The Iron Hand of Mars

Book Cover, The Iron Hand of Mars

In Germania

Roman history in Europe provides the setting for Falco and his tasks in this novel. Germany is three: Germania Superior, Germania Libera, and Germania Inferior. During this era of the novels, Rome has provinces, governors, legions and forts dotted all over what we now call Europe. But it was not without clashing of steel, conflict, battles and rebellions.

This novel focuses on events in the region of Germania Superior and Germania Libera, with the Rhine River being somewhat a line of demarcation between civilisation and barbarity. The swathe of territory traversed scopes from Arles to Vienna, Lugdunum (Lyon) to Argentoratum (Strasbourg), and on up via Morguntiacum (Mainz), Castrum ad Confluentes (Koblenz), Bonna (Bonn), Agrippinensium (Cologne), Novaesium (Neuss), and to Vitera, (Xanten), an unusually named town which still holds this name today, along with an archaeological park full of restored Roman Artefacts.

Governors, Legions, Emperors and infamy

Roman presence involves campaigns by Emperors (who, before they were Emperors, fought against one another for the Imperial Laurel, being raised to that ultimate state) and the narrative makes repeated references to several legates who fought for the right to be Emperor: Galba, Otho, Vitellus and Vespasian. Somewhat central to the narrative is the history and reputations of their legions who fought under them, and how they acquired name and fame or infamy. Overshadowing this narrative is the Year of the Four Emperors. The election of Galba to Emperor by the Senate led to lowered confidence in Germania’s status and also resulted in the dismissal of the Imperial Batavian Bodyguards and rebellion. The last Roman Fort Falco visits is that of Batavodurm (the capital of Batavia?) which had been levelled by the rebellion and the cause led by Civilis for a united Free Gallic Europe. Galba had five legions, VI Victrix, I Macriana liberatrix, I Adiutrix, III Augusta and VII Gemina.

Due the actions of Galba refusing to pay the soldiers their bonus, and the loss of confidence in Germania Superior, the German legions, having lost their Legate, proclaimed Vitellius, their Governor as Emperor. This lead to serious problems for Galba. Otho, another fellow who desired the Imperial Laurel, bribed the Praetorian Guard to make him Emporer. When the Praetorian Guard killed Galba, Otho was made Emperor. Otho’s legions were XIII Gemina and I Adiutrix. I Adiutrix features in this narrative with Q. Camillus Justinus as Senior Tribune.

Unfortunately for Otho, Vitellus and his seven legions were marching down to Rome from Germany; parleys for peace and workable solutions were refused. Civil War ensued with the Battle of Bedriacum, where Vitellius defeated Otho’s single legion. Otho committed suicide, having been emperor for only three months. Getting bored? Well, the Battle of Bedriacum gets mentioned several times in the narrative as a place of shame for the XIV Marta Victrix, as they showed up too late to take part. Vitellius’ legions were I Germanica, V Alaudae, I Italica, XV Primigenia, I Macriana liberatrix, III Augusta, and XXI Rapax

Vitellus took the office of Emperor on an inauspicious day. Vitellus proclaimed a season of feasts, and acquired debts. He executed the bankers when they demanded payment, and went on to execute every imagined and possible rival. Vespasian was in North Africa putting down the Great Jewish Revolt, and had the support of the Governor of Syria. North African legions proclaimed Vespasian Emperor and some other Germania legions switched allegiance to Vespasian. Forces supporting Vespasian fought a second battle of Bedriacum (interesting place in this narrative) and defeated Vitellius’s army comprehensively.

When troops loyal to Vespasian entered Rome, they executed Vitellius (who had run out of moneys, friends, armies, and support. The next day the Senate proclaimed Vespasian Emperor. It was a year to the day, exactly, from when Galba had been proclaimed Emperor, 21 December AD69. Such history is critical to understanding the forces behind the actions and attitudes of various legions and their Legates (along with their jealousies), in this narrative. For one important issue is Vespasian using Falco to assess the loyalty of one legion and their Legate, and to provide him with options for the dispersal of that Legio, should it be deemed necessary.

Enter Falco, reluctantly.

In the month of September of AD71, Falco is without a commission in Rome and looking for work. He hears from gossip on the Palatine Hill that he is down for a dirty job in Germany.

Meanwhile, Falco discovers Titus Caesar at his domicile in Fountain Court conversing with Helena Justina, whom he fancies. Titus summonses Falco to the Imperial Palace. After getting rid of the heir to the Imperial Throne, Falco scampers, and taking a sponge, advertises his services on a piece of wall at the Tabularium.

A week later Vespasian summonses Falco to the Palace for a recital from the papyrus beetle Canidius, who delicately retells the history of the XIV Gemina in various locations. Vespasian hands a task to Falco and promises more in a scroll, to be delivered.

Nero’s former barber delivers Vespasian’s gift to the XIV Gemina (an Iron Hand, two feet high) along with the scroll with his additional tasks. With Helena Justina off the scene (disappeared mysteriously), Falco miserably accepts the task and agrees to take Xanthus, the demoted palatial hairdresser with him.

Travel pass in hand, Falco and Xanthus trek to various forts, eventually arriving in Morguntiacum, (Mainz) a huge fort housing two legions, packing in 12,000 troops. The description of this fort is magnificent, evocative of the full grandeur of Rome’s military might. Morguntiacum is home to the XIV Gemina, and their legate Florius Gracilis, is missing. The Prefect and First Spear give Falco a rude and truculent reception and refuse him a billet. Falco encounters Camillus Justinus, the younger brother of Helena Justina who has accepted a new tour of duty as a Senior Tribune in the other legion housed in this fort, I Adiutrix, a legion raised by Nero. Falco gets a bed in Justinus’ roomy quarters.

On his journey, Falco passes through Lugdunum (Lyon), famed for its red glazed pottery. Falco chances upon a yelling match and abandons his purchases. The next day, Falco along with the centurion Helvetius, discover two participants from the yelling match dead in a ditch. More to come.

This Fort, That Legion

Woven through this narrative is the sensus plenior of Roman civilisation afforded through its military might, and the disorder that occurs when that military fails to be a salutary, beneficial presence. Much of the earlier history given to Falco (and the military histories he is given to read on his journey) detail the bungles, excesses, and failures of various legions and their leaders during his era, and before his era (highlighted by Falco’s dread of the Teutoburger Forest), with the destruction of Varus’ three legions by Arminius in the Teutoburger Forest, a mountain range in the north west of Germany near Osnabrück.

The centurion Hevetius has a troop of twenty recruits, and the narrative is rolled out with explanations of the history of the varia places and forts they visit along with Falco and his brother-in-law, the tribune Justinus. Central to this is the notion of order, west of the Rhine River, and barbarian disorder. Along of the Rhine, towns have Toll Booths, forts, camps, and local industry. Safe dwelling places, bars, taverns. Far North by west, past the last fort at Vetera, there are the barbarian lands and wastes, home to Bructeri and Tencteri. Raids, wild animals, priestesses in abandoned signal towers.

A legion is made up of sixty companies of 100 men, cohorts. Each cohort is led by a centurion. Legions themselves are led by Legates, who were either directly appointed by the Emperor, or the Senate. The author’s licence in this historical fiction is somewhat accurate: in the case of the XIV Gemina, the Senate made this appointment, one which Lindsey Davis portrays Vespasian agreeing to, pro tem. As the king, so the subjects; as the leader, so the followers. Legions are only as good as their legates. The XIV Gemina are covering up for their absent Legate. They are truculent, alarmed, and territorial. Thus the porridge begins to thicken for many of the participants in this narrative.

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