I mentioned in my last post that my new mystery novel A Murder of Crows on the Wall takes place in 209 CE. For most people in the Roman world, I suppose that year was one of relative calm and security, although they could easily remember violence and civil war. A North African military man named Septimius Severus had been their emperor for 16 years. In the beginning, he had been just one of four powerful men attempting to seize power after the assassination of the despotic Commodus (the villain from that Gladiator movie). Severus had succeeded by force of arms after a chaotic four-year civil war when Roman legions fought other Roman legions on behalf of their favored imperial candidate.
After a short respite, the question of who was finally going to be the uncontested emperor was only solved after a big, bloody battle in 197, twelve years before the opening of my story. For context, Bush’s electoral defeat of John Kerry was only 12 years ago from now. The seizure of the throne by a powerful family of upstarts and outsiders from North Africa was fresh in the Romans’ minds.
Severus was a cruel and ruthless man who valued the might of the military above all else. He began a new imperial dynasty at Rome, and his family members mostly took after him. His eldest son Caracalla would eventually be his disastrous successor, becoming what Edward Gibbon called, “the common enemy of mankind” (quite a statement given the general reputation of Roman emperors). Caracalla’s reign would also begin with great violence, including the murder of his brother Geta by his own hand in the presence of their mother. Both brothers are characters we meet in my novel.
It is no surprise that between 197 and 209, Severus conducted several large-scale military campaigns around the empire. Warfare was mostly what he knew, and he felt the most comfortable on campaign. The economy and internal politics at Rome were still relatively stable, an inheritance from the period of prosperity cultivated by the second century emperors (such as Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius). Severus launched offensives in the east, conquering some land from the mighty Parthian empire, and in Africa where he established a line of fortifications to protect the southern frontier of the Roman Empire.
Severus then turned his sights on the province of Britain, to do something the Romans had never quite been able to accomplish– lay claim to the entire north of the island (modern Scotland). So for the first time in two generations, Roman troops marched into Britain and conducted a brutal war of suppression against the northern tribes. Severus led the campaign, although he was old and infirm and had to be carried around in a litter because of his painful gout. Before the end of the war, he would be dead and his son Caracalla would hurry back to Rome as the new emperor.
This northern war is the backdrop for my novel. My main character, a Romanized Greek named Gaius Pedius, is a mapmaker and surveyor sent (with a hundred others) to Britain in order to re-survey property lines in the province. It is part of the war effort, since Severus hopes to redraw the tax records in his favor and extract more funds for his expensive campaigns. While there, Pedius stumbles into a murder mystery involving a mysterious religious cult and five dead soldiers.
(More information about A Murder of Crows on the Wall can be found at garydevore.com/crows/)