Military women – in war and fiction

Helferin_cover_defAn updated post
Several years ago now, I posted on my writing blog about my OU studies in history and how I turned my MA dissertation into a self-published book: Military or Civilians?The curious anomaly of the German Women’s Auxiliary Services during the Second World War. This was my first venture into self-publishing when you had to send in files in HTML. (Don’t ask!)

The experience of women serving in a uniformed service in wartime fascinates us.  We’ve probably all read many personal stories of women joining the ATS, the WRNS, the WRAF, the Air Transport Auxiliary, the SOE/FANY, and of women serving in ambulance, ARP and fire services in Britain during the Second World War. And women joined similar organisations across all the Allied nations.

And that’s it. As English speakers and, let’s face it, the ‘winners’, we’ve been very proud of the contributions our mothers, aunts and grandmothers made to the effort in the Second World War. On 6 June 2024, eighty years after D-Day in 1944, the French President Macron awarded the Légion d’Honneur to Christian Lamb, a WRNS officer who worked in Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms.

But what about the young women who also served in the 1939-45 conflict, but on the Axis side? Their story is rarely told.

In Military or Civilians?  I wanted to mirror that experience for similar young women in Germany. It had to go beyond Helga in the comedy TV series ‘Allo, Allo! or the brutal concentration camp guards.

A  half million German young women  ended up working with the Wehrmacht (army), Luftwaffe (air force) or Kriegsmarine (navy). A proportion of them had been in National Socialist (Nazi) youth organisations in the 1930s, so took not only to the uniform but the discipline and sense of political community without a second thought. But most were ordinary young women with varying degrees of patriotism who joined up for different reasons, some naive, some wanting travel and adventure, some just to get away from parents or dead end jobs.


Flakwaffenhelferinnen (Luftwaffe Auxiliaries)

One aspect of my study explores how the young women adapted, or not, and their varying attitudes to and feelings about their roles.
It was an alien, masculine-oriented  world to most. Girls had been educated to take a subordinate domestic role since 1933. Men were the leaders, the fighters, the patresfamilas. Women were recommended to confine their social role to Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church).

But the German services found that with conquest, manpower was stretched and women took on many roles to free men for the front: driver, secretary, signals operator, flight controller, aircraft spotter, navy administrator and so on.

Later in the war, young women were conscripted to meet a desperate shortage of manpower; they had no option to refuse under a totalitarian regime. Nazi ideology gave way to necessity, particularly in the last year of the war when these women became indispensable to the German war effort. But throughout, the status of these female armed forces’ auxiliaries remained questionable.

Why did I decide to write my dissertation on this subject?
Well, I’d spent six years in the Territorial Army (reserve armed forces) leaving as a (pregnant) captain. Training in the same way as regular soldiers with the same equipment and with a specific objective in time of war, it was disciplined and demanding, especially following the officer role.

But it gave me a sense of purpose, of comradeship and doing something worthwhile. The experiences were unparalleled, if sometimes nerve-racking!

Lieutenant Alison

I’m the one on the right.

Any uniformed service that takes its members into harm’s way usually has a preponderance of testosterone fuelled attitude. This seems a strange environment for women, but if an individual carries out his or her role to expectations, gender becomes irrelevant. My unit was a mixed one; we just worked together to achieve our objectives.

So, with military services’ experience in my backpack, a curiosity about an unknown area of women’s history and a good working knowledge of German, looking at the female German experience in wartime forces seemed a logical choice for my dissertation. And very few academics had done much study in the English language when I set out on my research trail.

After three years, I received a distinction  🙂 plus some very kind remarks from my tutor and the second assessor. More than that, I had deepened and widened my research and writing skills.

But how is Military or civilians? relevant to Roma Nova?
Well, I think you can see where this is going now…

My heroines serve or have served in the Roma Novan military. Ancient Roman society was a militarised one; the primary function of taxes and other state revenue was to sustain the military machine. All Roman citizens were required to serve at some stage, especially during the Republican period especially if they wished to advance up the career ladder, the cursus honorum. (This enthusiasm, and requirement, to participate changed considerably over time, but that’s another story!)

Carina portrait

Carina Mitela

The imaginary Roma Nova has struggled for survival though the centuries by mobilising both women and men to defend their values and preserve their way of life. So as senior members of their society my heroines, Carina and Aurelia, wear their uniform naturally.

I wanted to write a society which was Roman and so military by nature and need, yet egalitarian.

As seen in Military or Civilians? when push comes to shove, and you need personnel on the front, gender is irrelevant.

But the added benefit of studying the Third Reich and women’s lives during that period is that I could draw heavily on the research for INSURRECTIO, the seventh Roma Nova book.

Here, the small state is threatened internally by a Roman nationalist movement led by a charismatic leader who wants to take power and remove women from all but subordinate roles in life (as per Nazi ideology). His objective is to bring in a severe male-dominated regime ‘to restore traditional Roman values’. You may well shiver in horror. Whether former Praetorian Aurelia could stop him and his political movement was an entirely other question.

Updated 2024: Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Julian the 'Apostate' and that spear...

Of all the ‘what ifs’ of history, the death of Emperor Julian in AD 363 has to be one of the most intriguing. He rejected Christianity, demoted its by then prominent place in the Roman state and promoted Neoplatonic Hellenism in its place. His aim was to reduce Christianity to one of many also-ran eastern cults and restore the traditional Roman gods as the state religion.

If he had lived, could he have succeeded? Scholars have scratched their brains out arguing all sides of the counterfactual possibility. We fiction writers can be a little more imaginative…

Julian was the last ‘pagan’ emperor of the Roman Empire and reigned from AD 331 to 26 June 363. He’d been  the Caesar of the West (a deputy to the augustus, Emperor Constantius II) from 355 to 360 and was a notable philosopher and author in Greek. The Christians called him Julian the Apostate as he’d been brought up as a Christian before he’d renounced it. Admirers call him Julian the Philosopher.

Who was Julian?
Flavius Claudius Julianus was born in AD 331, a nephew of Constantine the Great and one of the few in the imperial family to survive the purges and civil wars after Constantine’s death. Julian became an orphan at six years old after his father was executed in 337 and spent much of his life under the supervision of Constantius II,  Julian’s cousin and the winner of the Roman game of thrones purge. However, Constantius allowed Julian to pursue an education in the Greek-speaking east, with the result that Julian became unusually cultured for an emperor of his time.

In 355, Constantius II summoned Julian to court and appointed him to rule Gaul. The young man was supposed to be only a figurehead, a nominal representative of imperial power. But despite his inexperience, Julian showed unexpected success as an administrator and in defeating and counterattacking Germanic raids across the Rhine.

Most outstanding was the Battle of Argentoratum (Strasbourg), fought in AD 357 against the Alamanni tribal confederation led by the joint paramount King Chnodomar. Although a hard-fought battle, the Roman army won a decisive victory and drove the Alamanni beyond the River Rhine, inflicting heavy losses with few casualties on its own side. (In JULIA PRIMA, her father, Prince Bacausus, refers to fighting in that battle at Julian’s side.)

Original: ArdadN at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

The battle was the highlight of Julian’s campaigns in 355–57 to evict barbarian marauders from Gaul. The troops respected him immensely as a result. In the years following his victory at Strasbourg, Julian was able to repair and garrison the Rhine forts, which had been largely destroyed during the Roman civil war of 350–53 and impose tributary status on the Germanic tribes beyond the border. So no slouch in emperor skills!

But there were consequences…

In the fourth year of Julian’s time in Gaul, the Sassanid emperor, Shapur II, invaded Mesopotamia and took the city of Amida. If it wasn’t the Parthians, it was the Sassinids  who were the eastern thorn in the Roman Empire’s side. Constantius immediately swung his attention to marching east to deal with it. In February 360, he ordered more than half of Julian’s Gallic troops to join his eastern army. But his order didn’t go via Julian;  Constantius by-passed him and went directly to Julian’s military commanders. A bit of a snub, to say the least.

At first, Julian tried to implement the order. However, it provoked an insurrection by troops who had no desire to leave Gaul. According to the historian Zosimus, the army officers leading the rebellion were responsible for distributing an anonymous tract expressing complaints against Constantius as well as fearing for Julian’s ultimate fate.

In 360, Julian’s soldiers proclaimed him augustus, i.e. full emperor, at Lutetia (Paris).  This is always dangerous when there is already a ruling emperor. Constantius was beyond furious, but because of  the immediate Sassanid threat, he was unable to directly respond to his cousin’s usurpation. He sent letters of varying level of threats and persuasion in which he tried to convince Julian to resign the title of augustus and be satisfied with that of caesar.

But Julian went back to business as usual in Gaul and from June to August of that year, he led a successful campaign against the Attuarian Franks. In November, Julian began openly using the title augustus, even issuing coins with the title, sometimes with Constantius, sometimes without.

Things were bound to come to a head sooner or later…

In the spring of AD 361, Julian pro-actively led his army into the territory of the Alamanni, where he captured their king, Vadomarius. Julian claimed that Vadomarius had been in league with Constantius, encouraging him to raid the borders of Raetia – Julian’s territory. Julian then divided his forces, sending one column to Raetia, one to northern Italy and the third he led down the Danube on boats. He was now well out of his comfort zone and on the road to civil war. Julian would state in late November that he set off down this road “because, having been declared a public enemy, I meant to frighten him [Constantius] merely, and that our quarrel should result in intercourse on more friendly terms…”

By AD 361, Constantius saw no alternative but to face the Julian with force, and yet the threat of the Sassanids remained. Constantius had already spent part of the early part of the year attempting – unsuccessfully – to re-take the fortress of Ad Tigris. He withdrew to Antioch to regroup but the campaigns of the previous year had inflicted heavy losses on the Sassanids and they did not attempt another campaign that year. This temporary respite in hostilities allowed Constantius to turn his full attention to confronting Julian.

However, Constantius died before the two could face each other in battle. Curiously, and perhaps on his deathbed remembering that the empire had to be passed on to an heir, he is supposed to have named Julian as his successor.

Julian as a different kind of emperor

The new emperor rejected the style of administration of his immediate predecessors. He viewed the royal court of his predecessors as inefficient, corrupt and expensive. Thousands of servants, eunuchs and superfluous officials were summarily dismissed. Julian’s own philosophic beliefs led him to idealise the reigns of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. He described the ideal ruler as being essentially primus inter pares (first among equals), operating under the same laws as his subjects. While in Constantinople, it wasn’t strange to see Julian frequently active in the Senate, participating in debates and making speeches, as if her were just another member of the Senate.

Amongst administrative measures, he cancelled arrears of land taxes.This was a key reform reducing the power of corrupt imperial officials, as the unpaid taxes on land were often hard to calculate or higher than the value of the land itself. Forgiving back taxes both made Julian more popular and allowed him to increase collections of current taxes. (We all love a tax break.)

Turning eastwards

In 363, Julian embarked on an ambitious campaign against the Sasanian Empire. It was partly to deal with the threat that Constantius had faced in 361 – unfinished business for Rome – and partly to achieve a victory that would reconcile the eastern army to him. The campaign was initially successful, securing a victory outside Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia. Instead of besieging the strongly defended capital, Julian moved into Persia’s heartland. Unfortunately, he soon faced supply problems and was forced to retreat northwards while being constantly harassed by Persian skirmishers.

During the Battle of Samarra, in the haste of pursuing the retreating enemy, Julian chose speed over caution, taking only his sword and leaving his coat of mail. A spear caught him in the side, reportedly piercing the lower lobe of his liver and intestines. On the third day, he suffered a major haemorrhage and died during the night. As Julian wished, his body was buried outside Tarsus, though it was later moved to Constantinople.

4th-century cameo of an emperor, probably Julian, performing sacrifice, National Archaeological Museum, Florence (Sailko, CC BY 3.00

The last non-Christian Roman emperor

Julian had believed that he needed to restore the Empire’s ancient Roman values and traditions in order to save it from dissolution. He purged the top-heavy state bureaucracy, and attempted to revive traditional Roman religious practices at the expense of Christianity. He restored pagan temples which had been confiscated since Constantine’s time, or simply appropriated by wealthy citizens; he repealed the stipends that Constantine had awarded to Christian bishops, and removed their other privileges, including a right to be consulted on appointments and to act as private courts. Julian also forbade Christians from teaching and learning classical texts.

His wish was to create a society in which every aspect of the life of the citizens was to be connected, through layers of intermediate levels, to the consolidated figure of the emperor – the final provider for all the needs of his people. Within this project, there was no place for a parallel institution, such as the Church’s hierarchy or Christian charity.

He was a motivated writer of many letters, panegyrics, philosophical works and poems, few of which have survived. But his life and philosophy have made him an intriguing subject throughout the centuries.

But what if Julian had lived to reign another ten, twenty or even thirty years? Would he have rolled back Christianity’s dominant hold on the Roman state and changed history?

The ‘No’ case
Christianity was still a minority religion in the 360s but it was well organised with regional bases, bishops, vigorous advocates and congregations. By the time Julian became emperor it had a firm hold on Roman society, especially on those who sought power and preferment from a Christian head of state.

The ‘Yes’ case
Julian was already having success in persuading, bribing, and threatening Christians to return to the ways of their ancestors while building up the ancient pagan temples and priesthoods. A proportion had become Christian in order to advance, for avoiding family discord, from peer pressure – all practical reasons. It was likely they would revert to the traditional gods for similar reasons. Along with (still) the majority of Romans, much of the aristocracy in Rome itself who still had considerable influence continued to hold to the traditional Roman gods in spite of increasing restrictions and defunding by the state treasury of its temples and priests.

The ‘Perhaps’ case
A more nuanced view is that Julian could never have eliminated Christianity, but if he managed to relegate it to just another minor sect among many in the religions in multi-faith Roman Empire, would it have mattered?

Julian could have reduced Christianity greatly if he’d lived longer and so had more time. In the hierarchical Roman Empire, the emperor was still the emperor and the one who possessed absolute power. He was completely focused on his goals, had a brilliant, well-educated mind and enjoyed the reputation of a successful military general. He also gave tax breaks and was an able administrator.

After Julian’s death, the Christian church strengthened its grip on every aspect of the Roman state in order that such a roll-back could never happen again. Once bitten, twice shy.

Of course, the subsequent course of European, possibly world history would have been very different if Julian had achieved his aims – no Inquisition, Crusades or Reformation. Perhaps the big clash of history would have been Romans vs. the Arabs.

As Tertullius Plico said to Aurelia Mitela in Roma Nova in the late 1960s, “The gods only know, and they’re not answering their phone.” [INSURRECTIO]


Suggested further reading;
Julian, a novel by Gore Vidal (1964)
Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300-1300  Peter Heather
The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World – Catherine Nixey


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Legion - Life in the Roman Army

It’s that exhibition that Roman enthusiasts are clamouring to see.

The British Museum is rather good at themed exhibitions; the Nero one was terrific as were those featuring Pompeii, the Celts and the World of Stonehenge. When ‘Legion – Life in the Roman Army’ was first announced in the members’ newsletter, I wept bitter tears as I had no plans to be in the UK in the first part of 2024 so I would miss it. But happily, a family occasion in the UK coincided and I insisted on a day trip to the museum during that week.

The museum is imposing in itself; you cannot hope to see a fraction of the exhibits, let alone the special exhibitions like this one in a single visit. I resolutely ignored the call of other fascinating exhibits and focused on striding through the Great Court and headed for the Sainsbury Room and life in the legion. Prime objective was to see the only surviving whole legionary scutum, the classic curved rectangular shield that we think of as ‘typically Roman’.

Dura-Europos scutum

The shield was made from layers of leather and wood strips, bound with bronze edging. Held like a suitcase handle, complete it likely weighed 5.5 kg but was stored without ever being fitted with a boss. While Roman auxiliaries mostly used flat oval shields, this semi-cylindrical profile helped legionaries interlock shields in battle manoeuvres. By the AD 250s, legionaries abandoned this shield type in favour of those common to other regiments.
Wood, leather and bronze Dura-Europos, Syria, early AD 200s, Yale University Art Gallery, Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos

Back of scutum


Scene from Trajan’s column showing the testudo (tortoise) manoeuvre. Interlocking long shields aid this tank-like formation to advance under enemy fire – the soldier’s hobnails trample falling enemies underfoot. Troops could also run along the top to jump up onto walls. I wouldn’t like to be underneath when that happened!

This is the world’s most complete Roman legionary’s articulated cuirass, often referred to as the lorica segmentata by later historians. In AD 9, Arminius, a Roman citizen and cavalry commander of Germanic origin, treacherously teamed up with his native tribes and successfully ambushed three legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, the Roman governor of Germany. Varus and his entire army were destroyed in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. This cuirass was found on the battlefield. Analysis suggests the soldier died wearing it.
Iron, Kalkriese, Germany, AD 9,VARUSSCHLACHT im Osnabrücker Land Gmbh /Museum und Park Kalkriese

Despite the armour being commonly associated with the Romans, it was used by other civilisations before them;  Parthians, possibly Dacians, Scythians, or Sarmatians. The segmented cuirass was possibly introduced into the Roman army after Crassus’s defeat at Carrhae in 53 BC.

Around the middle of the third century the lorica segmentata fell out of favour with the Roman army, although it did remain in use during the Late Roman Empire. Soldiers wearing the lorica segmentata were depicted on the Arch of Constantine, a monument erected in AD 315. However, it has been argued that these depictions are from an earlier monument by Marcus Aurelius, from which Constantine incorporated portions into his Arch. The latest known use of the armour was in the 4th century.

And Arminius?  He evaded Roman retribution, ridding his homeland of Roman rule, but was ultimately murdered by opponents within his own tribe.

Marcus Caelius, a high-ranking centurion of the 18th legion, was killed when Arminius defeated Varus. The 17th and 19th legions were also destroyed.

This monument was raised for Caelius, then a high-ranking and highly decorated centurion of the 18th legion. He was 53 at the time of his death in Germany. As a senior centurion, he earned thirty times an ordinary legionary’s wages. Here Caelius wears a harness of medals, bracelets and torcs on his shoulders. His most significant military decoration is an oak wreath crown, awarded for saving the lives of his fellow Roman citizens. He’s flanked by his freedmen, Privatus and Thiaminus, enslaved men liberated by their wealthy master’s death and who are requesting that Caelius’s bones be buried if ever found.
Stone replica, Bonn, Germany, original: AD 9, replica: late 1800s – early 1900s, LVR-Landesmuseum Bonn

Under Augustus’s successors, non-citizens gained citizen rights after 25 to 26 years’ military service. Above is the earliest known example of a retirement ‘diploma’. It records Emperor Claudius’s grant of citizenship to Sparticus Dipscurtus, a Thracian (modern-day southeast Europe) who served far from home as a marine at Misenum, in the Bay of Naples, Italy. Citizenship of Rome extended to his wife and children.
Copper alloy, Castellammare di Stabia (near Naples), Italy, AD 52, MiC – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

These are a few – a very few – of the exhibits in this outstanding exhibition. I’m not a professional photographer, but a mere smartphone user. However, I hope they give you a flavour of what you could see.

The exhibition ‘Legion – Life in the Roman Army‘ at the British Museum, London, runs until 23 June 2024.  


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.