One of the region’s most enigmatic Roman ruins comes to life in a thrilling debut novel, as David Whetstone reports

AN avid reader of historical fiction has added to the genre with a gripping novel centred on a County Durham relic of the Roman occupation.

Peter Jackson, who lives in Lanchester, says he drew inspiration from “just roaming around” Roman sites across the North-East.

But it was an inaccessible site that provided the crucial spark for Legions of the Moon, the first in a trilogy commissioned by Peter’s publisher.

Longovicium was a strategic fort on Dere Street, running north from Eboracum (modern day York) through dangerous territory around Hadrian’s Wall and beyond.

The Northern Echo: LongoviciumLongovicium

Nowadays little of it can be seen. Far from being a visitor attraction like Housesteads, Chesters and Vindolanda, nature has the upper hand on this exposed and once strategic site.

A sign near the weed-covered mound has an artist’s impression of the fort in its heyday but also warns that this is private land.
“It has been subject to extensive and pioneering aerial archaeology,” explains Peter.

“The thinking is that it should be left undisturbed to avoid damaging anything by excavating until future generations have developed better techniques.”
In Peter’s page-turner, however, you will get a vivid idea of what Longovicium must have been like when occupied by a Roman legion and attendant civilian population.

In the climactic passages of the book the remote fort is besieged by hostile tribesmen in sub-zero temperatures. It is also a crime scene where an atmosphere of fear and suspicion has been heightened by brutal murders.

The Northern Echo: The book, Legions of the MoonThe book, Legions of the Moon

The job of solving them falls to the novel’s principal characters, Quintus and Manius, a pair of frumentarii (special agents) who are on a mission from Imperial Rome to check on the loyalty of prominent figures in far-flung Britannia. While Quintus is shrewd, tough and rather too fond of wine, Manius, his stepson, is clear-headed but inexperienced and with an eye for the ladies.

Their journey to the perilous northern outpost of empire begins when their contacts in Dubris (Dover) and then Londinium (London) die in mysterious circumstances.

Peter, who is originally from Lancashire but moved to County Durham in 1995, says the idea for the novel simmered for several years but his desire to write fiction goes back further.

“I’ve always loved reading stories and I’m particularly fond of historical fiction. And I always liked the idea of a double act, like Holmes and Watson or Aubrey and Maturin.”

The Northern Echo: LongoviciumLongovicium

The latter are the main characters in Patrick O’Brian’s maritime novels, set during the Napoleonic Wars, which are among Peter’s favourites along with the Flashman novels of George MacDonald Fraser set in the British Army of the 19th Century.

After studying modern history at Oxford, Peter worked for a time in the City of London before switching to the journalism career which brought him to the North East with his wife and young son.

Working for the last few years as a freelance business writer, Peter says his novel got abandoned and then picked up again several times.

Finally, though, he decided the time for research had ended. “There comes a point where it looks like an excuse for not actually getting down to it,” he admits.

Blending historical figures, including Emperor Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix in the film Gladiator), with invented ones, and weaving well-researched details of military and civilian life into his narrative, he was able to draw a convincing and colourful picture of Roman Britannia.

The upshot is that Legions of the Moon is as plausible as it is exciting. But while he enjoyed writing it, Peter doesn’t pretend it was easy to find a route into print. “I finished it, cheerfully sent it off to publishers and then sat back waiting for the royalties to roll in – which, of course, they didn’t,” he jokes. “It was at that point that I thought I’d better take this more seriously.

The Northern Echo: Author Peter Jackson at Longovicium Roman fort in LanchesterAuthor Peter Jackson at Longovicium Roman fort in Lanchester

“I used the services of a professional editor who came back with some useful and brutal advice. I cut some stuff, put other stuff in and changed it from first person to third person.”

Allowing that getting a book published can be “a long, dispiriting process”, he was delighted when independent publisher WriteSideLeft, which specialises in new writing, seized on his manuscript.

“They came back and said, ‘It’s very good, very well written – we’ll take a trilogy’,” says Peter. “There is to be a hardback, a softback and an ebook, and they’re talking about an audio book.”

If it takes off, there might in future be rather more people looking curiously at that slumbering mound near Lanchester and wondering what secrets are contained within.

Legions of the Moon is due to be published on January 31. It can be ordered at bookshops and will also be available via Amazon and