2022 marks the 1,900th anniversary of the Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Britannia and the start of the northern frontier upgrade from earth and bank defence to stone wall. The Wall marks the fall back line beyond which no raids by Caledonian tribes would be tolerated. But more than that, it was a grand imperial statement that boasted of the might of the Roman Empire that came with a statement of intent: “You’d better get used to us as we’re here to stay.”
But the life of Hadrian’s Wall as a frontier barrier lasted for only another 280 years, abandoned by Rome around the year 410 – the year Rome itself was sacked by the Visigoths.
I visited Hadrian’s Wall in September 2020 and was inspired to write my own story of frontier life in the heyday of the Roman Empire, choosing the final days of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died in the year 180 C.E. My hero is Centurion Gaius Atticianus of the VI Legion, a real figure whose name is engraved on an altar stone excavated at Whitley Castle – once the Roman fort of Epiacum. I have imagined his story and struggle to survive in the harsh Northumbrian climate. I also wanted to showcase the work of archaeologists in uncovering and breathing new life into our understanding of Roman Britain, so I settled on a dual timeline story that flips from a contemporary tale to the life of Gaius in alternating chapters.
Guardians at the Wall is a dual timeline historical novel set at Hadrian’s Wall in which archaeologists uncover artefacts that connect them to the life of a Roman centurion in second century Britannia.
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My 2021 novel, Guardians at the Wall, is a work of fiction, inspired by an inscription on a Roman artefact discovered in 1803 at Whitley Castle in Cumbria, once the Roman fort of Epiacum. Following a visit to five Hadrian’s Wall museums located at fort sites in 2020, I became so intrigued by the work of archaeologists to uncover and piece together a narrative of how the Roman occupiers lived that I resolved to write my novel as a dual timeline with an archaeology story intertwined with the story of a Roman soldier during the occupation.
The main character in the contemporary thread is archaeology student Noah Jessop. In Noah’s presentation, he refers to three mentions he found of Centurion Gaius Atticianus. Of these three, two are fictitious and the true one is the dedication on an altar stone. In the Roman Inscriptions of Britain archives, there is an entry for an altar pedestal stone inscription, dedicated to the god Hercules. The translation reads: ‘To the god Hercules Gaius Vitellius Atticianus centurion of the Sixth Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis’
This altar stone (sketch from http://www.romaninscriptionsofbritain.org) now resides at the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum in Bedford. From this, I’ve taken my character, Gaius Vitellius Atticianus of the VI Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis (‘the victorious, loyal and faithful Sixth Legion’), and imagined his story, including the invented burial of a payroll chest. One real event is included in the narrative; the burning down of Corbridge/Coria town in 180 or 181, thought to have been in an attack by Caledonian raiders from north of Hadrian’s Wall. 180 is also the year that Emperor Marcus Aurelius died – memorable depicted in the opening scenes of the movie, ‘Gladiator’. Two of my named Roman officers are also real, plucked from mentions in inscriptions on monuments or in surviving records, namely Legate of the VI Legion, Claudius Hieronymianus (between 190-212 C.E. – I liked the name so I placed him in office as a young political appointee, nine years earlier); and Tribune Publius Helvius Pertinax (VI Legion, 170s). Great names that deserve to live on. Further reading revealed that Pertinax retired to Rome after a long career as a provincial administrator, only to be persuaded out of retirement in the wake of the murder of Emperor Commodus by the Praetorian Guard. His short reign was the first three months of 193. He was murdered in turn and replaced by another candidate in the tumultuous Year of the Five Emperors.
My story of Noah and the archaeologists is fiction, although the settings are real. Both the Vindolanda Trust and English Heritage are registered trusts under UK law, and manage functioning museums situated at the sites of part-excavated Roman ruins. English Heritage manage many sites on Hadrian’s Wall, including the fascinating Corbridge Roman Town, Housesteads (near the much-photographed Sycamore Gap), and the beautifully located Chesters fort, baths and Victorian era museum in the grounds of the Clayton family estate.
The Vindolanda Trust has an ongoing archaeological dig, started in the 1930s by owner Eric Birley, and continued by his son, Robin, who in 1973 oversaw the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets. Vindolanda remains with the Birley family beyond 1970 when the Vindolanda Trust was founded, with Dr Andrew Birley as the current Chief Executive Officer. Many wonderous finds, including the tablets, can be seen in the onsite museum. Because peat contains very little oxygen, organic materials like wood, leather and textiles do not rot. They can survive for thousands of years, preserved by the stable anoxic chemistry of the soil.
I visited these places in September 2020, between Covid-19 lockdowns, and the idea for this story came to me shortly after, whilst I was blogging about my visits. I saw for myself the Gladiator drinking bowl or tankard (passed around by Gaius and his mates in chapter two and featured in miniature on the book cover) and was awe-struck by the Vindolanda tablets and the details of the inscriptions on the information cards. The whole museum is fascinating, as are the grounds. I was extremely grateful to escape the confines of my home for three glorious days in the fresh, Northumberland air. In January 2021, whilst in the midst of writing, I enjoyed watching Robson Green’s television series, Walking Hadrian’s Wall. I note that Mr Green is a Patron of the Vindolanda Trust, and his visit to meet with his ‘old mate’, Andrew Birley, was both fascinating and timely.
The novel’s title, Guardians at the Wall, came to me once I’d sketched out the plots of each timeline strand. The Roman and auxilliary soldiers stood guard at the Wall for over 200 years, but the current generation of guardians are the archaeologists, curators and historians who strive to expose the past and make it live on in public consciousness – a part of our history and cultural identity. In the novel I talk of a Combined Universities dig at Vindolanda. This is made up. There are no combined universities digs that I know of, but there are archaeology degree courses offered by Durham and Newcastle Universities, with fieldwork practicals.
The novel’s action is set at Hadrian’s Wall, one of Britain’s World Heritage sites. When finished, Hadrian’s wall stretched 117 km (73 imperial miles) from sea to sea. It stood about 5 meters (15 ft.) high and 3 meters (10 ft.) wide. The core consisted of packed earth and clay and the sides were faced with blocks of stone. There may have been intermittent platforms on top of some stretches of the wall between watchtowers and mile forts, where auxiliary sentries kept watchful eyes on the north lands. The wall was a highly visible symbol of the Roman Empire’s might and prodigious activity at the peak of its power and dominance. Now, barely 10% of Hadrian’s Wall remains in place, and its stone blocks have been pilfered over the centuries to build dry stone walls, buildings and even an entire village of over 300 dwellings called ‘Wall’.
2022 is a big anniversary year for Hadrian’s Wall, marking 1,900 years since the Emperor Hadrian ordered its construction during his visit in 122 C.E. At the time of writing, the Hadrian’s Wall Partnership Group are planning a number of events to mark the anniversary. Year-long activities based at or near Hadrian’s Wall, including online events, can be found listed at the Hadrian’s Wall Country website.
Guardians at the Wall is a 90,000 word novel available from Amazon in the following formats: