The Big Idea: Adrian Goldsworthy
The past is another country — especially when you are trying to write a novel in it. Historian Adrian Goldsworthy had the skills and expertise to write about the Roman-era military encampment that is at the heart of his novel The Fort… but how to bring that place and time alive? Goldsworthy talks about it in this Big Idea.
The Big Idea behind The Fort is trying to understand what the world was like at the beginning of the second century. In my day job I write non fiction history books, and have been studying the Roman empire and the Roman army for all my adult life. So writing a novel in that setting gives me a chance to work out what I have learned from all this about life at the time and then push the evidence as far as it will go. There is so much that we do not know about the ancient world, which means that in a novel you have to imagine and invent to make the world of the story complete and convincing.
Narrowing the focus a little, the idea behind the story and the setting is the fort of the title, and just what might happen when a Roman army base came under attack from a formidable enemy like the Dacians, who possess some knowledge of siege engines and equipment. Historians and archaeologists have studied Roman army bases for a long, long time. By convention we call them forts if they were built to house 500-1000 men and fortresses if they were bigger. These were no castles but places where the army lived, more akin to garrison towns than strongholds, so although they had fortifications and these are studied, these are not what stands out when you look at the plan of one of these places.
Instead most of the space was occupied by barracks and stables, granaries, a big house for the senior officer, a grand headquarters, a hospital, workshops, stores and other buildings. There was a wall, strengthened with towers, a ditch or ditches beyond that and perhaps sharpened stakes, some in concealed pits. Against that, the perimeter was long – inevitable given that the whole point of the place was to house people and animals – and there were four gateways.
The Roman army’s doctrine in this era was to dominate the enemy and fight in the open, where their superior organisation, command and control, tactics and equipment gave them an advantage. The Fort is a story about what might happen when they were too heavily outnumbered to march out and instead stay behind the walls of a base not primarily designed for defence.
The main event of the story is the siege that results. Sieges were not quick as a rule, and a story like this will only work if readers care about the characters and understand why everyone is there in the first place. That means setting everything up, which takes time. Some of the characters, such as Ferox the centurion who ends up in charge, and his wife Claudia Enica, the queen of the Brigantes, appeared in my earlier Vindolanda trilogy. However, I wanted The Fort to stand alone, so that someone could read and enjoy it without having read the other books. That meant a careful balancing act introducing everyone without slowing the pace of the story down with too much backstory. The first half of the book sets up what follows, letting us get to know the characters, and all the intrigues behind the big and small events.
Pace is very important and took a lot of work, slowly tightening the tension. There is action early on, but it is smaller scale. Sieges were a game of cat and mouse between the attackers and defenders, each trying to gain an advantage, each trying to outthink and counter the enemy before it was too late. Early on, I decided that we would see the story from both sides, so while most of our characters are Romans, their story is interspersed with chapters written from the viewpoint of Brasus, a young and thoughtful Dacian nobleman. He needed to come across as different, which is a challenge because we know very little about Dacian society.
It took a while to get right, but I think it works and he comes across as a character in his own right, and rather likeable. He also needed to do more than simply provide explanations for what is about to happen to our Roman characters. While the focus is on the Romans, sensing the enemy closing in around them and then wondering how to fend off the attack, then the next attack and the next, we see the attackers, not as strong as they would like, not always as well led as they would like, and knowing that the fort is holding them up from achieving the real objective of the campaign.
If the first half of the story is a gradual build-up, the second half needed to be heavy on the action, without becoming repetitive. Each successive assault – and each Roman counter measure – had to be distinct and interesting, and all the while the strength of the defenders drips away. It’s an odd thought, but creating this tension may have been helped because I started writing just as the first covid lockdown came into force here in the UK. On the other hand, writers – who spend so much time isolated with their ideas, characters and situations – were some of the folk whose daily lives changed least of all in these strange times.
Something else that is important to me in this story, and the Vindolanda trilogy, was that this was not a simple tale of goodies and baddies, nor is the Roman empire portrayed as unambiguously either good or evil. Our main characters need to be likeable enough for us to want them to win. Ferox is from one of the British tribes, educated in the empire and made a citizen and an officer, but remains a man of more than one culture. The same is true of most of the other ‘Romans’. With Brasus we have a chance to sense what it might have been like to have the Romans as neighbours and enemies. He is a decent man trying to do the right thing, but – just like with the Romans – some of the people on his side are very different.
This brings us back to the start. If the world of the story is to seem real and fit with the evidence, then it needs to be complicated.
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