First edition cover
Frontier Wolf is a novel published in 1980 by Oxford University Press. It follows a disgraced Roman officer transferred to the command of an irregular unit at an isolated outpost in British territory. The book is dedicated "To Phil Barker, Ted Bishop, and Wallace Breem".
It is the third story about the Flavius Aquila family chronologically and the seventh in publication order.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Chronology
- 3 Characters
- 4 Places
- 5 Background
- 6 Publication history
- 7 References
Centurion Alexios Flavius Aquila, the young and inexperienced nephew of the Dux Britanniorum, prematurely abandoned his temporary command and sustained heavy casualties in a retreat across country during a tribal uprising on the German frontier (1). He is judged not guilty of deliberate treason, but is reassigned to the command of a distant British outpost of the Frontier Scouts, or Wolves, irregulars used as a dumping ground for soldiers unfit for other service. His officers and men are unenthused by his reputation, but reserve judgement (2).
Before his departure from Castellum, the incumbent commander Julius Gavros presents Alexios to the local chieftain of the Votadini, an ailing man named Ferradach Dhu, and his sons Cunorix and Connla, and encounter as well the inimical druid Morvidd (3). Alexios settles into the life of Castellum, which includes writing to complain about the rations, monitoring the family life of the fort cat, and breaking up an incipient riot between the Votadini and Dalriad Wolves on Midwinter's night, after which he begins to learn the Frontier Wolves' weapon-dances (4). In the spring, with Cunorix as his guide, he kills the wolf whose pelt he will wear as the badge of his service (5).
In summer, Ferradach Dhu dies and is laid in the Death Place of the Chieftains, a bog called the Long Moss (6). Cunorix is made chief, and at the celebration Alexios speaks with a wandering harper who has recently come from the hall of the Caledone king, who tells him that the Caledones are negotiating a marriage alliance with the Attacotti tribe of Erin, and is overheard by Morvidd (7). Though Druim, Alexios's intelligence officer, disclaims any knowledge of the rumours, the harper is found assassinated (8).
Glaucus Montanus, the new Praepositus of the Frontier Scouts, arrives for an inspection shortly before midwinter and offends the Votadini by dismissing their tax grievances and rejecting a request to lend his horse for stud (8). On the day before Montanus is due to leave, Connla steals his horse as a prank, and in retrieving it, two Frontier Wolves and the horse are killed (9). Montanus orders Connla executed for horse theft, and Alexios gives him a mercy killing and resigns his command in protest. A dying scout of Druim's rides in to report that the Caledones and Attacotti are on the move, and while Alexios is confined to quarters, Druim and the rest of the Arcani desert. The Votadini attack the fort the next morning, and Montanus is killed (10).
Alexios resumes command of the fort, which is too undermanned to defend. By the end of the day, he chooses once again to pull out of his post and retreat across country with no hope of a relief force (11). Sending a decoy party up the river, the main body of the Wolves escapes Votadini territory through the secret path through the Long Moss to the Chieftains' Death Place, where Kaeso, the quartermaster, is killed by a panicking horse. They encounter the tracks of a Pict warband in whose wake they follow for concealment, camping in a devastated village of the Selgovae, where a single surviving woman curses both Romans and Picts before escaping (12). They fight off a force of Votadini and Picts the day before they can reach the First Ordo headquarters at Bremenium, and lose Lucius, the Junior Centenarius, commanding the Rear Guard at a bridge the next day (13). When they ride into Bremenium that evening, it is deserted: the garrison has been slaughtered and the gates stand open.
A single survivor tells them that the Arcani opened the gates to the attackers. The Frontier Wolves take a position in the waggon park out side the fort, hoping that the Votadini will not arrive until dark, when they do not fight. They come too soon, and Alexios calls Cunorix out to play for time. After stalling as long as he can, he offers Cunorix a bargain: as he was the man who killed Connla, he will fight Cunorix in single combat, giving Cunorix the chance to repay the blood debt and sparing both their men. Alexios is the better swordsman, and he kills his friend. Morvidd incites the warband to attack despite the lowering darkness, but he is killed by a Scout's arrow and the reluctant Votadini and uninterested Picts withdraw at the arrival of a single surviving patrol of the Wolves of Bremenium (14).
The remains of the Third and First Ordos retreat to the headquarters of Julius Gavros's Second at Habitancum, where they arrive just in time to retreat with the garrison to the Southern Wall (15). Alexios collapses of an infection in the sword cut he took from Cunorix. While he lies up in the infirmary, the Sixth and Twentieth Legions are called up to put down the uprising by the visiting emperor Constans and the Dux Britanniorum. Constans offers Alexios a brilliant career on his staff, or the command of five hundred Attacotti prisoners who have chosen service with the Frontier Scouts over slavery. Alexios, along with his unexpectedly loyal Senior Centenarius Hilarion, chooses the First Attacotti Frontier Scouts (16).
Frontier Wolf takes place over approximately a year and a half leading up to the visit of the emperor Constans I to Britain in the winter of 342-3, which Sutcliff places just after the winter solstice of 342.
The Author's Note acknowledges that when Sutcliff at the time of writing, there was no archaeological evidence of Roman occupation at the Cramond fort ("Castellum") in "AD 343 – or for nearly a hundred years before."
The Frontier Wolves had first appeared in The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965), set in the 180s CE, followed in 280 CE with "Frontier Scout" in The Capricorn Bracelet (1973), originally a radio script of unknown date.
- A hundred years earlier: emperor Caracalla names the Scouts his Wolves (4).
- More than 2 generations earlier: Syrian draft turns Wolves into mounted archers (4).
- Mid-341: New governor arrives at Regina; Marcomanni attack Abusina. Alexios court-martialled (1).
- Autumn 341: Alexios arrives in Castellum two months after the inquiry (2).
- Midwinter's night 341: The Frontier Wolves dance the Bull Calves (4).
- Early spring 342: Alexios and Cunorix hunt his wolf (5).
- Midsummer 342: Ferradach Dhu dies and laid to rest (6), and Cunorix made chieftain, in three-day ceremony; Shula gives birth to their son (7). Rumours of Attacotti-Pict alliance (8).
- December 342: 3-day visit of Praepositus Montanus (8). 4th day: Connla steals the horse on the 4th day. 5th day: Steals it again; horse killed (9); Connla executed; Arcanus reports the Pict and Attacotti invasion (10).
- Next day: Votadini attack Castellum; Montanus is killed in the morning. Alexios orders withdrawal (11).
- 1st day of the retreat: Leave Castellum before dawn. Cross the Long Moss. Camp at the Rath of Skolawn (12).
- 2nd day of the retreat: Collect the decoy party and camp on the moors (13).
- 3rd day of the retreat: Fight through Votadini and Pict ambush. Camp at Ravens' Law (13). Bremenium massacred (14).
- 4th day of the retreat, Midwinter's eve 342: Fight at the bridge on the Roaring-Water (13). Arrival in Bremenium; death of Cunorix and Morvidd (14).
- 5th day of the retreat: Withdrawal to Habitancum (15).
- 6th day of the retreat: Withdrawal of the Habitancum garrison to Onnum (15).
- More than a week since arriving in Onnum: Alexios unconscious in sick bay. Sixth and Twentieth Legions breaking up the revolt.
- A month later: Meeting with Constans. First Attacotti Frontier Scouts headed to Corstopitum for six weeks' basic training (16).
Flavius Aquila family
- Alexios Flavius Aquila (1), centurion of the 2nd century of the 3rd British Cohort at Abusina, ducenarius of the 3rd Ordo Scouts at Castellum, Praepositus of the Numerus of First Attacotti Frontier Scouts in Belgica.
- Phoenix (5), Alexios's horse
- Marius (1), the Dux Britanniorum, Alexios's mother's half-brother
- Alexios's mother (2), from Ephesos and half-Greek, "somewhat given to tears"
- Crito (1), senior centurion of the Third British Cohort of Auxiliaries at Abusina, killed in the first Marcomanni attack
- Tetricus (1), tribune and commander of Abusina, in Regina during the attack; "normally a kindly soul".
- The Marcomanni (1), a German tribe, Roman citizens
- Clovius (1), a centurion of the 3rd British junior to Alexios, though older, who served 5 years at Abusina; officially objected to the withdrawal from the fort and was killed in the retreat.
Frontier Scouts of Castellum
- Julius Gavros (2), ducenarius of the 3rd Ordo Frontier Scouts at Castellum, promoted to the 2nd Ordo at Habitancum; later promoted praepositus of the numerus
- Hilarion (2), senior centenarius; "lank, lean, and freckled, pale eyes that glinted under a cap of straight sandy hair." Rarely stands up straight or speaks without irony. Had no father (4). Survives the retreat and joins the 1st Attacotti.
- Lucius (2), junior centenarius; "square, dark, and a little wooden", quiet; fond of Virgil's Georgics; a Christian. Commander of the Rear Guard during the retreat; killed by a spear-thrust in the neck at the bridge on the Roaring-Water (13).
- Kaeso Quintillius (2), quartermaster; red-faced and alcoholic, middle-aged, balding, fussy about the supplies (4). The longest-serving of Castellum's officers (6). Killed in the Long Moss during the retreat, kicked in the head by a pony, and buried at the first camp with the rites of Mithras (12).
- Anthonius (2), medic; sallow and long-nosed; a Christian. Survives the retreat.
- Druim (2), spymaster; "mouse hair in thick braids, framing a blue-eyed face apparently as open as the day"; son of a chieftain of the Damnonii
- Rufus (4), junior trumpeter; rescuer of Typhon; killed by an arrow in the throat during the defence of Castellum (11).
- Typhon (4), Rufus's kitten, part wildcat; killed with Rufus (11).
- Cloe (4), mouser; mother of three
- Bericus (4), an emperor's hard bargain; one of four punished for the Bull Calves; a trick-rider; euthanised the praepositus's horse. Killed during the defence of the northern stockade by an ax to the head (11).
- Kuno (5), a Frontier Wolf watering ponies when Alexios gets his wolf
- Vedrix, senior optio (11); "a small foxy-looking man"; led the decoy party in the retreat
- Garwin, senior optio (11); attended Alexios at Ferradach Dhu's funeral
- Finn, senior optio (11); a Votadini, former horse thief; mother related to the Little Dark People gave him marks of protection
- Brychanus, senior optio (11); older
- Conan, senior trumpeter (11); the last man out of Castellum
- Amlodd (12), a scout observing a Pict war party during the first camp
- Cullen (13), Alexios's galloper during the retreat
- Ferradach Dhu (3), local chief of the Votadini; large, middle-aged, ill; dies during the summer
- Shadow (6), Ferradach Dhu's favourite horse; a mouse-coloured mare
- Shula (3), Cunorix's wife; wears golden earrings; gives birth to a son the night Cunorix is made chief
- Cunorix (3), Ferradach Dhu's elder son; russet-haired and ugly
- Luath and Luffra (5), Cunorix's hounds
- Connla (3), Ferradach Dhu's younger son; red-haired; reckless
- Morvidd (3), a druid; lost face to Julius Gavros. Killed at Bremenium (14).
- Duatha (6), a tanner in the lower town; old
- Finnan Horse-herd (6), a Votadini horse expert
- Sinnoch the Healer (6), attending Ferradach Dhu
- Teleri (9), the swordsmith's daughter; red-haired; laughed at Connla for the loss of the praepositus's horse
- Gault (9), a close friend of Connla
Other Frontier Scouts
- Calventius (8), Praepositus of the Numerus, old and sick, waiting to hand over to Montanus
- Glaucus Montanus (8), new praepositus of the Frontier Wolves; killed in the first attack on Castellum.
- Optio of the 1st Ordo (13); the praepositus's escort; guides the Wolves through the 1st's territory
- Cognos (14), artilleryman; sole survivor of the Bremenium garrison
- Optio of the 1st Ordo (15); leader of a twenty-man patrol during the Pict massacre; relief of the 3rd Ordo at Bremenium
- Commandant of Habitancum (15)
- The Selgovae (12); tribe west of the Votadini, attacked by the Picts; one of the four tribes from whom the Scouts are recruited
- The Damnonii; west coast tribe who join the uprising; one of the four tribes from whom the Scouts are recruited
- The Dalriads (Scots); tribe northwest of the Northern Wall; one of the four tribes from whom the Scouts are recruited
- The Picts (the Painted People; the Caledones); tribe from beyond the Northern Wall
- Vran (4), a shepherd of Alexios's family farm in south Britain
- Nuada (7), a harper; heard of the Attacotti raid in the hall of king Bruide and told it to Alexios; killed at the river after Cunorix's chief-making
- Bruide (7), king of the Caledones
- Selgovae woman (12, 14); survivor of the Pict raid at the Rath of Skolawn; mother of a dead infant son and widow of a horse trader flogged by a Roman officer. Golden-haired. Killed by the Votadini at the Ford of the Rowan Trees.
Other Roman forces
- Constans (16), the Emperor of the West, son of Constantine
- Gratian (16), general left in Britain to oversee eastern coastal defenses
- The Attacotti (the White Shields); tribe from Erin; five hundred prisoners taken by the Twentieth choose the Frontier Wolves over slavery
- Abusina, Roman frontier fortress on the Danube
- Regina, apparently the seat of the Governor, where Alexios is imprisoned
- The Boar's Back, a hill by the river where the Marcomanni ambush the 3rd British
- Castellum, forward observation post of the Scouts, HQ of the 3rd Ordo; originally built for a garrison of 500; stockade and bath-house to the north, river on one side.
- Castra Exploratorum, former headquarters of the Scouts
- Habitancum, 2nd Ordo of Scouts along with regular garrison; [inconsistently rendered "Habitancium" in some editions]
- Bremenium, HQ of the praepositus of the Scouts and the 1st Ordo, garrisoned with cavalry and artillery
- Fortress Rocks, near Castellum
- The Rath of Ferradach Dhu (later the Rath of Cunorix), near Castellum
- Credigone, ruined Roman fortress where Alexios kills his wolf and the Frontier Wolves capture Connla
- Rath Colgrim, a Votadini village
- The Glen of the Alderwoods, Votadini village
- The Long Moss, Death Place of the Chieftains of the Votadini, a three mile long bog several miles upriver from Castellum
- Trimontium, abandoned Roman fort
- Traprain Law, capital of the High King of the Votadini
- The Glen of the Red Horse, in Selgovae territory
- The Rath of Skolawn, a Selgovae village destroyed by the Picts; the Wolves' second camp
- Ravens' Law, site of an old marching camp 12 miles north of Bremenium; the Wolves' third camp
- The Roaring-Water, river between Ravens' Law and Bremenium; deep and fast, with a bridge 6 miles from Ravens' Law
- The Ford of the Rowan Trees, an hour's march further west from the bridge
- Battle Rocks, near a ford in the river above Castellum, where the decoy party led the Votadini
- Segontium [sic, actually Segedunum], departure point of Castellum's winter supplies; western wall fort fallen to the tribes
- Onnum, wall fort to which the Habitancum garrison withdraws, where they are met by Constans
- Cilurnum, wall fort and HQ of Asturian cavalry; prisoner depot for four hundred Attacotti
- Corstopitum, site of six weeks' foot-drill for Attacotti recruits
- Belgica, destination of the First Attacotti Frontier Scouts
- Eburacum, HQ of the Sixth Legion
- Deva, HQ of the Twentieth
Sutcliff's afterword discusses the novel's historical and archaeological context:
"Almost in the fringes of Edinburgh, where the River Almond joins the Firth of Forth, there is a village called Cramond; and where the village now stands, there was once a Roman fort. Its Roman name is lost, and so I have called it Castellum, which is simply the Latin word for a fort. When I first wanted to write a story about a unit of Frontier Scouts based here, I learned from the archaeologists who had excavated the site that there was no trace of any Roman military occupation at the date that I needed it – AD 343 – or for nearly a hundred years before. So, sadly, I put the whole idea aside.
"But twenty-five years ago, when The Eagle of the Ninth was just published and it was too late to do anything about it, I found to my horror that there was no trace of any Roman military occupation at Exeter. And now, twenty-five years later, traces of the Second Legion are being dug up all over the city! So maybe in twenty-five years' time they will be digging up traces of the Third Ordo, Frontier Wolves, all over Cramond!
"Anyhow, after thinking it over for a long while, I decided to go ahead with the story I wanted to tell, playing fair with you who read it, by telling you that up to now, no traces have been found.
"According to the Notitia Dignitatum, which lists the whereabouts of every Roman unit of the Roman Army around AD 420, a crack light infantry unit of Attacotti was part of the Field Army in Gaul at that time. It would be hard to think of anything much more unlikely than a force of Irishmen serving in the Roman Army, and it seems to me that, allowing for the changes of frontiers and military needs over eighty years or so, they might well be descended from the First Attacotti Frontier Scouts of this story."
"Novelist's Hat and Minstrel's Bonnet"
In the 1983 essay "Novelist's Hat and Minstrel's Bonnet", Sutcliff commented that though The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) was her favourite of her own books, "Frontier Wolf, written only a few years back, runs it close". She observed,
"Frontier Wolf and my new not-yet-published Bonnie Dundee are both definitely post Blood Feud. Tougher books with less of the enrichment that I used to delight in, and a leaner line. But I do not know why this change has come about; certainly it has not been done by deliberate intention, but has happened of its own accord as the result of some natural process of growth and change."
The Areani (or Arcani) are discussed in Ammianus Marcellinus's late 4th century CE history Res Gestae, Book 28, chapter 3, for their role in the 367-8 CE "Great Conspiracy" (translation by C.D. Yonge, 1911 edition):
"8. The Areans, a class of men instituted in former times, and of whom we have already made some mention in recording the acts of Constans, had now gradually fallen into bad practices, for which he removed them from their stations; in fact they had been undeniably convicted of yielding to the temptation of the great rewards which were given and promised to them, so as to have continually betrayed to the barbarians what was done among us. For their business was to traverse vast districts, and report to our generals the warlike movements of the neighbouring nations."
"Two inches in the right place is enough", a supposed Roman military maxim quoted by Connla in chapter 10, is derived from Vegetius's "puncta duas uncias adacta mortalis est" in book I, section XII of his military handbook De Re Militari, also known as Epitoma Rei Militaris. It is also quoted in The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965).
"Bruide" (variously spelled) is the name of multiple Pict kings listed in the Pictish Chronicle.
"I was tired of the company of this officer, who was both illiterate and ill-natured, neither a sailor nor a gentleman. Like many others in the service, who are most loud in their complaints for want of promotion, I considered that even in his present rank he was what we called a king's hard bargain — that is, not worth his salt; and promoting men of his stamp would only have been picking the pocket of the country."
Sutcliff romanizes it as "emperor's hard bargain" for application to the Frontier Wolves, particularly Bericus, who is often identified solely as "the emperor's hard bargain."
"Bericus of the guileless face, who stood out as an emperor's bad bargain even among the Wolves of Castellum." (FW 4)
Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) was a favourite childhood book of Sutcliff's, whose three Roman stories she credited with inspiring her own interest in Roman Britain. Like Frontier Wolf, the story "On the Great Wall" also characterised its frontier garrisons as composed of disgraced officers, rejects, and misfits:
'I would not wish my worst enemy to suffer as I suffered through my first months on the Wall. Remember this: among the officers was scarcely one, except myself (and I thought I had lost the favour of Maximus, my General), scarcely one who had not done something of wrong or folly. Either he had killed a man, or taken money, or insulted the magistrates, or blasphemed the Gods, and so had been sent to the Wall as a hiding-place from shame or fear. And the men were as the officers.'
Hilarion's comment, "We are the scum and the scrapings of the Empire. They tipped out the garbage-bin of the Eagles to make us what we are" (FW 4) perhaps echoes Puck character Pertinax's satirical, "I wish you joy of us. We're the last sweepings of the Empire — the men without hope. Myself, I'd sooner trust condemned criminals."
Shipway and Breem
"Frontier Wolf, set on the Scottish border of fourth century Roman Britain, also echoes themes in George Shipway’s novel of nineteenth century British India, Strangers in the Land, which portrays the irredeemable damage an insensitive Imperial official fresh from the "mother country" wreaks on the delicate understanding established between conqueror and conquered. [...]
"[T]he desperate Roman retreat to safety through a gauntlet of hostile Celtic warriors in Frontier Wolf [was] inspired by a heroic British retreat during the Third Anglo-Afghan War described by Wallace Breem, fellow historical novelist and former Indian Army Frontier Scout."
During the 26-day Third Anglo-Afghan War in May of 1919, Major Guy Russell was ordered to withdraw the militia from South Waziristan in advance of an Afghan invasion, and did so under fire and despite mass desertion. Wallace Breem wrote a fictionalised account in his novel The Leopard and the Cliff (1978). Frontier Wolf is dedicated in part to him. Sutcliff's version, while apparently inspired by the story, does not adhere closely to the real events, particularly in respect to the mass desertions of the Scouts.
- Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1980. Map by Leslie Marshall.
- New York : Dutton, 1981.
- Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1983. Map by Leslie Marshall.
- Harmondsworth : Puffin in association with Oxford University Press, 1984.
- Asheville, N.C. : Front Street, 2008.
- London : Red Fox Classics, 2013.
- De omweg naar de keizer. Dutch by Tine Leiker-Kooijmans. Amsterdam : Leopold, 1988.
- Henkyō no ookami. Japanese by Yōko Inokuma. Tōkyō : Iwanami Shoten, 2002.
- Tōkyō : Iwanami Shoten, 2008.
- Los Lobos de la frontera. Spanish by Francisco García Lorenzana. Barcelona : Plataforma Editorial, 2011.
- Grenzwolf. German by Astrid Von Dem Borne. Stuttgart : Verl. Freies Geistesleben, 2013.
- Mark Jacobsen, "British Retreat from Waziristan". http://www.khyber.org/publications/011-015/britishretreat.shtml
- https://www.worldcat.org/title/omweg-naar-de-keizer/oclc/64755868&referer=brief_results