Trevor Bloom – Author

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Lost Roman city rediscovered


Scientists using infrared technology have rediscovered the former Roman city of Altinum, destroyed and abandoned 1500 years ago.

In the early summer of 452 AD Attila led the army of the Huns into Italy. They came down the road that led from Emona (Ljubliana) to Aquileia. One report said the Hunnish host covered the last 60 miles in one day. For the Romans, it must have been terrifying. Aquileia was taken and burnt and many other cities including Concordia, Altinum and Patavium (Padua) were attacked.

The people fled and sought refuge in the coastal salt marshes and lagoon islands. This exodus later gave rise to the city of Venice.

The Huns moved west attacking Verona and Mediolanum (Milan) before a combination of disease, hunger, gold tribute and military pressure persuaded them to leave. The Roman Supreme Commander, Aetius, probably abandoned the northern cities in order to save Rome and the south.

Aquileia was restored but the cities of Concordia and Altinum were abandoned and never reoccupied.

Now scientists using infrared technology have rediscovered the site of Altinum near Venice’s Marco Polo airport. Infrared photography can detect differences in vegetation caused by ground disturbance and stone foundations.

Researchers have been able to detect archaeological features such as churches, basilica, an amphitheatre, shops, a theatre and harbour. The city was enclosed by walls and was surrounded by a network of rivers and canals that connected Altinum to the lagoon.

Credit: Andrea Ninfo, Paolo Mozzi, Alessandro Fontana, et al., Science (31 July 2009)

How dangerous was Roman chariot-racing?

Chariot racing

Chariot racing was one of the most popular sports in Ancient Rome. The Romans loved to race and races were an important part of the Games. Two-horse chariots (bigae) and four-horse chariots (quadrigae) were the most popular, but there were also 3, 6, 7, and even ten horse chariots.

The full race was called a missus. A race would last seven laps (curricula). There could be up to 25 races a day and the races might go on for months. Races were held throughout the empire, eg at Lyon (Lugdunum ) and Vienne. The Circus Maximus in Rome had a capacity of 150,000, rising to 250,000. (Image of Circus Maximus in Rome: VRoma)


Chariot racers were professional and the trade was probably taught from father to son. Racing required huge skill and courage. It was an aggressive, full-on contact sport and very dangerous. Riders could suffer severe injury or death and most riders died young. The average age of death  from tombstones of charioteers is just 22. However winning charioteers became celebrities and could become very wealthy. It is likely that immense sums were bet on the outcome of chariot races and successful drivers could benefit. The charioteer Diocles earned over 35 million sestertii. Another, Scorpius, won over 2,000 races. Porphyrius was famous for his ability to win races regardless of which team he raced for.

Political influence

The drivers’ fame gave them considerable power and the Emperor and senior political figures liked to associate themselves with charioteers in the hope their glory would rub off. As Chariot races were one of the few places where upper class women could mix socially with men (and lovers could sit next to one another), chariot races became important social events. Different political factions put up teams in their supporters’ colours: red, white, blue and green. There was fierce rivalry between the supporters which often led to street violence or riots. The Nika riots of 532 AD resulted in thousands of deaths. Astute emperors tried to harness this rivalry. In 379 AD, when Constantinople was threatened by the Goths, teams competed to build the city walls.

How dangerous was chariot-racing?

The races were dangerous and must have been terrifying. The race started when the Emperor dropped a cloth (mappa). The teams would race for the inner track. The winning tactic was to drive as close as possible to the spine of the circuit forcing other drivers out. The team that was on the inside turning the end posts (metae) had an advantage. This inevitably led to collisions as rivals crashed or tried to force each other out. The depiction of a chariot race in the film Ben Hur is probably accurate. Drivers raced with the reins wrapped tight around their wrists which mean that if a chariot disintegrated, the driver had to choose between being dragged to death or cutting himself free and taking his chances with the horses following behind. Charioteers carried a knife for this purpose.


Chariot racing declined  with the decline of public entertainment in the sixth century, ie some time after Rome lost the western provinces to Germanic rule. The last recorded chariot races took place in 549 AD. A factor in the decline was that Christians disapproved of chariot racing because of the sport’s close associations with magic and sorcery. Many drivers used spells and incantations to improve their chances in a race and crashes and deaths were attributed to a rival’s better use of sorcery. So determined were Christians to eradicate chariot-racing that they insisted that charioteers renounced their profession before they converted.

Trevor Bloom appears at London Bookstock

We’ve got two major events coming up !!


On Saturday 16th April I will be handing out bookmarks and signing copies of The Half-Slave at Waterstones in Windsor from 10 am onwards.

If you’re interested in Roman-era historical fiction, why not drop in for a chat?

BOOKSTOCK at the BLUE POSTS in London W1

On Saturday 7th May I will be appearing at the North London Bookstock along with my fellow Hookline author Bryony Doran.

Why not come along for a literary evening, a drink or two and the chance to hear and meet authors reading their own work?

Tickets are limited, so buy early!

A train trip to the Roman theatre

Visiting Lyon by Eurostar for a few grey, February days, we took the opportunity to see the excellent Roman museums and theatres in Fourviere and Vienne, a short train ride to the south of Lyon.

Roman theatres served a different purpose to amphitheatres which were used for gladiators and wild animals. Theatres were used to stage plays, music, choral events and debates. Lesser events such as poetry readings, lectures, and rhetorical declamations were staged at smaller theatres called Odeons. Lyon (Fourviere) and Vienne both have an Odeon as well as a theatre.

Theatres were built all over the Roman empire: in Britain (St Albans), Portugal, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Bulgaria, Sicily (Taormina pictured) as well as Italy and France, a testament to their enormous popularity. Influenced by ancient Greek theatre, the oldest Roman theatres date to the 9th century BC. As Rome expanded, theatres were built in the colonies. They were seen as a way of spreading Roman culture and served to distract newly conquered nations from political unrest.

The first theatres were made of wood and were temporary structures. The huge theatre built in Rome by Gaeus Pompeius in 52 BC to court political popularity became the model for the classic Roman theatre. Incidentally, this was where Julius Caesar was murdered in 44  BC. Subsequent theatres were made of concrete, semi-circular in shape, and often set into a hill or slope with stacked seating for the audience. Larger theatres were not roofed although an awning could be drawn to shield spectators from the sun, which must have been pretty much essential in many places.

What I find astonishing is the sheer size of many Roman theatres. The theatre at Fourviere, Lyon can hold up to 11,000 people, with seats for 3,000 more in the Odeon.This must have been a high proportion of the townsfolk.  People probably travelled for days to see a popular performer. The theatre was divided into a stage (orchestra) and seating area (auditorium). There was a wall at the back which has usually disappeared as the bricks were robbed for building. Theatres had many spacious entrances and walkways to ensure that crowds left quickly and safely. Those in Fourviere, Lyon are especially fine. Roman Theatre of Fourvière in Lyon

With the arrival and consolidation of Christianity, which did not approve of theatrical spectacles, theatres declined. They were abandoned and fell into disrepair until restored in modern times.

Attila and Aetius: boyhood friends or bitter enemies?

I’m reading a lot about the 5th century Hunnic invasion of Gaul and Italy at the moment. It’s a fascinating campaign because the outcome would decide who controlled the western empire. It is also a story rich in ironies.

The Roman commander, Flavius Aetius recruited as allies the Germanic tribes settled within the empire. Many had been Rome’s enemies only a short while before. For the first time, non-Roman troops formed the dominant element in a Roman-led army. And of course what is really interesting is that Aetius knew Attila, the Hunnic leader, personally. Aetius had been a hostage of the Huns when young and had used Hun mercenaries against those who were now his allies. Whether he and Attila had remained friends, bitter enemies or grudgingly respectful opponents, we simply don’t know, but it’s fun to speculate.

Just imagine if General Eisenhower had lived and trained with the German army in the 1920s, had used German troops against the Russians in the 1930s, and then persuaded the Russians to join him in fighting against the Germans in the 1940s. You get the picture.

In 451AD the Huns and their allies under Attila’s leadership left the Hunnic homeland in present day Hungary and followed the Danube west. The horde crossed the Rhine near Koblenz in the spring and drove south and west in three fighting columns.

They sacked Metz and the old imperial capital of Trier and reached the edge of Paris. By June Orleans was besieged. On the way the Huns swept through the lands of Rheims, Cambrai, Arras, Tournai, Cologne, Amiens, Worms, Mainz and Strasbourg, sacking and pillaging as they went. It must have been a terrifying time and the ripples of fear would have spread across the empire.

Aetius scoured Italy and Gaul but could not raise enough Roman troops to counter the threat. He decided to take a huge risk and marshall Rome’s enemies against the bigger threat posed by the Huns. He worked feverishly to form a confederation of barbarian tribes, inducing Franks, Aquitanian Visigoths and Burgundii to join him. It is a tribute to his diplomatic skills he was able to pull this off.

After much bitter street fighting, the allies raised the siege of Orleans. They drove Attila east and on an open plain at a place north of Troyes that has never been conclusively identified (possibly Mery-sur-Seine or Châlons-sur-Marne), the Huns and Romans joined battle.

Chroniclers described the fighting as fierce, confused, monstrous and unrelenting. The Visigoth King was killed and although the battle ended in a stalemate, Attila’s ambitions were checked and his reputation sullied. He was persuaded not to immolate himself on a pyre of saddles, but was forced to abandon his hopes of plunder and lead his army home.

Aetius was vilified for allowing the Huns to escape. We don’t know for certain why he did this. Some say it was out of loyalty to his childhood friend, but this is surely sentimental rubbish. I think he saw that if the Huns were destroyed, there would be nothing to stop the Visigoths and the Franks from overrunning the rest of Gaul. As always, he was hedging his bets, playing one enemy off against another.

Was Maiden Castle hill fort stormed by the Romans?

Went down to Dorchester for a couple of days for Emma’s birthday and took the opportunity to pay a visit to Maiden Castle, the Iron Age hill fort south west of the town. (Image: Geo. Allen – Ashmolean)

MC was built around 600 BC and is probably the largest hill fort in Europe. It was expanded around 450 BC when new ramparts and ditches were added. At the time of the Roman occupation of Britain, the site was occupied by the Durotriges. Such a huge site would have been difficult to defend and must have served primarily as a statement of power and control. After the Roman occupation, the site was eventually abandoned. The population moved to Durnovaria, ie Dorchester and apart from a small Roman temple built in the late 4th century the site reverted to pasture.

I first learnt about the site when I was about ten. I was a Roman history nut even then and I can remember being fascinated by the discovery of the remains of an ancient Briton with a ballista bolt lodged in his spine. The archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler concluded that this man and others found in a ‘war grave’ near the gate had died during a bloody storming of the fortress by the Roman General Vespasian in AD 43-47.

Disappointingly, modern archaeologists are more sceptical. Some 14 bodies found in a grave bear signs of a violent death, they say, but there is no evidence they died during a Roman siege.

Ah, well… there is always a temptation to embellish narrative history and Wheeler’s imaginative storytelling helped to put Maiden Castle on the tourist map. On a beautiful spring day, the hill fort with its multiple ramparts and defensive ditches (originally up to 7 metres deep in places), and intricate gate defences is a magnificent place to visit.

We visited on a very foggy and bitterly cold end-of December day. A very different experience.

The story of Vespasian’s legions pushing remorselessly through the early morning mist, whistles blowing, swords clashing, slingshot whirring over wicker walls, scaling ladders rearing up against ramparts defended by desperate barbarians, may well be just so much hokum – but it was not difficult to imagine.

What was it like to be a slave in Ancient Rome?

How many slaves were there?

Roman collared slavesphoto © 2010 Jun | more info (via: Wylio)As the Roman empire expanded, slavery grew and became a vital part of the imperial economy. Most slaves were acquired through military conquest, although poor people occasionally sold their children into slavery and creditors could claim insolvent debtors as slaves. When Caesar conquered Alesia over a quarter of a million Gauls were enslaved. Slaves, particularly war captives, were economically more profitable than paid labour and were readily available, at least while the empire was expanding. At the empire’s peak, slaves accounted for 25-40% of the population of Italy, ie about 2-3 million slaves in Italy alone. Estimates for the whole Roman empire vary hugely between 10-18 million.

A wealthy landowner might acquire huge numbers of slaves to run his estates and businesses. The owner of Chedworth Villa owned 400 slaves who lived in slave barracks on site. Some ultra-wealthy people owned up to 20,000 slaves who did everything. Even the simplest jobs such as getting dressed or bathing required the helpf of slaves. The number of slaves made the poorest of the free working population redundant and created a mob of unemployed which had to be fed and constantly distracted – bread and circuses – if social strife was to be avoided.

How were slaves sold?

Jean-Leon Gerome: The Slave Marketphoto © 2007 freeparking | more info (via: Wylio)Slaves were bought and sold by wholesale slave dealers who followed the army’s conquests and shipped war captives back to the slave markets. Slaves would be sold naked, classified according to gender, age, health and character, by the quaestor, the army quartermaster and financial officer. Young male slaves were the most sought after and constituted the bulk of slaves. There was also demand for young females and slaves with particular skills, but older slaves were less valuable. At Pompeii a slave was sold for 1500 sestertii, three times the cost of a mule. Another, presumably more highly skilled, was sold for over 6,000 sestertii.

What work did they do?

Slaves worked as unskilled labourers in the mines, on farms and as on public works as porters, diggers, bricklayers and masons. They built aqueducts, roads, bridges, and public buildings and cleared sewers and roadside ditches. In commerce, slaves worked as agents, moneylenders, traders or as shopkeepers. Well educated or very able slaves might work as secretaries or accountants or agents, collecting funds and making receipts. One young slave in Yorkshire was entrusted with the management of a goldsmith’s shop. Others, particularly Greeks, might work as doctors or tutors. Many slaves managed the households of rich families as butlers, cooks, maids, hairdressers, wet-nurses and seamstresses. Soldiers often used slaves to manage their private affairs. Some slaves became gladiators.

How were slaves treated?

Slaves had no legal status; they were property, ‘tools with the power of speech’. A master’s power over a slave was absolute. Life as a slave depended on the type of work the slave did and whether they lived in the city or the country. Life as a gladiator or in the mines was especially hard and dangerous. Farm slaves did better while household slaves, particularly if they worked for a wealthy family, might live in conditions that would have been the envy of the working poor. Slaves could become well-off in their own right and employ their own slaves. Marriage between slaves was possible but had no legal force; the children of a slave couple belonged to the slave owner and could be sold at any time.

Physical punishment and sexual abuse must have been commonplace, but relations between master and slave could be close. The Latin word familia does not mean family in our sense but the wider household, and included slaves and ex-slaves. Pliny believed that slaves were naturally savage and should be treated accordingly, but Seneca argued that slaves would work harder if they were well-treated. Some slaves were allowed to be buried in the family tomb. At Pompeii an expensive gold bracelet found on the body of a woman was inscribed ‘From the master to his slave girl.’ Slaves wore poorer clothes than their owners and ate poorer food. They slept at the top of the house, or on the floor.

In the later empire, conditions nominally improved with the advent of Christianity and new laws, but these changes were routinely ignored and many priests continued to keep slaves.

Slaves and sex

The bodies of slaves, both men and women, were there for the taking. No-one minded if a man slept with a slave. That was, in part, what slaves were for.

Could slaves become free?

Domestic slaves might raise enough money to buy their freedom or might be granted their freedom through a process known as manumissio. This was not an act of generosity so much as a way of reducing costs as the master no longer had to pay to feed and support them. Freed slaves were called liberti and formed a separate class in Roman society. Most ex-slaves remained attached to the household and continued to work for their former master. Some grew rich and influential, although they did not enjoy the same status as citizens.

Did slaves resist?

The size of the slave population meant that Romans lived in constant fear of a slave uprising. Slave rebellions carried the severest penalties. The Thracian slave-gladiator Spartacus led a revolt of 70,000 slaves which was put down by Crassus with great brutality. If a slave murdered his master, all the master’s slaves could be legally executed; four hundred slaves were put to death when one master was murdered. Stocks or leg irons have been found at a number of farms outside Pompeii. At one villa human leg-bones were found in shackles, suggesting that the fettered slaves had been unable to escape when Vesuvius erupted, and had died where they lay.

When slaves did attempt to escape, bands of slave hunters were employed to hunt them down. Recaptured slaves were branded with the letter ‘F’ for fugitives and were required to wear iron collars

What did the Romans eat?

Researching Roman food at the moment for my second novel. It’s fascinating stuff. Most Romans ate simply. Bread or porridge (puls) made from ground wheat was the staple food, flavoured with salt or olive oil and eaten with cheese, eggs, home grown vegetables and whatever cooked meat, fish or shellfish could be afforded. Food varied across the empire, depending on local produce and custom, distance from the sea, and ease of transportation.

A typical Roman’s day:

Breakfast (ientaculum) if eaten at all would be taken very early and would probably be bread or wheat pancake, with salt, dried fruit, honey, eggs or cheese.

Lunch (prandium) was a light meal eaten around noon, usually salted bread. A more elaborate meal might include meat, fish, vegetables, cheese, eggs or salad, or perhaps the left-overs from the previous day.

The main meal of the day (cena) was eaten in the late afternoon after work. This varied between classes. The poor might eat a simple meal of porridge or bread flavoured with meat and vegetables. The rich could afford to eat more meat or fish and more exotic food.

An appetizer (gustatio) could be salad or egg dishes. Sea food (sea urchins, clams, raw oysters or mussels), stuffed dormice and snails might also be served. Petronius mentions eating dormice, dipped in honey and rolled in poppy seed.

An upper class dinner could be a simple affair. Martial described a dinner party where he served sow’s udder marinated in tuna fish brine as a starter, lamb with beans and spring greens and a left-over chicken and ham as a main course, followed by fresh fruit and vintage wine. The poet Horace ate a meal of onions, porridge and pancake.

But the rich could also afford to hold elaborate dinner parties with a variety of courses that lasted for hours. Meat dishes included beef, poultry, wild boar, venison, mutton, lamb and sausage. Hares and newborn rabbits were a delicacy. Poultry and wildfowl dishes were also common: crane, thrush, pigeons, doves, geese, swan and duck. Fish was more expensive than meat and included bream, hake, mackerel, mullet and sole. Vegetables included cabbage, parsnips, lentils, marrows, asparagus, onions, marrows , radishes and beans.

On special occasions, exotic dishes such as flamingos, porpoise and peacocks might be served. Goatfish (mullus), considered a delicacy because its scales change to a bright red colour as it dies, was served alive at table and allowed to die slowly. Trimalchio’s feast, described by Petronius, featured a roasted whole boar, suckled by cake piglets, and stuffed with live thrushes.

Dessert could be fruit, cakes and puddings, or nuts. Grapes were the most popular fruit, followed by figs, dates, pomegranates, apples, peaches, cherries, berries, pears, plums, strawberries and melons. A wide variety of breads, cakes, pastries and fruit tarts were consumed.

Spices, especially pepper, were imported on a large scale. Garum, a fermented fish sauce made from decomposed salted fish, was added to almost everything. More than 400 recipes attributed to Apicius required fish sauce.

What did they drink?

Wine was consumed by all classes and was usually drunk watered down. It was also drunk spiced, flavoured with honey, or heated. The poor drank watered sour wine mixed with herbs (posca). Beer and mead were drunk in the northern provinces of Britannia and Gallia. At Saturnalia, the December festival, copious amounts of wine were drunk by all social classes, including slaves.

How did they eat?

On formal occasions during the Roman Republic, high-status males ate reclining on their left elbow on three couches (lecti) drawn up in a horse-shoe around a table, either in the Triclinium or outside. Women and lesser guests ate sitting on chairs. By imperial times, high-status women had joined the men on the couches. During dinner entertainment (musicians, acrobats, poets) would be provided.

Romans ate with their fingers, except for soup which they ate with a spoon, and shellfish which they ate with a long-pronged spoon (cochlear). Slaves washed the guests’ fingers after each course. Bones and shells were thrown on the floor for the slaves to clear away.

What did soldiers eat?

Roman Foodphoto © 2006 Erich Ferdinand | more info (via: Wylio)
As with civilians, the basic foodstuffs for the Roman army were bread, bacon and cheese, supplemented by vegetables, meat, fish, shellfish, salt and olive oil, together with beer or a thin wine, normally mixed with water. Officers ate better than the men, legionaries ate better than auxiliaries. Bread was baked by the soldiers themselves in ovens built into the fortress walls. Bacon and ham were popular with troops because salt meat could be preserved and easily carried. From remains found at Caerwent and Vindolanda, soldiers also ate lots of broiled chicken, sausages and oysters. In garrison towns, food and wine or beer could be bought from bathhouses, taverns, shops and street vendors. Soldiers were permitted to cultivate the land around their forts. Supplying the army was a massive undertaking that required a complex organization of food collection and delivery. Amphoras for transporting wine, olive oil and fish sauce are common at military sites.

The future of publishing: Historical Fiction

Up to Manchester, UK yesterday for the 2010 Historical Novel Society conference. Two literary agents, Marcy Posner (Folio Literary Management) and Jim Gill (United Agents), spoke on the future of historical fiction publishing. Their views were thought-provoking, if gloomy. Here’s a summary of the key points.

What does an agent look for?

So many agents and publishers say that what they want from writers is superb craftsmanship or dazzling writing or a book that stands apart from the crowd. There’s also the tedious I-don’t-know-what-I want-but-I’ll-recognize-it-when-I-see-it school of literary stock picking. Hugely refreshing then to hear Marcy and Jim affirm that the process is not magic. Agents look to see if the book works as a novel. Above all, they ask themselves: Does this book entertain and inform and keep the reader interested?

How important is historical period?

Neither Marcy nor Jim thought the period matters. What was important was how you write the story. However, both then went on to say that a novel was easier to sell if the setting was  close to assumed knowledge, so readers were familiar with the context. Romans and Tudors are popular because they are taught in school and frequently covered in film and TV. Readers feel they understand the personalities and events.

Are there periods to avoid?

Selling less well-known periods can be more difficult. According to Marcy, stories set in the Second World War do not find favour with women readers in the US. Jim noted that books set during the English Civil war are not popular, the issues perhaps less clear. American Civil War fiction is less popular than non-fiction, Marcy observed, and the Regency period was a perennial favourite in the US, but less so in the UK.

No period rules itself out. The popular eras (especially Romans, Middle Ages and Tudors) have been done to death on both sides of the Atlantic, but that is not a reason to avoid them and they still provoke enormous interest.

What can authors do to help the sales of their books?

Very little. In the UK the only options are to sell online or through Waterstones. Even that is not enough: To succeed, you must be recommended by Amazon or stacked on the front table in Waterstones. The published charts are misleading because the chart rankings are paid for by publishers. Space in store is also bought: publishers pay to display their books on the end-caps or on the browsing tables at the front. Everything is up for sale, said Marcy. It’s all real estate. And, of course, only the big names/big publishers have the funds to invest in that level of marketing.

Both agents agreed that publishing is not an art but a business. Writers need to stand out from the crowd. It’s up to them because publishers will not help. This of course makes it very difficult in an increasingly crowded, fragmented and competitive market. The structure of the UK book market, with many sales going through supermarkets mean that books are often bought as commodities. They rely heavily on visual clues (bloke in Roman Coolus helmet plus cloak and smoke. Or girl in Laura Ashley dress plus soldier in uniform and poppyfield) to help readers locate and choose.

All of which makes book marketing increasingly difficult. Jim Gill thought that there was no point in writers talking to small audiences in regional libraries or doing the occasional book signing. Nor did he think that Twitter, Facebook and websites were the answer. That’s just noise, he said. What’s the point of tweeting if nobody hears you? How can you develop a marketing strategy when you’re followed by fewer than a dozen people? If you’re Stephen Fry with a massive following you can do it, but otherwise it’s hard (read: impossible) to make money by working Twitter.

Both agents took the traditional, mainstream view that you cannot really call yourself a published writer unless you sell a shed load of books. Self-publishing is a misnomer according to Marcy. It’s not publishing but printing, and has no value because there are no filters. Marcy said, ‘If a writer does not have an agent, is not with a major publishing house, and is not shifting large volumes of books, they’re wasting their time.’

So what’s the future for publishing?

Both Marcy and Jim agreed the future is digital. Although digital books currently account for less than 2% of revenue, said Jim, the sector is growing rapidly. Marcy noted that in New York there has been a resurgence of independent bookshops and saw this as positive. Readers, she felt, see buying online as impersonal and are once again looking for advice so they can make an informed choice.


Chastening words for the audience. Many were authors who had worked hard to promote their books using the marketing methods which Jim and Marcy saw as pointless.

My impression was that the big trade publishers and the agents who feed them, view the digital revolution with apprehension and some distaste.

One delegate told me he thought their approach was ‘arrogant.’

I don’t buy that. Jim and Marcy represent a mainstream view and have lots of experience, but their industry is rapidly changing and mainstream publishers will have to adapt or go under.

Maybe I got it wrong, but the logic seems circular, or at least self-defeating. What counts is high sales. To have high sales you need to have a good agent and be with a major publisher. Small-scale marketing is futile. Only major investment will buy the shelf facings that guarantee sales.

Yet only a fraction of published authors sell more than 3000 copies. Publishers cannot afford to promote all their authors equally. Major publishers will have to become more and more selective. As book retailing rationalizes, they will find themselves promoting fewer big names to fewer outlets and ignoring the rest. It will become harder for authors to distinguish themselves. Generic historical fiction themes and book jackets and a slew of me-toos following any successful book don’t help.

Meanwhile the web is opening up a massive new media outlet. Combined with POD (digital technology allowing inexpensive, small print-run publishing); the surging popularity of e-readers (8% of US readers now use an e-reader and US sales are expected to quadruple in the next five years); and the near universality of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, they represent new and powerful digitally-driven market forces.  Forces that will empower readers and democratize the market for historical fiction.

It’s my guess that it won’t be long before these developments become just as mainstream as traditional print publishing.

Now, that will be interesting!

The Saxon Shore fort: Naval base or warehouse?

Had to go to Lancing on some family business, so took the opportunity to nip over to Portchester Castle.

Saxon raids on Britain increased in the 3rd century and the response was to establish a naval command under the Count of the Saxon Shore based on the ‘system’ of fortified ports and installations which had grown up piecemeal on both sides of the channel. Opinion is divided whether the ‘Saxon Shore’ referred to the Germanic mercenaries hired to defend the coast or the Saxon raiders which threatened it. Personally, I think the Saxons gave their name to the coastlands they were attacking.

Portchester or Portus Adurni was probably built between 285 – 290 AD on a low-lying tongue of land that projects into Portsmouth harbour. It is the most complete example of a Roman fort north of the Alps.

The fort was laid out as a rectangular ditched enclosure with thick tall walls and 20 massive D-shaped external towers. Set midway along each wall was a gate. The present landgate is a reworking of the Roman north entrance. The walls stand to their probable original height which gives a strong impression of what the fort would have looked like.  There is no evidence of the closely-packed stone-based buildings found in earlier forts, such as those at Caerleon or on Hadrian’s Wall. Any buildings were probably wooden.

Portchester could have been a naval base from which ships intercepted pirates as they sailed towards the straits of Dover. Carausius who built the fort had a reputation for attacking Saxon pirates as they returned home loaded with plunder and stealing their loot.  Alternatively, the fort could have been used as a huge warehouse for securing trade goods en route to and from Gaul.

In the late Roman empire military units were smaller and more likely to be out-posted and it is possible Portchester was garrisoned only intermittently. By the late 4th century occupation of the Saxon Shore forts was declining and by the early fifth century they had been abandoned. This might explain why there are more female finds at Portchester, eg women’s shoes, than military.

Excavations have revealed a Germanic presence and it is possible that a detachment of Germanic mercenaries or laeti shared the fort with sub-Roman Britons. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle says that in 501 a Saxon chieftain came to Portesmutha and killed a young Briton of high rank. Fascinating to speculate whether these two warriors knew each other. And was this moment, when control of the fort passed from the Romano-British to the Germanics, brought about because the Germanics were already living inside?