three peoples in particular who may well have joined forces with larger groups but which I decided to leave out of the story specifically.
The first are the Novantae. These were a people of the second century who lived in modern Galloway and Carrick in south-western Scotland. The Saxon historian, Bede, refers to the Novantae as Picts in his history, but it is believed that they were a Brythonic people.
Another group I decided to leave out of the story were the Damnonii. These were Celtic Britons located in Strathclyde in southern Scotland. They are only mentioned by Ptolemy and there really is not enough information on them and their activities.
The third group I decided to leave out was the Maeatae. This group was larger, and believed by some to be a union of smaller tribes whose lands lay somewhere along the Antonine Wall, westward from Stirling. The little that I read about them indicates that they likely joined forces with the Caledonii in the rebellion of A.D. 210.
In Warriors of Epona, the Romans have to deal with two main adversaries in the Caledonian campaign – the Selgovae, and the Caledonii.
At the beginning of the book, Lucius Metellus Anguis and his Sarmatian cavalry ala are engaging the Selgovae in the lands around Trimontium, north of the wall.
The fighting has been brutal and the leader of the Selgovae ruthless in his campaign against Rome.
Who were the Selgovae?
They were a large tribe of Britons mentioned by Ptolemy in the late second century. Their territory covered south-west Scotland and what is Dumfriesshire today.
It is believed that they were related to the Brigantes, Rome’s old enemies south of Hadrian’s Wall.
The Selgovae, like many other British tribes, used chariots in warfare. They also lived in stone huts and had many hill forts across their lands. Their warlike demeanour and the strength of their fortresses made them an obvious target for Rome during successive campaigns. Like the Brigantes, the Selgovae were more troublesome than other tribes.
In a previous post, we have already discussed the legionary fortress at Trimontium, the place Lucius uses as a base in his fight against the Selgovae. But before Rome occupied the site, Eildon Hill North, one of Trimontium’s three peaks, was the main tribal centre of the Selgovae.
Writing about this group of warriors, making a last stand against Rome at the beginning of the story, was thrilling and bitter-sweet. They were a once-proud people, but, like many who stood against Rome, they had to face the harsh realities of the Empire.
The main opponents of Rome during the Caledonian campaigns of Septimius Severus, and in Warriors of Epona, were the Caledonii.
These were the indigenous people of what is now Scotland.
They were originally considered to be another group of Britons, but now it is more widely believed that they were the people who later came to be known as the Picts.
The Caledonii may also have been a federation of many tribes in Scotland, as well as remnant forces fleeing north after being defeated by Rome in the South.
One thing is certain – Rome was a definite threat to all the northern tribes, and the scene was set for a brutal fight, with the Caledonii leading the charge.
The Caledonii were certainly a hearty people who lived in a very rugged world that included the Scottish Highlands. As the first century historian, Tacitus, points out, they had red hair and long limbs. Much later than Tacitus, Cassius Dio, our main source for the period, added a bit more colour to the picture of the Caledonii, saying that they:
…inhabit wild and waterless mountains and desolate and swampy plains, and possess neither walls, cities, nor tilled fields, but live on their flocks, wild game, and certain fruits; for they do not touch the fish which are there found in immense and inexhaustible quantities. They dwell in tents, naked and unshod, possess their women in common, and in common rear all the offspring. Their form of rule is democratic for the most part, and they are very fond of plundering; consequently they choose their boldest men as rulers. The go into battle in chariots, and have small, swift horses; there are also foot-soldiers, very swift running and very firm in standing their ground. For arms they have a shield and a short spear, with a bronze apple attached to the end of the spear-shaft, so that when it is shaken it may clash and terrify the enemy; and they also have daggers. They can endure hunger and cold and any kind of hardship; for they plunge into the swamps and exist there for many days with only their heads above water, and in the forests they support themselves upon bark and root…
(Cassius Dio, Roman History 12,1)
One must always take ancient writers’ descriptions with a grain of salt, of course, but if even a part of this description of the Caledonii is true, then the Romans must have felt like they were fighting ghosts as they marched into Caledonia.
The Severan campaign was certainly not the first time Rome engaged the Caledonians. There were other campaigns which we shall look at in a later post in this blog series.
Prior to Severus’ invasion, the Caledonians rebelled in A.D. 180 when they travelled south and breached Hadrian’s Wall. And then in A.D. 197, the Caledonii, Brigantes, and Maeatae led another attack on the frontier.
At the time of these rebellions, Severus was campaigning against the Parthians in the East.
By the time A.D. 209 rolled around, Rome’s legions were set for the biggest offensive yet into Caledonia.
Once again, Cassius Dio gives us an account:
Severus, accordingly, desiring to subjugate the whole of it, invaded Caledonia. But as he advanced through the country he experienced countless hardships in cutting down forests, levelling the heights, filling up swamps, and bridging rivers; but he fought no battle and beheld no enemy in battle array. The enemy purposely put sheep and cattle in front of the soldiers for them to seize in order that they might be lured on still further until they were worn out; for in fact the water caused great suffering to the Romans, and when they became scattered, they would be attacked. Then, unable to walk, they would be slain by their own men, in order to avoid capture, so that a full fifty thousand died.
(Cassius Dio, Roman History 14,1)
Some believe that Septimius Severus actually wanted to settle the North and that there were plans for a city near the Tay estuary, but others stand firm in the belief that the goal of the Severan campaign was none other than the mass genocide of the Caledonii who had proved supremely troublesome to Rome for a long time.
Whatever the reasons for Severus’ invasion of Caledonia, one thing is certain – with their guerilla tactics, rough terrain, and sheer determination to keep Rome out of their lands, the Caledonii and their allies gave the men of the legions a fight for their lives.
We mustn’t think, however, that Rome was adrift and defenseless in Caledonia. On the contrary, the Empire dug in for a fight and, as part of Lucius’ mission in Warriors of Epona, they took back an old frontier to hem the Caledonians in on their highlands.
This battle line, this frontier, will be the subject of Part IV of The World of Warriors of Epona.
Thank you for reading.
Part IV – Battle Line: The Gask Ridge Frontier
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.