The Watchmen is the second book in the Britannia series by Richard Denham and M.J. Trow. I read and reviewed the first book in the series, The Wall. I liked that book; this one was more entertaining.
The Wall began in AD 367 in Roman Britannia, modern day England. The Watchmen is set years later and the four so-called ‘Heroes of the Wall’ are living very different lives from their earlier roles in the Roman Army. Leocadius, once a bragging and womanizing pedes or foot soldier, is now a leader in civilian life, the council of Londinium (London), with a cold wife and a warm mistress, Honoria. The beautiful Honoria runs an upper class brothel and has a child, Scipio, with Leocadius. Vitalis, also once a foot soldier, has become a Christian and now lives in a rough house by the Thames, where he weaves baskets for sale from the river grasses. Justinus, once a 30 year old non-commissioned officer of the cavalry, is now Commander of Hadrian’s Wall, tasked with protecting Britannia from invaders from the wild lands north of the Wall. Paternus, a semisallis (a rank above pedes) had lost his family in the earlier book and had made a political marriage with Brenna, female leader of the Voltadini, to tie her people to Rome. They’d fallen in love and had a child together, but Paternus had died five years before the story begins. Justinus is in love with Brenna and committed to overseeing the development and education of her two boys, one from an earlier marriage and the one fathered by Paternus. Around these characters the book swirls, moving swiftly from one to the other, leaving the reader with multiple cliffhangers.
The figure tying the separate story lines together is Magnus Maximus, commander of the Roman Army in Britannia. He declares himself Caesar, a challenger to the throne of Gratian, Emperor of the western Roman Empire. Gratian shares the throne with his brother Valentinian II, Emperor of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. At the beginning of the book, Maximus is demanding and winning allegiance from the various native tribes in Britannia, as their Caesar.
Leocadius is mired in the politics of Londinium and saddled with a grasping wife. He plays dice for his life. Vitalis wants a peaceful life but has to rejoin the military to help his sister Conchessa find her husband, who defrauded Valentinian and is missing. Justinus is facing a massive incursion of invaders determined to kill everything and everyone in their way and has to work with Maximus and the tribes allied with him to stop them. Each of their stories winds through the book like ribbons on a maypole, detailed with Celtic legend, Egyptian mysticism and tribal battle-fury. How many of the remaining three Heroes of the Wall will survive?
I only have two negative comments: first, the story of Maximus’ campaign against Gratian is given short shrift – in itself, it could have been another volume; second, there were places where the characters use very contemporary expressions, which was a little jarring. I appreciated the glossary at the end of the book for Roman terms with which I wasn’t familiar, and the map showing sites from the narrative.
Richard Denham is a self-taught Roman historian with an exhaustive knowledge of this period; M.J.Trow is a military historian. They have combined their talents to bring the Britannia of the fourth century and its citizens to life.
I fully admit I am not an historian and perhaps some who are might quibble. But as a general reader, I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys historical fiction and Roman history. Where I felt the first book in the series would appeal mainly to men, this book has a broader appeal. I’m hoping to see a third book soon.