A Turn of the Thumb: Gladiators and the Thumbs Up

Greetings ancient history fans! We hope you enjoyed last week’s blog post on the origins of gladiatorial combat and the different types of gladiators. If you didn’t read it, you can check it out by CLICKING HERE.

This week we’re venturing farther into the world of gladiators with a special guest post by archaeologist Raven Todd Da Silva.

Everyone who is familiar with popular representations of gladiators and gladiatorial combat will be familiar with the ‘turn of the thumb’ gesture, but do you know how that expression came about? Is it historically correct? Why was the thumb so important to Romans?

Well, Raven is going to demystify that for us. Take it away, Raven!


A Turn of the Thumb: Gladiators and the Thumbs Up

By: Raven Todd Da Silva

‘Pollice Verso’, painted in 1872 by Jean-Léon Jérôme

The notion of signaling life or death for a defeated gladiator by a thumbs up or thumbs down has been made popular by famous pieces of artwork and the 2000 film Gladiator.

But what is the real importance of our thumbs (digitus pollex), and how did it really function in the gladiatorial games of Ancient Rome?

The Romans were unique in comparison to other civilizations in referring to the thumb as its own digit on the hand, and it’s suggested that they believed it to have power or hold sway (polleat) over the rest of the fingers. The Latin word for thumb, pollex, is also said to have derived from the word for power, pollet. So we can see here just how much influence a gesture with the thumb had.

In the days of the gladiatorial games, the audience could have their say in deciding the fate of the fallen combatants with a hand gesture – what we think of as thumbs up or thumbs down in today’s misconstrued pop culture-reliant society. The decision to kill the fallen gladiator was decided with what is know as the pollice verso – which translates only as “turned thumb”. If we look at Juvenal, he says:

to-day they hold shows of their own, and win applause by slaying whomsoever the mob with a turn of the thumb bids them slay. (Juvenal; Satire III 36)

The Christian poet Prudentius also backs this up when talking about a Vestal Virgin watching the games:

The modest virgin with a turn of her thumb bids him pierce the breast of his fallen foe (Prudentius; Against Symmachus II)

The Médaillon de Cavillargues

We aren’t sure what this exactly means though, and there are no other proper surviving texts to give us specific insight. Contrary to popular belief, the “thumbs up” we all know today as a sign of a good job or to show that everything is A-OK did not always have this meaning. A study by Desmod Morris shows that Italians did not consider this action as a positive one until American pilots, who used it to signal to the grounds crew that they were ready to take off, imported it in WWII.

So we don’t really know which way the audience’s thumbs were pointing to indicate if they wanted the gladiator to die.

But if an extended, turned thumb indicated the kill, what did the audience do if they wanted to spare the gladiator’s life? Martial stated that the crowd appealed for mercy by waving their handkerchiefs (XII) or by shouting (Spectacles, X).

It seems the gesture was possibly to hide your thumb inside of your fist known as the pollice compresso or “compressed thumb”. Anthony Corbeill, the leading expert on ancient Roman gestures has translated Pliny’s pollices premere to mean that a thumb pressed down on the index finger of a closed fist signified mercy.

There’s some speculation with the reasoning behind these two gestures. Firstly, it’s a lot easier to tell the difference from the crowd. Second, it could indicate the state of the gladiator’s sword. Extended thumb indicating that the audience wanted the gladiator to give the conquered one final stab or blow, and the compressed thumb telling the victor to sheath his weapon and grant mercy on the defeated.

The Zliten Mosaic

Archaeologically speaking, the The Médaillon de Cavillargues, located in the Nîmes Musée Archéologique supports Corbeill’s conclusions. Also interesting to note, the gladiator may have had to wait for a judgment call from the producer of the games to know the true outcome from the audience vote – waiting for an audible cue in the form of a horn or some music, which is suggested in the Zliten mosaic.

One of the most famous paintings depicting gladiatorial combat is called the Pollice Verso, painted in 1872 by famous historical painter Jean-Léon Jérôme. It displays a victorious gladiator standing over his vanquished opponent, showing off to a crowd enthusiastically thrusting their thumbs down. Jérôme was a highly respected historical painter, known for his extensive research and accuracy, which is why this misrepresentation lead to so many misunderstandings from the general public and fellow academics.

Raven Todd DaSilva is working on her Master’s in art conservation at the University of Amsterdam. Having studied archaeology and ancient history, she started Dig it With Raven to make archaeology, history and conservation exciting and freely accessible to everyone. You can follow all her adventures on Facebook and Instagram @digitwithraven


The Gladiator and the Thumb

“Thumbs in Ancient Rome: pollex as Index.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 42 (1997) 61-81 Anthony Corbeill

Juvenal Satire Book 3

Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome (2004) by Anthony Corbeill

Zliten Mosaic

Pollice Verso

I’d like to thank Raven for taking the time to share this fascinating research with us. To be honest, I had no idea the Romans thought of the thumb as a digit that held sway over the other fingers!

You can read more by checking out the list of resources above.

If you have any questions for Raven about the ‘turn of the thumb’, you can ask them in the comments below.

Also, be sure to check out her website Dig It With Raven where she has a wealth of information on archaeology, history and art restoration.

Raven also posts regular VLOGS about archaeology and art restoration that are fascinating and highly informative. She’s also really funny! For anyone wanting to get their feet wet in these subject areas, I can’t recommend the videos enough. Make sure you subscribe to her YouTube channel so you don’t miss any of her awesome and educational videos.

We’ll definitely have Raven back on the blog!

Thanks for stopping by, and thank you for reading!


Gladiators: The Implements of Death

Few things about the ancient Roman world fascinate the modern masses more than gladiators. The subject of slaves dueling to the death for the entertainment of the mob is horrible, but at the same time darkly entertaining.

In the popular mind, most of what we imagine gladiators and gladiatorial combat to have been comes from popular movies and television. I still remember the first time I watched Spartacus as a kid, and the horror of the scene when Kirk Douglas fights his fellow gladiator, Draba (played by Woody Strode) and how the latter is cut down when he refuses to kill Spartacus. It made my heart race and guts tighten. A lasting impression to be sure!

And who can forget the more recent film, Gladiator, by Ridley Scott, with its epic fight scenes and recreation of the Flavian Amphitheatre, or rather, the Colosseum? Classics enrollment shot through the roof after that movie! What about the television series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand?

Bloody, brutal, entertaining and mesmerizing.

Are you not entertained!
(Sorry, I couldn’t help myself there. Love this movie!)

Apart from Spartacus: Blood and Sand, however, few attempts have been made to properly portray gladiators and their equipment, their styles. The focus in the media has been on death and the panem et circenses, or ‘bread and circuses’, aspect of it all.

In this post, we’re going to look at the various styles of gladiators, along with some of their weapons. The reality of gladiatorial combat in the major arenas of the Roman Empire was not of two half-naked men slashing away at each other, but rather of a highly organized blood sport with its own set of rules.

But before we delve into that, let’s take a brief look at the origins of gladiatorial combat.

Funeral Games were an ancient tradition. The Games in honour of the death of Patroclus beneath the walls of Troy are depicted here.

Originally, it’s thought that gladiatorial contests were not for entertainment, but rather for funeral games.

Possibly the oldest depiction of a gladiatorial contest comes from a tomb painting at Paestum, in Campania, around 370-340 B.C. The murals of this tomb portray various activities such as chariot races, fist fights, and a dual between armed men bearing, helmets, shields, and spears. A referee and three pairs of fighting men are also depicted.

Because of this find, and the presence of the oldest stone amphitheatres in the region, it has been argued that Campania is where gladiatorial fights originated. The region was also home to some of the most important gladiatorial schools, or ludi.

Some of the earliest known representations of gladiatorial combat from Campania, Italy.

The idea of shedding blood by a dead person’s grave, was an ancient tradition, and the Roman world was no stranger to blood sacrifice. You can read more about sacrifices in the Roman world HERE.

However, later Roman writers, such as the Christian writer, Tertullian (c. A.D. 200), frowned upon this particular rite of sacrifice:

For of old, in the belief that the souls of the dead are propitiated with human blood, they used at funerals to sacrifice captives or slaves of poor value whom they bought. Afterwards, it seemed good to obscure their impiety by making it a pleasure. So they found comfort for death in murder. (Tertullian, De Spectaculis 12)

Tertullian, in a way, displayed a mindset more in tune with our own, perhaps, in which most of us feel horror at the thought of public execution and torture. This is a modern mindset, however. When it came to early gladiatorial combat, it does indeed appear that life was cheap when it came to the first gladiators who were most likely prisoners of war and slaves.

Relief depicting gladiators

Over time, gladiatorial combat moved from being a rite for funeral games, to an entertainment for the masses. ‘Bread and circuses’ as Juvenal put it in the second century A.D.

With the growing popularity of gladiatorial combat, the aristocratic families who wanted to maintain their political power in Rome began to use the games as a means of securing their power. They did this by putting on public games for the masses, the mob. It became an expensive entertainment to put on, and also a part of everyday life in the Roman world.

The first public gladiator fight was apparently in the Forum Boarium, but later they occurred in the Forum Romanum, and then, once it was built, found a permanent home in the Colosseum.

Graffiti in Pompeii depicting two known gladiators

Gladiatorial contests grew in popularity, and these slaves, for that is what they were, came to be superstars, second only, you might say, to charioteers.

Though the Romans may not have invented gladiatorial combat, they do appear to have ‘perfected’ it. They developed ludi, gladiatorial schools run by a lanista. In the Roman Empire, the state came to exert a level of control – there were four imperial ludi in Rome itself! There were styles of gladiator with specialized weapons and training, diet and the best medical care. And gladiators were no longer just prisoners of war or slaves, but also criminals and even volunteers!

Gladiators were also an investment. They developed a market value depending on their successes. Gladiators were to ancient Rome, what our modern-day sports superstars are now. They were part of a great show, complete with stage sets and storylines. They even had stage names, their images popping up in scrawled graffiti all over Rome, etched by their adoring fans.

Mosaic depicting gladiators with their stage names. Note the theta symbol (a circle with a line) beside some which stands for ‘Thanatos’, indicating that they are dead.

At this point, you get the picture. Gladiators evolved from being a sacrifice, to superstars in the world of Roman blood sport.

However, it wasn’t just a matter of matching any type of gladiator against another. There were specific styles that developed over time, and they stemmed from mythological beasts to shadows of Rome’s former enemies.

Pairings of the different types of gladiators were not random. You might be surprised to know that the rules called for very specific types of gladiators to be pitted against each other, especially in the great amphitheatres of the Empire.

Much of what we know of the equipment of the different types of fighters comes from pictorial depictions on anything from elaborate mosaics, to frescos, oil lamps and even street graffiti.

An ancient oil lamp decorated with a gladiatorial combat scene. The perfect addition to any young man’s cubiculum!

The different classes of gladiators had distinctive equipment, and protection was worn on different parts of the body, depending on the style. Usually, the head, face and throat were protected by a helmet, and some of these are the most impressive remains of gladiatorial equipment. Different limbs were also protected by organic materials like leather and linen, but there were also metal guards such as greaves.

In almost all cases, the gladiator’s chest, no matter the style, was unprotected, but for the provocator which we will look at shortly. The only piece of clothing worn was a loin cloth, or subligaculum, which was belted with a cingulum or later, a wide sash.

There were variations on some of the protective equipment such as manicae, which were arm guards worn regularly in late antiquity, and fasciae, padded tubes for the legs which could be worn beneath greaves.

Artist impression of two equites gladiators

The first type of gladiator we are going to look at is the eques, or horseman.

Equites fought only against other equites, and were considered lightly-armed gladiators. They were the only gladiators to wear clothing, in the form of a tunica, and they wore gaiters on their legs, but no greaves. They had a manica on their right arm, wore a visored helmet, and carried a parma equestris, a round cavalry shield.

As far as weapons, the eques carried a hasta, which was a lance of about 2.5 meters in length, and a gladius.

More often than not, the equites bouts would take place at the beginning of the gladiatorial combat schedule during the games.

A re-enactor dressed as a murmillo gladiator

Probably the most famous or recognizable gladiator style was the heavy-armed murmillo.

Murmillo is actually a term for fish, and the style of his helmet resembled something of a sea creature or monster in a way. He was usually set against a thraex (Thracian) fighter, or a hoplomachus (a Greek style fighter).

When you look at this fighter, you can tell that it was a formidable opponent, and from the weapons, one could say that in the combat against others, he represented Rome and Rome’s army.

The murmillo’s torso was bare and he was protected by a manica on his right arm, and a gaiter and short greave on his right leg. The head was protected by a wide-brimmed helmet with a crest and feathers, and he bore a heavy scutum in his left hand, the large rectangular shield of Rome’s legions. Because of this protection, the murmillo fought with his left foot and shoulder forward, striking with the only weapon he carried, a gladius, in his right hand.

The murmillo never fought against his own kind, and it seems likely that the pairing of a murmillo against a thraex was the most common pairing in Roman amphitheatres.

Thraex helmet. This find is in amazing condition. Note the griffin shaped crest.

As mentioned, the thraex fighter, named after Rome’s Thracian enemies, was the main opponent of the murmillo, and was also a heavy class fighter.

The equipment of the thraex is often confused with the hoplomachus because of certain similarities such as quilted leg protection, two high greaves that reached above the knee, and a brimmed helmet with a tall crest.

The thraex carried a smaller, almost square shield known as a parmula, and his helmet was often decorated with a griffin. He had a manica on his right arm as well. Unique to the thraex was the distinctive curved short sword or sica.

In addition to being the main opponent of the murmillo, the thraex was also pitted against the hoplomachus.

Re-enactor dressed as a hoplomachus

Hoplomachus literally means ‘fights with a weapon’, which is rather obvious for a gladiator, but this heavy class fighter was representative of the ancient Greek hoplite warrior who was named after the round hoplon shield.

However, the circular shield carried by this gladiator was a smaller bronze version of the Greek shield. In addition to the body protection in common with the thraex mentioned above, the hoplomachus carried two weapons: a long dagger in his left hand, to which the shield was strapped, and a lance or spear in his right hand.

The hoplomachus usually fought a murmillo, although he could be matched against the thraex. The pairings were part of the show, an imitation of Roman soldiers (murmillo) against the foreign enemies of the past.

Artist impression of a provocator

The only middle weight gladiatorial class appears to have been the provocator.

This style of gladiator usually fought his own type, and was the only one with a protected chest in the form of a square or rectangular breastplate. He also had a half-length greave.

The provocator carried a rectangular shield, similar to a scutum and carried a gladius as his weapon. His helmet had a visor but no crest.

These fighters may not have been the headliners of the show, but their lighter weight must have made for a quick, equally-matched and impressive fight.

Mosaic depicting a battle between a retiarius and secutor.

Apart from the murmillo, the retiarius is probably the most iconic symbol of the gladiatorial family.

The name retiarius, means ‘fights with a net’.

This fighter was one of the few who had no helmet. Nor did he have a greave or shield. However, the retirarius did have a manica protecting his left arm, as well as a galerus, a tall metal shoulder guard. His weapons consisted of a net, a trident, and a pugio, or dagger.

A trident, one of the weapons of a retiarius.

Surprisingly, this fighter was a new category that was introduced during the imperial period. He was a light fighter, and though he did not pit well against the heavy, military-themed fighters, he was sometimes pitted against them during the Empire. Most often, however, the retiarius met the secutor on the sands of the arena. Sometimes, he even fought against two secutores!

The pairing of a retiarius and secutor was a storyline, a tale of the fisherman against a sea creature(s). Sometimes a set or stage was erected on the arena floor for this performance, with a bridge, or pons, from which the retiarius could fight against his one or two foes. At times, they even fought over real water!

The helmet of a secutor. Note the small eye holes and covered ears.

The secutor, the opponent of the retiarius, was also sometimes called a contraretiarius.

This gladiator was similar to the murmillo, but was designed specifically to fight the retiarius. He differed from the murmillo in the type and shape of helmet that he wore. Not only did the helmet look like a fish or sea creature, but it also had small eye holes that were deliberately intended to protect the fighter against the points of the retiarius’ trident. His hearing and vision were severely hampered by the helmet, but his heavy protection evened the odds against his more agile opponent. The secutor was not a fighter to mess with!

Mosaic depicting various types of gladiators, along with a referee (second from the right)

Those were the main types or classes of gladiators that appeared across the Roman Empire and in the amphitheatres of Rome.

However, there were other types of gladiators such female gladiators who depicted Amazon warriors, as well as gladiators with regional variations in the provinces.

Some other types included the essedarius, or war-chariot fighter who represented Rome’s Celtic enemies, the dimachaerus who was a fighter with two swords or daggers, and the crupellarius who was a sort of super heavy-armed gladiator.

There was also the aquerarius, a sort of retiarius with a lasso or noose, and the saggitarius who, you guessed it, was an archer gladiator. Between bouts, or at the half-time intermission of the games, you might also catch a glimpse of the paegniarius who was not for fighting, but more for comic relief like the clowns during a half-time show or intermission.

A wild beast hunt in the arena.

The world of gladiatorial combat was vast and better regulated than we are led to believe in movies. We’ve but scratched the surface here. The combats were not only on sand between men, but there were also venatio (wild animal hunts), and naumachiae (mock naval battles) to entertain the masses of Rome and the Empire.

There is much more to learn about this bloody aspect of Roman society and sport. If you want to read more, two very accessible books are Gladiators and Caesars: The Power of Spectacle in Ancient Rome edited by Eckart Kohne and Cornelia Ewigleben, and the Osprey Publishing ‘Warrior’ series book Gladiators: 100 B.C. – A.D. 200 by Stephen Wisdom and Angus McBride.

But we aren’t done with gladiators!

Very soon on the Writing the Past blog, we’ll have a special guest post from archaeologist Raven Todd Da Silva about the infamous ‘turn of the thumb’ in gladiatorial games. Make sure that you are signed-up to the Eagles and Dragons Mailing List so that you don’t miss Raven’s post or any others that are coming up!

For now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into the world of gladiators.

Thank you for reading.

The Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre


Sacrifice in the Roman World

Oftentimes, when we think of the world of ancient Rome, one of the images that springs to mind is that of the sacrifice, the image of a priest before an altar slashing the throat of some sort of animal, the blood of which oozes in grisly flow down the sides of a white marble altar.

It’s a dramatic image to be sure, but it does not provide us with the complete facts of sacrifice in Roman society.

Today, we are going to take a brief look at sacrifice in Roman religion, what it meant and what it could entail.

Roman altars, perhaps erected as votive offerings themselves

Basically, a sacrifice, or sacrificium, was a gift to the gods, heroes, emperors, or the dead. It was not simply a matter of the ritualistic killing of animals as is our modern perception of ancient sacrifice.

Not all sacrifices were blood sacrifices, and not all sacrifices were public displays either. There were also private sacrifices.

Whether public or private, the goal was to maintain one’s relationship with the gods, the dead, etc. and this was done in different ways.

Food offerings were not only of flesh, but could also be of fruit or grain, milk, honey or something similar.

Depending upon the nature of the offering and its intent, a food offering might be part of a sacrificial feast in which people shared with the gods, both receiving their portion to consume. Alternatively, the entirety of the sacrifice might be offered to the gods to be consumed in the flames.

Most of the evidence for sacrifices in the Roman world come to us from inscriptions on altars which were themselves considered sacrifices.

There could be various reasons for a sacrifice such as one made in expectation of a favour, or a sacrifice that was demanded by the gods through an oracle, omen, dream or some other such occurrence. Sacrifices were also made on anniversaries, such as the anniversary of a family member’s death or an historic event, or they could be made as part of a religious festival.

Roman religion was customizable in a sense, and so the types of gifts of sacrifices could vary. They might include cakes, incense, oils, wine, honey, milk, and perhaps sacred herbs or flowers. And yes, they could also include various blood sacrifices with certain types and colour of animals being more fitting for certain gods.

A bull being led to sacrifice, the ceremony accompanied by a tibicen, or flute player.

One of the most common forms of sacrifices were those made in fulfillment of a vow, meaning that if a particular god undertook a specific action on behalf of the mortal making the request, then that mortal would carry out the promised sacrifice. Perhaps that mortal would build an altar to that god if his political campaign was successful, or perhaps a general would sacrifice fifty bulls if he was victorious on the battlefield?

When it came to the slaughter of animals as part of a sacrifice, it seems that male animals were offered to male gods, and female animals to goddesses. They had to be free of blemishes and a suitable colour as well, for example, black for underworld gods. There were also times when the animal sacrificed was one that was considered unfit for human consumption, such as the sacrifice of dogs to Hecate.

A sacrifice portrayed on a lararium, or family shrine, in Pompeii

It does not appear to have been usual for a regular citizen to perform an animal sacrifice. It was more the case that the person who wanted to make the sacrifice made arrangements for the ceremony with the aedituus of a particular temple who hired a victimarius to perform the actual slaughter. There might also have been music provided by a flute player, or tibicen, in order to please the god but also to cover up any sounds of ill-omen from the victim.

For most sacrifices, a priest would have his head covered by the folds of a toga to guard against ill-omened sights and sounds, except at Saturnalia when things were the reverse of the usual and priests performed sacrifices with their heads uncovered.

Notice the covered head of the person performing the sacrifice, and the poleaxe carried by the victimarius leading the bull to slaughter.

One might think that it was an easy thing to slaughter an animal, but it seems that the opposite is the case. Aside from trying to avoid any ill-omened sights or sounds, the way in which an animal was slaughtered was very important to Romans.

The head of the animal was usually sprinkled with grains, wine, or sacred cake known as mola salsa before it was killed. It was then stunned with a blow to the head, perhaps with a ceremonial axe or cudgel, and then stabbed or its throat slit with a sacrificial knife. The blood was then caught in a special bowl and poured over the altar.

Once the sacred deed was done, the animal was skinned and cut up. It is at this point that a haruspex might examine the entrails for messages or omens from the gods.

The remains were roasted over the fire with the entrails consumed first. Bones wrapped in fat, the preferred portion of the gods, were then burned upon the sacred fire along with other offerings such as wine or oil. If it was part of a sacrificial feast, the remaining portions were then roasted for the mortal participants.

Relief of Emperor Marcus Aurelius performing a sacrifice

Blood sacrifices could be performed for different occasions that also included times of crisis, such as if Hannibal was at the gates of Rome, for the purposes of purification, or for the rites of the dead.

Chillingly, I only recently discovered that a holocaust was a sacrifice in which the victims were completely burned.

Another type of sacrifice that was well-known in ancient Rome was the suovetaurilia which involved the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep, and an ox. No doubt this particular sacrifice made for a good meal afterward for the participants.

Relief of a Suovetaurilia ceremony

But what about human sacrifice in the Roman world?

It is thought that early gladiatorial combat was a form of sacrifice, but there is little evidence for regular human sacrifice over time.

It was practiced only in exceptional circumstances such as after disasters in battle. One example is in 216. B.C., after the battle of Cannae when the Sibylline Books were consulted, a pair of Greeks and a pair of Gauls were sacrificed by being buried alive in the Forum Boarium of Rome. Titus Livius (Livy) recounts the latter here:

Since in the midst of so many misfortunes this pollution was, as happens at such times, converted into a portent, the decemvirs were commanded to consult the Books, and Quintus Fabius Pictor was dispatched to Delphi, to enquire of the oracle with what prayers and supplications they might propitiate the gods, and what would be the end of all their calamities. In the meantime, by the direction of the Books of Fate, some unusual sacrifices were offered; amongst others a Gaulish man and woman and a Greek man and woman were buried alive in the Cattle Market, in a place walled in with stone, which even before this time had been defiled with human victims, a sacrifice wholly alien to the Roman spirit.

(Livy; The History of Rome 22.57.6)

The Forum Boarium in Rome, the Cattle Market with the round Temple of Hercules on the left.

Human sacrifice was eventually outlawed by senatorial decree in 97 B.C., though the practice might have continued in some non-Roman cults for a time. It does seem that effigies or masks could have replaced actual human victims in some rites.

Whether they took place in a public forum, in one of the main temples of Rome, or in the lararium of a private domus, it seems evident that sacrifice was central to Roman religious practices.

The sacrificial offerings varied greatly from animal and human flesh, to wine, oil and incense, to other foods such as cakes, grains, flowers and more. Sacrifices could also include altars and the building of monuments.

What mattered was that the gods were propitiated and the dialogue between the earthly and divine realms was maintained and respected.

To me, Roman religion and sacrifice are crucial to our understanding of the ancient Roman world. It’s a fascinating subject that still holds many mysteries, and I hope that you have found this brief look interesting.

Thank you for reading.


Delphi – Walking Sacred Ground

Happy New Year everyone!

Welcome to a new year for Writing the Past and Eagles and Dragons Publishing. We’re so glad you’re here to share in our love of history, archaeology, myth and legend.

In many posts on this blog I have mentioned some of the great sanctuaries of antiquity such as Delos, Olympia and Nemea. I have touched on the special feeling one gets when walking around these places, the sense of peace that washes over you.

Today, we’ll be taking a short tour of one of the most important sanctuaries of the ancient world: Delphi.

Delphi was of course the location of the great sanctuary of Apollo whose priestess, the Pythia, was visited by people from all over the world who came to seek the god’s advice and wisdom.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Delphi a couple of times, and I do hope to return there someday soon. The first time I was there, the mountain rumbled throughout the night. Unused to earthquakes, my brother woke me to say that he thought there was a ghost in the room because his bed (he had the smaller one) was jumping up and down. Looking back, it’s funny that ghosts were a more logical explanation for us. Too many movies, I suppose.

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

But, despite frequent earthquakes, Delphi is indeed a place of ghosts. They are everywhere, the voices of the past, of the devoted, great and small.

There is something about Delphi that draws you in, that makes you want to go back again and again. Despite the throngs of picture-snapping tourists along the Sacred Way, or the hum of multi-lingual tour guides wherever you step, the sense of peace at Delphi is unmistakable.

For those with the ability to see and hear beyond the bustle, it is as though a smoky veil rises from the ground to block out the noise, leaving you with the mountain, the ruins, the voices of history.

Delphi is located in central Greece in the ancient region of Phokis. Perched on the slopes of Mount Parnassos in a spot one can well imagine gods roaming, it possesses a view of a valley covered in ancient, gnarled olive groves spilling toward the blueness of the Gulf of Corinth.

Though the site is always associated with him, Apollo did not always rule here.

Kylix from Delphi showing Apollo pouring a libation

Long before the Olympian god arrived, Delphi was the site of a prehistoric sanctuary of Gaia, the Mother Goddess and consort of Uranus.

It was after Apollo, urged on by his mother Leto, defeated the great python in the sanctuary of Gaia that Delphi came under his protection.

Apollo slaying the Python

A new era had dawned and after Apollo’s slaying of the Python, barbarism and savage custom were discarded. In place of the old religion came a quest for harmony, a balancing of opposites. Apollo was worshiped as a god of light, harmony, order and of prophecy. His oracles communicated his will and words.

If one approaches Delphi from the East and the town of Arachova, the first thing you pass is another important sanctuary, that of Athena Pronaia. ‘Pronaia’ means ‘before the temple’. This sanctuary would likely have been visited by pilgrims first.

Tholos in the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia at Delphi

The sanctuary of Athena is farther down the mountainside from that of Apollo and located in a quiet olive grove. In its time, it contained two temples dedicated to Athena, the earliest dating to 500 B.C. There were also two treasuries, altars, and of course, one of the most picturesque ruins of ancient Greece, the round tholos temple. The latter is 13.5 meters wide and had twenty Doric columns with metopes portraying the Battle of the Amazons and the Battle of the Centaurs, the remains of which can be seen in the Delphi museum. The exact use of the tholos is uncertain though many believe it was consecrated to the cult of deities other than Apollo or Athena.

Between the two sanctuaries is the sacred spring of Kastalia, the water of which was intimately associated with the oracle. Water from here was carried to the sanctuary of Apollo and it was also here that priests and pilgrims cleansed themselves before entering god’s domain.

As part of her ritual too, the Pythia bathed in the Kastalian spring before entering the Temple of Apollo.

The peaceful sanctuary of Athena Pronaia

When the Pythia was prophesying, Delphi must have been bustling, for she was not always there. In fact, in its early days, the oracle performed her function once a year on the 7th day of the ancient month of Bysios (February-March) which was considered Apollo’s birthday. Later, the Pythia prophesied once a month, apart from the three winter months when Apollo was said to spend time in the land of Hyperborea far to the north.

I won’t describe all the remains of the sanctuary of Apollo in detail here. There is far too much to cover and it is all fascinating. I will say that it is one of those places that every lover of history must visit.

When I think of history, the study of it, this place is what it’s all about.

On your way through the sanctuary you pass many remains, one of the most interesting being the Athenian treasury which held many rich votive offerings from the ancient polis. It is well preserved and some of the most interesting things are the inscriptions of the Hymns to Apollo and carvings of laurel leaves upon its walls.

The Sybil’s Rock

On the left, once you leave the Athenian treasury, there are two large boulders. They look to be nothing more than rocks but these were of utmost sanctity thousands of years ago. The smaller of the two is called Leto’s Rock because it is believed that that is where Apollo’s mother stood when she urged him to slay the python. The larger rock is called the Sibyl’s Rock as that is where the first oracle (‘Sibyl’ is another name for Apollo’s oracles) stood when she came to Delphi and gave her first prophecy.

Ruins of the theatre that overlooks the Temple of Apollo

Each time I walk the marble of the Sacred Way up to the Temple of Apollo, the theatre and the stadium beyond, I am in awe. The sun seems more brilliant here, the colours richer. The buzzing of cicadas in the pine and olive trees are sounds ancient pilgrims would have been familiar with. It would have been crowded during the time of prophecy, and the line must have wended its way down the mountain to Kastalia and the sanctuary of Athena.

Every part of the sanctuary would have been adorned with bronze and marble statues, tripods, altars and other offerings from around the world. The smoke of incense and sacrifice would have weaved among it all to please Apollo and other deities who also had altars about the temple, such as Zeus, Poseidon, and Hestia, whose immortal flame was never extinguished.

The Temple of Apollo

The Temple of Apollo itself occupies a magnificent position and though not much remains, it is still a place of awe due in large part to the surroundings. The layout is not known exactly due to damage over time, but archaeologists have discovered that there were two cellae (temple chambers), an outer one where priests and pilgrims remained, and an inner one.

The inner cella is believed to have been the subterranean chamber where only the Pythia herself was permitted. This chamber was where she prophesied. It contained another sacred spring, the Kassiotis spring, from which she drank, a crack in the earth from which fumes emanated, the oracular tripod in which she sat, and the sacred omphalos, or, ‘navel of the earth’.

Details of the temple’s foundations

The Pythia would chew laurel leaves, inhale the fumes from the earth, and go into her trance. She would deliver her prophecy in riddles which were delivered to pilgrims.

To a modern mind, the ancients might seem absurdly superstitious, naïve even. But, in the ancient world the respect and awe with which the oracle of Delphi was viewed cannot be overestimated.

The truth of the oracle was never doubted for matters great or small. Cities, peoples, peasants and kings all sought the wisdom and guidance of Apollo through the oracle.

Apollo and the Pythia who uttered his prophecies to mortals

When I reach the top of the site and look out over the sanctuary to the valley and sea beyond, I feel that I do not want to leave. From the top of the third century B.C. theatre, or in the quiet of the stadium that once held 7000 spectators for the Pythian games, I reflect on my own journey, and on the myriad journeys of those who have come here before over the millennia.

The Stadium farther up the mountain from the sanctuary was the site of the Pythian Games and seated up to 7000 spectators

As a writer, I find people fascinating. What brought each of them to this place? What questions might they have asked? How did they receive the answers given by the oracle? I touch on this through my characters in Killing the Hydra.

Delphi was not just the site of some quaint, ancient, superstitious practices as some might see them today. This was a place of power, of beauty, refinement and of hope. In some ways, it still is.

The Pythia is gone, the sacred games long-since banished by the Christian Emperor Theodosius I. The temple and the treasures of the sanctuary have been looted, and what is left lies in romantic ruin, or on display in the museum.

However, if your path ever leads you to this ancient place on the slopes of Mount Parnassos, you may just hear the pilgrims’ prayers to the gods, the melodic utterings of the ancient hymns, and the hushed voice of the Pythia, beyond the veil of this world, as she passes Apollo’s words on to generations of mortals seeking his wisdom.

Thank you for reading…


Have you ever visited Delphi? If so, tell us what your impressions were in the comments section below.

Ramp leading up to the Temple of Apollo



Happy Holidays from Eagles and Dragons Publishing!

Thank you to all of our followers and supporters for making 2017 an amazing year!

We have the best fans, and we really appreciate the time you spend reading our books, blogs, and interacting on social media.

Here’s to a happy and safe holiday season, and may 2018 be a fortunate year for all.

Cheers and enjoy!


Adam and the Eagles and Dragons Publishing Team


Io Saturnalia! – Celebrating ‘The best of days’ in Ancient Rome

Happy Saturnalia, everyone! Or, as the Romans said, Io Saturnalia!

December 17th was the official start of Saturnalia in the Roman Empire, and for seven days the Roman world, and especially Rome itself, experienced what can only be described as a carnival atmosphere.

Just as Christmas is a time of year that many people look forward to, so too was Saturnalia for Romans, free and slave.

Today we’re going to take a brief look at some of the customs that surrounded this ‘the best of days,” as the poet Catullus called it.

The God Saturn

Saturnalia was basically a winter solstice festival in honour of the god Saturn, the chthonic (of the earth) Roman god of seed sowing, who was often equated with the Greek god Cronus. As an agricultural deity, his symbol was a scythe.

The primary temple for this Roman deity was at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, across from the Rostra, the Temple of Concord, and the arch of Septimius Severus.

The festival of Saturnalia was originally a single day, but eventually ran from December 17th to December 23rd, ending on the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. The three days from December 17th to the 19th were considered to be legal holidays on which no work was done. Schools, gymnasia and courts were closed, and no war was waged.

The Temple of Saturn (centre)in the Forum Romanum, Rome

Saturnalia was a sacred time of year in the Roman calendar, but oddly enough, there is no single, full description of the festival. What we know comes from various references in ancient sources, mainly Macrobius whose work on Roman religious lore is set during the festival.

So, what do we know about the festival of Saturnalia, and what traditions did people keep at that time of year?

A bit of public gambling during Saturnalia!

In ancient Rome, we know that the festivities began on December 17th with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Forum, in which the priest performed the ceremony in the Greek fashion, ritus Graecus, with his head uncovered. In the temple, the feet of Saturn’s statue were normally bound up with wool, but for Saturnalia, the wool was removed, and some believe this symbolized the liberation that many felt during the festival.

After the sacrifice, which may have been a suckling pig, there followed a grand public banquet, or convivium publicum, which was paid for by the state. A statue of Saturn was placed upon a couch for this event so that the god could preside over the festivities.

Candles, or cerei were a big part of Saturnalia

As a festival of light, or the solstice, wax candles, or cerei, were lit everywhere and given as gifts. The light may also have been considered a symbol of the quest for knowledge and truth, something to go along with this season of hope for many in the dark days of winter.

Another symbol of the season was holly, which was considered sacred to Saturn. Sprigs of this were also given as token gifts. Many other gifts were given at this time of year, mainly on December 19th, which was the day of the sigillaria, the day of gift-giving.

Holly was sacred to Saturn

In addition to wax candles, gifts could include pottery, writing tablets, dice, knucklebones, combs, toothpicks, hats, knives, lamps, balls, perfumes, and toys for children. If you were among the rich, exotic animals or slaves might even be given!

Figurines were also a gift that was given, and these have something of an interesting history. One thought is that this particular gift stemmed from the giving of toys to children. However, another, darker possibility for the giving of figurines is that they were intended as substitutes for the human blood offerings that may have originally been offered to the earth god Saturn, in the early days of Rome, perhaps in the form of gladiatorial combat to the death.

Sigillaria were similar to the gift we get in Christmas crackers today, but they could be much more elaborate too.

In addition to the public celebrations of Saturnalia, the festivities continued at home.

On December 18th and 19th, domestic rituals of the family were observed, such as bathing, and the common sacrifice of a suckling pig to Saturn.

Gifts were given among the family on the day of the sigillaria, but also in the days to come.

One interesting tradition was that the usual clothes worn by Romans, such as the toga or plain tunica, were discarded during Saturnalia in favour of colourful clothes known as synthesis, which were a mish-mash of patterns and colours. They were the Roman party clothes of Saturnalia! Along with the synthesis, Roman men also wore a felt or leather conical cap known as a pileus.

The pileus was a conical felt or leather cap worn by men during Saturnalia

Saturnalia was a time of role reversal, a time when the opposite of normal was acceptable.

For instance, during Saturnalia gambling was permitted in public, with the stakes being either coins or, oddly enough, nuts!

Overeating and drunkenness were common, as was guising, which was the wearing of masks or costumes to take on another persona.

Thou knowest not what evening may bring.
(Macrobius. Saturnalia)

However, perhaps the most commonly known tradition of Saturnalia was the role reversal of masters and slaves. Traditionally, masters would serve their slaves a meal of the sort that they would usually enjoy, sigillaria would be given, and the slaves were even at liberty to insult their masters without fear of retribution.

Citizens or slaves might even be elected the ‘King of Saturnalia’ at the banquet at which time they could give absurd orders that had to be obeyed.

Guising and the wearing of masks occurred during Saturnalia

If this seems like a hectic summary with myriad different traditions and goings on, you’d be right. Just as with Christmas today, everyone likely had their own unique take on the traditions of the season. Roman religion was highly customizable!

You’d also be correct in assuming that some of the traditions of Saturnalia feel very familiar. At Christmastime, people eat and drink more than is usual (if they are so fortunate), there are a couple of days off work, gifts are given, holly (and perhaps ivy) is hung, candles are lit, and more.

Around the winter solstice, it seems that many cultures and religions find cause to celebrate.

So, from December 17th this year and in the run-up to Christmas, spare a thought for the Romans who certainly knew how to through a good party this time of year.

Thank you for reading, and Io Saturnalia!

Io Saturnalia!

For a bit of fun, check out this video and song by from the Ashmolean Latin Inscriptions Project and members of Oxford’s Faculty of Classics:



The Colosseum: First Impressions and Edgar Allan Poe

We all have our memories of first impressions – of people, of feelings, of almost every activity we undertake or situation we encounter.

For me, the first impression of an historical site is always something that is seared onto the memory of my heart and mind. Some sites leave more of an impression while the memories of others linger for a short time before melting away to form part of my broader perception of a period or place.

Back in 2000, one such site that left a titanic, long-lasting impression upon me was the Colosseum in Rome.

I remember it vividly, walking along the thick paving stones of the via Sacra from the Forum Romanum, past the arch of Titus. I was busy talking with my wife when I looked up to find that most famous of Rome’s monuments staring down at me.

It literally stopped me in my tracks.

Prior to that, I had read much about Rome and the Colosseum, but nothing can really prepare you for the moment you come face-to-face with such a creation.

It reached to the sky, arch upon arch, dominating the entire area. The moment I looked upon it, I could hear the cheering and jeering of the crowds, the clang of gladii, and the roar of wild beasts.

This monument of stone and bloody memory came to life, no…exploded into life!…before my very eyes.

It was at that moment that many parts in my books Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra began to take shape. In fact, my first visit to Rome to see the Colosseum, and indeed the vast ruins of the Forum Romanum and the Palatine Hill, helped me to truly understand the might and majesty of the Roman Empire.

I explored that ruin as much as I could from the outside to the interior corridors and sloping walls of the inside where upwards of 50,000 ancients once sat. I was ignorant of the masses of tourists, the myriad foreign languages being spoken, or the hucksters in cheap ‘Roman’ armour who charged unsuspecting tourists for a photo op while groping them.

It was the Colosseum that had us spell-bound.

It was a true wonder to me, and that first impression set me off on a journey into the past that has led me on many an adventure, both creative, cerebral and physical.

In a way, that first meeting made the world of ancient Rome my home.

Model of Ancient Rome

A couple of months ago, I was reminded of my first impression of the Colosseum when reading another work inspired by this magnificent relic of history.

I was reading from the works of that father of American Gothic poetry and literature, Edgar Allan Poe, and came across his poem The Coliseum published on October 26, 1833, in the Baltimore Saturday Visiter.

I hadn’t read the poem before. In truth, I didn’t even know about it.

Of course, I read it and, well, it made me realize that the Colosseum has likely left an impression on everyone across time who has come across it since the inaugural games of A.D. 80.

I’m not going to analyze the poem here, but rather leave you to read it for yourself and experience a first impression through the eyes of Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe

I hope you enjoy…

The Coliseum

By Edgar Allan Poe

Type of the antique Rome! Rich reliquary
Of lofty contemplation left to Time
By buried centuries of pomp and power!
At length- at length- after so many days
Of weary pilgrimage and burning thirst,
(Thirst for the springs of lore that in thee lie,)
I kneel, an altered and an humble man,
Amid thy shadows, and so drink within
My very soul thy grandeur, gloom, and glory!

Vastness! and Age! and Memories of Eld!
Silence! and Desolation! and dim Night!
I feel ye now- I feel ye in your strength-
O spells more sure than e’er Judaean king
Taught in the gardens of Gethsemane!
O charms more potent than the rapt Chaldee
Ever drew down from out the quiet stars!

Here, where a hero fell, a column falls!
Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold,
A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat!
Here, where the dames of Rome their gilded hair
Waved to the wind, now wave the reed and thistle!
Here, where on golden throne the monarch lolled,
Glides, spectre-like, unto his marble home,
Lit by the wan light of the horned moon,
The swift and silent lizard of the stones!

But stay! these walls- these ivy-clad arcades-
These moldering plinths- these sad and blackened shafts-
These vague entablatures- this crumbling frieze-
These shattered cornices- this wreck- this ruin-
These stones- alas! these grey stones- are they all-
All of the famed, and the colossal left
By the corrosive Hours to Fate and me?

“Not all”- the Echoes answer me- “not all!
Prophetic sounds and loud, arise forever
From us, and from all Ruin, unto the wise,
As melody from Memnon to the Sun.
We rule the hearts of mightiest men- we rule
With a despotic sway all giant minds.
We are not impotent- we pallid stones.
Not all our power is gone- not all our fame-
Not all the magic of our high renown-
Not all the wonder that encircles us-
Not all the mysteries that in us lie-
Not all the memories that hang upon
And cling around about us as a garment,
Clothing us in a robe of more than glory.”

The Coloseum c.1870 (Wikimedia Commons)

Isn’t that wonderful?

If you have had the chance to visit the Colosseum yourself, please do tell us what your own first impressions of it were in the comments below.

Thank you for reading.



Ancient Everyday – Oil Lamps in Ancient Rome

Salvete, dear readers!

My power went out the other night, and I found myself in darkness for a time but for the cold blue light of my phone.

Oddly enough, this made me think of another Ancient Everyday to share with you!

Lighting is something that we certainly take for granted today. We flick a switch and voila, we have light! If we want add to the atmosphere of a dinner party, we light candles for ambiance.

When banqueting, one needed a little light!

But in the ancient world, it was quite different. No switches, no electricity running through the walls of every domus.

The Romans, and the Greeks before them, used oil lamps.

Today, when we shop for lighting, there are myriad choices for size, quality and the amount of ornamentation upon a lamp.

The same can be said of oil lamps in the ancient world!

Oil lamps came in a variety of shapes and sizes (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Oil lamps made out of bronze or pottery were in use in the Mediterranean world from about the seventh century B.C., and continued as such for centuries. Most consisted of a chamber for the oil, a filling hole in the middle, and another hole in the nozzle for a linen wick. Some lamps even had a handle for ease of carrying.

Most oil lamps were made in two-piece molds that were made of gypsum (calcium sulphate) and plaster. When the lamp was removed from the mold, it was dipped in a slip of clay (kind of a thick liquid clay mixture) to further coat the lamp and make it more impermeable to oil.

You can see how the molding process works HERE.

A Roman volute lamp with a gladiator or warrior depicted on the body and the producer’s name on the bottom

The oil that was usually used in oil lamps was, of course, olive oil. After all, it was widely available in the Mediterranean world.

Lamps of the second and third centuries B.C. that were used by Romans in Italy were more often than not imported from Athens where there was a significant ceramic industry. However, from the first century B.C. oil lamps used by Romans were mostly produced in Italy itself, and then exported around the Empire. Later on, these were then often copied by local producers in places such as Britannia.

From the Augustan period onward in Italy, high-quality volute oil lamps were produced. These were wide and flat with room for more ornamentation or scenery depicted in the middle, and curved ornaments to either side of the nozzle(s).

In the northern provinces especially, the Roman firmalampe became quite common. It was more plain than the decorative volute lamps, and purely functional. The firmalampe was made across the Empire.

My own Romano-British firmalampe – Imagine writing on your wax tablet by the light of one of these!

At one point in time in the northern part of the Empire, it’s believed that there was a disruption to the oil supply from the Mediterranean, and so oil lamp production in the northern provinces slowed to a standstill. Instead, candles made of tallow (beef and sheep fat), which the Romans had used to an extent since around 500 B.C., may have begun to replace oil lamps.

However, in the olive oil-producing regions of the Empire, oil lamps in countless different styles were still widely used to light the domus of many a Roman.

Thank you for reading.

A more ornate, double-nozzle, bronze oil lamp with stand and acanthus handle. Only the very best for these owners!


The Warrior’s Homecoming

Today is Remembrance Day.

On November 11th, at the eleventh hour, I’ll be at my local cenotaph, standing alongside my fellow civilians, veterans and emergency services crews to honour and remember those have served, and those who have fallen in the line of duty.

I suspect that most of us have a connection to someone who has served in one of the many conflicts across the world since WWI and WWII to the present day. Or perhaps you know someone who battles to save lives on the streets of our cities?

For myself, one of my grandfathers served in both World Wars, and my other grandfather in WWII.

This is a time of year when I think of them more than usual.

The Normandy Landing – WWII

I write a lot about warriors in the ancient world, and the struggles they face on and off the battlefield.

My protagonists have fought long, bloody campaigns, far away from the comforts of civilization.

They’ve faced enemies that will not come out into the open, and sometimes must rely on supposed allies that they cannot trust.

For the warriors in my books, life is a constant fight for survival. They fight and kill and die for Rome, all for the purposes of advancing the Empire’s plans for conquest.

Artist impression of Roman cavalry ala engaging Caledonians

Indeed, one of the themes running through all my books is that of the powerful few sending many to die on the battlefields of the Empire. The soldiers are at the whim of those roaming and ruling the corridors of power.

Sound familiar?

My, how history does repeat itself.

Always at the back of my protagonist’s mind is the family that he misses. But if he thinks on them too much, if he loses his focus at any time, his enemies will tear him apart.

The warrior’s life has never been an easy one, especially when you have something to lose.

Mother and son reunited

But what happens when it’s time for the warrior to ‘come home’?

How is it even possible after the life they’ve led? Can they really ‘come home’?

How have warriors, men and women, dealt with the aftermath of war?

In his book The Warrior Ethos, Steven Pressfield asks a pertinent question:

All of us know brothers and sisters who have fought with incredible courage on the battlefield, only to fall apart when they came home. Why? Is it easier to be a soldier than to be a civilian?

In one way, perhaps life at war is more straightforward. Every day, every moment perhaps, your thoughts, your purpose, are focussed on the objective – take that position, hold that region, protect your brothers and sisters in arms, stay alive. In some situations, it’s kill or be killed.

We’re back to primal instincts here.

Stepping from the world of war into the civilian world is an unimaginable transition.

Today, we have any number of soldier’s aid societies and government programs and guides that are intended to help veterans of wars reintegrate into society.

These groups do good work that is much-needed, but is it enough? How can non-combatants in civilian society understand the physical and emotional trauma that is experienced by warriors after the battle?

In the ancient and medieval worlds, there were no societies or organizations whose purpose was to help returning warriors.

British Troops in WWI

Granted, in warrior societies such as Sparta, the majority of warriors probably enjoyed the fighting. All Spartan men were warriors. That was their purpose.

But in the Roman Empire, returning warriors would have had to reintegrate in a way similar to today, rather than ancient Sparta. Later Roman society valued not just fighting prowess, but also political acuity, the arts, rhetoric, skill at a trade, generally being a good citizen in society.

Many veterans are homeless when they come home…

Going back to peace time in a civilian society after the straightforward survival life of a prolonged campaign would have been tough.

We read about legionaries coming back to Rome and getting into all sorts of trouble, their days and nights taken up with gambling, brawling, and whoring.

It’s no wonder that generals and emperors created coloniae for retired soldiers on the fringes of the Empire. In these places, veterans would not be able to cause trouble in Rome, but they would also be given the opportunity to have some land and make a life for themselves.

Thamugadi – A Roman colonia in North Africa for retired veterans

In my book Warriors of Epona, my protagonist is reunited with his family. He has to face peace time.

How does he deal with this? How does his family deal with him?

War changes a person, whether it’s in the past or the present day. It’s an experience unlike any other and I salute anyone who faces the conflict that comes with stepping from the world of war into the world of peace, and vice versa.

In the Roman Empire, they were two very different battlefields, as they are, I suspect, today.

I imagine that reconciling the two worlds can push a man or woman to their very limits.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is real.

I’ve often thought that governments should step up more when it comes to helping veterans. How about free college education for veterans and their families? Or exemption from taxation for them and their families for all they have risked and sacrificed? What about a good pension?

Veterans today shouldn’t have to worry about finances or a roof over their heads. They have enough to deal with when the fighting is done.

I’ve read that Alexander the Great actually did these things for his veterans, and the Roman Empire granted lands to hers.

Any government people who happen to be reading this should take notes.

We can also do our part, whether it’s wearing a red poppy, thanking a veteran for their dangerous work, or donating to an organization that directly helps veterans and their families.

The very least we can do is be quiet for a minute at 11:00 a.m. on November 11th.

As ever, at this time of year, I feel like my words fall short, that they are not nearly enough. I’d like to close this by expressing my heartfelt thanks and gratitude to the men and women in uniform who have risked, and are risking, their lives to keep us safe and free.


And thank you, dear readers, for following along.

In future, when you read a novel about warriors in the ancient world, do bear in mind that there are modern equivalents. The homecomings for many of them are far more difficult than we can imagine.


Today, there are numerous organizations whose sole purpose is to help veterans, young and old, to make the transition from war zone to home front.

This year, Eagles and Dragons Publishing has made donations to two organizations whom we believe are making a real difference in the lives of veterans.

Wounded Warriors Canada’s mission is “To honour and support Canada’s ill and injured Canadian Armed Forces members, Veterans, First Responders and their families.”

Eagles and Dragons Publishing has donated to the ‘Couples Overcoming PTSD’ program.

VETS Canada is committed to helping homeless and at-risk veterans reintegrate into civilian life.

Eagles and Dragons Publishing has made a general donation to this wonderful, volunteer-led organization helping veterans in need.



The World of the Carpathian Interlude – Part VII : Ancient Demons – The Battle between Light and Dark

Welcome to the seventh and final part of this blog series on The World of The Carpathian Interlude.

In this post, we’re going to explore the some aspects of Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest ‘revealed’ religions in the world (though this is debated) and from which sprang the mystery religion of Mithraism that so captivated the men of Rome’s legions.

The battle between the Light and the Dark is at the heart of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, just as it is in most religions. One could say it is a part of our own souls, our various beliefs as human beings, no matter our cultural background.

It’s also at the very core of the story of The Carpathian Interlude and the characters who inhabit that world.

Ahura Mazda – from the ruins of Persepolis

…May Right be embodied full of life and strength! May Piety abide in the Dominion bright as the sun! May Good Thought give destiny to men according to their works! (Ushtavaiti Gatha, 43.16)

In Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia which is still practiced in parts of modern Iran, Ahura Mazda is the supreme deity. It is he who created Mithras, a lord of Light and the all-seeing Protector of Truth, and Guardian of Cattle, the Harvest, and other divine aspects.

For more on Mithras himself, you can read the first part of this blog series.

According to the ancient scriptures, Ahura Mazda and Mithras are Yazads (or yazata), good divinities who are immortal in essence and inseparable from their bodies.

The oldest texts of Zoroastrianism, the Yasna Haptanghaiti (written in prose) and the Gathas (hymns written in verse) are attributed to Zoroaster himself, who is believed to have lived sometime around 1200 B.C. These texts were written in the language of Old Avestan, the language of Zoroastrian scripture, which has its roots in the Indo-European language group.

The hymns, which to me feel similar in nature to the ancient Greek Homeric Hymns, are believed not to teach people, but to invoke and glorify Ahura Mazda. They are not systematized and dogmatic. Their main messages are of the struggle between Good and Evil, of truth, friendship and benevolence versus greed, arrogance and non-truth.

Light versus Dark.

Zoroastrian Fire Temple

As the holy one I recognized thee, Mazda Ahura, when Good Thought came to me, when first by your words I was instructed. Shall it bring me sorrow among men, my devotion, in doing that which ye tell me is the best. (Ushtavaiti Gatha, 43.11)

When writing The Carpathian Interlude, I wanted Mithras and his Roman miles, those on the side of Light and Truth to be facing a very ancient evil, an antagonist that was much older than Rome itself.

I turned to the ancient texts of Zoroastrianism and there found the evil I had been looking for, the Darkness.

If Ahura Mazda and Mithras, the divine Yazads, were Goodness and Light, then it was the Daevas, wicked and uncaring gods, who embodied Evil and Darkness. These evil gods were something akin to demons.

ye Daevas all, and he that highly honors you, are the seed of Bad Thought — yes, and of the Lie and of Arrogance, likewise your deeds, whereby ye have long been known in the seventh region of the earth.

For ye have brought it to pass that men who do the worst things shall be called beloved of the Daevas, separating themselves from Good Thought, departing from the will of Mazda Ahura and from Right.

Thereby ye defrauded mankind of happy life and immortality, by the deed which he and the Bad Spirit together with Bad Thought and Bad Word taught you, ye Daevas and the Liars, so as to ruin (mankind). (Ahunavaiti Gatha, 32.3,4,5)

Ancient Persian manuscript showing a Daeva

The Daevas were the enemies of the Yazads, but they were still divinities. Then I read about another group known as the Usij.

The Usij were the false priests of the Daevas, those who worshiped them, the beloved of the Daevas. It is the Usij, or rather one in particular, who is the ultimate antagonist in The Carpathian Interlude. As a man, the Usij is mortal, immortal in essence but separable from the body. He is everything that is bad about men, and seeks to tear down the gods in any way he can.

Have the Daevas ever exercised good dominion? And I ask of those who see how for the Daevas’ sake the Karapan and the Usij give cattle to violence, and how the Kavi made them continually to mourn, instead of taking care that they make the pastures prosper through Right. (Ushtavaiti Gatha, 44.20)

Artist impression of Zoroaster

Parts of the Yasna text suggest that Zoroaster himself often debated with the Daeva-worshipping priests who were devoid of goodness of mind and heart, and full of arrogance.

It has been theorized that the defining religious theme of Good vs. Evil, Light vs. Darkness, may have originated in ancient Zoroastrianism (which still has a minority of followers today in Iran) and then been absorbed by other religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.


How do the Yazads, Daevas, and Usij fit into the world of The Carpathian Interlude?

You need to read the book to find out. However, as is illustrated in the ancient Gathas and Yasna of Zoroaster, where there is Good there too is Evil. Where there is Light, there is also Darkness.

These ideas are as old as the world itself, and they are at the very foundations of storytelling.

In The Carpathian Interlude, I’ve tried to explore the theme of Light and Dark in what I hope is a unique, thought-provoking, and entertaining way. If you read this story, I hope that you enjoy it, that it provokes some thought about this eternal struggle, and that you are inspired by it.

Thank you for reading.

Only when fear is at its most intense can true heroism come into the light.

For ages, an ancient evil has been harboured in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains, an enemy of the god Mithras, Lord of Light.

In A.D. 9, when three of the Emperor Augustus’ legions are slaughtered in the forests of Germania, it becomes evident to a small group of experienced veterans that something more sinister than the rebellious German tribes is responsible for the massacre.

It falls to Gaius Justus Vitalis and a few warriors favoured by Mithras to hunt down and destroy the forces of undead spurred on by this ancient evil. Summoning all of their courage, they must wade through horror and rivers of blood to bring Mithras’ light into the darkness, or else see the destruction of Rome, the Empire, and all they hold dear.

The adventure begins with the appearance of a young refugee beneath the walls of a distant legionary base…