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Legionary; The Scourge of Thracia by Gordon Doherty

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In late 377 AD, the Roman Diocese of Thracia (roughly modern-day Bulgaria) was in turmoil, still reeling from the indecisive Battle of Ad Salices against Fritigern’s Gothic Alliance, where much of the Thracian legions had been crushed or severely weakened. Following that clash, the Goths retreated to and occupied northern Thracia to lick their wounds while the patchwork remainder of the Roman legions fled south, looking over their shoulders in fear, certain that it was only a matter of time before the Goths would take to the march again, knowing there was every chance the barbarians would this time shatter the remaining imperial forces and seize all of Thracia for themselves. Messengers were despatched at haste to all corners of the empire pleading for a relief army, yet the only forces sizeable enough to tackle and repel the Gothic horde were the Praesental Armies of the Eastern and Western Emperors and they were engaged in troubles of their own: Emperor Valens and his Eastern Praesental army were pinned down on the Persian frontier while Emperor Gratian and his Western forces were engaged in troubles on the Rhine and upper Danube, and neither was likely to reach Thracia until spring 378 AD at the earliest.

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So the patchwork Thracian legions were forced to look to the terrain as a means of holding back the Goths’ expected southwards advance. The Haemus (Balkan) Mountains present an almost unbroken ridge that runs east to west across that region, and it was Magister Equitum Saturninus who rallied the Roman forces and oversaw the hasty fortification of the five main passes across this range. With the passes blocked, the Goths were penned into the lands north of the mountains. Saturninus’ goal was to protect the southerly and central portion of Thracia and to starve the Goths (who had by now plundered and stripped the northern part of the Diocese bare of grain and fodder) into submission. Saturninus did this and did it well for some six to nine months, repelling numerous Gothic attacks on the mountain blockades as the Roman soldier and historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, attests:

Since everything that could serve as food throughout the lands . . . had been used up, the barbarians, driven alike by ferocity and hunger, strove with all their might to break out . . . after many attempts, they were overwhelmed by the vigour of our men, who strongly opposed them amid the rugged heights.

Had this defensive system held out until the two emperors arrived with their relief armies, then the fate of the Eastern Empire (and, consequently, the Western Empire) might have been significantly altered. But something happened in late 377 AD: the Huns – those strident riders from the Eurasian steppe who had driven the Goths into Roman lands just a year earlier – agreed some form of alliance with their erstwhile foes. It was almost certainly just a subdivision of the Huns who crossed over the River Danubius to swell the Gothic ranks, but they brought with them a different style of warfare, diversifying and intensifying the threat posed to the Romans. They also brought with them Alani riders and, at some point, the Germanic Taifali also joined the ethnically varied alliance. Fritigern, The Arian Christian Iudex (judge or leader) of this horde, had a monumental task on his hands. Organising over one hundred thousand homeless people would have been a gargantuan undertaking in itself. Added to this, power struggles with the likes of Alatheus and Saphrax – leaders of the pagan Greuthingi Goths – and cultural clashes with the northern horsemen were surely rife and frequent. But one thing kept them united: the knowledge of their now overwhelming numerical superiority . . . and the promise of rich conquest and plunder in the lands south of the mountains.

Saturninus got wind of the alliance between the Goths and the Huns and realized with horror what this meant: the passes simply could not bear the weight of the Goths’ new-found forces. His choices were equally poisonous: to stay, fight and surely perish with all his forces or to flee, cede the passes and preserve his meagre regiments? Either way, the fate of all Thracia and its hundreds of thousands of imperial subjects must have looked truly black.

Legionary: The Scourge of Thracia tells the story of five legionaries who are cast into this brewing storm . . . 

Find out more about the Legionary series www.gordondoherty.co.uk
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Legionary: Gods and Emperors by Gordon Doherty

 

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Godron Doherty describes how the Battle of Adrianople inspired the latest in his Legionary Series.

 The clash of the Romans and the Goths near Adrianople in 378 CE surely qualifies as one of history’s most pivotal battles: one that permanently lodged the Goths within the Roman Empire as an independent force. The battle saw the utter destruction of two-thirds of the Eastern Empire’s military manpower. Two master-generals of the cavalry and infantry, two great officers of the palace and thirty-five tribunes were found among the slain. Sixteen legions were never reformed after that bloody day. Since the outset of the Legionary series, I’ve always known that Pavo, Gallus and the men of the XI Claudia were destined to be there on the battlefield, and with the 5th volume of the Legionary series, ‘Gods & Emperors’, it finally came to be.

The two great forces met around noon on 9th August 378 AD at some as yet unidentified site roughly a morning’s march north or northwest of Adrianople. All we know of the location is that the Gothic horde – minus their lethal Greuthingi cavalry – got there first and arranged their many wagons in a huge defensive laager or circle (more likely a series of smaller, adjacent circles) on an advantageous area of high ground. It also seems that this gave them control of the scant local water sources – vital given the reportedly extreme summer that year. There is much debate as to the exact whereabouts of the battle that I won’t go into here. For those who are interested, you can browse through photos and discussion of the candidate sites at my blog:

www.gordondoherty.co.uk/writeblog/thebattleofadrianople.

Anyway, when Emperor Valens and his legions drew close to this ridge around midday, they must have been confronted with an intimidating sight: the horde, shimmering, waiting up there. Size estimates of the opposing forces’ vary, some arguing that each side fielded around fifteen thousand men, others claim it was more like sixty thousand warriors each. Most agree, however, that when the legions ascended the slope to stand just paces from the Goths at the brow of their ridge, the Romans would have been equal in number to the Goths, and might even have enjoyed a slight advantage. But even at that point, battle was not a certainty.

With the opposing lines poised, just waiting for the order to attack, there were final and fraught attempts at conciliation between Fritigern and Valens – and this outcome would have been hugely desirable to both leaders. As envoys went back and forth between the lines, the legions stood in the baking heat in full armour while the Goths enjoyed the shade of their wagons and water from barrels within the laager. Some of the Goths even took to lighting the grass near the ridge to let hot smoke billow downhill and into the faces of their enemy, increasing their discomfort. For some two hours the attempts at negotiation continued until the rash and reckless Bacurius of the Scutarii, an Iberian officer positioned on the Roman right, took matters into his own hands. He and his cavalry seemingly breached Valens’ orders not to engage and sprang forward to attack the Gothic left. This shattered the last hopes of treaty and an all-out clash ensued. Both sides struggled for supremacy for some time in the baking heat. The Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, describes it as thus:

Then the two lines of battle dashed against each other, like the beaks (or rams) of ships, and thrusting with all their might, were tossed to and fro, like the waves of the sea.

And it might have been a bloody but indecisive clash, had the Greuthingi cavalry not arrived unexpectedly and suddenly. As Marcellinus describes it:

…the cavalry of the Goths returned with Alatheus and Saphrax, and with them a battalion of Alani; these descending from the mountains like a thunderbolt, spread confusion and slaughter among all whom in their rapid charge they came across.

The huge influx of cavalry reinforcements turned the battle irrevocably. They smashed into a flank of the engaged Roman line, routing Bacurius and his Scutarii before pouring round the rear of the Roman infantry centre to envelop the imperial army. Soon, the Roman cavalry on the left were routed too and the legions were left to face a thick noose of Goths alone:

The foot-soldiers thus stood unprotected, and their companies were so crowded together that hardly anyone could pull out his sword or draw back his arm. Because of clouds of dust the heavens could no longer be seen, and echoed with frightful cries. Hence the arrows whirling death from every side always found their mark with fatal effect, since they could not be seen beforehand nor guarded against.

Nearing dusk, the Army of the Eastern Roman Empire broke. Tattered remnants of ancient legions fled, bloodied and hunted down by pursuing Goths as they went. Valens tried to call upon his meagre Batavian reserve but they ignored his call and fled. So, the Emperor of the East was left in the midst of it all with just a few loyal but bloodied and well-depleted units. It seems they guarded him fiercely until he was struck by an arrow.

Some say Valens’ body was lost in the last bout of butchery that ended the battle, others claim he was taken to a nearby farmhouse by a handful of loyal soldiers and it was in there he died when the building was set alight. However, legend has it that one Goth who witnessed the blaze swore that he saw someone escape the flames…

The day ended with the Goths victorious. The battle itself certainly did not end the Roman Empire, but it did set in motion a chain of events that would see the rise of Alaric and his Visigoths and, in time, the Ostrogoths. These two peoples would go on to play a huge part in toppling the Western Roman Empire. Pivotal? I’d certainly say so.

Legionary: Gods & Emperors takes Pavo and the XI Claudia onto the bloody fields of Adrianople on that crucial day, yet the battle is just a part of their tumultuous journey – a story of brotherhood and treachery, of daring and dread. Only the bravest will stand firm to spit in fate’s eye…

Gordon’s website:  www.gordondoherty.co.uk

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Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston

I started Hand of Fire in order to answer a question that had bothered me for a long time. For years I’d taught the Iliad, Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, and kept wondering with my students how Briseis, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, could possibly have loved Achilles—which is what Homer shows us. The half-immortal Greek had killed her husband and brothers, destroyed her city and turned her from princess to slave—hardly a heartwarming courtship. She is central to the plot and yet she gets only a handful of lines. In those few words, the one clear notion expressed is her sorrow when she is forced to leave Achilles. I should say I always liked Achilles, the existential hero who calls the whole war into question—which shows he’s no brainwasher—so the answer wasn’t some ancient version of Stockholm Syndrome. The initial inspiration for Hand of Fire was this psychological puzzle.

Even though I’m a Classicist with training in ancient literature and languages, I realized I had a lot of research to do in order to discover an historical Briseis. I knew a fair amount about the Mycenaean Greeks who, according to Homer’s tale, beached their ships in front of Troy and besieged the city. I’d been taught in a vague sort of way that the Trojans were the cultural equivalent of these Greeks. After all, Homer shows them praying to the same gods and various other similarities (that we now know are inaccurate). To excuse Homer, he lived several centuries after the events he depicts, and I’ll remind you that Shakespeare dressed his Romans in Elizabethan garb. Our ideas of how to depict people from “long ago” have changed in the last three millennia.

That may excuse Homer, but it doesn’t excuse my opening assumption that the Trojans were a version of Greeks. I soon discovered that quite recently a whole new world had been dug out of archaeological sites all across Turkey where the Bronze Age world of the Trojan War was situated. The long lost empire of the Hittites, as powerful as the Egyptians and Assyrians, had been brought into living detail, and it was clear the Hittites were the real cultural cousins of the Trojans. We have treaties between Troy and the Hittite Great King and the material finds of Troy on the western coast mirror those from the Hittite capital far to the east, near modern Anakara.

I started Hand of Fire in order to answer a question that had bothered me for a long time. For years I’d taught the Iliad, Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, and kept wondering with my students how Briseis, the captive woman who sparked the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, could possibly have loved Achilles—which is what Homer shows us. The half-immortal Greek had killed her husband and brothers, destroyed her city and turned her from princess to slave—hardly a heartwarming courtship. She is central to the plot and yet she gets only a handful of lines. In those few words, the one clear notion expressed is her sorrow when she is forced to leave Achilles. I should say I always liked Achilles, the existential hero who calls the whole war into question—which shows he’s no brainwasher—so the answer wasn’t some ancient version of Stockholm Syndrome. The initial inspiration for Hand of Fire was this psychological puzzle.

Even though I’m a Classicist with training in ancient literature and languages, I realized I had a lot of research to do in order to discover an historical Briseis. I knew a fair amount about the Mycenaean Greeks who, according to Homer’s tale, beached their ships in front of Troy and besieged the city. I’d been taught in a vague sort of way that the Trojans were the cultural equivalent of these Greeks. After all, Homer shows them praying to the same gods and various other similarities (that we now know are inaccurate). To excuse Homer, he lived several centuries after the events he depicts, and I’ll remind you that Shakespeare dressed his Romans in Elizabethan garb. Our ideas of how to depict people from “long ago” have changed in the last three millennia.

That may excuse Homer, but it doesn’t excuse my opening assumption that the Trojans were a version of Greeks. I soon discovered that quite recently a whole new world had been dug out of archaeological sites all across Turkey where the Bronze Age world of the Trojan War was situated. The long lost empire of the Hittites, as powerful as the Egyptians and Assyrians, had been brought into living detail, and it was clear the Hittites were the real cultural cousins of the Trojans. We have treaties between Troy and the Hittite Great King and the material finds of Troy on the western coast mirror those from the Hittite capital far to the east, near modern Anakara.

So now I had a second inspiration. For the first time, a writer could reconstruct what Briseis’s life might really have been filled with. Even if I’d tried to write Hand of Fire as an undergraduate, the material would not yet have been there for the work. Briseis, herself, may never actually have lived. She may be the figment of a bard’s imagination, but if I wanted to answer that question—how could the Homeric Briseis love Achilles—I needed a real, flesh and blood woman from the pages of history (or in this case the clay tablets of history since that is the form of the Hittite libraries). Now I knew where to look. I found, for example, in those clay cuneiform libraries, a perfect job for her: that of a healing priestess, called in Hittite hasawa. These women served as healers (like Achilles), singers of tales (like Achilles) and leaders of their people (like Achilles). A woman strong enough to challenge the mightiest of the Greeks began to climb out of the dusty clay and live in my imagination. Eventually she answered my question in Hand of Fire.

About Judith:

Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Her novel, Hand of Fire (Fireship Press, September 2014), brings Briseis to life against the mythic backdrop of the Trojan War. Thrust into leadership as a young woman, she must protect her family and city. Sickness and war threaten. She gains much-needed strength from visions of a handsome warrior god, but will that be enough when the mighty, half-immortal Achilles attacks?

An excerpt from Hand of Fire, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical tidbits as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community can be found on her  website www.judithstarkston.com.

You can also connect with her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/judy.starkston)

or on Twitter (https://twitter.com/JudithStarkston).

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Strategos – Island in the Storm by Gordon Doherty

Friday, 26th August 1071. A date scorched into history. In the morning, Emperor Romanus Diogenes led his Byzantine armies to battle against the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan, intent on securing the Lake Van lands for the empire and firmly defining her borders once more. By dusk, he was in chains, his dreams and his armies in tatters around him.

Some believe the defeat at Manzikert was the single event that broke the Byzantine Empire. Others reckon the battle was a bloodbath that saw the empire’s armies reduced to nothing. In fact, it was neither of these things. But it was a telling and grievous blow to the image of imperial invincibility and a catalyst for the disastrous sequence of events that followed.

The Battle of Manzikert was a fraught clash indeed and many lives were lost – though not as many as some estimates once suggested. It is thought that the Byzantines lined up on Manzikert’s plains with anything between 20,000 and 40,000 soldiers, and the Seljuks faced them with a similar number. Modern estimates show that probably only as much as 20% of each army fell or were captured in the battle. But the Seljuks won and won well. How? Well, the telling factor was neither the tactical nous nor the ferocity of the sultan’s army.

Quite simply, treachery won the day.

Those in the Byzantine court who opposed Romanus Diogenes’ rule were set on seizing power for themselves, blind to how detrimental their actions would be to the empire. The Doukas family had once held the throne, and thought of nothing else other than reclaiming it. They detested Romanus, denouncing him as an unworthy impostor. They spent vast fortunes to undermine his authority and buy the loyalty of his generals. So much so that, late on that August day on the far-flung plains of Manzikert, the Byzantine Emperor found his forces crumbling around him just as his foes had planned. Their designs brought about the defeat and capture of a Byzantine (or Roman) Emperor for the first time in over eight hundred years. What followed was a woefully damaging civil war that resulted in the irretrievable loss of Anatolia to the Seljuk Turks.

‘Strategos: Island in the Storm’, the concluding volume of the Strategos trilogy, tells the tale of the few good men in these fraught times. Apion, Strategos of Chaldia, stands loyally by Romanus Diogenes’ side as they step onto the plains of Manzikert, ready to face fate . . .

 

Title: Strategos: Island in the Storm