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Ambushers Ambushed

An excerpt from the first chapter of my NaNoWriMo project. The scene comes at a point in the story where the fortunes of the Hegemony of Andivel are beginning to turn favorable because of Queen Viarraluca’s just and competent rule. For years they’ve been losing ground to the barbarian tribes who inhabit the Vedrian Mountains that form the northern border of the hegemony. By deploying more and better-trained soldiers to protect the northern trade routes, farms, and townships, they’re able to better deal with the barbarian raiders, retaking much of their former territory and resecuring their northern borders.

The following scene shows a barbarian ambush on a trade caravan along one of the northern roads. It’s one of the clearest earlier looks at the barbarians themselves, the kind of tactics and weapons being used, as well as the barbarian attitudes toward the Tollesian peoples.

* * *

Huntress Bedra and the other bow-warriors of the Benori tribe crouched in the brush on the north side of the Tollesian roadway as the merchant caravan rumbled into view. The caravan was bigger than they’d anticipated, but with the element of surprise, they should still make short work of the merchants and guards. And a bigger convoy meant better loot distribution. This would be a quick, bloody ambush—a massacre, really.

Those idiots in the Averci tribe were still doing small-time raids on small farms and lost caravans, but with the increased presence of Tollesian soldiers on the roads, raiding in thirty- to fifty-man parties was becoming less and less safe. She’d heard that another band of Averci warriors had been driven off just this morning—once again by those fucking cavalry soldiers.

What manner of cowards pranced about on horses in battle, anyway? A true warrior kept her feet firmly on the ground.

No, raiding bigger targets with a larger war party was becoming the smarter and more effective solution—give the Tollesians too many warriors for their patrols to deal with and force them to retreat. Nearly thirty of her fellow bow-warriors and over fifty shield-warriors crouched in the tall grass and brush on either side of the road, waiting for their war leader’s signal to attack. The footmen carried spears to defend against any cavalry that might show up, while the hunters bore longbows with bone- or obsidian-tipped arrows. Bone and obsidian had fairly poor armor penetration, but her tribe preferred to save their bronze and iron arrows for the fucking hoplites.

Bedra had taken on the role of huntress after the death of her husband during the Tollesian’s previous campaign into the lowlands. Considered “tainted” or “jinxed” by her tribesmen, she had found herself unable to remarry because her previous three pregnancies had miscarried. With two surviving children to feed, she had taken to hunting to support her family. After demonstrating her archery prowess, several of the other bow-warriors had invited her on her first raid the previous summer.

The huntress counted about fifty guardsmen as well as a couple dozen merchants, workers, and slaves. Seven wagons in total, all of them covered. The guards carried small shields and spears, short swords, or clubs; maybe a dozen had armor. Bedra spotted a young slave girl who might make a pretty gift for her son. She was sure that the others were sizing the loot up as well.

When the wagons were directly between the two parties of raiders, their war leader stood and blared his hunting horn, signaling the war party to attack. Bedra and her fellow hunters leapt to their feet, letting fly a volley of arrows on the unarmored guards. The guards shouted and retreated back to what little cover the wagons provided, trying to protect their heads with their wussy shields. Bedra grinned as one of her arrows snagged a guardsman in the guts.

With that, the spearmen came charging from the brush, trapping the guardsmen against the wagons. The guards had plenty of brawl in them, but none fought like soldiers and clearly had never fought against true Gannic warriors. The merchants and slaves all took cover amid the wagons, and Bedra was about to notch up another victory over the Tollesian cowards.

Then the whole ambush went straight to hell.

A man in Tollesian officer’s armor stood up from one of the wagons and blasted three notes on a war horn. At the signal, the covers flew off of four of the wagons and soldiers came pouring over the sides. Each wagon carried a dozen of those fucking hoplites and a half-dozen archers. The hoplites leapt into the fray and engaged the spearmen, while the archers crouched in the wagons, exchanging arrows with the Gannic hunters. Even more frustratingly, the archers all wore those linen cuirasses; the hunters wore only wool tunics.

Though still technically outnumbered, the armored hoplites tore mercilessly into the startled spear-warriors. Swords flashed and warriors fell, with but a few injuries among the Tollesians. Bedra could only assume that the same scene was unfolding on the other side of the wagons.

A mere fifteen yards in front of her, the hoplite line hacked through the Benori spearmen, sending the survivors scattering. As the lines broke, the hunters turned to flee as well. Bedra fired a single arrow at the nearest hoplite, but it bounced harmlessly off the bronze scales stamped into his cuirass. The huntress turned with the others and ran toward the trees a quarter mile off. As she ran, however, she saw how futile the effort was. A dozen Tollesian horsemen charged in from the east, cutting off the fleeing hunters.

The horsemen lobbed their javelins into the trapped barbarians, then lay into them with sword and spear. Bedra let fly one arrow into a horse’s flank, causing it to stumble and throwing the rider. Another horse bowled the huntress over before she could react, but thankfully not trampling her. A hoplite put a knee in the middle of her back before she could rise, then forcibly tied her hands behind her. She cried out as the Tollesian jerked her to her feet.

How had they done this? Bedra wept to herself as the bastards led her away. Her tribe had been so successful in their raids the past two years, but the fucking Tollesians had just ambushed their ambushers. What had happened? What had changed?


First Empress: Map of the Vestic Sea


(Click map for a more detailed view)

This is a map I drew up of the northwest corner of Vestic Sea, the region where most of the story takes place in my novel-in-progress, First Empress. As the story is based heavily on my studies of Ancient Greek history, I very deliberately gave the Vestic Sea a Mediterranean climate and gave the land masses a mountainous, Grecian topography. While there are only a few dozen islands visible on the map, much of the sea is dotted with islets of various sizes and shapes, making cracking down on piracy a virtual impossibility given the story’s Iron-Age technology. There are thousands of villages, towns, and cities spread across the island and mainland; the cities displayed on the map are just ones I have plans for in the story so far.

Also like in Ancient Greece, the political climate between various cities and hegemonies amounts to a veritable viper pit. Often a city will declare war on another for no other reason than a perceived weakness on the other city’s part. Alliances are fluid and borders fluctuate constantly. The colors on the map depict the political boundaries of the three main alliances at the start of the story. These borders will change as the story progresses. The Tollesian cities (based on the Greeks) are largely on the coast and flatter regions where trade and agriculture are easier to conduct. The mountains are largely inhabited by tribes of the Gan (based heavily on the ancient Celts). When not at war with each other, the Gannic peoples will often raid Tollesian farms, trade caravans, and settlements. It is not unheard of for several tribes to gang up on and sack Tollesian city-states.

Kel Fimmaril, the home city-state of the title character Queen Viarraluca, is a fairly small island (<5 mi at low tide), and not particularly significant geographically or politically. Though once a marginally important trade hub, the island’s economy has been fairly hamstrung over the past decade by increased pirate incursions on the local sea lanes.

Andivel is the hegemonic power closest to Kel Fimmaril, and a distant third, strength-wise, on this part of the Vestic Sea. Though it’s alliances once stretched as far north as Gillespar and Illis and as far west as Ryllar, Andivel’s strength has waned over the past decade. The most devastating blow came three years previous, after the hegemony borrowed massive amounts of gold from the city of Pellastor in order to fund a pair of campaigns against the Gannic tribes from the Vedrian Mountains. Unfortunately, these campaigns resulted in stalemates, and no spoils come from tying the battle. Thus a crippling amount of Andivel’s income goes to repaying those debts. Andivel’s once-glorious armies are now employed in the bullying, extortion, and invasion of weaker city-states in effort to repay the hegemony’s debts. Meanwhile, the Vedrian tribes have discovered that the Tollesian cities are not as strong as they once were, and have become increasingly bold in their raids—though not strong enough to best the Tollesian armies in the field… yet. With Andivel’s military spending crippled by debt payment, however, many of their citizens and remaining allies worry about the future stability of the hegemony.

Pellastor is the predominant imperial power on the northern Vestic Sea, with a strong military tradition backed by a powerful maritime economy. Their armies and navies are the largest and best-trained to be found in this part of the world. Their capital city is a wonder to behold, with grand temples, theaters, universities, and agoras to delight the eye of the bemused visitor. The hegemony is made up largely of coastal and island city-states upon whom they rely to provide trade and taxes as well as ships and soldiers during times of war. Yet their excellent general staff is able to effectively keep together and deploy these armies from diverse and often rival city-states.

Like Pellastor, Illarra is structured around a maritime economy. This economy is supplemented, however, by the funding of corsairs and privateers to raid and pillage the sea lanes and coastal settlements of rival city-states. This piratical harassment has earned the ire of many of Illarra’s neighbors and has frequently led to open war with the city-state of Pellastor and her allies. While Pellastor’s armies and navies are significantly larger and more powerful than Illarra’s, the Illaran Confederation has a history of devious rulers and wily generals. Many an army from Pellastor has found itself pinned in unfavorable terrain by harassment tactics and the cutting of supply routes. Though Pellastor’s commanders are typically able to get their armies out more or less in tact, in recent decades neither city has ever won a deciding victory.

(PS: If anyone can recommend a good, free map-making software, I’d be most appreciative. Thanks and stay awesome!)

Threat levels

A few thoughts from a modern philosopher (not me) on European threat levels in response to Syria.

‘The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent events in Syria and have therefore raised their security level from “Miffed” to “Peeved.” Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to “Irritated” or even “A Bit Cross.” The English have not been “A Bit Cross” since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from “Tiresome” to “A Bloody Nuisance.” The last time the British issued a “Bloody Nuisance” warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.

‘The Scots have raised their threat level from “Pissed Off” to “Let’s get the Bastards.” They don’t have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

‘The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from “Run” to “Hide.” The only two higher levels in France are “Collaborate” and “Surrender.” The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France ‘s white flag factory, effectively paralysing the country’s military capability.

‘Italy has increased the alert level from “Shout Loudly and Excitedly” to “Elaborate Military Posturing.” Two more levels remain: “Ineffective Combat Operations” and “Change Sides.”

‘The Germans have increased their alert state from “Disdainful Arrogance” to “Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs.” They also have two higher levels: “Invade a Neighbour” and “Lose.”

‘Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual; the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels.

‘The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

‘Australia, meanwhile, has raised its security level from “No worries” to “She’ll be alright, Mate.” Two more escalation levels remain: “Crikey! I think we’ll need to cancel the barbie this weekend!” and “The barbie is cancelled.” So far no situation has ever warranted use of the last final escalation level.’

— John Cleese – British writer, actor and tall person.

(Author’s note: To me, the funniest part is that these threat levels are far more descriptive and comprehensive than the United States’ color system.)

Across the Peloponnese


A while back, mostly for the heck of it, I was browsing just to see what kinds of modifications people had designed for games that I own. One of the best-looking I found was a Peloponnesian War mod for Battle for Middle-Earth II, of all games. I downloaded what they had and was really impressed with what they’d done, but I was disappointed at how little they’d done. Only the Spartans had been completed as a playable team. It was a beautiful mod, but it never made it to Beta because of apparent personnel conflicts with the designers. I remember laughing while reading the comments on the mod and seeing the debates about Sparta versus Athens. The most hilarious part was that the Spartan supporters, on the whole, were clearly the less educated and had the most misspellings and the poorest grammar, while the Athens side, again, on the whole, were clearly the more literate and articulate. While I’m sure it was a case of morons who thought 300 was an awesome movie versus people who actually study history, it was kind of a refreshing metaphor for the two main cities in the conflict itself.

But the fact that the debate was going on at all amused me to no end.

I always root for Athens when I read Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. I mean, I know that [Spoiler Alert] Athens loses in the end, but I dislike everything the Spartans stood for and tend only to root for them when against Darius (much the way I only root for the Jets when they play the Patriots). And I agree with many historians that Athens could likely have prevailed had they not gotten spanked so badly in that ill-advised siege against Syracuse. (F***ing Alcibiades. I hope when the rat-bastard got to Hades, his punishment was an eternity being beaten with a bicycle chain by Pericles. I don’t care that bicycles didn’t exist back then.) I’ve studied the aftermath of the war and know a bit about the Spartan misrule of Greece following the fall of Athens’s empire. Makes it easy to root for Philip of Macedon when he takes over a couple generations later.

Recently, my excitement about the upcoming release of Total War: Rome II has been tempered somewhat by the announcement that they’re releasing Sparta as a playable faction in one of the DLC. My trouble is that since, historically speaking, Sparta hadn’t been a power-player for over 200 years leading up to the rise of the SPQR, releasing Sparta as a faction is a bald-faced attempt to pander to the masses of wankers who think they know everything about Ancient Greece just because they watched 300 once for every Spartan.

As I discussed in a previous post, when studying Ancient Greece, it’s important to keep in mind that the Greeks didn’t have a concept of “good versus evil”—at least not as we think of it. Our concept of “good and evil” is a modern evolution of the Judeo-Christian concepts of moral correctness. It continues to surprise me how many people don’t get that these concepts are newer and less universal than they realize. During Ancient Greek times, Christianity didn’t exist and Judaism was only practiced by this little, backwater kingdom bordering on Ancient Phoenicia. (I’m always amazed at how many people ignore the time frame on this.)

The closest the Greeks had to a concept of “good versus evil” was actually much closer to “order versus chaos.” Orderliness, civilization, intellectualism—Greek-ness (Hellenism)—were all valued as “good” by the Greeks, while disorderliness, brutishness, emotionalism—barbarism—were all considered “bad” (not necessarily “evil”). What intrigues me is that one of the key cultural conflicts between the Spartans and Athenians was their respective definitions of the concept of “order.” The Spartans saw order as being achieved through military might and physical prowess. To them, the Athenians were of the foppish persuasion, pursuing frivolous intellectual activities. Meanwhile, the Athenians saw order as being achieved through intellectual pursuits, such as law and philosophy. To them, the Spartans were brutes and thugs—the jocks of the ancient world, really—a city of meat-heads with a lot of muscle and a certain predatory cunning, but no real ability to rationalize.

Honestly, I agree with the Athenians.

If one takes the time to pick apart the battle of Thermopylae, it’s not hard to realize that Sparta’s presence in the fight was fairly unnecessary. Firstly, there were more than just Leonidas’s three hundred Spartans present. According to Herodotus, there were well over 5,000 Greeks present at the battle (though other sources suggest a higher number. And even on the third day when they discovered they’d been outflanked and most of the army retreated, around 1,100 soldiers from Thespiae and Thebes stayed to defend the pass to the death.

Secondly, a smaller army using a bottleneck to stop a larger army was hardly a new and original tactic even in Leonidas’s day. The Greeks had been clogging their mountain passes with spearmen for centuries, and I rather doubt they were the first to try it. Additionally, I doubt that Persia had never encountered such a tactic before. I don’t have the extensive research that other historians have, but I suspect that the true problem lay in the fact that the Persians were used to unclogging bottlenecks by raining curtains of arrow fire upon the defenders. Against eastern spearmen, this would have worked perfectly, as they generally had no armor and only weak shields. Because the Greek hoplites had heavy shields and as good of armor as existed at the time, the arrows were thus rendered useless. I posit that any group of hoplites could have held that pass against the Persian army.

I think it’s also important to realize that the entire defense could have come crashing down much sooner had it not been for the intervention of Themistocles and the Athenian navy. Had the Persians managed to move their navy behind the Greek lines to disembark troops, they could have surrounded the defenders and overwhelmed them on the first day. Had Themistocles (who was far more BAMF in his way than Leonidas could have hoped to be) and his fleet not held the Persians off for those three days, there would have been no Athens, no Sparta, and no Greece. Democracy would have suffered sudden-infant-death syndrome and the foundation of western culture and history would never have come to be.

So anyway, rant over. Go Athens.


Further reading:
The Histories, by Herodotus
The Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, Thomas Cahill

Book Review: Roman Conquests, Macedonia and Greece

Using a Barnes and Noble gift card I got for Christmas, several weeks ago I ordered Philip Matyszak’s Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece, published in 2009. I finished reading Friday afternoon and decided to type up a quick review for the blog and for anyone interested in the history. Doctor Matyszak ranks among my favorite contemporary historians on Ancient Greece and Rome (perhaps second only to Adrian Goldsworthy) and is author of such texts as Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day and Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s (Unofficial) Manual. I’ve long been curious about the Roman conquest of Greece and Macedonia if for no other reason than that these are so often glossed over in comparison to other Roman conquests like Carthage, Gaul, and Britannia. While I’ve read bits and pieces of these campaigns in Plutarch and Livy, as well as modern historians such as Goldsworthy, this is the first volume I’ve encountered that dealt specifically and solely with the wars against Macedon and the more classical Greek city-states.


Image courtesy Creative Assembly’s Rome: Total War

One trait I genuinely appreciate in Matyszak’s writing, in this book as well as his previous texts I’ve read, is that he has a very effective style of narration. It has the feel of someone telling a story, rather than some formal, academic style. He writes like someone who wants to create interest in his topic, rather than some academic who is writing strictly for an academic audience. The language is relaxed and accessible, making it easy to follow for folks outside the history field. In addition, Doctor Matyszak isn’t afraid to make light of the historical figures, cultures, or fighting styles with occasional pithy comments, observations, and comparisons. More than once he calls out various generals and statesmen on both sides of the conflict for treachery, miscommunications, bad decisions, or plain incompetence. He early on refers to Greek politics as a “snake pit” and gives constant examples throughout the book to reinforce the analogy. Indeed, the deliciously underhanded infighting amongst the many factions involved in this conflict was likely my favorite aspect of the book. Back-biting political f***ery at it’s finest.

In terms of scholarship, I greatly appreciate Doctor Matyszak’s fairly neutral stance on the right and wrong of these Roman conquests. At no point does he attempt to justify the battles, death, and conquest in terms of pro- or anti-imperialist sentiment as so many scholars have done since Edward Gibbon. Nor does Matyszak attempt to impose the framework of modern, Judeo-Christian morality upon a people who existed before Christianity. When he does explain possible reasons for the brutal actions of the Romans or Macedonians, he does so on their terms. Yes, the Romans were a brutal people. But it was a brutal reality in which they existed. Yes, the took slaves. Yes, they murdered surrendering soldiers. Yes, they burned cities and killed innocents. But guess what: so did everyone else for thousands of years before them.

If I have any issue with Macedonia and Greece—and this is entirely a personal preference—I’d have liked to see more maps. The text does include seven maps of the areas of interest within Macedon and Greece at the beginning, as well as a section of full-color visuals in the center. But when reading and researching military campaigns, I prefer to have visuals spread throughout the text, especially maps of the terrain and diagrams of significant battles. Additionally, I’d have liked somewhat more detailed descriptions of some of the battles that Matyszak glossed over in his efforts to focus on the politics and the effects of these battles. But, again, this is more of a preference than an actual objection.

All in all, I found Doctor Matyszak’s book to be well written and well researched. I definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in ancient or military history.

Misrepresented History

HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools. —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

I had someone ask me what it felt like, since I’d turned 30, to know that I’ve officially lived longer than the majority of people from the middle ages. I this struck me as funny since technically I did that when I turned two years old. The statistic that 30 was the average age prior to the Renaissance is probably the most misrepresented stat ever. Technically speaking, the statistic is true, but what it doesn’t take into account is the massive infant mortality rate during ancient times through the middle ages. When as much as two-thirds of a population dies before they get to be even two years old, it tends to skew the bell curve significantly. Just do a quick Google search on any number of medieval or ancient historical figures. Charlemagne and Augustus Caesar lived into their seventies, Alexander the Great died in his thirties, and every text ever written about him assures us that he died young.

A lot of people don’t seem to catch on to that discrepancy.

A better example is the belief that vikings had horns on their helmets. (Because that was such a practical accessory.) I’m not sure where the misrepresentation originated, but I know that it was popularized by Wagnerian operas. (Not that I place any of the blame on Wagner.) And movie producers of the twentieth century grabbed onto this idea and ran with it. I recall one god-awful b/w movie where the viking men get captured by some sorcerer and the viking women have to go rescue them. Not only did the vikes have the lame, horned helms, they were played by a bunch of pretty boys with no facial or chest hair. (I want to say that I saw the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys riff on it.) The trouble was that horns, antlers, wings, etc were a stupid addition to a helmet—useless accessories that would have given their foe leverage to knock off or pull off their helmet. I once made the argument that the most aesthetically accurate portrayal of the vikings might actually be the Riders of Rohan in Two Towers. (A friend of mine argued 13th Warrior, but I haven’t seen it to know if he was being sarcastic or not.)

Another historical misrepresentation that bugs me here in the States is the assumption that the way the Redcoats fought during the American Revolution was obsolete way to fight, that the Brits essentially lost due to incompetence and tactical sterility. The example I think of is Bill Cosby’s standup bit about the coin toss at the beginning of every war, where the colonials win the toss and tell the Brits that they have to “wear bright red and march in a straight line.” What our history courses in this country don’t seem to cover is the fact that the British took over almost half the world using these same tactics, and continued to do so long after their defeat by the colonies. Their formations and command structure were based directly on those perfected by the Romans and then applied to mass-fire situations. And it worked amazingly well, turning battalions of men into walls of concentrated musket fire.

Or the myth that Christopher Columbus had to convince the King and Queen of Spain that the world was round in order to get funding for his expedition to the new world. I remember in grade school being taught that prior to Columbus’s day, pretty much everyone believed the world was flat. This is really kind of a stupid belief because the Earth’s spherical nature gets proven every time a ship sails over the horizon. Ancient and Medieval people may not have been as advanced in some ways as those of Columbus’s time, but they weren’t so stupid as to have not noticed. The discrepancy was actually over how big the world was, not over how it was shaped. The model Columbus was going off of actually measured the world at significantly smaller than it’s actual size. I’ve done research on peoples from many eras of history from many parts of the world; the only ones who I know for certain actually believed the world was flat was Medieval Christian Europe.

One of the things that interests me most about historical studies is how fluid our understanding of it is. New discoveries are constantly being made that change our perceptions of the past. New evidence pops up to discredit long-held beliefs—or to revive beliefs that had long been considered disproven.

Anyway, here is a Youtube video someone showed me while I was working on this that covers a couple of these pet peeves and then some:

Recommended Reading:
Patriots: the Men who Started the American Revolution by A.J. Langguth

“The Original Imperial Stormtroopers”

Let's rock!

Something I found from an old project. I took this screen capture from the Creative Assembly’s Rome: Total War.

Ancient Rome remains my favorite area of study. I have twenty-odd books about the Republic and Empire, both seasons of HBO’s Rome, and five computer strategy games that allow players to build and expand the Roman Empire as they see fit–demonstrating that Rome can be built in a day, or even with just a few clicks of a mouse button. There are so many facets of the people and their history that I find fascinating on many levels. From the early days of the SPQR to the fall of the Western Empire, I continue to regularly study and enjoy the Romans and the stamp they left on three continents.

Years ago, I got to house-sit for my aunt and uncle, with their ginormous entertainment system, during a week when the History Channel was having a week-long series of specials on the Romans. That was a good week for me. I missed the special they did on the Roman navy, unfortunately, but got to see some neat programs about Roman daily life and their numerous marvels of engineering. I particularly loved the specials they had on the Colosseum and the Pantheon. I didn’t care as much for the special on Roman vice–the fact that the Romans may have invented condoms was kind of interesting, but I wasn’t particularly interested in learning about what a bunch of dirty old men some of the emperors were.

But I think the program I enjoyed the most was the special they did on Trajan’s armies during the Dacian Wars. I believe the term the narrator used was the ‘original Imperial Stormtroopers’–which, as a long-time Star Wars fan, tickled me to no end. The legionaries are just fun to study, all around. He kept calling them boots, grunts, and squaddies, which, for me, helped paint a picture of the legionaries as just regular fighting-men, rather than the soulless, ethnocentric butchers that twentieth-century anti-imperialist scholarship tends to portray them as. The program drew other effective comparisons, equating the extensive legionary training with that of the British Special Forces.

I recall one discrepancy from that video that bothered me for several years, however. At one point the narrator stated that the average height of legionaries in Trajan’s army was close to six-feet tall. This baffled me because I remembered from high school history classes that the Romans were a relatively short people. I’d assumed initially that my high school text book was wrong and moved on. A couple years later, I had the opportunity to finally sit down and read Caesar’s Commentaries and was given pause by Julius’s comment that the Gauls called the Romans ‘pigmy soldiers.’ Naturally, I wasn’t dense enough to assume that the Gauls were so monstrously tall that six-feet is ‘pigmy’ to them. Eventually, I figured out that by Trajan’s time a large percentage of the legionaries were Gauls. Thus it made sense that they’d be at least as tall as the Dacian warriors they were fighting.

Contrary to what Edward Gibbon would have readers think, the late-era legionaries were about as bad of dudes as Roman soldiers had ever been, even up to the eventual fall of the Western Empire. (Though that’s hardly the worst of Gibbon’s crimes against history. Eddy-boy needs a good, hard kick to the stones for some of the misinformation he popularized.) And, to be fair, the literary evidence from the late Empire suggests high levels of sloppy barbarism in the frontier legions. The physical evidence, however, suggests differently. Modern archeological excavations, such as camp layouts, equipment remains, and quartermaster records indicate that the legions of the late Empire were just as disciplined, well-trained, and well-equipped as those of Augustus’s time. So, what makes up for the disparity between the literary and archeological evidence? Modern scholars such as Adrian Goldsworthy point out that, while most educated noblemen from Caesar’s era spent time in the legions as officers, by the later days of the Empire, the disconnect between civilians and the military was so great that it was extremely rare for those of the aristocracy to have ever even seen an army camp. Thus to the chroniclers of the late era, knowing virtually nothing of military life and service, these dirty, long-haired, bearded legionaries on the frontiers must have appeared as a devolution from the splendid, polished legions described in the histories from the height of the Empire.

Were the Roman legionaries the baddest warriors in history? Who the hell knows? I think you could make a good argument that they are. But I think good arguments could also be made for the Vikings or the Teutonic Knights or the Cossacks or the Spartans or the Mongols or the Apache. The argument isn’t ‘who would win in a fight between X versus Y?’ but ‘what did X and Y do with the hand history dealt them?’ The Roman legionaries took the hand they were given and used it to conquer the entire world from the Scottish Lowlands in the north to Numidia in the south and from Spain in the west to Syria in the east.

I’d say that counts for a lot.

Recommended reading:
Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars, by Caius Julius Caesar
Legionary: the Roman Soldier’s Unofficial Manual, by Philip Matyszak
In the Name of Rome: the Men Who Won the Roman Empire, by Adrian Goldsworthy
Rome at War: Caesar and his Legacy, by Kate Gilliver, Adrian Goldsworthy, and Michael Whitby
Roman Warfare, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Picking at Movies’ Nits

I used to take great offense to the many film and television productions that don’t stay faithful to their source material–such as books or historical events/people or even previous film renditions of the screenplay. For a long time I was one of those people who felt the need to nitpick every movie I watch that’s based on something else–and to a degree, I think I took a certain amount of pride in being in a position to make such criticisms. Verily, it was like I saw it as my duty to find and point out every time a movie deviated from its source. While I like to think I’ve freed myself from that kind of negativity, even now I occasionally catch myself unconsciously picking nits and have to remind myself to just enjoy the !@#$ing movie.

The Lord of the Rings movies might be the first set of films where their deviations from the source material didn’t really bother me. I felt like, for the most part, Peter Jackson’s omissions were surgical–cutting out a lot of dead weight that would have slowed the pace of the film–and, again for the most part, his additions to the film helped bring out a better understanding of the characters and situation. I felt, for example, that enlarging Arwen’s part in the flick helped gave her character depth and relatability.* (I mean, in the books, she’s just kind of… present–I think she has one line of dialogue in the entire trilogy.) Similarly, the omission of scenes like Tom Bombadil’s forest and the Barrow Downs and Gan-Bury-Gan’s tribe really broke the pace of the story in Tolkien’s books, and I felt, both then and now, that removing them from the films was justifiable.

I believe it was seeing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that did most change of attitude toward accuracy in movies. I went in to the theater expecting it to have little in common with Douglas Adams’s wacky sci-fi series–and thus found myself pleasantly surprised at what they did get right. While Sam Rockwell’s Zaphod Beeblebrox was a bit over-the-top, I enjoyed the movie and wasn’t overly bothered by the many deviations from Adams’s original vision of the story. I thought Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Arthur Dent was hilariously effective, and Warwick Davis and Alan Rickman were awesome as body actor and voice of Marvin the Robot. Plus, this was my first experience with Zooey Deschanel, who is delightful in everything she does. And I wasn’t particularly bothered by the scenes the directors added, as I felt they kept with the overall spirit of the story (and largely were additions Douglas Adams made when he wrote the screenplay).

From a standpoint of events and chronology, HBO’s Rome was only moderately historically accurate. As a lover of Caesar’s Commentaries and an avid reader of Adrian Goldsworthy’s studies, it wasn’t hard to go through and spot the historical deviations. I’m sure this would have bugged me years ago. I mean Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus were rival centurions briefly mentioned in the Commentaries, but the film makes Pullo a legionary, subordinate to Vorenus and makes both of them key figures in the cataclysmic events leading up to the fall of the Roman Republic. Similarly, almost nothing is known about Octavian’s mother, Atia, but in the film she’s a key character and a central, moving force to the events surrounding the civil war, Caesar’s assassination, and Octavian’s rise to Emperor of Rome. But what it lacks in accuracy, I feel it more than makes up for in brutal honesty. It tells tales of people from all levels of Roman society and the dirty, violent reality they lived in. And I feel does so with respect for the characters and their culture and time period. And, unlike many film representations of the ancient Romans, doesn’t carry a bunch of heavy-handed, anti-imperialist undertones.

I’ve discovered that, in general, I tend to enjoy movies better since my change of attitude. I’m sure I enjoyed Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator much more than than I would have had I seen them a few years previous. When The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe came out in 2005, I thought it was delightful and very well done–despite several of my colleagues’ arguments to the contrary. Master and Commander: Far Side of the World, was immeasurably better than the novel Far Side of the World, a god-awful story by the otherwise incredible Patrick O’Brien. I’m one of few people who read the novel Jurassic Park before seeing the film, but find that I don’t like Spielberg’s vision any less than Crichton’s. I haven’t completely forgiven George Lucas, but I think I tend to be less hard on the Star Wars prequels than I used to be. And, now that I think of it, Disney’s animated films are seldom faithful to the stories, novels, fairytales, and folklore they’re based on, but on the whole I enjoy those as well.

This isn’t to say that I’ll tolerate just any such change to a story. There are plenty of films that I’ll likely never see again because of how they deviated from an original storyline. The first movie that comes to mind is the 2004 movie Troy (or Brad Pitt and the Giant Toga Party, as I once heard it called). And while I haven’t seen 300 in it’s entirety, I’ve seen enough to know that I don’t want to see the rest as it’ll just make me mad. The Fantastic Four movies were hardly accurate to the source comics, though that’s hardly the only thing that makes them bad movies.

I feel like so long as the production treats the source with respect and makes the change for reasons beyond making it appeal to modern audiences, it’s a change that I can rationalize. And, honestly, if someone is that bothered by deviations from historical fact, they should probably never read Shakespeare’s many wildly inaccurate historical plays.

*The only issue I had with the way they added Arwen to the LotR films was that they had her replace Glorfindel–easily the most badass of the surviving elves. I mean, dude rode a Balrog down a cliffside in the Silmarillion; I’d like to see Orlando Bloom top that!

Armor Smithery

Corinthian Hoplite

Greek hoplite in Corinthian armor. (Cue the lame 300 references.) This was another I sketched and inked for my godson’s birthday coloring book.

One of my fantasies for some day when I have money is to own a set of armor. Has been for years, really. Back in junior high and high school, a suit of Imperial Stormtrooper armor topped the list–though these days it’s pretty far down there. Lately, historical armor takes up the highest places for kinds of armor I’d go for. Granted, I don’t know what I’d do with a set of armor–it’s not the most pragmatic of investments–but it’d be cool to have.

If I had to pick a set of armor I’d like best, I’d go with Roman Legionary armor. Preferably a set of lorica segmentata from the Trajan and Hadrian eras, but any style Roman armor would do, honestly. A set of hoplite armor could be similarly cool, but I’d rank it a bit lower just because I’d get really tired of morons shouting ‘This is SPARTA!’ when they see me. I think I’d be a bit fussier with hoplite armor, though. While bronze muscle-armor is the popular style for armor recreations, I like the linen cuirass much better. The only downside I find is that I’d have to wear sandals as part of the Greek and Roman costumes, and I don’t really care much for sandals.

Armor from Medieval or Renaissance Europe could be cool as well. If I had to pick an order to go with, I’d say Teutonic Knight, seconded by Knights Hospitaller, and Knights Templar. Chainmail in general is neat–I wore a colleague’s chain shirt in a couple of Medieval drama productions a few years ago and would wear it again given the opportunity, despite it being heavy and uncomfortable. (I found the best way to carry the stuff is to just wear it.) Full or partial plate armor would also be fun. Scale armor is similarly durable and flexible and looks cool. And, to be honest, leather and padded armors were also very common, and offered better protection than most people realize. And I could see any of it being neat to collect and wear or even mix and match.

Perhaps the most practical method, given my limited budget, might be to buy a simple half-sleeve, chainmail shirt and wear it with whatever costume I want. It could go with a tunic and pair of Medieval trousers (or even just a shirt and khakis). Or it could work with a swashbuckler or highwayman ensemble, or some manner of pirate or corsair. Though it might also be hilarious to wear it with a top hat and brass goggles and call it ‘steampunk.’ Or I could wear it with my kilt just as easily.

The Good, the Bad, and the Mythology

I’ve been studying Greek Mythology off and on since about the sixth grade. While I haven’t taken classes on it and only own a few mythology books, these stories remain important to me and led to my interest in Ancient Greek history, which led to my interest in Ancient Roman history. But for much of the time I’ve studied mythology, there was always something that bothered me about modern representations of ancient myths. It was something I couldn’t explain, but it was a trait that all of these representations had in common. From movies to young adult books to computer and video games, there was an inexplicable common thread they all had that I could never pin down, but that bugged me to no end because it made the stories feel wrong.

Several years ago, I finally figured out what was bugging me. It’s the fact that pretty much all of these movies, books, and games were treating these myths as ‘good versus evil’ conflicts. This vexes me because the Ancient Greeks didn’t think in terms of good versus evil–this dichotomy is largely a Judeo/Christian construct. On close analysis, none of the gods were inherently good nor evil. All of them were capable of benevolent acts of compassion and spiteful acts of disproportionate revenge. Even the Titans–who’ve become popular villains in mythology-based computer and video games the past fifteen years–were essentially trying to protect themselves from the threat that the Olympians posed to their rule.

I think the most common modern misrepresentation is when movies make Hades synonymous with Satan (I’m looking at you, Disney…). In truth, of Kronos’s three sons, Hades was probably the least ignoble. Sure, he was kind of a hard-nosed bastard to heroes like Heracles, Theseus, and Orpheus when they entered his realm, but these uppity mortals were trespassing on his turf. Hades’s only truly villainous act, at least that I can find, was his abduction of Demeter’s daughter, Persephone. Yes, it was against her will, certainly, but in the end he was willing to work out a compromise with the surface gods, and, to the best of my knowledge, remained faithful to her ever afterwords. How many maidens were similarly abducted by wise and benevolent Zeus? And how many of these abductees did he bother to protect from the wrath of the ever-vengeful Hera? And yet, Hades is the villain?

Being somewhat naive at the time, I had genuinely high hopes for the movie Troy when it hit theaters in 2004. Homer’s Iliad is one of my favorite pieces of literature, and I was stoked to get to see a large-scale film representation of it. The key reason I love the Iliad is that there were good guys and bad guys on both sides of the conflict. The Trojans and the Achaean Greeks were two hot-headed powerhouses with legitimate grievances against the other. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I don’t recall that Homer tried to establish who was right or wrong in this fight. Highest among the changes that bugged me about Troy was that the Greeks were quite clearly depicted as the bad guys–as being in the wrong. Agamemnon, who was merely power-hungry and had to be talked out of withdrawing in Homer’s version, became genuinely sinister and obsessed with taking the city. Similarly, Homer portrayed Menelaus as being genuinely conflicted over whether or not to kill Helen or take her back, yet the film depicts him as resolute in breaking Helen’s neck. While the duels in Troy were well done and the battle scenes were suitably epic, the film’s constant misrepresentation of the conflict continues to color my opinion of the movie.

I’ve heard arguments that by reducing these stories to good versus evil, modern storytellers are trying to help the myths appeal to modern audiences. My response is duh, what else could they stand to gain from mutating the mythology. My issue is that–on top of disrespecting the storytelling skills of the original authors and the cultures they represented–modern writers, movie makers, etc are missing out on the opportunity to tell far more interesting, nuanced stories about heroic, tragic, ultimately human characters, be they gods or mortals.

Thracian Centaur

Another image I drew for my godson. For this one I took an Angus McBride painting of a Pict on horseback and drew him as a centaur.

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