Ukrainian nationalism

That there is a problem in Ukraine is now fairly well known, but that does not mean that the real nature of it is. One difficulty is that such political problems tend to depend not on what is, but rather what people think is. One of the real problems lies in the Ukrainian Nationalist Movement (OUN), and in Stepan Bandera in particular. Stepan Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist, and his first prominent position was as head of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, in Galicia. Stepan was born in 1909, and therefore he and those around him were subject to the worst atrocity possible: the forced removal of food by Stalin following which so many Ukrainians died. His organization was exactly what Stalin did not need, so he was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment, and released at the start of World War II under unclear circumstances, but certainly not by Stalin. What happened next is also unclear. Bandera seems to have worked with the Nazis, and he carried out subversive actions against the USSR, however once Germany invaded and Bandera tried to set up an independent Ukraine, the Nazis were less than impressed and sent him to Sachsenhausen. From there on, Bandera would have had no further part to play, but his followers in the OUN did. The formal OUN probably died after WWII, but their thinking has continued, and groups still claim to follow their policy.

In an attempt to get rid of Stalin, the OUN assisted Germany by forming three divisions of the Waffen SS (Galician, Nichtengall and Roland) and Ukrainian genocide against Poles has been claimed to exceed that of German and Soviet genocide, and it has been asserted that Bandera’s followers murdered 500,000 people, many with extreme cruelty. The Nachtigall was allegedly one of the more predominant forces at Babi Yar. So, where does that leave us today? In a recent BBC program, a Ukrainian nationalist stated that Ukraine should be for the Ukrainians: Poles, Russians and Jews can go somewhere else. Worse than that, it appears that even in the West, people are forming militias, people are getting robbed and beaten, and police do nothing about OUN men. One immediate problem is that this legacy lives on. One point that the Eastern Ukrainians cannot forget is that the OUN formed Waffen SS divisions. Had the men joined the Wehrmacht, that may have been forgiven. That issue is not helped by the fact that the worst of the fighting was probably in eastern Ukraine, since it was only when the Wehrmacht got that far that the Russians started to get organized, and on the other end of the war, once the Wehrmacht lost the east, its retreat back to Germany was very fast and chaotic. The eastern Ukrainians, many of Russian descent, would have few fond memories of that time. To summarize one of the current problems, to the Western Ukrainians, Bandera and his followers are heroes trying to found the Ukrainian state for Ukrainians; to the Eastern Ukrainians, they are fascists and traitors. Bandera is actually little more than a myth, since he spent most of his life incarcerated, but it is what his followers did and are currently advocating that is a deep problem.

Why is this relevant now? First, because at least some of the followers of the OUN want to lose the use of the Russian language in Ukraine; second, they wear the Wolfsangel symbol, which was also worn by Das Reich in the battles near Kharkov; third, they are advocating the removal of Russians, Jews, etc; fourth, they are accused of killing the forty Russians by fire in a building in Odessa; fifth, after that fire, absolutely nothing was done by the authorities on the perpetrators. My guess is that a number of Russian speaking Ukrainians are less than happy with Kiev, which is why this dispute is not going to end easily without a major effort from Kiev.

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Britain invaded! (2)

In my previous post, I discussed the difficulties of describing the Roman invasion of Britain in my novel Legatus Legionis regarding the sailing, and where the invasion forces landed. The next problem involved what happened next? According to Cassius Dio, the first major battle involved two legions, and was fought near the mouth of a river that the Celts seemed to think would be an obstacle for the Romans. This river is usually considered to be the Medway, although as far as I am aware, there is no physical evidence for this, other than a shortage of alternative rivers. Dio appears to say that the Celts stayed by and large behind fixed defensive walls, but also says there was a battle that lasted two days, which was somewhat unusual for the times. The Romans started proceeding when some Batavians swam the river and scattered the Celtic horses, while some Romans led by Hosidius Geta crossed, and found themselves in deep trouble with the Celts, so much so that Geta had to personally join the line. Dio implies that Geta was a legatus, but I find that very difficult to believe. If a commander joins the line, it means that either the Roman squad was hopelessly outnumbered, and that should not happen if a legion crossed, unless the battle was going very badly. There are no records of a legion nearly being wiped out, so it had to be a smaller squad. But no commander of a legion is going to abandon his legion and go off on an adventure with a small squad, so I assumed that Geta was a Tribune, at least at the time.

The next problem was that Dio is fairly emphatic that two legions were involved in this battle, and one of them was the Augusta under Vespasian. But Vespasian’s main objective was to secure the alliance on the south coast. The nominal reason for the invasion was to support Cogidumnus as a client king. The whole point of the invasion was to govern it after the military force succeeded, and it was general Roman policy to have locals governing, at least in name. Roman power would have the last word, but it was a lot easier if someone would do what they wanted for them. To me, the guiding principle is that Cogidumnus was allying himself with Rome because Caratacus had effectively declared war on him. If Rome did not support such an ally, why would any other Celtic tribe support Rome? In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I believe Vespasian and the Augusta would ensure Cogidumnus and his domain were safe, and in doing that he may well have had to fight a battle. There is real archaeological evidence for a battle well to the south of the Medway, although the dating is not absolute, and it could have been prior to the Roman invasion. My interpretation was that this southern one was due to Caratacus trying to deal with the southern Celts who had allied themselves to the Romans, and Vespasian had to deal with them. What the other two legions fought was the remains of this badly mauled Celtic force plus reinforcements after they retreated north and set up camp. That has the advantage of being in accord with the proposition that Vespasian had a major battle in these early stages, and all legions were involved. I cannot believe that in a major invasion, one third of the force would be absent and doing nothing.

This brings up the major difference between writing a historical novel and writing a history. In a history you can consider all the options. In a novel, things happen, and there is no “half-happening” and no “either or”. Further, everything has to be self-consistent. Then, after having gone to all this trouble, there remains the interesting story to write, because all that has been set so far is the background.

Britain invaded! (1)

In my previous post, I raised the issue of the difficulties in writing a historically based novel when the history is unclear. The second problem I came up with on my ebook Legionis Legatus was with the invasion of Britain. Again, the volumes of Tacitus’ Annals relevant to the time are missing, and much of what we know comes from archaeological work, and from Cassius Dio, who unfortunately wrote a relatively short section on this about 150 years later. Suetonius dismisses the invasion of Britain as “one campaign and that of little importance.” He then says that Claudius gained the submission without a battle or bloodshed. Suetonius is not known for praising Emperors! Further, four legions were involved, and that means it was not a campaign of little importance, particularly as there is clear evidence, including archaeological evidence from excavations, that a number of battles took place. (A deeper consideration of the issues involved can be found in Graham Webster’s The Roman Invasion of Britain (Routledge, 1999) and Leonard Cottrell’s The Great Invasion (Evans Brothers, 1958).)

So, what do we know as opposed to infer? Unfortunately, not much. The start was interesting in that when it was time to board, the Legio II Augusta refused. Why not is unclear, but options include a fear of falling off the world, or, according to Dio, the omens were not propitious. This shows that neither Vespasian (the Legatus) nor the overall commander, Aulus Plautius, had the necessary control. That would never have happened (and it did not) under the first Gaius Julius Caesar. Had it, a cohort would be selected and a decimation ordered. Instead, we know all Plautius could do was to appeal to Claudius. What happened then is that a lot of time was wasted, which may have actually helped the invasion.

Exactly what happened next is unclear. Claudius himself could not come and order the troops because his appearance was too unimposing. He had an awkward gait, he tended to dribble when excited, and he stuttered hopelessly. So instead he sent a freed slave, Narcissus, to try to get the troops to embark. Our only record of what happened next is from Cassius Dio. Narcissus was almost shouted down but there was a cry of Io Saturnalia, everyone burst out laughing, and Vespasian got his troops to board. Now, that is a challenge to fill in the pieces, but I hope I managed.

Where did the invasion fleet go, in the first instance? The short answer is, nobody knows. From what we do know, there is reasonable evidence that at least one legion landed at Rutupiae (Richborough), which would be the closest port to where they embarked, assuming they embarked at Boulogne, which in turn is not exactly firm, but is probable. There is clear evidence of a Roman camp at Richborough, but it does not follow that it was the site at AD 43. We know the Augusta under Vespasian was sent to support the Atrebates and Verica, so it is reasonable to assume that they set off to a port closer to the south coast, and many suggest Lemanae (Lymphne, no longer a port), where again the Romans established a base, although again this may have been later. That left the Valeria, and I have adopted the proposition that they would land at Dubrae (Dover), which is the third possible useful port on the south east coast. There is surprisingly little evidence of exactly where the first landings were, although the description from Cassius Dio of what happened next supports at least the Richborough landing. What we do know is that the invasion force landed essentially unopposed. The reason for this is probably that the Britons did not have a professional army, and when they decided the Romans were not coming, they all went home. One good reason for doing this is that they were essentially farmers, and they needed to get the crops in. Whatever the reason, the Romans got well established and nothing much happened, at least as far as we know, until they decided to march. The initial marching also appears to have been unopposed, apart from the odd skirmish of the “hit and run” type, until the first major battle occurred. That will be the next post’s topic.

From a military point of view, if the Celts wanted to stop the invasion, they lost two great opportunities. Landing troops would be a slow business, thanks to congestion and the lack of maneuverability of triremes, and those at sea could do little to help those on land. The second option was while they were marching through forest tracks, as was shown in the Teutoberg forest. But neither opportunity was taken. That was also something to note while plotting the novel.

The most inept coup ever?

Previous posts have featured the scientific aspects of my latest two ebook novels, and these were put there to show people what science is about. However, more important was the story, and since these were set in the first century, I had to get some historical facts right. Or did I? There is always the question, how much latitude should be permitted in a historical novel? There is obviously some imagination needed as the protagonist has to make the story work, and in this case I made my protagonist, Gaius Claudius Scaevola, commander of a legion, and for the purposes of the story, first the 11th Legion in Dalmatia, hence the title of the novel: Legatus Legionis. Two important events took place to provide the reason for what the protagonist did, and the first was the effort by Scribonianus to overthrow Claudius. 

The first obligation when writing a historical novel is not to get anything spectacularly wrong. So the question then is, what do we know? Here, I had a problem, but also an opportunity, since what we know historically is somewhat limited. All I could find out was that Scribonianus announced his intention to overthrow Claudius in the Senate. It is sometimes stated he intended to restore the Republic, with himself as Consul, and other sources state he intended to be Princeps and simply replace Claudius. It may be that both are correct, the second one the intended outcome after some time as Consul, but we shall never be sure. There was, of course, the problem of overthrowing Claudius, and to do this he also announced that two legions from his region were marching on Rome. However, it is also reported that the two legions “found their eagles stuck in the ground” and the attempted coup collapsed. What really happened is probably accounted for in Tacitus’ Annals, however the volumes for the early Claudian period are lost. Suetonius states that a civil war started, but was put down in five days since his legions had changed their allegiance and were turned from their purpose by superstitious fear. This makes no sense at all to me because he then states that when the order to march was given by their new commander, by some providential chance the eagles could not be adorned nor the standards pulled up and moved.

The remark about civil war does not make sense because there is no evidence any fighting took place, and the last remark about the standards indicates the legions never moved. The statement that the new commander gave an order to march makes no sense either because the eagles would be prepared before any marching took place. One fact that does come through, though, is that the instigators possessed connections with many of the most influential of Rome. Another unusual fact is that Claudius rewarded the seventh and eleventh legions by giving them the title Claudia pia fidelis. There must have been something more than just the legions ignoring their Governor and refusing to become involved in a coup, because that was their duty. 

For a historian, I rather suspect this sort of information hole would be extremely annoying, but for a novelist, this is just what I needed. You can make up what you like, with only very limited constraints, so I did just that. Before this happened, I had a preliminary conflict, where Scaevola married Valeria Vipsania, in part to protect her from Caligulae. The protection was partly needed because Vipsania’s father was possibly suspected of plotting, and Scaevola was banking in part on his good relationship with Claudius. The story conflict arose following the assassination of Caligulae when Scaevola discovers Vipsania’s father is involved in a plot to overthrow Claudius and he has the job to persuade Scaevola to march the legions. I hope I have made what follows at least believable.

I also involved several senators and equestrians, and the survivors continued to plot. Historically, there were several more plots, and apparently 35 senators and about 300 equestrians died as a consequence of such plots. The Senator Valerius Asiaticus was one such conspirator, and he was somewhat associated with the assassination of Caligulae, so it did not hurt to have a Valerius as a conspirator. (Roman women at this time tended to have the gens name first. That was the norm in the Republic, but it changed some time in the second century, which leaves the first century again a little unclear. That is another thing I hope I got right.) Of course this is just a story of love, betrayal, and the poison that follows, but it is also important to try to get the background facts right to inform readers of what happened in a time of history that is still of interest.