The Bronze Age began around 3,300 BC. It was an era in which the near eastern world knew stability. The mighty Empires of Egypt, Assyria, The Hittites, Babylon, Mitanni and Mycenaean Greece dominated the map, underpinning a thriving 'palace' economy.
The eastern Mediterranean would have been thronged with trade boats and the overland routes packed with mules and wagons, carrying to and fro all sorts of ancient commodities: iron, silver, tin, copper, lead; horses, wool and textiles from the Hittite lands; gold and scarab jewels from Egypt and turquoise from the Nile deserts; slaves from Nubia; jasper & Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan; jewellery and perfumes made in Crete by Minoan artisans; oil and wine from Greece.
There were also famous wars between these rivals, but also great peace pacts too. For the peoples of these times, it must have seemed like the ebb and flow of things, as if the empires were eternal, and that the ways of the Bronze Age would last forever.
Then, around 1200 BC, everything changed....
It is for good reason that we refer to that period as ‘The Bronze Age Collapse’ – a catastrophic end of an epoch, in which many of the great empires were blown away in a storm of destruction. The aftermath was truly bleak. Civil order gave way to chaos. The delicately balanced trade networks crumbled to nothing. The palace economy (a fragile, dangerously overspecialised system) vanished, to be replaced a few centuries later by dark age Greek village economy. Literacy collapsed – ushering in an age of oral tradition which gave rise to the likes of the Trojan War legend.
What caused this collapse? The likelihood is that it was triggered by not one, but many causes.
Firstly, the 13th century BC was a time of drought, as palaeoclimatologists have discovered. Pollen samples indicate a long-lasting dry spell, stretching all the way from northern Turkey to the northern Nile Delta. More, tree ring examinations show 5 or more years of uncharacteristically low rainfall in Anatolia. The Hittite tablets confirm this with accounts of drastic crop failure and starvation. They also detail the remarkable deal struck between the Hittite Great Queen, Puduhepa, and the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramesses II, to arrange relief shipments of grain from Egypt to the Hittite realm. Ramesses also sent his best irrigation experts to attempt to revive Hittite soil, but to no avail – the Bronze Age dams at Arinna and other Hittite sites across Anatolia date to this time and may have been part of these irrigation efforts.
Secondly, tin – the crude oil of its day – was growing scarce. Without tin, the armies could produce no bronze, and without bronze, they could no longer flex their muscle in the same way as before. This was most probably the driving force behind the Hittites’ apparent experimentation with iron in the last few generations of their time. Iron ore was plentiful around their Anatolian heartland, and promised to equal or even better the strength and durability of bronze.
Thirdly, seismologists have found evidence of an 'earthquake storm' that gripped the near east for most of the 13th century BC. With the Hittite heartlands sitting smack-bang on the fault lines of Anatolia, they suffered the brunt of this. The Hittite capital of Hattusa, the cities of Troy (a close Hittite ally) and Karaoglun all show evidence of seismic trauma. In Greece too, we see evidence of earthquake damage at the ruins of a whole host of key cities: Mycenae, Tiryns, Midea, Thebes, Pylos, Kynos, Lefkandi, Menalaion, Kastanas, Korakou, Profitis Elias, Gla. And in the levant, the cities of Ugarit, Megiddo, Ashdod and Akko have the same characteristic damage. So too Enkomi on Cyprus.
Fourthly, we come to the Sea Peoples. Who, I hear you ask? Some believe they were a fierce horde of northwestern invaders who blazed and razed their way across the near east world in a frenzy. Others would say they in fact arose from within the empires of the time. Some claim they were in fact an unmanageably huge tide of refugees, driven to seek new lands by the drought. The origins of the Sea People is an almighty tangent, which I explore more fully in this companion blog article.
All we know is that they arrived in – or possibly arose from – the near east world… and proceeded to churn it into oblivion in two major waves, the first a mainly coastal movement, the second one plunging deep inland. Within a period of forty to fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the twelfth century almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was violently destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again.
These four factors - drought, tin shortage, earthquakes and invasion - combined to tear down the landscape of civilization and bring the Bronze Age to an end.
The Hittite Empire* and the Mycenaean world were wiped from the face of the earth, while a battered Egypt and a much-reduced Assyria limped on into the Iron Age.
*One tiny Hittite enclave survived, giving rise to the lesser Neo-Hittite Kingdoms.
Around 1200 BC, the great Hittite empire and Mycenaean Greece were swept into oblivion in a series of natural disasters and the ruinous march of the Sea Peoples. We call this period the Bronze Age Collapse.
While the empires of Assyria and Egypt endured the collapse, albeit in a much-reduced state, the world afterwards entered a dark age of sorts. Literacy vanished across Greece and the Hittite Empire, and the complex political infrastructure of the Bronze Age's heyday became a forgotten art. From this smoky aftermath new, smaller kingdoms gradually arose all around old Hittite and Greek lands.
In Greece, a people known as the Dorians came to the fore and flourished, many centuries later, as the Greeks of the Golden Age (think Athens, Plato, Pericles et al.)
In Anatolia - the vast old Hittite heartland - the Phrygians, the Carians and the Kingdom of Urartu rose to prominence.
But the Hittites had not vanished from history completely. In the last throes of the Bronze Age Collapse, a small group of Hittites (sensibly) fled their old lands, leaving behind their ancient capital of Hattusa and heading east in search of shelter.
They came to northern Syria, and specifically the river city of Carchemish - once a mere border viceroyalty of the Hittite throne, ruled by one of the king's cousins and far from the Anatolian heart of the empire. Now, the city was all that remained. Carchemish became - in effect - a life raft for Hittite culture and custom, preserving them through the Sea Peoples' devastations and the ensuing dark age.
Geographically, Carchemish made for a perfect safehaven - fortified, and shielded on one side by the River Euphrates, it had a reputation for being 'unbreakable'. Indeed, It had for centuries previously served as something of a Hittite border fortress and a perfect vantage point to guard a ford across the Euphrates and to watch for any military activity over on the (Assyrian) far banks.
More, sited over 100 miles from the Mediterranean coast, it was comfortably distant from the shore attacks of the Sea Peoples, and far enough up-country to be missed by the brunt of their later inland assaults.
This enclave of refugees did endure, and went on to form what we call the Neo-Hittite Kingdoms - a collection of allied mini-states. Indeed, circa 1100 BC - around one hundred years after the Sea Peoples had faded from the scene - the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser, refers to Ini-Tesub, the king of Carchemish, as a "King of Hatti" (in other words, the King of the Hittites). In another inscription, while passing through the city of Malatya - a good one hundred miles north of Carchemish - Tiglath-Pileser identifies it as being "in the land of Hatti", so the Hittite enclave had clearly expanded.
Some of the relief art found at Carchemish is quite striking - clearly a blend of the original Hittite style mixed with the artistic flair of their near neighbours (and eventual conquerors) the Assyrians. Examples can be seen below:
And of course, we soon arrive in the Biblical era, where the Canaanites, Abraham and Hebron, speak of a strange hill people in the near north. They describe these people as the "Sons of Heth" (Heth being the name of a patriarch amongst the hill tribes), or "The Hethites". Indeed, it is from this Biblical reference that we get our modern name "The Hittites" (the people we call Hittites actually referred to themselves as "The People of the Land of Hatti").
Hittite rule in that small northern Syrian kingdom did not last forever, eventually falling prey to the resurgent Assyrians by the 8th century BC. However, the echoes of their ancient culture remains to this day. Indeed, the Republic of Hatay ('Hatti') - the most southeastern province of modern Turkey and situated around Neo-Hittite lands - is but one quiet echo of the greatness that once prowled around Anatolia and Syria, some 3,000 years ago.
Around 1200 BC, a great migration of peoples occurred - a shadowy multitude of many different tribes and cultures who roved violently across the near east upon a mighty fleet of bird-prowed ships. The Egyptians - one of the few powers who survived their assaults - dubbed them as 'the Sea Peoples'.
Amongst the many Sea Peoples tribes were: The Sherden, The Peleset, The Ekwesh, The Teresh, The Lukka, The Shekelesh, The Meshwesh, The Kariska, The Denyen, The Tjekker, The Weshesh (yes, many of those names sound like they should be pronounced with no teeth in!)
Together, this huge host descended from the north and the west in a series of waves, and proceeded to churn the near east into oblivion. Within a period of forty to fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the twelfth century almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was violently destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again.
The Timeline of Destruction
The First Wave, circa 1230 B.C
The Second Wave, circa 1200 B.C.
"The people were disturbed in their islands. All at once nations were moving and scattered by war. No land stood before their arms, Not the Hittites, Cilicia, Carchemish, Arzawa nor Cyprus. They were all laid to waste. They desolated the people of Amurru, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming for Egypt. Their confederation was the Peleset, Tjekeru, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: ‘Our plans will succeed!"
The reliefs at Medinet Habu, showing Ramesses III and his Egyptian forces fighting off a huge swell of Sea Peoples at the Battle of Zahi. Puzzlingly, while Ramesses' associated writings identify five Sea Peoples tribes being involved, these accompanying representational scenes seemingly represent only two (Horned Sherden and feather-hatted Peleset or Lukkans).
Who were the Sea Peoples?
This is probably one of the most enigmatic questions in history, and while I certainly don't expect this blog to provide a definitive answer, I hope my speculation proves interesting.
The Sea Peoples origin theories range from:
I can state with some confidence that the Sea Peoples were not, as per the first theory, "Bloodthirsty Invaders".
We must remember that this happened in the decades known as the Bronze Age Collapse, a time when - amongst other things - a mighty drought had gripped the world. The starvation attested by the Hittite tablets would have been widespread across much of Europe and the near east. If anything, hunger is likely to have been the thing that spurred the Sea Peoples to march in search of food and a better home. In other words, they were almost certainly a symptom of this Collapse, not a cause.
Most plausibly, they were a loosely united host of tribes and states struck earliest and hardest by the drought and the storm of ruinous earthquakes that accompanied it. E.g. the peoples in Greece, Thrace and western Anatolia, and even those from Italy, Sicily and Sardinia too. In short, a mix of the "Great diaspora" and the "Greek Diaspora". Indeed, there are some depictions of what looks like Greek armour and the Egyptian depictions of the Sea Peoples - see the section at the end of the blog for imagery.
I should pause to point out that, while most historical discussions (this blog included) tend to focus on the destruction associated with the Sea Peoples, this does not mean that they were a violent people per se.
In my opinion, the violence that followed the Sea Peoples' advance was most probably just another sad repetition of how mass migrational movements - of hungry and frightened people - often play out. Desperation and a stark lack of charity inevitably lead to conflict.
Now, let's have a look at the individual tribes associated with the Sea Peoples' movement:
There are many speculative theories on the identities of the individual Sea Peoples tribes. What follows is a selection of the most interesting, along with a few of my own takes:
The Sherden are probably the most famous of the Sea Peoples factions, distinguished by their distinctive horned helmets. They had been involved in small-scale piratical raids on the eastern coasts for generations before the age of collapse. Indeed, the legendary Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II even retained a small guard unit of Sherden. He said of their earlier, smaller raids:
"The unruly Sherden whom no one had ever known how to combat, they came boldly sailing in their warships from the midst of the sea, none being able to withstand them.
But where did they come from? All we know from Ramesses III's writings is that they originated north of Egypt. Pretty vague! They may have originated from Sardinia (Sherden-ia), or perhaps they later settled there, giving that island their name and ending their days of migration and raiding.
In 8th c BC - some four centuries after the Bronze Age had ended - Greeks colonising Italy arrived on the island of Sicily. Here they encountered a group called the Sikels, whom they believed had come to Italy after the Trojan War (which probably occured very close to or during the Bronze Age Collapse and the Sea Peoples' movement). Perhaps these Sikels arrived in Sicily and gave the island its name after the collapse... or maybe the island had always been the home of the Sikels, and these ones the Greeks met were the indigenous remnant - the ones who had not set off on the Sea Peoples' movement.
Reliefs suggest the Shekelesh warriors carried two spears and no shield, wore a gold medallion, and a bronze skullcap or cloth headdress.
Fairly easy one this - the Lukkans originated from the region in southwestern Turkey, known in the later Classical Age as 'Lycia'. It seems that the Lukkans were somewhat wild - a people with no king, but many tribes. Bordering on Hittite lands, they were at times friendly with the Hittite King, other times not so much. Also, as legend has it, the Lukkans came to Troy's aid in the Trojan War.
The likelihood is that the Lukkans either rose in support of the Sea Peoples' movement, or - more likely in my opinion - were swept along by it (after having their already drought-stricken lands ravaged by the invaders, there wasn't much option but to join them)
The Denyen / Danuna
There is a strong likelihood that the Denyen were the core of the Mycenaean Greek refugees. In The Iliad, Homer sometimes referred to the Greeks as "Danaans" - a term supposed to cover all of the many city states that Agamemnon had mustered for his siege of Troy.
There are a few theories as to the origins of the Peleset - Crete and Anatolia being two mooted homelands. Generally it is thought that they originated somewhere in that region. I personally can't help but see the similarity in the name "Peleset" with the Greek city state "Pylos". This is just more conjecture, but with so little evidence to work with, it is not implausible. Also, the feathered tiaras the Peleset wore can be plausibly linked back to the southern stretches of Greece (where the city of Pylos was).
Interestingly, after the Battle of Zahi, some Peleset were taken captive in Egypt and settled in Pharaoh's northeastern border regions to farm and patrol those lands. These people eventually became known as the Biblical Philistines.
The Weshesh, the Tjekker & the Teresh
I've grouped these three together because there are theories associated with each that they *might* have been Trojan diaspora, possibly swept along in the Sea Peoples' movement in the same way the Lukkans were. That they fought with short swords, long spears and round shields and sported 'hoplite-like plumes' on their helmets suggests they might have originated from Trojan/Aegean lands at least. Also, a mummified Teresh servant found in the court of Ramesses III still shows fair hair, sugesting he was most probably not of Egyptian or African origin.
The Tjekker might have been:
The Weshesh might have been:
The Teresh might have been:
Maybe none of these three groups were Trojans, maybe all were. We will never know for sure. Yet legend remains that one Trojan group - having survived the Trojan War - then went on to escape the Sea Peoples' rampage and the fall of the Bronze Age. Eventually , as the story goes, they settled in northern Italy, founding the Etruscan civilization from which Rome would one day rise.
With this in mind, one can consider another theory - given the similarity in the names - that the Teresh might have been the refugees from the fallen Greek city of Tiryns. I'm playing with possibilities here, but legend also has it that Diomedes, King of Tiryns and a key Greek player in the Trojan War, also sailed to northern Italy after the Bronze Age Collapse, and was something of a rival to the Trojan settlers there.
All of this is hopefully food for thought. Please do leave your comments below.
Thanks for reading!
🍾🍾🍾It's publication day for 𝐄𝐌𝐏𝐈𝐑𝐄𝐒 𝐎𝐅 𝐁𝐑𝐎𝐍𝐙𝐄: 𝐓𝐇𝐄 𝐃𝐀𝐑𝐊 𝐄𝐀𝐑𝐓𝐇!
★★★★★ Praise for the Empires of Bronze series:
To celebrate launch week for my new book THE DARK EARTH, here's another wee excerpt.
This piece - nicknamed "The Cyclops' Prophecy" takes place after Tudha and his Hittite soldiers have captured the coastal city of Milawata - a long-time Ahhiyawan (Greek) stronghold and bridgehead on the Hittite mainland. It should be a triumphant moment, but not all is as it seems...
‘What happened here?' Tudha said, casting his eye across barren Milawata. The city had not been in Hittite hands for many years, but even now that it was, it did not feel like a prize.
Walmu shifted his straggly hair back from his bruised and cut face, his expression sagging. ‘The slave traders fled this place some time ago. The people – sensing trouble – quickly followed.’
‘Something is going on across the Western Sea in Ahhiyawa. Some great disaster has struck their rocky lands.’
Tudha felt a twist of unease in his belly. He and his men gazed out across the sea and its bands of gradually deeper blue, as if in hope that they might see something as far away as the distant Ahhiyawan realm. He eyed that silent, unmoving horizon of deep water and infinite skies. So peaceful, still and empty.
The Ahhiyawan Kings who had conquered Troy had vanished back across those waters, never to return. It was as if the Gods had swept them away.
‘How do you know of what has happened over there?’
Walmu’s face twisted a little. ‘The Cyclops. He speaks of grim things.’
Tudha arched an eyebrow. ‘The Cyclops? You speak of things you have seen or heard in visions, dreams?’
‘No, my lord,’ explained Walmu. ‘A flesh and blood creature. Frightful to look at. He appears near the resettlement at New Troy from time to time, professing that all across the Western Sea is in chaos. He always finishes with a prophecy.’ Walmu’s green eyes suddenly became shrouded in worry. ‘That the disaster that struck Ahhiyawa is now coming this way...’
Tudha’s war wolf growled. Old Dagon’s eyes widened. Skarpi and Pelki leaned in to listen, so too did many of the Hittite soldiers nearby.
‘…for him, for us, for you… for everyone.’
Tudha stared through Walmu, seeing instead the Goddess Ishtar as she had come to him in his dreams, hearing her words.
𝐺𝑟𝑒𝑎𝑡 𝑐ℎ𝑎𝑛𝑔𝑒 𝑖𝑠 𝑐𝑜𝑚𝑖𝑛𝑔, 𝑇𝑢𝑑ℎ𝑎, 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑦𝑜𝑢𝑟 𝐻𝑖𝑡𝑡𝑖𝑡𝑒 𝑤𝑜𝑟𝑙𝑑 𝑙𝑖𝑒𝑠 𝑑𝑖𝑟𝑒𝑐𝑡𝑙𝑦 𝑖𝑛 𝑖𝑡𝑠 𝑝𝑎𝑡ℎ...
I've been listening to the brilliant 'History of Byzantium' podcast for years. So it was a real honour to be the guest on this most recent episode!
Even better, it contains details of a comp to win a signed copy of my book 'Strategos: Born in the Borderlands'!
Have a listen (and apologies in advance for my dalek-esque tones! ) :
If you haven't already noticed (where have you been?!), a new book series is storming the book charts - Viking Blood & Blade, by Peter Gibbons. The Viking era is very popular, but the way in which this saga is written is truly magical, weaving high adventure with all the violence and brutality of the period with a soulful and moving character journey.
Today, it is my pleasure to chat with Peter about history, writing and life, here on my blog!
Question: History is absolutely littered with really juicy stories. As a writer, I feel constantly pulled to many different eras. What drew you to the Viking period specifically and made you think 'this is it'?
I agree, there are so many exciting periods and events across history to write about. I have always had a particular interest in the ancient world, Sparta, Macedon, Rome etc. But I chose the Vikings for my first series of books because I think it's a period in time which people can relate to, in a strange sort of way.
For people in the UK, especially in the north of England, we can still see and feel the Vikings all around us in place names and family names. Also, it's a similar story in Ireland where I currently live. Dublin is a Viking city, as is Waterford, and where I live in Kilcullen in Kildare there is a plaque by the river Liffey which boldly states that the Vikings raided nearby - which is certainly inspirational!
The series moves from Viking Age England in Viking Blood and Blade, to France in The Wrath of Ivar, and then on to Ireland in the third book Axes for Valhalla. I know those places very well, so I think it made sense to start my writing career with places I am familiar with.
Question: Hundr is a really compelling protagonist. Is there a little bit of you in there, or did you create him from scratch?
I created Hundr from scratch. I wanted to pick a big story in the Viking Age - and what story is bigger than Ivar the Boneless and the Great Heathen Army - and put a little story within it.
The little story is Hundr's story. I wanted to create a character who has to find his way in the brutal world of the Vikings, but who also has his own interesting backstory which can be teased out and explored in future books. He has one great skill - which is his training and proficiency with weapons. That certainly came in useful in the Viking Age! But other than that, he is as human and fallible as all of us. I wanted him to be vulnerable, and to not always make the right decisions, and also to lose sometimes...
In the first three books we have only seen Viking Age England, France, and Ireland, but in future books I do plan for Hundr to travel to Scandinavia, and eventually on to the lands of the Rus, and maybe even south to Constantinople - if he lives that long...
And as for the historical cast, your take on Ivar the Boneless is quite incredible! Can you give a short background on him for readers who (like me until very recently) haven't heard of him?
Ivar is one of my favourite historical characters. One of the most interesting things about well known Viking war-leaders and Kings is the brilliant names they gave each other. Erik Bloodaxe, Bjorn Ironside, Ragnar Lothbrok, Harald Bluetooth, to name a few of the best ones. Ivar and his brothers Sigurd Snake Eye, Bjorn Ironside, Halvdan, Ubba and Hvitserk were the sons of a great hero of the Norse Saga's; Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar is a semi mythical figure, but the story goes that he was a great raider and hero who was eventually shipwrecked off the coast of Northumbria in England, and captured by the Northumbrian King Aella.
Aella threw Ragnar into a pit of snakes, and as he died Ragnar called out "how the little pigs will grunt when they hear how the old boar died." The little pigs were his sons Ivar et al. Ivar and his brothers swore vengeance on Aella and swore to invade and ravage the Saxon Kingdoms of England, which they did!
Ivar is famous for his terrible methods of torture, when he eventually caught King Aelle he subjected the unfortunate King to the "Blood Eagle." What I like about Ivar is the sheer daring in his venture, so gather together an army of warships from Denmark and sail them to England to wage a war which would see him eventually become ruler in York (which was called Eoforwich by the Saxons, but the Vikings couldn't pronounce the word and it quickly became Yorvik and then York), and years later he became the King of Dublin.
Historians have speculated that his name indicated that Ivar had a disability, that his epithet of "the boneless" meant that he lacked bones or legs, or perhaps that he was impotent...! In the Vikings TV show, they portray Ivar as being unable to walk, but I very much see Ivar as a great warrior and soldier. So, my version of Ivar gets his name from his battle skill, and his ability to move so fast it's as though he has no bones in his body, and I made him handsome just to subvert the traditional "baddie" trope.
Question: In terms of writing craft, you must have found your approach changing as you moved past your first novel and went on to write parts 2 and 3. What would you say has been the most radical shift in your process?
My writing process has definitely changed over the course of the three books. The first novel was very much a voyage of discovery in terms of story structure, writing style and plot development. I wrote that book in the traditional "pantser" style of writing, where a writer just puts pen to page (or finger to keyboard!) and discovers where the story goes. The second and third book were both planned and plotted in advance of writing, which I think I prefer and is probably the most radical change. I like to have a genesis of an idea, flesh it and build into a coherent structure, and then develop the plot.
Question: Where do you stand on the 'historical accuracy' vs 'a damned good story' spectrum?
This is a tough question - but at the risk of sitting on the fence - I think you need to have both and that it depends upon the period of history in which the story is set. The historical setting is the backdrop for the story, and the reader has an expectation of accuracy and research from the author. But, the story is paramount and I do think it's OK to change elements of the historical facts if it serves the story. If it's a period where the evidence is sparse and open to interpretation then it makes it easier to forge the facts in the interests of the story. But, if one was writing about Julius Caesar where there are buckets of documentary evidence, then it's harder to bend the facts and readers would expect the story to be historically accurate. For example, in the recent Vikings Valhalla Netflix series, they have moved Harald Hardrada back in time so he can inhabit the same world as other characters such as King Canute, Leif Eriksson etc. That's OK because now we get to have lots of cool characters inhabit the same story!
Question: Viking Blood & Blade is soaring high in the book charts. Having chosen the self-publishing route for this series, you've achieved this entirely off your own back which is really, really impressive (I know from my own so far fruitless efforts to hit such heights). What approach did you take to marketing and spreading the news about the series?
You are being very generous in your praise Gordon, I know first hand that your books are brilliant and that you have been super successful in your own right. I am simply following the trail already blazed by authors like you. For a self published author, marketing is almost as important as writing. If you want people to see your book, and for it to be in any way successful, then an understanding of marketing is paramount. Fortunately, Amazon is amazing and provides tools and training to help authors.
I haven't really done much in the way of social media, but I am working on that now and realise how important it is. For any self published author, I would say that an understanding of metadata, cover design, and online advertising is very important.
Question: Can you give us a line or a short scene from the series that will send a shiver up the spine?
To avoid spoilers, I think a good chiller of a scene takes place in book one where Ivar cuts the Blood Eagle into King Aelle's back. This actually happened, so its gruesomeness is a real event and that is what makes it so chilling.
Ivar works on King Aelle's back with axe, knife and chisel. He chips the King's ribs away from his spine carefully so that Aelle remains alive throughout the process. He then opens up the ribs and flesh of the king's back open so that they resemble an eagle's spread wings, and hauls up to a hanging position, the ribs then burst the King's heart and he dies. What a way to go! Apologies if I have put anyone off their cornflakes with that one....
Final Question: please tell me there are more works to come from you? :-)
I have a new book which I am just finishing, it’s a Saxon adventure in keeping with the genre which I will publish in the next couple of months. I also wrote a historical fantasy novel some time ago which I am trying to whip into shape. It’s set in the ancient world and starts at the time of Cyrus the Great and his battle with Tomyris and the Massagetae and then on to the time of Alexander. It’s a time travel/magic system type novel (I love a bit fantasy!)
Thank you, Peter. What an interview.
It's been brilliant to have you on the blog. May your words continue to flow!
I recently did an author interview over at The Historical Fiction Company, which was great fun. I thought I'd republish it here, in order to add all the extra photos and titbits that would make it even more fun. So, here we go...
Question: What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I give you, The Great Hittite Trail!
This was our last jaunt abroad before the pandemic hit. What an epic overland adventure it was, taking in Istanbul, Ankara, Erzurum, Tbilisi and more. This took us right through the spine of what was, 3,000 years ago, the heart of the Hittite Empire, and really grounded me for my Hittite series Empires of Bronze.
A few years before that, I hired a car in Istanbul and ventured northwest towards the Turkish-Bulgarian border, in search of the site of the famous Battle of Adrianople – crucial to my Legionary series.
Question: Tell us the best writing tip you can think of, something that helps you.
“The first draft of everything is shit”, is a quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway. I can confirm that my first drafts certainly are 😊
But that’s the point – they give you something to work with and make better. Just as Michelangelo needed a brutish block of marble in order to create David!
“The first draft of everything is shit.”
I now refer to my first drafts as “The vomit draft”. Just let it all come out onto the page, rattle on through it, don’t get sidelined by intricate historical detail (just leave a comment or highlight at that point and you can come back to it later). So that’s my tip: vomit!
Question: What are common traps for aspiring writers? Advice for young writers starting out.
Overreaching is one common pitfall. You don’t need to start with a Great American Novel. Start bite-sized, with flash fiction (just a paragraph or a page in length). It is a rapid and very powerful way to understand and tame the raw emotions that come out when you first try to write.
Question: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Be yourself. In the early days, I tried too hard to imitate the authors I liked. It was fun, but it wasn’t authentic. My wife (chief editor!) showed me this, and it changed entirely how I approached things. I am still definitely influenced by other authors, but I always tell my stories my way.
Question: What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
Writing is such a solitary profession that friends become essential. I’ve met too many wonderful, supportive people to mention them all here, but take a look on my Facebook author page where I run weekly charity auctions (for signed rare editions of historical fiction novels) – just about everybody in the HistFic community has helped me out with this, and that is simply awesome! If any authors out there would like to feature their work in my auctions, just drop me a line!
Specifically though, I have to shout out to my pal Simon Turney. We met in the mid 2000s when we were both trying to get started with our writing careers. We have been critiquing each other’s stuff and bouncing ideas between each other… as well as drinking a fair few pubs dry, ever since. The high point of the friendship – so far – has to be our recently-released trilogy Rise of Emperors where we tell the story of Constantine the Great’s Rise to power and his famous battles with his mighty rival, Maxentius.
Question: How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I was overwhelmed (in a positive way) by the amount of kind words coming in from readers of my first novel Legionary, and the same question always followed: ‘when is book 2 coming out?’
It was at this point that I realised I was at least passable as a writer. It made me realise that I couldn’t rely on the trial and error approach that I took with Legionary – the writing, redrafting, experimenting of which took nearly 5 years! Thus, I tried to avoid the things that sapped precious time from my writing sessions (I was still working full time at this point, so this meant evenings and weekends were all I had to write my stories). I set up a proper project workspace on my PC, consolidated my research into quick-reference documents, and planned out the rest of the series, so I was marching as opposed to wandering.
Question: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Easy: Pro cover design. This is hardly a new piece of advice, but it is a brilliant one. I launched Legionary with my own, hand-rolled cover, which was… er… a valiant effort. But by paying a few hundred pounds to a pro designer, I tripled my sales overnight, and the Legionary series really kicked on from there. Check out the before and after:
Question: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I learned this from reading. I recall vividly and with great pleasure (absurd, given the circumstances) the few weeks of my childhood when I was off sick from school with chicken pox. I spent that time in bed, ploughing through the Chronicles of Narnia. I had never experienced such magic. This inspired me to try writing my own stories, and I quickly realised that the pen was equivalent to the wand, and the writer to the magician.
Question: What’s the best way to market your books?
I’m still working on that, to be honest! For the first few years of my writing career, I did very little marketing. Maybe an email to my subscriber list on launch day, and a post across the usual social media suspects. It’s only in recent times when competition is fierce and widespread that I’ve realised I need to train myself in a little more active marketing. I’m currently working on Amazon and Facebook ads. Quite daunting at first, but as always it’s enjoyable when you feel yourself gliding up the learning curve.
Question: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I’m primarily an armchair researcher. Give me my writing room sofa, a cup of coffee, my Kindle, a pile of books and my cat and I’m happy as larry. But… you simply can’t beat a research jaunt! As per my link, above, I took a trip across central and eastern turkey and up through the Caucasus Mountains and through Georgia as part of my research for my Hittite Empire series ‘Empires of Bronze’. This was utterly unforgettable. Meeting locals, playing with the kids in the villages near the ruins of Hattusa (the old Hittite capital in central Turkey), smoking shisha pipes and drinking beer beside the ruins of the Byzantine Emperor’s palace in Istanbul… I’m sighing fondly as I write this.
How long do I spend? It depends. For the first book in a series I tend to set aside a few months to really immerse myself in the period. And that usually follows several years of on/off casual research to see if it’s the project for me. For subsequent books in a series, it requires a bit less research time – it’s more slipping into a familiar pair of boots.
Question: Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Albert Camus once said “People can think only in images. If you want to be a philosopher, write novels.” I realised the truth of this around the time of completing my first book. Deeply personal things were coming out in the story, sometimes as metaphors, sometimes directly. It wasn’t all about marching, war and adventure. It was about questioning life’s paradoxes, about understanding the flawed, nuance nature of people. I’m quite into Stoicism these days, and that tends to come through in my more recent books.
“People can think only in images. If you want to be a philosopher, write novels.”
Question: What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
Question: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
Course I do! Anyone who says they don’t is fibbing 😊
I’m human, so initially, the good ones made me ecstatic and the bad ones made me grumble. More recently – taking the Stoic approach – I just let it all glide past me. You can’t please everyone all of the time, and you’d be a fool to try.
Question: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
I wouldn’t say the most difficult… but maybe the most ethereal part of it is the development of themes and characters. I can, and always do, sketch these things out as part of my planning. A character sheet for every protagonist, a list of themes and how they might tie in with the plot.
But it never, ever pans out that way. The characters emerge in their true form during the writing, not before. The real themes smack you right in the face and make you realise that they’ve probably been lurking in your sub-conscious for an age. For example, while writing my sixth Empires of Bronze novel recently, I found myself describing a dangerous wave of populism sweeping like wildfire across ancient Anatolia. It’s not surprising that this came through really, given the way the modern world has gone in the last decade.
Question: What is your favourite line or passage from your own book?
...only kidding 😊
There’s always a ‘shiver’ line in each book. Some of them don’t stand the test of time, however. Here’s one I like from my most recent volume Empires of Bronze: The Shadow of Troy. The Greek hero Achilles, having just slain Prince Hektor in revenge for the killing of his close companion, Patroklos, has stripped the dead Trojan prince naked and tied him by the ankles to the back of his chariot. He then proceeds to race up and down before Troy’s walls – atop which Hektor’s distraught family stand, watching on – dragging the corpse in his wake.
I have Hattu – King of the Hittites – intercept Achilles at a blind spot. He tries to persuade Achilles to end the gruesome parade with the following line:
“That is but a rotting shell you drag behind your war-car. You can pull it around all day, but it will never blush or weep or beg for mercy. The only man I see suffering here is you, Achilles.”
Question: What was your hardest scene to write?
The death of one of the key players in the Legionary series cut me to my marrow. I won’t give away names in case anyone wants to read it without spoilers, but this guy was the father figure in the series. I had a complex relationship with my own father, and only recently lost him. There was a lot of me and him in that writing.
Question: Finally, tell us your favourite quote and how the quote tells us something about you.
Sometimes I need something to ground me, to keep me calm. This, from my literary hero David Gemmell, works every time:
'All things in the world are created for Man, yet all have two purposes. The waters run that we might drink of them, but they are also symbols of the futility of Man. They reflect our lives in rushing beauty, birthed in the purity of mountains. As babes they babble and run, gushing and growing as they mature into strong young rivers. Then they widen and slow until at last they meander, like old men, to join with the sea. And like the souls of men in the Nethervoid, they mix and mingle until the sun lifts them again as raindrops to fall upon the mountains.'
So there you go - hope you enjoyed the Q&A! 😊
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The Trojan Horse is iconic and legendary, yet it is not mentioned even once in Homer's Iliad. In fact, in the entire eight texts of the Epic Cycle , it is only mentioned once and in passing in Odyssey, which tortures us with just a single line:
“A single horse captured Troy...
We have no firm idea what this ‘horse’ actually was. The traditional narrative is probably most well known, and the sequence of events is:
However, the notion of men hiding within the horse first appears only in the Roman age with Virgil's Aeneid. It does seem like a poetic invention.
There are many more theories, wide and varied:
There are even other theories, and the one makes most sense to me as a historian is that the horse was a siege device. Later writers Pausanius and Pliny the Elder were both convinced that this was the case, the former stating:
“Anyone who doesn't think the Trojans utterly stupid will have realized that the horse as really an engineer's device for breaking down the walls.
Siege technology in this age was advanced. Some devices were often named after animals – The Assyrian Horse, the Wild Ass, The Wooden One-Horned Animal.
Assyrian tablets depict the first of these as a ram shed with a ‘neck and head’, the head containing a drillbit used to pick apart walls. One can see in it the visual resemblance with a horse.
The siege engine theory is just one of many that I write of in my latest novel The Shadow of Troy!
What are your thoughts and theories? Please do leave your ideas in the comments section, below :)
Gordon Doherty, writer, history fan, explorer.
Empires of Bronze: The Dark Earth - the story of the Bronze Age's catastrophic end.