Winter Quarters, by Alfred Duggan
Winter Quarters is a classic piece of historical fiction first published in 1956, written by Alfred Duggan, a prolific author and contemporary of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell at Oxford; and in the interests of reading an author who has influenced many modern historical novelists, I thought it would be a worthy read. I was right.
Winter Quarters tells the story of two young Gaulish noblemen in the time of the First Triumvirate, from the perspective of one of them, Camul. An ill-omened event involving the Goddess of their native land takes place and Camul’s friend Acco regards himself as cursed. They decide that if they must leave, they will join the Roman army as cavalry auxiliaries, fight for the Romans and see the world. Initially serving with Julius Caesar in Gaul, they come under the command of Publius Crassus, son of the Triumvir and richest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus – so when Crassus assembles an army to occupy Syria, the province he has been given to rule, and then to invade neighbouring Parthia, the Gaulish cavalry are along for the adventure, an invasion that is conceived almost entirely with the objective of obtaining plunder and enhancing its general’s personal prestige.
The conceit of the Gauls’ attachment to the young Crassus provides Duggan with an opportunity to take them on a tour of half the Roman Empire: in Gaul they fight on the German frontier, before they journey to Rome and experience the politics of the Republic, then head via Greece to Syria, mount a mission to Jerusalem and then in to Parthia as part of Crassus’ invasion force. Wherever they go, Acco is on the lookout for evidence of the Goddess who cursed him, and discovers that she is always lurking somewhere below the surface. The bad end to which the invasion came has been the subject of other novels, including Ben Kane’s The Forgotten Legion, and is lucidly and evocatively described by Duggan.
Duggan’s writing seems ahead of its time, and stylistically there is very little to give away the fact that this book is over fifty years old. To deliver a tour of so much of the Roman Empire in under 250 pages, and to do it so engagingly, with such a genuine sense of the cultural, ethnic and religious diversity that the Empire encompassed, is a great achievement. It’s not difficult to see why this writer and this book are so influential.