An old tavern on the Rhine.

While travelling around Europe, there are several ways one can immerse oneself in the remains of everyday life of Ancient Rome. The most obvious is to go to Pompeii – or one of the less well-known excavated cities like Italica near Seville or Ostia near Rome. But however well-preserved these ruins might be, they will always be just ruins – and sometimes, to get the full picture of what life of a Roman citizen was, especially on the more remote frontiers, you have to visit a reconstruction.

The amphitheatre of Italica

One such reconstruction we saw this year is on the edge of an ancient German town of Xanten – known to Romans as Colonia Ulpia Traiana, one of the largest and most important Roman settlements in the province of Germania, second only to CCAA (now Cologne). In its heyday, it was home to more than 10,000 former legionnaires and their families.

Of the original city, very little remains beyond some foundations. You can find better preserved ancient ruins even elsewhere in Germany, not to mention France or Spain. But this isn’t why you come to Xanten. The main attraction here are the full-scale, full-colour reconstructions of several Roman structures, set within the original city grid. Most interesting of all – a Roman guesthouse and tavern.

I write a lot about such places in my books. It’s an easy and useful fiction plot device – a chance meeting at a roadside mansio, conspirators plotting in a guesthouse, a feast thrown in the harbour tavern; but it’s often difficult to visualise what, actually, such a tavern would look like. It’s too easy to fall for medieval or fantasy tropes – you know the sort: a large wooden house with a thatched roof, filled with drunken barbarians sitting by the long tables, while a buxom barmaid brings them tankards of ale… But that’s nowhere near what the real thing looked like. If anything, a high class guesthouse like this looked more like a traditional Japanese ryokan, both in materials used, and in the overal mood and layout of the place.

There are the well-known bars and taverns of Pompeii to use as inspiration – but these are urban facilities, from the heart of the Empire, and some four hundred years too old for my needs; the Xanten guesthouse stood on the Empire’s edge, on the Rhine – the city was a base for the Rhine navy, and had substantial harbour – facing the barbarian forests on the other side of the river; this was the sort of place where weary merchants, envoys on official business and other travellers passing through the frontier would mingle together over goblets of Rhenish wine. Or, if you had a few more solidii in your purse and didn’t care for the company of others, you’d have your meals brough from the kitchen t to the private dining room, the triclinium, with the view of the garden, after which you’d pray at the convenient local shrine and head for the lavishly decorated bathroom.

All of this can be explored at the Xanten guesthouse, and it is a real treat. Best of all, the common dining hall functions as a restaurant serving Roman food – back after nearly two millennia! (unfortunately it was not yet open when we were there) After visiting the tavern, your next stop has to be the brand new, fascinating museum, housing among other artefacts, the flat-bottomed Rhine merchant barges, dug out of mud virtually intact.

I’ve been to many magnificent ruins in my life: I’ve been to Pompeii and to Rome, I’ve been to Caerleon and to Housesteads – but the Xanten guesthouse was the one that probably gave me the best insight into an average citizen of the frontiers of the Roman Empire. I can’t recommend it enough.

The treasure of Tournai

In 1653, in a small Wallonian town of Tournai, builders excavating a cellar at the back of Saint Bryce’s church, across the river from the ancient city centre, came upon an immense hoard of gold, jewels and other treasure – among them, still resting on the finger bones of the individual buried with this unbelievable wealth, a golden ring with the inscription: Childerici Regis.

Here was the tomb of Childeric I, the first historical ruler of the Salian Franks – and father of Clovis I, the first king of all Frankia. Here was proof that Tournai – which started out as Tornacum, a backwater Roman settlement on the road to Cologne, and ended as a somewhat backwater Belgian town on the border with France, was the birthplace of modern France, of the Carolingian Empire – of Europe itself. For the French, it was the equivalent of discovering a tomb of Uther Pendragon, King Arthur’s father – if King Arthur was real, and all the treasure within intact.

The most famous, and mysterious, of all the treasure were the 27 gold-and-garnet (the Franks loved garnet) “bees” or “cicadas”, which would have been sown into the king’s garments – the clothes having rotted away, they “bees” remained in place around the skeleton. These were, according to some, tribal symbols of the Salian Franks – which, over the centuries, have evolved into the fleur-de-lys symbol of French kings – and were taken up as crest by Napoleon.

The treasure, having survived twelve centuries under ground, did not survive the next two. After a long odyssey, during which it found itself in Vienna, then in Paris, in the chaos of mid-19th century France, the treasure was stolen from its keeping place in National Library – and unceremoniously melted for its gold and jewels. Little of it remained, including two of the bees – and some copies of sword and equipment thankfully made soon after the discovery.

I visited Tournai earlier this year – along with a number of other places in Belgium and Netherlands where parts of my books take place, and it was a strange, exhilarating feeling to walk the town’s streets in the footsteps of Childeric, Clovis and Queen Basina (spoiler alert – I return to Tornacum and Frankia in “The Shieldmaiden’s Honour“). Today it’s a sleepy border town. Oddly enough, there’s barely any mention of its ancient royal past anywhere. The most prominent and celebrated monument is its enormous, looming Romanesque cathedral – the seat of the first Bishop of the Franks, Eleutherius – a medieval bridge gate over the Scheldt, and the town square; I can’t imagine an English town behave in such a way – one only needs to visit Tintagel or Glastonbury to know how many “Childeric Fries”, “Clovis Herbal Teas” or “Basina’s Roman Spa” should there be in Tournai, to bring in the tourists. I guess a real king is not as profitable as a legendary one…

The Shieldmaiden’s Pride – locations

It’s two weeks until release of “The Shieldmaiden’s Pride” – the adventures of a young half-Iute girl in eastern Britannia at the fall of the Empire… It’s been a while since I spent such a significant amount of story time in Londin and its immediate neighbourhood. All the familiar places and faces are coming back – some, perhaps, for the last time…? But with so much focus on Britannia Maxima, I can dive into this part of the island in more detail, and visit some regions that until now have only been mentioned in passing.

WERLAM – Verulamium, St. Albans, Hertfordshire

The capital of Catuvellauni, and a city which at times wished to rival Londinium for primacy over the entire province. It grew to renewed prominence when relics of St Alban were ‘found’ here by Germanus of Auxerre, and the modern town grew around the mighty cathedral that holds them.

DORCIC – Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

A tentative name, one of the few proposed for the fortified town guarding an important crossing on the upper Thames, future Dorchester’s main claim to fame is that it’s purported to be the original settlement of the Gewisse tribe, who would later come to rule Wessex, and eventually all of England. It boasts some of the earliest Saxon settlement remains outside the coastal areas.

SPINIS – Speen, Berkshire

Now a tiny village in Berkshire, it was once the place where the Ermine Way, the main highway from Corinium to Londinium, met the road from Aquae Sulis.

DUROLIPONS, DUROBRIWA, DUROWIGUT – Duroliponte, Durobrivae, Durovigutum – Water Newton, Cambrige, Godmanchester

A confusingly similarly named cluster of settlements in what is now Cambridgeshire, strewn along the road to Lincoln astride the borders of Britannia Maxima and Britannia Secunda.

BELGIAN WENTA – Venta Belgarum, Winchester

Once a capital of the Belgian civitas, it suffered severe decline after the end fo Roman rule – only to be rebuilt as the capital of Wessex, and the heart of Anglo-Saxon England, centuries later.

CLAWSENT – Clausentium, Southampton

We last saw Clawsent when young Ash visited it searching allies against Aelle, in the Saxon Might. It hasn’t changed much since then – still a backwater harbour, dreaming of its ancient glories. It will remain thus until the Saxons build a new market town of Hamtun, on the other side of the estuary – later renamed Southhampton.

LEMAN – Portus Lemanis, Lympne

A Saxon Shore fort, a navy base, and the second largest harbour of ancient Kent after Dover, though the current village of Lympne has little in common with its predecessor except the name.

CORIN, GLEWA, SULIAN WATERS – Corinium, Glevum, Aquae Sulis – Cirencester, Gloucester, Bath

The three great cities of Western Britannia, surviving the longest against the Saxon onslaught of later centuries. We know they were sometimes grouped together as one powerful cluster, since they are recorded to have all been lost to Ceawlin’s West Saxons after the Battle of Dyrham in 577.

The Shieldmaiden’s Pride – Map Reveal

“The Shieldmaiden’s Pride” – Book One of the new trilogy, The Song of Madron – is now in the final editing and proofreading stages, with the release scheduled for July 1st – but I can’t wait to show off the maps that will be in the book. Keen-eyed readers will recognise I used one of the earliest maps from Saxon Might as base for this one, but with added detail and some changes in political geography in the 25 years since the period of that book.

BARBARIAN SETTLEMENT IN BRITANNIA, 475 AD

The Villas of Song of Britain

In “The Shieldmaiden’s Pride”, the story returns to mainland Britain, as seen by the natives of this land. The characters journey through the island, from hillfort to fortress, from town to villa – so it’s a good moment to run through some of the real-life villas of Roman Britain that have popped up throughout the series so far, and that will appear in the next book.

THE SAXON SPEARS:

ARIMINUM – Beddington Park, London

The one that started it all – the Beddington Park villa, near which I lived for a few years in London, and which inspired me to start writing The Saxon Spears.

QUINTUS NATALIUS’s VILLA – Crofton, Orpington

Ten miles due east from Ariminum, a crumbling villa belonging to Pascent’s neighbour, Quintus Natalius – where Ash and Eadgith last saw each other before parting ways for years.

THE SAXON KNIVES:

WORTIMER’S VILLA IN ROBRIWIS – Cobham Park, Kent

Rhedwyn ruled a settlement of Iutes and Britons here for a while, when the villa‘s grounds were confiscated during Wortimer’s brief exile.

CATUAR’S VILLA IN NEW PORT – Brighton, Sussex

A small villa to which the Regin Comes moved from his palace in Bignor as his wealth and importance diminished. Later, Rex Aelle took it for residence, when setting up the South Saxon capital in New Port.

THE SAXON MIGHT:

EADGITH’S VILLA – Newport, Isle of Wight

The half-ruined villa on Wecta, from which Eadgith ruled the small Iute colony.

THE CROWN OF THE IUTES:

MUTUANTON VILLA – Barcombe Mills, Sussex

The white-washed palace on the hill near Mutuanton, where Aelle kept the Briton nobles hostage.

MUTUANTON ISLAND VILLA – Beddingham Sussex

The ruined villa in the marshes, where the Saxon force kept in check the Briton army on the hill fort.

THE SHIELDMAIDEN’S PRIDE:

SOUTH SHORE VILLA – Southwark, London

Recently discovered near the London Bridge, I used this lavish mansio as basis for the South Shore ‘entertainment’ villa.

PUBLIAN’S VILLA – Rutland, near Peterborough

Though not visited in the story itself, Publian’s house – and its Homeric mosaic – plays a crucial part in the plot.

DORCIC PRAETOR’S VILLA – Wittenham Clumps, Dorchester-on-Thames

Another villa only mentioned in the story – the Praetor of Dorcic prefers to live here, in the remains of a hill fort across the river from the town he governs.

The Crown of the Iutes – locations

Yes, it’s that time of the pre-publishing cycle when I write a post about all the locations used in the upcoming book, The Crown of the Iutes.

A large part of the Crown takes place in the already familiar corner of Britannia – Londin, Cantiaca, the land of the Regins. But the central story takes our heroes, and the reader, back to Gaul – and to the new, to them, lands beyond the River Liger (Loire).

AURELIANUM – Cenabum, Orléans

Having started as a major river port and crossing point over Loire for the Gallic tribes, Cenabum was razed and massacred by Julius Caesar and left in ruin for centuries, until Emperor Aurelian rebuilt it into a heavily fortified hub of trade and industry, and gave the city his own name – Urbs Aurelianorum – which would later transform into “Orléans”.

PICTAWIS – Limonum, Poitiers

Another ancient Gallic oppidum transformed into a Roman town, Limonum, later renamed Pictavium or Pictavis, was a large and prosperous city, with a large amphitheatre and several bath houses, before reducing in size behind the new walls in 4th century. Taifals, a mysterious tribe of barbarian riders, were stationed around Pictavis at the end of the Imperial presence, their traces remaining to this day in the names of local villages.

CAINO – Cainon, Chinon

Château de Chinon | Monument Chinon

Nothing remains of the Roman castrum built on the shores of the Vienne, where now a medieval castle rises upon the grey cliffs. In 5th century, Mexme, a disciple of St Martin’s, established a hermitage here, which soon expanded into a monastery around which the new town grew.

ANDECAWA – Iuliomagus, Angers

1. Vue générale du spelaeum, emmarchement, base des dadophores et d’un autel, les banquettes et en fond le podium supportant le socle du bas-relief.
Before it became famous as the seat of the powerful Counts of Anjou – the progenitors of the Plantagenet Dynasty which would rule both France and England – ancient Angers was another walled-in river city, like Pictawis sporting an amphitheatre, baths and a mithraeum. When the rivers of Gaul turned into borders, Angers turned into a border fortress between Armorica and Frankia.

NAMNETES – Condevincum, Nantes

File: Gallo-Roman enclosure Nantes detail.jpg
The last – or first, depending which way you’re going – harbour and crossing on the Mouth of Loire, Condevincum was at first growing in the shadow of its larger neighbour on the left bank of the river, Ratiates (Rezé). In its heyday, it was one of the ports of the Roman Navy, before it was handed over to a Breton garrison that would keep it safe from the Saxon pirates.

ALET – Aletum, St. Malo

File:Map Saint-Malo.jpg
St Malo started out as a small Saxon Shore fort on the Armorican side of the English Channel. By the 5th century, the fort, having to defend itself from both the sea raiders and Bacaud bandits, was abandoned, and the settlement moved south, to where a Welsh Saint, Maclovius, later established a monastery.

DOL – Deols, Chateauroux

The Abbey of Déols

An ancient ford, with a small village and a temple attached, would have likely remained anonymous until the establishment of the medieval abbey if it wasn’t for the battle fought between Euric’s Goths and Riothamus’s “Britons”, part of the tumultuous events of 470-472, the final Roman attempt of securing Gaul.

BREDANNA – La Brenne Marsh

Tourisme.fr: vacances dans la Brenne avec les offices de tourisme de France
The immense marshes of Brenne, between Chateauroux and Chatellerault, remained untamed for centuries, until medieval monks created strings of ponds for fishing and milling.

Why is Kent?

(no, this isn’t about the politics 🙂 )

There’s Sussex, Essex, Wessex and Middlesex. There’s East Angles, split into Northern Folk and Southern Folk – and, once, there were even Middle Angles. There are counties and kingdoms with such undoubtedly English names as Surrey and Mercia. Why, then, in the middle of all this Germanic toponymy, is Kent not called something like “Jutland” or “East Jutia”?

Etymology will tell us that the name “Kent” comes from the Briton word for “edge” or “corner”, which in turn gave the name to the Iron Age tribe of Cantii. In Latin, it was variously rendered as Cantia, Cantium or Cantiacum. The Germanic settlers called it Centrige and Kentland. But etymology is not the same as explanation. After all, Sussex is not called “Reginland”. Essex is not “Trinovantia”. Norfolk is not “Ikenware”.

The Kingdoms of Angles, Saxons and… Kents?

Something happened in Cantium that was different from everywhere else. The myths and what little history we have written about the beginnings of “Anglo-Saxon” settlement in Britannia tell us that it all started there – with Hengist and Horsa, and his Jutes landing on the Isle of Thanet. It’s a convenient legend, but we know there is some truth in it. More, probably, than in the legends of Aella and his son Cissa conquering the southern provinces with his three ceol-fuls of Saxon warriors, or in the muddled origins of the Western Saxons, jumping about from the Welsh marches to Winchester and Salisbury with little regard to geography and chronology.

My books are a fiction, based on guesswork. Until we find some ancient copy of the lost Chronicles of the Kingdom of Kent, all we have to go on are those less precise tools of a Dark Age historian: myths, archaeology, toponymies and etymologies. After all, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was written in Wessex, hundreds of miles away and centuries after whatever events in Kent made it keep its Briton name when all the land around it took new names from the Saxons. It is a wonder that any rumour of what happened made it to the chronicle, even if only in form of a brief snippet of a legend of Wortigern and the two brothers.

Hengest and Horsa survey their muddy domain

That there was no “invasion” we know from archeological record. No great battles as described by the chroniclers, and no brutal conquest, wiping out entire native population. But I’d like to think there was something more to Kent’s good fortune. I’d like to think – and it is what I propose in my books – that Kent was a unique experiment in the early history of England. That in Kent, the Germanic settlers and the Briton natives not only lived side by side in peace, but dealt with the difficulties of that age of chaos together, that they shared the burden of the time of upheaval that ravaged the rest of Britannia, and the Empire beyond. That the reason why Christianity was welcomed first, and with such ease, in Kent – while other Anglian and Saxon kingdoms resisted and sometimes reverted to paganry – was because the Romano-Britons of Kent, the native Christian population, were not subdued and quashed by their new rulers, and did not turn to imitate them with the same eagerness as those under the Saxon rule. That they were allowed to live and rule in their towns even as the Jutes settled the countryside around them, allowed to keep their Latin names, with only small modifications to accomodate the Jute tongue: Dover for Dubris, Lympne for Leman, Rochester for (Du)Robrivae Castrum – and their capital, a Burgh of the Cants. Compare that with what little remained of the old names in the land of Saxons: gone is Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester), no trace remains of Anderitum (Pevensey) – and we can barely guess whether their main harbour of Novus Portus was at Brighton or Shoreham. And, most importantly, unlike any other tribal pagus in southern Britannia, they were allowed to keep their ancient name: the Land of Cant.

It is, I repeat, only a guess; a neat setting for a work of fiction. But I feel like it’s as decent explanation as any for why, to this day, the most south-easterly county of England is called Kent, rather than, say, Jutrey. And at the very least, it makes for a good story.

Octa, son of Oisc, ponders his place in history

The Wrath of the Iutes – Map Reveal

In 10 days, “The Wrath of the Iutes” will be released on Kindle – and on paperback around the same time – so it’s time to reveal the new map for the 5th book of the Song of Britain saga.

“The Wrath…” takes place in Armorica, Isles of Scilly and what is now known as Wales. It’s in Wales that most military action happens, with armies moving from fort to fort and ships going from port to port, so the one new map drawn for this book is one of Wales – or Western Britannia Prima.

Incidentally, this is my second novel that is partly set in Wales – so did my first book, the Shadow of Black Wings, and even the map was somewhat similar, if a fantasy version. I can’t tell myself if it’s just a curious coincidence or is there something special about Wales that makes me go back to it time and time again?

“The Wrath of the Iutes” locations

It’s time for another of the “locations” post – I like to think of my books as much as a travelogue as action novels, and the travels of my characters in Book 5 take them to the very north-western edges of the Empire: from Armorica to Northern Wales.

The Wrath of the Iutes” is released on July 1st – pre-order now!

ROTOMAG – Rotomagus, Rouen

A major harbour on the River Seine, once the second most important city in Gallia Lugdunensis, now capital of Normandy.

REDONES – Condate Redonum, Roazhon, Rennes

A market town and bishopric on the frontier of Armorica, now capital of Brittany.

Worgium – Vorgium, Karaez, Carhaix

The remains of Vorgium are visible at the interpretation center
The largest Roman city in western Brittany, capital of the Osismii, then of Cornouaille. Medieval name comes from Caer Ahes – the Fortress of Ahes.

Cair Wortigern – Craig Gwrtheyrn

A large Iron Age hillfort in Carmarthenshire, on the shores of River Teifi, one of several associated with Vortigern.

The Forks – Tre’r Ceiri

An enormous, spectacular hill fort on Llyn Peninsula, used up to 5th century. The valley below, Nant Gwrtheyrn, is another place associated with Vortigern, who is said to have been buried somewhere in the area.

Hrodha’s Fort – Caer Gybi, Holyhead

A small Roman fortlet at the very end of the Mona road – the last harbour before Hibernia, the Edge of the Empire.

Silurian Isca – Isca Augusta, Caerleon

A major Legionnary fortress and a garrison guarding the main harbour of what is now Wales.

The Blood of the Iutes – Map Reveal

It’s that time again – the premiere of the new volume is fast approaching, and the first marker of the book being ready for release is the map is now done.

There’s only one map this time – but one that shows more of the ancient world than any of the maps before – all of late Roman Gaul and Germania north of Augusta Treverorum.

This should tell you how much greater the scope of the story has become – the interests of Iutes are no longer confined to Britannia, they now enter into the power plays of the late Empire