BY AJ LYNDON
Adrian Goldsworthy studied at Oxford, where his doctoral thesis examined the Roman army. He became an acclaimed historian of Ancient Rome, author of numerous works of nonfiction including Caesar and Hadrian’s Wall. But it is as a novelist, author of the Vindolanda trilogy, set in Roman Britain, that he has gained fame among readers of historical fiction – those who want the historic background to be a major player, not just light window-dressing.
In his new novel The Fort (Head of Zeus Ltd 2021), Goldsworthy once again features fictional Roman centurion and Prince of the Silures, Flavius Ferox, along with his usual entourage of “Vindex, Enica, Philo and co.” But this time the action takes place during the Emperor Trajan’s Dacian wars (modern-day Romania).
While Goldsworthy was an academic first, he says that he has always enjoyed adventure stories and historical novels. His first attempt at writing a novel was after finishing his doctorate – “a cold and damp winter when I had lots of energy and no money”. Ten years later he got the urge again, but he was told there was “no market for historical fiction, which never sounded right.” That second novel got him a literary agent “and a better class of rejection letters from publishers”, before, a few years later, he succeeded in having a novel published. Surprisingly, the story was set not in the Roman world but in the Waterloo era, another period which fascinated him. “Ultimately,” he says,” I write the sort of books that I want to read, but that do not exist – you just have to hope other people like them as well”.
In the meantime, Goldsworthy taught and wrote nonfiction, becoming so successful that he gave up teaching to become a fulltime writer. His aim as a historian was always to “convey why history is exciting, and to look at the big figures and the big events”.
When planning the Vindolanda series, Goldsworthy “was careful to set the … stories so that they just preceded the Dacian Wars”. In other words, the concept of adventures for Ferox in other parts of the Roman empire was there from the start, although it was decided to keep the initial trilogy in Britain.
One of his themes, he says, is “what it meant to be a Roman”. Ferox is a prince of the Silures, but educated in the Roman empire, a citizen and a centurion. In The Fort, the first of a second trilogy featuring Ferox, Goldsworthy lets Britons, specifically the Brigantes, “loose in the wider Roman empire, trying to get to grips with … the way the empire worked when they’re caught up in a conflict that they do not really understand.”
He decided to stick with Ferox and other central characters in the new trilogy “because there were more stories I wanted to tell about them”. But while they feature Ferox, Goldsworthy has tried to write them so that they stand alone, rather than being an obvious continuation of the Vindolanda series. The idea behind The Fort was to explore sieges in the Roman world. Goldsworthy enjoys the opportunities of playing around with ideas about how the Romans might have done things. Whereas a historian’s duty is “to say when we do not know something”, a novelist can have fun filling in the gaps in history. He has just finished writing the second story, THE CITY, which sends Ferox off to the east. The third one will be called THE WALL!
Goldsworthy’s fascination with Dacian culture is an important element of the book. Frustratingly, he says, while the “Dacians clearly were a remarkable and militarily formidable people”, little evidence survives about them, or the wars fought between Dacia and Rome. He wanted them to be different to the Britons, and also from the Sarmatians who appear in The Fort.
While most chapters are told from Ferox’s point of view, The Fort also includes chapters from the viewpoints of up- and- coming future emperor Hadrian, and Brasus, a fictional Dacian nobleman. As a central part of the novel is about a siege, Goldsworthy wanted it to show events from both sides. He also wanted the Dacians “to be human and not just faceless enemies”. Brasus is “a decent man, young and a little naive, who is forced to challenge some of the things he has been taught.”
Hadrian on the other hand is portrayed as utterly ruthless. Goldsworthy says that while Hadrian was “probably a very good emperor”, he was, like many successful leaders, “not the nicest person”. He says that Hadrian was clever and capable, but “could not resist showing off”. Goldsworthy has tried to reflect the negative commentary on Hadrian that is apparent in the few literary sources about his reign.
Hadrian received rapid promotion around the time of the outbreak of the Second Dacian War, but the reason is unknown. The war took the Romans by surprise, so that Trajan only reached the Danube after a good deal of fighting. It gave Goldsworthy “enough leeway as a storyteller to create the scenario in The Fort.” His fictional version of events offers a compelling reason for Trajan’s sudden decision to promote Hadrian. Goldsworthy says that he always tries to make the story “something that could have happened and does not conflict with any of the evidence”.
Goldsworthy’s complementary passions for history and writing fiction are obvious to anyone who reads his novels. “You do not write well about something unless you care about it,” he concludes, “and unless the world you create seems real to you”.
About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She writes historical novels and short stories, mainly set in 17th-century England during the English Civil War. She has recently completed her second novel, The Tawny Sash. You can follow updates on her blog.
This feature article first appeared on the Historical Novel Society website. https://historicalnovelsociety.org/why-flavius-ferox-left-vindolanda-the-fort-by-adrian-goldsworthy/