I’m delighted to feature JULIA PRIMA by Alison Morton, and she’s written a fabulous post about her book.
The dangers of travelling in the fourth century
Historical fiction at its best transports the reader into another time and place – the heat, fear and smell of battle, the celebration of a marriage where fire flickers nearby when the bride’s hair is arranged with a sharp spear point, or a voyage across a cold featureless sea where you feared might drop off the edge of the world into oblivion.
Style, tone and construction may be radically different, and the settings may be frightening or fascinating, but all good historical fiction conveys the impression of being an eyewitness to what is happening around them as well as how they are acting in that context.
One immediate way of anchoring a book in the past is thinking about how people travelled. We are so used to leaping into the car or catching a train or plane that we forget how completely different journeys were for pre-industrial people.
The concept of distance has changed radically over time. Over much of human history, it was measured in days or weeks taken rather than in land measurement such as miles. Depending on modes of transport available, whether imperial courier’s horse, an ox cart or simple trudging on foot, the perception of distance depended on the state of tracks, paths or roads.
JULIA PRIMA features a journey on horseback through mountains, transfer on a coastal barge, a voyage on a trading ship, crossing the Apennines on horseback and finally walking through the city of Rome. Each method presents challenges. Horses must be rested and fed regularly. Roman imperial couriers carrying urgent dispatches would change horses at official way stations every 8-10 miles for this reason. Only in Hollywood films and Netflix series can they gallop on and on all day. Saddles at that time had four horns – two back and two front – which held the rider in securely; there were no stirrups. Then there was the question of whether horses were shod or not . . .
Not all Roman roads were hard metalled and impeccably paved and drained. Primarily, the roads had been built for military use as a quick and efficient means for overland movement of armies and officials. Altogether there were more than 400,000 kilometres (250,000 miles) of roads, of which over 80,500 km (50,000 miles) were stone paved. Many were gravelled, even in towns with some slabbed surfaces in the most important parts such as the forum. Added to these were private roads, rural roads, tracks and link roads. Much more detail here: https://www.alison-morton.com/2020/12/18/on-the-road-to-rome/
Taken together, they allowed the movement of people and goods, and connected isolated communities, helping them to absorb new ideas and influences, sell surplus goods, and buy what they could not produce locally. This trade resulted in an increase of wealth for everyone to a level not seen before and is suggested as a strong reason why many people strove to adopt the lifestyle of their conquerors.
But towards the end of the fourth century, there were potholes, missing slabs and invasive vegetation as local authorities could not afford their upkeep. Bridges built earlier, especially in the time of Augustus nearly two hundred years earlier, were failing, with parapets missing, holes in the surface and even collapsing completely.
Sailings, even for short passages such as across the Adriatic from Trieste to Ancona, were subject to season, usually May to October, and in the late fourth century, the most fearful danger: pirates. The imperial navy was mostly based in Constantinople by the time of JULIA PRIMA in AD 370 and the few ships still based in Ravenna would not offer comprehensive protection. Storms could bring all sea transport to a grinding halt as could a complete lack of wind. Nevertheless, traders still crossed the water, usually in convoys, and if fortunate escorted by a naval ship which gave an appearance, if not the reality, of protection.
Ferries today such as the cross-Channel ones offer cushioned seating, restaurants, shops and even cabins with ensuite bathrooms. Julia and her companions travel on the hard deck of a merchant ship with whatever shelter and comfort, such as light mattresses, they brought with them. The galley could provide hot water, but you brought your own washing bowl, cups and eating dishes and your own food. Once it set sail, a ship was a self-contained and vulnerable world that was lost to all human contact until it docked again. No ship’s radio, GPS, satellite tracking and communication meant that it could disappear without trace and nobody would know its fate. And news of events, e.g. death of an emperor, would only be available once the ship docked.
Many travellers stayed with friends, family or trade colleagues. In larger cities and ports, there was a range of possibilities from well-equipped rooms in top class inns to a bed in a shared dormitory, often also shared with travellers of the insect variety!
At the most simple were private houses offering a room in their property for a fee. They could include stabling for animals and supper for their riders. Perhaps an early form of B&B! Travellers would know these houses by a lamp lit over their entrance door. Often this was the only form of hospitality in rural or remote areas.
A mansio gave accommodation to official visitors and feeding, watering and stables for their animals. They had to produce a travel document/official chit to show their entitlement to gain access to these government-funded facilities or they were back on the road again.
Non-official travellers had a choice, depending on the size of their purse and their inclination. Cauponae were often sited near the mansions and performed the same functions at a lower level of comfort. However, they suffered from a bad reputation as they were frequented by thieves and prostitutes. Tabernae provided hospitality for the more discerning traveller. In early days, they were mere houses along the road, but as Rome grew, so did its tabernae, becoming more luxurious. Of course, some did not, but they were generally above the level of the scruffy cauponae. Many cities of today grew up around a taberna complex, such as Rheinzabern in the Rhineland.
A third system of way stations serviced vehicles and animals: the mutationes (changing stations). In these complexes, the driver could purchase the services of wheelwrights, cartwrights and equarii medici, or vets. Some hostelries had elements of each type above, so historical fiction writers can often use generic descriptions such as inns or lodgings and vary the description of the accommodation as it suits their story.
For travellers in the late imperial period, such as Julia in AD 370, the danger from bandits had increased markedly. Some were dispossessed agricultural workers, some escaped slaves, mercenaries for hire or just criminals. As systems dissolved, the military became less visible and finances to fund them ran out, thereby making travelling increasingly dangerous.
Here’s the blurb:
“You should have trusted me. You should have given me a choice.”
AD 370, Roman frontier province of Noricum. Neither wholly married nor wholly divorced, Julia Bacausa is trapped in the power struggle between the Christian church and her pagan ruler father.
Tribune Lucius Apulius’s career is blighted by his determination to stay faithful to the Roman gods in a Christian empire. Stripped of his command in Britannia, he’s demoted to the backwater of Noricum – and encounters Julia.
Unwittingly, he takes her for a whore. When confronted by who she is, he is overcome with remorse and fear. Despite this disaster, Julia and Lucius are drawn to one another by an irresistible attraction.
But their intensifying bond is broken when Lucius is banished to Rome. Distraught, Julia gambles everything to join him. But a vengeful presence from the past overshadows her perilous journey. Following her heart’s desire brings danger she could never have envisaged…
Universal Link: https://books2read.com/JULIAPRIMA
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Meet the author:
Alison Morton writes award-winning thrillers featuring tough but compassionate heroines. Her nine-book Roma Nova series is set in an imaginary European country where a remnant of the ancient Roman Empire has survived into the 21stcentury and is ruled by women who face conspiracy, revolution and heartache but with a sharp line in dialogue.
She blends her fascination for Ancient Rome with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, historical and thriller fiction. On the way, she collected a BA in modern languages and an MA in history.
Alison now lives in Poitou in France, the home of Mélisende, the heroine of her latest two contemporary thrillers, Double Identity and Double Pursuit. Oh, and she’s writing the next Roma Nova story.
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