It was a characteristically bleak autumn afternoon in Northumberland as I sauntered along the tumbled ruins of Hadrian’s Wall. After an obligatory imagining of myself kitted out in legionary armour, barking out orders to my cohort, I sat down to take in the landscape. I tried to envisage the rolling hills in the age when the auxiliaries of Britannia would have lined this ominous frontier and garrisoned the forts, milecastles and watchtowers. I imagined a firm and seemingly eternal signpost shouting out to all and sundry ‘This is Rome and she’s here to stay!’ Yet now I could see only the squat remains of foundations and surrounding rubble and the Romans were long gone. A question entered my thoughts, demanding to be answered: how had the greatness of Rome faded from the invincibility of the pax romana to this?
Fast forward a few years: I was strolling along the inner tier battlements of the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople/Istanbul (or more accurately I was tentatively inching along them and trying not to look down – they’re pretty high up and a bit crumbly) around the Golden Gate area. The structure extended north into the smog of the city, sentinel-like towers standing empty but eerily defiant after fifteen hundred years. The place was electric, the air crackling with history and I felt that hunger for an answer again: how could the Roman and Byzantine grip on Europe, Western Asia and Africa have dwindled to nothing, leaving behind a behemoth-like architectural carcass like this?
Having done my reading I now know the textbook answers to the two questions above, but have been left with something far more valuable: a sustained intrigue, nay obsession, over the decline from the pax romana to the post-Roman world and the real answers to these questions.
While the order, prosperity and pristine legions of the high principate are a fascinating blend, I find it somewhat too perfect. What really fires my imagination is the 3rd century AD and onwards, an age which sees Rome’s forts and cities decaying, her pagan ideals being swept into history by Christianity, her economy stagnating and her legions thin, scattered and all-too-mortal. What events could have occurred in this era that have since been lost to the ghosts of the past, echoing along the battlements of these walls and fortifications? What of the people of these times, they would have had to live with the reality that greatness was slipping away from them while they still clung to the ideals of their recent ancestors. And then there were the ‘barbarians’; with the Goths, Vandals, Franks, Alans, Parthians and Huns just a selection of the powerful and now militarily equal peoples pressing relentlessly on the empire’s borders, fiery conflict and desperate and heartfelt emotion must have been rife.
So all this has me jilting the perfection of invincible Rome and falling for the complexity of her flawed descendant and that’s why I sat down to write Legionary. Perhaps it is my admiration for the spirit of the underdog that nudges me this way and I feel that one day a psychiatrist might confirm that. Whatever the reason I’m just grateful for what has turned out to be a perpetual fuel for my writing.
And even now when I visit the ruins, I’m still seeking true answers to those questions that demand to be answered.