Ireland and Imperators: Iron-Age Ireland and the Roman world next door.

While Britain, from AD 43 to the historic date of AD 410, had undergone a cultural and socio-political metamorphosis through its incorporation into the Roman world, the land of Hibernia (modern-day Ireland) remained outside the political sphere of the empire. However, this does not mean that Ireland and Rome remained complete aliens to each other – each being an unknown world to the other, as popular belief may tend to lean to. For this week, the focus will be on prehistoric Ireland up to, and including, its existence with the Roman Empire as it’s neighbour.

Continue reading “Ireland and Imperators: Iron-Age Ireland and the Roman world next door.”

The Holy See: 2000 Years of Tradition

Welcome back to the Nu History blog! My name is Analisa and although I’ve guested on the Nu History Podcast before, this is my first time writing for the blog. The subject is rather fitting as well! I’m continuing the countries of the world history series with the Holy See, or the Vatican. This is my favorite place in the world because of its rich history and tradition, fabulous architecture, and amazing museum complex! So, to learn more, keep on reading! 

St Peter’s Basilica, the center point of the Holy See, has existed in some form or another for the past 2000 years! It marks the spot where St. Peter, disciple of Jesus, was executed by crucifixion in the mid 60’s CE. Emperor Nero shifted the blame for the Great Fire of Rome to the Christian population and St. Peter, as the leader of the early Church, was a prime target. Archaeological evidence suggests that the site was a popular pilgrimage site fairly soon after St. Peter’s death. 

In 313 CE, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. This was a huge event for the early Church. It legalized Christianity, pulling it out from the shadows and into the spotlight. (Note that Christianity was not made the state religion of the Roman Empire until 380 with the Edict of Thessalonica.) As the first Christian emperor, Constantine took it upon himself to build basilicas, churches, and holy sites throughout Rome, Constantinople, and the Holy Land. The Constantinian St. Peter’s Basilica stood for about a thousand years until it fell into disrepair. (More on this later!)

During the medieval period, Rome fell into disrepair. Plague, invasions, and poor Papal leadership all contributed to the city’s (and therefore the Vatican’s) fall. From 1309 to 1376, seven popes ruled from Avignon France under pressure from the French monarchy, starting with Phillip IV. This was extremely controversial, especially because it seemed to be taking power away from the Church. In fact, a rival faction of popes ruled from Rome. This was chaotic and led to different edicts being issued from two or more popes! It must have been quite confusing for the faithful!

When the Papacy finally made its way back to Rome, the popes knew they had to fix things. It was time to restore the grand and powerful image of the Church. It was during the Renaissance and Baroque periods that many of the buildings and works of art we associated with the Papacy were made. However, this growing power (and abuses of it) led to some major events! The first occurred in 1517 with the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther displayed his ninety five theses, it rocked the Church to its core and would have lasting effects that still resonate today. A mere ten years later in 1527, the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, sacked the city. The pope was held captive and the world realized that the Church was not as powerful as it seemed. To help regain some of it back, the Papacy launched the Counter Reformation. 

The pope served as the head of the Papal States for the next couple of centuries. But in 1850, Victor Emmanuel II became King of Italy. His main goal was to unify the multiple city states of Italy under a single government. On September 20, 1870, the king’s army forcibly occupied Rome. Pope Pius IX refused to reach an agreement with Victor Emmanuel II because he felt it was taking away too much of the Church’s power. So, Pius IX and his successors locked themselves within the walls of the Vatican for the next 59 years! 

In 1929, Benito Mussolini approached Pope Pius XI. He offered to create a Vatican city state within the city of Rome. Knowing that many Italians, and Catholics, wished to see a truce, the Pope signed the Lateran Treaty on February 11. This gave the Pope power over the Vatican land and a couple of churches within Rome. 

Today, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world. It is only about 0.49 square kilometers (0.19 square miles)! There are about 600 citizens, though the majority of them live abroad for ecclesiastical purposes. The museums, gardens, and St. Peter’s Basilica makes the city a popular pilgrimage and tourist destination. And how could it not be? With 2000 years of history and tradition, there’s a lot to see! 

Nu History Podcast – Episode 7: Classical Art and Architecture

In this episode Lilly and Alex are joined by special guest Analisa from Accessible Art History, as well as returning guest James, to talk about Greek and Roman art and architecture, focusing on a few particular themes and examples.

Find more from Analisa at Accessible Art History:
accessiblearthistory.com
youtube.com/AccessibleArtHistory
instagram.com/accessible.art.history/

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Ancient and Medieval Board games

Board games have been a part of human society for thousands of years, and although most of them have been lost to the ages, there are still plenty that have survived either in some physical form, or described. Archaeological finds of various game boards and pieces that we may never know the rules to can be an interesting if frustrating source, but the combination of games that have survived to the modern day, written sources and artwork can often reveal how many of these old games are played. There is evidence to show that all levels of society would have enjoyed gaming in various forms, be you rich or poor, educated or not, old or young.

There are many examples in recorded history of people playing board games, such as Romans sitting in the forum playing Ludus Latrunculorum, Monks in Gloucester Cathedral playing Fox and Geese in their cloister, or even Queen Elizabeth I entertaining her courtiers by gambling with dice games. With all these games, we may know who played them but unfortunately there is little to no word on who designed them. Game design is a very commonly discussed and recorded topic amongst gamers today, but there isn’t really anything of this sort to look at in Historical games. But it is interesting to think how some of these very unique games came to be. A modern game usually undergoes a long process of design, starting with the creator’s first ideas and knowledge of game mechanics, and then going through rigorous testing and redesign. These historical games must have undergone a similar process, as games that are well balanced and play so well don’t get made by accident.

Roman Board games
Throughout the Roman Republic and Empire, there is evidence to suggest that Romans had a culture rich in board and dice games. Game boards have been found scratched into surfaces and pavements, and fragments of ceramic and even wooden boards have survived. Ludus Latrunculorum or Latrunculi is the ‘game of little soldiers’. This appears to have been a well-respected game in the early Empire. Unfortunately the game in its Roman form hasn’t really survived, so instead we must look at those related to it such as the Greek game Poleis, which was played throughout the 1st millennium AD in Asia Minor and the Near East. There is also the North East African game Seega, which appears to preserve some of the Roman game’s characteristics. It would be nearly impossible to fully recreate this game now, not least because a game that existed across an area the size of the Roman Empire was bound to have more than a few variations and houserules. Some Roman authors do give some information though, and these can usually be confirmed by the archaeological finds. Varro (116-27 BC) writes that the board was marked by orthogonally intersecting lines where the pieces moved on the squares between those lines. This sounds like a simple grid as you’d expect. Boards of this type that have been found from the Roman period appear to have varying sizes. For example there was a stone block of 9×10 squares excavated in Dover, 8×8 squares discovered in Exeter, as well as on the steps of the Parthenon in Athens and the Basilica Julia in Rome. And a roof tile from Mainz shows a 9×9 grid. So it appears that the number of squares on the board, and perhaps the number of pieces would have varied. Among other writers to mention the game, one anonymous author wrote a poem dedicated to Roman Senator Cnaeus Calpernius Piso, supposedly a famous player of the game. They mention that the pieces used by the two players would be of two different colours such as black and white, and at the beginning of the game “the pieces are cunningly disposed on the open board”. This suggests that the initial placing of the pieces requires some strategic thought, similar to nine men’s morris, and unlike a game such as chess which has fixed starting positions. An isolated piece was captured by flanking it on two sides, but as philosopher Seneca wrote it was still possible to find a way “the surrounded stone could go out”, before it was removed from play.

Another example of a popular Roman boardgame is ‘Five Lines’. It is one of the oldest known boardgames from ancient Greece where it was known as Pente Grammai. The poet Alkaios mentioned the game in one of his poems, and boards in terracotta with five parallel lines typical of the game have been found in graves of the same period. There are also similar boards to be found scratched into the surfaces of marble floors in temples the ruins of other Greek sites. In the time of the Roman Empire we can find more information about the game. Pollux in the 2nd Century AD wrote that “each of the players had five pieces upon five lines” and that “there was a middle one called the sacred line”. Based on other descriptions and archaeological finds, it appears that there would have been larger versions of the game as well.

Anglo Saxon and Viking Board games
As we go further through history, we can see some different games appearing. The Anglo Saxons and Vikings of the early Medieval period both played ‘nine men’s morris’ extensively. The game is much older though, and is one of the longest surviving board games to this day. There are Roman Examples, with boards carved into pavements and clay tiles, and the earliest dated example is a clay board dated to around 100 AD from Mycenae, but there are other boards resembling these from Egypt that may go back as far as 1400 BC. The game also spread through the Roman Empire and even ended up in 9th century India. Examples from the Viking world include those from the 9th century Gokstad ship burial in Norway. The game was also incredibly popular through the medieval period, as such it was recorded in Alfonso X’s ’Book of Games’ in 1283, and many carvings of it have been found in the cloisters of Cathedrals such as Canterbury, Salisbury, and Westminster Abbey. The origin of the name ‘Nine Men’s Morris’ is somewhat of a mystery, but it was possibly first recorded as such in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The most plausible theory for the name is that ‘Morris’ is not actually related to the English folk dance, but comes from the latin merellus, which means gaming counter. The game itself is a fairly simple two-player strategy game where each player attempts to capture their opponent’s men by making rows of three counters. A key aspect to the game is that it is played in two phases, with the first phase being about each player taking turns to strategically place all their men before the main phase starts. There are also many variations of the game with varying rules, inevitable for a game that has lasted thousands of years across multiple continents. Some versions differ in size, such as the smaller three men’s morris, or the larger twelve men’s morris.

Tafll Pieces found in a 9th Century grave in Birka, Sweden

One game that is most commonly associated with the Vikings is the Tafl family of games, most notably Hneftafl. There are many variations of this game, usually of differing sizes, and many examples come from England and Ireland, as well as Scandinavia. Most games date to the typical dates of the Viking period, from around 800 AD, but it could have originated much earlier. All Tafl games are asymmetrical, which is what makes it fairly unique when compared with most other historical games. It is a grid of an odd number such as 13×13, 11×11 or 9×9 squares. This allows for a central square on which a ‘king’ is placed. The concept of the game is that a king and his bodyguards are in the center, and a greater number of attackers on the opposing team surround them on all 4 sides of the board. The Goal for the attackers is to capture the king by surrounding him with 4 pieces, whereas the king’s team instantly wins if he reaches one of the 4 corners of the board. There are two particularly important writings about Tafl games, the earliest being a 10th century Irish gospel book which shows the starting positions for a game called Alea Evangelii, which is an 18×18 variant of Tafl. The second is a Welsh writing from the Tudor period which explains the rules of an 11×11 variant. Other variants of the game include Fitchneal which as a small 7×7 variant taken from Irish written sources, and with some physical examples such as the Balinderry peg-board, which is now at the National Museum of Ireland. Tablut is a 9×9 version which has a written observation of it in play from 1732 by Carl Linnè while travelling in Lapland. Hneftafl is the example that appears frequently in Norse literature and discovered in Viking Age sites. It is a 13×13 board with 32 attackers facing 16 defenders and a king.

Later Medieval Board games
Related to nine men’s morris, which would have still been popular at the time, is a game that is first named in 15th Century English documents, and that is Fox and Geese. Physical evidence for this game goes further back, as there are some carvings of the board in Gloucester Cathedral from the 14th Century. It may be even earlier, as it is also referred to as Marelles, which is related to the other name for nine men’s morris. The name ‘Fox and Geese’ itself is first found in 1633. It is also around this time when the game seemingly saw an increase in popularity. The basic rules are that there is a single ‘Fox’ against a gaggle of thirteen ‘geese’. Players take it in turns, with one moving a single goose at a time, and the other moving their fox. The geese have to trap the fox and prevent it from moving to win, whereas the fox has to remove all the geese, which is done by jumping over a goose if there is an empty space the other side. This means the geese must surround or corner the fox in multiple ranks before they have too few left. Variants of this game mostly include more geese, which may have been an attempt to balance the game. There are also double and triple size versions of the board that come about in the 17th century that increase the number of geese and foxes as well. An offshoot of the game is Asalto from the 18th century, which replaces the old theme for a more military emphasis, it being about two officers facing off against multiple enemy soldiers.

There are many many other board games that I could go into here, not least of all is chess, but that is perhaps the most famous board game of all time, so I needn’t explain it here. I will simple say that chess was originally a 6th Century Indian game known as Chaturanga. It reached Europe by the 10th Century. From the 13th century onwards there were many variants that would seem bizarre to us now such as four-seasons chess, which is a four player version, and there is also courier chess, which is played on a rectangular board, uses more pieces named the courier, counsellor and spy that move differently, and moves are taken in turn but four at a time. From the late 15th Century onwards we begin to see what would become modern chess, and it was fairly recognizable by the 17th Century.

Lost Cities: Timgad

Returning to our lost Cities series, today we jump back to the African continent, but this time we are going to the north of the Sahara to talk about the formidable city of Timgad. Also known as Thamugas or Thamugadi in old Berber, this settlement dates to Roman times. Located on the northern slope of the Aurès Mountains – the east side of the Atlas system – Colonia Marciana Ulpia Traiana Thamugadi, as Trajan named it, was literally built out of scratch in the year 100AD at a very important crossroad in the Roman province of Numidia; modern day Algeria. According to the volume Archaeology: The Essential Guide to Our Human Past (ed. By Paul G. Bahn), this was originally established as a military colony for the legionary veterans from Lambaesis, corresponding most likely to the 3rd Augustan legion. Trajan gave the place such an elaborate name in honour of several of his family members most notoriously his mother, father and sister (Marcia, Marcus Ulpius, and Ulpia Marcia…). Like with many of the cities we have been looking at during this series, Timgad was once a centre of great importance, which eventually declined and remained hidden from the human eye for centuries. In this particular case, what actually stopped the city from being undisturbed and preserved since its abandonment in the 8th century, was the endless layers of sand blown straight from the Sahara and encroached by the mountains that kept Timgad from harm. According to Donald Langmead and Christine Garnaut, Timgad remained under Arab control until the annexation of Algeria by France in 1830. It was in fact a French architect, Albert Ballu, who commenced the investigations for the site leading to its eventual rediscovery in 1881. Albert was working then for the Service des Monuments Historiques de l’Algerie. Thankfully for us, Albert was a man of integrity and well learned, and advocated for the preservation of the local heritage according to the traditions of the country. Thank to his care of the site, routinary excavations were carried out all the way to the 1960s, exposing what is believed to be one of the best-preserved representations of a grid plan Roman town. In fact, Langmead and Garnaut state that the city became a key source already back in the day for the development of city plans in early modern society, therefore having a direct impact in architectural development and urban planning. It is very likely that this very knowledge, given Albert’s background, is what allowed him to search for the city and recover it from oblivion. Thankfully for Timgad, unlike many of the other sites we have explored so far, the UNESCO recognised its importance very early on, and has been under their listed of protected monuments since 1982. The Algerian government worked closely with the site too to ensure that no modern buildings would cover the ruins either.

So what do we know about Timgad? In order to understand the reason why the place was created, we can make use of the toponomy and the geographical location to see why this area of Numidia was so important for Rome. The words Thamugas/Thamugadi refer to a peak or summit in the Berber language. Considering its location right off the Aures and the Atlas, this probably makes more sense. The Berbers were the original population of this area, and they lived in the mountains as their natural refuge, which is where the Romans would have got the last bit of the name of the settlement. Numidia was known as the granary of Rome, and the area surrounding Timgad at the time of its creation would have been that of a savannah grassland. Several olive presses have been found in the site as well as the nearby area, and there is evidence for an aqueduct that would have carried water for 3 miles. Therefore, as you can see this was killing 2 birds with one stone: cover your basic military threat and farm the land. Interestingly, and despite the threat of the natives, the city was walled but no fortified. The design of the grid plan suggest it was originally intended to host around 15000 people. However, this was outgrown quickly as the city prospered, leaving its perfect orthogonal shape based on the cardo and decumanus behind, and incorporating suburbs for the new inhabitants. This expansion corresponds with the Severan period, when the vast majority of the public buildings of the settlements were commissioned. According to Bahns book by the end of the 2nd century, Timgad already counted with a great public market and a theatre capable of sitting around 3500 people – which by the way is still in use these days for public functions! The total remains of the buildings erected by the state go up to 20, including a curia, thermae, basilica, and a temple dedicated to Jupiter which is roughly the same dimensions than the pantheon in Rome. There is also the famous Arch of Trajan, also known at the Timgad arch, which is a wonderful triumphal arch that got restored to its former glory in 1900. However, one of the buildings that has interested many scholars is the library gifted by Marcus Julius Quintianus Flavius Rogatianus (as stated clearly on the building site itself), which cost 400 000 sesterces. Although no evidence remains from the examples that this library may have contained, the size and distribution of it suggest it had a capacity for at least 3000 rolls. All the building mentioned above and found in the settlement are made from stone and there are clear since of frequent upgrade throughout Roman rule. Furthermore, investigations carried out by Katherine Dunbabi suggest that during the 2nd and early 3rd century Timgad was also an important centre for the production of mosaics. She has identified remarkable work in geometric pavement patterns, as well as finds amounting to 40 pieces contained luxuriously decorated vegetation motives. Finally, another other reasons why Timgad became a renown city was due to its function as a religious centre, which came a bit later in the 4th century. A famous and respected bishopric, the people of Timgad unfortunately carried the enemy within! Some religious disturbances arose in Numidia due to the practice of Donatism. This is a branch of the early Roman church that developed in North Africa as part of the schisms caused by the Church of Carthage and that advocated for a more rigorous and virtuous dogma. The name comes from a Christian Berber bishop who popularised the practice, Donatus Magnus, and who believed the church and clergy should a place for saints and good actions, with no room for sins and sinners. As it stands, Timgad’s role in the spread of this dogma was vital. Standing on a cross road connecting 6 of the most important ‘viae’ in the area, and with ample trade, Donatism flourished where others may have failed.

Once again you may be thinking, okay, so what happened here for the city to end up abandoned and in ruins? Timgad just suffered the fate of the rest of the empire. The 5th century becomes really tricky for Rome trying to fend off the Germanic groups that had been infiltrating the borders for centuries due to lazy and poor management. The Vandals were a greatly mobile group and very quickly they made their way down from the Iberian Peninsula into the north of Africa, resulting in the sacking of several settlements – Thamugadi included. The area was deprived of the means for preservation and decline followed. There was a brief period of resurgent around 535 after the arrival of the Byzantine general Solomon. He came with the intention to occupy the settlement, but he found it empty, so an attempt to recolonise the area took place, with the Byzantine troops building a citadel towards the southeast of the city, repurposing some of the original construction materials from the site. Nevertheless, our good old friends the Berbers gave Solomon and his friends hell throughout the 6th and 7th centuries which led once again to the stagnation of the settlement with the eventual downfall taking place in the 8th century at the hands of the Arabs. There wasn’t much for them to ransack at this stage, so the place was essentially left to rot and be buried by sand.

*references mentioned in text: 

Donald Langmead, Christine Garnaut Encyclopedia of Architectural and Engineering Feats (Michigan, 2001).
Katherine m. D. Dunbabi, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World (Cambridge, 1999).


Caesar & the Celts: Nationalistic Propaganda and Fear of Foreigners

Julius Caesar, for many a hero, for others a master of war, a tyrant. Whatever your take on Caesar is, the fact is that he was a rather intelligent man who used all the tools he had at hand to complete his objectives. Part of this involved building a narrative for Rome; tales of the greatness of their people and their military victories. Caesar in this regards was fantastic at crafting political propaganda; a common Roman sport that we have already explore in this blog with stories of Cicero and Augustus. And there was a particular enemy that Caesar needed to deprive of any glory: The Celts.  Accounts of the Galic War mystified and bastardised the history of these people and who they really were, to the point that the comics of Asterix do, in many ways, represent that image that the Romans held of their neighbours. This did not stop just with Gaul; the same story is repeated with the Britons and the people of Iberia – And let’s not even get into the nitty-gritty details of the defilement of the Germani, you know, just the same people but on the other side of the Rhine river…Of course, it all makes sense if we consider that Caesar was only delivering the information that his audience wanted of him. Meanwhile, if we have a look at what Greek authors such as Timagenes had to say about the Celts, the picture varies drastically. The Celts of the Greeks weren’t described as dirty or in rags, even if the Greeks believed them to have lower economic power than themselves in some cases. They were described as a people with a culture and a cultural exchange that happened often between the two.

There are plenty of evidence, however that confirm that Caesar was writing with propagandistic accents and that the Celts were people of culture, and not uncivilised societies. Here in Britain and archaeological excavation directed in 2011 of Roman Callevva (Silchester) shows the existence of an earlier Celtic town. This was what is commonly known as an oppidum built following a grid pattern that reflected the sun solstice. It is believed to be one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the last decade. There are also archaeological evidence that the Celts used their own roads that were funded by toll systems, and this is confirmed by evidence of chariots found in Yorkshire as well as in the Rhineland. According to Graham Robb, author of The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe, he advises that the druids – another terribly mystified group of people, not just by the Roman but by many more since them, particularly the Victorians and the waves of Hippies from the 60s- we key in these networks. Robb states that the druids devised network of continental wide solstice lines used in the locations for temples and towns. This seems to correlate with the discoveries found at Silchester too. Another thing he points out is that the Celts and these networks may have led into the earliest types of accurate maps that would have use the Greeks systems for longitude and latitude, again a sign of communication and borrowing between the two cultures.

So where does this fear and defamation of the Celts? Well, believe it or not ladies and gentlemen, this is something that will resonate incredibly without modern society. It was in fact fear of foreign people. Yes, you know, Trump, Brexit, all these movements and people are just representations of ideas that are rather ancient and demodee. Some cool guys with swords and original republics had already gone that far (and much classier and cooler I must say, if I am allowed to be flippant). Before the Rome succeeded in the supremacy for the West, there were in fact Celtic settlements all over their beloved patria. Notorious in this list are those in Turin, Milan and Bologna: all of which are, by the way, names of Celtic origin. There was conflict between these people, not just Rome and the Celts but also the Etruscans – or you know just a different type of Celts who happened to be really successful at what they did and were worthy of specific remarks. The conflict between all of these got to the point that arms were taken. As a result we have an important moment in the early history of Italy and one that will be forever ingrained in the memory of Rome: such was the Battle of Allia. During this confrontation (date c.390 BC, though Polybius suggests it may have been more like 387 BC) the Celts were the victorious side, and the trifle by the river Allia was not going to stop them. Their retaliation took them to the very gate of Rome, and as a consequence the city was sacked by you know them dirty Celts – and it was quite  a frightful moment for the inhabitants of the city, many of which actually fled the settlement in despair. Collective memory is a power thing, it shapes us all and our perception of history, and no one likes to be on the losing side. Therefore, years later with the great Caesar in charge, things started being turned around for the glory of Rome, would not die at the hands of them Celts but subdue them, for sure…

 

…For sure? Well, let’s see…It would take a long while but it would be in fact the Germani – or you know, our friends the Celts but with a  different name cause they happened to be on the other side of the river – that eventually lead to the fall of Rome, fall that was promoted by the very corrupted and broken system that our glorious Caesar had himself invented (and died for). And just some more food for thought: what of identity? A bit like the Vikings, whose past lives are misshapen by collective memory and political propaganda, the Celts are very much alive not just in our memory, but in our identity as people. There are certain parts of the world that if you walk around and ask their people who they are, or what they are, they will tell you they descend from the Celts. And to them those Celts are not the dirty barbs that the Romans painted. They are a proud and defined people, whose values, cultures and tales are still valued. Why, of course, you can accused me of being biased here for my Celtic heritage, but you just need to look around places in Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, and many more. The Celts are embraced as part of them alive, whilst often the Romans are referred to as those people who came here and left all these things behind for us. Identity and ‘foreignity’ (here I have invented my own word, yeah) are often related. We identify us by what others who aren’t us are. Just keep that in mind when you deal with people around you and more importantly, with people in the past.

The Evolution of European Sword Design – From the Romans to Normans

My aim with this topic is to examine the development of European swords through the Medieval period and into the Renaissance, along the way looking at all the details that change throughout that timeframe. I also intend to look at the possible reasons behind the gradual transformations of the sword, be they caused by changes in technology, society, combat styles, or even fashion.

Today I will tackle the first part of this period up until around the 11th to 12th century. Before we go straight into the Early Medieval period however, we do need to find where our starting point originates. Like many things in Medieval Europe, the influence of the Romans is never too far off, and in the case of swords it is no different. The Roman Empire is famous for its use of the ‘gladius’, a relatively short sword with an acute point optimized for stabbing. While this makes for a very deadly weapon when used in a well organised tight formation of troops, all of which would have used the very large ‘scutum’ shield, this sword isn’t incredibly well suited in other situations. A different type of sword started to enter Roman service that was particularly favoured by Celtic cavalry auxiliaries in the early Imperial period. This was the ‘Spatha’, a longer, narrower sword that is more optimised for cutting, and was seemingly inspired by long Celtic Iron Age swords. Initially the spatha was a cavalry sword, suited to the job due to the longer reach it afforded the wielder; up to 100cm as opposed to the 65-85cm of the gladius. Eventually however, in the later Imperial period from around the 3rd Century AD, and until the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the spatha became the primary sword of the infantry. There is still debate on the reasons for this change, with possible theories stemming from the shift in demographic of the Late Roman Army. It appears that more Germanic peoples made up a greater portion of the armies, many of whom even commanded whole legions of their own culture. This may have caused the fighting style to change, with looser formations, lighter more manoeuvrable shields, and these longer swords to take advantage of the greater freedom and space in the melee. Additionally, these Germanic people could have simply chosen to fight with weapons more familiar to them, as the spatha is more similar to Northern European swords of the time. Whatever the reasons, it is ultimately this change that would be the basis for the vast majority of European sword development through the medieval period.

romanswords
Examples of gladius and spatha hilts from the 1st to 3rd centry AD

Towards the end of the Western Roman Empire, and until around the 8th Century we have what is known as the Migration Period. Throughout these few hundred years we see very little change in the basic design of the sword from the spatha. The migration period sword is still somewhat different in that the guard and pommel shapes change slightly from the more rounded Roman styles. Initially the guard and pommel pieces seem to become more minimal, with some being simple flat bars, ovals or discs, resulting in swords that have almost no pommel and simply a bar to help retain grip. Early on in this period most of the hilt construction appears to consist of organic materials, generally wood, as well as perhaps some horn and bone elements, very similar to Roman swords. As we move closer to the early medieval period the guards and pommels seem to feature metal more prominently, especially on the more ornate examples that are also heavily jewelled. The metals are mostly gold, silver or copper alloys, although these metals survive much better than Iron, so this could be skewing our statistics. The metal on these swords is mostly in the form of ornate plates covering parts of the grip, or plates in the pommel and guard construction that from a sandwich around a core of organic material.

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Examples of Migration Period sword hilts from 300-400 AD

It is later in the migration period, more specifically going into the Vendel period and the time of the Merovingian dynasty, that these swords start to change again in subtle but significant ways. We start to see pommels changing in shape due to end caps being fitted over the flat bar piece that already exists. The reason for this change is fairly straightforward and is most likely to do with the way sword hilts are constructed. Every sword is made as a single piece in essence, with a thin bar section continuing from the bottom of the blade called the ‘tang’, which is where the sword is held. This keeps the whole sword from having any significant weak points where any joins could be. From there the hilt is basically just slotted onto the tang in order to make the sword more comfortable and easy to hold. With the previous migration period examples the tang was mostly fitted straight to the plate at the pommel end of the hilt, with the affixing method such as rivet or simply the exposed tang being peened. What we get in the later migration period is the appearance of larger end caps on top of this plate, which seemingly started to be used as a way of adding more decorative elements to the hilt without the fragile materials interfering with the strength of the construction. The prominent example of this pommel style is known as the ‘pyramid pommel’. These pommels, and the swords in general, are amazing examples of craftsmanship of the period, with gold elements holding finely shaped garnets in the cloisonné technique, and sometimes added filigree and different textures added under the stones to give different reflections. It is from these end caps that we start to see pommel design turn into the familiar shapes of the Viking age.

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Modern reproduction of the Sutton Hoo sword featuring a typical pyramid pommel

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Gold pommel end caps from the Staffordshire hoard.

Overall it appears that the place of the sword shifted somewhat in the migration period, with it becoming a more high-class weapon that only the very elite could afford. Gone were the days of the large standardised army of the Roman Empire. Small groups and petty kingdoms could scarcely afford to outfit many of their troops with this expensive weapon. Instead we see the spear return to prominence, if it ever left. Much less Iron was required for spears, and they could be far more effective in a basic shieldwall of less disciplined troops than the sword. This could explain why so many examples from this period are so incredibly ornate, when earlier and later swords are generally far more utilitarian.

From the migration period we move into the early medieval period. Possibly also referred to as the ‘Viking age’ or the ‘Carolingian period’. Many of the examples of swords that we will see in this period are commonly known as ‘viking swords’, although very similar styles were used across Europe, such as in Francia and Britain prominently. Again the changes we see are rather minor in overall appearance, but they set some significant precedents that develop later into the medieval period. The first point to be made is that there certainly were the ornate styles of Migration period sword being used well into this time, just as these ‘viking swords’ could be seen after their time of prominence too.  The most striking change we see as we advance in time is that the guards and pommels of swords start to be made entirely of iron or steel. There would still have been many rich examples featuring precious metals and other decoration, but for the most part the organic elements are now confined to the grip alone, which is usually made of leather wrapped wood, or sometimes made of bone, horn, and even wrapped in wire. The hilt styles of these swords appear very similar in shape to earlier examples, with flat bars against the hand on both ends, resulting in a very secure grip on the sword. The pommels are also still made with an added end cap, often still hollow, covering the end of the tang. Although they do start to simplify, with less individual parts until they combine into a single piece as this period comes to a close.

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Wheeler’s typology of viking age sword hilts. The types are in roughly chronological order.

An important part of the development of swords is of course in the quality of the steel being used for the blade. While I couldn’t possibly go into all the details of the metallurgy and smithing processes that combine to make a good sword, now is a good point to mention the basic approach to swordsmithing in this period, as a big change is about to occur. Swords of this early medieval period are famous for having very intricately made ‘pattern welded’ blades. The term ‘damascus steel’ is commonly used for this style of blade construction, but in this case is a misnomer. From the Roman period, through the migration and early part of the Viking age, pattern welded sword blades, and those of other weapons, were very common. This method is essentially a way of making a high quality blade that is strong, flexes but does not bend, and has few weak spots. This was a necessary technique due to large quantities of quality iron not being readily available, as well as the ability to melt steel in order to homogenize it into a uniform structure not being prevalent. So what pattern welding does is it allows you to take pieces of steel of differing qualities and form them into bars or rods and twist them together into various patterns, some of which can be highly decorative as well as functional. The different steels are then ‘forge welded’ together, basically meaning they were heated to a high temperature and hammered into shape until they fuse together. Early forms of this technique had been done for hundreds of years, possibly even by early Celtic smiths, through a method known as ‘piling’ which is mostly just forge welding various pieces together at random or in simple lines. The point here is that by the early Medieval period, pattern welding techniques had been around for centuries and had essentially been perfected. A smith making these complex patterns had reached the peak of forging technology. The significant change that happens in this period is not to do with forging technology, but with smelting technology, which is the earlier stage where the metal is extracted from Iron ore and refined. What actually changed here is the type of furnace being used in this process, going from a type called a ‘bloomery’ to the new ‘blast furnace’, essentially allowing for higher temperatures. This change is commonly thought to have happened around 1000 AD, but it appears to being around 800 AD, so essentially the entirety of the ‘Viking age’ is covered by the slow process of pattern welded swords being replaced by new single steel swords. Many methods did carry on further however, such as the use of forge welding different steels together, notably done to have a softer or more flexible body to the sword, with harder steel on the edges. It is important to mention that the majority of this change comes out of the Carolingian or Frankish Empire, and frequently the high quality swords made there were sought after in surrounding regions, including Scandinavia. This continues to include the famous swords inscribed with the name ‘ULFBERHT’ that seemingly denoted the highly advanced steel being used.

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Excellent examples of pattern welded blades. Made by Patrick Bárta at templ.net

Having covered the material changes of the sword going through the early medieval period, we should finally look at some of the significant changes that occur in the shape of swords and their hilts again before we get to the High Middle Ages post 11th century. The development I mention here is most likely linked to changes in combat techniques that also come from the Carolingian Empire. The whole period I have covered here, from the Roman Empire, through the migration period and the early medieval, has always featured the sword alongside its best friend; the shield. Not just any shield however, but specifically the centre-gripped or boss held shield, a shield held in the middle in a single fist, protected by the metal dome of a ‘boss’, the Viking round shield and the Roman scutum are good examples. Eventually this type of shield gave way to the strapped shield in its various forms, with straps attaching the shield to the forearm. There are several reasons why this change of shield may have taken place, one being the ability to free the hand while still retaining the shield being more suitable for cavalry, an element of the Frankish army that became more prominent in this period, as they were credited with being the origin of the medieval knight. Also, although the centre-gripped shield was more manoeuvrable in certain ways, and more offensive and allowing for greater reach, it could be easily manipulated by the opponent by pivoting the shield around the wielder’s gripping hand. The first strapped shields of this period came in a dome shape which could glance off attacks rather than being pivoted, and the strapping to the arm also helped with this. Ultimately this type of shield would appear to be more useful and sturdy in tight formations of troops, as the face of the shield could more safely be pointed toward the enemy while giving greater cover to the formation from missiles.

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9th Century manuscript image showing dome shields held close to the body.

So why is all this detail on shields relevant to the use of swords? Well the key point here is that these new shields being strapped to the arm were no longer held forward along with the sword hand in combat. Also previous shields would essentially do most of the work in creating openings in the opponent’s defences, and then the sword would be quickly used to exploit them. The strapped shield can no longer function this way, which both leaves the sword hand now more vulnerable, and the sword now being made to do more of the work in combat, rather than just waiting for the time to strike. Dealing with that last point first, the sword would now be more likely to encounter other swords and weapons, and result in opponents entering a ‘bind’, where swords are used to apply pressure on and manipulate each other. This is what you may think of when you imagine proper ‘swordfighting’. So how does the sword adapt to this? First of all we can see the shape of the pommel and guard changing. The pommel will start to become more rounded, and smaller in some cases, allowing the sword to be gripped more comfortably in a point forward position with the blade more in line with the forearm. This allows for the swordsman to exert greater pressure in the bind, as well as attack with the point more easily. The previous method of gripping the sword in more of a right angle to the arm, while seeming more secure in the hand, had a weak point at the grip itself when attempting to apply pressure rather than going for the quick chop. The grip will also change overall by becoming slightly longer, as well as both the pommel and guard starting to curve away from the hand in some examples, all of which gives the hand more room to grip the sword more comfortably in this more forward position. Lastly, to deal with the issue of vulnerability of the hand, the guard of the sword will now truly become a crossguard. Early examples begin to have slightly longer guard pieces, until they eventually become much longer, as well as thinner to help accommodate for the weight as they get larger.

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Examples of late 10th to 11th century swords. Made by albion-swords.com

It is these developments all together that start to bring us towards the ‘arming’ sword of the high middle ages, the most prominent of which we may know of at the period around 1000 AD would be those famously wielded by the Normans, such as in the Bayeux tapestry. The improvement in smelting technology gives the appearance of a single-steel sword, and the new requirements in combat and use of different shields start to lengthen the grip, change the pommel first into slightly rounded or ‘brazil nut’ shapes, before the iconic circular pommel, and then the true ‘crossguard’ comes into existence.

With this important transition taking place, I will stop there. Keep an eye out for my next post on this topic where swords start to evolve more drastically and rapidly throughout the rest of the medieval and following renaissance period, including changes to the overall shape and length of the swords, the first longswords and two-handed swords, and various blade types meant for specific purposes.

Siege Warfare Through the Ages – Which Siege Tactics Are Right For You?

Since before 3500 BC people have been putting defensive walls around their settlements. As I’m sure you all know, these pesky walls and fortifications can be a real pain when you want to get inside somewhere for whatever reason. Maybe you’re at war with the occupants, maybe they have something of yours, like some loot that should clearly belong to you, or perhaps you just happen to have an army and feel like attacking something. Whatever your reasons for laying siege, that’s your business, and I’m not here to judge. No, my purpose today is to let you know which siege tactics and weapons you should be using to get you through those walls and to whatever goal lay within. So whichever period of time in which you happen to be conducting your siege, take a look below at the closest example and you should find the best methods available to you.

New Kingdom Egypt (1550-1077 BC)

Starting as early as we can with any real substance, with the New Kingdom of Egypt. As an Egyptian in this period you could expect to be fighting various different enemies, such as the Canaanites or the Hittites. Many of the enemy held towns that you come across may be fortified, so you should be prepared for a siege. As you will see throughout later periods, it is often the case that you are better off attempting to out-wait the enemy within, just as they try to wait for you to give up and go away. This basic but effective approach can be more seriously applied by preventing any movement into or out of the walls, and thus cutting the enemy off from any new supplies or means of escape. This was done at the siege of Megiddo in the 15th century BC when Pharaoh Thutmose III had a moat and wooden palisade constructed around the city, essentially giving the attackers their own wall to sit behind and wait for the enemy to surrender, except with the important difference being that they had the rest of the outside world behind their walls, rather than a small limited space with ever dwindling supplies. The defenders eventually surrendered after several months and were spared.

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The siege of Dapur on a mural in Ramesses II’s temple in Thebes

If such a peaceful outcome doesn’t interest you so much, then there are other options that you have in this period. The Egyptians did use various constructions against fortifications, the most common and basic of which would have been large ladders to scale the walls in order to assault the defended positions atop. Usually an assault like this should be supported by archers, but keep an eye out for the large sails that your enemy may have flying above their walls, as these may render your arrows less effective against the occupants in the city. These tactics would have been used at the siege of Dapur in 1269 BC against the Hittite Empire during Ramesses II’s campaign to conquer Syria. As an attacker you should be able to defend your own troops from enemy arrow shot as well, as there are examples of mobile roofed structures and simple moving towers that you can use in an assault.

Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC)

Moving forward in time as we go, we come to some other good examples of early siege warfare with the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians, after years of war and conquest, had become a most powerful and successful empire, and had also learned a thing or two about how to conduct a siege in the process. During the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883 to 859 B.C.) the battering ram was developed into something more sophisticated than a simple wooden log. These Assyrian rams were heavy, five meters long, and protected by a roof and turret in which archers were placed. The ram was suspended from the roof by ropes so it could swing freely. The ramming end was covered by a metal plate, shaped into a blade that was driven into the bricks of the wall effectively.

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An Assyrian siege engine ascends the ramp on the Siege of Lachish reliefs

Once you have a few, or preferably many, of these rams in place on the enemy’s walls and gates, you should then look to combine them with methods of topping the walls during the assault, as the Assyrians had found that a multi-faceted approach is a good idea. As usual it is always the standard to assault the walls with ladders, but there are also other methods for getting higher, most notably the use of great earthen ramps. These would be a huge engineering effort to construct, but they could only have to be built part way up the wall, and from there you could bring a ram up the ramp to demolish the wall at this height where it is usually thinner. This method was proven successful at the siege of Lachish in 701 BC when Assyrian King Sennacherib fought to subjugate the rebelling Kingdom of Judah.

Classical and Hellenistic Greece (510-31 BC)

Moving onto Greece, the later part of the Classical, and then the Hellenistic period of Greece saw a height of military innovation, which in turn gives you plenty of options for how to assault a fortification. In earlier Ancient Greece, siege was never much of a consideration. War at this time was a part-time seasonal affair that would take place when the common farmers had time off between sowing and harvest. It only really becomes more common once professional armies are taken up by the Greek states, allowing for the time it takes to conduct a siege. It also helps that after around 450 BC the Greeks could take some ideas from their Persian enemies, leading to tactics such as surrounding cities, building ramps, and the use of battering rams, similar to what the Assyrians were using some centuries earlier. However, the Greeks did start to develop their own methods eventually.

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The siege tower Helepolis

At around 400 BC the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily was in conflict with the Carthaginians. It was here that many Greek artisans and technicians were recruited to create new innovations of war. The first step was the gastrephetes meaning the ‘belly bow’ which was the first crossbow. From the basic mechanics of this weapon, it was possible to scale it up until it was too heavy to carry, and so was placed on a tripod and mounted on a swivel, with a winch to draw it. This was the first catapult (named katzapeltes, meaning ‘shield-piercer’) which was used at the siege of Motya in 197 BC to shoot as far as 300 yards at the Carthaginian fleet. Eventually this weapon was further developed into the oxybeles that used torsion by twisting sinew rather than the tension of a bow. In the following years the Greeks invented many variants of catapult, including lithobolos or ‘stone thrower’, and even a supposed repeating crossbow mechanism that shot bolts from a magazine called the polybolos. Various types and sizes of ballista were even used in the most famous example of a siege tower the Helepolis ‘the taker of cities’ which was used in the siege of Rhodes in 305-304 BC. This tower was supposedly over 40 meters tall and 20 meters wide and ran on 8 huge wheels. It had 3 walls to the front and sides which were all plated in iron to make it fireproof. It weighed 160 tons and had 2 or 3 ballistas on each of its several floors.

The Roman Empire (27 BC – 480 AD)

If you’re Greek or Roman, you’ll mostly be using the same sort of siege machines. Ever since the earlier Romans saw the power of Greek inventor Archimedes’ huge catapults, ship-lifting claws, and even sunlight death beams (apparently) in Syracuse (again) they clearly felt they should probably use some of these. They did make some improvements of their own to these weapons however, such as making them lighter and more manoeuvrable, or combining battering rams and boarding bridges into their siege towers. They also further developed on the torsion powered weapons of the Greeks, resulting in the Onager, which later became the standard use for the term ‘catapult’ which was a stone thrower with a vertical arm. These could be thrown in a great arc, and also use heavier projectiles, great for either going over, or smashing into a wall you wish wasn’t there.

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A Roman carroballista (cart-mounted ballista) on Trajan’s Column

Aside from the weapons, the tactics used by the Romans were similar to what is seen before, but executed well. They would surround cities and blockade ports effectively, and then set up their own fortified camps out of range of the enemy and in elevated positions for observation. This helped the Romans defend themselves should they be attacked by enemy reinforcements coming from elsewhere, something easily missed when you’re so focussed on the enemy within. In an assault they would construct ramps and use ladders as usual, but they would also use moving barricades and shields made of wood or wicker to defend themselves, as well as using their own shields in the famous testudo formation as they advanced.

The Medieval Period (up to the 15th Century)

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 480 AD there was very little in the way of siege weapon development. The following Migration Period saw many smaller groups settle and have less need for sieges. Later in the Early Medieval period and Viking Age, there are some examples of sieges, but most of these just use what knowledge is left from contact with the Romans, for example with the Franks, as well as the Byzantines, who would have had the best ability and knowledge during this time. More northern peoples such as the Vikings or Saxons, would have avoided large sieges and aimed more for raiding actions. The Vikings did besiege some large cities however, such as Paris in 845 and again in 885, where they are said to have used ballistae and catapults, although it is unlikely. The Vikings mostly used their advanced ships to their advantage, where attacking Paris was ideal, as it is on a river island. They also attacked London at the end of their era, where they used their ships again to pull down towers, and pulled roofs off of buildings to put over the ships as cover from arrows.

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15th Century depiction of a trebuchet

1066 is seen as the end of the Viking age, and shortly after this is when the Normans started to build many stone castles throughout England. During the 12th and 13th centuries, castles evolved into powerful fortresses capable of defying intensive assaults. At the same time, in order to combat strengthened castle defences, siegecraft developed. Sieges became far more common as the use of castles and fortified cities did too, and battles became rarer than in the past. The tried and true method of simply out-waiting the defenders still continues to be a solid choice in these cases, but then again, those defenders were probably expecting a siege and prepared for a long one too. So when it finally came to demolish those walls, something more powerful than a catapult of ballista was needed. The first weapon to be widely adopted was the mangonel. This weapon was essentially a larger swinging-arm catapult that was powered by the pulling force of a team of men. Shortly after this came the more famous trebuchet. This was a similar weapon that could be made very large, but was instead powered by a sophisticated counterweight mechanism. The trebuchet first appeared from the Byzantines, and was quickly adopted by the crusaders, which in turn spread its use throughout Europe. Although these weapons mostly launched stones of 50-100kg at a range around 300 meters, their main advantages over every other type of siege weapon before it was its accuracy and cycle rate, as there was no need for time consuming cranking or winding, but just resetting everything into place. Also, the key to bringing down a heavily fortified wall is to keep striking it in the same place, something a trebuchet could easily do after the first shot was correct. There were some huge trebuchets which supposedly launched stones of 800kg or even 1,500kg, but these would have been very difficult and incredibly slow to construct and use.

The Age of Gunpowder

If you really, truly want to knock down walls, then ignore everything I just said, and get a cannon. Cannons only became viable in the later medieval and renaissance periods, after years of experimentation since the 13th century. Once they stopped trying to use gunpowder to shoot ballista bolts, bundles of arrows, and stones and finally settled on the idea of the cannonball, the previously impregnable castles of Europe were rendered obsolete. The greatest advantage of cannons over other siege weapons is the ability to fire a heavier projectile, further and faster than previous weapons. They could also fire in a straight line, so that they could destroy the bases of high walls. Thus, old fashioned walls that are high and relatively thin were excellent targets, and over time easily demolished. In 1453, the great walls of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, were broken through in just six weeks by the 62 cannons of Mehmed II’s army. However, new fortifications, designed to withstand gunpowder weapons, were soon constructed throughout Europe. In the early 15th century, Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti theorized methods of building fortifications capable of withstanding the new guns. He proposed that walls be “built in uneven lines, like the teeth of a saw”. He proposed star shaped fortresses with low, thick walls. Fortresses built in this style throughout the 16th century did not become fully obsolete until the 19th century, and were still in use throughout World War I.

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 The Siege of Orléans in 1429 featuring cannons

With everything thrown into an entirely new state of being by the ever increasing power and efficiency of cannons, and the fortifications to match them, the attackers would now need to prepare for the siege thoroughly. There has always been a need to encircle the enemy and defend your own lines from those within as well as reinforcements from without, but now that so much of your army would consist of vulnerable artillery positions, you would need to think harder about your own defences. So lines of trenches would now be built by the attackers, first starting out of range of the defending artillery, parallel to the walls, and then another line is dug towards the walls in a zig-zag to prevent those using it from being exposed, until finally the forward line would be dug from there in artillery range parallel to the wall again. You can then place your artillery in that forward position, and build other defences around it, and prepare for the long siege ahead. As has been the case forever, it is still in the 17th century mostly about waiting the enemy out, whether you are the attacker or defender. And now that sieges had become so prevalent, and so long, they had become very expensive, and a single siege could take up an entire campaign. Battles arose through clashes between besiegers and relieving armies, but the principle of war was now a slow, grinding victory by the greater economic power. The relatively rare attempts at forcing pitched battles were almost always expensive failures.

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Plan of Geneva fortifications in 1841

Eventually, in the 19th century, after hundreds of years of siege warfare settling into a rut, things started to change in a few ways. Advances in artillery made previously impregnable defences useless. For example, the walls of Vienna that had held off the Turks in the mid-17th century were no obstacle to Napoleon in the early 19th. This was starting to lead to a decline in sieges taking place, but when railways were introduced, they made it possible to move and supply of larger armies. It also reintroduced siege warfare, as armies seeking to use railway lines in enemy territory were forced to capture fortresses which blocked these lines. Furthermore, the apparent effectiveness of additional field defences along with improvements to firearms technology made it easier for the defenders again. This then led to the adoption of tactics that would make the defenders surrender by bombarding the civilian population within a fortress, rather than the defences.

By the 20th century, city walls had become ineffective to modern artillery, which could destroy them, or bypass them from miles away. This brings us to WW1, which introduced trench warfare on a mass scale, and essentially a form of siege as it progressed. During the war, many methods and tactics for assaulting enemy lines with special troops developed, but overall the war was dominated by artillery. By WW2 and subsequently, the form of siege was mostly in the form of large forces encircling and bombarding cities into submission before assault. However, the continuing development of armoured vehicles and aircraft meant that mobility was far more important than ever before, and the introduction of long range bombing, and eventually inter-continental missiles make it virtually impossible to defend a position indefinitely without the surrender of either side.

Enclaves of Roman Britain

I decided to create this little map just recently after going down memory lane and remembering my visit to St Albans and the Roman ruins in there. I think it is easy to forget sometimes the scope of the enclaves the Romans held in Britain, particularly in England itself. So I have pin down the markers for some of the most important places in the region of Britannia so we can go through them and develop the network of strategic locations as seeing through the eyes of Rome in this annoying island of the Atlantic that became Great Britain.

As you may see, the southern areas of the country are more populated than further up north. We need to consider the accessibility issues that the original roman invasion would have to face regarding the access to the island via the sea from the Gallia. In this respect, the green dot becomes our first stop: Dubris.

Portus Dubris: this is modern day Dover. A natural strategic position due to its coast and proximity to France through the channel, the importance of this area of Kent is constantly reminded to the British throughout history. Dubris would become the selected spot to build a lighthouse to provide guidance for future ships incoming from the continent. If we believe the sources, it seems that there would have been two lighthouses in this location that on a clear day would have been visible from the coast of France. Dubris is also the starting point for what is now known as Watling Street: the ancient Roman road built over the Briton’s earlier route, that they used to connect their main positions in the south such as Dubris, Rutupiae and Londinium.

Rutupiae: currently Richborough in Kent. Traditionally understood to be the site used to move forward Claudius invasion of the island, this is nowadays a contested area of study. What cannot be refuted however is the use of this location as both a port enclave as well as a fortress. Over the road previously mentioned that connects this site with the other important locations in England, we also find the monumental arch, which in many ways symbolises the entry into Britannia.

Londinium: carrying on up the road, we eventually reach the Roman site of what would become London. Estiblished c 43 AD, this was another strategic place for the Romans as it gave them access and control over the Thames. Long is the tradition the city has carried of being a crucial stop for the transportation of goods (and people), for the Romans this would have become a pivotal enclave, allowing them to expand their ever-growing international trade routes. As a consequence, London would have been a major commercial base. Moreover, we know that this is likely to have been the base for the provincial governor as well as the procurator.

Calleva Atrebatum: Silchester. Calleva was important to the Romans for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was a point of crossroads, connecting what is known as the Devil’s Highway with London in one end and Silchester on the other. From this site, the road also split down to modern-day Bath and other areas of the west of country including Old Sarum and Gloucester. In addition, this would have been the administration centre for the Atrebates tribe which seems to have been assimilated through the process of Romanisation.

Aquae Sulis: perhaps one of the best knows historical sites in Britain, the city of Bath is of course famous for its Roman thermae. In conjunction to the temple complex dedicated to Sulis Minerva (Sulis being the Celtic deity they amalgamated through syncretism with Minerva), Bath would have already been during Roman times a popular touristic destination.

Isca Augusta: on to the Welsh territory we en counter the headquarters for the 2nd Augusta legion – hence the name, Isca meaning settlement on the river Usk. The enclave would have comprised a 50 acre building site with a fortress as well as baths, including a 41m open air pool. Moreover, there we can still see the ruins of what used to be a great amphitheatre capable of sitting 6000 people.

Viroconium Cornoviorum: hoping back on to Watling Street, we reach our final destination in Wroxeter. Likely to have been one of the fifth biggest settlements in Roman England, it as established around 58 AD as a castrum for the Legio XIV Gemina on their way to conquer Wales. The site would have included a brand new forum dedicated to Hadrian, as well as a basilica completed by 130 AD.

Fanum Cocidi: this would have been one of utter most northern sites in Roman Brittain. This fort built-in Bewcastle (Cumbria) would have been 6 miles further up from Hadrian’s wall. This would have been used as an outpost to control movement in the area. Seemingly it would have been originally manned by the first cohort of Dacians fulfilling border patrol.

 

 

The Glory of Rome: Imperial Monumental Architecture

Right, I am back banging on about architecture. We left it on the Greeks last time, so it only makes sense to talk about the Romans a bit today! But today I am going to do something slightly different from last time. I will give you a run through the uses of Roman architecture and then I will talk about certain buildings which are renown and explain them from this architectural/historical point of view. Just to keep things interesting…!

So, the thing with Roman architecture is that it really evolves from its uses in Greek times, so these construction industry advancements are deployed in multitudes of ways. For the Romans a building had to comply with three principles: firmitas (how solid something is), utilitas (it must be functional) et venustas (but it also gotta be pretty). For this purpose, the individual architect gain more prestige in Romans, and this is also the time where the construction and decoration process of a building gets separated. For the purpose of decoration and statement-making, the Romans develop the idea of a main facade for a building: the face of the structure if you like. They also become obsessed with making huge things, not just buildings but sculptures as well. in this regards the borrowed a lot from the Egyptians Pharaohs who were up until this moment the key example of monumental and colossal art. And this is a tendency that we see from here on in nationalistic movements and revivals: think of all the nationalist, particularly fascist movements of the 19th and 20th century. I am sure you will notice they are inspired by Roman architecture a fair bit. From the point of view of structural and ornamental elements, we see both old and new things appearing. In terms of structure support we have walls, pillars and columns as well as midpoint arches. The style use in columns and capitals reflects new patterns: the still used the Greek orders, but they created new or altered these ones as we see in the Doric-Tuscan style and the composite which often involved the use of Ionic and Corinthian ornamental elements at combined.When creating roofs and ceiling, the Romans went further than the triangular and rectangular bases the Greeks were used to. It is thanks to them that we start seeing the development of more elaborate architraves and vaults, and on this they were particularly prolific as we see the creation of semi-spheferic, pointed quarter spheres, edged and barrel vaults.

The Romans did not keep their glorious architectural styles just for private building such as the domus and the insulae; they applied this to religious and political sites as well. Their temples imitate those of the Greeks but they move away from the rectangular shaped tier, and start creating completely circular colonnades. Their artistic aspirations are also visible in public buildings such as roads, bridges and aqueducts, baths, theatres and amphitheatres, but we also start seeing the triumphal arches and columns which again highlight these idea of imperialistic monumental ornamental commemorations.

Trajan's column
Trajan’s Column, Rome. I took this picture in 2008 in a trip of Italy that we did with school, so you know, a few years back. However, you get the sense of what i mean with monumental architecture for public uses – this is political propaganda.

Some of the best examples of these types of structures used throughout the Roman Empire you can find them, of course, in Rome. Just above we have Trajan’s column. This piece has traditionally been attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus, who was a favourite of the emperor Trajan – he did a few works for him including, the column of course, Trajan’s bridge following his campaign in Dacia, and Trajan’s forum – (Good guy Trajan, giving us monumental architecture, roads, sewers, 3 months of gladiatorial games…devaluation of currency…the alimenta act for the welfare of the poor…Little knew the Dacians that their loss would bring such high stakes to the Empire, not just pretty buildings). In any case, this artefact is pretty impressive. Built in the high roman empire – completed in 113 AD – it manages to combine all of the arts in one. The column is made of 40 metres of solid marble, erected over a podium, decorated with a massive helical frieze (200 m ) going from its base to the capital; this was super innovative at the time. The frieze, of course, talks about the conquest of the Dacians, the glory of Rome and how cool Trajan was – if you gonna do it, go big: at the top, the pillar is crowned with a statue of the man and legend. I mean this is the ultimate example of firmitas, utilitas et venustas. This is also very noticeable in another structure seemingly erected during Trajan’s reign too, but much closer to his own homeland in Hispania. I am talking about the aqueduct that we have in Segovia, which is obviously a UNESCO heritage site.

I am sure you appreciate here the qualities that make this such a perfect example of the objective and purpose of Roman architecture. This structure is 818 metres long by 56 m high and it serve a public function: providing and transporting water for the city and the area. But the actual technique used is just as impressive as the sheer size of the thing itself: this is made out of square blocks of granite, without any mortar, and it is composed by 2 superposed  midpoint arch rows. For the Roman mind it is really the use of the space, and of this chunky material in such a graceful way and scale what makes it truly extraordinary. The perfect harmony obtained once away by the vertical and horizontal lines is something taken from the Greeks and their obsession with symmetry. But this building says more about Rome as a society that one might think. This is making a blatant statement of the power of Imperialism and the strength of the romanisation process in areas like Spain, it is telling us about Roman society being an urban community with high needs and demands – and of course, the thing those pieces of stone cannot talk to you about is all the slaves that worked in the construction of this building…

However, Rome starts struggling with one issue: religion. And it will be the rise of Christianity that will show us the new changes in architecture that start cropping up in Europe, but that, is another story…