A Circlet of Oak Leaves
First edition cover




Short story



Historical era



Victor Ambrus


Heather, Oak, and Olive 1972 Eagle's Honour 1995

A Circlet of Oak Leaves is a short story for children first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1965 and illustrated by Victor Ambrus. A former Roman Army medic lives in obscurity after winning the Corona Civica while disguised as a cavalry standard-bearer.


An incipient tavern fight over the relative merits of cavalry auxiliaries and regular legions is defused when a horse-trader named Aracos steps in to explain the circumstances of a notorious cavalry stampede ten years earlier, at which he was present as part of the Dacian Horse, who held the line. Hirpinius, a legionary, recalls that the pennant-bearer of the Dacian Horse was awarded the highest military honour, the Corona Civica, for that action, and one of the auxiliaries, seeing Aracos's reaction, guesses that it was him. Aracos confirms that "you could say I earned it", but refuses to give details, and leaves the wine shop regretting his slip.

Two years pass, and Sylvanus, the wine shop owner, continues to tell the story to his customers. Aracos's twice-yearly visit coincides with the appearance of several of the Dacian Horse, newly transferred from Pannonia, to whom Sylvanus applies for the story of the Corona Civica. The Dacians are amused and then disgusted at the suggestion that Aracos was awarded it, revealing that Aracos had been not a soldier but a medical orderly, and that Felix, the man who actually won it, died two years ago in Pannonia. Aracos once again admits the story, saying it was a social experiment, and then slinks back to his lodgings, vowing not to return to the Rose and Wine Skin.

A medic with the Dacians follows him out, then forces his way past Aracos's landlady Cordaella, telling Aracos that he had been searching for him since Felix's death, and presents him with the Corona Civica. He tells him that Felix was severely wounded protecting a supply train, and on his deathbed charged the Medic with returning the medal to Aracos, to whom it rightfully belonged. Aracos sinks into reminiscence.

He had applied to join the Thracian Horse, and being rejected for a weakness in his (literal) heart, instead joined the Medical Corps, attached eventually to the Dacian Horse stationed at Trimontium in Britain. There he met Felix, the pennant-bearer, and the head medic Diomedes remarked on their close physical resemblance, despite a difference in age. In the summer of the infamous stampede, the legion marches north to put down a Pictish uprising, and are harrassed by guerilla attacks, including the loss of much of one of Felix's patrols. On the dawn of the anticipated battle, Aracos discovers Felix breaking down from post-traumatic stress.

Felix begs Aracos for a drug that would banish his fear, but Aracos, short of plans, refuses and orders Felix to trade uniforms with him and hide. Disguised under a helmet and wolfskin headdress, Aracos bluffs his way through pennant-bearer's duties and into the reserve of the battle. As the Romans advance into a narrow valley, the Picts pelt them with stones from a commanding spur, and the Romans realise that the Picts are attempting to dislodge a boulder that will roll devastatingly through the Roman troops. Aracos's captain leads their reserve cavalry wing up the heather slope, to which the Picts set fire. While the Tungrian and Asturian Cavalry horses panic, the Dacians, trained in tricks including "the fire ride", take the spur, not before the captain is killed, leaving the charge to Aracos. The boulder is secured, the Picts killed, the battle won, but Aracos remembers little of it, suffering from shortness of breath and dimmed vision. He again bluffs his way back through the pennant-bearer's duties to Felix, whom he briefs and sends back to his position just before he himself can collapse into the medics' campfire.

Diomedes diagnoses him as ill, and Aracos is returned to Trimontium, to be invalided out of the army. Felix, meanwhile, is to be awarded the Corona Civica for the rescue of the Roman force, and is desperate to tell the truth, no matter what the consequences for his desertion. Aracos refuses to let him throw away Aracos's initial protection of him, and tells him that spending the rest of his life living up to the honour that he didn't earn will be punishment enough. Aracos will take his take his pension and go work with horses.

Aracos surfaces from his recollections to find the Medic gone. He reflects that he could, now, set the story straight among the wine shop patrons, but will not, because Felix by the manner of his death had earned a friend's protection; but resolves that he will nevertheless return to the Rose and Wine Skin, and live down, as Felix had done, his unearned reputation.


The story does not contain enough details to determine the specific years during which it takes place. However, the Antonine Wall was not completed until 154 CE, and it was largely abandoned after 164 CE, so the flashback probably takes place close to 154 CE, with Aracos' present-day story shortly after 164 CE.

  • About ten years before the beginning of the story, summer: The Picts break through the Northern (Antonine) Wall; the Legate of the Sixth Legion is killed
    • Aracos takes Felix's place in battle against the Picts near Trimontium
    • Felix is awarded the Corona Civica
  • About eight years before the beginning of the story: Aracos is invalided out of the medical corps
  • The beginning of the story, spring: Aracos visits Isca Silurium, trading horses
    • Later that year: Felix dies in Pannonia
  • Two and a half years later, autumn: Aracos visits Isca Silurium again
    • A Dacian medic brings him the Corona Civica and the message that Felix is dead


  • Aracos, a horse breaker from Thrace
  • Sylvanus, ex-auxiliary proprietor of the Rose and Wine Skin
  • The Picts, troublesome
  • A Legate, killed ten years ago
  • Dacian Cavalry, who did not run
  • Tungrian and Asturian Cavalry, who did
  • A young cavalryman, sensitive
  • Gavrus, a Legionary veteran
  • Hirpinius, a Legionary veteran
  • Lyr, Aracos's boss
  • Nasik, an old comrade in the Dacians, now at Isca
  • The Dacian Medic, with a two-year-old bequest
  • Cordaella, Aracos's landlord's daughter
  • Felix, Aracos's dead doppelganger
  • Diomedes, camp surgeon at Trimontium
  • Castor and Pollux, mythical twins
  • Night's Daughters, furies
  • the Dacian Captain, commanding the First Wing of Dacians, killed by a spear
  • Cretan archers, auxiliaries
  • Decurion Sextus, commanding the Second Wing of Dacians


  • Britain
    • Pict territory, north of Trimontium
    • Wales
      • Isca Silurium
        • the Rose and Wine Skin
      • Burrium, where Aracos was first stationed
    • Trimontium, northern fort
  • Pannonia, where the Dacians have been stationed for at least two years
  • Thrace
    • Rhodope Mountains, Aracos's home village
    • Abdera, the recruiting station

Historical and literary sourcesEdit

Publication historyEdit

  1. Hamish Hamilton, 1965
  2. Heather, Oak, and Olive, 1972