30 September, 2012

The Road to Rome, by Ben Kane. Book review

Arrow, 2011.  ISBN 978-1-8480-9016-3. 540 pages.

Third in the Forgotten Legion trilogy, The Road to Rome is set in Egypt, Asia Minor, North Africa and Rome in 48 to 44 BC, against the background of the Roman civil wars and the plot against Julius Caesar.  Caesar, Decimus Brutus* and Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) are important secondary characters, and various other Roman senators and military officers have minor parts.  The main characters are fictional.

Romulus, ex-gladiator and runaway slave, has escaped from a battle in distant India and is making his way homeward to Rome in search of his twin sister Fabiola, accompanied by his friend Tarquinius, the last Etruscan soothsayer.  Reaching Alexandria, they are forcibly recruited into Caesar’s legions during a desperate battle for the city.  If Romulus survives the fighting, he risks execution if anyone finds out he is a runaway slave.  Meanwhile in Rome, Fabiola is the mistress of wealthy senator Decimus Brutus, and is seeking revenge on Caesar, the man she believes raped her mother and who once tried to rape her.  As Caesar gains a monopoly of power in Rome, Fabiola sees her opportunity in the plotting of a group of disaffected senators – but an ill-judged affair with Marcus Antonius and a feud with a street thug place her in great personal danger.  As the storm-clouds gather over Rome, Romulus, Tarquinius and Fabiola all find their paths leading them to the Senate on the fateful Ides of March…

The Road to Rome is the third book in the trilogy that began with The Forgotten Legion (reviewed here earlier), describing Romulus’ adventures with Crassus’ ill-fated invasion of Parthia and then serving the Parthians in Central Asia, and continued in The Silver Eagle (reviewed here earlier) as Romulus fights battles in India and joins a wild beast hunter procuring animals for the Roman arena in East Africa.  Like the first two, The Road to Rome is a larger-than-life all-action adventure.  The narrative cuts back and forth between the storylines involving the different lead characters, and every chapter ends on a cliffhanger with one or more of the main characters facing deadly peril.  It reminded me of an action film in book form.

Caesar’s campaigns in the civil war provide the opportunity for numerous graphic blow-by-blow battle scenes, especially in the first two-thirds of the book where Romulus is fighting with Caesar’s legions across Roman North Africa and Asia Minor.  Readers who want to imagine fighting scythe-wheeled chariots or battle elephants will find much to enjoy.  A wild beast fight against a rhinoceros in the arena provides another spectacular set-piece action sequence.  In the last third or so of the book, the scene switches to Rome and the conspiracy against Caesar.  Even in Rome, street brawls and gang warfare provide plenty of scope for violent action.

A big plus for me was that there seemed to be much less mysticism in The Road to Rome than in the previous two books (especially The Silver Eagle, which I thought tipped over into historical fantasy).  The characters believe in gods and omens, and Mithraism is present as a sort of first-century freemasonry, but there is little in the way of actual supernatural events.  Another big plus for me was that although the civil wars lasted four years, the book doesn’t artificially compress events, instead making use of the ‘Three months later’ technique to skip over time periods that are not directly related to the plot.

The book is written in modern English, e.g. Fabiola thinks of Marcus Antonius as ‘…an alpha male from his head to his toes….’, with a sprinkling of Latin terms.  Readers unfamiliar with the period may like to bookmark the useful glossary at the back of the book that explains the Latin terms.  I only found the glossary after I finished the book, although that didn’t matter as I found I either recognised the terminology or could work it out from context.

A map at the front shows Europe and Asia, though oddly it doesn’t show the locations of some of Romulus’ important battles such as Thapsus and Ruspina.  A helpful Author’s Note summarises some of the underlying history and explains where fictional events and characters have been slotted in.  Most of the plot threads from the preceding instalments have been resolved by the end, though one question remains open and there may be potential for another adventure (though not for all of the characters) in the future.

All-action historical adventure set against the background of the civil wars and the plot to assassinate Caesar in first-century Rome

*A relative of Marcus Brutus, of ‘Et tu Brute?’ fame, who also makes an appearance as a minor character.

27 September, 2012

September recipe: Autumn pudding

This is a variant on the traditional summer pudding, which I make with blackcurrants in season (see recipe here). By September the season for most of the summer berries is over. However, in most years there are blackberries in the hedgerows, and cooking apples start to ripen about now. Apple and blackberry is a traditional combination in hot puddings such as fruit pies and crumbles. So I decided to try it in a variation of summer pudding, before the temperatures drop and the nights draw in, and found that it worked very well.  Here’s the recipe.

A good autumn (or summer) pudding needs decent white bread – I’m afraid blotting-paper sliced white just doesn’t cut it.  I included a recipe for white bread in the summer pudding recipe here.

Like summer pudding, autumn pudding itself contains no fat if you use my bread recipe (apart from the very small amount in the flour), so you’re entitled to a free hand with the cream.

Autumn pudding (serves 6)

12 oz (approx. 350 g) blackberries
12 oz (approx. 350 g) cooking apples, after peeling and coring
6 oz (approx. 150 g) sugar
Approx. 4 fl. oz (approx 120 ml) apple juice
8 oz (approx 250 g) good-quality white bread, a day old
Pouring cream to serve

Wash the blackberries. If you picked them wild out of a hedge, evict the spiders, beetles and other startled wildlife.

Peel and core the cooking apples, and chop them roughly.

Put the chopped apple, apple juice and sugar in a saucepan and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the apples are soft. Add the blackberries and simmer another 3-4 minutes.  Remove from heat.

Cut the bread into slices about 0.25-0.5 inch thick (about 0.5-1 cm thick).

Cut a piece from one slice to fit the bottom of a 2 pint (approx. 1 litre) pudding basin.  Reserve enough bread slices to cover the top of the pudding basin, and put them to one side.

Cut the remaining slices into fingers and fit them around the sides of the basin.  Cut off any bread that sticks out above the top of the basin.  Fill in any gaps with small pieces of bread.  Some people find it easier to dip the bread in the blackberry and apple mix first, as this helps it to adhere to the sides of the basin and gives it an even colour. 

Pour in the fruit and sugar mixture.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s still hot or has cooled down.

Cover the top of the fruit mixture with the reserved slices of bread.

Put a small saucer or plate on top, ideally one that is just a little smaller than the top of the pudding basin. Weight it down with something heavy.  I use a plastic milk carton full of water, which weighs about 1.25 lb (approx 600 g), and this seems to work quite well.

Stand the weighted pudding overnight in the fridge, on a plate or tray just in case any juices spill out.

Next day, serve the pudding cut into wedges, with plenty of cream to pour over it.  If you’re feeling really confident, you can turn the pudding out onto a plate before serving it.  I generally just scoop the servings out of the pudding basin.

Any left over will keep in the fridge for several days, though once cut it will start to collapse (and it would therefore be a good idea to leave it in the basin, rather than turning it out, if you’re intending to eat it over several days).

It won’t freeze, though you can make it with frozen fruit.

I usually expect to get six to eight portions out of this quantity, but it depends how big a portion you like.

17 September, 2012

Trusty's Hill, Galloway

Trusty’s Hill is a small hillfort in Galloway, south-west Scotland, on a craggy ridge near the mouth of the Water of Fleet, near Gatehouse of Fleet on the north shore of the Solway Firth.

Map link here

Trusty’s Hill is on the summit of a ridge running roughly north-south, with steep sides on the east and west flanks and easier gradients at the north and south ends.  The hillfort has the remains of a rampart enclosing the summit, forming a rough oval, with an entrance at the south end between two rock outcrops.  There are traces of further defences outside the entrance. At the north end, where the ridge drops down to a col, there are also further defences, with a rampart and a deep ditch cut in the rock across the ridge. For a more detailed description of the site, see the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) website, and for a detailed plan of the earthworks, see the Galloway Picts Project page.

Excavations in the 1960s suggested that the site was occupied in the Iron Age and then refurbished and reoccupied in the sixth to seventh century (RCAHMS). 

Fortified sites occupying dramatic craggy promontories and headlands are well known in Western Britain. Examples include Tintagel Head in Cornwall, Dumbarton Rock on the Clyde estuary, and Deganwy in North Wales. Several have archaeological evidence of high-status occupation during the early medieval period, with finds such as pottery imported from Gaul or the eastern Mediterranean, and/or fine metalworking.

The name 'Trusty's Hill' may be derived from Drust or Drustan, which is a common name in the Pictish king lists and a form of the Brittonic name Trystan (also spelled Tristan, Tristram, Drystan). Whether the place name, and/or Trusty's Hill itself, have any connection with the romantic legend is anyone's guess.

Galloway Picts Project excavation, 2012
Trusty’s Hill was excavated in the summer of 2012 by the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society as part of the Galloway Picts Project. My thanks to Beth, who mentioned the excavation in a comment on an earlier post here, and prompted me to go and look for details.  There’s a short description in the September 2012 issue of Current Archaeology, and lots of information on the Galloway Picts Project website.

The excavation identified clear evidence of high-status early medieval occupation. The excavation found a fragment of pottery called ‘E-ware’, which would have been part of a container from Gaul used to transport luxury items such as spices and dyes and dated to the sixth-to-seventh century. There were also crucibles and other equipment used in fine metalworking, with deposits on the crucibles indicating the working of silver and possibly also copper or glass, though more analysis is needed for a definitive identification of the materials (Galloway Picts Project 6 August 2012).

Radiocarbon dates from inside the fort clustered in two groups, one group spanning the early fifth to mid seventh centuries and the other group around 400 BC (Galloway Picts Project 10 September 2012), consistent with the previous interpretation of two phases of occupation at the site, one Iron Age and one early medieval.

So it seems clear that Trusty’s Hill was occupied by a high-status group or groups in the early medieval period, who had access to luxury goods both made on site (fine metalwork and jewellery) and imported from Gaul (whatever came in the E-ware vessel). This places Trusty’s Hill in the same sort of category as other known high-status or royal sites in early medieval western Britain.

Pictish symbol stone - a royal centre?
What makes Trusty’s Hill especially interesting is that it possesses the unusual feature of a Pictish symbol stone carving on a rock outcrop by the south entrance.  For a drawing of the carvings, see the front page of the Galloway Picts Project site. There is also a worn Ogham inscription, which has not yet been interpreted.

Pictish symbol stones are generally found in the areas associated with Pictish kingdoms in north and east Scotland (roughly, north of the Forth-Clyde valleys and east of the main mountain spine).  According to Current Archaeology, the only sites other than Trusty’s Hill outside north-east Scotland with Pictish symbol stones are Dunadd and Dun Eidyn (modern Edinburgh), both of which were early medieval royal centres (Dunadd in the kingdom of Dal Riada, Dun Eidyn in the kingdom of the Gododdin). 

So the Pictish symbol stone, combined with the recent finds, potentially places Trusty’s Hill in very select company indeed. The luxury metalworking and imported pottery indicates it was occupied by a high status group. The Pictish carving, shared only (so far) with other known royal centres, may indicate that Trusty’s Hill was also a royal centre. If so, it may have been associated with the kingdom of Rheged, which was an important early medieval kingdom, mentioned in the poetry attributed to Taliesin. (Current Archaeology is in no doubt, cheerfully headlining its article ‘Rheghed revisited’; I’d be more cautious and say this is plausible but by no means proven). Rheged was probably located somewhere in what is now north-western England and/or south-western Scotland, but its location is not known with certainty.  I’ll come back to Rheged and its royal dynasty in later posts.

If Pictish symbol stones found outside the traditional Pictish territories do indicate an early medieval royal centre, it is interesting to speculate on what they may have signified. 

Presumably whoever carved the symbols expected that they would be recognised and understood by at least some of the people who saw them, which implies to me that at least some of the people in or around Dunadd, Dun Eidyn and Trusty’s Hill could understand Pictish symbols. This is quite plausible at royal centres, as maintaining any diplomatic, trading or other communications with neighbouring kingdoms would be easier if at least some people knew the neighbour’s language and script. (The Ogham inscription at Trusty’s Hill may imply that Irish was also in use there, which is likely given the location).

As the carvings are still there and have therefore survived from whenever they were carved until now without being destroyed or defaced, this suggests to me that the carvings were made with the consent, or at least acceptance, of the locals.  I interpret this as indicating that the symbols are unlikely to represent a Pictish conquest.  Even if Dal Riada and southern Scotland were conquered by the Picts at some time in their history, they did not stay permanently conquered during the early medieval period, since they appear as independent kingdoms in historical sources.  Symbols of dominion carved by a hated occupying power might be expected to be damaged or removed when the locals got their independence back and threw out the occupiers; since this did not happen to the Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill, Dun Eidyn and Dunadd, that suggests to me that the locals did not object to the symbols and that the symbols, whatever their meaning, did not represent subjugation.

Pictish symbol stones in the Pictish territories are often free-standing stones, and it has been suggested that they may be memorials and/or grave markers, erected to commemorate an important person (“Here lies X”) (see my earlier article on Pictish symbols). However, the Trusty’s Hill and Dunadd inscriptions are both carved on rock outcrops near the fort entrance, rather than being free-standing stones.  So these are not stones deliberately raised as grave markers, and it seems unlikely (though not impossible) that the fort entrance would have been the site of a grave.  Possibly the symbols could represent the name of a Pictish king or leader who was killed in an attack on the fort, in which case the fort entrance might have been a suitably symbolic location.  This would be the exact opposite of the interpretation of the symbols as signs of Pictish conquest; instead of representing a Pictish victory, they would represent a notable Pictish defeat. Whether such a scenario would represent the honouring of a respected fallen enemy, or a warning to future would-be attackers, or some other meaning is anyone’s guess, and indeed may have varied according to circumstances.

Possibly a Pictish symbol stone may have been a fashion statement, indicating the importance and status of the fort’s occupants and/or their connection with a glamorous foreign culture. Inscribed stones in Latin and with Roman-style titles occur in early medieval Wales, and presumably indicate that whoever raised them wanted to signal a connection with Rome.  By analogy, perhaps Pictish culture had a similar aspirational status in neighbouring early medieval kingdoms.

Possibly the Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill could represent some sort of diplomatic or political agreement between the local kingdom and the Pictish kingdom. It has been suggested that the ‘Kingdom of the Picts’ was a confederacy between more or less equal regional or tribal groups (Cummins 1995). If so, presumably the confederacy was accustomed to organising some form of agreement between its members, and may have been able to form other agreements with neighbouring kingdoms from time to time, as occasion arose.  Such an agreement may have been formally recorded on stone in Pictish symbols at the royal centre.

A variation of this is that the Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill could record a marriage alliance between the local royal dynasty and the Pictish royal dynasty.  If the Picts practised a form of matrilineal succession (see my earlier article for a discussion of Pictish matriliny), then the children of a marriage between a prince from a neighbouring kingdom and a Pictish princess could have rights in the Pictish succession.  This would make a Pictish marriage alliance different from a marriage between patrilineal dynasties, and may have been formally recognised by some sort of treaty or agreement recorded by Pictish symbols at the royal centre.

If the place name Trusty’s Hill preserves the name of someone called Drust or Drustan who was associated with the fort in some important way, one or more of the symbols on the carving could possibly preserve the same name.  It is logical that a carving recording a diplomatic, political or marriage agreement would record the names of the parties. If so, the hypothetical Drust or Drustan could have been the name of the Pictish king who made the agreement; there are several kings with that name in the Pictish king-list. However, since an inscribed stone in Cornwall also records the name ‘Drustanus’, the name was not necessarily confined to Pictish areas. Presumably if Pictish aristocrats or royalty married into other kingdoms some of the children of such marriages may have been given Pictish names, or if Pictish Christian monks and priests travelled as widely as their Irish contemporaries local children may have been named after them in far-flung places. It may be equally possible that the ‘Trusty’ of the place-name was a non-Pictish local ruler named something like Trystan.
No doubt there are many other possible interpretations.

Cummins WA. The Age of the Picts. Sutton, 1995, ISBN 0-7509-0924-2.
Current Archaeology, Issue 270, September 2012, p 9.
Galloway Picts Project, available online
Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), Trusty’s Hill, available online