Monday, 27 June 2022

Eboracum - A Roman Extravaganza

Alright, so for anyone who missed it, this weekend was York's Eboracum Roman festival. An annual event that has sadly been absent from our lives for the past couple of years thanks to the damn virus. But Eboracum is back, baby, and despite Covid having changed everything and rail strikes making it difficult for visitors to attend, and even an uncertain weather forecast, the event went ahead and was a true success.

And as well as reenactors and museum staff, we authors of Roman fiction and non-fiction had our own part to play. Against a background of warbling buccina calls, shouts of centurions bollocking their men for forgetting their own names, and the general roar of a crowd of visitors loving the entertainment, we filled a room with tables of books and were there not only to sell and sign books, but to discuss Rome, writing, the process and the history, and even just to joke and pass time with the visitors. Personally I had some fascinating and memorable conversations over the two days, met some engaging and fascinating people, and had a whale of a time.

In the above photo you can see (L-R) myself, Paul Chrystal, author of a number of fascinating texts on Roman Britain, Alex Gough, author of the Watchmen of Rome and Imperial Assassin series, Nancy Jardine, author of the Celtic Fervour novels, Alison Morton, creator of the Roma Nova series, Ruth Downie, author of the Medicus books about a Roman army doctor, Jane Finnis, author of Roman mysteries set in the North of England, and Edwin Pace, writer of late Roman/Arthurian era non-fiction.

I don't want to bang on about the festival, but make sure to keep an eye out for the next year for a 2023 follow up.

And in the meantime, a huge thank you to everyone who made the event what it was, from the YMT staff (thanks Fi) to the reenactors, brought together for the weekend by the inimitable Paul Harston, to the most important element, those of you who took the time and the effort to come visit us all. For us, the weekend was not about selling books (though it was lovely to do so.) It was about meeting readers, talking to the people who we don't normally meet, at the other end of the written word process, and generally having a good time. And we did. Congratulations and thanks all, and we'll see you next year.

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

A Grand Day Out: Roman Wensleydale

Fancy a trip out for a day, somewhere pretty and fascinating? North Yorkshire is certainly full of such places, but given my connection with Rome, I'm going to give you an idea for a trip along one of the country's lesser-known Roman routes.

Wensleydale is one of the more northerly Yorkshire dales, home to internationally famous brands, such as Wensleydale Cheese, Theakstons and Black Sheep beer, and Brymor Ice Cream. It contains some of the most important and impressive pieces of Medieval history in the country (some of this given as sidebars on this tour. But it was also a Roman road. For our purposes, the tour starts at junction 50 on the A1, for ease. From the junction, follow the B6055 north, heading towards Bedale. At a roundabout a few miles north, turn left for Masham. As you do so, take note of where you are. The main Roman route north on this side of the Pennines was Dere Street, which more or less follows the A1 for quite a way. The road was dotted at regular intervals with forts. You may have passed the one near Boroughbridge or the one at Catterick, depending on which direction you came, but now, at this roundabout, you are two miles from a Roman fortlet at Healam Bridge, directly between the two aforementioned forts. The site has been ploughed out and built over by the road, so there is nothing to see there, and we shall, instead, make our way west, into the Dales.

Follow the road for 5 miles. Halfway along, you will pass Thornborough on your left, home of three immense ancient henges of national significance, also worth a visit, though not part of this Roman tour. Instead, we are going to turn right for the village of Well. This small village, home to another brewery, as a matter of interest, is the site of a Roman bath house discovered in the 19th century. The baths probably belonged to a villa and although the site is now buried, a mosaic pavement removed during excavation can now be found in the church. Pop in and have a look for your first taste of Roman Wensleydale. This villa would have been close to the road that ran from Healam Bridge up the dale.

Return to the Masham road (B6267) and turn right. Follow the road into Masham, noting the Theakston and Black Sheep breweries up on the hill to your right. On another day, Masham church is worth a visit for its magnificently carved Saxon cross. On this occasion, though, we're heading through Masham without stopping, and now we are truly entering the dale. Follow the road from Masham for four and a half miles, and at a small, unobtrusive junction just past Brymor Ice Cream, signing Bedale again, turn right. This small road will take you around the edge of the Jervaulx estate for a mile, down to the medieval monastic Kilgram bridge over the river Ure. Park up beyond the bridge and walk back to it. Standing on the bridge, look down. The best viewpoint is on the north side of the river, looking upstream. Below the bridge you can see the very well-preserved remains of a ford. This predates the medieval bridge and shows signs of Roman construction techniques. This, then, is part of the Roman road that travels up Wensleydale, and you are standing where the legions crossed the river 1800 years ago.

Return to the main road and turn right at that junction you turned off at. You are now following the edge of the Jervaulx estate and if you look right at times you will see the impressive ruins of Jervaulx abbey (another fabulous place to visit that we are going to mosey on past on this occasion.) Incidentally, Jervaulx is a Norman French name and can be translated as Yore Vale. The dale was, until the 18th century, called Uredale, after the river Ure (Yore). Follow the road round past the abbey. You will go through the village of East Witton and over the lovely Cover Bridge, past a particularly good inn. Follow the road, and you will pass a bend or two, a farm by the roadside, and reach a straight. Blink and you'll miss the next bit. Look ahead and left. A field wall ends by a building with a tree. Behind that lie buried the remains of a Roman villa's bath house. You will probably not have the chance to stop and look, and the next thing you know you are in Middleham, home to one of Britain's most impressive castles and a childhood home for Richard III. Yet another place to remember for another time.

Follow through Middleham and across a lovely bridge, heading for Leyburn. On the other side, turn left for Wensley and Hawes. This cut through road, a mile or so long, leads you to the village of Wensley, past a church. Again, for future reference, the church is fascinating. Turn left past the church. The road will take you across the river. Look to the right as you travel. Beyond the trees, buried in a farm field, is a Roman fort. It is now long gone and ploughed out, but the site is important. Follow the road up the dale. It will take you past a chapel of the Templar knights near Swinnithwaite, a lovely waterfall at West Burton, Aysgarth, with its falls where Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves was filmed and where the church holds remnants of Jervaulx Abbey, and finally to the village of Bainbridge.

Just before you turn right and descend into the village, a huge hill on your right is crowned with the remains of Virosidium Roman fort. It is hard to appreciate the fort from the village, other than its impressive positioning. It is also on private farmland, so you can't stroll around it. You can, however, park up in the village, use an OS map and walk back the way you drove in, all the way up to Brough Scar, where a public footpath runs high along the side of the dale, and affords an impressive view of Virosidium that will allow you to understand and appreciate the fort.

Once you are finished with the fort and any walking, return to the village and drive on towards Hawes up the dale. When you reach the turnoff for Burtersett, turn left and head through that village. The road gradually climbs the valley side, then does some sharp bends, and then crosses a line of footpaths with field walls, with room to park. Stop there and look along those paths, up and down the slope. What you are looking at is called the Cam High Road. It is part of the Pennine Way. It is also the best section of the Roman road you've been following, this part leading up from Virosidium, over the Pennines, and down towards Ingleton and Lancashire. Roman roads in Britain are rarely so impressive and preserved, so savour this view. Then retreat the way you came to the main road up the dale. Turn left and you will soon come to Hawes.

Hawes is home to the Wensleydale Creamery, if you're a cheese fan, and a ropemaker's museum. It also houses the Dales Countryside Museum in the old station. This is your last Roman stop. Here you will find two Roman milestones found near Bowes on the A66, some Bronze Age artifacts, and a model of the Virosidium fort. It is a gem of a museum in many ways.

This is the upper end of Roman Wensleydale and the end of your tour. If you have the time and the money, it would be worth staying in the lovely town of Hawes, enjoying a night there, and then doing the reverse of this tour, but visiting all the sites I mentioned that we bypassed on the way back to the A1. You could do a lot worse. While you're at Hawes, you might also visit the waterfall of Hardraw Force. If you need extra aid in directions, any OS map of the area will probably be more than adequate.

Enjoy Roman Wensleydale. The Roman sites are not largely visitable or even visible, but they are there, and visiting them will give you the opportunity to see some of Britain's best countryside.

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

10 of the best: Yorkshire Museum

Are you coming to the Eboracum festival at York this summer? Or just to York for fun? Whatever the reason, if you are in York, one of the unmissable highlights is the Yorkshire Museum in Museum Gardens by Lendal Bridge. The pre-eminent museum for history and archaeology in Yorkshire, it is a treasure trove of amazing finds not far behind the British Museum in the size and quality of its collection. Among its impressive artifacts are the unparalleled Coppergate Helmet and the Gilling Sword, and that's just the archaeology department, without dipping into dinosaurs, astronomy and more. But for the sake of this post, me being largely a Roman author and all, I present you my top 10 Roman things to see at the Yorkshire Museum...

The Tombstone of Lucius Duccius Rufinus. Good, decorative and informative Roman tombstones that also carry a full and illuminating inscription are rare, and this example is one of the best. Rufinus was a 28-year old standard bearer in the Ninth Hispana Legion. Born in Viennes, on the Rhone in France, Rufinus served with a legion that has a famous (or infamous) history.

Given that Rufinus would have to be 17 to join up, and service was set at 20 years, plus 5 in the reserves, Rufinus must still have been in service when he died, a veteran of 11 years. His death is set between 71 and 119, for the fortress at York was begun in the former and the legion was transferred from Britain and replaced by the Sixth Victrix in the latter.

Anyone who has read Rosemary Sutcliffe will know of the Eagle of the Ninth, though this is likely a somewhat inaccurate legend. Despite that, the Ninth did take something of a kicking in Britain, first from Boudicca in 61 AD, and then from the Caledonii in 82, before being sent to Nijmegen for their next posting, almost destroyed twice on British soil.

On this fabulous tombstone of a man who may well have died in that night attack at Dalginross on a summer night in 82, Rufinus proudly holds the standard of his unit as well as what appears to be codex ansatus, or unit record book. When you visit, go find our Rufinus and give him a little sympathy.

The bronze tablets of Demetrius. Stamped into bronze plates, they read (in Greek):

"To Ocean and Tethys, Demetrius set this up"


"To the gods of the legate’s residence Scribonius Demetrius set this up"

Why are these particularly interesting? Well, with them lies a story. The connection to the Ocean is the important thing. The great biographer Plutarch was in Athens in 84 for the Pythean Games where he met one Demetrius who was, as he tells very specifically in his work on the Obsolescence of Oracles, “journeying homeward from Britain to Tarsus."

Demetrius tells Plutarch that “among the islands lying near Britain were many isolated, having few or no inhabitants, some of which bore the names of divinities or heroes. He himself, by the emperor's order, had made a voyage for inquiry and observation to the nearest of these islands which had only a few inhabitants, holy men who were all held inviolate by the Britons.”

Interestingly, 84 was one year after the Battle of Mons Graupius in Scotland and the great general Agricola's first ever circumnavigation of Britain with his navy as recorded by Tacitus. Given that York would be a natural staging post for activity in Northern Britain, founded while Agricola was in the country, and played host to emperors in its time, it seems almost impossible to believe that this is not all part of the same story.

Demetrius was, then, one of the men who circumnavigated Britain under the governor Agricola, sent on the emperor (Domitian)'s orders. He met interesting tribes, recorded details and then, when it was over, apparently spent some time in York, along with the governor, when these plaques were created, before naffing off to Greece to meet Plutarch. In two tiny exhibits here, there is more history than most finds in the museum.

A few years ago, a metal detectorist north of York, on the edge of the Moors, stumbled across a pit that contained votive artifacts from the second century, including some of the most impressive Bronzes thus far found in Britain. Chief among the collection, which includes lead plumb weights, stylized horse models and more, is a small Romano-British portrait of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. My photo here is a bit of a cheat, because I happened to be at the auction preview and saw the item close up before the museum managed to acquire it, but it is now proudly on display among their collection.

Imperial portraiture in Britain is extremely rare. The British Museum holds some of the world's best busts of Roman emperors, but they are not ones found originally in Britain. This one is, and it is clearly identifiable as the great 'philosopher king', part of a collection of bronze offerings to a god. Go and look into the strangely soulful empty eyes of Marcus Aurelius and contemplate just how much world-changing treasure is still to be found under our feet.

Alright, this one's not an Earth-changing bust. It's not Michaelangelo's David. In fact, it has very little impressive history of its own. It was probably funerary art, part of a tomb on the outskirts of York. But really, what could be more iconically Roman than an eagle? And given that York was the home of the Ninth Hispana for more than four decades, this 'Eagle of the Ninth' is iconic. That alone makes it worth seeing.

This one is back to the unusual. When a Roman auxiliary finished his term in the army, he would acquire his 'honesta missio', a pension sum and a grant of citizenship. In the pre-digital age, this latter needed physical proof, and this came in the form of a bronze sheet called a diploma. These would accompany the retired soldier as a permanent record of his service and status. Despite the many, many thousand soldiers who must have received these, surviving finds are relatively rare, and when they are found they provide unparalleled records of Roman units' service in Britain.

On this example, though we do not know the name of the individual who received this amazing gift, it contains SO much information. It tells us that he belonged to a unit called Cohors V Raetorum, a unit of 500 infantry raised originally from the mountain region of Switzerland. We know that its commander went by the name of Sextus Cornelius Dexter, from Saldae in Mauretania, modern Morocco. We know that the diploma was found at Brompton on Swale, on the A1. The nearest Roman fort there is Catterick (Cataractonium), which has never had a unit identified as its garrison, and so it is possible that Dexter's retired soldier was from that local fort, retired into the town nearby.

Stand in the museum, looking down at these fragments and just think for a moment what vast amounts of information can be gleaned from the smallest of things.

Our next exhibit belongs in the 'why is that not still a thing' category. 

Sometimes the more amazing things you can find are the most ordinary. Artifacts that change the world are not always Roman emperors or eagles, or explorers. Sometimes they are simple things that open a window into ordinary life in another age. This is one of those things. This is an Arm Purse.

Two millennia ago (more or less), Romans carried their coins in a purse that could be worn like a bangle on the arm. And for the macho readers here, bear in mind that pockets were unknown, men wore dresses, and these things were something a man, even a soldier, would carry. The majority of surviving examples are bronze. A coin holder that clamped to your arm? No-brainer. 

Not all tombstones are of centurions and standard bearers and generals and emperors. Some are of the ordinary people. And that is what we have in this lovely stele of unknown date. This is a mysterious stone, for no inscription survives. We have no idea whose tomb this is. But he is clearly a smith, He wears an apron around his midriff over a tunic and is actually shown hammering something into shape on an anvil. I live in a Yorkshire village. Re-clothe the man in jeans and a hunting jacket, and that's my village smith right there. It is a snapshot in time that shows how, 1800 years ago, a smith was no different to those of today.

Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it's a lumpy face. In fact, yes, it is one of the less impressive representations of a Roman emperor you'll find in our country's museums. But do you know what else this is? This is a moment in history. Because this is Constantine.

I can do no better with this one than to quote my fellow writer Gordon Doherty, playing the part of Constantine to my Maxentius in the book "Sons of Rome." In AD 306, Constantine's father, Constantius, was in Britain, in York, in fact, having been fighting in Scotland, when a long-term illness, possibly leukemia, felled him. His son had fled to his side before he died. In Gordon's words:

The wine sloshed around the cup as I filled it to the brim. The harsh, grey world of sobriety, I affirmed, was no place for the grieving. But as I lifted the cup to my lips, something happened. It was as if the summer morning outside had been overcome by a violent tempest. The ground shook, and a guttural, baritone wail filled the air. Thousands of voices. Laments, howls, jagged prayers to Mars the War God and to the Christian God. Next, a crash-crash-crash sounded. Spears rhythmically striking shields, a sound unmistakable to a soldier like me. The legionaries knew of their beloved emperor’s passing, it seemed, and wanted to honour him. It went on for some time, and my gaze hovered on the surface of the wine, eyeing my sullen reflection. It was then that the iron ranks outside started a new chant. Louder, fiercer, more intense. The ground reverberated and the surface of the wine rippled in time with their cries. ‘Con-stan-tine! Con-stan-tine! Con-stan-tine!’

Yes, the emperor Constantine, sainted by the Catholic Church, was raised to power by the army on the death of his father... in York. And here we have a badly-worn bust of Constantine, found in York. What a fabulous meeting of event and location, eh? Let us celebrate our British emperor in the city where he began.

Because who doesn't love a big stone willy, eh? In actual fact, the phallus as an artistic element in ancient Rome serves a number of purposes, and not all sexual. Yes, they could be found on walls as a handy aid, pointing to the nearest brothel, but they were also a good luck charm, if you can believe it. As such they are found in the darnedest of places. One notable example is a prominent one standing proud of a paving slab in the headquarters courtyard of Chesters Roman fort!

The example here in the museum is one of three found in the ruins of Roman York, this particular one by the line of the western defences, suggesting that it had been on display built into the walls. Try not to rub it for luck, though...

Last but not least, possibly one of the most enigmatic items in the entire museum: The Catterick Mask. Catterick is the site of a Roman fort, town and marching camp on the River Swale near Richmond. There is conjecture that the town had a theatre. If it did, it was the most northerly Roman theatre thus far.

The Catterick Mask's nature is still being argued. It could be a theatre mask, but it does not bear any great resemblance to the iconic tragic/comic masks of Roman theatre, and though it is possible that this is a Romano-British twist on such a thing, it is more likely that it is a religious item.

Twenty years ago archaeologists discovered a body at Catterick that seems to have been a priest of Cybele (the Magna Mater or Great Mother.) It was the body of a man adorned with jewelry, who had seemingly castrated himself (part of the rites of the Cybele priesthood.) It is entirely possible that the mask now held in the museum was once worn in rituals by one of the priests of Cybele, a cult well known in the east, and even in Rome, but also seemingly this far north and west,

Looking at the Catterick mask, you may just be staring into the empty eyes of a Gallus, a two thousand-year-old priest of the Mother Goddess.

And so that is that. 10 great objects of the Yorkshire Museum. I urge you to go, visit, and see these amazing pieces. If you're in York on the 25th - 26th of June, go visit them and come see us Roman authors and the amazing reenactors of many units while you're there.

Vale for now.