Book review: Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy

Ah, the holidays. Time to see the relatives, debate the world, relax, and wait for delayed flights... Amsterdam Airport is fortunately well equipped with establishments to help alleviate the annoyance of waiting in return for a small (or not so small) payment. That includes bookstores and though I never leave home for a trip without at least one book in my backpack - not counting digital books - I can't help but browse. I'm glad I did, because I found Adrian Goldsworthy's first ancient novel, Vindolanda.

Adrian Goldsworthy has been on the radar of anyone involved in ancient military history since the trade edition of his PhD thesis was published as The Roman Army at War 100 BC - AD 200 in 1998. Since then he's published very accessible books on Roman (military) history at an almost alarming rate. In 2011 he ventured into historical fiction with a series about a British regiment in the Napoleonic Peninsular War. Now he's turned his hand to ancient history.

Ancient (military) fiction isn't exactly an empty field. Over the last decade quite a few new authors have come on the scene who all do go much further to give an authentic feel to their stories than what might irreverently be called an 'ancient veneer'. Ben Kane, Anthony Riches, Christian Cameron, and Russ Whitfield quickly spring to mind, and the readership certainly seems to be there too. Yet there is, as far as I know, only one other like Goldsworthy in that he also comes from an academic background and has turned to fiction, and that is Harry Sidebottom. Both he and Goldsworthy use their extensive knowledge of the period to pick a setting where we know roughly what happened in the empire and provinces, and where archaeology gives tantalising glimpses of details that the novelist can spin together into a great adventure story. Sidebottom writes about the Roman empire in crisis in the middle third century AD, while Goldsworthy has chosen the late first century AD in northern Britain around the fort of Vindolanda.

The setting is well-chosen, and not just because the general idea about a quiet north is wrong. The extensive archaeological digs, to which Goldsworthy refers at the end of the book in the historical notes, provide sufficient details to give some flesh and bones to the story. We know the names of various Roman officers and some of their social environment. Add in the presence of the famous Batavian auxiliaries, Goldsworthy's deep knowledge of the way the Roman army worked - there's no transplanted modern army to be found here - and you've got a great adventure story with an excellent ancient feel. Are there no niggles? Sure, Ancient Warfare readers may notice the bracer on the cavalry trooper's arm on the front cover, may wonder about uniformity, Roman salutes, or whether the optio always had feathers on the sides of his helmet to indicate his rank. But that is looking for points that might be debated. A novelist has to make choices to fill in the blanks and keep the story going, and Goldsworthy does so very well. I look forward to the second book in the series!

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