Writing in the void – though, is that really true?
By Nancy Jardine
“How do you write a full length novel when there’s almost nothing written about the era?”
My answer is to look at sources beyond the scant written ones to create credible characters and realistic settings. That’s what I’ve done when writing my Celtic Fervour Series set in late 1st century A.D. barbarian Roman Britain. The Ancient Romans conceptualised that territory which hadn’t been invaded, subdued and officially absorbed by them into the Roman Empire was outside their boundary – and barbarian.
North England was occupied by the Brigantes Federation of tribes and some Late Iron Age neighbours. Sometime after the Claudian invasion of Britannia in A.D 43, Brigantia’s ruler – Queen Cartimandua – gained client-kingdom status from Rome, meaning her territory was loyal to Rome yet could remain virtually barbarian, so long as they posed no threat to Roman occupation south of Brigantia. However, by c. A.D. 69, highly volatile situations changed the status quo!
After the suicide of Emperor Nero in June A.D. 68, civil war raged across the Roman Empire till Vespasian (4th new emperor of A.D. 68/69) established control across the whole empire. During this period, Roman military rule was vulnerable in Britannia.
In A.D. 69, civil war also rippled across Brigantia. Venutius, ex-husband of Queen Cartimandua, took advantage of the Roman Empire chaos and raised an army to confront Cartimandua. Roman troops sent to aid Cartimandua meant pitched battles between Venutius and Rome, shattering the stability of the area.
Everywhere north of Brigantia at this time was (probably) virgin barbarian and ripe for Roman attack. I particularly chose to begin my Celtic Fervour Series in Brigantia in A.D. 71 because it’s an era and location that’s not tackled very often by other authors. Sources for the era, to provide the above Brigantian history, are limited. They’re highly interpretative, and constantly subject to dispute and scrutiny.
Ancient Roman writer Cornelius Tacitus wrote about the A.D. 69 civil war across the Roman Empire, but he also wrote briefly about what was happening in Britannia, including the civil war in Brigantia. Tacitus’ De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, usually called the ‘Agricola’, covers the northern Britannic campaigns of General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola (c. A.D. 78- 84), though what currently exists of this short work are partial codex copies (c. 15th C), the original manuscript long gone. As with all ancient copies, they probably include errors made by copyists, and there may be problems with translation from Tacitus’ original Latin. Since Tacitus was the son-in-law of General Agricola, the writer may have exaggerated Agricola’s achievements in barbarian Caledonia (Scotland), essentially adding super-exciting gloss for his intended audience at the Roman Forum where his new work would customarily have been read out c. A.D. 98.
Regardless of its reliability, Tacitus’ Agricola is the main written ‘almost-original’ source of the Roman invasions of northern Britannia for late 1st century A.D.
Unfortunately, current archaeology doesn’t match up with the vague timeline for the Agricolan northern Britannic invasions as presented by Tacitus. Credit for subduing Brigantia, and for invading Scotland, has traditionally been accredited to Agricola but more precise recent dates for fort and road building in northern Britannia – e.g. using Dendrochronology and more sophisticated scientific analysis of physical artefacts – indicate the invasion of the areas occurred earlier than the Agricolan campaigns of c. A.D 78-84.
Yet, it probably was Agricola! Confused? Don’t worry – read on.
In the ‘Agricola’ Tacitus writes that Agricola was commander of the Legio XX during Petilius Cerialis’ time as Governor of Britannia (c. A.D. 71-74). Agricola and the Twentieth Legion forged a pathway up western Brigantia, subduing all along the way. Cerialis mirrored that suppression up eastern Brigantia with the Legio IX, and his new Legio II Adiutrix. It’s highly possible that as commander of Legio XX, Agricola continued northwards into southern Scotland and was the first Roman commander of a legion to invade ‘Scotland’. Of course, Cerialis may also have simultaneously entered southern ‘Scotland’ from the eastern side? Excavations are currently attempting to give concrete answers to these questions.
Archaeology provides an educated interpretation of what happened at a particular time and I’ve found it’s best to read the conclusions of many experts on Roman Britain. Theories and interpretations of the 1970s have been supplanted by more recent ones, backed up by current scientific technology. It’s difficult to keep abreast of all new excavations, many having taken place since the late 1990s covering northern Britannia, yet it’s such an exciting task!
Other scientific sources have been used to establish the landscape of my characters who inhabited my chosen locations almost 2000 years ago. The elevation and shape of a hill or mountain range will not be much changed, but lower slope tree lines may now look quite different. Books 3 & 4 of my Celtic Fervour Series take place in Scotland, but there’s very little left of the original Caledonian forest which covered some of the land mass where my characters tread. Forests dotted across the land now were probably planted by estate owners from the 1500s onwards, many of the new plantations being of non-indigenous trees. Forestry Commission areas, planted from the 1920s onwards, have altered many sightlines, the slopes prior to their planting being scrub land unsuitable for farming, or even for rough grazing.
Britain’s coastline constantly suffers from soil erosion, so it’s prudent to check what my characters walk over since it may have been further away from the water line. River courses may have changed since 2000 years ago, tributaries adding to or reducing current flow. The blanket bog coverage of the lower Caledonian mountain slopes has been cleared and drained by farmers over the recent two millennia, but it would have been slow going and treacherous for my characters to pick their way over. Soil sampling gives a good idea of which crops my local Taexali tribe were eating and indigenous plants help to identify which berries, nuts and other foods were available to them…and to the invading Romans!
My recently published Book 4 of the series, Agricola’s Bane, is set in Taexali and Vacomagi territory (Moray and Aberdeenshire) and it’s been a fascinating learning curve to imagine and then describe the setting General Agricola finds himself in as he attempts to subdue the barbarian far north of Britannia.
(Celtic Fervour Series Book 4)
A.D. 84 Northern Roman Britain.
Nith of Tarras helps Enya of Garrigill in the search for her kin, missing after the disastrous battle at Beinn na Ciche fought between the Caledonian warriors and the mighty Ancient Roman legions. Enya soon has a heartrending choice to make. Should she tread Vacomagi territory that’s swarming with Roman auxiliaries to find her brother? Or, should she head south in search of her cousin who has probably been enslaved by the Romans?
The Commander of the Britannic Legions and Governor of Britannia – General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola – is determined to claim more barbarian territory for the Roman Empire, indeed plans to invade the whole island, but finds not all decisions are his to make. It increasingly seems that the goddess, Fortuna, does not favour him.
The adventures of the Garrigill clan continue...
In Book 4, the tales of the Garrigill Clan come to readers of the series via members of their second generation of Brigantes – their fight against the oppressive forces of the Ancient Roman Legions and their General Agricola a continuing and unending struggle.
"...the entire series is set firmly among the very best of early Romano British novels."
Discovering Diamonds Reviews
Nancy Jardine writes contemporary mysteries; historical fiction and time-travel historical adventure. A member of the Historical Novel Society; the Scottish Association of Writers; the Federation of Writers Scotland; the Romantic Novelists Association; the Alliance of Independent Authors – her work has achieved finalist status in UK competitions.
She lives in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, with her husband but life is never quiet or boring since her young grandchildren are her next-door neighbours. She regularly child minds them, those days being cherished and laughter filled.
You can find her at these places: Blog • Website • Facebook • Facebook#2 • Twitter • Amazon Author Page • Goodreads.