Good news for fans of gritty realistic Roman adventure stories, Fort is the first novel in a new trilogy set on the empire’s Danubian frontier c.105AD. Renowned historian Adrian Goldsworthy has adapted very well to fictional storytelling, his Vindolanda trilogy set in the north of England is testament to that and this novel reaffirms it. The Fort referred to in the title is Piroboridava an outpost about to become the focus of a rebellion against Roman rule. This is part adventure, part thriller but it’s also a dramatic and credible recreation of Roman and barbarian life and an exploration of the ancient political world – treachery, tyranny and war, parley, alliances and loyalty.
Sarmizegethusa, (modern day Romania), at winter solstice. An uneasy truce with Rome is holding, King Decebalus is thinking of war, but he won’t act without the backing of the gods. He is eager to hear their desire but the priest won’t be rushed. The messengers have been chosen, they are waiting in anticipation of this great honour and eventually one is called forward. Brasus, however, is not chosen, he is disappointed, even when the first messenger fails to reach the gods, (was he impure of thought?), another young warrior is selected. The second messenger reaches the gods. The king has his answer – it is to be war with Rome. The fragile peace is over. The king puts his arm around Brasus consoling him, he will live past this day, Decebalus has other plans for him.
Piroboridava fort, Dacia, under the consulship of Julius Candidus and Caius Antius in the reign of emperor Trajan. Centurion Flavius Ferox is wary of the coming war, this borderland posting feels increasingly unsafe and the men are a ragtag bunch of Brigantes. They are untrustworthy and now have good reason to hate Rome as the Brigantes king Claudius Aviragus was put to death for plotting against Trajan. He is left to wonder where the greater threat lies, outside or inside the fort’s walls? A small group of seasoned soldiers show their hand, they try to murder Flavius but fail, the surviving rebels flee to Decebalus’s camp, he is welcoming to the Roman defectors.
Meanwhile in Rome the emperor’s ambitious cousin Hadrian has plans of his own and they involve the coming crisis in Dacia. Closer to the front Claudia Enica will have a say in the future of this region too.
An historian can bring a lot to a fictional tale but only if they have the novelist’s gene and understand imaginative storytelling too, Goldsworthy does. He writes fiction with the accuracy of an academic and the flair of a creative writer. A career’s worth of research has gone into The Fort and the blend of fact with fiction is well done. The author understands the Roman mentality, the historical events that underpin the fiction and the physical and cultural landscape of the empire.
The Fort is authentic and atmospheric, occasionally action driven but more dependent on intrigue and character. There are some very helpful maps which preface the novel.
Reviewed by Paul Burke
Published by Head of Zeus, hardback, ISBN 9781789545746, 10/6/21