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Terror from the North - The Kaskans!

posted Jul 17, 2019, 3:16 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jul 18, 2019, 1:47 AM ]

The Hittite Empire dominated ancient Anatolia for over five centuries. If a neighbouring kingdom attacked, the Hittites crushed the offending state and made them vassals. When the great contemporary empires of Egypt or Assyria encroached, the Hittites called upon their mighty army and the subjugated vassals and marched to war - usually sending Pharaoh or the Kings of Ashur home, humbled. But there was one danger that came not in the form of a rival empire or a plucky kingdom. This threat was constant and simply could not be crushed or envassalled.

The Kaskans - also known as the Kaska, Gagsa and Kaskia - were a Bronze Age people indigenous to northern Turkey. Hardy and ferocious, they lived in the Pontic Mountains (or 'The Soaring Mountains' in Empires of Bronze), a long and rocky sierra overlooking the Hittite heartlands. They had no king as such, but they were populous and grouped in twelve tribes (possibly more), each living in a ramshackle wooden settlement where they alternated between farming pigs and descending into the Hittite lands to rob, raze and loot. Whenever the Hittite Labarna tried to tackle them, they would melt away into their mountain retreats again. Then, when the Labarna and his imperial armies were absent on campaigns far from the heartlands, they would raid across Hittite lands all over again. 

Left: The lay of the land - The 'Soaring Mountains' (modern-day Pontic range), home of the Kaskans, with the 'Lost North' above and the Hittite fortification chain below.
Centre: One depiction of the Kaskan mountain warriors - bearded and brutal!
Right: The mountains which served as their homes and their defences.

Around 1400 BC, the Kaskans descended from their mountain homes and overran the Hittite territories lying north of the range, all the way to the Upper Sea (modern Black Sea) coast, toppling the sacred Hittite cities of Nerik, Zalpa and Hakmis along the way.
With that northern land lost, the Hittite Kings built a 
chain of forts and towers along the mountain range's southern edge to contain this Kaskan uprising. Yet it was only partially effective - Kaskan raiding parties broke through the defences multiple times, bringing fire and fury upon the Hittite heartlands.

Small-medium scale raids were doubtless costly and troubling, but on the rare occasions when the many Kaskan tribes set aside their rivalries and united against the Hittites - along with 
support from nearby Hayasa-Azzi and Isuwa peoples - the threat became critical. Indeed, on more than one occasion, these northern hordes swept southwards, all the way to the Hittite capital of Hattusa, burning the city to the ground. More than once the Hittite throne had to be relocated further the south for fear of the Kaskan threat.

Over the years of constant struggle, the Hittites learned that the Kaskans would never be conquered. However, around 1300 BC, Hattusilis III (our Prince Hattu in Empires of Bronze) did manage to reclaim the 'lost north', and also pioneered the enlistment of Kaskan troops into the Hittite Army - something that must have helped relations between the two peoples.

Still, it must have been a truly tense co-existence, I'm sure you'll agree!

Thanks for reading! You can find out much more about the Kaskans and the Hitittes in Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar

A Lost Empire

posted Jun 25, 2019, 2:43 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jun 25, 2019, 3:10 AM ]

An Ancient Monument...

In the 5th century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus - known as "The Father of history" - travelled to western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and ventured into an old rocky canyon known as the Karabel Pass. Here, he set eyes upon an ancient relief carved into the rock high up on pass-side. It depicted a male warrior with a bow, spear and curved sword, crowned with a peaked helm. 

‘With my own shoulders, I won this land,’ reads the inscription below the relief. Herodotus was perplexed for a time: the strange warrior did not look familiar to his well-travelled eye. Eventually, he came to the unsatisfying conclusion that this was an Egyptian creation – carved by a conquering Pharaoh who had marched from the Nile, around the Levant, across Anatolia and all the way to the Aegean coast. Now there were probably plenty of Pharaohs who would have been rather chuffed to have won such far-flung lands... but here's the thing: now we know for sure that it was not Egyptian. It was crafted by a people lost to history for some seven hundred years by Herodotus' time; a people who would remain forgotten for another two millennia afterwards - the Hittites.

Until the early 20th century, we thought of the Hittites as nothing more than a peripheral and insignificant hill tribe living near the biblical Israelites of Canaan. Nobody realised that before this, during the late Bronze Age, they had in fact once been a colossal state, ruling all Anatolia and northern Syria as one of the ancient world's superpowers.

How could such knowledge be lost? Well, the Bronze Age Collapse, as it is known, is thought to have been catastrophic, and only fragmentary evidence remains from that long-ago era. This cataclysm tore down the Hittite Empire amongst several other great powers, and changed the world forever. It is under the dust and rubble of this collapse that memories of the Hittites were buried, evidently lost to Herodotus and men of his era. In more recent history, the Ottoman Sultans sadly chose to ignore the rich history of Anatolia which pre-dated their reign. Thus, the wonders that had gone before were left buried, and the land itself was largely closed to curious archaeologists. 

Strange Ruins...

It was only in the later days of the Ottoman regime that Turkey was opened up to the world. The French archaeologist-adventurer Charles Texier was one of the earliest modern explorers to take advantage of this by venturing across Anatolia’s central plateau. He was searching for the Roman city of Tavium, and so he began to ask the rural folk if there were any ruins nearby that had not been investigated. But the locals instead insisted on telling him about some mysterious ruins in the high, rugged lands east of Ankara - ruins that were not Roman or Greek... but much, much older. Intrigued, he set off at once. 

Upon his arrival, he stopped, confounded, enchanted, his eyes transfixed upon the foundations of a colossal stone city in that bleak, lonely wilderness. The ancient ruins were decorated with more carvings of strange gods and people in that same odd-looking garb from the Karabel Pass relief. But he realised that this was not Egyptian, nor Assyrian, certainly not Roman or Greek. Within the ruins, he found fragments of a hitherto unknown style of cuneiform writing. Little did he know it at the time, but he had just stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries of his time, for this was Hattusa, capital of the lost Hittite Empire.



First: The hills of the lost capital now, and a reconstructed section of the lower town walls. During Hattusa's heyday, the rocky hillsides behind were studded with forts and the city acropolis sat on the highest point.
Second: A reconstruction of the Hititte capital in its pomp.
Third: The ruins of Hattusa's lion Gate during a typically unforgiving Anatolian winter.
Fourth: The Yazilikaya Rock Shrine, just north of Hattusa. Hittite kings and people would make regular ceremonial processions from the city to this sacred site to give offerings to the Gods.

Unearthing the Truth...

Texier's 'discovery' was ground-breaking, but there was still a long way to go before these ruins and the wonders buried underneath could be investigated, interpreted and understood. Here's how it all played out:

  • 1834: Texier makes his discovery of Hattusa
  • 1880: Having examined the peculiar cuneiform Texier brought back, the missionary Wright and Archibald Henry Sayce announced at a Society for Biblical Archaeology meeting that the as-yet undeciphered writing was that of 'the Hittites' - the same people who later occupied parts of biblical Canaan.
    • According to the Book of Genesis, Chapter 10, the Hittites were the descendants of Noah, through Ham, then Canaan, and then Heth. (Pat 87), thus ‘Hethites’ or 'Hittites'.
    • But, as my article Who were the Hittites will show, the people who had once lived in Hattusa were far older and far greater than those biblical descendants.
  • 1905: Hugo Winckler found a huge cache of hidden tablets and fragments of writings at Hattusa. This was more valuable than any treasure of gold or silver.
  • 1916: After a decade of trying, Archibald Sayce and Bedrich Hrozny at last deciphered the cuneiform texts so that we could finally see and understand the chronology and culture of the Hittite people.

Thanks to men like Texier, Sayce, Winckler, Hrozny and their modern counterparts Blasweiler, Bryce and many more, the Hittites are forgotten no more!

Want to know more about the Hittites? Read all about them in Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar

Who Were the Hittites?

posted Jun 20, 2019, 2:02 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jul 17, 2019, 4:51 AM ]

Who were the Hittites (pronounced hit-tights)?

The Hittites: a civilization forgotten to history for so long. So who were they? 

Where do I begin - in their Bronze Age heyday, perhaps? Or... how's about 1986 and in my living room...

I was eight years old and watching ‘Ghostbusters’ - a firm childhood favourite of mine - on VHS. During the movie, Dan Aykroyd claims that the Hittites lived six thousand years ago and worshipped a god named Zuul. I now know that every word of this is utter cobblers. Needless to say, I hope Mr. Aykroyd feels suitably ashamed, both for being historically inaccurate and for wrecking my childhood.

Left: Dan Aykroyd on hearing that he was historically inaccurate. Right: Zuul, equally ashamed.

A few years later in Religious Education classes at school I was taught that the Hittites were a small, insignificant Canaanite tribal people that had lived in the hills of biblical-era Palestine around 900 BC. These days I know that while there were highland tribes known as 'The Hittites' in that region at that time, they were but a thin diaspora - the last whispers of a great lion’s roar that had gone before...

Because, from 1600 BC all the way through to the catastrophic collapse of the Bronze Age around 1200 BC, the Hittites were not a petty hill tribe but a mighty superpower. They dominated most of modern Turkey and northern Syria, possessed a feared military and controlled a ring of vassal states - most notably Troy. They were the rivals of Egypt and Assyria, and a towering presence from whose shade Homer's Greeks must have looked on enviously.

Now I must admit that I first began to grasp the sheer scale of the Hittite civilisation via the most nonacademic of mediums: in my late teens (when I should have been studying for university exams), I played the game, ‘Age of Empires’, to death. In it I controlled the Hittite civilisation in its pomp, raging across the Ancient Near East and obliterating Assyrian and Egyptian armies. Not sure why I felt the need to confess this - I just think the game deserves an honourable mention :)

Watching Ghostbusters hundreds of times, trying not to fall asleep in RE classes and playing computer games probably wasn’t the way to study history, and so the Hittite question remained largely unanswered. Yes, by my uni days I had come to understand that they had been a world superpower. But what did that world of their look like? Their cities, their road, their armies? The lives of individuals - the fears and hopes of the common and the high-born? What did they eat? How did they celebrate? And my usual favourite - what was their most vulgar swear word?

Following university, I trundled through several 'day job' years with not a lot of time for reading history. It was only when I made the transition from day job to writer, I realised that - at last - I had the opportunity to don my time traveller's hat and explore the Hittites and their Bronze Age world in full!

The expedition began in earnest on an atypical, sweltering Scottish June afternoon. I packed a bag with a newly acquired book – Trevor Bryce’s ‘The Kingdom of the Hittites’ – a sandwich and a bottle of cold juice, then took leave of my writing study and set off to the green banks of Tamfourhill (an old Roman site on the Antonine Wall, overlooking the modern Forth & Clyde Canal). I parked myself in the shade under a spreading oak, checked there were no evil spiders hovering about above or behind me, then began to read...


“The Near East in the Late Bronze Age is a complex picture of constantly shifting balances of power amongst the major kingdoms of the region, or expanding and contracting spheres of influence, of rapidly changing allegiances and alliances as Great Kings vied with one another for supremacy over their neighbours. Within this context the kingdom of the Hittites emerged, struggled for survival, triumphed, and fell. ” Bryce, The Kingdom of the Hittites.

The hooks were in! Shivers raced across my skin and hours passed as this long lost world came alive in my mind's eye. I was falling back through the centuries as I read. Forgotten ruins were thrown up, broken walls towering once more. Long dead oracles and priests rose from the mists of eternity to drone strange chants. Colossal armies emerged from the dust to march again. Great Kings shed their tombs to take seat upon their iron* thrones once more. I could smell the barley beer they drank, taste the baked bread, hear the songs rising from the temples, feel the heat of the Anatolian sun and see the glow of the bronzesmith's crucible. Every sense was engaged, at last.

That initial question ‘Who were the Hittites?’ spawned a thousand more (as all good questions do), and so on I went, collecting more texts and papers, scouring the Web, making friends with helpful scholars across the world. Now the Hittite world is not one of shadow. It is golden, enchanting, strange and severe.

*Iron thrones, in the Bronze Age? What?! Yes, it's true: Bronze Age civilizations had not yet worked out how to smelt iron from abundant ore. But they did have precious amounts of it in the form of meteorites, or 'Iron of Heaven' as they called it. What little meteorite iron they did have was used for ceremonial purposes, including the decoration of thrones. But... some say the Hittites were the first to crack the secrets of ore smelting, unlocking a wealth of iron with which they could equip their armies! This opens a delicious and different can of tangential worms, which I will delve into more deeply in a future article.

Tangents aside, here are the key things you need to know about the Hittites (and I'm only scratching the surface here):

Where was the Hittite Empire? 

In the Bronze Age, the Near East was the hub of the world. Four great powers held sway in this region: Egypt, Assyria, Ahhiyawa (Homer’s Achaean Greece)… and the Hittites!

The Hittite Empire centred on the heartlands of mid-Anatolia (modern Turkey). Their choice of this terrain drew sneers from their rivals - for in comparison to the fertile lands of the Nile and Assyrian Mesopotamia, it was a rocky, barren and windswept upland, far from the trade roads. Outwith the heartlands lay a ring of vassal states – Wilusa (with its capital, Troy), Arzawa, Lukka, Pala, Tarhuntassa, the Seha River Land and more. In Syria, the Hittites also held sway with a pair of crucial bulwark viceroyalties, Gargamis and Halpa (Aleppo), and more loyal vassal kingdoms such as the trade-capital of Ugarit, Amurru and the desert lands of Nuhashi. 

The Great Powers of the Late Bronze Age (circa 1300 BC). Click image to enlarge.

The city of Hattusa was the Hittite capital, situated around one hundred miles east of modern Turkey's capital, Ankara. It was built upon a rocky mountainside some 1,200 meters (nearly 4,000 feet) above sea level. Reconstructions and remains show that the Hittites were fine architects and that they understood thoroughly the art of fortification. 

Left: the Hittite capital city of Hattusa in its pomp, as seen from the south, looking north. 
Hattusa as seen from the west, looking east (illustration courtesy of Simon Walpole). 
Left: A modern and on-site reconstruction of a section of Hattusa's lower town walls. Note the distinctive pale loam mud-brick upper sections and the rounded triangular merlons.
One of Hattusa's silent, spooky postern tunnels, which permeated the lower stony sections of the city walls at regular intervals. Through these, defenders could pour out to assault enemy besiegers, or countryfolk could flee inside the city and to safety.

When did the Hittites rule? 

The Hittite Empire spanned the Middle and Late Bronze Age. It rose sometime in the 17th century BC and crumbled as the Bronze Age itself came to a catastrophic end in the late 13th and 12th centuries BC (in other words, 1600-ish-1200-ish). Historians now recognise three distinct periods within this timespan: an embryonic Hittite ‘Old Kingdom’, a period of decline known as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and an era of resurgence, apogee and the abrupt end known as the ‘New Kingdom’.

What does 'Hittite' mean? 

This is a tricky one to answer - so bear with me! Essentially, it is something of an etymological anachronism - similar to the way we refer to the 'Byzantine Empire', when in fact the people of 'Byzantium' considered themselves Romans and part of the Roman Empire. 

With the Hittites, it all stems from the Christian Bible and the Hebrew Tanakh. The Tanakh refers to the aforementioned biblical hill tribes of the 9th century B.C. as the enemies of the Israelites and of God. The Book of Genesis, Chapter 10, described these same people as the descendants of Noah, through Ham, then Canaan, and then Heth (so 'Hethites', or 'Hittites'). This post-hoc label has stuck, even though the 'Hittites' themselves - of biblical times and the earlier imperial age, would not have called themselves this. We suspect they might have identified themselves as 'The People of the Land of Hatti', or 'The Nesili' (the people who speak the Nesite language).

Of course, for the purposes of sharp storytelling and accessible research, I and almost every single other author of fiction and fact stick to the concise term 'Hittites'.


The Hittites were an ethnically diverse people. It was the Hatti – the native inhabitants of central Anatolia – who inhabited the heartlands initially. Then, sometime in the 3rd or early 2nd millenium BC, Indo-Europeans  migrated there and supplanted the Hatti as the ruling class. Added to that there were others of native Anatolian stock (Hurrians and other nearby tribes) and Assyrians (thanks to years of trading and collaboration between Assyrian and proto-Hittite peoples). It was the personality-cult of the Hittite King and the ethos of religious inclusiveness which helped bind these people together to forge a common Hittite identity and culture.

Culture & Religion

This was the era of the temple-culture, where civilizations sprung up around great monuments and divine sanctuaries near which they farmed and herded and within which they paid tribute to their gods. The word of their gods and kings was absolute. The Hittite Empire epitomised this in its own peculiar, ascetic way. Every Hittite city across the heartlands sported several temples dedicated to their gods and the Great Storm Temple at Hattusa was the religious centre of the empire. They celebrated harvests and spring rains feverishly with dancers, acrobats and wrestlers leaping to and fro, priests and oracles singing and soldiers performing parade drills. Men and women would carry a bright train of cloth fashioned to look like Illuyanka the evil mythical serpent in a re-enactment of his battle with Tarhunda the Storm God. All while the people watched on, singing and clapping, feasting and drinking foaming pots of barley beer.

The Hittite Empire was known as ‘The Land of a Thousand Gods’, and it’s easy to see why (in fact, the title is probably an understatement!). Their system of deities is perplexing, non-linear and unfamiliar to the modern theological eye. It seems that their chief deities were Tarhunda the Storm God and his spouse Arinniti, Goddess of the Sun. That said, each major city had a storm god, a sun goddess or some specific deity of its own, rapidly expanding the godly ranks. More, the Hittites were not just polytheistic but pantheistic too: they worshipped the ether around them, believing every spring, tree, rock and meadow possessed a spirit. They not only observed absolute religious tolerance but also practiced syncretisation, the custom of integrating foreign gods into their own pantheon. So no schisms and no theological in-fighting (can you imagine!). As mentioned above, this harmony and inclusiveness was surely one reason why the diverse peoples of the Hittite realm shared a common identity.


Left: Tarhunda, Hittite God of the Storm.
Right: The ruins of the colossal Storm Temple in Hattusa

Left: An early Hittite religious sun-disc figurine. 
Right: A rock-carving at an open-air shrine just north of Hattusa. Tarhunda the Storm God walks from the left of the picture on the heads of mountain gods, to join with Arinniti the Sun Goddess, carried on the back of a panther.

As well as many priests and priestesses, the Hittites also employed diviners, snake and bird-watching oracles, and ‘Old Women’ – aged females who would perform religious and semi-‘magical’ rituals, such as:

  • tying bells to the feet of mice and banishing said rodents to the hills in the hope it would carry off sin.
  • placing sheep organs on a sick man’s body in the hope the bloody artefacts might take on his disease.
  • spitting in a sheep’s mouth then killing and burning it to cure marital strife (sheep were probably not Hittite fans, I’m guessing).

Rule, Government & Law

The Hittite empire was ruled by the 'Labarna' - the high king, who would be addressed by his subjects as 'My Sun', and was considered as the direct appointee of the Gods. He also served as high priest of the empire and each year he would travel extensively to preside at festivals in the outlying cities. These personal appearances also helped forge a degree of imperial identity and belonging amongst his diverse subjects.

The Labarna's word was absolute, and he was protected at all times by the Mesedi, an elite corps of royal bodyguards. However, many times throughout the centuries the Labarna was challenged and overthrown - usually murdered - by rivals.

Left: A depiction of the Hittite King - known as 'the Labarna' or 'My Sun' in the 2003 documentary 'Hittites' by Tolga Örnek. Notice the winged sun - a Hittite royal emblem - behind the Labarna.
Right: Guards standing watch outside the Lanarba's acropolis throne room.

A complete (if approximate in places) list of the Hittite Labarnas throughout the lifetime of the empire. Note that the dates are approximate and adhere to the ‘short chronology’ of the Near Eastern Bronze Age.

In terms of territorial government, the Hittite Empire employed a tight control over its 'heartlands' and a loose hegemonic system of control over the neighbouring vassal regions. These vassals weren't subject to Hittite taxes as such, but they were required to visit the Labarna once a year to deliver a tribute of sorts (horses, crop, treasures, ingots of metal or the like). This served to renew their oath of fealty to the Hittite throne. In return, the vassals were granted military protection and favourable trading status. At regular intervals throughout the rest of the year, the Labarna and his Panku - a council of nobles - would sit in session to discuss matters of supply, state and war.

Regarding law, we know from the tablets excavated at Hattusa that the Hittites favoured financial penalty over death or mutilation. Also, slaves had rights and could work their way to freedom (not just rely on a benevolent master to free them). In general, they tried to build a self-policing society and they had a legal code, largely built on precedent, e.g.:

  • if a fire started in your house and burned down your neighbours, you would have to pay a hefty fine (seems fair enough)
  • if a body was found on your land or if your land is nearest to the body, you were guilty of the murder (wait... what?!)
  • if a merchant was robbed in a vassal state, then the vassal state was guilty of the crime. 
They also had some rather wacky and quite upsetting laws: bestiality was punishable by death... unless it was with a horse. And if you served up unclean food for the king or the gods, you’d be forced to eat an unclean meal as punishment – a heaped plate of steaming human excrement and a pint of pee to wash it down. Sorry if this is a lunchtime read for you...


The Hittite King most-likely controlled 10,000-20,000 'native' troops. In times of major conflict, the Labarna could also levy armies from his network of vassals to supplement his core regiments. When gathered en-masse, the Labarna's forces would have been a match for any of the contemporary powers.

The infantry were armed with spears, axes, curved short swords, powerful recurve bows and bronze-tipped arrows. They used rectangular or hourglass shields and wore bronze or leather conical helmets. The infantry were likely most useful in rugged ground or in forested regions, where they could rove towards and pin down bandits or invading armies. But when it came to flat, open ground, they would most likely serve more as a pivot for the chariots - the tanks of the Bronze Age! 

It seems that there was a military academy somewhere close to Hattusa, where young Hittite men were drilled mercilessly to become soldiers, and where horses brought in from the plains of Troy and Lukka were broken and trained to tow the war chariots. In Son of Ishtar I name this military school 'The Fields of Bronze'.

Left: Hittite officers in conversation outside Hattusa's walls (credit to Osprey Publishing for the artwork). 
Middle: Hittite chariots on the battlefield.
Right: The Hittite infantry on the march (credit to Osprey Publishing for the artwork).

So much more

There is so much more I could go into: The land - a diverse geography of expansive grassy plains, mountains, coastal regions, river valleys, and desert. The economy - based mainly on grain, textiles, shepherding, and their expertise in metalworking. The language: they spoke Nesite, an Indo-European language, but communicated with foreign powers using Akkadian - the Bronze Age ambassador's language of choice. And when Hittite words were committed to clay tablets, it was in Cuneiform A Script – a writing system of wedges and dashes. But I think that's enough for now.

Oh, actually - one more thing: their most vulgar swear word? Easy, it's hurkeler - meaning 'one who indulges in deviant sexual practices with animals'. Sorry! :-)

Fancy hurtling back through time and having an adventure in the Hittite era? Well funnily enough, you can, with the first book of my Bronze Age series Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar

Any questions? Get in touch - I'd be delighted to hear from you.

Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar

posted Jun 5, 2019, 2:26 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jun 20, 2019, 1:04 PM ]
Today is a big day, for after nearly four years of being kept under wraps, I can finally unveil my new series. That's right, not just a new book but a whole new series!

The Empires of Bronze series is set in the distant past, long before Rome and Classical Greece, during a time when the world was forged in Bronze. In this age, four mighty powers held sway: the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Ahhiyawans (Homer's Greeks) and... the Hittites!

And it is from the Hittite world that our hero springs. Book 1, Son of Ishtar, follows the birth, childhood and adolescent struggles of Prince Hattu through the unforgiving Hittite world and into their harsh military regime. 

Here's the back cover text to whet your appetite:

Four sons. One throne. A world on the precipice.

1315 BC: Tensions soar between the great powers of the Late Bronze Age. The Hittites stand toe-to-toe with Egypt, Assyria and Mycenaean Ahhiyawa, and war seems inevitable. More, the fierce Kaskan tribes – age-old enemies of the Hittites – amass at the northern borders.

When Prince Hattu is born, it should be a rare joyous moment for all the Hittite people. But when the Goddess Ishtar comes to King Mursili in a dream, she warns that the boy is no blessing, telling of a dark future where he will stain Mursili’s throne with blood and bring destruction upon the world.

Thus, Hattu endures a solitary boyhood in the shadow of his siblings, spurned by his father and shunned by the Hittite people. But when the Kaskans invade, Hattu is drawn into the fray. It is a savage journey in which he strives to show his worth and valour. Yet with his every step, the shadow of Ishtar’s prophecy darkens…

Sounds good? Why not grab a copy? Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar is available in eBook, paperback and audiobook formats.

Try  | Listen! |  Buy  |  Find out more!

Assassin's Creed Odyssey - Festive Prize Draw!

posted Dec 9, 2018, 4:20 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Dec 18, 2018, 2:10 AM ]

Ho, Ho, How's about a signed first edition paperback of Assassin's Creed Odyssey, the novelisation of the hit game?

I've got 3 copies to give away, and I'll sign and dedicate it to you (or to someone you might want to gift it to).
Fancy it? Just fill your email address in the box  opposite and hit 'Enter now!'. 

***Competition closed on 17th Dec 2018***.

That's it. Good luck and have a great festive break!

Legionary Goodie Bag

posted Aug 22, 2018, 10:21 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Dec 9, 2018, 5:19 AM ]

Roll up! Roll up! Free stuff! 

To celebrate the release of Legionary: The Blood Road, I've put together an exclusive goodie bag - and one lucky reader out there can have it all!

What's in the goodie bag?

How do I enter? Just six quick steps:

Entries close on 10th Sept 2018. Good luck!
The goodie bag!

The signed artwork
The trailer vid, complete with the original score

Author Q&A with Nick Brown

posted Aug 21, 2018, 1:49 AM by Gordon Doherty

I'm delighted to host Nick Brown - top author, and easily one of the most helpful and pleasant guys I've met in literary circles - onto my blog today. I was intrigued to hear that he has branched out from his acclaimed historical fiction roots to launch a brand new fantasy novel 'Marik's Way'. So I invited him to do a Q&A session here to find out a little bit more about his new work and his views on writing fiction in general. There's some potentially stellar (pun fully intended) news in here too. Enjoy!

For those who don't know his background: Nick grew up in Norfolk and later studied history at the University of Sussex. In 2000 he embarked on PGCE course at the University of Exeter and began a career as a teacher of humanities and English. After ten years of teaching in England and Poland, he became a full-time writer in 2011 with the publication of The Siege. Since then five more Agent of Rome novels have followed. Nick is married and lives in the fine city of Norwich. 

Now, on with the Q&A...

Gordon: When did you know that you wanted to be an author?
Nick: I had dabbled since childhood but didn’t really take it seriously until after university and in fact I began with screenwriting. My first novel was science fiction and – if I’m honest – probably not very good. In fact, I seem to remember a couple of literary agents telling me exactly that! But it did get me hooked and I eventually focused on historical fiction with what would eventually become Agent of Rome.  

Gordon: What inspired you to write Marik’s Way?
Nick: I hadn’t actually read any fantasy for a few years but then a good friend of mine introduced me to current authors like Joe Abercrombie and Patrick Rothfuss. I suppose it opened my eyes again to the infinite possibilities of fantasy and I liked the idea of writing without the limitations of history or contemporary reality. As with Agent of Rome, I wanted to set up a character with a lot of potential for adventures of various kinds and I eventually settled on the concept of ‘Jack Reacher with a sword’! Marik is a quite conventional hero in some ways but he has a troubled past that drives him on to try and do good. 

Gordon: You are best known for your works of pacy and gripping historical fiction, so how did you find this switch into the fantasy genre?
Nick: The most obvious difference is the freedom I mentioned earlier; the flip side of which is the lack of existing material for the story. It really is a blank slate and of course there is the additional challenge of creating an entirely new environment. Having now worked on dozens of different projects as a freelance writer, I felt reasonably confident in my ‘world-building’ skills so I really just started writing and later ensured that all the detail was integrated and coherent. Having said that, I definitely used some of what I’ve learned about ancient societies to describe an ostensibly fantastical world. It’s actually a fairly gritty, realistic type of fantasy with no dwarves or magic – yet.
Gordon: If you could sell this book in one sentence what would it be?
Nick: At the risk of repeating myself – ‘Jack Reacher with a sword.’

Gordon: What are you up to next? Will we see any more sci-fi from you?
Nick: No immediate plans for any futuristic shorts or novels though I have recently had a script optioned by some Canadian producers and that is very much sci-fi. It’s early days but watch this space. As ever, I’m working on various freelance projects to pay the bills and then there is the small matter of the seventh – and last – Agent of Rome book to finish. 

Gordon: Who is your biggest inspiration? 
Nick: In the fantasy genre, it still has to be J.R.R. Tolkien. In terms of really transporting the reader and conjuring a fully-realised world, he remains the master. Authors like Patrick Rothfuss possess a similar skill but Tolkien was also so brilliant at crafting compelling plots. In terms of writing style, I am a huge fan of Michael Connelly and Robert Harris – both are so dynamic and precise. 

Gordon: Why should readers try Marik’s Way?
Nick: Although it’s a different genre, I believe it features the same elements of action, adventure, mystery and humour that some may know from Agent of Rome. Hopefully, I’ve also managed to create an exciting, convincing new setting for the story to unfold. 

Gordon: Thanks, Nick. It's always really interesting to understand the psyche of a fellow writer - sometimes reassuringly familiar and sometimes horizon-expandingly different. Some really interesting stuff in there! 

The Dogs of War

posted Aug 16, 2018, 9:09 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Dec 9, 2018, 5:27 AM ]

When writing, I aim to provoke within myself the kind of emotions I want my readers to feel. Terror and horror have to be two of the most powerful emotions, and there was one scene in Legionary: The Blood Road that had cold shivers racing across my skin as I typed. Pavo and Sura are on the run, hiding out in the wilds with their Claudian comrades. They think they have given their darkest enemy the slip, and then, one night, this happens...

Pavo peered through the blackness towards the nightmarish scene at the treeline: one of the Claudia sentries watching the dell’s edge now lay on his back, the snow around him black with blood. A nightmarish shape hovered over him on all fours, jerking and shuddering, pulling sinews from his belly. He remembered stories he had been told as a child: of forest demons, of creatures that lived in darkness and feasted on the flesh of men. For a moment, he felt like a helpless boy. He took a half-step forward to see better, to be sure… then stepped on a twig somewhere beneath the snow.

The creature’s head swung round, ears pricked up, staring at Pavo. Pavo stared back, seeing the spiked collar on the thing's neck, the metal plate armour on its huge chest. The creature's lips peeled back in a low growl, fangs wet with saliva and blood. Now he understood what it was: a Molossian hound.

A dozen more prowled into view and padded forward. They were surrounded.

*SHUDDER*, eh?


The Molossian hounds only play a small part in the story, but I thought they merited a little attention here - not least to show that they are more than just the demonic creatures from the scene above. They are actually noble animals with a long and distinguished history.

This ancient and now extinct breed of hound was once bred in southern Europe. Described as having a wide, short muzzle and a heavy dewlap (skin around the neck), they were employed by man long before the days of the Roman Empire - by the Greeks, the Assyrians and probably even by the Bronze Age Sumerians. It was the Molossi - a Greek kingdom founded by King Molossus, allegedly the grandchild of Achilles  - who gave the dogs their name. Molossi lands stretched from north of Mount Pindus to the headwaters of the Thyamis river, on the Greek mainland, opposite Corfu. They adopted and trained the hounds for herding and for fending off cattle thieves or bandits.

Writing during the Roman Republic era, Polybius writes of generals tying pots of Greek fire to the backs of dogs and sending them running - ablaze - at enemy cavalry. They would run under the horses, causing the riders to be thrown. Cunning and extremely cruel in equal measures.


It was probably Marcus Aurelius who first formally employed the breed (known to the Romans as Canis Molossus) in legionary warfare,  often equipping them in protective spiked metal collars and mail armour, and training them to run in attack formations. The Molossus was used to fight tigers, lions, elephants, and men in battle. They were a common participant in the gladiatorial arena too.

*Update* - it seems the Marcus Aurelius link is disputed. Some claim it is perpetuated myth, others are not so sure dogs were ever used by the Romans as anything more than camp watchhounds.
So, I had a hunt around for some source evidence. The ancient texts do not explicitly detail Marcus Aurelius' use of 'War Dogs', but I did find this very interesting section of the Marcus Aurelius column in Rome, a fantastic monument that depicts his Danubian campaigns:

Left: A section of the Marcus Aurelius column in Rome
Right: A close up of... the war dogs in battle (from big pic - top, just left of centre)?

Anyway, moving on...


"Never, with them on guard," says Virgil, "need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief, or onslaught of wolves, or Iberian brigands at your back."

Aristotle mentions them in The History of Animals, praising their bravery and physical superiority.


Later breeding saw the arrival of the Alaunt - so called because they were favoured by the Alani people (who originated on the Eurasian Steppe, but moved westwards into Europe during the Great Migration). Modern mastiffs are probably descended from these large and formidable creatures.

Now, some visual tidbits:

Left: Fragment of a relief from Nineveh circa 7th c BC, showing Molossian hunting hounds and Assyrian warriors.
Centre: A Roman officer holds a Molossus (or a close relative breed) at bay as his army readies for battle.
Right: Just look at how powerfully built this creature is - it must have been an excellent form of security and a deadly opponent!

In the arena: molossians tackle a tiger for the amusement of the crowds.

Read all about it! - in 'The Blood Road'


Animals in the Military, Kistler

De Re Militari, Vegetius

The Marcus Aurelius column, Rome

A Crimson Peace

posted Jul 19, 2018, 2:21 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Dec 9, 2018, 5:29 AM ]

***Warning*** If you haven't yet read Legionary: The Blood Road, there are spoilers ahead (so perhaps bookmark this page to read later if you have still to read the book)

On the 3rd October 382 AD, after nearly six years of battle, treachery and broken oaths, the Eastern Roman Empire and the Goths met - for once with swords sheathed - in a parley tent somewhere in Thracia. At long, long last, peace talks began...

The nature of this peace deal is hotly-debated right to this day, and rightly so - because the end of the Gothic War was effectively the catalyst for many torrid events that would shake Europe for centuries afterwards - the rise of the Visigoths, Alaric, the sack of Rome in 410 AD… the Fall of the West in 476 AD can even be attributed to the seminal talks in 382 AD. So let's look a little more closely at what exactly happened that fateful day...

The Goths (left) and the Romans (middle) were war-weary. Over the six years of the struggle (right), so many had died and to no avail.

How did the peace talks come about?
Did it follow a Gothic capitulation in battle, or was it a pragmatic end to the war agreed by two exhausted sides well-aware that they were locked in an unwinnable struggle? What evidence we have suggests that the empire was now desperate for the war to end by any means necessary. This is evident in the changing tone of the orator Themistius' speeches: in the earlier years of the war he boomed ‘The Goths will quake. Our mighty soldier-emperor will draw every able man together, our miners will bring iron for them and we will slaughter the barbarian!’, only to change tack in 381, preaching instead that ‘It is an emperor’s job to govern, not to fight...' in an effort to manage the expectations of the imperial populace who had witnessed many reverses against the horde. After the talks, Themistius did the classic 'waving fist angrily after the bad man has vanished round the corner' routine, by claiming that during the peace talks, the Goths wept and clung to Emperor Theodosius’ knees, begging for mercy. In truth the Goths were still very potent at the time of the parley, and in any case, Emperor Theodosius was faraway in Constantinople at the time of the meeting, so it is highly unlikely that they were hugging his knees from (unless they had unfeasibly long arms).

Who oversaw these crucial discussions?
We have only sketchy details of those present. It seems that General Saturninus and Richomeres were there on the Roman side. There is no record of a named leader speaking for the Goths. Indeed, the title ‘Iudex’ (judge or dictator) was never again used by any Gothic force. However, we know of two prominent Goths, present in the horde at that time, who would go on to become rather famous in future years: Alaric and Fravitta. Given Alaric’s tender years (he would only have been a young teenager at the time), it is unlikely to have been him. Fravitta would go on to display a very pro-Roman attitude in the years to follow, so it seems more plausible that he could have been the man negotiating for the Goths.

Were all of the Goths represented at the talks, or just some?
We also do not know how far-reaching the deal was: did it encompass every Gothic tribe roaming in imperial territory, or was it a minor treaty agreed with mere splinters of the Gothic number? The fact that the war did not resume afterwards leads me to believe that it covered most of – or at a least a critical mass of – the Goths in Thracia. Of course, we must remember that great numbers of Goths remained north of the Danube, under the Hunnic yoke (and these subjugated tribes would later become the Ostrogoths).

Where did the talks take place?
Much like the Battle of Ad Salices, nobody knows for certain where these talks happened other than that it was somewhere in Thracia. Given that the Goths were 'compelled' to take part in the talks, it seems reasonable to assume that some
feature might have had a part to play, 'penning' them in somewhere. Perhaps they were driven against the slopes of the Haemus Mountain range? Or maybe all the way back to the River Danube, where their old homelands on the northern banks were now overrun with marauding Huns. In The Blood Road, I speculate that they were 'pinned' against the Black Sea coast, somewhere near the ancient town of Dionysopolis. In truth, it doesn't really matter where they met. What really matters is what they agreed to…

What exactly did the Romans and the Goths agree to that day? 
The exact nature of the peace deal is a highly-contentious matter. There are two broad camps in the debate:

Some historians, such as Halsall and Wyman, claim that the peace deal came in the form of a ‘coloni’ arrangement – i.e. a full surrender of the Goths, who went on to become fully integrated Roman citizens, paying taxes and serving in the legions as regular soldiers. Other historians such as Gibbon, Heather, MacDowall and Friel, argue that the peace deal took the form of a ‘foedus’ – i.e. more like a treaty between equals. In this arrangement, the Goths were not full imperial subjects, and were exempt from taxes. Their only obligation was to muster for war when the Roman Emperor called upon them, but not as legions: instead, they would march with their own tribal generals, retaining their own military traditions. More, they were granted Roman lands to farm as their own. Here are Gibbon's words on the matter of what the Goths got out of the deal:

  • “They (the Goths) obtained, the sole possession of the villages and districts assigned for their residence; they still cherished and propagated their native manners and language; asserted... the freedom of their domestic government; and acknowledged the sovereignty of the emperor, without submitting to the inferior jurisdiction of the laws and magistrates of Rome…”
  • “The hereditary chiefs of the tribes and families were still permitted to command their followers in peace and war”
  • “An army of forty thousand Goths was maintained for the perpetual service of the empire of the East; and those haughty troops, who assumed the title of Foederati, or allies, were distinguished by their gold collars, liberal pay, and licentious privileges”
  • “Their (the Goth farmers') future industry was encouraged by an exemption from tribute, during a certain term of years”

If true, this was a watershed moment – the first time in the empire’s history that it had settled an entire people within its borders and allowed them almost complete autonomy. 

This second theory is certainly more compelling from the storyteller’s point of view, but that alone is not what guides me to favour this option. Surely the empire – having suffered defeat after defeat to the horde since the Battle of Adrianople – would have been under huge pressure to agree peace, even at a high cost? The 4th century AD Bishop Synesius writes that the post-382 AD Goths settled in Thracia were 'brought up differently, in an un-Roman fashion'. Pacatus, the Latin panegyrist, describes how the Goths of fighting age were mobilised en-masse as opposed to being stationed in barracks like regular legions. Heather explains how Gothic bands were attested as serving in subsequent campaigns, but were not listed in the Notitia Dignitatum (a collection of sources detailing the imperial regiments of the later 4th century AD), which further suggests they were mustered and disbanded as and when needed when the emperor called upon them. Halsall – firmly in the ‘coloni’ camp – even concedes that there were irregularities about the Gothic terms and that they might not have been required to pay taxes 'in the normal way'. 
In the Legionary series, I firmly plump for the foedus theory. 

Whether you agree with my take on this matter or not, it is indisputable that the Goths settled under this peace deal retained enough of their identity and culture to become, over time, the Visigoths. The rest, as they say, is history...

Timeline of the Gothic War

posted Jul 15, 2018, 4:41 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Dec 9, 2018, 5:30 AM ]

The Gothic War - a brutal struggle between the Eastern Roman Empire and an entire people fighting for their very existence. The timeline below charts the key 'beats' to this historic war: the rise and fall of emperors, the chaos of battle and the journey of the XI Claudia through it all...

***Warning: series spoilers ahead***

Late 376 AD:
 The Huns surged across the great steppe towards Europe, in what we now call the Great Migration. The Gothic tribes lay directly in the path of these warlike horsemen. So, united under the banner of a Iudex (a judge or dictator) named Fritigern, most of the Gothic groupings travelled to the banks of the Danube, seeking peaceful entry into the Eastern Roman Empire. They probably numbered at least one hundred thousand people.

Left: The Huns came like a storm from the great steppe...
Middle: The Goths were in their path, and had no option but to flee across the Danube and into Roman lands.
Right: The refugees were placed in a temporary camp in Moesia Inferior (a province in the northern part of the Diocese of Thracia).

Early 377 AD: The Romans settled the Goths in a temporary camp somewhere in northern Thracia… then proceeded to make an absolute mess of matters. The odious officer, Lupicinus, oversaw severe maltreatment of what was effectively a refugee population. Tales of his soldiers offering the starving Goths only rotting dog meat, in exchange for their children to sell as slaves, have stained the history books ever since. Inevitably, the refugees broke out in revolt, and the Gothic War began.

Left: The Romans made a mess of the refugee crisis.
Right: Revolt! The Gothic War begins...

Spring 377 AD: The Goths now moved around Thracia as a horde - self-sufficient and with a colossal army that dwarfed the legions present in Thracia. Emperor Valens, engaged on the Persian front, despatched to Thracia what legions he could spare.

Valens managed to conclude a truce on the Persian frontier, allowing him to concentrate fully on troubled Thracia and the Gothic War.

Early summer 377 AD: The Gothic horde rebuffed the empire's first attempt to meet them in battle at Ad Salices (the 'town by the willows'). The result was technically a draw, and this left the Goths penned into the northern part of Thracia, behind the Haemus Mountains, while the bruised legions held Thracia's southern tracts.

Autumn 377 AD: A peace was concluded between Rome and Persia, rendering the eastern frontier stable for now. Emperor Valens set about rounding up the rest of his Persian frontier forces - elite legions and crack palace cavalry - in order to personally lead them to Thracia to end the Gothic War. But this would take time, and in the interim, he despatched one of his best generals, Saturninus, to the troubled land to make sure the Goths stayed penned beyond the Haemus range.

Late 377 AD: Saturninus established stony forts and redoubts in the five key Haemus Mountain passes. He managed to marshal his scant forces and hold these passes for a time… but eventually the Goths overran the blockades and spilled into central and southern Thracia. The legions and the Roman people were forced to take refuge in southern Thracia's high-walled cities.

Left: The Haemus Mountains were like a barrier, penning the Goths in northern Thracia.
Right: But the Goths broke through and marauded around central and southern Thracia.

Early 378 AD: With the Romans holed-up behind their city walls, A Western General, Sebastianus, ventured out into the Goth-ridden countryside to try to curtail the destruction. He lead a tiny crack force of legionaries in a new-style guerrilla warfare - striking at Gothic camps in the night, executing hit-and-run raids on their supplies.

Left: Thracia has been overrun by the Goths
Centre: A legionary can only look on from the stout walls of Constantinople as the Goths ravage the Thracian countryside.
Right: General Sebastianus struck back with what little forces were available, leading guerrilla-style attacks on the Gothic camps.

Late Summer 378 AD: Emperor Valens arrives in Thracia at last, with his finest regiments in tow. They march to a site north of the city of Adrianople and meet the horde on a baking hot summer's day. The Battle of Adrianople turned the golden fields red, and the result has echoed through history as one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the empire. Emperor Valens died in the fray, along with two-thirds of the Eastern Army.

Left: The Battle of Adrianople - one of the darkest days the empire ever experience.
Middle: The battle turns and Emperor Valens senses disaster.
Right: Glory to Wodin! The Goths have smashed the army of the Eastern Roman Empire and are masters of Thracia!

Early 379 AD: A new emperor rose to the Eastern Throne. Theodosius I took control of a realm in turmoil. Thracia was virtually a Gothic land, and the Romans were now the refugees, with just the well-walled cities of the empire serving as islands of sanctuary. Theodosius set about reforming and rejuvenating the broken eastern legions, recruiting slaves and criminals and recalling broken old veterans. He did achieve some success thanks to General Modares and his small band of hand-picked forces, who defeated a significant wing of the horde.

Summer 380 AD: However, the first major meeting of the Eastern legions and the horde (and Theodosius' first chance to prove his mettle as a warrior-emperor) took place somewhere in Macedonia, probably near Scupi. Fritigern's forces routed Theodosius' army, and all the rejuvenation efforts were undone.

Left: Theodosius set out to rejuvenate the broken Eastern Empire.
Right: He led them to war to avenge the defeat at Adrianople... only to suffer another monumental reverse.

Autumn 380 AD: A major split occured in the leadership of the horde. One half left the East behind, heading West in search of fresh spoils there. But Emperor Gratian's Western legions stood against them near the city of Sirmium on the east-west border, and achieved a long-needed victory.
The Blood Road follows the Gothic War to its gory climax.


381 AD: Gratian's forces roved east, in search of the remaining half of the horde. A game of manoeuvring and skirmishing ensued - a struggle that lasted all year and stretched across Thracia and Macedonica. During this period, Iudex Fritigern died.

382 AD: The legions gained the upper hand and forced the Goths into a retreat, driving them into northern Thracia. Cornered, the Goths had no option but to sue for peace. The nature of the peace deal would define all of Europe for centuries to come


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