THE SWORD OF ATTILA: military map-makers, Roman and Victorian

One of the characters I most enjoyed creating in my novel Total War Rome: The Sword of Attila was Gnaeus Uago Alentius, a senior tribune of the fabri – the Roman equivalent of the Corps of Engineers – who oversees a military mapping unit in Rome. I'd imagined that by the 5th century AD, Roman proficiency in field survey and road-tracing might have led to a kind of topographical department in the army, with the fabri close to creating detailed maps akin to the early British Ordnance Survey series - something that would have been halted by the collapse of the Roman army in the west shortly afterwards, leaving us no evidence of their work. When my protagonists Flavius and Arturus first meet Uago in his map room, he tells them about his campaign experiences as a young officer:

A 13th century rendition of part of the Tabula Peutingeriana (click to enlarge), a Roman road itinerary probably set down in the 4th or 5th century AD - about the time of my novel. This section is particularly relevant to the story because in the land mass at the top it shows the river Danube, the route taken by my protagonists towards the Hun capital. Below that you can see the Adriatic Sea, the foot of Italy, Sicily and the North African coast. Clearly, rather than being an attempt at a geographically accurate map, this rendition is a framework for depicting the road networks and inter-relation between cities and towns - a little like the London underground map (this image is taken from an 1887 facsimile by Konrad Miller).

Uago stared into the middle distance, his brows furrowed. ‘It was during the Berber rebellion in the fifteenth year of Honorius’ reign, nearly forty years ago now. I’d been among the first batch of tribunes to graduate from the schola, set up only the year before in the wake of Alaric’s sack of Rome. My first job with the fabri had been to help clear the rubble created by the Goths on the Capitoline Hill, when they had tried to pull down the ruins of the old temple. After that I volunteered for frontier service, and was posted as second in command of a fabri numerus on the edge of the desert in Mauretania Tingitana. The limitanei garrison had been depleted to make up numbers in the Africa comitatenses, and when the rebellion started we were remustered as infantry milites. It was hard campaigning, with many men falling to disease and exhaustion, and there were no battles, only brief violent skirmishes and chasing shadows in the dark. Towards the end we reverted to our role as fabri and were used to make roads, improve fortifications and dig wells, much more to my liking than hunting down rebels and burning villages. I discovered a fascination for survey and mapmaking, and that’s been my calling ever since.’

            ‘Forty years is a long time to be in the army,’ Arturus said.

‘Aetius dug me out of retirement when he wanted a detailed new map to be made showing Attila’s conquests. He gave me free rein to call in the best cartographers from Alexandria and Babylon, and I’ve had the copyists in my scriptoria working day and night to get the map ready to despatch to the comitatenses and limitanei commanders.’

Part of my inspiration for Uago came not from ancient Rome, but from the military engineers the Victorian period – in particular, the many unsung officers of the British Royal Engineers who surveyed and mapped large parts of the world at the time, and built the roads, railways, canals, dams and public buildings that still provide the infrastructure for many of those countries today. Some of those officers had campaign experience - usually as young men commanding sapper companies in the field, if their early years after commissioning happened to coincide with a war or an expedition - but many had full and valuable careers without garnering any military glory. I was thinking in particular of my great-great grandfather, Colonel Walter Andrew Gale, Royal Engineers, who began in the late 1870s as a young sapper officer in an arduous jungle campaign in southern India – soon forgotten, like Uago’s Berber revolt – but then spent a long career in widely varying engineering roles, ranging from teaching survey at the School of Military Engineering at Chatham to civic engineering projects in India.  Like Uago, who was brought out of retirement by the Roman general Aetius, Colonel Gale was 'dug up' - as he put it - by his friend Lord Kitchener at the outbreak of the First World War to work for Ordnance Survey, making maps for the front and not finally retiring until he had completed more than 40 years’ service, just as Uago had done.

Gale (gejl) Walter A., anglo, kolonelo. Nask. 9 nov. 1855, mortis 20. dec. 1924. En la brita armeo 1875-1911 (21 jarojn en Hindujo). E-istiĝis en 1907. Multa literatura laboro sub plumnomo Ŭoago. Citinda estas lia Konkordanco al Sentencoj de Salomono kaj manuskripta Konkordanco al Marta (ĉe BEA).

I had some fun with the name, too. ‘Uago’ is a perfectly plausible name of the Roman period, but it also happens to be the nom de plume used by Colonel Gale (made up from his initials, rendered as Uago or Uoago) when he wrote books and papers in Esperanto, the universal language that had a large following in the early years of the 20th century. You can see this in the entry on him in the Enciklopedio de Esperanto quoted opposite. Gale was a passionate Esperantist, an early Vice-President of the British Esperanto Assocation and a major benefactor. In the photo below you can see the star of the Esperanto movement carved into the foot of his tombstone in Kinnersley Churchyard, Herefordshire, not far from the site of a 1st century AD marching camp where I first studied the work of the Roman military fabri early in my own career as an archaeologist.

The quoted excerpt is from David Gibbins, 2015, Total War Rome: The Sword of Attila (London: Macmillan and New York: St Martin's Press) (for all editions and links, click here).