Frontier Wolf
First edition cover






Young adult

Historical era



The Dolphin Ring

← Previous

The Silver Branch

Next →

The Lantern Bearers

Frontier Wolf is a novel first published in 1980. It follows a disgraced Roman officer transferred to the command of an irregular unit at an isolated outpost in British territory.

It is the third story about the Flavius Aquila family chronologically and the seventh in publication order.


Centurion Alexios Flavius Aquila, the young and inexperienced nephew of the Dux Britanniorum, prematurely abandoned his temporary command and sustained heavy casualties in a retreat across country during a tribal uprising on the German frontier (1). He is judged not guilty of deliberate treason, but is reassigned to the command of a distant British outpost of the Frontier Scouts, or Wolves, irregulars used as a dumping ground for soldiers unfit for other service. His officers and men are unenthused by his reputation, but reserve judgement (2).

Before his departure from Castellum, the incumbent commander Julius Gavros presents Alexios to the local chieftain of the Votadini, an ailing man named Ferradach Dhu, and his sons Cunorix and Connla, and encounter as well the inimical druid Morvidd (3). Alexios settles into the life of Castellum, which includes writing to complain about the rations, monitoring the family life of the fort cat, and breaking up an incipient riot between the Votadini and Dalriad Wolves on Midwinter's night, after which he begins to learn the Frontier Wolves' weapon-dances (4). In the spring, with Cunorix as his guide, he kills the wolf whose pelt he will wear as the badge of his service (5).

In summer, Ferradach Dhu dies and is laid in the Death Place of the Chieftains, a bog called the Long Moss (6). Cunorix is made chief, and at the celebration Alexios speaks with a wandering harper who has recently come from the hall of the Caledone king, who tells him that the Caledones are negotiating a marriage alliance with the Attacotti tribe of Erin, and is overheard by Morvidd (7). Though Druim, Alexios's intelligence officer, disclaims any knowledge of the rumours, the harper is found assassinated (8).

Glaucus Montanus, the new Praepositus of the Frontier Scouts, arrives for an inspection shortly before midwinter and offends the Votadini by dismissing their tax grievances and rejecting a request to lend his horse for stud (8). On the day before Montanus is due to leave, Connla steals his horse as a prank, and in retrieving it, two Frontier Wolves and the horse are killed (9). Montanus orders Connla executed for horse theft, and Alexios gives him a mercy killing and resigns his command in protest. A dying scout of Druim's rides in to report that the Caledones and Attacotti are on the move, and while Alexios is confined to quarters, Druim and the rest of the Arcani desert. The Votadini attack the fort the next morning, and Montanus is killed (10).

Alexios resumes command of the fort, which is too undermanned to defend. By the end of the day, he chooses once again to pull out of his post and retreat across country with no hope of a relief force (11). Sending a decoy party up the river, the main body of the Wolves escapes Votadini territory through the secret path through the Long Moss to the Chieftains' Death Place, where Kaeso, the quartermaster, is killed by a panicking horse. They encounter the tracks of a Pict warband in whose wake they follow for concealment, camping in a devastated village of the Selgovae, where a single surviving woman curses both Romans and Picts before escaping (12). They fight off a force of Votadini and Picts the day before they can reach the First Ordo headquarters at Bremenium, and lose Lucius, the Junior Centenarius, commanding the Rear Guard at a bridge the next day (13). When they ride into Bremenium that evening, it is deserted: the garrison has been slaughtered and the gates stand open.

A single survivor tells them that the Arcani opened the gates to the attackers. The Frontier Wolves take a position in the waggon park out side the fort, hoping that the Votadini will not arrive until dark, when they do not fight. They do, however, and Alexios calls Cunorix out to play for time. After stalling as long as he can, he offers Cunorix a bargain: as he was the man who killed Connla, he will fight Cunorix in single combat, giving Cunorix the chance to repay the blood debt and sparing both their men. Alexios is the better swordsman, and he kills his friend. Morvidd incites the warband to attack despite the lowering darkness, but he is killed by a Scout's arrow and the reluctant Votadini and uninterested Picts withdraw at the arrival of a single surviving patrol of the Wolves of Bremenium (14).

The remains of the Third and First Ordos retreat to the headquarters of Julius Gavros's Second at Habitancum, where they arrive just in time to retreat with the garrison to the Southern Wall (15). Alexios collapses of an infection in the sword cut he took from Cunorix. While he lies up in the infirmary, the Sixth and Twentieth Legions are called up to put down the uprising by the visiting emperor Constans and the Dux Britanniorum. Constans offers Alexios a brilliant career, or the command of five hundred Attacotti prisoners who have chosen service with the Frontier Scouts over slavery. Alexios, along with his unexpectedly loyal Senior Centenarius Hilarion, chooses the First Attacotti Frontier Scouts (16).


Frontier Wolf takes place over approximately a year and a half leading up to the visit of the emperor Constans I to Britain in the winter of 342-3, which Sutcliff places just after Midwinter of 342.


  • A hundred years earlier: emperor Caracalla names the Scouts his Wolves (4).
  • More than 2 generations earlier: Syrian draft turns Wolves into mounted archers (4).
  • Mid-341: New governor arrives at Regina; Marcomanni attack Abusina. Alexios court-martialled (1).
  • Autumn 341: Alexios arrives in Castellum two months after the inquiry (2).
  • Midwinter's night 341: The Frontier Wolves dance the Bull Calves (4).
  • Early spring 342: Alexios and Cunorix hunt his wolf (5).
  • Midsummer 342: Ferradach Dhu dies and laid to rest (6), and Cunorix made chieftain, in three-day ceremony; Shula gives birth to their son (7). Rumours of Attacotti-Pict alliance (8).
  • December 342: 3-day visit of Praepositus Montanus (8). 4th day: Connla steals the horse on the 4th day. 5th day: Steals it again; horse killed (9); Connla executed; Arcanus reports the Pict and Attacotti invasion (10).
  • Next day: Votadini attack Castellum; Montanus is killed in the morning. Alexios orders withdrawal (11).
  • 1st day of the retreat: Leave Castellum before dawn. Cross the Long Moss. Camp at the Rath of Skolawn (12).
  • 2nd day of the retreat: Collect the decoy party and camp on the moors (13).
  • 3rd day of the retreat: Fight through Votadini and Pict ambush. Camp at Ravens' Law (13). Bremenium massacred (14).
  • 4th day of the retreat, Midwinter's eve 342: Fight at the bridge on the Roaring-Water (13). Arrival in Bremenium; death of Cunorix and Morvidd (14).
  • 5th day of the retreat: Withdrawal to Habitancum (15).
  • 6th day of the retreat: Withdrawal of the Habitancum garrison to Onnum (15).
  • More than a week since arriving in Onnum: Alexios unconscious in sick bay. Sixth and Twentieth Legions breaking up the revolt.
  • A month later: Meeting with Constans. First Attacotti Frontier Scouts headed to Corstopitum for six weeks' basic training (16).


  • Alexios Flavius Aquila (1), centurion of the 2nd century of the 3rd British Cohort at Abusina, ducenarius of the 3rd Ordo Scouts at Castellum, Praepositus of the Numerus of First Attacotti Frontier Scouts in Belgica.
  • Crito (1), senior centurion of the Third British Cohort of Auxiliaries at Abusina, killed in the first Marcomanni attack
  • Tetricus (1), tribune and commander of Abusina, in Regina during the attack; "normally a kindly soul".
  • The Marcomanni (1), a German tribe, Roman citizens
  • Clovius (1), a centurion of the 3rd British junior to Alexios, though older, who served 5 years at Abusina; officially objected to the withdrawal from the fort and was killed in the retreat.
  • Marius (1), the Dux Britanniorum, Alexios's mother's half-brother
  • Alexios's mother (2), from Ephesos and half-Greek, "somewhat given to tears"
  • Julius Gavros (2), ducenarius of the 3rd Ordo Frontier Scouts at Castellum, promoted to the 2nd Ordo at Habitancum; later promoted praepositus of the numerus
  • Hilarion (2), senior centenarius; "lank, lean, and freckled, pale eyes that glinted under a cap of straight sandy hair." Rarely stands up straight or speaks without irony. Had no father (4). Survives the retreat and joins the 1st Attacotti.
  • Lucius (2), junior centenarius; "square, dark, and a little wooden", quiet; fond of Virgil's Georgics; a Christian. Commander of the Rear Guard during the retreat; killed by a spear-thrust in the neck at the bridge on the Roaring-Water (13).
  • Kaeso Quintillius (2), quartermaster; red-faced and alcoholic, middle-aged, balding, fussy about the supplies (4). The longest-serving of Castellum's officers (6). Killed in the Long Moss during the retreat, kicked in the head by a pony, and buried at the first camp with the rites of Mithras (12).
  • Anthonius (2), medic; sallow and long-nosed; a Christian. Survives the retreat.
  • Druim (2), spymaster; "mouse hair in thick braids, framing a blue-eyed face apparently as open as the day"; son of a chieftain of the Damnonii
  • Ferradach Dhu (3), local chief of the Votadini; large, middle-aged, ill; dies during the summer
  • Shula (3), Cunorix's wife; wears golden earrings; gives birth to a son the night Cunorix is made chief
  • Cunorix (3), Ferradach Dhu's elder son; russet-haired and ugly
  • Connla (3), Ferradach Dhu's younger son; red-haired; reckless
  • Morvidd (3), a druid; lost face to Julius Gavros. Killed at Bremenium (14).
  • Rufus (4), junior trumpeter; rescuer of Typhon; killed by an arrow in the throat during the defence of Castellum (11).
  • Cloe (4), mouser; mother of three
  • Typhon (4), Rufus's kitten, part wildcat; killed with Rufus (11).
  • Vran (4), a shepherd of Alexios's family farm
  • Bericus (4), an emperor's hard bargain; one of four punished for the Bull Calves; a trick-rider; euthanised the praepositus's horse. Killed during the defence of the northern stockade by an ax to the head (11).
  • Phoenix (5), Alexios's horse
  • Luath and Luffra (5), Cunorix's hounds
  • Kuno (5), a Frontier Wolf watering ponies when Alexios gets his wolf
  • Duatha (6), a tanner in the lower town; old
  • Shadow (6), Ferradach Dhu's favourite horse; a mouse-coloured mare
  • Finnan Horse-herd (6), a Votadini horse expert
  • Sinnoch the Healer (6), attending Ferradach Dhu
  • Nuada (7), a harper; heard of the Attacotti raid in the hall of king Bruide and told it to Alexios; killed at the river after Cunorix's chief-making
  • Bruide (7), king of the Caledones
  • Calventius (8), Praepositus of the Numerus, old and sick, waiting to hand over to Montanus
  • Glaucus Montanus (8), praepositus of the Frontier Wolves; killed in the first attack on Castellum.
  • Teleri (9), the swordsmith's daughter; red-haired; laughed at Connla for the loss of the praepositus's horse
  • Gault (9), a close friend of Connla
  • Vedrix, senior optio (11); "a small foxy-looking man"; led the decoy party in the retreat
  • Garwin, senior optio (11); attended Alexios at Ferradach Dhu's funeral
  • Finn, senior optio (11); a Votadini, former horse thief; mother related to the Little Dark People, gave him marks of protection
  • Brychanus, senior optio (11); older
  • Conan, senior trumpeter (11); the last man out of Castellum
  • Amlodd (12), a scout observing a Pict war party during the first camp
  • Selgovae woman (12, 14); survivor of the Pict raid at the Rath of Skolawn; mother of a dead infant son and widow of a horse trader flogged by a Roman officer. Golden-haired. Killed by the Votadini at the Ford of the Rowan Trees.
  • Optio of the 1st Ordo (13); the praepositus's escort; guides the Wolves through the 1st's territory
  • Cullen (13), Alexios's galloper during the retreat
  • Cognos (14), artilleryman; sole survivor of the Bremenium garrison
  • Optio of the 1st Ordo (15); leader of a twenty-man patrol during the Pict massacre; relief of the 3rd Ordo at Bremenium
  • Commandant of Habitancum (15)
  • Constans (16), the Emperor of the West, son of Constantine
  • Gratian (16), general left in Britain to oversee eastern coastal defenses
  • The Picts (the Painted People; the Caledones); tribe from beyond the Northern Wall
  • The Attacotti (the White Shields); tribe from Erin; five hundred prisoners taken by the Twentieth choose the Frontier Wolves over slavery
  • The Selgovae (12); tribe west of the Votadini, attacked by the Picts; one of the four tribes from whom the Scouts are recruited
  • The Damnonii; west coast tribe who join the uprising; one of the four tribes from whom the Scouts are recruited
  • The Dalriads (Scots); tribe northwest of the Northern Wall; one of the four tribes from whom the Scouts are recruited


  • Germany
    • Abusina, Roman frontier fortress on the Danube
    • Regina, apparently the seat of the Governor, where Alexios is imprisoned
    • The Boar's Back, a hill by the river where the Marcomanni ambush the 3rd British
  • Valentia
    • Castellum, forward observation post of the Scouts, HQ of the 3rd Ordo; originally built for a garrison of 500; stockade and bath-house to the north, river on one side.
    • Castra Exploratorum, former headquarters of the Scouts
    • Habitancum, 2nd Ordo of Scouts along with regular garrison; [inconsistently rendered "Habitancium" in some editions]
    • Bremenium, HQ of the praepositus of the Scouts and the 1st Ordo, garrisoned with cavalry and artillery
    • Fortress Rocks, near Castellum
    • The Rath of Ferradach Dhu (later the Rath of Cunorix), near Castellum
    • Credigone, ruined Roman fortress where Alexios kills his wolf and the Frontier Wolves capture Connla
    • Rath Colgrim, a Votadini village
    • The Glen of the Alderwoods, Votadini village
    • The Long Moss, Death Place of the Chieftains of the Votadini, a three mile long bog several miles upriver from Castellum
    • Trimontium, abandoned Roman fort
    • Traprain Law, capital of the High King of the Votadini
    • The Glen of the Red Horse, in Selgovae territory
    • The Rath of Skolawn, a Selgovae village destroyed by the Picts; the Wolves' second camp
    • Ravens' Law, site of an old marching camp 12 miles north of Bremenium; the Wolves' third camp
    • The Roaring-Water, river between Ravens' Law and Bremenium; deep and fast, with a bridge 6 miles from Ravens' Law
    • The Ford of the Rowan Trees, an hour's march further west from the bridge
    • Battle Rocks, near a ford in the river above Castellum, where the decoy party led the Votadini
  • Segedunum/Segontium [sic], departure point of Castellum's winter supplies; western wall fort fallen to the tribes
  • Onnum, wall fort to which the Habitancum garrison withdraws, where they are met by Constans
  • Cilurnum, wall fort and HQ of Asturian cavalry; prisoner depot for four hundred Attacotti
  • Corstopitum, site of six weeks' foot-drill for Attacotti recruits
  • Belgica, destination of the First Attacotti Frontier Scouts
  • Eburacum, HQ of the Sixth Legion
  • Deva, HQ of the Twentieth

Historical and literary backgroundEdit

"Two inches in the right place" is a maxim from Vegetius's De Rei Militari also quoted in The Mark of the Horse Lord and Megan Whalen Turner's The King of Attolia.

From's "Rosemary Sutcliff":

  • "Frontier Wolf, set on the Scottish border of fourth century Roman Britain, also echoes themes in George Shipway’s novel of nineteenth century British India, Strangers in the Land, which portrays the irredeemable damage an insensitive Imperial official fresh from the "mother country" wreaks on the delicate understanding established between conqueror and conquered."
  • "the desperate Roman retreat to safety through a gauntlet of hostile Celtic warriors in Frontier Wolf [was] inspired by a heroic British retreat during the Third Anglo-Afghan War described by Wallace Breem, fellow historical novelist and former Indian Army Frontier Scout."

During the 26-day Third Anglo-Afghan War in May of 1919, Major Guy Russell was ordered to withdraw the militia from South Waziristan in advance of an Afghan invasion, and did so under fire and despite mass desertion. Wallace Breem wrote a fictionalised account in his novel The Leopard and the Cliff (1964). Frontier Wolf is dedicated in part to him. Sutcliff's version, while apparently inspired by the story, does not adhere closely to the real events, particularly in respect to the mass desertions of the Scouts.

Publication historyEdit

  1. Oxford University Press, 1980.
  2. Dutton (US), 1980.
  3. Front Street, Boyds Mills Press, 2007.
  4. Red Fox, 2013.