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 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 Song of the Tides – locations

Tomorrow is release day of the Song of Octa novella – or Book “5.5” of the Song of Britain – “The Song of the Tides“. The entire story takes place in Armorica – today’s Brittany.

LAUREA – Ile de Brehat

Aerial view of the island of Bréhat in Brittany
A sparsely inhabited island in antiquity, just off the northern coast of Brittany. Other than as the place of disembarkation of several legendary saints arriving in Armorica, there is little mention of it before the Middle Ages.

WORGIUM – Vorgium, Carhaix-Plouguer

Centre d'interprétation virtuel de Vorgium
Capital of the Osismes, and an important cross-road town in Western Brittany. In its heyday, the largest city in all of Armorica. Its modern name comes from “Caer Ahes” – the Fortress of Ahes.

GESOCRIBATE – Douarnenez

Remains of an ancient Garum factory, from Gallo-Roman peri… | Flickr
Gesocribate is only mentioned in Tabula Peutingeriana, as the last stop on the road from Vorgium. Though many historians identify it with the city of Brest, there is also possibility that it refers to the harbour of Douarnenez, famed for its garum factories, as seen above.

CAIR INIS – Ile Tristan

Douarnenez. Un exercice incendie en cours sur l'Île Tristan -  Brest.maville.com
A small tidal island in the bay of Douarnenez. Inhabited since ancient times, long associated with the legend of Sunken City of Ys, and the romance of Tristan and Iseult. It is said that the tomb of the two lovers is somewhere on the island.

Release Day! – “The Wrath of the Iutes”

Today’s the day of another release in the Song of Britain saga – Book 5, “The Wrath of the Iutes” !

The long way back just got longer….

They were supposed to return home as heroes, basking in the glory and plunder of the victory at Trever… But fate decided otherwise for Octa and his band of Iutes. Chasing after Ursula’s captor, the renegade Haesta, they venture deep into the unfamiliar land of Armorica, where they unexpectedly discover an old ally seeking their help against a threat of invasion…

On their quest to help defend Britannia Prima, a province still ruled by the remnants of the old Roman power, Octa and his warriors will meet new friends, face new enemies and discover ancient mysteries, in this long-awaited second chapter of the Song of Octa: The Wrath of the Iutes.

Available in e-book and paperback, exclusive to Amazon!