Book review

Can we do History in novels?

This post came to me when I was thinking about films for a previous post. I came to the conclusion that yes we can ‘do history’ by watching films and this leads to my next question, can we ‘do history’ by reading historical novels?

Photo by cottonbro on

First a little bit about me. I am dyslexic and I find reading difficult. you might think I have picked the wrong vocation, a historian, because that involves a lot of reading. Well you are right but I did not choose my vocation, its the only thing that I can do. To escape the limitations posed by my disability I have to be humble and wear funny coloured glasses, read very slowly and use audio-books where ever possible. I also use a variety of books which include historical fantasy books.

One of the best authors that I have ever come across is Harry Sidebottom. I have just finished his new book, <a href="http://<a target="_blank" href="">The Burning Road: The scorching new historical thriller from the Sunday Times bestsellerThe Burning Road, which was brilliant. Mr Sidebottom is an academic and a teacher so alongside being an author completes a disgusting holy trinity of over achievement. I first came across his work in <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://<iframe style="width:120px;height:240px;" marginwidth="0" marginheight="0" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" src="//"> Warrior of Rome which I found to be an incredibly haunting novel. I have come to the conclusion that Mr Sidebottoms success lies in his incredibly good writing skills. These allow him to paint such vivid pictures of the ancient world, pictures of semen stained statues, soldiers in the tavern and the scene of the day after the siege failed. Somehow the wordsmith manages to allow you to look into this world and that is the value in my mind.

The power and value of good historical fantasy is that the material is as ‘true’ as a text book but at the same time over painted by false characters who open the doors and allow our imagination to gain access to those facts. For me this has been helpful. As a guide at the Lunt Roman Fort in Coventry I had to create an imaginary image of the fort that I could communicate to visitors and Warrior of Rome certainly had a role in that.

Anglo Saxon History Romans

Poetry Van at Fargo Village for the BBC Strong Language Event

Today I went to Fargo Village to buy some books for some work I am going to start. When I got there my good friend was busy trying to buy petrol which during the current crisis (not crisis) is difficult. Whilst enjoying a cup of tea and a cake I saw this poetry van. The Poetry Van serves poems whilst you wait. I waited and waited and eventually I was “served”. The poet who wrote for me wrote a poem about the blinding of Vortigern by the Jutes after he betrayed them.

On my other post I have discussed the poem itself and have concluded that it is a very fine poem, written in fifteen minutes by a man who would normally spend days and blood over a single line. In my Jack Russell post I have not discussed the historical elements.

I think that Lewis is a very good man who dealt with an autistic obsessive very well indeed. The first thing he dealt with this morning was me telling him about the Frisken Massacre, the withdrawal of the Roman Legions from Britannia, the civil war between Vortigern and Ambrosias and then Vortigern getting his eyes popped out at a dinner party in vengeance for his betrayal of the Jute leaders.

He stressed that it would not be an authentic account and it would be a poetic representation of my interested in the topic. He asked me my feelings and I am sorry to say that I couldn’t think of any, as I say I am autistic and rarely feel anything. but I am good with poetic licence and a critic of stagnant “authenticity”. Frankly it is a delightful poem that with all the energy of the metaphysical poets tells the story of the coming of the English. I do not particularly care that Lewis has confused Britannia with England, brought in the Goths or has anachronistically used that name or put potatoes in a 5th century feast. I know that when I post this in some groups there will be ‘rivit counters’ who will not be able to get over such details. To such people please retweet the link with your criticism, that will be very useful.

The point that I like about the Coming of the English is that we see that history turns on the decisions of individuals and their actions good or bad. We see a peace treaty destroyed by one unnamed person spilling a drink and not saying sorry which leads to the massacre of the Friskens. We see the Jutish princes return to Jutland and then have to leave to make money and enter the service of the Tyrant Vortigern and we see Vortigern growing concerned about the rise of the Jutes and lashing out only to be betrayed and blinded in revenge.

Thankyou Lewis for my poem.

Events Reenactments Romans

Brough, Petuaria Revisited Show.

At the beginning of August I was privileged to join Britannia, the best Roman Reenactment group in Britain at a site near Hull called Petuaria.

Petuaria is now called Brough, a pretty little village near Hull. The event was a celebration of the excavation of the site, which is ongoing and a chance for reenactors to strut their stuff, see below. I must add to the organisers that it was one of the best and friendliest events that I had ever attended.

What was incredibly surprising was that the archaeologists let me have a go in the trench doing some digging. It was great fun and I found some interested things. But more about that another day.


Winchcombe, fascinating place name

This blog is dedicated with thanks to Steven Dowd in recognition of the kind help he has given me. Without him I would have composed a blog about Winchcombe without actually discussing Winchcombe. I remain in your debt.

As I have already said my skill set involves knowing things and telling people what I know. One morning I was driving and came through this fascinating town, Winchcombe.

Photo by Engin Akyurt on

Now what interested me about the name of Winchcombe was the Winch element which has eluded me for a long time. This is a bit embarrassing because its one of those short cuts between two pieces of knowledge. I come from a village in Cheshire called Wincham. Here we see the Winch element combined with the Saxon ham which means hamlet. The Winch element is a bit confusing because we are descended from the Anglo-Saxons and not directly from the Romano-British. In Latin there is no V. Any V is pronounced W. This means via meaning road is pronounced Weir and so the Winch is a spoken not written latin which could more accurately be written as Vinch. Vinch is related to the word Vicus, pronounced Weekus so we see that Wincham was once Weekusham. The village probably has its origins with the Roman Fort at Castle in Northwich (probably derived from the Latin Castorum meaning fort) and is easy march of that place. The villages relating to forts were called Vicus and it is from this word we get village. When the Roman legions leave Britian in the 4th century plus they settle in existing settlements. In the case of Wincham they identify it as a hamlet by adding ham to the end of its Roman name, thus we have Village Village. Winchcombe is equally interesting.


Before I start explaining Winchcombe I must express a debt of gratitude to Steven Dowd. Mr Dowd is a gentleman. He has pointed out to me that I wrote this blog about Winchcombe and completely forgot to actually discuss Winchcombe. The name Winchcombe combines two elements. The first is the now familiar Winch from the Latin Vicus pronounced Weechus meaning the village surrounding or near to a Roman Fort. The second is the Saxon Combe which means valley. From this we get Village in a valley. I think but can not be sure that it means wooded valley. What might be of further interest is why did Roman forts have villages around them. Well the first is the uncomfortable truth about soldiers. They like guns, girls and gold. The Roman soldier was not armed on his off duty and his weapons were kept in the Secellum under the watchful eyes of the Signifers who were also the pay masters. Nobody wants off bored armed soldiers. Bored armed soldiers often wander off and find something to do, kill or over throw. So denied weapons the Romans would wander off to the vicus where there were girls and that proportion of their pay they did not spend or gamble they wasted. Amongst these distractions lived their wives and families. Roman soldiers could not lawfully marry and if they unlawfully married their families could not enter the fort. So lets imagine Winchcombe maybe 1700 years ago. The Romans are in control of their empire but storm clouds are on the horizon. A young soldier goes to the Principia where the Signifer signs over his pay less deductions for food, armour, pension and burial fund and then he makes a generous donation to his centurion. After this generous and voluntary payment he leaves the fort and enters the vicus. Lets imagine him walking through the valley, past the prostitutes and the dice games, he smells the oysters and goes to a small house where his new Celtic wife is waiting for him, maybe nursing a baby. Now lets imagine two hundred years in the future. The young soldier is long dead and cremated in the graveyard with a monument to his distinguished service during which he rose to become a centurion himself. Leaning against the grave stone with his arm around his Romano-British wife is a pale man with a slightly hunted expression. He looks over the wooded valley and the strange remains of the forts ramparts. Maybe he was Deor who composed the poem we now call “The Ruin” (yes I know but if it was good enough for Tolkien it is good enough for me!). He looks over the valley, the woods and the safety and asks his wife, “What do they call this place?” Her accent would sound Spanish to us. A combination of Greek, Latin and the Celtic languages, probably quite savage and classical, “Weecus” she replies. He thinks, that’s an interesting name, “I shall call it the woody valley of Weecus.”

I hope you all enjoyed this blog, below is a short video of me trying explain this against the background of car traffic.


My Roman Fort

My first job in Coventry was working as a guide at the Lunt Roman Fort in Baginton near Coventry. In all honesty it was a mixed bag as all job are. I have some nice stories and some horrible ones but I think it best to dwell on the good and let the bad fade away. The work was mostly with schools but we also had special schools and sometimes adult learners. One of the most fun days was with the Cambridge Classical Association.

A map of all the different periods of archaeology at the Lunt site. Note that the site was not occupied continuously but repeatedly from the first century to the fourth.

The Lunt Roman Fort is one of the most important Roman sites in the country. It is unique in that it is the only reconstruction in situ, actually using Roman post holes, and the gyrus. The gyrus is a circular feature inside the walls which has been interpreted in various ways. I personally do not agree with the accepted interpretation, a horse training ring, but rather think that it was an enclosure for prisoners.

I had the privilege of meeting Brian Hobley at the Boudica conference which was one of the most exciting moments of my career.

I recently bought this on eBay because I love the Fort and like collecting information about it. Its an excellent report and really puts the vision (never realised) forward that the archaeologists intended.

Classics Roman Army

Scenes from Trajans Column

Roman Army

Roman Army At War

In this image we see the Roman Army engaged in a battle (to the left).  As the heavy infantry engage the Dacians the Emperor “interviews” a prisoner held before him by an auxiliary soldier.  The legion was for the battle winning action whilst the role of the auxiliary was to enable them to win.  Behind the emperor are the signum the standard and the cultic musicians.


What is especially exciting is the mounted catapulta in the background. Mounted on a cart this Scorpion is a dart throwing artillery weapon that could be quickly and easily moved over the battlefield supporting the role of the infantry.

The success of the Roman Army lies not only in the fantastic equipment and training of the legion but in the backup it received from the rest of the army.  In modern terms this can best be described as the “warm fuzzy” feeling that the British Army tries to inspire.  The idea that the individual soldier is not alone and everyone else has his back.  Consider this, if you had this feeling how could you not conquer the world?

Classics Roman Army Uncategorized

Cultic Behaviour in the Roman Army; Head Hunting

This is one of the fascinating scenes from Trajans Column in Rome.  It shows an Auxillary soldier holding a head in his mouth.  What it suggests is that he is a celt, possibly from Britain, Gaul or Spain who has been recruited into the army and is now fighting in Dacia.