The Hittites (pronounced hit-tights): 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.
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. ”
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.:
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'.
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
Here's the back cover text to whet your appetite:
"Four sons. One throne. A world on the precipice.
Sounds good? Why not grab a copy? Empires of Bronze: Son of Ishtar is available in eBook, paperback and audiobook formats.
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!
Marik's Way is available now! And you can find out more about Nick at his author website or on Twitter.
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 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:
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:
***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...
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?
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:
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...
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
The storyline of the novel is an absolute rip-roaring adventure, and while I don't want to give too much away, here's the official teaser:
"Greece, 5th century BCE. Kassandra is a mercenary of Spartan blood, sentenced to death by her family, cast out into exile. Now she will embark on an epic journey to become a legendary hero - and uncover the truth about her mysterious lineage.
Just back from a top weekend in Carlisle watching many groups of experts and re-enactors coming together to put on a rather amazing Roman cavalry display. We had Legionary battles and displays, horse parades and mock-battles (Hippikia Gymnasia), all judged by Emperor Hadrian himself. And just how intimidating and spooky are the masked, plumed elite riders?!
One of the many things I took away from this was the sheer 'presence' of a turma. I have been guilty of writing about such a 30-strong group of horsemen as mere skirmish-fodder, but these guys showed just how much a unit this size, draped in full armour, standards and colours could inspire awe and fear in those they might be fighting or protecting. Here are a few pics:
I set out to write the Legionary series in order to visit the past: to walk the flagged roads, hills and meadows of Thracia and the Eastern Roman Empire; to forge further afield across wintry mountains, dog-hot deserts and dark woods of the borderlands and beyond… to see the world and all its wonders and woes as it was before the candle of Late Antiquity guttered and fell dark forever.
I realise now it was never going to be ‘just’ a visit to the past: weaving a story around the Great Migration of the Huns and the Gothic Wars which followed – and doing so convincingly – requires emotional investment. I had to put myself there with the people facing those brutal times: to experience visceral angst every time the soil trembled with the hooves of approaching horse raiders; to feel my blood run cold as ice as I walked onto a battlefield to face a huge enemy horde; to let my heart surge with pride and relief and feel a deep urge to weep in the moments after victory. That level of attachment and 'putting myself there' really anchors itself as richly as any true memory and now, six books into the series, I consider 4th century AD Thracia a second home of sorts.
More specifically, when I close my eyes I see the barracks and the marching camps of Legio Undecima Claudia Pia Fidelis, also known as the XI Claudia: legionaries gathering at their campfires outside their serried tents, grubby faces uplit by the flames and ruddy from their posca (sour soldier wine) ration. I can hear the gruff joking and singing, explosions of laughter, nickering horses, the clanking of pots and plates. I can smell the hearty aroma of baking bread, of stew and porridge… and other less savoury smells emanating from certain tents (clue: rhymes with hearty). I know the faces of the men in each cohort, century and contubernium. I remember – and will never forget – those who have fallen in the course of the Legionary series. And so I thought it was about time I turned the spotlight on this famous old legion, to explore their past and highlight just how much they went through before the few years I have had the pleasure of marching with them…
The Legionary series focuses on the late 4th century incarnation of the XI Claudia, but by then they were well over four hundred years old. It all began back in 58 BC, when Rome was still a republic and before the land of Thracia had even been incorporated into the Roman aegis. It was a little-known fellow by the name of Julius Caesar who started things. In need of fresh manpower for his impending invasion of Gaul*, he raised several new legions. One of which was granted the name 'the Eleventh Legion'.
* The Gallic Wars is a huge topic and one I can’t claim to be an authority on, but I can heartily recommend the action-packed Marius’ Mules series – penned by the expert and entertaining SJATurney.
The Gallic Wars
The Eleventh legion fought throughout Caesar’s Gallic campaign, notably against the Helvetii at the Battle of Bibracte in 58 BC, then against the Nervii confederation in 57 BC and in the famous Siege of Alesia in 52 BC. And after Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon and claiming of the city of Rome, the Eleventh Legion went with their general in pursuit of his great rival, Pompey the Great. The Battle of Dyrrhachium and the Battle of Pharsalus were fought in quick succession during the hot and bloody summer of 48 BC, with the Eleventh Legion and Caesar emerging as clear victors. In 45 BC, after thirteen years of hard campaigning and with the Roman world now stable and all neat and tidy again (mwahaha – if only they had known!), the Eleventh Legion was disbanded, its soldiers granted the old Samnite lands of Bovianum in southern Italy, to farm and live out their lives in peace…
...aaaand then Caesar was assassinated. The Roman world was thrown into chaos all over again. Fighting to avenge his slain great-uncle, Octavian recalled the Eleventh Legion from their pastoral retirement. They fought against the assassins and revolutionaries in Greece, in Sicily and through Italy and finally, they faced and defeated Mark Anthony in the naval clash at Actium which finally ended this latest bout of civil war.
But there was to be no return to the peaceful farmlands of Bovianum – the now well-scarred veterans of the Eleventh were instead sent to garrison Dalmatia (modern Croatia).
For a time, several generations in fact, the Eleventh Legion knew relative peace. Legionary fathers would have watched on as their sons enlisted in the Eleventh ranks, while back in Rome, the reign of Octavian (now Augustus) saw the Roman Republic fade out and the new system of empire rise in its place. Octavian was shrewd enough to go for a soft approach to this, never referring to himself as an emperor, only ever as a ‘Princeps’ (meaning ‘most senior of senators’ but to you and me: ‘the boss’). This era of Roman government, known as the Principate, would last for nearly three hundred years.
Fast-forward to 42 AD, when Claudius ruled the empire. A chap named Scribonianus, presumably bored with the relative stability of the time, decided to revolt against Claudius, and chose to begin his tantrum in Dalmatia. The Eleventh Legion were one of the first to react in support of the emperor and against Scribonianus. So, when the rebellion was put down, the emperor bestowed upon the Eleventh the honorific title ‘Claudia Pia Fidelis’ (Faithful to Claudius). And so, the XI Claudia proper was born!
A less-than-glorious episode followed in 69 AD – the so-called Year of the Four Emperors – when the XI Claudia sided with one of the four brief imperial claimants, Otho. They arrived at the Battle of Cremona to support him against his rival, Vitellius, late. By then, Otho had been defeated, but fortunately, Vitellius did not punish the XI Claudia, simply sending them back to Dalmatia, chastised. But that didn’t stop them from siding with a certain Vespasian when he came along to challenge Vitellius, and this time the Claudia arrived on time and helped win the Second Battle of Bedriacum to install Vespasian on the imperial throne and end the domino-like succession pattern of that year.
In the following years, the XI Claudia were stationed on the Rhine, holding that frontier and at times participating in campaigns into the boggy woodlands beyond – notably under Emperor Domitian against the Chatti in 83 AD. Over the next half-century or so, the Claudia drifted eastwards, finding a temporary station in Pannonia (roughly present-day Serbia) before following Emperor Trajan east as a vital part of his Dacian conquest (the original, north-of-the-Danube Dacia, that is, not the more southerly Diocese from the Legionary series), then finally arriving at the place that would be their home for centuries to come: Durostorum (modern Silistra, Bulgaria) on the River Danubius.
The Coming of the Dominate
While stationed at Durostorum, the Claudia were responsible for manning the lower Danube and its delta with the Pontus Euxinus (the Black Sea), as well as protecting the Roman-Greek colonies of Bosporus (modern Crimea). They and sister legions the I Italica and V Macedonica became a de-facto border garrison of those parts. And this new, more permanent role was perhaps symptomatic of the change in imperial governance and military strategy that came about in the late 3rd century AD. Bit of a tangent here, but you’ll see why it is relevant to the XI Claudia (bear with me)…
Beginning with Emperor Diocletian in 284 AD, the nature of empire changed. Emperors no longer pussy-footed with titles such as Princeps (honest guv’nor, we’re all equal), instead declaring themselves as out-and-out emperors (listen, pleb, I'm amazing and you're not). Gone too were modest ceremonial effects like the wearing of the ancient purple toga, Diocletian and his successors instead choosing to paint their skin gold, call themselves the embodiments of gods (referring to themselves as 'Sired by Mars' and the like, apparently), wear jewel-encrusted cloaks, opulent crowns and purple slippers – more akin to Persian Shahs than Roman leaders. More, subjects were required to prostrate themselves before the emperor, crawl towards him and kiss his slippers (hoping he’d washed his feet) and address him as ‘Domine’ (lord or master). This autocratic era of empire came to be known as the ‘Dominate’ thanks to its stark contrast to the earlier Principate.
You could be forgiven for thinking this was a big ego-trip for Diocletian – who probably sounds like the Cristiano Ronaldo of the Roman Empire – but like the Portuguese preener, there was substance behind Diocletian’s style. For the half-century prior to his rule, the empire had endured what is now referred to as ‘The Third Century Crisis’ – a storm of civil wars, economic collapse and pestilence. Twenty-six emperors came and went in those fifty years and the empire was in danger of crumbling away altogether. As such, a firm hand was perhaps the appropriate way to reassert control over the ailing state. Diocletian experimented with the Tetrarchic system, splitting the empire into four parts each with a clear ruler and successor. An understandable move, given the prior problems. But he got a lot of things wrong too: tinkering with the waning economy by introducing unworkable maximum-pricing edicts and ‘un-pegged’ golden coins; trying to ‘fix’ the religious strife of the time by triggering the Great Persecution of the Christians... both disastrous choices.
Militarily, it is questionable whether he got things right or wrong. The legions of old, XI Claudia included, had proud histories. Five-thousand strong armies that could oversee a stretch of imperial border, or march beyond to invade, or turn inwards to an interior troublespot in times of need. But times had changed and, as the Third Century Crisis had shown, the army of the Principate was incapable of simultaneously manning the imperial borders and keeping Roman usurpers or barbarian invaders who made it into the empire in check. Thus, Diocletian started the process of breaking down the old legions into broad ‘classes’. Instead of monolithic five-thousand-strong legions on the borders, he began to form ‘field’ armies, stationed in the heart of each of the major regions of the empire. These armies, composed of new, thousand-strong ‘comitatenses’ legions, were supposed to be the crack forces who could deal with internal strife or deal with any invaders who made it through the imperial borders. And on the borders, adding the outer layer of this new ‘defence-in-depth’ strategy, were the ‘limitanei’ legions (the ‘limes’ being the edges of the Roman Empire). It was the job of the limitanei to repel, or at least slow and track invaders until the local field army could be hastened to the trouble spot to crush them. And that is where the XI Claudia ended up – as limitanei, watchmen of the lower Danubius.
Now a lot has been said about the contrast in status and capabilities between the comitatenses and the limitanei (ranging from ‘they weren’t too different’ to ‘the limitanei were rubbish!’), and I touch on those differences here, but the fact is the limitanei were vital: without them, the empire’s edges would have been completely porous and undefined. More, it seems that the limitanei and the Claudia in particular were highly valued beyond their border watch status – over the years, vexillations of the Claudia were sent from their base at Durostorum to places such as Judea, Persia, Egypt and Mauretania, so they were clearly not just some makeshift peasant militia.
And that sets the scene for the 4th century heroes of the Legionary series. The things they face in my books may be brutal, but as you can see, the Claudia were well used to hardship and long stretches of war. So for those of you who say I put Pavo through hell – don’t blame me, it’s just the way it was!
Thanks for reading - hope you enjoyed. If there is enough interest, I'll put together a complementary blog on the future of the Claudia (i.e. what happened to them after the time of the Legionary series).
Click on any of the images below to grab copies of the Legionary books, and follow the adventures of the Claudia men in the late 4th century AD.