The story so far... It is 50 AD, 5 years
after the Roman invasion of Britannia, and Tribune Marcus Vinicius
Spatula of the XX Legion has been securing the salt workings at
Salinae (Droitwich) and a newly built bridge on the river Sabrina
(the Severn) at Vertis (Worcester). Having run into strong resistance
from the tribes living west of the Sabrina, Governor Ostorius Scapula
has decided to consolidate the Roman advance along the line of the
river. Tribune Spatula has been ordered to build a link road between
the legionary forts at either end of this axis - Virconium (Wroxeter)
to the north and Glevum (Gloucester) to the south - although mysteriously,
Spatula's chief engineer, Firmus, has been recalled to the Governor's
main force for some unknown duty, leaving his assistant, Tignum,
to figure out the plans.......
Under Tignum’s supervision--or rather, his interpretation of all
those painstaking plans--the fort at Salinae was finally completed.
Not before time, either, thought Marcus, making an inaugural tour
of inspection with the engineer, Firmus and Currerus. It had been
a short autumn; winter was already pinching, and, as he paused while
Tignum drew attention to this or that refinement to the workshops
or stables, his gaze kept drifting upward to the leaden skies. At
times like these, he felt that he must have dreamt Cremona up. He
tried not to feel the chill which wrapped round him, and everyone,
like a second cloak. The more he dwelt on it, the more troubling
a portent it seemed for 51AD. Still, there was one bright spot:
Vectis had reached Scapula, though messages were yet to arrive about
what he was actually doing.
Brooding, however, was a luxury that the Empire was disinclined
to indulge. Demands aplenty soon claimed his Tribunal attention.
Initial preparations for the Viriconium-Glevum road obviously headed
the list, followed closely by ensuring the safe status of the salt
workings. Marcus instructed Currerus to devise a plan whereby Glevum
and Viriconium could be informed rapidly that Salinae was complete:
‘That is my prime concern at this moment, chief scout,’ he informed
Currerus one louring evening at Headquarters. ‘We’ll need the pick
of your men--fast, cunning, runners who know the region better than
you, me, Scapula himself. I’ve listed some likely names here. Add
and subtract as you wish.’
Currerus scrutinized the parchment, nodding at this name, viewing
that one askance. Within half-an-hour the runners had been selected
by mutual approval.
‘I could send one lot off tonight, sir,’ said Currerus.
‘Yes, well, no time like the present. This perishing Anglian weather
might close in at any second.’ He paused. ‘Viriconium first. They
haven’t figured greatly in my thinking so far, what with all of
our efforts at Vertis and here. I want them to know immediately
that their southern flank is properly secure--no reliance on Glevum
‘I’ll send the best of the list that way, sir,’ said Currerus. ‘They’ll
slip through without a problem.’
‘Good,’ said Marcus. ‘Swiftness is everything. Doubtless the Silures
know the fort is fully operational; but if we drag our feet, they
may assume we’re keeping open house for them and try to isolate
us here. And there’s the Cornovii to consider. Viriconium isn’t
so very far from Northern Cambria. They may be minded to link up
with their Silurian brethren and start rattling our chain to test
its new link.’
‘Well, sir, no-one will be dragging his feet here,’ said Currerus,
and he circled names for the Viriconium detail with his finger.
‘And I’ll get the Glevum runners organised for first light. It’s
the nearer fort of the two, and they’ve got Vertis as a halfway
Marcus smiled assent: ‘Oh, I suppose I could drive myself up the
wall wondering what the tribes might or might not do. Mars knows
we’ll be meeting them all one way and another when we start the
‘I know, sir,’ said Currerus. ‘Difficult, sometimes, to separate
vigilance from fretting. Mind you, none of them has caused serious
trouble so far. Best to bear that in mind. We’ll need to stay prepared,
of course. I understand the good Governor’s fears. But the gods
are still giving us half a smile.’
‘True enough. It’s one thing to surprise one of our foraging parties--quite
another to storm a fort. Let’s hope that never happens, especially
here. Good Vectis would never forgive us, after all his efforts.’
Currerus smiled: ‘Wonder how he’s getting on, sir?’
‘We can only wait on the next messengers, scout,’ said Marcus with
a shrug; then, more softly, ‘I’m wondering now how they’re all getting
on.’ The latest news from Cambria was not heartening. Continued
tribal resistance had long since taken the sheen off Roman success.
One or two dispatches had shown a disregard for circumspection,
speaking openly of Scapula’s embattled health. Pondering all of
this now, as Currerus looked again over the list of runners, Marcus
realized fully why he was so exercised about the strength of the
Viriconium-Salinae-Glevum triumverate. They were indeed crucial,
forming as they did the backstop for the Cambrian campaign. Scapula
had been right to insist that they be enforced as thoroughly as
possible. Progress (or lack of it) in Cambria was bound to have
an effect on the border country; conversely, given that the three
forts were well-stocked and unyielding, their reputation as points
of Roman strength would embolden the Cambrian campaigners. Here,
regrettably, his optimism petered out: ‘I don’t know about emboldening
them,’ he said to himself. ‘Maybe they’ll just be thankful that
there are three hospitals for them to fill.’
He started. Currerus was asking him something; he just caught, ‘only
Firmus asked if I would ask you. On the men’s behalf. Seeing as
I was meeting you to discuss the runners.’
‘Firmus asked? About what?’
‘Vertis, sir. Finishing up the buildings there. I mean, the men
realize that Tignum has been pushed putting the final touches to
this place. The contingents have been happy to make do down there--well,
not too unhappy, Firmus says. But with winter coming on, they were
wondering about getting Roman roofs over their heads.’
Marcus smiled--broadly, this time. Good old Currerus--pulling him
back on track, dispelling his airy musings on what might or might
not happen in Cambria. Whatever did happen, he and his men would
just have to play their part. Meanwhile, winter was nearly on them,
and the men were understandably edgy about shivering their way through
it on duty down by the new bridge. That was a categorical fact.
Really, he should have run the Vertis project alongside the Salinae
one in these last few months. Very remiss of him: it didn’t do to
presume too much on the cohort’s tolerance.
‘Yes indeed, Currerus. Who wants to perish on an open bridge in
one of Britannia’s choice winters? Tell Firmus that the Vertis buildings
are next on the agenda.’
And so it was. Over the following weeks, the Worcester buildings
were quickly completed and made secure: ‘Call it a Saturnalian gift
to the men,’ Marcus told Firmus, who resolved to call it nothing
of the sort, least of all in their hearing: ‘With respect to our
leader,’ he told Currerus, ‘we’re talking about ordinary, decent
shelter, not an unexpected dollop of ambrosia.’
Marcus accompanied Tignum on his surveys of progress. Like Vectis,
he indulged the Tribune’s amateur engineering. This did not stop
him, however, from regarding his leader with some puzzlement, as
though he couldn’t quite understand why Marcus should want to add
anything to his official duties. The first contingent were installed
a few weeks before Saturnalia, which made Firmus more kindly disposed
to the Tribune’s idea that the buildings constituted a special gift.
But Marcus’s thoughts were not, by this time, focused on matters
Saturnalian. One snow-threatened day, as Salinae went about its
business, he called Currerus and Firmus into the Headquarters.
‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘Viriconium and Glevum both know we’re
fully open for business. So--now we start on their road.’ The scout
and the centurion glanced at each other, waiting for Marcus to speak
further: ‘I’ve pondered all the options,’ he said at last, ‘including
a start at both ends. But I propose we begin at Glevum.’
Firmus raised an eyebrow: ‘So we’re not pushing north from here,
‘It’s a ticklish decision, Firmus. They’re both fine forts, no doubt
of it. But Glevum is still the more vulnerable.’ He raised a hand
to forestall his hearers, both of whom seemed to take exception
to his words. ‘I’m not doubting the abilities of the men there.
And the gods know that all our forts have only been established
in the last five minutes--historically speaking. But the natives
down south are still getting used to Glevum--or, if you like, still
entertaining fancies about rasing it to the ground. Starting the
road from there will also have the effect of showing our strength,
our solidarity with the Glevum force. No sense building any forts
just to lose them. And anyway, XIV Legion should be well on their
way to Viriconium--I await confirmation of that daily. So our brethren
to the north will be well augmented.’
‘There’s something to be said for starting at both ends, though,
Tribune,’ said Currerus.
‘Indeed there is,’ Firmus added readily. ‘That way, you’d have your
extra show of strength both north and south. And on the subject
of losing new forts, Tribune, no-one would be too far from here,
if it needed protecting.’
‘Salinae will be well manned,’ said Marcus. ‘I’ve drafted plans
for numbers, including some of the men who’ve worked most closely
with Tignum. We’ll need him, of course, but they will guard and
maintain the salt workings. But I am not deaf to your worries, Firmus.
Let us say that, if we bear them clearly in mind, we’ll have an
extra incentive for closing the gap between Glevum and here with
Firmus gave what he hoped was a deferential shrug: ‘Still a bit
of a gamble, sir.’
‘Winter approaches, Firmus, and we need to start the road now. If
the weather hits really hard, any plan we adopt might be a gamble.’
‘Well, I do see your point, sir,’ said the centurion after a pause.
‘The tribes know their own country, fair weather or foul. Whatever
they want to do, they will, damn ‘em.’
‘Vectis said once that they slip like your own shadow,’ said Currerus.
‘He would,’ muttered the centurion.
Two days later, accompanied by the first sprinkle of snow, Marcus,
Tignum and a carefully chosen contingent left Salinae. Firmus and
Currerus had left the day before, to check that all was well at
Vertis and tell the present force there when they would be relieved.
The Tribune would meet them; then all would travel together to Glevum.
The plan was to use the Glevum force, in relays, for the first section
of the road; shortly before Salinae was reached, runners would be
dispatched to Viriconium with a request for manpower on the northern
stretch. At Salinae--and even at Vertis--Marcus also left messages
for any scout coming out of Cambria: one, directed at Scapula, wished
him strengthening health but politely pointed out that neither Tignum
nor any other engineer could be spared; the other, for Vectis, simply
asked for his news:
‘You’ll get a mouthful there, sir,’ said Currerus, perusing the
‘By pen only,’ said Marcus. ‘Not half as painful.’
The following months were every bit as eventful as Marcus had expected.
Letters from his father reminded him of those goading words he had
imagined on the patriarchal lips. But no, he was not just a navvy.
Replying to Cremona, he described what he was about in terms which
made him think that perhaps, after all, a life of politics and diplomacy
was not beyond him. He certainly did not lie; rather, he discovered
a certain malleability, hitherto unsuspected, about the truth. And,
as he said in his letters home, he truly was turning into a fair
engineer. Above all, however, he remained a Tribune: arbitrator,
decision-maker, strategist, doing his level best for the Empire
in this unforgiving land. On some days, when the air was clear enough,
he was sure he could see those Cremonese hills from the Glevum countryside.
Their image emboldened him--and he was glad of it.
End of Chapter IV
Worcester City Museums