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Stuck in the Middle with Romans

Before we go spelunking into history, a little background: I have a middle grade time travel adventure book called The Eye of Ra, in which the main characters, John and Sarah, find themselves in ancient Egypt. For the next book we’re scheming, my boys and I did some brainstorming around a story “with swords.” I started by researching the medieval times, but I wanted to go back a bit farther. And I wanted to keep a connection with the sun and sun worship. This led me to the Romans and Sol Invictus and Saturnalia. That is all very interesting mythology, but this post is not meant to explore the Romans as a whole. Instead, I’d like to focus on setting the historical scene, as I see it, for my work-in-progress book two. 

We’re in a third-century Roman fort town called Aventicum, near the modern-day city of Avenches in Switzerland by Lake Neuchâtel. The area is known as Gaul, at the frontier of the Roman Empire just over the Alps via the Great St. Bernard Pass, with the pernicious Germanic Alemanni people to the north, the riotous Bagaudae and Franks to our west, and farther to our east we have the raiding Goths. Besides those enemies, the Christians are gaining power from within and challenging the supremacy of the Roman gods. 

The emperor Diocletian has managed to pull the Romans out of the Crisis of the Third Century, a period in which the empire nearly collapsed due to barbarian invasions, political infighting, civil wars, rebellion, and plague. He’s split the Roman Empire into a novel arrangement called the Tetrarchy and named four co-Caesars (co-emperors) to manage the four regions of the empire. The man tasked to oversee Gaul, where we are focusing our mind’s eye, is a man named Constantius.

In 298 CE, a group of Alemanni (aka “barbarians”) cross the Rhine in secret and come upon the traveling Constantius, guarded by only a small escort. The Roman soldiers are slaughtered in what becomes known as the Battle of Lingones, but Constantius gets away, barely escaping with his life to a nearby Roman fort where he is pulled over the wall by a rope, the Alemanni nipping at his heels. Secure in the fort, the surrounding garrisons rally and came to his aid. An estimated 6,000 Alemanni are killed.

Two years later, no doubt with this narrow escape from death still on his mind, Constantius leads a battle at Vindonissa and beats the Alemanni. The bulk of the Germanic strength is diminished, but it seems likely that smaller raids continued.

And this world-building now brings us present to the second book in my series, or at least my current thoughts-in-progress. From here, I mix fact with fiction.

I’m imagining that in the Battle of Vindonissa, a fourteen-year-old Alemanni boy fights the Romans. His father was killed at Lingones to the west two years earlier and the boy wants retribution against Constantius and the Romans.

However, in that battle at Vindonissa the Alemanni lose. During the fight, the boy’s right arm, carrying a sword, is cleaved off at the elbow but he cauterizes it in a fire which saves his life. He is taken prisoner and brought to Aventicum. He looks younger than he is and the Romans decide to take their own version of pity on the boy. They brand him with a face tattoo and sentence him to damnati ad ludum: He is condemned to gladiator school, but at least he might still win his manumission (emancipation) if he fights nobly and isn’t killed. If he tries to escape, the punishment is death.

Of course, the boy tries to escape. He misses his mother to the north, but he is driven to see the downfall of Constantius and the Roman forces who killed his father. He’s heard of the Bagaudae and the Franks and the Goths and he plots to unite them against the Roman invaders. But first he must escape from the gladiator school.

And poof, into this world our heroes John and Sarah are thrust, two twenty-first-century kids who have unwittingly traveled through time by the power of the Eye of Ra. 

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P.S. It’s about a hundred years later in 401 CE that the Romans withdraw from the area of Switzerland to defend against the invading Goths, thus ceding control.

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