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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The Legions are marching!
A Dragon among the Eagles – A Novel of the Roman Empire, the prequel book in the Eagles and Dragons series is now out.
To celebrate the release of this action-packed novel, I’m posting a five-part blog series entitled The World of A Dragon among the Eagles.
In this short blog series, I’m going to look at the world in which A Dragon among the Eagles takes place, the Empire itself, the state of the army, Rome’s primary enemies, and the many places of the Middle East where most of the action takes place.
In Part I, we’re setting the scene with a look at the state of the Roman Empire in the year A.D. 197 when this story begins…
The Roman Empire had reached a critical time in its history at the end of the second century A.D., but, despite this, it is a period for which we have very few primary sources.
It is also a period that is often glossed over in fiction and non-fiction today.
That is one of the things that drew me to write the Eagles and Dragons series, that there was/is so little about this supremely fascinating period in the history of the Roman Empire, its people, its geography, and the workings of the great machine that kept it all going, part of which was the army.
A Dragon among the Eagles is the prequel novel to Children of Apollo. It is concerned mainly with the early days of Lucius Metellus Anguis’ enlistment in the imperial legions and his march east in one of the largest invasion forces Rome has ever assembled.
As we know, politics in ancient Rome governed all, and so before we set out on the march, we need to develop a picture of what the Empire looked like in A.D. 197.
Septimius Severus is emperor in the year 197, but he actually came to power in A.D. 193. What he established was a huge military dictatorship, but this in fact provided some much-needed stability after the chaos of Commodus’ reign, and the subsequent murder of his successor, Pertinax, by the corrupt Praetorian Guard, after only three months. The Praetorians then auctioned off the imperial throne to the highest bidder, the rich senator Didius Julianus. The latter ruled for just about sixty-six days.
It was at this time, upon the murder of Pertinax in A.D. 193, that Septimius Severus’ troops proclaimed him emperor. He marched on Rome with his legions and promptly discharged the corrupt Praetorian Guard, banishing them from Rome, on pain of death.
Severus then re-appointed his own, fiercely loyal men of the Danubian legions to the Praetorian Guard. He was quick to consolidate power, but things were not yet meant to go smoothly.
Like any good bit of Roman history, civil war ensued.
Two other claimants to the imperial throne came forward with the support of their troops: Clodius Albinus, Governor of Britannia, and Pescenius Niger whose legions were in Syria.
After a few years of bloody fighting on two fronts, Septimius Severus became the sole emperor of the Roman Empire with his victory over Clodius Albinus at the Battle of Lugdunum in Gaul, early in 197.
After many years of turmoil around the imperial throne, the Empire finally had a strong ruler. But this was now an age for the military, and Severus knew how to treat his troops, granting them pay raises, the right to marry, and much more that made him popular.
However, he was not so popular with the Senate because of his use of the military to seize power. Severus was not to be cowed. He held a series of proscriptions to eliminate those senators who had supported his rivals in the civil war, replacing them with men loyal to him.
Severus was now firmly, and safely, on the imperial throne, set to be the most stable emperor since Marcus Aurelius.
This is also an interesting period in history for the role of women, thanks to Severus’ empress, Julia Domna.
Empress Julia Domna was the first of the ‘Syrian Women’ of the Severan dynasty, and the sources, such as Cassius Dio, seem to suggest that she had an almost equal share in power and decision-making alongside her husband. They were the ultimate power couple.
Julia Domna was said to be highly intelligent, and politically astute. She had a circle of intellectuals from around the world, including philosophers, scientists, and priests who came to talk with her and exchange ideas. It was a sort of ancient Roman salon of great thinkers.
Like all Roman military leaders, Septimius Severus needed a campaign to solidify his claims and busy his troops. Another war against fellow Romans would not do.
So, in A.D. 197, the campaign against Rome’s long-time enemy, Parthia, was set to begin.
We’ll discuss the Parthians in a separate post.
It is important to note however, that in the past many Romans had taken on Parthia and failed. Could Septimius Severus be the one to finally bring the Parthians to their knees?
This is the world in which A Dragon among the Eagles takes place.
A strong emperor is finally in power again. He has numerous loyal legions, and has consolidated his power. He has the love of the Roman people and the troops, if not that of the Senate. And he and his men are itching for a titanic fight.
In the next post on The World of A Dragon among the Eagles, we will be looking at the composition of the imperial Roman legion at this time in history, so stay tuned.
Also, if you have not already done so, be sure to sign-up for the Eagles and Dragons Newsletter so you can be the first to find out about our upcoming releases and special offers.
A Dragon among the Eagles is available from Amazon, Kobo, and very soon from iBooks/iTunes, so be sure to head on over and download your FREE copy today.
Thank you for reading!
This week, I’m pleased to welcome author Glyn Iliffe back on Writing the Past.
It’s been a couple of years since I interviewed Glyn on the old website around the time of the release of the fourth book in his series, The Adventures of Odysseus.
This time, Glyn is back with a special guest post that I know you will find fascinating!
He has just released book five, The Voyage of Odysseus, which I am reading right now and cannot put down.
Homer’s Odyssey is one of the foundational works of western literature, and the story of Odysseus’ journey back home after the Trojan War is one that has fascinated people for ages.
One of the terrifying elements of this story is the hero’s journey into Hades, and that is what Glyn is going to talk about today.
Katabasis – The Descent into Hell
By Glyn Iliffe
According to Benjamin Franklin only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. The latter we can grumble about and try to dodge, but death is a different question. You might say it’s the question. Being aware of the finite nature of our existence is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom and, essentially, makes us human. Death – and what lies beyond it – is the great unknown. The anticipation or fear of it has shaped every culture across the world and throughout time.
To understand the psychology of a culture you need look no further than its art, and a lot of art focuses on death. Enter any Catholic church and you will see depictions of Jesus on the Cross. The tombs of the ancient Egyptians are filled with hieroglyphs illustrating the journey into the afterlife. Indeed, the reason we know so much about our ancestors is because of their obsessions with death, culminating in the desire to take their treasures with them into the next world, or leave monuments to the lives they led before death took them. But the clearest insights into a culture’s views on death come from its stories.
In particular, there is one type of story that appears again and again in the texts of different civilizations from different eras: the descent into Hell. I’m thinking here of a physical journey to the underworld, rather than a symbolic or psychological descent into madness or suffering. Possibly the earliest is Gilgamesh’s visit to Utnapishtim. The Egyptians had the Book of the Dead. The Roman poet Virgil told of Aeneas’s visit to his death father, Anchises; and in the Renaissance Dante’s Divine Comedy describes one of the most memorable and terrifying visions of Hell ever depicted. The most defining katabasis of all, for Western culture, was that of Jesus Christ, who spent three days in Hell after taking mankind’s sins onto himself on the Cross.
The term katabasis comes from the Greek words κατὰ ‘down’ and βαίνω ‘go’, and it is the Greeks we must thank for the most numerous and vivid myths on the subject. In the case of Orpheus, the greatest of all poets and musicians, the journey was undertaken for love. When his wife died after being bitten by a viper, he descended into the Underworld and so charmed Hades and Persephone – King and Queen of the Dead – with his music that they agreed to release her back to him. There was one condition, though: that Orpheus walked ahead of his wife and did not look at her until they had both reached the world of the living. In his anxiety after reaching the upper world, he turned to look at her before she had crossed the threshold of Hades. She disappeared in an instant, and this time it was forever.
A less tragic visitation was made by Heracles, the greatest of all Greek heroes. As a penance for slaying his own family in an episode of madness (induced by the gods, of course), Heracles was forced to serve his weakling cousin, King Eurystheus, for twelve years. Eurystheus set him several labours, the twelfth of which was to capture Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hell. Hades agreed to let Heracles attempt the feat, but only if he fought without weapons. Despite the fearsome nature of the beast, Heracles succeeded and carried Cerberus back to his cousin. Eurystheus was so frightened he agreed to set no more labours if Heracles would take the hound back!
The most famous katabasis features in Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus descends into the Underworld to seek the ghost of Teiresias, who will tell him how to find his way home to Ithaca. There he encounters his dead mother and many of the heroes who died during the Trojan War. Chief among them is Achilles, who in life had been the greatest of all the Greek warriors and covered himself in martial glory. But in Hades he is a mournful phantom, scornful of what he had achieved on the battlefield:
‘…We Argives honoured you as though you were a god: and now, down here, you have great power among the dead. Do not grieve at your death, Achilles.’
‘And do no make light of death, illustrious Odysseus’ he replied, ‘I would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some landless impoverished peasant than be King of all these lifeless dead.’
Odysseus comes away from the Underworld without learning the way back home, which makes the reason for his visit to such a bleak and terrifying place seem pointless. But was it pointless? Indeed, why do some heroes have to descend to Hades? What’s the meaning underlying these myths?
Though later Greeks softened their ideas, in the Bronze Age they believed one thing: that death was followed by an eternity of misery and regret in Hades, relieved only by forgetfulness. Knowing this, many sought the one form of immortality available to them – a reputation that would be honoured from generation to generation. This could only be achieved in battle, by defeating enemies and accumulating honour. This is the driving force for many of the characters in my own novels about the Trojan War.
The katabasis, though, is about symbolic immortality. Importantly, the hero does not reach Hell by the usual route (death). Instead, he seeks to enter the Underworld as a mortal, fulfilling a quest that requires him to take or retrieve something of great worth, such as an object, a person or a piece of knowledge. Interestingly, Odysseus does not return with the knowledge he went in search of, but emerges with something of possibly greater worth: an understanding of the value of life. By achieving his quest the hero proves himself to be exceptional, and by overcoming a figurative death he also becomes more than just mortal. He is reborn into a new life, similar to the Christian baptism ceremony, where the lowering into and rising up again from water is symbolic of death and rebirth.
Such deep themes have inspired many modern retellings of the katabasis. Though the themes are no longer Greek, such stories are still reflective of their own times. Wilfred Owen was an officer in the Manchester Regiment during the Great War. His poetry is full of hell-like visions from the mud and slaughter of trench warfare, but in Strange Meeting there are clear parallels with Odysseus’s descent into Hades:
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
The speaker, like Odysseus with Achilles, tries to comfort the dead man; but like Achilles, the unhappy spirit will have none of it:
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,
The twist comes at the end, where the dead man informs the speaker ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’. Though only a glimpse of a descent into Hell, and one from which we don’t know whether the “hero” returns, Owen nevertheless plays on Homer’s suggestion that death is hollow and empty, and that any kind of life is rich by comparison.
A more recent katabasis appears in Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, in which Lyra enters the Land of the Dead to rescue her best friend, Roger, who has been murdered. This already has echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice, but there are also other allusions to Greek mythology in the Harpies that patrol this terrible underworld, as well as the phantom-like figures of the dead that populate it. But there are heavy Christian references, too. Like Christ, Lyra leads the lost souls to a form of redemption. Through Lyra’s katabasis Pullman tries to offer an atheistic view of what lies beyond death – very different from traditional descents into Hell – but ironically still relies very heavily on Christian beliefs about redemption.
In The Voyage of Odysseus I retell the story of Odysseus’s long and arduous journey home to Ithaca. The previous books in the series have attempted to draw the full story of the Trojan War into one narrative, focussed on Odysseus. As a fan of Greek mythology, it has always been my intention to be faithful to the original myths and make them accessible, regardless of what the reader may or may not already know about the story. And yet it will always be my take. This is particularly true of the scene in which Odysseus enters the Underworld.
I have had a fear of Hell since childhood. This was probably instigated by seeing Hieronymus Bosch paintings, and reinforced in my teenage years by Dennis Wheatley novels. The notion that Hell is not merely a place of suffering, but a place where the relief of light, love and peace do not exist, is even more frightening. I have incorporated these fears in my retelling of Odysseus’s katabasis – as well as my terror of enclosed spaces!
Glyn Iliffe studied English and Classics at Reading University, where he developed a passion for the stories of ancient Greek mythology. Well travelled, Glyn has visited nearly forty countries, trekked in the Himalayas, spent six weeks hitchhiking across North America and had his collarbone broken by a bull in Pamplona. He is married with two daughters and lives in Leicestershire. He is currently working on the concluding book in the series.