There’s always a storm.
Roman Britain. It’s a name to conjure with. Green hills, full and flowing rivers, dark forests. Gorgeous country. Tough weather. Busy towns.
THE CURSE-MAKER takes place in Aquae Sulis (Waters of Sulis) and the surrounding lead-rich hills. You’ll know the city better as Bath, made famous by Georgian sophistication and Jane Austen, who wasn’t a particular fan of the place. I like to think that perhaps Jane discovered some of the dark secrets behind the hot spring baths …
Arcturus spends time at the famous baths, of course, as well as at various villas and homes, a haunted mine, a cemetery (in the middle of the night), and an inn even worse than Lupo’s back home.
The action of NOX DORMIENDA takes place in two urbes and the countryside between them: Londinium and Camulodunum. Today, they’re known as London and Colchester. In London, the scenes range from the governor’s palace to a particularly vile house of prostitution (Lupo’s). You’ll also come across a Temple of Isis, an underground mithraeum and the nearby military fort, along with a few other spots not on the tourist route in 786 a.u.c., as the Romans reckoned it.
Below, a little more background on the locations of the Roman noir series … and where Arcturus fits in.
Before Britannia, it was Albion. At least, that’s what the natives called it, according to Pliny the Elder. “Albion” is a Celtic word and “Britannia” is a Pictish one, and the Romans got it right, at least chronologically, since the Picts were there first.
Around 320 BC, a Greek astronomer and sailor named Pytheas landed at Land’s End in Cornwall, circumnavigated the country, and exaggerated his geography. He had a right to brag—all the waters around the island are treacherous, as the Spanish Armada found out in 1588.
Pytheas wrote a travel book about his experiences, which survives because Strabo quotes it in order to disagree with him. Strabo had his own book to sell.
The Greek sailor claimed that the island was thick with people, and very cold, but the most important bit was that he said the land held a good supply of tin, which was mined and traded by the natives.
Enter Carthage. It owned the Mediterranean at the time, and frowned on foreign ships passing through the Straits of Gibraltar. No matter how exciting Pytheas’ news, no matter how sure the investment in tin, the Romans couldn’t do anything about it until they canceled the Carthaginian lease. Once they owned the Mediterranean—after the Third Punic War in 146 B.C.—venture capitalists and tin prospectors swooped down on the island.
About ninety years later, the eagle eyes of Julius Caesar looked north. He’d subdued the Gauls in what is now France, and decided to cross the Oceanus Britannicus and see what the fuss was about. After two invasions, in 55 and 54 BC, and the standard setting of annual tribute, the standard taking of hostages, etc., and the standard glorification of Caesar’s military and political prowess (he had a book to sell, too), Britannia was left to its cold, green climate while Rome suffered sunstroke and a civil war after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.
Enter Augustus. Like George Washington, he was the model for all who followed, but not everybody else lived up. As the Emperor—although he preferred to be called “Princeps”, which basically means “First”, as in “First Citizen, First Roman, First in line at the amphitheater, etc.”—he thought about invasion, but had too much to do at home trying to rebuild a country and population devastated by civil war. Tin wasn’t worth the trouble.
In 40 AD, his crazy-like-a-fox descendant Caligula (real name: Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) perched on the edge of the Oceanus Britannicus with an invasion force but changed his mind at the last minute.
It was up to not-so-crazy old uncle Claudius, three years later, to finish the job. He invaded Britannia with four legions, and not only subdued the south and some of the west, but decided to visit the island himself. He established the city of Camulodunum as the capital, though Londinium, thanks to the river, was still the trading center. Britannia was now an imperial province, with a permanently stationed army, ruled by a series of governors. It was now safely Roman.
Or so the Romans thought.
The tribes still held some power, especially the ones that agreed to play by Roman rules, which were the only ones in the game. Part of the rules for a tribal ruler said you should leave your kingdom to the Emperor when you died. The king of the Iceni, Prasutagus, did just that, and included his daughters as joint heirs. But the procurator—he was the tax man, and reported directly to the Emperor, as both check and balance on the governor—acted like the Iceni lands were conquered territory, and not only threw out the daughters’ claims, but had them raped and their mother flogged. Her name was Boudicca.
She became the stuff of legend, a giant red-haired woman who led her warriors in the burning of Londinium and Camulodunum. The governor, who was off trying to conquer another stubborn tribe in the far West, almost lost the island. In the end, Boudicca was defeated, though it was claimed that 70,000 people were killed in the battle, and the tributaries of Londinium’s river was choked with the heads of the slain.
Among those killed was the native mother of a ten year-old boy named Arcturus.
The governor, Suetonius Paulinus, wanted more bloodshed, more revenge against the natives. Nero had the good sense to appoint a new procurator to assess the situation. He was a native Gaul, named Julius Alpinus Classicianus, and he recommended that the Brits be shown some leniency. Peace was preferable to an unforgiving, hostile occupation. Nero listened, Paulinus was recalled from service, and most of Britannia settled into a pax Britannica.
Amidst a charred and bloodied field outside Camulodunum, Classicianus found a ten-year old boy trying to save the injured foot of a goat. He adopted him. The boy’s name became Julius Alpinus Classicianus Favonianus. But a few people still called him Arcturus, or Ardur, as his mother had. They sometimes called him other things, too, less pleasant, especially when his adopted father took him back to Rome.
Later, under the Emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, Roman culture in Britannia flourished. This was in no small way attributable to Gnaeus Agricola, the governor who served the longest in the province’s history, and came the closest to conquering the recalcitrant North.
We know more about Agricola than any other governor because he enjoyed the good fortune of a historian for a son-in-law: Tacitus. Tacitus enjoyed the good fortune of manuscript survival.
By 83 AD (786 ab urbe condita—the Roman dating system begins with the foundation of Rome), the little boy adopted by Classicianus had grown into a man and was the private physician of Gnaeus Agricola. And so NOX DORMIENDA begins.
Rome wasn’t a monolithic culture. In the armies and auxiliaries were men from all over the Empire. Britannia was a province, but it was also a cosmopolitan, urban place, with growing towns and markets, public buildings, baths, temples, games, and all manner of Roman food and goods. Tacitus, who was perpetually grumpy if not outrightly unpleasant, claims the Brits were ultimately enslaved by their devotion to Roman luxury.
In Britannia there were cities. Temples. Investment schemes. Book-makers. Crooked politicians. Produce peddlers. Bath houses. Whorehouses. And all kinds of houses in between.
There were road ways and water ways and pepper from the East and perfume from Cyprus and amber from the Black sea.
There were apartments and palaces, taverns and cheap bakeries. There were people, and they were like people everywhere and every time, and that was their blessing and their curse.
This is the Britannia of the Roman noir series. And it isn’t just history. It’s life.
The Celts were the first people to build a shrine here, grateful to the generosity of the native goddess Sulis for the miracle of hot water bubbling out of the earth.
The Claudian invasion brought the waters to the attention of the Romans, who appreciated a good warm bath. As polytheists, they were always flexible on matters of religion, and identified Sulis as a native version of their own Minerva.
The temple was erected around 60-70 CE, though the baths and the reservoir for the spring had probably been constructed earlier. Hot mineral water was a big tourist attraction in the ancient world, and the Romans—and the natives—would want to take full advantage of it.
We know from the archaeological remains that people from all over the Empire came here—injured soldiers, sick aunts, women trying to conceive. The mineral water was a manifestation of deity—and the visitors prayed to her for help.
In the process, quite a number of the visitors and patients were robbed, as evidenced by the high number of recovered curse tablets that deal with theft.
Spas make Arcturus itchy, especially provincial ones. He doesn’t like the predators that populate them, the miracle-workers and the faith-healers of his era. But when Agricola—who had often taken his wife to Aquae Sulis, hoping she would conceive a boy—insists that his medicus enjoy a holiday with his own ailing wife, Arcturus can’t say no.
But he can’t wait to get back home to Londinium.
Initially, the city was probably a trading center for those enterprising tin miners and venture capitalists who read Pytheas (see above). It was always cosmopolitan, with a lot of different goods from a lot of different places available for sale.
The Romans gave it a proper city layout after the Claudian expedition. The merchants were thankful, and Londinium grew. No one knows exactly where the name of the city came from, but the root of it may even have predated the Celts.
In 60 AD it was devastated by Boudicca and her troops, and most, if not all of it, was burned.
Trading centers have a way of rebounding quickly. There’s money at stake. It helped that Classicianus moved his headquarters to London—his personal interest probably spurred the quick rebuilding.
By 83 AD, it was probably Britannia’s largest city. And probably, too, it’s capital.
A building some have labeled a governor’s palace was located beside the river. Baths, a forum, basilica, a Temple of Isis—despite the destruction of twenty years earlier, Londinium, once again, was a cosmopolitan place. And home to Arcturus, though he wonders if he’ll ever get his house finished.
About fifty miles north of Londinium was the first capital of Britannia. Before Claudius, it had been the center of the Catuvellauni tribe, whose most famous king, Cunobelin, was immortalized by the Bard as Cymbeline.
The Twentieth Legion was headquartered here until 49, when the entire city was made into a colony—the Colonia Claudia Victricensis, complete with a large temple dedicated to the deified Emperor Claudius.
Its status as a colony meant that land was deeded to legionary veterans … and taken away from the hostile natives. This didn’t make those particular natives less hostile, though others were able to adjust.
Arcturus’ real father, Marcus Favonius Facilis, was a centurion in the Twentieth Legion. He retired and settled to down to farm, but died a year before he could see his fields burnt or his wife killed by the rebelling natives in Boudicca’s rebellion.
The Romans, who’d filled in the town’s defenses once it became a colony, made a last stand in Claudius’ temple. No one walked out.
The town was quickly rebuilt, and became, again, a thriving place of business and Roman and native culture.
Camulodunum was where Arcturus was born. He often dreams about it.