Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fort has the sort of plot readers have been familiar with since the first act of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth. A Roman fort must hold out against a siege from barbarians, pitting the familiar apparatus of the disciplined legions against looser tribal bands. Between the main cast, there are the tensions you might expect between (variously) conquerer and conquered, metropolitan and provincial, patrician and plebeian.
Goldsworthy differs from Sutcliff in, among other things, the age of his protagonist, the levels of sex and violence and the consistent focus on the titular fort. There is no quest for the missing Eagle – there is only the fort of Piroboridava before, during and after the siege (with appropriate other excursions). In this sense, there is something rather procedural about The Fort. However, it doesn’t embrace a Tom Clancy-style cast of thousands. Instead, we get a main character, the centurion Flavius Ferox, and a counterpart in among the Dacian forces – with occasional points of view from the level of Imperial governance by Aelius Hadrianus – who will become better known as the Emperor Hadrian.
It is one of Goldsworthy’s successes in The Fort to set it away from some of the more well-trodden bits of Roman history. The time is 105 AD, the Emperor is Trajan. The plot does not retread the Punic Wars or Julius Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul – and, indeed, is set far from Roman Britain. Trajan and the Dacian Wars are hardly unknown (Trajan’s Column in Rome is a fairly prominent monument of his conquests, and the choice of Trajan to represent Rome in Sid Meier’s Civilization VI has doubtless boosted his image) but are less than prominent in the popular imagination. Goldsworthy’s Afterword explores several points of the setting and his innovations in a way that does him credit as a historian as well as a writer.
However, there are patches where The Fort suffers. The Fort is the first of a new series, but sits at the end of a previous trilogy (the Vindolanda series) that introduced Flavius Ferox and other characters from Roman Britain. The introductions of these sat oddly with the rest of the text, at least to one who is unfamiliar with the preceding books. A submerged Celtic identity and lingering grudges were interesting features for Ferox, but the strong link between these and the former series made it all (irrationally) less mysterious than if Ferox had been a brand new character. The distant references to what looks an awful lot like a secret Pictish ninja clan were also eyebrow-raising.
I can, however, recommend The Fort. To a newcomer to Ancient Rome it will likely be entertainingly two-fisted, and there is a glossary provided. To those more familiar, it may be interesting, and highlights the Dacian Wars as an area for further study. I think Goldsworthy has reached sufficiently high on the cursus honorum to net three stars.