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On ancient Roman roads – a guest post celebrating Ms Morton’s new release Julia Prima

One of the joys of having writer friends who share my fascination with history is diving down their rabbit holes. As long as I’ve known Alison, she’s been fascinated by maps (well, aren’t we all!) and how people travelled back in the good old days – more specifically in Roman times. It is therefore a special pleasure to have her here on my blog with a post about…taa-daa!… travelling during Roman times. Not only that, but Alison has used all her extensive knowledge in her latest book, Julia Prima, creating a rather delicious version of a Roman road-trip, liberally laced with Alison’s typical fast-paced action. But more about my thoughts of Julia Prima later. Now, dear peeps, I give you Alison and her love of roads. Well, travel!

Being transported the Late Roman way

As we jump in our electric cars, press the start button and glide off down a motorway, we effortlessly reach a spot two hundred kilometres away within two hours. Take the journey southwest from Poitiers near my home in France to Saintes on the Atlantic coast.

Courtesy Google Maps

Now switch back two millennia and consider that same journey from Limonum to Mediolanum Santicum as those two towns were called during the Roman period. By horse, fast carriage or even by rapid military march it would take two days. Even imperial couriers, changing horses every ten miles or so, would take half a day, and they would need an extreme excuse like a large barbarian invasion or the death of an emperor to travel at such a punishing (and expensive) rate. And if you wanted to carry heavy goods by ox-cart, you’d need to have allowed ten days.

Courtesy of ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World

Thinking about “Rome”

Ancient Rome in the west lasted from its official foundation (Romulus and Remus, etc.) in 753 BC until AD 476 – over 1220 years. A similar span would take us back from today to AD 790s. Although things change faster now, it’s still mind-boggling. Our standard visualisation of a ‘Roman’ tends to come from the first century period of Gaius Julius Caesar to Marcus Aurelius in the second century, only a quarter of Rome’s existence.

My new book, JULIA PRIMA, is set in the last quarter of the 4th century AD, a time of great transition. By then, Roman soldiers wore mail shirts, elaborate tunics and (gasp) trousers! Unknown to the characters in the book, they are living in the last hundred years of the Roman Empire and things are sliding significantly. Legal, administrative and social structures were still mostly in place, and in many places continued into at least the following century, but imperial territorial control at the end of the fourth century was receding both internally and externally; power was becoming regionalised.

So did people travel in these later times?

Yes, although it was much more perilous. But what was it like to ride along roads at the back end of empire? Maintenance of every type of road had become sporadic and, more worryingly, some bridges have crumbled into mere pillars standing lonely in the middle of rivers. Even the pons Neronianus used by emperors and generals to make a triumphant entry across the Tiber into Rome in the ‘olden days’ was derelict.  (Other bridges were available, as they say, but it was a sign of changing times.)

Local authority tax revenues had diminished, the military was often a locally raised non-Italian militia and far fewer private citizens were willing to put their hands in their togas for the required funds. Actually, togas had gone out of fashion and use by AD 370 except on extremely formal occasions and not always then. Another sign of decline. And, of course, brigands waiting to ambush were becoming much bolder…

I know zilch about riding a horse. I went on one once, didn’t like it, fell off and vowed never to go near one again. Roman horses were smaller and it’s commonly known Romans didn’t use stirrups. I still can’t find any solid information about how you mounted a horse under those circumstances, especially civilian riders. Were mounting blocks common? Let me know if you know!

Riders must also rest, water and feed horses on a regular basis. You can’t hammer a horse even when fleeing without it collapsing or at least becoming dehydrated and exhausted. But I have a friend who breeds horses and whose daughter is a prizewinning show jumper. She’s also an award-winning historical fiction writer so guess who I sent my manuscript to when was finished?

Travelling clothes are another thing to consider. Women travellers on horse or muleback wore more or less the same clothes as men, but longer, so their legs were decently covered. I’ve put my new heroine Julia in breeches as although she’s the daughter of a prince, she’s a mountain girl. Towards the end of the fourth century, breeches, trousers and leggings were becoming a great deal more common and it was cold in ‘them thar hills’!

When you were on a very rural road or a high mountain route in Late Antiquity with no 24-hour services that we’re used to, how did you feed and accommodate yourself? Hopefully, there was a river nearby to replenish your leather water bottles and the occasionally amenable farmer from whom you could scrounge or pay for a night’s rest and supper. And what would you have eaten and in what quantities? Rural farming diet was a long way from nightingales’ tongues and spiced oysters of Rome and Naples. Spelt or rye bread, cheese, cured ham and puls potage made from barley or oats would have been the basis of everyday food along with eggs and sometimes fresh meat.

On the sea

If you ventured onto the sea as a civilian (Neptune preserve you!), there were no cruise ships or passenger ferries. You could book a passage on a merchantman but don’t torment yourself with the hope of a cabin. Unless you were the owner, captain or a super-important person, you slept on the wooden deck. The galley could provide you with hot water, if you asked nicely, but you had to bring your own bowl. On-board catering was what you brought yourself including your own utensils, eating bowls and cups. For sleeping at night, you brought along thin travelling mattresses or just lay on the hard deck with your cloak wrapped round you. Savvy travellers would bring a leather tent to make a shelter against poor weather.

Navis oneraria. Illustration for Illustrations of School Classics arranged and described by G F Hill (Macmillan, 1903).

Oh, and there were plenty of roving pirates at this late stage of the empire looking for fresh stock for the slave markets. Sadly, the much reduced Roman navy could do little to stop them.

Resources for the writer

For physical geography, you can use a traditional atlas or, if you don’t mind rivers being difficult to follow, Google Maps. (Other map/satellite software is available, as they say.) Switching into satellite and street view, discounting the built environment and modern transport infrastructure, you can look at hills, shorelines and valleys and get a feel for the landscape.

For Roman fiction writers, there’s a wonderful dynamic map Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire hosted and managed by the Centre for Digital Humanities, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. You can find names of settlements, their modern names, routes and status information. Brilliant! Did you know the modern town of Prosecco (hic!) was called Castellum Pincinum, had a metal works and was a minor port? Of course, when my heroine goes through there and sample the fine wine grown in Picenum, there are not yet any bubbles in it…

When you want to find out how long it takes to get from A to B, whether by walking, ship or ox-cart, there’s the ever reliable interactive ORBIS from Stanford University which I used to illustrate the journey at the beginning. (Anna’s comment: Both these resources can actually be used to calculate travelling times throughout most of the medieval period, seeing as the modes of transport didn’t exactly change)

For detailed background about many modes of transport, you can do no better than Lionel Casson’s Travel in the Ancient World which details luxury and everyday travel on land and sea. You really do have to take everything with you or be prepared to rough it.

Late Antiquity is a period when the bones and structure of classical Roman Empire are still there, but as significant parts of it are crumbling away, new and different flesh is being put on those bones as Europe transitions into the (very) Early Medieval period. The ever-dwindling number of records from this time due to the fall in general literacy doesn’t make the research any easier, but that challenge is part of the fun! 

If you want to know more about how and where Roman roads were built, you might find this post interesting: On the Road to Rome.


Thank you, Alison! And now onto Julia Prima!

“You should have trusted me. You should have given me a choice.”
AD 370, Roman frontier province of Noricum. Staying faithful to the Roman gods in a Christian empire can be lethal. Half-divorced Julia Bacausa is condemned to an emotional desert and a forced marriage, Lucius Apulius barely clings onto his posting in a military backwater. Strongly drawn to each other, they are soon separated, but Julia is determined not to lose the only man she will love.

Neither wholly married nor wholly divorced, Julia is trapped in the power struggle between the Christian church and her pagan ruler father.

Tribune Lucius Apulius’s life is blighted by his determination not to convert to Christianity even to save his cherished career. 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…

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My review

Many years ago, I got my hand on the first book about Roma Nova, Inceptio. A present-day thriller, Inceptio is set in a country that doesn’t exist. Very unfortunately, IMO, as Roma Nova would deffo be on my bucket list otherwise. In Ms Morton’s world, Roma Nova was founded in the very late fourth century, as a small surviving enclave of the Roman Empire when everything else collapsed under the pressure of the huge migrations that so defined the future European map.

In Julia Prima, Ms Morton takes us back to that restless time. She depicts an empire that is fraying badly at the edges, partly due to external pressure but just as much because of internal divisions. Since some years back, Christianity has become the dominating religion, thereby increasing intolerance against the “pagans”. To hold to the old Roman gods in these the last few years of mighty Rome is to be ostracised and persecuted. But with a breach in beliefs comes an erosion of values, and former Roman virtues are no longer held in quite as high esteem—something which our male protagonist, Lucius Apulius, has first-hand experience of.

Ms Morton gives us a vivid portrayal of a civilisation sliding down an increasingly steep slope. Roads are no longer repaired, travel is unsafe, legionaries are recruited among foreigners and lower classes, the senate has expanded into a huge, vociferous body no one listens to. The great city of Rome remains as great, as big, but here too the lack of central governance is evident. Only a fool emerges on the streets of Rome without a guard or two at their back.

Julia Prima is a Roman citizen, but she is essentially a Celt, born in Virunum, present day Austria. Her father is a local prince who balances on a swaying tightrope between the demands of the power-hungry Christian bishop, the Roman governor, and the needs of his own people. It is a complex world, one Julia has been raised to manoeuvre. At present, her manoeuvring is restricted by the fact that she was foolish enough to marry the bishop’s nephew—according to Roman rites. Since, she has divorced him, but as she agreed to be baptised after the marriage, her ex insists theirs is still a valid marriage, and divorce is not an option for a Christian.

So when Lucius enters her life, he is a complication. A welcome complication, according to Julia, who more or less immediately recognises the stern Roman as her soulmate. Not quite so welcome from her father’s—or the bishop’s—perspective (but for very different reasons). What follows is to some extent a classic story of separated lovers who will do anything to be reunited. Unfortunately for Julia, a reunion will require overcoming a sequence of challenges and dangers.

As always, Ms Morton delivers a well-written pacy adventure, driven by her excellent dialogue and crisp prose. Set against Ms Morton’s well-researched background, Julia Prima is an engaging read, inviting the reader to travel along with the protagonists through the landscapes of the past. Somewhat worryingly, her book also offers a subtle insight into our present-day, where fragmentation and a celebration of the unique comes at the expense of collaboration and the wellbeing of the whole—to the ultimate detriment of all.



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 21st century and is ruled by women who face conspiracy, revolution and heartache but with a sharp line in dialogue.

Alison now lives in Poitou in France, the home of Mélisende, the heroine of her two contemporary thrillers, Double Identity and Double Pursuit. Oh, and she’s writing the next Roma Nova story.

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