The World of the Carpathian Interlude – Part V : Monsters in the Dark – Werewolves in the Ancient World

 

In Part V of The World of The Carpathian Interlude, we are going to explore one of the aspects of horror in the series, to meld ancient history and belief with fantasy.

As we know, Emperor Augustus’ three legions, under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus, were slaughtered in the forests of Germania in an unprecedented defeat for Rome. Fear has a stranglehold on the Roman world at this time, including the emperor, and everyone looks to place blame, to find an explanation.

As Cassius Dio said, it… could have been due to nothing else than the wrath of some divinity.

Rome in a panic

What else could it have been?

The omens were terrible. According to ancient sources, the temple on the Field of Mars in Rome was struck by lightning, locusts invaded the city, and a statue of Victory in the north turned its back on Germania. Surely a bunch of German barbarians under the command of a traitor could not have done this alone? A god must have been involved!

Or something else…

Etruscan urn showing wolf man emerging from the Underworld

This situation is something that the historical fantasy novelist truly relishes. The opportunity to put hindsight and modern doubt aside, and step into the mindset of the ancient world, replete with all of its folk and religious beliefs, its strong superstitions and maybe, just maybe, some ancient knowledge of which we are completely ignorant.

What if Arminius and the Germanic tribesmen received help from someone…something…who also had an interest in halting Rome’s northern advance?

Lykoi is the Greek word for ‘wolves’, and in The Carpathian Interlude they are not the shy, intelligent, loyal, and enigmatic animals we know them to be today.

Throughout history, the wolf has been demonized and hunted to the point of extinction in most of Europe. Every child in the west has grown up with stories of evil wolves haunting the forests surrounding settlements, slavering beasts who slaughter livestock and people alike and who revel in the blood of their kills.

And what takes the horror of the wolf one step further? – A man who turns into a wolf – a Werewolf.

In doing the research for The Carpathian Interlude, I discovered that the legend of the Werewolf was not a medieval fabrication as I had previously thought. In the ancient world, there are also references to Lycanthropes, or Werewolves.

An ancient Greek wolf-man

In the 5th century B.C. the historian Herodotus wrote about a people known as the Neuri who lived in the Scythian lands:

The Neuri follow Scythian customs; but one generation before the advent of Darius’ army, they happened to be driven from their country by snakes; for their land produced great numbers of these, and still more came down on them out of the desolation on the north, until at last the Neuri were so afflicted that they left their own country… It may be that these people are wizards; for the Scythians, and the Greeks settled in Scythia, say that once a year every one of the Neuri becomes a wolf for a few days and changes back again to his former shape. Those who tell this tale do not convince me; but they tell it nonetheless, and swear to its truth. (Herodotus; Histories Book IV 105)

Herodotus could be a picky historian, so for him to include this reference in his work, while expressing his own doubt at the same time, speaks to the possibility that the belief of the locals where he obtained this story was strong indeed.

But there are stories of wolf men going even farther back. The Roman poet, Ovid, writing during the reign of Emperor Augustus (the period during which this series is set), recounts the tale of the Arkadian King, Lycaon, in his famous work Metamorphoses.

King Lycaon was a Peloponnesian king from c. 1550 B.C. He was an arrogant tyrant who tried to pull a fast-one on Zeus [Jupiter], the king of the gods, by feeding the immortal human flesh. Here is Ovid’s account in the god’s own words:

I traversed Maenalus where fearful dens abound, over Lycaeus, wintry slopes of pine tree groves, across Cyllene steep; and as the twilight warned of night’s approach, I stopped in that Arcadian tyrant’s realms and entered his inhospitable home:—and when I showed his people that a God had come, the lowly prayed and worshiped me, but this Lycaon mocked their pious vows and scoffing said; ‘A fair experiment will prove the truth if this be god or man.’ and he prepared to slay me in the night,—to end my slumbers in the sleep of death. So made he merry with his impious proof; but not content with this he cut the throat of a Molossian hostage sent to him, and partly softened his still quivering limbs in boiling water, partly roasted them on fires that burned beneath. And when this flesh was served to me on tables, I destroyed his dwelling and his worthless Household Gods, with thunder bolts avenging. Terror-struck he took to flight, and on the silent plains is howling in his vain attempts to speak; he raves and rages and his greedy jaws, desiring their accustomed slaughter, turn against the sheep – still eager for their blood. His vesture separates in shaggy hair, his arms are changed to legs; and as a wolf he has the same grey locks, the same hard face, the same bright eyes, the same ferocious look. (Ovid; Metamorphoses, Book I, 216)

In mythology it was not unusual to find the gods punishing humans by turning them into animals, but the example of Lycaon is noteworthy. His sacrilege to Zeus, his hubris, is unforgiveable. The king of the gods could have turned the wicked mortal into anything, any animal or insect, but Zeus chose to turn Lycaon into a wolf man, a being in pain who could not be satiated, who kept his awareness despite not being able to speak. Lycaon is turned into a beast who preys upon beasts, ‘terror-struck’ and yet also terrifying.

Zeus turns Lycaon into a wolf

There was, it seemed, always a price to pay for being turned into a Werewolf, or Lykos. It was a painful, horrifying existence.

Another example from ancient literature that stands out is Gaius Petronius’ Satyricon, believed to originate from sometime during the reign of Nero in the 1st century A.D.

Petronius’ work is one of the few surviving Roman novels, and it is mostly a satire of life in ancient Rome. However, one of the episodes involves a character who heads-out one night to his woman’s home with a soldier friend who, as they walk along the road, turns into a Werewolf. Far from being a humorous episode, Petronius writes in detail about what happens:

I seized my opportunity, and persuaded a guest in our house to come with me as far as the fifth milestone. He was a soldier, and as brave as Hell. So we trotted off about cockcrow; the moon shone like high noon. We got among the tombstones: my man went aside to look at the epitaphs, I sat down with my heart full of song and began to count the graves. Then when I looked round at my friend, he stripped himself and put all his clothes by the roadside. My heart was in my mouth, but I stood like a dead man. He made a ring of water round his clothes and suddenly turned into a wolf. Please do not think I am joking; I would not lie about this for any fortune in the world. But as I was saying, after he had turned into a wolf, he began to howl, and ran off into the woods. At first I hardly knew where I was, then I went up to take his clothes; but they had all turned into stone. No one could be nearer dead with terror than I was. But I drew my sword and went slaying shadows all the way till I came to my love’s house. I went in like a corpse, and nearly gave up the ghost, the sweat ran down my legs, my eyes were dull, I could hardly be revived. My dear Melissa was surprised at my being out so late, and said, ‘If you had come earlier you might at least have helped us; a wolf got into the house and worried all our sheep, and let their blood like a butcher. But he did not make fools of us, even though he got off; for our slave made a hole in his neck with a spear.’ When I heard this, I could not keep my eyes shut any longer, but at break of day I rushed back to my master Gaius’s house like a defrauded publican, and when I came to the place where the clothes were turned into stone, I found nothing but a pool of blood. But when I reached home, my soldier was lying in bed like an ox, with a doctor looking after his neck. I realized that he was a werewolf, and I never could sit down to a meal with him afterwards, not if you had killed me first. Other people may think what they like about this; but may all your guardian angels punish me if I am lying. (Petronius; Satyricon 62)

Petronius’ character was either drinking some heady wine that night, or else his soldier friend had other major issues.

The point of these texts is that there was an awareness of Werewolves in the ancient world, or of Lycanthropy, a psychological disease that the famous physician Galen apparently wrote about, in which a person believed they were part wolf and had the ravenous appetite to match that belief.

Now back to The Carpathian Interlude

The Varus disaster was an unbelievable event, behind which much darker powers are at play. Throughout this series, the powers of Light (Mithras and Rome) and Dark (the Carpathian Lord and the ‘Barbarians’) are locked a battle that has been raging for ages.

And Gaius Justus Vitalis, his men, and the boy, Daxos, are caught up in the middle of it. The war is waged on many fronts – in the dark of the forests of Germania and Carpathia, on the battlefields of the frontier, and mostly in the hearts and minds of Mithras’ own soldiers, his Heliodromus and his Miles, Gaius and his men.

This is a story that will haunt you and leave the screams of Rome’s dead and dying men ringing in your ears for a long time to come, just as it did for the people of Rome over two thousand years ago.

In Part VI of The World of The Carpathian Interlude, we’re going into the heart of Dacia, home to some of Rome’s fiercest enemies.

Thank you for reading!

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The World of the Carpathian Interlude – Part IV : Rome’s Nightmare – The Varus Disaster

Have you ever wondered why forests are so often the setting for nightmares?

Think about it. It’s true.

Ready for a fight – a scene from the movie, Centurion

I remember a recurring nightmare that I had when I was a child: I’m in a dark forest, walking by myself. My feet crunch on a carpet of dead leaves in a slow, steady rhythm. Then a second set of footsteps, comes into my hearing, only they’re faster. They’re pursuing me. I begin to panic, and run. I yell but the woods devour my cries. I believe someone is chasing me, and my heart is close to bursting… And then I wake up.

That might not seem scary now, but when you are 6 it’s another story.

Nightmares are fascinating and curious. As a child I didn’t know that the quickening steps of my forest pursuer were really the sound of the blood pulsing in my ear as it pressed into my pillow. Those woods were terrifying to me.

The Forests of Germania

Think about the woods again. How many of you have read or heard scary stories that take place in a forest? For ages, the woods or any kind of forest, have been shadow realms of the unknown, places of magic and nightmare, of beasts and death.

But there is a reason why forests have become such monsters in and of themselves. Not all tales of horror in the woods are fabricated by active, childish minds.

The Carpathian Interlude series revolves around a particular event in Roman history known as the Varus Disaster. It took place in A.D. 9, during the reign of Emperor Augustus, and it was truly the stuff of nightmares.

Public Quinctilius Varus was a patrician Roman general and member of the imperial circle who had been put in charge of the administration of Germania, which had only recently been tentatively subdued by Rome. Varus had previously had success governing provinces in Africa, Syria, and Judea, so it was believed he would be more than capable of handling Germania.

Marching through the Teutoburg Forest

Varus is said to have also had a reputation for being a tyrant who inflicted brutal punishment on the people he was governing and squeezing taxes out of.

It’s safe to say that Varus thought he was quite secure in his position. He was a skilled administrator by Roman standards, had a proven track record, the bloodline to back it up, and a staff of trusted advisors.

Among the people on Varus’ staff was a man named Arminius. Does that name ring a bell?

Arminius was the son of Segimerus, the chieftain of the Cherusci, a Germanic tribe that had bent the knee to Rome. As surety for their father’s good behaviour, Arminius and his younger brother Flavus were sent to Rome when they were just boys. We’ll focus on Arminius.

Arminius grew up in Rome, learned the ways of Roman life, and politics, and martial prowess. He began to make a name for himself and was admitted to the Equestrian order to become a cavalry officer.

When Varus was assigned to Germania, Arminius went with him as one of his most trusted advisors and skilled officers. In fact, it’s said that Varus and Arminius regularly dined together; no doubt Varus valued Arminius’ advice in governing the lands of his former people.

This is the seed of the nightmare of which I spoke earlier.

Map used for research and writing of The Carpathian Interlude

In the late summer of A.D. 9, Publius Quinctilius Varus led three legions (the XVII, XVIII, and XIX Legions) deep into Germania to collect taxes and tribute. Varus also had with him six auxiliary cohorts, three cavalry alae, slaves, and camp followers consisting of women, children, merchants and tradesmen. This was a large, slow-moving army. Because they were in a dense forest, the line of march was thin, and stretched over 15-20 kilometres.

But Varus felt he had little to worry about and was so confident that he didn’t event send scouts ahead.

Then Arminius brought word of an uprising to Varus who sent the former to take care of it. Varus was warned against Arminius by another German advisor, Segestes, who was actually a relative of Arminius. But Varus ignored Segestes’ warnings not to trust Arminius and so the nightmare really began.

Rather than supressing the uprising, Arminius instead disappeared into the forest to rally the allied Germanic tribes and attack the Roman forces.

The mountains had an uneven surface broken by ravines, and the trees grew close together and very high. Hence the Romans, even before the enemy assailed them, were having a hard time of it felling trees, building roads, and bridging places that required it. They had with them many wagons and many beasts of burden as in time of peace; moreover, not a few women and children and a large retinue of servants were following them… For the Romans were not proceeding in any regular order, but were mixed-in helter-skelter with the wagons and the unarmed, and so, being unable to form readily anywhere in a body, and being fewer at every point than their assailants, they suffered greatly and could offer no resistance at all. (Cassius Dio, The Roman History 20)

I thought my nightmare in the forest was horrifying.

Artist impression of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

For three days the Romans were ambushed by the Germanic tribesmen. Three days in the tangle of the Teutoburg Forest, the bogs and brambles, the rivers, and marshes, violent storms and…the dark.

Varus, the legions, and the camp followers had no chance. Arminius had learned how Romans fought, how to weaken them, and how to defeat them. He had laid his plans well, and after three days of desperate fighting, the Romans may have made their last stand at a place known today as Kalkriese.

In the end, Varus and some of the other officers took their own lives rather than fall into the enemy’s hands. Perhaps, as well as fear, it was Varus’ shame that let him to do such a thing. The total number of Roman dead? – about 20,000.

three legions were cut to pieces with their general, his lieutenants, and all the auxiliaries… they say that he [Augustus] was so greatly affected that for several months in succession he cut neither his beard nor his hair, and sometimes he would dash his head against a door, crying: “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” And he observed the day of the disaster each year as one of sorrow and mourning… (Suetonius; Life of Augustus 23)

There is no mistaking that this was indeed a real-life nightmare for Rome, and this crushing defeat struck fear into the hearts of everyone from the lowest Suburan sewer rat right the way up to Augustus himself.

Kalkriese – the possible site of the Legions’ last stand

Years later, when Germanicus went into Germania to find the remains of the fallen legions, he came to the site of the struggle.

…they [Germanicus and his men] visited the mournful scenes, with their horrible sights and associations. Varus’s first camp with its wide circumference and the measurements of its central space clearly indicated the handiwork of three legions. Further on, the partially fallen rampart and the shallow fosse suggested the inference that it was a shattered remnant of the army which had there taken up a position. In the centre of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near, lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions. Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles. (Tacitus, Annals 1.61)

People must have thought that the gods had turned their backs on Rome.

So how does this fit with the Carpathian Interlude?

When I think of the nightmare of the Varus disaster, what it must have felt like for the troops and camp followers who knew that the barbarians would kill them at any moment, I feel terror for them. The shock, the surprise, the desperation as people were dying all around them in such horrible ways must have been truly overwhelming.

Death

I wanted to take the terror one step further. What if Arminius had more than just the element of surprise on his side? What if he had allied himself with a darker, more powerful enemy in his desperation to crush Rome and assume hegemony over the Germanic tribes?

This is the path I’ve taken in turning this historic event into historical horror.

Cassius Dio describes the omens that Rome witnessed in the aftermath of the disaster, the fearful belief of Augustus and others that the gods were indeed angry:

For a catastrophe so great and sudden as this, it seemed to him [Augustus], could have been due to nothing else than the wrath of some divinity; moreover, by reason of the portents which occurred both before the defeat and afterwards, he was strongly inclined to suspect some superhuman agency. (Cassius Dio, The Roman History 24)

The Kalkriese Mask – worn by one of Varus’ doomed troops

In the next part of The World of The Carpathian Interlude, we will explore the ancient beliefs that helped to shape the terrible beasts that are ally to the Germanic tribes in the story.

Thank you for reading…

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The World of the Carpathian Interlude – Part III : Roman Armour and Clothing

Welcome back to The World of the Carpathian Interlude!

In the previous post, we looked at the main weapons used by Roman troops. However, if you are not clothed and protected, you may not last long on the field of combat. In The Carpathian Interlude, I mention some of the articles of clothing and armour that the characters wear. After all, it wasn’t just a Roman’s weapons that kept him alive!

Optio’s helmet

Pretend you are a Roman soldier getting dressed for the day or that you’re preparing to go on campaign and need to stuff some extra clothing into your satchel which you will have to carry on your back along with two sharpened stakes, pots, a shovel and pick axe. When the Legions were reorganized and equipment standardized by Gaius Marius, there was a reason why the men became known as ‘Marius’ mules’!

Replica of a common legionary tunic and belt, or cingulum

The Roman soldier would have a standard issue tunica which was like an over-sized shirt, belted at the waist by a cingulum. You wouldn’t leave without pants or trousers in the morning, and neither would a Roman go into battle without bracae which were made of wool, just like the tunic. This basic outfit was completed with a pair of caligae which were standard issue Roman military sandals with hobnails.

As an aside, the Emperor Caligula was so nick-named because of the little pair of army sandals he wore as a child. He was called ‘Little Boots’.

Bracae and caligae

New archaeological evidence shows that contrary to what was thought, Roman soldiers did in fact wear woollen socks. Makes sense to me – I can‘t imagine trekking through Caledonia or Germania in bare feet.

A cloak was also an important piece of the outfit and could serve as a blanket on the march, a shield against the elements.

Roman phalerae

If you were a decorated officer such as a centurion, you would be wearing a leather harness over your chest that was decorated with phalerae, a series of gold, silver, bronze or iron discs with images of gods, goddesses and other symbols that were decorations for deeds of valour on the field. The images also served as protection, as most soldiers were extremely superstitious.

Replica of the lorica segmentata – the standard issue breastplate of an imperial Roman legionary

All that clothing however, is not going to help you if you’re not protected by a certain amount of armour. This brings us to the lorica segmentata, the standeard breastplate of the Roman legionary of the Empire. The design of the lorica is ingenious, providing good shoulder, chest and back protection while providing for ease of movement and flexibility due to the segmented style of the steel plates. If you were an auxiliary trooper, you more likely had chainmail. Aside from the leather straps hanging from the soldier’s cingulum, the lorica was the only protection on the torso.

Officer’s pteriges

An officer’s armour would vary from the ordinary trooper’s. Commanding officers or tribunes would be wearing a cuirass which was a breast/back plate made of iron and/or hardened bull’s hide, often ornamented with patron gods and goddesses of their family. Beneath these would be a full skirt of leather straps hanging down to the knees called pteruges. These leather straps also sometimes protected the shoulders of an officer.

A centurion or other high-ranking officer may also have worn ornamented greaves which protected the shins, but these were often cumbersome and not always in use during the Empire.

Finally, when it comes to protection, few things mattered so much as the helmet. The standard legionary helmet was perfected over hundreds of years, improving upon ancient Greek, Thracian and Macedonian models. There was a rim to protect the face from downward slashes from an enemy, a large, fan-like neck protector at the back, cheek guards, and holes for the ears so that the soldier could hear what was going on.

Centurion’s helmet with horizontal crest

Helmet crests were used to denote rank as well. For instance, a centurion would be known by the horizontal, horse-hair crest on his helmet where an optio (one step down from a centurion) had a crest going from front to back with feathers on either side of the helmet. A legate or other commanding officer might add a flourish with a very large horse-hair crest and highly ornamented cheek pieces to denote their own rank and wealth. Later on, parade helmets for cavalry prefects and other auxiliary officers included face masks, giving them an otherworldly look.

Auxiliary cavalry helmet

There you have it, a quick look at the clothing and armour of the Roman army. Not much to it, but, it was highly effective and utilitarian and certainly gave the soldiers of Rome an edge when combined with their weapons.

Whether or not the armour provides enough protection against Rome’s enemies in The Carpathian Interlude…well…that is another thing entirely.

Tune in next week for Part IV of The World of the Carpathian Interlude when we’ll be looking at the historical event this series focusses on – The Varus Disaster.

Thank you for reading.

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The World of the Carpathian Interlude – Part II : Roman Weapons

Welcome to Part II in The World of the Carpathian Interlude.

In this historical horror series, there are several battle sequences against not only human foes, but also against the evil forces of undead and unnatural creatures.

In such situations, having the right weapons is one of the only ways to survive, that and having your gods on your side…

When Optio Gaius Justus Vitalis and his men set out to confront legions of undead in a dark valley of the Carpathian mountains, there is one thing that really enables the Romans to hold their own: weapons.

Let’s look at the weapons of a Roman soldier.

The Roman army was one of the most disciplined, well-organized and well-armed fighting forces of the ancient world, and their weaponry evolved over time as they adopted the best from each nation they conquered.

In The Carpathian Interlude, I have tried to use the Latin names for all the weapons and articles of clothing. However, for those of you who may not be familiar with the world and weapons of ancient Rome, here is a crash course in case you ever find yourself facing down legions of undead.

The Roman gladius

First, and most importantly, is the gladius. This is the Roman soldier’s (legionary’s) sword. The word ‘gladiator’ is derived from this word. This weapon has been called the ‘meat-cleaver’ of the ancient world because of its brutal efficiency. It was primarily a stabbing weapon, worn on the soldier’s right side. The style varied slightly from the Republic to the Empire but the effect for each was the same. The gladius was indeed an extremely deadly weapon.

A scutum – the shield of a imperial Roman legionary

In the ancient world, shields were of primary importance for defending the bearer against all manner of attacks from arrows and sling stones, to cavalry charges, and a rush of roaring Celts. The Roman legionary’s shield was called a scutum. This was a very large, heavy rectangular or oblong shield with a large boss in the middle that could be used to smash the face of an attacker. It would protect more than half of a soldier standing up, and was used to great effect in military formations such as the tustudo, or tortoise formation.

Roman pila

What ancient warrior’s kit would be complete without a spear? The Roman soldier’s spear was called a pilum. This differed from the spears of the ancient Greek hoplite in that it was much lighter and could be used only once. It was however, very effective at piercing armour and flesh because of its fine point. A hail of these was truly deadly and was the Romans’ first offensive weapon after artillery. And, once thrown, it could not be picked up by the enemy and thrown back due to the special design that ensured the tip broke off or bent upon impact making it useless.

For an optio, like Gaius Justus Vitalis in the early part of The Carpathian Interlude, a hastile was carried instead of a pilum. The hastile was a staff carried by that particular rank of officer and though it was symbolic of his rank it could also be used as a weapon if need be.

An optio with his hastile

When the fighting inevitably came to close quarter combat, and pila and gladii were spent or lost, the Roman dagger, called a pugio, was what was called for. This blade, apart from having practical uses such as cutting meat or sharpening a stake, this could be thrust into the side of an enemy when he came too close for comfort. The pugio was worn at the soldier’s left side and secured tightly at the waist for a quick and easy draw.

A legionary dagger, or pugio

So there you have it! These are the main weapons of a Roman legionary which they would carry on the march and into battle. They would never leave his side whether he was sleeping or digging ditches and ramparts at the end of the day.

The question you have to ask yourself is whether these weapons, honed and perfected over centuries of use, would be enough to defeat an enemy that feels neither pain nor fear, an enemy that will keep coming at you until you do one thing…

In Part III of The World of The Carpathian Interlude, we’ll be looking at the armour and clothing of a Roman soldier.

Thank you for reading.

A Roman testudo formation

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The World of the Carpathian Interlude – Part I : Mithras, Lord of Light

“Hear us great Father of Light! Receive our thanks for delivering us from the dark.”

(Gaius Justus Vitalis; IMMORTUI)

Mithras

In the ancient world most people believed in the gods, believed that the gods played a role in all aspects of life. Whether it was a major battle to decide who would rule the known world, or something as simple and mundane as keeping a person safe on a journey to the next town. People, one could say, held their gods close on a daily basis. Not just once a week or at the holidays.

For the men serving in Rome’s legions there was one god to which many turned when they faced death on an almost daily basis: Mithras.

For Gaius Justus Vitalis and the other soldiers who inhabit the world of The Carpathian Interlude, Mithras is the light with which to combat the dark on the edge of empire.

But who was this strange god who was relatively new to the Roman Pantheon?

Ahura Mazda – from the ruins of Persepolis

Mithras originated as an ancient Persian god of Truth and Light whose cult was an offshoot of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, which recognized Ahura Mazda as sole creator of the universe. In mythology, Mithras supported Ahura Mazda in a struggle against the evil Ahriman. This struggle of Good/Light vs. Evil/Darkness is at the heart of Mithraism.

Mithras was sent by Ahura Mazda to hunt and kill the ‘divine bull’ and from the bull’s blood, all life sprang. This is the creation myth of Zoroastrianism and the ‘Tauroctony’, the slaying of the bull, is the central image, the greatest rite, of Mithraism.

When Mithras captured the bull, he is said to have taken it to a cave and there, slain it. That is why most Temples to Mithras (known as a Mithraeum) were in caves (speleum), or dark rooms made to look like caves. Over time, because of his identification with the Light, Mithras also became identified with the sun, and altars to Sol Invictus, the ‘unconquered sun’, were associated with his worship.

The cult of Mithras seems to have come to Rome in the second half of the first century B.C., likely encountered by Roman soldiers who had been campaigning in the East with Marcus Licinius Crassus and Mark Antony against the Parthians.

Mithraeum – San Clemente, Rome

Mithraism was one of the ancient ‘mystery religions’. These were religious cults in which initiates swore a solemn oath not to reveal the rites and activities involved. As a result, very little is actually known. Other mystery religions of the ancient world included the Elefsinian Mysteries (dedicated to Demeter and Persephone), the cult of Isis (the Egyptian goddess worshipped as mother/wife, patroness of nature and magic, and friend of slaves, sinners, artisans and the downtrodden), and the cult of Serapis (Hellenistic god intended to merge the Greek and Egyptian religions).

Mithraism was different from the other mystery religions in that it was for men only. During the Roman Empire its appeal had grown so much that Mithraea (dimly lit temple-caves or rooms) could be found outside of Roman forts across the whole of the empire. Why was this, a foreign religion, so intensely popular among the eagles of Rome?

Some believe that Mithraism may have appealed more because of its stronger promise of an afterlife and more personal relationship with the god. Understandable when one is facing death regularly. Also central to the religion were the attributes of Strength, Courage and Endurance which would have been highly valued by the soldier-adherents.

Mithras as Sol Invictus

In The Carpathian Interlude, Gaius Justus Vitalis is referred to as the Heliodromus or ‘Sun Runner’ which is his grade or rank in the cult. In Mithraism there were in fact seven grades of initiation each associated with a deity. These were (from lowest to highest): Corax (Mercury), Nymphus (Venus), Miles (Mars), Leo (Jupiter), Perses (Luna), Heliodromus (Sol), and Pater (Saturn).

Each of these grades was also associated with a particular symbol such as a torch for the Heliodromus, or a mitre for the Pater. Did the rites involve the use in some way of these symbols for each of the initiates? Perhaps. There is no way to know for certain. What is known is that these symbols appear on many of the elaborate carvings that have been found. They are full of symbolism, as is much of ancient and medieval art.

Mithraism was, however, not just a religion, it was a very close-knit society, a sort of club. Much as members of the Masonic Order, initiates of the Mithraic mysteries likely helped their brothers to advance, and provided aid in times of need. There would have been an understanding among them that they were not alone, that each was there for the other. It was a strong network across the empire.

Mithraic symbols and the Tauroctony

It has been hypothesized that Mithraism was the precursor of Christianity, not only because of its monotheistic nature and the battle between Light and Dark (which is universal) but also for the inclusion of such rites as baptism and a ritual meal. The date associated with the birth of Mithras is also December 25. It’s a very interesting idea and may, partially, explain the widespread integration of Christianity in the later empire.

In The Carpathian Interlude, Gaius Justus Vitalis and his men find rejuvenation in the Mithraic rites. They know that as they head into the darkness of the Carpathian mountains to face the terror of an unknown enemy, they will not be alone. The Light will guide them and, if they are to die, there is something bright, beyond the black river, that awaits them.

Mithraeum – Carrawburgh along Hadrian’s Wall

Stay tuned next week for Part II in this blog series on the world of The Carpathian Interlude.

Thank you for reading.

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The Legend of Homer – A special guest post by author Luciana Cavallaro

Hi everyone,

Today I’d like to welcome back a special guest and fellow historical fantasy author, Luciana Cavallaro.

Luciana is something of an expert on Homer and the Trojan War, and she always has some fascinating thoughts on the subject.

So, sit back, relax, and let yourself be transported back to the age of heroes…

Homer

I’d like to thank, Adam, for inviting me to be on his blog and to talk about my favourite topic, ancient history. I am very grateful to Adam as well, as this is the second time I’ve been invited to write a guest post for his amazing and informative blog.

With the constant turmoil in the world, whether it’s acts of terrorism, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un’s threats of war, and the barbarous nature of inhumanity, it goes to show how history repeats itself. This blog post isn’t a “doom and gloom” article, but more of a commentary on the early recorded history of war that birthed western literature.

Wouldn’t it be great if one could meet and interview their literary heroes, to learn what drove their passion and pursuit for telling stories? I often wonder what it would be like to sit down and have a chat with Homer, the bard responsible for western literature and legendary tales. I’d like to think our conversation would be an intellectual discourse, but truth told, I’d be blubbering idiot. The brain would freeze and I’d be tongue-tied, and starry-eyed!

Homer_and_his_Guide_(1874)

There’s not a lot of information about Homer, though speculation suggests he was born around the 8th Century BCE. As to where, no one is sure, except it was a Greek city in western Turkey. There was one element that most historians agree on was that he was blind, and that he was injured in a war he had fought in. This lends credence to the graphic and accurate descriptions he gave in the fight scenes in the Iliad. From the various sources I’ve read, each have commented he must have experienced war to able to describe the layout of camps, strategies in fighting, and the terrible injuries inflicted.

However, historians questioned as to whether he was the “author” of The Iliad and The Odyssey. One main reason for the conjecture are the two different styles: The Iliad is more formal and theatrical, while the language in The Odyssey reflected the day-to-day speech pathos and likened to a novel. The other is that the stories, in particular The Iliad, was passed down from bard to bard, and Homer is a pronoun for “bard”. This premise led historians to believe Homer did not exist, and as mentioned, there isn’t a lot of information as to who he was, where he was born, etc.

Achilles and Ajax dice – Louvre

Ancient Greek writing didn’t appear until the eighth century BCE, the time when a scribe wrote Homer’s stories while the bard performed them. Odds are, there weren’t any “biographies” written about many of the individuals prior to this period, with the exception of those nations who kept records of accounts, contracts, and pacts.

If Homer were here, I’d ask him whether he composed both stories. I believe he created both tales. As with most storytelling, an author’s experience grows and changes as they write more stories, so why can’t both epic tales differ from one another?

Another question I’d ask is how much of The Iliad is based on fact. It is suggested that the story is based on a number of wars that happened in the region over many centuries, and the history of these wars has been passed down from generation to generation. Homer then compiled these events into a single story. As a fiction writer, this makes sense, and who’s to say it didn’t happen that way? We take our inspiration from real events and weave a story. Why not Homer?

The Death of Priam – Louvre

Again, there are arguments for and against the validity of the events in the story. Why? Lack of evidence. Or is there? Heinrich Schliemann, the German businessman and amateur archaeologist, proved otherwise. His tactics were less than honourable, damaging the layers at the site of Ilios and ousting Frank Calvert, who had partial rights to Hissarlik. Regardless, Schliemann believed in the story and set out to prove Troy existed. He did find Troy but it wasn’t until decades later that evidence of a war, skeletal remains and an underwater tunnel were uncovered. From later excavations, archaeologists have determined the site of Troy had endured a number of wars over many centuries. This supports the fact that the story of The Iliad was a compilation from historical events.

This leads to my next question, if I could ask Homer: did any of the characters in story exist? Very probable. In a Hittite text, around the time of the Trojan War, circa 1300 BCE, it mentions a city named Wilusa, which translates to Ilios, and a king called Alexander, better known as Paris. It was also the Hittite texts where ‘Achaean’, the name Homer used for the Greeks, was identified. Coincidence? I don’t think so, and certainly makes the history of Ilios and the story more interesting.

I do believe myths and legends stem from a basis of truth. I first read The Iliad about 20 years ago and fell in love with the story, the characters and the legend. I read fiction and non-fiction books, watched documentaries, and these have whetted my appetite to learn more. Homer is the reason why I started writing Historical Fiction/Mythology.

I’ve a new book due for publication on the 1st October, and I’d like you to join me on my first virtual book launch. For details, click here:

Historical fiction novelist and a secondary teacher, Luciana Cavallaro, likes to meander between contemporary life to the realms of mythology and history. Luciana has always been interested in Mythology and Ancient History but her passion wasn’t realised until seeing the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. From then on, she was inspired to write Historical Fantasy.

She has spent many lessons promoting literature and the merits of ancient history. Today, you will still find Luciana in the classroom, teaching ancient history and promoting literature. To keep up-to-date with her ramblings, ahem, that is meaningful discourse, subscribe to her mailing list at http://www.luccav.com.

Connect with Luciana:

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Luciana-Cavallaro-Writer/304218202959903?ref=hl

Twitter https://twitter.com/ClucianaLuciana

Author Luciana Cavallaro

I would like to thank Luciana for taking the time to share her thoughts and research about Homer, the site of Troy, and the Trojan War with us today. I always love hearing from her, and I can’t agree more that every legend has a base in truth.

Also, as archaeologists, we can’t help but find Heinrich Schliemann’s methods deplorable, but there is no denying that he found the most likely site for Troy. The fact that he did so using the text of Homer makes it a pretty great story in and of itself!

Always a hot topic, and certainly one I can’t get enough of.

Be sure to check out Luciana’s website and sign-up for her mailing list so you can get all the great blogs she writes and news on her books.

I highly recommend Luciana’s books, and if you have the time, definitely sign-up to check out her virtual book launch on Facebook by CLICKING HERE. If the time works for you, it should be a fantastic event!

Thank you again to Luciana, and thank you to all of you for reading.

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Writing Ancient Religion

Mithras

Why is it that a lot of writers steer clear of ancient religious practices in fiction?

Is it because it’s awkward and clashes with their modern beliefs, religious or otherwise? Or perhaps it’s because they don’t feel comfortable writing about something so strange, practices they really know very little about?

There is a lot of good fiction set in the ancient world and I’m always trying to find new novels to entertain and transport myself. One thing I’ve noticed is that when it comes to the religious practices of ancient Greeks and Romans, they are often (not always) portrayed as half-hearted, greeted with a good measure of pessimism. It might be a passing nod to a statue of a particular god or goddess, or a comment by the protagonist that he or she was making an offering even though they didn’t think it would do any good.

There is often an undercurrent of non-belief, a lack of mystery.

A relief of Demeter at the Elefsina site museum

Now, I’m not full of religious fervour myself; it’s difficult for anyone who has studied history in depth to be so. However, I see the value of it and respect its meaning for people across the ages. Religion is not necessarily at the forefront of our thoughts in modern, western society, but, in the ancient and medieval worlds, faith was often foremost in people’s thoughts.

It’s easy, blinded by hindsight, to dismiss ancient beliefs in the gods and goddesses of our ancestors.

As a writer, why would I want to dismiss something that is so important to the period in which my novels take place, something so important to the thoughts and motives of my characters?

The Door to Hades – part of the sanctuary of Elefsis, where the Elefsinian Mysteries were carried out

People in ancient Greece and Rome (for example) believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses who governed every aspect of life. From the emotions one felt or the lighting of a family hearth fire, to the start of a business venture or a soldier’s march to battle, most people held their gods and goddesses close. Indeed, there was a god or goddess with accompanying rituals for almost everything.

Religion enriches the ancient world in historical fiction and sets it apart from today, transports the reader to a world that is foreign and exotic. And the beauty is that there is so much mystery, so little known, that the writer can spread his or her creative wings.

Mars – Roman God of War

Of course, it’s always important to do as much research as possible – if the primary texts don’t tell you much, then look to the paintings on ceramics, wall frescoes, statues and other carvings. If you can get to the actual sanctuaries of the ancient world, even better, for they are places where even the most sceptical person can feel that there is (or was) indeed something different going on.

When I write, I try to do something different by having my main characters in close touch with the gods of their ancestors. Since it is historical fantasy, I can get that much more creative in having characters interact with the gods who have a clear role to play and are characters themselves.

The beautiful thing about the gods of ancient Greece and Rome is that they are almost human, prone to the same emotions, the same prejudices, that we are. From a certain point of view, they’re more accessible.

The Pythia

Despite this however, their worship, be it Apollo, Venus, Magna Mater, Isis, Jupiter, Mithras or any other, is still shrouded in mystery, clouded by the passage of time. Thousands and thousands of ancient Greeks and Romans flocked to Elefsis to take part in the mysteries dedicated to Demeter and Persephone, but little is known because devotees were sworn to secrecy. Oaths then were ‘water-tight’ as the saying went. Also, at one point, most of the Roman army worshiped Mithras, the Persian Lord of Light and Truth. Do we know much about Mithraism? Some, but there is still much that is not known and perhaps never will be.

In one of my books some of the characters pay a visit to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, which was still revered in the Roman Empire. Today, if you watch a documentary on Delphi, you will hear about how the oracle was used by politicians to deliver fabricated answers to those seeking the god’s advice. It is true that politics and religion in the ancient and medieval worlds were frequent bedfellows, but one can not dismiss the power of belief and inspiration. If the Athenians had not received the famous answer from the Delphic Oracle about being saved by Athens’ ‘wooden walls’, then they might not have had such a crushing naval victory over the Persians at Salamis.

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

There is a lot of room for debate on this topic and many, I suspect, will feel strongly for or against the exploration of ancient religion in fiction. If we feel inclined to dismiss ancient beliefs, to have our characters belittle them, to explain them away, we must ask ourselves why.

Do we dismiss ancient beliefs because we think they are silly, quaint, barbaric or false? Or do we stay away from them because we just don’t understand? Taking an interest in them, giving them some space on our blank pages, doesn’t mean we dismiss our own beliefs, it just means that we are open-minded and interested in accurately portraying the world about which we are writing.

Kylix from Delphi showing Apollo himself pouring a libation

I like my fiction to be vast and multi-hued. Like the Roman Empire, all gods and goddesses are welcome to be a part of the whole and it is my hope that, being inclusive, my own stories will be more interesting, more true to life, more mysterious.

I suppose, at the end of the day, we each have to decide whether to take that leap of faith.

Thank you for reading.

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The General Muleteer: Publius Ventidius Bassus

Those of you who have read the books in the Eagles and Dragons series will know that they are set during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus who waged a mostly successful war on Rome’s longstanding enemy, the Parthian Empire.

What you may not know, however, is that long before Severus, Verus, Trajan, and Mark Antony’s campaigns, there was a Roman who was the original punisher of the Parthians.

His name was Publius Ventidius Bassus.

Denarius of Publius Ventidius Basso – minted during Triumvirate of Mark Antony, showing Jupiter on right holding a scepter and olive branch (Wikimedia Commons)

We all hear about the big names of history often enough, but once in a while, I like to highlight some of the secondary and tertiary characters who played a role in the history of the ancient world.

If you missed the previous post on Gaius Asinius Pollio, the founder of the first public library in ancient Rome, you can read that one by CLICKING HERE.

But today, we’re going to take a very brief look at Ventidius.

When I came across Ventidius I couldn’t help but admire his rise from very humble beginnings to the heights of glory on the battlefield for Rome.

He was not from Rome, but rather from Picenum, the birthplace of Pompey the Great, and located in what is now Abruzzo, to the West of Rome.

When the Social War of 91-88 B.C. broke out – this was the war between Rome and the Italian allies – the young Ventidius was in the eye of the storm.

Romans against Romans

After the Samnite Wars, Rome basically controlled the Italian allies, and the terms that were reached eventually led to great inequalities around money, land ownership, foreign policy, troop levies and more.

This left the Italian allies in poverty, despite their having contributed so many men to Rome’s legions.

In 91 B.C. the Tribune of the Plebs, Marcus Livius Drusus, proposed a series of fair reforms to remedy the situation with Rome’s allies, but for this he was assassinated.

When the Italian allies heard this, they declared independence and war broke out. Most of the Latin cities remained loyal to Rome, but a confederation of eight tribes joined forces (with their Roman-trained men) with the capital at Corfinium, in Abruzzo.

Ventidius and his mother were taken prisoner in the ensuing slaughter of that war and paraded through the streets of Rome in the subsequent triumph of the Roman general, Pompeius Strabo.

Ventidius began as a successful muleteer.

But Ventidius survived his ordeal, and as he grew up he became a skilled muleteer. Eventually, he joined the Roman army and after some time, came to the notice of Julius Caesar.

Once in the army, Ventidius caught the attention of none other than Caesar

During Caesar’s Civil War, Ventidius acquitted himself admirably and came to be one of Caesar’s favourites.

After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Ventidius threw in his lot with Mark Antony who, after the creation of the Second Triumvirate, sent Ventidius to hold the Parthians back.

When the Parthians invaded Cilicia in 40 B.C., along with some Roman mercenaries led by Quintus Labienus, Ventidius went to meet them head-on with several legions of his own.

The muleteer from Picenum now had a large command!

Ventidius crushed the Parthian forces in two major battles: the Battle of the Cilician Gates, and a battle at the Amanus Pass.

Antony heard the news in Athens and celebrated:

It was while he was spending the winter at Athens that word was brought to him of the first successes of Ventidius, who had conquered the Parthians in battle and slain Labienus, as well as Pharnapates, the most capable general of King Orodes. To celebrate this victory Antony feasted the Greeks, and acted as gymnasiarch for the Athenians. He left at home the insignia of his command, and went forth carrying the wands of a gymnasiarch, in a Greek robe and white shoes, and he would take the young combatants by the neck and part them. (Plutarch, The Life of Antony)

The Parthians were not to be deterred however. They proceeded to bring a massive force into Syria, this time led by Pacorus, the son of King Orodes.

Parthian Cataphracts

Ventidius’ legions marched to meet the Parthians and utterly crushed them and slew Prince Pacorus at the battle of Cyrrhestica.

Because of Ventidius’ victory, the Parthians were held back in Media and Mesopotamia, and Rome attained a sort of vengeance for the horrible defeat of Marcus Licinius Crassus and his legions years before at the battle of Carrhae.

After the battle of Cyrrhestica, Ventidius pursued the Roman allies who had sided with the Parthians – mainly Antiochus of Commagene – and laid siege to them at a place called Samosata.

When Antiochus proposed to pay a thousand talents and obey the behests of Antony, Ventidius ordered him to send his proposal to Antony, who had now advanced into the neighbourhood, and would not permit Ventidius to make peace with Antiochus. He insisted that this one exploit at least should bear his own name, and that not all the successes should be due to Ventidius. But the siege was protracted, and the besieged, since they despaired of coming to terms, betook themselves to a vigorous defence. Antony could therefore accomplish nothing, and feeling ashamed and repentant, was glad to make peace with Antiochus on his payment of three hundred talents. After settling some trivial matters in Syria, he returned to Athens, and sent Ventidius home, with becoming honours, to enjoy his triumph. (Plutarch, The Life of Antony)

When I read this passage from Plutarch, I can’t help but shake my head at Antony’s jealousy of Ventidius.

Parthian Horse Archers

It would obviously not do for Antony, who had always lived in the shadow of Julius Caesar, who was Triumvir of the East, to be outdone by a mere muleteer from Picenum.

But he was.

Publius Ventidius Bassus, a man who had worked his way up the ranks of the Roman army, had done what no Roman had done before, nor would do again for a long time.

He was the only Roman general (not an emperor) to celebrate a triumph for victory over the Parthians.

A Triumphal Procession – Ventidius would have celebrated in similar fashion back in Rome. The only general to be awarded a triumph for victory over the Parthians

And the sad thing is that we never hear of Ventidius again in history.

Ventidius… was a man of lowly birth, but his friendship with Antony bore fruit for him in opportunities to perform great deeds. Of these opportunities he made the best use, and so confirmed what was generally said of Antony and Caesar, namely, that they were more successful in campaigns conducted by others than by themselves. (Plutarch, The Life of Antony)

I’ve been told by some folks that people only like to read stories about the ‘marquee characters’ of history, people like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, or Alexander the Great.

But I have to disagree with this. When I read about men like Ventidius, I’m captivated by their story, and because there are so few details about their lives compared with the big names of history, I find myself filling in the blanks, trying to figure out how they did what they did, how they might have felt when they achieved the heights of glory.

Now that makes a great story! Not only do I want to read about these secondary and tertiary characters, I also want to write about them, to tell their story as more than an anecdote of history whispered in the shade of a larger tree.

Thank you for reading.

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Ancient Everyday – Pee and Laundry in the Roman World

I had an urge this week to write about doing laundry in ancient Rome.

Why?

Because our laundry machine broke down and we are waiting to get it repaired.

As with many things, history geek that I am, it reminded me of ancient history. When I need to clean some piece of clothing without a machine, I use the sink with fresh running water and soap. If you lived in the 19th century, you might have used an old fashioned wash-board with some lye soap – plunge and scrub, plunge and scrub!

But the Romans didn’t have soap, or wash-boards.

How did the Romans get their whites, whiter than white?

So what was a Roman to do when their tunica or stola needed a good cleaning?

Oddly enough, they did not wash their clothes at home.

They took them to a fullonica, the ancient version of a laundry mat or dry cleaners.

Fullers, or fullones, were washers and scourers of clothing and new cloth, and they did a pretty good business in ancient Rome.

I mean, those streets were dirty! And with all the olive oil and garum stains on their clothing, their clothes would have needed a good scrubbing.

There were apparently many fullonicae in ancient Rome and other towns such as Pompeii and Ostia, but how did fullones get the clothes of their fellow citizens clean without any soap?

Why, with human pee of course!

This little guy would have been very helpful!

Ok, I’m sensationalizing this a bit, but urine was certainly a part of the process.

Basically, there were three steps to doing laundry properly in the Roman world.

First, the clothing or new cloth had to be washed by the fuller, the fullo.

Fuller’s stalls

This was done by putting the clothes in a small tub full with a mixture of water, nitrum or fuller’s earth (known as creta fullonia), some alkali elements, and of course, urine. Water and urine appear to have been the main ingredients of this ancient detergent.

Fresco from Pompeii of fullers working – from a fullonica in Pompeii

But how did a large prosperous fullonica get enough urine to do the laundry of Rome or Ostia? Well, they placed jars on street corners around the neighbourhood where they operated so that passersby could make a…donation.

I’m guessing the jars near tabernae might have been the most useful. You have to feel for the poor sod whose job it was to go and bring the full jars of urine back to the fullonica through the busy streets of Rome. Maybe people gave him a wide berth so as not to get splashed?

At any rate, once the clothes were in this cleaning mixture, the fuller would get in barefoot and stomp away, over and over, until the clothes were scrubbed of oil, dirt, and grease. This little dance was known as the saltus fullonicus, or the ‘fuller’s jump’.

Artist reconstruction of a fullonica at Ostia

The next step in the process was to rinse the clothing or cloth. This was done in a series of larger, interconnected wash basins into which poured fresh running water from the town water supply.

The fullo would start at the the dirty end, near the spout where the water exited, and then move up the basins toward the clean end where the water came out.

Large rinsing basins at a fullonica in Ostia

The final stage involved brushing the clothing (usually wool) with either thistly plants, or the skin of a hedgehog (insert sad face here). They were then hung to dry on a large upside-down wicker basket work with sulphur placed beneath it so as to allow the fumes to whiten the clothes.

Brushing and drying clothes – from a fresco in Pompeii. Note the wicker frame carried by one fullo.

High-end fullones, as part of this final stage in the process, might also have rubbed in cimolian, a fine white earth that was supposed to whiten the garment even further.

Once this was all done, your toga was ready to wear to your next imperial banquet!

Caesar and Vorenus had to clean their togas somewhere! (screen shot from HBO’s fantastic series, ROME)

I don’t know about you, but I’m grateful that we have soap and machines to do our laundry these days.

However, if you want to read more about ancient laundry, fullonicae, fuller’s earth, and the saltus fullonicus, our friends Pliny the Elder, Martial, Plautus and others do talk a lot about it. Apparently, laundry was a hot topic for Romans…

Right… Now I’m off to wait for the repair man!

Thank you for reading.

Relief of a fullo at work – from a grave stele.

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Oh, Picts!

We’re heading into the wilds of Caledonia in this week’s post.

I wanted to discuss a topic that is often neglected although it is very interesting: the Picts and Pictish art.

As I’ve been packing for a move, I discovered some of my old photos from my days in St. Andrews, Scotland. I came across a packet of prints from an outing with some of my MLitt colleagues to visit Pictish sites in Angus and Perthshire.

The main attraction for us was the wide array of ornate carvings on several Pictish gravestones, most of which are maintained by Historic Environment Scotland at the Meigle Museum which is itself an old school house on the A94 Coupar Angus to Forfar road (for those of you who are interested in visiting). This little museum is a true gem and well worth a visit.

Before looking at the carvings however, I suppose I should answer one simple (or not so simple) question. Who were the Picts?

In brief, they are the direct descendants of the Caledonii, the blanket name given to those tribes who lived in the lands north of the Firth of Forth.

We hear about the latter in relation to the Roman invasion of what is now Scotland by Agricola in AD 79. The action-packed movie Centurion, with Michael Fassbender, which came out in 2010, deals with Agricola’s operations north of the Firth of Forth and the presumed disappearance of the Ninth Legion. In the film, the Caledonii/Picti are portrayed as a society run by a warrior elite, the members of which paint themselves with blue woad. The film is very entertaining, if not violent, but the best thing is that it was filmed where much of the history presumably took place. It’s worth a gander for that, if anything.

But were the Picts simply a mass of blue barbarians as they’re so often portrayed? Likely not.

The Dunnichen Stone with typical Pictish symbols

Contrary to the usual portrayal, the Picts were not simply one enormous group living and fighting north of the Antonine Wall. They were indigenous Celts and the term ‘Picti’, like ‘Caledonii’ or ‘Maeatae’ is more of a blanket term that included approximately twelve Celtic tribes north of the Forth and Clyde rivers. These were recorded by the Roman geographer Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD. Because of the military threat posed by Imperial Rome, the Celts in the area amalgamated into two larger groups. The Caledonii and the Maeatae and, in turn, came to be later referred to as ‘Picti’.

The tribal federation survived the various Roman incursions (the last one being the Severan invasion of Scotland in the early 3rd century – the setting for Warriors of Epona). As a result the Picts were able to develop mechanisms of kingship and by the 6th century there was a Pictish kingdom.

Meigle Museum – colleagues chatting with the curator

In Pictish art, there are certain recurrent symbols such as those found on the Aberlemno stone including the ‘serpent’, the ‘double-disc’, the ‘crescent’ and the ‘Z-rod’. When I visited the Meigle museum I was struck immediately by the amount of Christian imagery, having had in my mind typical images of paganism when it came to the Picts. The presence of crosses and other Christian images is due to the conversion of the Picts to Christianity after the Irish abbot of Iona, St. Columba, ventured into ‘Pictland’ in AD 565. Columba met the Pictish king, Bridei son of Maelchon in a fortress near the River Ness and thus began the conversion of the Picts, a process that was complete by about AD 700.

Artist impression of St. Columba converting the Picts

The Pictish symbol stones are one of the most important sources for information about the Picts, and the symbols, common from one end of Scotland to the other, were widely understood by all the tribes. Now, however, we know very little of their actual meaning except that they functioned as memorial stones or territorial boundary markers.

The church yard at Meigle contained a large number of Pictish stones, implying that Meigle was itself a very important centre of burial for the Pictish church and under the patronage of the kings of the Picts. Eventually however, Pictish rule, which had survived the onslaught of Rome in Late Antiquity, was taken over by the Gaelic-speaking settlers of Dalriadia (or ‘Dal Riata’ – modern Argyll) which led to the reign of the Scots King, Kenneth mac Alpin and his subsequent dynasty.

The ‘Vanora Stone’ – Cross-slab no.1 The Death of Queen Vanora

Before we bid farewell to the Picts however, there is an interesting Arthurian connection with Meigle and one of the Pictish stones (cross-slab no.1).

On entering the graveyard at Meigle, there is a grassy mound known as Vanora’s Grave. Local tradition has it that Vanora was actually Queen Guinevere, the wife of Arthur. Vanora was abducted by the Pictish king, Mordred, and held captive near Meigle. When she was returned to her husband after this forced infidelity, she was sentenced to death by being torn apart by wild beasts, hence the scene of Vanora’s death on the back of cross-slab no.1. Her remains were buried at Meigle.

Tradition also says that Vanora (and Guinevere for that matter) was barren and it is believed that any young woman who walks over her grave risks becoming barren herself. True or not, this is yet another interesting anecdote of history and legend.

Vanora’s Grave

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Once more, if you ever get the chance to visit Meigle’s museum and some of the stones in the surrounding area, it’s well worth it.

If Picts are your thing, then you may also wish to take a look at the map and pamphlet of Pictish sites released by the Angus Council by CLICKING HERE.

Thank you for reading!

One of the Aberlemno stones

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