Jul 22

Life at the Edge of the Roman Empire by Sandra Schwab

Please welcome Sandra Schwab.

Thanks for having me as your guest, Anna. When I was eight years old, I fell in love with Rosemary Sutcliff’s wonderful historical novels. Many of them—including The Eagle of the Ninth from 1954 and Frontier Wolf from 1980—are set in Roman Britain. Thus, from an early age, I developed a great fascination with Ancient Rome and with history in general.Schwab-Pic-1

Last summer I stumbled across a conversation on Twitter, where people bemoaned the fact that there are so few romances set in Ancient Rome. I happened to mention that I live near one of the great borders of the Roman Empire, the Upper Germanic Limes, and the next thing I knew was I had somehow been talked into writing a romance set in…er…Ancient Rome. And because I love trying out new things, I thought, “Why not?”

Now, having a fascination with a specific time period and writing a story set in that same period, are actually two very different things, as I soon found out. Up to that point I had only ever written historicals set in the nineteenth century. Indeed, after ten years of doing this, I had completely forgotten how much research actually goes into the small, everyday details.

Cue frantic buying of new research books (and re-arranging of the shelves in my study…) because surely nothing can go wrong when you have enough books!

I also thought it would be a good idea to visit the Saalburg, a reconstructed Roman fort near where I live. The Saalburg was the first museum of its kind, the beginning of the reconstruction work dating back to the late 19th century. Walking among the reconstructions of Schwab-Pic-2the headquarters building, the workshops, and barracks gives you the most peculiar feeling, and for a moment, you can almost imagine to have stepped back in time to the period when this was the last outpost of Roman civilization before the wilderness of the vast Germanic woodlands began.

The job of securing the borders of the large empire fell to the Roman army, which consisted of the legions, made up of RSchwab-Pic-3oman citizens, and the auxiliary forces, which were raised from the population in the provinces. During the reign of Hadrian, the emperor himself initiated great building projects to make the borders of the Germanic, the Raetian, and the British provinces more secure and easier to control.

In Britannia the result was Hadrian’s Wall, a gigantic stone wall with banks and ditches that stretches from the east to the west coast of what today is northern England. Initially, the wall was to be controlled by small mile castles and watchtowers that were erected at regular intervals. Within a few years, larger forts, which could house between 500 and 1000 men from the auxiliary troops, were added.

By contrast, the Germanic border, which originally seems to have been monitored by a chain of watchtowers along a cleared stretch of forest, was secured by a wooden palisade and a series of wooden fortlets. In subsequent years, many of those smaller fortlets, including the Saalburg, were extended and built in stone.

It was a peculiarity of the Romans that all forts within the empire were built along similar lines: at the center of a wallSchwab-Pic-4ed in rectangular stood the principia, the headquarters building with the shrine of the standards, and the praetorium, the commander’s house. Both were surrounded by even rows of (wooden) barracks, granaries, and workshops, with the bread ovens and the lavatories typically tugged against the ramparts. Some forts also had a hospital and a bath house; however, in many cases, the latter could be found outside the fort itself and was part of the vicus, the small town that inevitably sprung up around each and every fort of the empire. The vicus housed the families of the soldiers (they couldn’t legally marry, but many entered informal connections) and also included the workshops of craftsmen, eateries, shops, and temples.

Indeed, living at the edge of the Roman Empire did not mean that you had to go without niceties. Finds from the Saalburg include pretty leather shoes, beautiful brooches, jewelry, and lovely tableware.



In Vindolanda, a fort a few miles from Hadrian’s Wall, archaeologists have found hundreds of thin wooden tablets that were used for writing letters and for note-taking. They give us a unique insight into life at the border. Among the most famous of those tablets is an invitation to a birthday party, sent to the wife of the commander of the fort (he was allowed to marry):

“Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present.”

(An free online database of the tablets can be found at: http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk/)

Award-winning author Sandra Schwab started writing her first novel when she was seven years old. Thirty-odd years later, telling stories is still her greatest passion, even though by now she has exchanged her old pink fountain pen for a black computer keyboard.

She lives in Frankfurt am Main / Germany with a sketchbook, a sewing machine and an ever-expanding library. You can find her online at www.sandraschwab.com

Schwab-coverEagle’s Honor, her new series of steamy historical romances set in ancient Rome, follows the story of one family across 300 years of the Roman Empire, from Caesar’s Gallic Wars to the fall of the Germanic limes. The first full-length novel, Eagle’s Honor: Banished, is now available on Amazon:

It tells the story of a young Roman centurion, Marcus, who falls in love with his friend’s pleasure slave and soon becomes entrapped in an evil scheme designed to destroy him. And yet—he cannot help risking everything for Lia, the woman he has given his heart to, even if it means he will be banished to one of the most dangerous places in the Roman Empire: the northern frontier of Britannia.

Here’s an excerpt from when he arrives at the fort in Britannia:

Six weeks later Marcus presented himself to Flavius Gannius, prefect of the Tenth Cohort of Batavians at Vindulum. Gannius was a broad-shouldered, bulky man, his hair liberally sprinkled with gray, his grayish green eyes piercing as he studied Marcus from head to toe. He was not the kind of man with whom you wanted to fall into displeasure.

“You are rather later, centurion,” he finally said. “Is it a habit of the Eleventh Pia Claudia Fidelis to let her men move about at a snail’s pace?”

Marcus stiffened. He forced himself to take a calming breath before he answered, “I apologize for my late arrival. My ship was delayed by storms in Gaul. I assure you it was by no fault of my training at the Eleventh that I’ve arrived this late at Vindulum.”

“Hm.” The other man glanced down at the tablets on the table in front of him. “You gave your name as Marcus Florius, but this report I have here from the senior tribune of the Eleventh gives your name as Marcus Florius Corvus.”

Of course. It had to.

“A name I acquired from the men serving with me.”

Gannius stared at him, prompting Marcus to elaborate, not without an internal sigh. “A small joke on account of my nose, sir.”

One of the dark, bushy brows rose. “Corvus?”

“The men didn’t think ‘Aquila’ would do it proper justice, sir,” Marcus said drily. “Hence, Corvus.” Raven.

Gannius read through another section of the report. “It says here that you were popular with the men under your command; fair and strict; that you received your vine-staff at the tender age of twenty-eight upon the retirement and explicit recommendation of your former centurion Gaius Loreius Sylla, who had made you his optio when you were just twenty-three and had served in the Eleventh for a mere six years. In addition”—he flipped to the next tablet—“the tribune takes great pains to point out your excellent fighting abilities as well as the outstanding quality of your unflinching leadership of your men in battle.”

Closing the report and shoving the bound tablets to the side, Gannius looked up. “So tell me, Centurion Marcus Florius Corvus, what exactly did you do?”


“Heavens, man, you must have done something to get demoted to a centuria in a mere auxilia.”

“Ah,” Marcus said slowly.

“Yes, ah. And I want to know what it is and whether it’s going to bite my cohort in the arse one of those days.”


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  1. Stanalei Fletcher

    I am always in awe of those who embrace history and bring it life in their stories. Best of luck with you books, Sandra.

    1. Sandra Schwab

      Thank you so much, Stanalei! I love exploring bygone eras. For my Victorian series, I work a lot with 19th-century magazines and newspapers – and it’s SO MUCH fun! Digging through old gossip and old scandals, finding out about intriguing forms of entertainment, and discovering various tidbits about life in the past.

  2. Debra Holland

    Love it. Off to buy the book now.

    1. Sandra Schwab

      Thank you, Debra! I hope you’ll enjoy Marcus & Lia’s story! <3

  3. Lana Williams

    Fascinating post! Thanks for sharing all this great information!

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