3 March 2022

Special Guest Post by Alistair Tosh, Author of Siege: Edge of Empire: Book One

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

AD 139: Lucius Faenius Felix arrives in Britannia to command the First Nervana, a renowned cohort drawn from the homelands of the fierce Nervii tribe. The soldier has been recently cheated out of his ancestral estates - and is still grieving from the mysterious murder of his father.

Researching ‘Siege’ and how it changed the shape of the story

The Roman army on campaign in Britannia was brutal, adaptable and ingenious. This may seem like stating the bleeding obvious, especially if you have any interest in the history of the Roman empire. But delving into the details in the research phase for ‘Siege’ I uncovered some realities that made me fundamentally rethink the direction of the story.

The first shift came about when I found one of my two protagonists, Tribune, Lucius Faenius Felix. An altar stone raised by Lucius, nearly 2000 years ago, was spotted embedded in the wall of Hoddom church in 1815 near to the fort of Birrens. This piece of ancient recorded history provided some real insight into the man. 

He was almost certainly of the patrician class and commanded the I Nervana Germanorum, a double strength mixed infantry and cavalry cohort (around 1000 men) that had been raised in the tribal lands of the Nervii in what is now modern day central Belgium. The Nervii are mentioned specifically by Caesar in his conquest of Gaul as ‘the most warlike of the tribes.’ They were Germanic in descent. It therefore must have been a daunting task for a Roman citizen to have to lead such renowned warriors.

The kernel of my story, which takes place between 139 AD and 150 AD, had grown out of my fascination, as a youngster, for the Iron Age hillfort at Burnswark. The site, near Lockerbie in the southwest of Scotland, is unique in the UK and Europe. Its isolated location and suitability only as pastureland, has meant the archaeology below its turf has remained largely undisturbed. It is a beautiful and mysterious place, overlooking the silver waters of the Solway Firth and the fells of the English Lake District beyond with the heather-covered mountain of Criffel dominating the estuary’s Scottish shore.

It is a changeable location. When standing on its distinct flat-top summit, one moment you can be in brilliant sunshine with a cooling breeze, enjoying the 360 degree views. The next instant a hard wind blows in off the Irish Sea, cloudcover lowers, shrouding all before you. It is then that the hill takes on a more forbidding character.

I visited it many times, often cycling there with friends during the long summer holidays. I saw the mounds of the ‘Three Brethren’, that my school history teacher later told me had been platforms for Roman ballistas. And this is where the second major shift comes in.
My original plan for the story had an extended, set piece, battle between the legions and the local tribe, the Novantae, taking place at Burnswark in the final act. But my review of the most recent archaeological explorations at the site indicated that the battle was likely to have been so one-sided that it would be to stretch credulity to make it the endgame for the story.

Today the hill is held in a vice-like grip by two siege forts. The one to the north is unusually elongated, clearly designed to prevent the escape of the defenders as final defeat beckoned. To the south the true siege fort, or more accurately assault fort, lies hard against the hill's base. Three huge gateways, ten men wide, cut through its deep north facing ditches to enable rapid deployment of troops.

The three ballista platforms sit to the fore of each of the gateways. Fist sized, carved stone balls, fired by the ancient catapults, have been found on the hillforts summit. This ammunition was not designed to shatter walls, but rather to shatter bodies. Along with multiple arrowheads and scorpion bolts, metal detectors identified and aided recovery of hundreds of lead sling ‘bullets’ along the length of the hillfort’s ramparts. They were lemon shaped and heavy. Under test conditions it was established that they had roughly the same kinetic energy as a modern handgun.

A second and unique type of sling ball was uncovered. This one was smaller and capable of being slung in groups of 3 or 4, like an early form of grapeshot. But what was most startling was the 5mm holes drilled in its side. When ‘fired’ it emitted a sound like an angry wasp. You can imagine the racket that a barrage of these, shot by experts, would make. Certainly an early form of psychological warfare akin to the terrifying effect inspired by the screaming of diving Ju-87 Stukas during the Blitzkrieg in early World War II.
So what could only have been a catastrophic and crushing defeat for the Novantae showed me I had to change tack. The battle is still an important juncture for the story (no spoilers) but is now completed in act 1.

The final significant change of direction was the realisation of how important cavalry was in commanding a conquered region. Units of mounted auxiliaries could move at lightning speed, and were highly mobile, making them effective on patrols and as scouts north of the Wall. They made speedy messengers, giving warning of sudden threats and incursions. They also ensured food security, protecting local farmland and guarding supply trains. But probably most significant, they projected the image of power and renown of Rome and its imperial might. If you have ever seen the Household Cavalry in London you will get an idea of what a Roman turma must have looked like to an Iron Age population.

Outlying forts, north of the Wall, such as at Birrens (4 miles south of Burnswark) housed the double strength, mixed regiments that I mentioned above. My original thinking had imagined the need for most of the action to be undertaken by infantry, but it soon became obvious that this was completely impractical for commanding what were still wild and largely unexplored areas for the Roman army and it was almost certainly the cavalry that did much of the heavy lifting. 

The Nervana, garrisoned at Birrens would have had a specialist role focussed on controlling the southwest of modern day Dumfries and Galloway that included much difficult hilly and forested terrain. They would have suppressed any uprising of the local tribes, collecting taxes and keeping supply lines to watchtowers and smaller fortifications open.
Whilst my research took me down many a rabbit hole, it has ultimately, in my view, enabled me to deliver a much more thrilling story.

Alistair Tosh

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About the Author

Alistair lived in the Dumfriesshire countryside for most of his childhood. A region of Scotland filled with ancient place names such as Torthorwald and Caerlaverock. But it was his history teacher’s telling of the tale of Burnswark and the Roman siege of the Iron Age hillfort that fired his love of Roman and Dark Ages history. From there the kernel of the stories for the Edge of Empire series took root.
On leaving school he began a 35-year communications career, firstly with the Royal Navy, that included covert riverine and seaborne operations during the height of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, before moving into the corporate world. Military life is unique, and Alistair aims to reflect an authentic view of that experience and its language in his stories. When not writing or spending time with family, Alistair, his wife Jenny and Hurley the cockerpoo love to walk in the hills of both the UK and Andalucia. Follow Alistair on Twitter @alistair_tosh

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