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. Temporarily without his chief engineer Firmus, called for
special duty with the Governor, Spatula has depended on Firmus's
deputy, Tignum, to complete the fort at Salinae and to rehouse the
troops guarding the bridge at Vertis before the onset of Winter.
As the New Year approaches, Tribune Spatula and Tignum have started
planning the road which they have been ordered to build linking
the legionary forts at Virconium (Wroxeter), to the north, and Glevum
(Gloucester), to the south.
‘It’ll be a slow start, I fear, sir.’ Benevolus,
in charge of Glevum since Marcus’s departure, stood at the entrance
of the fort with him.
‘Perhaps,’ admitted his former colleague, gazing out at the swirling
snow. ‘Actually, I’m looking at ways of outwitting the weather.’
‘Oh, I’m sure if they exist, you’ll find them,’ said Benevolus,
who held the Tribune in high esteem. ‘Or one of your able crew,’
he added, for Firmus, Tignum and Currerus were walking towards the
entrance, having bowed out of the Saturnalian revels to survey the
‘Had your lungfuls of Britannia’s biting air, gentlemen?’ enquired
Marcus. By way of reply, Firmus pulled his cloak so hard round him
that it all but tore: ‘I could live here a hundred years,’ he muttered,
‘and never get use to this cold. Give me a knife you can see, any
‘Our project will warm you up,’ said Marcus. ‘We shan’t feel anything--snow,
hail, sleet, sun when the weather turns--all that clearing, ditching,
stonebreaking, packing down the first surface--’
‘Wearing it in,’ said Currerus.
‘More stonebreaking,’ added Firmus.
‘Second surface,’ Tignum chimed in. Marcus and Benevolus burst out
laughing. This was the roadmaker’s litany, which Marcus had assiduously
copied from Tignum. For a good two days after they’d arrived at
Glevum, he could be heard walking around the fort, repeating it
‘And the foraging,’ prompted Benevolus, loth to let the merriment
‘The hostile tribesmen,’ Currerus obligingly offered.
‘The infringement of ancient grazing land,’ said Firmus, taking
up the scout’s thought. ‘Accidental, of course.’
‘The stretches that need regrading again and again,’ said Tignum.
‘The forts,’ said Marcus quietly. They all regarded him in surprise,
Tignum excepted. ‘We’ve been talking,’ said the Tribune, gesturing
at the engineer, whom Firmus turned to regard: ‘Have you now?’ he
said to Tignum. ‘You’re as dark a horse as your old boss.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say old Vectis was a dark--’ began Currerus; but
Firmus had turned back to his boss:
‘What about forts, sir?’
‘I’ve been thinking about this since we left Salinae. Common sense.
More than that, military necessity. Tignum and I discussed it last
‘And the night before, sir,’ sighed Tignum, implying that lights
had burnt low while the Tribune held forth.
‘I wondered why the two of you had been avoiding the amphorae since
we got here,’ said Firmus. But his tone was not aggrieved. Making
a road--well, that was all fine in its way. But new forts to go
with it--now that was more like soldiering. He suddenly noticed
that the Tribune had his arms flung wide and wondered if a spot
of oration was due. It was:
‘. . . like this,’ Marcus was saying. ‘Two golden goblets and a
measly bit of twine connecting them. D’you see? The goblets are
Viriconium and--here’--he stamped his foot, as though that were
a time-honoured way of convincing onself of one’s bearings. ‘Now,
I’m not saying that our road will be measly. It surely won’t. But
it might as well be, if it simply winds undefended through all that
distance. The road’s vulnerable, you see, and so is our border,
and so’--slowly, he let his arms drop to his sides. ‘So are the,
ah, goblets . . . really.’
‘What of Salinae, sir?’ asked Currerus.
‘Crucial to us, certainly,’ said Marcus briskly. ‘But it isn’t the
make-or-break factor in this project. Of course, this is all before
we’ve commenced surveying--but it strikes me that, if we include
Salinae as a main staging post, we shall be pulling a whole stretch
of our border further back than is good for us.’
‘We’re thinking of driving west of Salinae,’ said Tignum.
‘We shall naturally ensure that all is well with the salt workings--relieve
the duty forces there, send them reinforcements as necessary. And
they’ll still be helping with the road when we get to that region.
Remember, gentlemen, I’m not just your would-be master-roadbuilder.
I have a clear eye on our forces’ security, Salinae included.’
‘So, sir--change of plan,’ said Firmus.
‘Modification, centurion. In the interests of military proximity
and territorial gain.’
‘Oh, I’m not complaining, sir,’ the centurion said. ‘Just a pity
that the good Vectis won’t be here to raise all those forts to the
‘Yes, that was exactly one of his dreams,’ the Tribune responded.
‘Well, he might be back among us before we know it.’ And he beamed
at Firmus, as if divining his thoughts on the return of the cohort’s
From the opening weeks of 51AD, it did indeed seem as though the
Tribune’s prophecy had come true: no-one had a minute to notice
the punitive cold. Tignum organised survey teams for the country
north of Glevum, building on the desultory reconnaisance that he,
Currerus and Firmus had made. One or two proposed stretches seemed
relatively unchallenging. Others made the legionaries spit more
frequently (and further) than was customary, and a rumour began
that Tignum was inclined to choose the thickest woods through which
to drive the road: ‘I’ll have callouses on my callouses from all
that chopping and clearing,’ snarled Firmus.
Nonetheless, the first part of the road began to take shape--albeit
that the shape was often lost under generous snowfalls. Marcus’s
cohort, aided by the Glevum force, rased woodland and scored initial
ditches--more shallow markers than anything--in the iron earth.
Tribal eyes watched them, sometimes furtively from among bare branches,
sometimes openly under the chalk skies. Occasionally they offered
a grudging acknowledgement; mostly they were silent. Tignum wondered
whether they were scouts masquerading as homesteaders, acting for
the Silures or some detachment of Caratacus’s motley band.
‘No,’ said Marcus. ‘They’re watching for infringements.’
Marcus assumed the croaky tones of an old Dobunni tribesman he had
heard up at Vertis: ‘Oi’ve let moi pigs roam ‘ere fer longer’n you’ve
been aloive, Roman. Oi scrumped apples from these woods whoile you
were just a splash in the Toiber.’ He smiled at his impression.
Never mind oratory in the Senate--perhaps the actor’s life beckoned.
Tignum hadn’t actually understood much of what his superior said,
ascribing it to another burst of eccentricity, like the Tribune’s
wish to be a master engineer. But he got the gist: ‘Oh, I see--guarding
their common land. Like Firmus was saying. But couldn’t they send
a message beforehand, so that we would know?’
Marcus stared at him: ‘What, and spoil the fun of confrontation?
How long have you been here, engineer?’
His assumption was correct. As the weeks wore on and the colours
returned to the land, road workers brought more and more reports
back to Glevum of discomfited locals. Marcus Vinicius Spatula found
himself roaming east and west of the road, trying to placate or
reason with these aggrieved husbandmen. At times, he simply stood
and listened to a tale that was becoming well worn: he and his Romans
were here, nothing that could be done about that; the tribesmen
had seen it all before (though they never elaborated on what ‘it’
was); no doubt they would see it all again, long after the Romans
had disappeared (Marcus always bit his lip at that part); all they
were asking, though, was for a bit of consideration, a bit of common
courtesy. Marcus and his lot might have the wealth of Rome behind
them--and with them, to judge by their weaponry and fancy get-ups.
The tribesmen, on the other hand, had a few pigs, maybe, or a few
sheep, or a scrawny scrap of land that they were trying to get the
best out of, just to survive. If some fancy road was going to appear
in their midst, they’d like to know, that’s all. A bit of forethought,
that’s all they were asking for. Usually, Marcus did manage to calm
them down. Once or twice he agreed to some slight modification in
the route, but he made it clear that such concessions would not
‘We hail from a land of straight highways,’ he said to Firmus once,
as they rejoined the road-parties after yet another parley. ‘We
are not going to create something that looks like a dog’s hind leg
simply because we are in this . . . this ditch of Empire.’ Sudden
bitterness had seized him. Immediately, he apologised to Firmus,
telling the centurion to put the outburst out of his mind. Ever
obedient, Firmus obliged. But Marcus was frowning hard as they regained
the road, and did not see Tignum straight away, even though the
engineer was at his elbow, eager to show him a time-saving method
of smoothing off the first surface. It was too bad, thought the
Tribune as an old mood descended on him: here he was, way behind
the lines of action in the Cambrian campaign. Yes, he reminded himself
over and over again of the worth--even, in an unlikely way, the
glory--of building the road. But it did weary him, having to go
out and reason with these tribesmen: having to haggle like a hawker
on the Via Flaminia.
‘. . . get the stones in place in half the time, sir,’ Tignum was
saying. Marcus started, inwardly castigating himself. These dark
thoughts were no good--they hardly helped him, and what if he allowed
his sourness to go on general display? What would that do for morale?
Instantly he reverted to the thoughful, benign but firm leader everyone
had come to know:
‘I’m so sorry, engineer . . . what was that about placing the stones?’
The months passed; so did the miles. Before long, they were in the
region of Vertis, with Salinae in their sights. Behind them stretched
the road, firmly graded, expertly ditched. At several points close
to it were new forts: compact, well situated, they were a tribute
to Tignum’s expertise--and to his continued indulgence of the Tribune’s
engineering interests, although Tignum himself allowed that Marcus’s
suggestions and drafts were becoming more professional by the day.
Firmus had a continual beam on his face. He had become Tignum’s
chief of construction and was thus, by his own definition, leading
a real soldier’s life again. With each wing that was completed--and
certainly, with each fort--he felt an excess of oddly paternal pride:
‘Not a bad old sort, that Tignum,’ he confided one night to Currerus.
They were in the road encampment some miles west of Vertis. The
centurion was in his cups. ‘Now that prissy old Vectis--he wouldn’t
have let me near a roofbeam.’ But despite the man’s slurred delivery,
Currerus thought he could trace a note of rough affection in his
voice. Firmus was missing his old adversary; there was no-one else
to square up to.
But all was not as smooth as the road. Immediate problems seemed
to echo more distant ones over the border. The local situation appeared
to be intertwined with the Cambrian campaign. The Silures made their
presence felt as the road bypassed Salinae and extended northwards.
At times, it seemed to Marcus that they were hammering the construction
forces in the way that, according to Ostorius Scapula, they would
hammer at the Glevum fort if permitted. Packhorses were turned loose
in the night, despite the best efforts of the watch. Foodstuffs
and ditching gear were stolen. Foraging parties found themselves
battling as fiercely as if they were alongside Scapula in the heart
of Cambria. And many a time a scout came rushing breathlessly up
to Marcus, to report extensive damage to the surface they had already
laid--sometimes for two or three miles behind them.
The onslaughts were not constant: the Silures (and whoever else
was mixed up with them) practised surprise as confidently as any
good Roman. In any event, Marcus had been expecting all of this,
and his contingency plans were prepared with a skill which--had
they been engineering drafts--would have gained full approval from
Vectis. In truth, Marcus felt that his appreciation of Britannia
was maturing. The land was still largely unknown territory--certainly
to a power which had only been in full occupation for a handful
of years. The Silures--and all the other tribes, whether conciliatory
or not--knew their own land, its perilous terrain, its thick woods.
Whatever their intent, they could turn nature to their advantage.
A whole gang of them could be a few feet away from you and then
seem to melt into the trees. Marcus found himself giving silent,
heartfelt thanks to the gods whenever a new fort was completed along
the line. Condemning his own former bitterness, he began to regard
the road as a kind of god, despite the disruptions and setbacks.
It was a god which might be embattled but was never vanquished.
There was something clean and uncomplicated about working on it--even
when parties had to be sent south to repair tribal damage.
Clean and uncomplicated, it now appeared, were hardly the words
to describe the Cambrian campaign. Reports of Scapula’s efforts
were often profoundly ambiguous. The Silures (among others) were
giving him severe headaches. As the road made its dogged way to
the region of the Cornovii (scarcely more welcoming than their Silurian
counterparts), messengers would greet the construction force with
news of great victories by the Cambrian legions. Days later, their
reports would be contradicted by others, from fresh messengers who
would dwell on the brutal, underhand fighting methods of the barbarians.
One messenger, forgetting himself and straying from his text, called
Scapula ‘a sick and weary man.’ As time passed, Marcus began to
wonder how long the Governor would remain in Cambria--and, indeed,
in the mortal world. But--though none of the Cambrian messengers
knew it yet--other, more momentous news was about to keep their
feet and steeds busy by day and night.
End of Chapter V
I - II - III
- IV - V
- VI - VII - VIII
- IX - X - XI
- XII - Part II
- Part II
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