Often, when lecturers arrive, we meet them at Preston station, greet them off the train and drive them back to Lytham. There is a brief moment of excitement and anticipation whilst the Virgin Voyager glides to a standstill, doors open, passengers pour out and the Treasurer (Dad) and I scan the crowd eagerly looking for our lecturer! Sometimes, as chance would have it, they are at the front of the queue or easily visible in the middle of the train; other times, their appearance gives the game away – Paul Cartledge’s signature beret, David Raeburn’s olive-green coat, or, in her words, Caroline Lawrence’s “red blazer and my HAIR”!
This week, we were awaiting the arrival of best-selling author Ben Kane. We had never met each other before and instead of catching the train, he was driving to the Clifton Arms Hotel, so as we drew into the car park, I said to Dad ‘I hope we recognise him, it’s funny how people often look different to their pictures’. Dad went first through the revolving doors and I could see, through the glass, the doors of the lift opening. Out came a Roman soldier, with shield, sword and all. There was no problem recognising our lecturer! Whilst packing away the chainmail, shield and personalised helmet which Ben had worn when he walked the entirety of Hadrian’s Wall, I had great confidence that we were in for a good night!
Indeed, Ben’s enthusiasm for knowledge and his passion for unlocking the lives of ancient soldiers in particular was infectious as he explained the history behind the first two books of his popular ‘Eagle at War’ series. It seems that the massacre at the Teutoberg Forest, when largely unarmed but highly skilled ambush fighters from local German tribes annihilated a ten mile column of around 15,000 legionaries, did constitute one of Rome’s greatest ever defeats and the generals Varro and later Germanicus suffered as a result. There were fascinating tales of fathers-in-law held hostage; of very successful metal detecting centuries later; of a soldier offering his master a sword ‘because yours doesn’t look sharp enough, sir!’; and a joke involving Prince Charles and the Duke of Westminster.
It is amazing how we can reconstruct so much about that fateful march from such small details, from the remains of the fallen legionaries whose bones still bear the slash-marks, to the very blades of grass stuck in their weapons – we can know when a blade of grass was picked down to the very month and can therefore be sure that the massacre struck in the autumn of AD9. In order to learn more about the rest of the Germanic campaigns of the early first century AD, we’ll have to wait for Ben’s next bestseller, which, he tells us, is already completed but not due for publication until next year – we can’t wait!
It was great to meet Ben, to hear all about his previous career as a vet (would he ever practise again? ‘the short answer – no!’) and about his recent exploits cycling thousands of gruelling miles over the Pyrenees and Alps to replicate the journey of Hannibal to Italy and to raise almost £17,000 for Combat Stress. Obviously drawn by Ben’s expertise and the clunk of his hob-nailed boots, we had a great audience of over 160 people from 9 to 89 who also supported our Student Bursary Fund by buying a record number of raffle tickets. Our youngest member, Jonah Crouch, gave a very witty vote of thanks and challenged his dad to carry the armour and equipment of a Roman legionary, which would have together weighed an immense seven stone, about the same as a large Labrador!
We’re really looking forward to hearing more about Roman military and civilian life next month, when we are joined by Director of Excavations at Vindolanda, Dr Andrew Birley. See you all on 17th November at 6.15pm onwards for a fascinating exploration of Life on the Edge of the Empire at Vindolanda.