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:
Guardians at the Wall is the new dual timeline historical novel from Tim Walker, published in June 2021. I’m sharing this thoughtful review by multi-genre author Colin Garrow…
At Hadrian’s Wall, a group of archaeology students explore the area close to the ancient ruins, searching for buried artefacts left by the Romans while guarding the barrier separating Roman Britain from the Caledonian tribes. Twenty-year-old Noah is delighted to discover a figurine, and hopes it’ll put him in good stead with the enigmatic Professor Wilde as he researches material for his dissertation. Meanwhile, in the year 180 CE, Centurion Gaius Atticianus, strives to keep his men safe while negotiating more cordial relationships with marauding tribesmen.
The story segues between the modern-day dig and the Roman occupation, charting the progress of the heroes on each side. Surprisingly, the Roman narrative had a more realistic feel to it than the modern-day one, but that’s not to take anything away from the author’s skill in twisting the two stories together.
For me, the most interesting parts were those of the centurion as he deals with his men, his family and the constant threat of battle. However, the way Tim Walker entwines the stories of Noah and Gaius Atticianus is well done and creates an interesting interchange between the historical facts and the archaeologists searching for the truth behind the treasure they unearth.
A fascinating and realistic book that mixes fiction with an evocative picture of Roman life in Britain.
In June 2021, author Tim Walker published his latest novel – a dual timeline historical novel, Guardians at the Wall. The novel consists of two parallel stories, of equal weight, each with a main character or protagonist. They are both men, based at the same location (Vindolanda at Hadrian’s Wall), but that is all they have in common. Each story is set in different periods, one contemporary, the other almost two thousand years earlier in Roman Britain.
Modern day character profile
Name: Noah Jessop
Age: 20 years (story duration – 9 months)
Height: slightly above average, 5’ 9”
Hair: ash blond collar-length often uncombed.
Face: narrow, unblemished, clean-shaved or 2-3 days blond stubble
Build: Slim, not athletic.
Clothes: Light blue slim fit jeans, an oversized crew neck grey jumper, standard black Adidas trainers.
Personality: he is reserved until familiar with people and surroundings, then quite self-assured. He is thoughtful and studious, enjoying his classical and archaeology studies. His boyish good looks and shy first impression attract women who want to mother him.
Appearance: Has been described as handsome, with Robert Redford-ish looks and a warm and welcoming smile. He knows he’s good looking and has no problem finding girlfriends and is comfortable in the company of women.
Hobbies/interests: Enjoys watching action movies, console war gaming with his mates, pub nights out, maybe the occasional kick about…
Family/issues/development: Middle class family in a northern (Durham) county town His mother died when he was very young and he misses her close attention. He did not easily accept his stepmother when his father remarried. This has caused abandonment issues and may explain his predilection for an older woman. He’s developed a lot since being at Uni. He was previously very sheltered and introverted but has since come out of his shell. The relationship with his ex-girlfriend was positive while it lasted, but they met when they were both young and emotionally immature. Essentially, they were still ‘children’ and during their time at Uni they grew in different directions (hence the fizzling out). He is motivated to get a good degree in archaeology as a means to forging a career as an archaeologist or archivist.
Roman character profile
Name: Gaius Vitellius Atticianus
Age: 41 – 45 (story duration – 4 years)
Height: Short, 5’
Hair: Dark brown, coarse and wavy, cut to collar length.
Face: round and weathered, dry and lined skin, clean shaven
Eyes: Dark brown
Build: Stocky and muscular.
Clothes: Roman military uniform from second century. Allowed woollen leggings in winter and foot enclosed in leather ankle boots. Woollen socks and undershirt, chainmail vest, leather belt and leather skirt strips, shoulder armour, red plumed centurion’s helmet, sword scabbard hung from a cross-shoulder strap. Red woollen cloak clipped to shoulder guards. Forearm and shin metal armour held with leather straps.
Personality: Gaius was raised on a farm in Asturia (Galicia, N.W. Spain) and has simple, family-centric, provincial values. His wife is from a Briton tribe. He is honest and trustworthy, intelligent and literate. He was promoted through the ranks to optio and centurion on merit, is courageous, loyal and respected by his men. He enjoys a drink of ale or wine when off duty, but has no relish for the brothel or gambling. He loves his wife, Aria, is faithful, and looks forward to getting home to her and their young son, Brutus, when off duty.
Issues/worries: Gaius has a young family but he is in his early 40’s, and hopes to live to see his retirement at the age of 45. He is courageous and leads from the front in battle, but becomes wary and more cautious as he nears retirement age. He is not afraid for himself, but dreams of a small farmstead on a retired soldier’s colony where he can settle his wife and son. This is his dream and his motivation.
Guardians at the Wall has now been proof-read, beta-read and copyedited, and will be finalised in early May ahead of a planned 1st June launch. It might be released earlier if ready – I’m looking at Friday 28th May as a possible early release date. I’m in the process of arranging book blog appearances in June. I’ve decided to not go wide and just put it out as an Amazon exclusive in Kindle e-book, paperback and Kindle Unlimited.
Every independent author needs favourable reviews to entice casual browsers to make a purchase decision, so if you are defined interested in reading and reviewing it on Amazon (and/or Goodreads) please email me to request a pdf (for ipad); epub (for Kobo reader) or mobi file (for Kindle) so you can get started.
Guardians at the Wall blurb: A group of archaeology students in northern England scrape at the soil near Hadrian’s Wall, once a barrier that divided Roman Britannia from wild Caledonian tribes.
Twenty-year-old Noah makes an intriguing find, but hasn’t anticipated becoming the object of desire in a developing love triangle in the isolated academic community at Vindolanda. He is living his best life, but must learn to prioritise in a race against time to solve an astounding ancient riddle, and an artefact theft, as he comes to realise his future career prospects depend on it.
In the same place, 1,800 years earlier, Commander of the Watch, Centurion Gaius Atticianus, hungover and unaware of the bloody conflicts that will soon challenge him, is rattled by the hoot of an owl, a bad omen. These are the protagonists whose lives brush together in the alternating strands of this dual timeline historical novel, one trying to get himself noticed and the other trying to stay intact as he approaches retirement. How will the breathless battles fought by a Roman officer influence the fortunes of a twenty-first century archaeology dirt rat? Can naive Noah, distracted by his gaming mates and the attentions of two very different women, work out who to trust? Find out in Tim Walker’s thrilling historical dual timeline novel, Guardians at the Wall.
My new book, Guardians at the Wall, is due out on 1st June. It’s a dual timeline historical novel, set at Hadrian’s Wall. The main protagonist is Noah Jessop, a student undergraduate on a dig, who digs up a carved stone goddess. His professor, Maggie Wilde, identifies it as Brigantia, the protector of the local tribe, the Brigantes. This is the first of a few objects that connect the contemporary story to the historical account of Centurion Gaius Atticianus, in second century Britannia, that runs parallel through the novel.
I’ll share some of Professor Maggie Wilde’s research into the goddess Brigantia with you. The name of the tribe, ‘Brigante’ means ‘the high ones’, suggesting they were a dominant tribe over lesser neighbours, and Brigantia fulfils the function of being the high goddess over all others, the great protector of her people. The Romans recognised this and were keen to co-opt her into their belief system, twinning her with various deities including Minerva, Fortuna and Caelestis, the latter a North African moon goddess who was also co-opted by the Romans, from whom we get the word ‘celestial’.
Whilst the archaeologists are looking for meaning in their finds, Gaius is gifted the goddess statuette and presents it to his wife, Aria. Her reaction surprises him, as she is from a southern tribe and regards the Brigantes and their deities as foreign. She reminds her husband that their household is watched over by the water goddess of her people, Sulis, twinned with Minerva, and she won’t countenance having a rival deity in the house. Incidentally, the Roman name for the city of Bath was Aquae Sulis – ‘the waters of Sulis’.
This was too much for Gaius, who stalked off for a warming bath after a hard day in the saddle splitting enemy skulls. Aria picked her moment, one night, to return the offending goddess to her people.
The picture shows a stone altar carving of the goddess Brigantia, here twinned with the Roman goddess, Caelestis, that can be found in the Museum of Scotland. (picture source: pinterest board)