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.

So…

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…

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The World of the Carpathian Interlude – Part VI : Sarmizegethusa – Fortress of the Dacians

Of the many peoples conquered by Rome throughout history, few conjure such wild and barbaric images as the Dacians.

Perhaps it was because they gave Rome such a hard time of it on the other side of the Danube frontier, or crossed over to harass the Romans? Was it their vicious ways in battle or their barbaric appearance? It’s hard to tell, for as we know, history is written by the victors.

And in this fight, Rome was indeed the victor.

Roman Dacia (Wikimedia Commons)

In The Carpathian Interlude, the Dacians are at the heart of the story, physically and geographically.

In the story, some of our Roman protagonists end up having to go into the heart of the capital of the Dacians – a place known as Sarmizegethusa.

When I hear the name of the Dacian capital, I hear the sounds of bloody battle with Rome pounding on her gates.

Sarmizegethusa…

But before we explore this magnificent fortress/capital of the Dacians, we should look briefly at who the Dacians actually were.

Rome vs. Dacia

The Dacians, also known as the ‘Getae’ by the ancient Greeks, were an Indo-European people inhabiting the region of – you guessed it! – the Carpathian Mountains.

They were related to the Thracians, and it has been suggested that the name ‘Dacian’ actually means ‘wolf’. This is a reference to early rituals ascribed to the Dacians in which youths had to act like wolves for a period of time.

This ritual has in turn tied the Dacians to tales of lycanthropy, or the legendary werewolves of the Carpathian region in which a large part of our story is set.

Dacian man – statue from 2nd century A.D.

The Dacians, or ‘Getae’, were a warlike people who fought the Persians, as well as Alexander the Great in 335 B.C. on the banks of the lower Danube. Their kingdom covered a vast, mountainous area dotted with gold mines, forests and fertile fields and valleys.

It’s also said that Julius Caesar contemplated a campaign against the Dacians because of the threat they posed, but it’s the Emperor Trajan’s (reigned A.D. 97-117) campaigns against the Dacians that are really remembered.

Trajan invaded Dacia in two wars from A.D. 101-102, and 105-106.

After the first war, a treaty was struck, but both sides seemed to know it was temporary.

The second war was the Roman siege of Sarmizegethusa itself, and the subsequent death of King Decebalus who, being pursued by the Roman cavalry, committed suicide rather than be paraded through the streets of Rome in Trajan’s triumph.

The war and the death of King Decebalus are immortalized on the monument we know today as ‘Trajan’s Column’.

Trajan’s column detail

The Carpathian Interlude, however, takes place long before Trajan’s final defeat of the Dacian people. It takes place during the reign of Emperor Augustus, when Sarmizegethusa was not yet a word on the lips of the average Roman.

Sarmizegethusa, in present-day Romania, became the capital of the Dacian kingdom under King Burebista (82-44 B.C.), and reached its peak as a rich and vibrant capital city during the reign of its last king, Decebalus.

This capital was the military, religious, and political capital of Dacia, the beating heart of the kingdom.

Plan of Sarmizegethusa

Sarmizegethusa was located on a 1200 meter high mountain and consisted of a fortress with six different citadels with a river below. Apart from the defensive network encompassing the citadels, there were also residential quarters on the terraces of the mountain below the citadels, a large sacred quarter with several temples to the Dacian gods, and workshops, including smithies, indicating metalworking skills. Some of the finds from the latter included tools and blades of the long curved Dacian sword known as a ‘phalax’.

The sacred or religious zone had circular and rectangular temples, including a large sort of solar disc which some scholars believe is indicative of contact with ancient Greeks who may have influenced their religion.

Ruins of Dacian Temples in the religious quarter of Sarmizegethusa (Wikimedia Commons)

Religion was important to the Dacians, and it appears that the priest of their chief deity, Zalmoxis, played a large role in the life of the people at Sarmizegethusa. It has been suggested that the people were co-ruled by a king and a priest-king.

There were also supposedly many levels or grades of priests, just as there were levels in Mithraism.

The main gods of the Dacians, some of which are mentioned by Herodotus, were Zalmoxis (the chief god), Gebeleizis (a god of storm and lightning, sometimes equated with Zalmoxis), Bendis (the goddess of the moon and the hunt who also had a cult in Attica, Greece by order of the Oracle of Dodona), Derzelas (god of health, abundance and the Underworld), and Sabazios (a sort of horse god). The Dacians apparently also worshipped Dionysos.

Votive statue showing Bendis wearing a Dacian cap (British Museum)

Dacian beliefs were quite staunch, some of their practices no doubt barbaric to Greeks and Romans.

Herodotus explains:

Their belief in their immortality is as follows: they believe that they do not die, but that one who perishes goes to the deity Salmoxis, or Gebeleïzis, as some of them call him.

Once every five years they choose one of their people by lot and send him as a messenger to Salmoxis, with instructions to report their needs; and this is how they send him: three lances are held by designated men; others seize the messenger to Salmoxis by his hands and feet, and swing and toss him up on to the spear-points.

If he is killed by the toss, they believe that the god regards them with favor; but if he is not killed, they blame the messenger himself, considering him a bad man, and send another messenger in place of him. It is while the man still lives that they give him the message.

(Herodotus, The Histories Book IV, Chapter 94-96)

Solar Disc religious structure at Sarmizegethusa

The size of the religious sanctuary at Sarmizegethusa is substantial, their faith and practices quite old by the time of our story during the reign of Augustus.

From fact to fiction now, in The Carpathian Interlude, the Dacians have been overpowered by an evil far more ancient than their gods, one that dwells deep in the teeth of Carpathian Mountains.

When our Roman protagonists arrive in Sarmizegethusa, they must find their way to the religious quarter of the settlement and find the one man they believe can help them.

Dacian warriors from Trajan’s Column

Today one can visit the site of Sarmizegethusa, listed on UNESCO’s world heritage site list.

If you do go, you may wish to go during the day when the sounds of slaughter from Trajan’s siege are muted by sunlight on the trees.

If you decide to go in the evening, or at night, be cautious, for you will be headed for a place of strange gods and of men who became wolves.

You never know what lurks in the dark of the Carpathian Mountains.

Thank you for reading.

Walls of Sarmizegethusa (Wikimedia Commons)

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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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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 World of Heart of Fire – Part X – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics

World of Heart of Fire - banner

This is the final post in The World of Heart of Fire blog series.

I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it.

Writing Heart of Fire has been a tremendous journey into the world of Ancient Greece. Yes, I am an historian and I already knew much of the material, but I still learned a great deal.

The intense, and in-depth, research, some of which you have read about in this ten-part blog series, made me excited to get stuck in every day. A lot of people, after an intensive struggle to write a paper or book, are fed up with their subject afterward, but that is not the case for me.

In writing this story, and meeting the historical characters of Kyniska, Xenophon, Agesilaus, and Plato, in closely studying their world, I have fallen even more in love with the ancient world. I developed an even deeper appreciation of it than I had before.

Altis sunlight

In creating the character of Stefanos of Argos, and watching him develop of his own accord as the story progressed (yes, that does happen!), I felt that I was able to understand the nuances of Ancient Greece, and to feel a deeper connection to the past that goes beyond the cerebral or academic.

I’ve come to realized that in some ways we are very different from the ancient Greeks. However, it seems to me that there are more ways in which we have a lot in common.

Sport and the ancient Olympics are the perfect example of this.

We all toil at something, every day of our lives. Few of us achieve glory in our chosen pursuits, but those who do, those who dedicate themselves to a skill, who sacrifice everything else in order to reach such heights of glory, it is they who are set apart.

Athens 2004 runners 2

Hoplite runners

In writing, and finishing, Heart of Fire, I certainly feel that I have toiled as hard as I could in this endeavour. My ponos has indeed been great.

There is another Ancient Greek idea that applies here, that comes after the great effort that effects victory. It is called Mochthos.

Mochthos is the ancient word for ‘relief from exertion’.

Athens 2004 - Mochthos

Athens 2004 – Mochthos

My moment of mochthos will come when I return soon to ancient Olympia. I have been there many times before, but this time will be different, for I will see it in a new light – the stadium, the ruins of the palaestra and gymnasium, the Altis, and the temples of Zeus and Hera… all of it.

For me, Olympia has exploded with life.

When I next walk the sacred grounds of the Altis, I’ll be thinking about the Olympians who competed this summer and in the years to come.

They deserve our thoughts, for to reach the heights of prowess that they do to get to the Games, they have indeed sacrificed.

Athens 2004

Athens 2004

I always feel a thrill when I see modern Olympians on the podium, see them experience the fruit of their toils, their many sacrifices.

It is possible that they may have been shunned by loved ones or friends for their intense dedication and focus. It can be a supremely lonely experience to pursue your dreams.

Whatever their situation, Olympic competitors deserve our respect, and just as in Ancient Greece, their country of origin should matter little to us.

Yes, we count the medals for our respective countries, but what really matters is that each man and woman at the Games has likely been to hell and back to get there.

Athens 2004 proud winner

Athens 2004 proud winner

When I see the victors on the podium, when I witness the agony and the ecstasy of Olympic competition, I can honestly say that I have tears in my eyes.

Perhaps you do too? Perhaps the ancient Greeks did as well, for in each individual victor, they knew they were witnessing the Gods’ grace.

It’s been so for thousands of years, and it all started with a single footrace.

It is humbling and inspiring to think about.

Heart of Fire – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics is out now, and I hope that I have done justice to the ancient Games and the athletes whose images graced the Altis in ages past.

Heart of Fire

A Mercenary… A Spartan Princess… And Olympic Glory…

When Stefanos, an Argive mercenary, returns home from the wars raging across the Greek world, his life’s path is changed by his dying father’s last wish – that he win in the Olympic Games.

As Stefanos sets out on a road to redemption to atone for the life of violence he has led, his life is turned upside down by Kyniska, a Spartan princess destined to make Olympic history.

In a world of prejudice and hate, can the two lovers from enemy city-states gain the Gods’ favour and claim Olympic immortality? Or are they destined for humiliation and defeat?

Remember… There can be no victory without sacrifice.

Krypte

Be sure to keep an eye out for some short videos I will be shooting at ancient Olympia in the places where Heart of Fire takes place. I’m excited to share this wonderful story with you!

Thank you for reading, and whatever your own noble toils, may the Gods smile on you!

 

 If you missed any of the posts on the ancient Olympic Games, CLICK HERE to read the full, ten-part blog series of The World of Heart of Fire!

 

If Heart of Fire – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics sounds like a story you enjoy, you can download the e-book or get the paperback from Amazon, Kobo, Create Space and Apple iBooks/iTunes. Just CLICK HERE.

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The World of A Dragon among the Eagles – Part II – The Imperial Roman Legion

The World of A Dragon among the Eagles

The world in which A Dragon among the Eagles takes place, and with which the main characters are concerned, is also the world of the Roman legion.

Indeed, the imperial Roman legion figures largely in the entire Eagles and Dragon series, and so, I thought it good to do a brief introduction of the make-up of the legion at the time the book begins in A.D. 197.

Roman legionaries on Trajan's column

Roman legionaries on Trajan’s column

At this time in the history of the Roman Empire, the Roman legion is a well-oiled machine. It, and its troops, had been perfected after centuries of warfare, of trial and error, victory and defeat.

This army, the army of the Principate, is quite different from that of the Republic. It used to be that Roman legionaries were required to meet minimum requirements of possession and wealth in order to qualify for service in the ranks.

Republican Roman troops (illustration by Angus McBride)

Republican Roman troops (illustration by Angus McBride)

This all changed in 107 B.C when Caius Marius was elected consul and sent to Numidia to continue the war there. However, Marius was denied the right to raise new legions in Africa, permitted only to take volunteers with him.

Of course, Marius took advantage of this, and in a move no other had taken, he appealed to the poorest classes of citizens who became known as the capite censi.

These ‘head count’ citizens were enthusiastic about joining the legions and the new opportunity for a livelihood that it presented them with. They became the backbone of the Roman Legion, and from that time onward the link between military service and property was done away with. They need only have been citizens.

Gaius Marius among the ruins of Carthage (Joseph Verner 18th century)

Gaius Marius among the ruins of Carthage (Joseph Verner 18th century)

Marius made many reforms to the Roman army which I won’t go into here, however, his move contributed to the creation of a permanent, full-time citizen army, a self-sufficient fighting force of well-trained men with standard-issue equipment, food and lodging. They carried everything they needed on the march on their own backs, including weapons, spikes for palisades, pots, pans, and pick-axes for digging fortifications.

Marius' Mules - Re-enactors maching in full kit

Marius’ Mules – Re-enactors marching in full kit

Because of all the kit they carried in the field, they became known as ‘Marius’ Mules’.

The average kit for a rank-and-file soldier in the imperial legions included hobnail sandals known as caligae, a standard tunic, a leather belt or cingulum, a lorica segmentata which was a breast plate made up of individual iron strips, a helmet, cloak, gladius (short sword), pugio (dagger), a pilum (javelin), and a scutum (shield).

Re-enactor in Roman Legionary outfit

Re-enactor in Roman Legionary outfit

In A Dragon among the Eagles, there is mention of the various ranks and units that make up the legion, so I think it a good idea to cover the basics now.

The smallest unit of men in the imperial legion was a contubernium which consisted of eight men who shared a tent, or barrack room. These men marched, fought, lived, and cooked together.

Then there was the century. This is probably the most well-known unit of men. It consisted of 10 contubernia, and was run by a centurion with a standard bearer and an optio beneath him.

The centurion was usually a career soldier, and a harsh task-master. He wore different armour that was chain mail, usually with a harness decorated with phalerae, decorative discs that represented awards he had been given. The crest of a centurion’s helmet was horizontal, and he carried a short wooden staff called a vinerod, which gave him the right to strike his citizen soldiers in the interests of discipline.

Re-enactor dressed as a Centurion (Wikimedia Commons)

Re-enactor dressed as a Centurion (Wikimedia Commons)

There are stories about a particular centurion in the imperial legions whose nick-name was ‘give me another’ because he was constantly breaking his vinerod over the backs of his men!

Centuries of eighty men were the most flexible military units in the legion. They numbered enough to go on patrol, or building duty, and could manoeuvre effectively in battle.

Now, the next unit of the legion was the cohort.

The imperial cohort was made up of 480 men, and consisted of six centuries let by an Equestrian tribune. The first cohort of a legion, however, was led by a Patrician tribune.

Officers of the Imperial Roman Legions (illustration by Ron Embleton)

Officers of the Imperial Roman Legions (illustration by Ron Embleton)

Finally, there were ten cohorts in a legion which brought the average number of troops in the imperial legion to 5000.

The commander or general of an entire legion was known as the legatus legionis, or legate commander. This person was usually a senator, just like the patrician tribune who was his second-in-command. The third person of overall authority in the legion was the camp prefect, or praefectus castrorum. The latter was often a career soldier, perhaps a former centurion who had been promoted, and was responsible for much of the legion’s administration and logistics.

There were many other minor positions within the legions such as duplicarii, men who received double pay for skills such as engineering, or the building of siege equipment, as well as benificari, those who were aides to the legate or other officers, and who were excused for intense labour such as the digging of ditches and erecting palisades.

Roman legionary standards with an image of Emperor Severus and his family

Roman legionary standards with an image of Emperor Severus and his family

We must not forget the standard bearers who made up the imperial legion. These included the vexillarius, the person who carried the vexillum standard of each unit, the signifer, the soldier who carried a century’s standard and wore a wolf or other pelt over his helmet. There was the cornicen, the trooper who carried the cornu, the round horn used to rally the troops and give commands, as well as the imaginifer of the legion, the trooper whose task it was to carry the image of the emperor before the legion.

Probably the most important standard bearer was the aquilifer, the man whose solemn duty it was to carry the legion’s golden eagle, the aquila, into battle. This man was to protect the legion’s eagle at all cost, for it was the ultimate disgrace for a legion to lose its aquila to an enemy.

Re-enactor dressed as an Aquilifer

Re-enactor dressed as an Aquilifer

Along with the 5000 regular troops that made up an imperial legion, there were often alae, or auxiliary units, attached to the legion. These were usually units of 120 cavalrymen who acted as scouts and supported the legion on the march. They were often made up of foreign troops who had been brought into the Roman ranks such as Sarmatians, Numidians, or Scythians to name a few.

Ala units might also consist of skirmishers such as Cretan or Balearic slingers, but most often they were cavalry.

Auxiliary Cavalry troops (illustration by Ron Embleton)

Auxiliary Cavalry troops (illustration by Ron Embleton)

The imperial Roman legion was one of the most effective fighting units of the ancient world, and it is no wonder that the Empire covered so much of the known world by the time in which A Dragon among the Eagles takes place.

Disciplina, the goddess personification of discipline, was something that was taken very seriously. If a soldier obeyed her and remembered his training, he would survive the direst of circumstances.

Roman coin showing stardard bearers and the world 'Disciplina' - second century A.D.

Roman coin showing stardard bearers and the world ‘Disciplina’ – second century A.D.

When the legions marched in the field, every night they dug in, every trooper going to his assigned space to dig ditches, pile up ramparts, and raise the palisade around the entire camp.

Tent and command centre, the Principia and Praetorium, tribunes’ tents, stables etc. were always in the same position, the streets set out in the same grid every time. So, whatever happened, a Roman soldier knew where he was, and what he had to do.

Every morning, when they would break camp, they would take down the work of the previous evening, which they had done after a twenty mile march, so that the enemy could not make use of their fortifications.

Plan of a typical legionary fortress (FromThe Imperial Roman Army by Yann Le Bohec)

Plan of a typical legionary fortress (from The Imperial Roman Army by Yann Le Bohec)

It was hard work, but the imperial legion gave opportunity to the poorer classes of Roman citizens and allowed them to make something of themselves, if not at least be clothed and fed at the state’s expense.

In return, the men of the legions bled for Rome as they extended her borders into the world.

A Dragon among the Eagles takes place during the Severan invasion of the Parthian Empire, one of the biggest thorns in Rome’s side for over two hundred years.

In A.D. 197, Septimius Severus set out with one of the largest invasion forces in Rome’s history, made up of a titanic 33 legions.

The stage was set for one of the greatest military campaigns in Rome’s history.

In the next post, we’ll look at this powerful enemy and the tactics they used in battle against the legions.

Until then, check out this great video that illustrates the make-up of the Roman legion.

Thank you for reading!

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Ancient Everyday – Childbirth in the Ancient World

Goddess Tellus on Ara Pacis

It’s been a while since I last posted in the Ancient Everyday series.

Last year we looked at the ritual of going to the public baths, the interesting experience of using a public toilet, and the use of mirrors in the ancient world.

Today, we’re going to take a very brief look at childbirth in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Now, as a man, my input and views on childbirth are somewhat limited, so I would invite my female readers out there to jump in with their comments at any time. I’m a father, and I’ve been present at the birth of my own children, but I would never presume to fully comprehend mysteries, and agonies, that women go through when it comes to bringing a tiny human into the world.

ancient baby

Let’s face it, we’re extremely lucky today as far as obstetrics and the technologies we have to help mothers and children safely navigate the process of pregnancy and birth.

That was not the case in the ancient world. Pregnancy and birth were risky affairs, and as with many aspects of life, the ancients called on specific gods and goddesses for help when it came to childbearing and birth.

Egyptian God, Bes

Egyptian God, Bes

The Egyptians offered prayers to the god Bes, a god of marriage and jollity, but also a protector of women and children in childbirth. Bes was not your typical Egyptian god. He is portrayed as an ugly dwarf with a feather crown, sometimes holding a tambourine.

His consort, Tauert, was also prayed to as someone who assisted all females, regardless of station, in childbirth. Tauert was portrayed as a pregnant, female hippopotamus.

In ancient Greece the goddess two whom prayers and offerings were made was Artemis, under her two epithets Kourotrophos (nurse) and Locheia (helper in childbirth).

Now it might seem odd that people prayed to the virgin goddess for protection in childbirth, but in myth, Artemis was said to have been present when Leto, her mother, gave birth to Apollo on Delos. She was considered, in some ways, the first midwife.

Artemis

Artemis

It is interesting to note ancient Greeks believed that women who died suddenly in childbirth were helped to a painless death by Artemis who showed them mercy by piercing them with one of her arrows.

The ancient Greeks also prayed to Hecate as a goddess of women and nurturer of children, as well as Hera, the Queen of the Gods who sometimes served as a goddess of childbirth in her capacity as goddess of marriage.

Roman Goddess, Juno - Queen of the Gods

Roman Goddess, Juno – Queen of the Gods

The Romans had many gods and goddesses to whom they prayed for help, and Juno, Queen of the Gods, was first and foremost under the epithets of Lucina, and Opigena.

Another goddess with a major role to play was Carmentis, a water goddess who was also a prophetic goddess of protection in childbirth. Carmentis had her own festival, the Carmentalia, and a temple on the Capitoline Hill.

A third goddess whom the Romans prayed to for a safe and successful childbirth was Matuta, the goddess of dawn and young growth.

It must have been a comfort to have so many gods to pray to, but that may also be indicative of the high risks involved.

Ancient Coin with image of Silphium plant on one side, and heart-shaped Silphium seed on the other

Ancient Coin with image of Silphium plant on one side, and heart-shaped Silphium seed on the other

Because it was so dangerous to bring a child into the world, and because families could not always afford to feed or provide dowries for all their children, contraception was something that was used in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Most of the methods used seem to be herb and plant-based, and included things like acacia, honey, Queen Anne’s Lace, date palm, willow, Artemisia, myrrh, and the now extinct silphium plant, among others. Some of these are apparently used in spermicides today.

The Egyptian Kahun Papyrus from c. 1850 B.C. actually contains a lot of information on birth control and is the oldest known gynaecological treatise.

Egyptian Kahun Papyrus - The World's first known gynaecological treatise

Egyptian Kahun Papyrus – The World’s first known gynaecological treatise

But we are talking about having children in the ancient world. Today, most husbands (I would hope) are in the room to support their wives and be there when their child are born. It happens at the hospital or birthing centre (most of the time), and there is a doctor/obstetrician to help the delivery.

In the ancient world, births took place at home. There were no hospitals, except for those at healing centres like Kos and Epidaurus, and oftentimes, anyone who had been ‘in touch’ with childbirth was not permitted to enter sacred sanctuaries anyway for fear of contaminating the place.

In Egypt, Greece, and Rome, midwifes were a constant. Today, midwifery seems to have made a big comeback, but in the ancient world, the midwife was always the one who helped women through childbirth. Their skills and knowledge were considerable. The only time a doctor might have been called in ancient Greece and Rome was if there were complications.

Egyptian birth - temple relief at the Ancient Egyptian Dendera Complex depicts a woman giving birth while squatting and attended by the two goddesses

Egyptian birth – temple relief at the Ancient Egyptian Dendera Complex depicts a woman giving birth while squatting and attended by the two goddesses

It appears that in most cases, no men were present at the birth of a child, though there were often several people in attendance, including the midwife, the women of the household (mothers, grandmothers, aunts etc.), and any female slaves that were needed to help.

It was not considered proper for men to be present, and the only man who might have been there was the doctor if he was called.

What about the position for giving birth?

Well, in Egypt, it seems that women often knelt in a shaded spot or shelter to give birth.

Ancient Greek relief of a woman in birthing chair

Relief of a woman in birthing chair

With modern hospital beds, women are in more of a lying-down position, with their backs propped up to give birth.

Interestingly, in ancient Greece and Rome, and in later centuries, birthing chairs were used. This was basically a wooden chair with arms, but no seat.

The midwife would kneel on the floor before the chair and help the woman from there, her hands wrapped in linen or papyrus so that the baby did not slip when she caught it.

It may be that couches were also used for giving birth, but I do wonder if midwives in ancient Greece or Rome might have had birthing chairs as part of their professional kit.

Roman birthing chair and midwife from plaque in Ostia

Roman birthing chair and midwife from plaque in Ostia

Mortality rates for women and children in pregnancy and childbirth were high in the ancient world, and from the little that I’ve read, the risk of death was extremely high in ancient Egypt. Many women died in pregnancy and childbirth, and infants who were born often did not survive the first few months.

Once a child was born, there was usually a ceremony for the naming and blessing of the child.

Funerary monument of a woman who died in childbirth showing her bidding farewell to her husband, mother and nurse who will care for her child

Funerary monument of a woman who died in childbirth showing her bidding farewell to her husband, mother and nurse who will care for her child

I could not find information on the specifics of an Egyptian ceremony (Egyptology is not my area of expertise), but I have read that water and ritual washing may have been a part of such a ceremony for newborns since water played a large part in Egyptian religious rituals. Perhaps my Egyptologist friends out there can shed some light on this subject?

In ancient Greece, on the fifth or seventh day after a child was born, there was a purification ceremony and feast called the amphidromia, at which the child received its name. This involved a ritual and an evening feast to which guests brought presents for the child. If a boy was born, the house was decorated on the outside with olive branches. If it was a girl, the outer decoration consisted of garlands of wool.

In ancient Rome, the naming ceremony was called a lustratio, and this took place nine days after the birth of the child. At this, offerings were made to the gods, there was a feast, and the child was introduced to guests.

In chapter twenty-one of my book, Killing the Hydra, I write about a Roman lustratio.

A Roman family making their offerings to the Gods

A family making their offerings to the Gods

Most people today cannot view the successful birth of a child with anything but gladness. And rightly so! It’s a beautiful thing, and most parents are happy when their child is born healthy, no matter if it is a boy or a girl.

However, in the ancient world, views of family and children could be quite different from our own.

It seems that ancient Egyptians were devoted to their families and that they loved their children. This can be seen in the many images that survive of happy families, babies in their mothers’ arms, and children playing.

Egyptian women and children

Egyptian women and children

In ancient Greece and Rome, children were meant to be less visible, and stayed inside with the women. At birth, a Greek father or guardian decided whether to keep a child. In Rome as well, the paterfamilias had the power of life and death over his family members, and this included newborn infants whom the father could deny the right to be reared.

Children could be exposed or killed in ancient Greece and Rome, and had no place in public life.

Practices also differed by place. For instance, in ancient Athens, if a child was kept, it was swaddled, whereas in Sparta children were not swaddled at all, presumably to start toughening them up, or cull the weak.

It certainly seems harsh to our modern sensibilities, but the truth is that if a child managed to survive birth, decisions about their usefulness and whether to keep them were more often based on the sex, the number of children the family already had, ability to provide for that child, the future need for a dowry, and general health.

Children's toys from ancient Greece

Children’s toys from ancient Greece

It’s odd, but most of the time, I tend to think that the past was much more exciting and interesting, more beautiful than our chaotic, modern society. I think most historians feel they were born in the wrong age!

But when I read about things like pregnancy, health, childbirth, and children in the ancient world, it makes me grateful we live in the age we do.

It’s not perfect by any stretch, but as far as childbirth, I would give that part of the ancient everyday a miss.

Statues of children from the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, Attica, site of an ancient orphanage

Statues of children from the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, Attica, site of an ancient orphanage

And let’s not think that all children in ancient Greece and Rome were treated badly. It is my hope that, despite the social mores of those sometimes harsher societies, Nature instilled in the mother and father of most children a love and need to care for their offspring that is timeless and powerful.

As ever, thanks for reading!

Aphrodite and Anchises with baby Aeneas

Aphrodite and Anchises with baby Aeneas

Remember! If you haven’t already done so, sign-up for the Eagles and Dragons / Writing the Past newsletter by CLICKING HERE! There are a lot of exciting things coming up this year, and Newsletter subscribers always get some special treatment!

 

 

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Roaming the Past – Documentaries to Fire Your Passion for History

January at the Douz Animal Market, Tunisia

January at the Douz Animal Market, Tunisia

I don’t know about you, but in this post-holiday time of the year I’m feeling a bit down.

This past week, like many I suspect, I went back to my small square-of-a-cubicle at my day job to get on with ‘regular work’.

That’s always tough, and, despite hitting the weights, yoga, meditation, going to see the new Hobbit movie, and all other manner of uplifting activities, fighting those back-to-work doldrums can make you feel like a lone centurion facing down a Parthian cavalry charge.

But, as ever, there is hope and enlightenment to be found in history.

One thing that I’ve always found is that getting lost in your favourite period of history can wipe out the New Year blues and make you feel like you have some reinforcements at your back.

One way in which I do this is to watch ancient and medieval history documentaries. The combination of knowledge, travel log, archaeological discovery, and ancient innovation always fills a void and reignites my passion for history. And the human stories behind the history never fail to make that Parthian cavalry charge feel smaller and more manageable.

Today I wanted to share with you some of my very favourite documentary series to help temper your own version of cubicle-itis, and get you through the next few weeks as we step into the jaws of Winter (at least in the northern hemisphere).

As with all of these shows, much hangs on the presenter.

Remember, we’re dealing with history here, and most people don’t have very fond memories of their school history classes. Documentaries are dynamic school rooms and it all hangs on the teacher/presenter.

I can’t stand it when a television presenter is overly academic, snooty, blustery, or arrogant. The show should always be about the subject matter, not the host’s ego.

And so, the following shows are on my list not only because of the fascinating topics, but also for the quality of the hosts, their respect and passion for the subject matter.

Michael Wood

Michael Wood

Michael Wood

For me, Michael Wood has presented some of the most fascinating documentary series since the late 70s. His In Search of series covers everything from the Myths and Heroes, to the Dark Ages, Anglo-Saxon England, and Shakespeare. However, the most fascinating of this series, for me, and for many archaeologists I know, is the six-part In Search of the Trojan War.

Click here for the direct link.

I highly recommend this series. It’s not just about the Trojan War itself, but the Bronze Age in general. You’ll even learn about the Trojans, the Greeks, and the Hittites!

My absolute favourite Michael Wood documentary, however, is his magnificent series entitled In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.

In this three-part series, we journey with Michael along the entire route taken by Alexander’s army all the way from Macedon and Greece, to Tyre and Egypt, through war zones controlled by the Taliban to the Hindu Kush on into India and back. There are times when Wood was in danger too, but he is intrepid and curious, and you really get a feel for what the journey might have been like, visiting landscapes which few people will ever see in person.

At the time of filming, Wood was unable to visit the battlefield of Gaugamela, but after the second Iraq war, he returned to the area to film a follow-up documentary called Alexander’s Greatest Battle which is also well worth a look.

If you watch any of these videos, and have an interest in Alexander the Great, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great is the one I recommend you watch. Here is the long trailer for it:

Click here for the direct link.

Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes

Bettany Hughes

Next up we have another British historian and broadcaster whose list of documentary credits is just as astounding as Michael Wood’s, perhaps even more varied.

Bettany Hughes has done documentaries on ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and she’s looked at Helen of Troy and Nefertiti, Atlantis, ancient engineering, Democracy, and sex in the ancient world.

She has that passion that is so essential to teaching history, and she doesn’t sugar-coat the past. In fact, she gets down to the nitty-gritty, dirty details, and can tear down with style the romantic images that cloud our view of the past; her documentary Athens: The Dawn of Democracy is one such show.

Bettany seems to have a truly adventurous spirit too, which is great. Just recently she was tweeting out from modern Georgia and the land of Medea and the Golden Fleece where she was shooting for a new show.

My favourite documentary series that I have seen thus far from Bettany is The Spartans. This three-part series provides a fantastic look at the nature of Spartan society, its past glories, and its downfall. You’ll definitely want to see this one!

Click here for the direct link.

Adam Hart Davis

Adam Hart Davis

Adam Hart Davis

Our next presenter is probably the jolliest character of the group. He is a scientist, a historian, a broadcaster, and much much more. If you look at the range of his work, you’ll see that he covers a wide range of topics besides history.

The reason I’ve put Adam Hard Davis on this list is because his BBC series, What the Romans did for Us, is the most interesting documentary series I’ve ever seen that looks at the practical side of the Roman world.

In this series, Adam shows us numerous inventions and innovations to come out of the Empire. And the cool thing is that these are all things that we still use in some way, shape or form today.

Did you know that a Roman invented the hamburger? Or that the Romans had invented a fire engine? There are all sorts of wonderful surprises in this fantastic series, hosted by a man who loves what he does and has a child-like curiosity and enthusiasm that is truly contagious. You’ve got to watch this!

Click here for the direct link.

John Romer

John Romer

John Romer

Our next documentarian is British Egyptologist, historian, and author, John Romer.

He has done several shows on the ancient world, but the one that introduced me to him remains, for me, his very best.

Watching Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is a wonder-full journey to these magnificent sites that have captivated the human imagination for ages.

Romer does not give us the usual academic tour of these ancient tourist attractions. Rather he gets up close and personal with the ruins, the landscape, and the people who lived in those places. He mesmerizes the viewer with his poetic admiration of everything about these places.

In this series, Romer looks at the hidden corners surrounding the Seven Wonders. He’ll admire the grand design and architecture, but also the fine details of a hidden relief that decorates a forgotten piece of history.

Some people might think of Romer as melodramatic, but I think he is more passionate than anything. He loves ancient culture, history, and the people who created these timeless monuments.

Click here for the direct link.

Michael Scott

Michael Scott

Michael Scott

This next presenter is relatively new to the history documentary scene compared with those I have mentioned above, but when I first saw one of his shows, I knew he would be an ancient history documentarian who would get a whole new generation of students interested in history.

Michael Scott’s style is cool and interested. He is very knowledgeable, and has great passion for the subject matter he is talking about. Definitely not your typical, dry academic!

His most recent series is called Roman Britain from the Air, which began airing last month. I haven’t seen that yet, but I’m looking forward to checking it out.

Most of his documentaries are about ancient Greece, however, and the one that I wanted to mention here is his three-part series Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth.

This show was a bit of an eye opener for me. Not having studied ancient Greek theatre, it came as something of a surprise that ancient Greek drama was so closely linked to the birth of Democracy, and that it played such an essential, pivotal role in ancient Greek society.

If you want to learn a lot about ancient Greece, in a fascinating and entertaining way, you should definitely watch Michael Scott’s series. After watching this, you’ll want to get yourself on a plane to Greece as soon as you can!

Click here for the direct link.

Richard Harris

Richard Harris

Richard Harris

Wait! Richard Harris, the actor? Yes.

My last entry here is not an academic or historian, but he sure was an entertainer, and sometimes larger than life.

One of my primary refuges from the madness of the world is the Arthurian realm, and so I could not offer up this list of blues-chasing documentaries without mentioning my favourite Arthurian documentary.

Many of you may have seen Richard Harris in the first couple of Harry Potter movies as Professor Albus Dumbledore. Personally, I liked him as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the movie Gladiator, and King Richard the Lionheart in the movie Robin and Marian. Actually, Richard Harris rarely ever disappointed in any of his film roles over the years of his magnificent career, including as King Arthur in the film version of the musical Camelot.

The latter was the reason he was chosen to host this single documentary on Britain’s most famous hero.

Arthur: King of the Britons came out not long before Richard Harris’ death in 2002. This is a wonderful documentary of this myth, history and archaeological discoveries surrounding the person of Arthur.

Rather than seeking to tear down or dismiss the theories about an historical Arthur, this documentary looks at the real possibilities and evidence for the existence of Arthur. This is not about late medieval knights in shining armour.

This documentary is about the search for the person who may have been the historical Arthur, the Romano-British warlord who held off the Saxons for a brief time in the early sixth century A.D.

What I love about this documentary are the visits to Tintagel Castle, and South Cadbury Castle, as well as the digital recreations of these and other sites. It gives a magnificent perspective of them, and the latest research at the time.

If you missed my post on South Cadbury Castle, click HERE to check it out.

As I mentioned in that post, I had been working as an archaeologist on the dig there, which happened to be during the time of the filming of Arthur: King of the Britons!

Unfortunately (well, sort of unfortunately), I was in Greece when the film crew and Richard Harris showed up at the site. So, I missed meeting the great actor himself – and my dig mates made sure to tell me! However, you can see my dig director, Richard Tabor, on the video, which is pretty cool.

Richard Harris is legend, and so what better actor than one who has played Arthur, to present this documentary. He is cool, captivating, and powerful as he tries to unravel the mythical Arthur, and bring us face-to-face with the Arthur of history.

Click here for the direct link.

 

So there you have it, a selection of magnificent history documentaries, presented by engaging and knowledgeable hosts, to get you through the winter months.

Let us know in the comments if you do watch some, and which ones you enjoy.

Also, if you have any of your favourite documentaries or hosts you would like to share with everyone here, please do tell us in the comments.

Cheers and thank you for reading!

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