Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ancient and Medieval Helmets – Utility and Beauty through the Ages

Mycenaean Boar's Tusk
Some of the very first things that interested me in history as a young boy were weapons and armour.
Boys will be boys, and so it’s no surprise that this is what drew me into the ancient and medieval worlds.

I remember getting a used book called The Art of Chivalry, which I flipped through over and over again. I was mesmerized by the images of broad swords and gothic armour, the shields, the lines, and the hack marks from various weapons.

Over time, I began to look past the shell of that armour, the cool brutality of those weapons, to the reasons behind their creation. I learned more about the warrior code over the ages, the path that lead to the ideal of chivalry that we would come to know so well in medieval romance.

Crested Corinthian helmet replica
Ancient and medieval warfare has always been a focus throughout my studies. I wanted to know why people fought. Warfare, no matter how romanticized, is awful. It’s also a part of human existence that will, sadly, not go away.

However, warfare has produced, to my mind, some of the most interesting, beautiful and utilitarian art that I have ever seen.

In a world of violence, when the threat of battle was very real, warriors needed to protect themselves. Arms and armour have evolved a great deal in design, the metals used, and the weapons they were meant to protect the wearer against.

Today, I wanted to take a look at the helmet over the ages because it, more than most other bits of armour, seems to have changed the most. After all, if you lose your head in battle, well, you’re pretty much finished.

The following helmets are a sample of my personal favourites over time. We’re going to start in the Mycenaean period and work our way into the late Middle Ages.

Marching to Troy

One of the most interesting finds from Mycenaean Greece is the boar’s tusk helmet (pictured above). This isn’t quite what we imagine when reading Homer, but this helmet was what would have been used. And don’t kid yourself, boar’s tusk is hard and could have deflected a glancing bronze blade. It would have taken a lot of dead boar to make these helmets!

Golden Age Head Gear 

Conrinthian Helmet
When it comes to ancient Greece, the helmet that most people imagine is the Corinthian helmet. To me, this is a supremely beautiful helmet, my favourite for looks. It was used for several centuries, sometimes with a crest, sometimes without. These were made of bronze and would have been great at deflecting, spear thrusts, sword swings, and whizzing arrows.

I’ve tried on this helmet at re-enactor fairs and I must say that this is a comfortable helmet that does indeed rest easily on the top of the head. Hey, if it’s good enough for the goddess Athena, it’s good enough for me! The one downside of the Corinthian helmet is that it would have been difficult to hear everything that was going on because there were no holes for the ears. Also, in the Mediterranean heat during the summer campaign season, it would have been hot!

Hellenistic Heroes 

When you get to the time of Alexander the Great and the successors, they begin to add a bit more pizazz to their headgear. Alexander would have had special helmets outfitted just for him, made to look like a lion head which you can see on the coins.

But the regular infantry had a much simpler helmet that had better vision and hearing than the previous age’s Corinthian favourite. There were a few types of helmet from this period, but this one would be my pick for something more utilitarian.

Men of the Roman War Machine

Imperial Gallic with crest
The Romans knew their warfare and their weapons. They also knew how to adapt, and how to adopt when they saw a good thing.

By far, my favourite Roman helmet has to be the Imperial Gallic helmet. If you look closely at the design, it makes perfect sense. They thought of everything – good vision and hearing for the legionary, protection for the back of the neck from downward slashes by those Celts, a visor in the front for the same thing, and massive cheek pieces that protected the side of the face without hindering vision.

This was a warrior’s helmet, and it was worn by tribunes, centurions, optios, and regular troops. A crest could also be attached depending on the rank of the person wearing it. But regular legionaries wore it without decoration and just went at it with the enemy in front of them. This is my pick for most utilitarian!
Centurion's helmet with
transverse crest

Imperial Gallic legionary issue helmet

Gladiator Games

The Romans didn’t just like violence on the battlefield. They also enjoyed it on a Saturday afternoon, just for fun!

Some of the most enduring images of ancient Rome that we have are of gladiatorial combat in the amphitheatre. Gladiators were slaves, but they were also showman, and some reached unprecedented heights of popularity, almost as high as the charioteers of Rome.

Thraex helmet
Because it was a show, the gladiators played the roles of mythological beasts or ferocious, long-defeated enemies from past campaigns. But they didn’t wear masks, they wore elaborate helmets. Two of my favourite gladiatorial helmets are the murmillo (a sort of sea creature) and the thraex (or Thracian). Both helmets are big and could be very elaborate with scenes embossed on them. During the early Empire, these two were the most common pairing in combat. When they clashed, you can bet the crowd was baying for blood!
Murmillo helmet

These helmets are works of art intended to dazzle, but also to protect. If the gladiators died too quickly, the crowd would not be satisfied!

Horse Warriors

Whereas the men of the Legions had solid functional helmets when they went into battle, the cavalry alae of the Empire went in for something a bit more dashing and terrifying.

There is a lot of differentiation among the auxiliary units attached to the Legions because many of them were not Roman, and brought their own cultural style to the mix.

However, my favourite cavalry helmets are those with masks attached. They're ornate on top, often with mythological scenes or beasts, and then have a mask of the same metal protecting the wearer but also striking fear into the enemies they were riding down.

There is some debate as to whether or not the actual masks were used only for demonstrations or parade, that they were perhaps removed for actual battle. But it's not entirely unlikely that they were not worn into battle. After all, some medieval helmets, as we shall see, provided much less visibility than a masked Roman cavalry helmet.

Getting Medieval 

The Sutton Hoo helmet
Now we move into the medieval period and Anglo-Saxon England. The Anglo-Saxons were fantastic artists and there is no better example of their armourers’ skill than the famous Sutton Hoo helmet.

In the late 1930s, archaeologists excavated two sixth and seventh century ship burials which contained some wonderful artefacts that have come to define the height of Anglo-Saxon artwork. The helmet that was discovered at Sutton Hoo possibly belonged to Raedwald, the ruler of the Kingdom of East Anglia.

We can see similarities with the Roman helmets in that it has cheek pieces and a neck guard at the back, as well as a face mask. But this helmet is much more ornate with various beasts displayed on it, with gold and gemstones. Whether Raedwald, or another, wore this in battle is doubtful, but it was meant to make a statement that the wearer stood out from the rest.

This was the king’s helmet!

Sutton Hoo Helmet recreation
Anglo-Saxon art at its best

Those Norman Invaders 

Bayeux Tapestry
1066 is a year that many of you will be familiar with. This is the year that William the Conqueror and his Norman army invaded England and killed the last Saxon King, Harold, at the Battle of Hastings. The Normans changed the face of England, some might say not for the best.

But they were a fighting force to be reckoned with. And their arms and armour reflect a more functional, militaristic culture that is immortalized in the Bayeux Tapestry.

When I think of the Normans, I think of kite shields, chain mail, and the conical helmet. This may not be the most dashing or even protective of warlike head gear, but its silhouette is unmistakably Norman. It was basically two bits of steel held together by a spine with a big nose guard. That’s it. There was no neck protection unless chain mail was attached to the lower rim, and the face was exposed apart from the nose. It would have had great visibility and some deflective traits because of it pointed shape. It would not be my pick for personal use, but I’ve included it because there’s just something about it.

The Cross and the Crescent 

The Crusades figured largely in my study of medieval warfare, and so it is no surprise that the one helmet from the time that should be included here is the medieval ‘Great Helm’.

This cylindrical helmet would have been worn over a chain mail headpiece, or coif, and was the standard for most knights going on Crusade to the Holy Land. Designs by way of the puncture holes for breathing varied, but they were all big with narrow eye slits and cross-like seems on the face.

I really like the look of this helmet but I can imagine that in the heat of Palestine, it would have felt like being in an oven. Furthermore, because the ears were covered, and because of the box-like structure of the Great Helm, the echo inside must have been insane in the thick of battle.

When I see this helmet, I also tend to think of Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail. ‘None shall pass!’

I’ll see you in the Lists! 

If gladiators were the entertainment of the Roman world, jousting was the equivalent of the Middle Ages.

From the time I was a boy, this is what I was drawn to. Two knights in armour careening toward each other with their lances couched. I could see their horses’ trappings fluttering as they came closer and closer and then the tremendous impact of splintered lances and shattered shields.

Fantastic! But wow, so dangerous. Tourney knights may have donned colourful ribbons and head dresses for the tilt, but there were certainly not wussies. These guys were tough as nails!

And they did this with little to no visibility! The tourney helms were thick and heavy and were intended to deflect a lance point at speed. It must have been absolutely suffocating inside one of those.

But how imposing they looked, how fantastic with the colourful tourney crests affixed on the top. I think of the knights who took the tourney circuit, and the ladies, by storm. Men such as William Marshall or Ulrich von Lichtenstein (not Heath Ledger, the real one!), made a name for themselves in the European lists and helped to shape the chivalric ideals we see in art and story.

Ulrich von Lichtenstein

Re-enactor with crested tourney helm.

Going out with a Gothic Bang 

Some of the most complete and beautiful armour ever comes from the late middle ages and was, in large part, a reaction to new weapons technology, namely firearms.

This was really the last hurrah for full armour and helmets that matched beauty with defensive intent. We know it as Gothic armour, and there are plenty of well-preserved examples in museums and castles around the world where you can get up close and personal with it.

There are many styles but they all share one thing in common: they seek to encase the wearer as much as possible against sword, mace, axe, arrow, and of course firearm shots.

Early firearms were notoriously inaccurate, but knights would have been extremely vulnerable when charging into spray from a bunch of arm cannons. The English longbows at Agincourt and Crécy destroyed the French knights, and this just took things one unfortunate step further.

The Gothic age of helmets and armour in general is a bit of a swan song.

Warfare had changed and the sight of fully armed knights tilting on battlefields such as Bosworth was soon to become a thing of the past, a thing of romance. Perhaps it is fitting that this was some of the most beautiful, functional armour all rolled into one. It was indeed the end of an age.

Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth 1485

End of an Age 

This was by no means an exhaustive list of each era in history. These were just a few of my favourite pieces, and there were likely variations on each of them.

I have always felt very strongly that the invention of gun powder was a low point in human and military history. It meant that any coward could pick up a gun and, from a distance, take down the most skilled, well-trained warrior without breaking a sweat. It meant that the scale of casualties would increase. It is something we feel painfully to this day.

A lot of people might disagree with that. They might say that guns are the great leveller.

But somehow, in an age of cold black steel and bullets, I don’t really think we’ll hear about heroes like Hector or Achilles meeting face to face. Alexander won’t be charging King Porus’ elephant on Bucephalas any time soon. The Spartan shield wall is lost to history and the lists of medieval Europe are long silent but for a few scattered bands of Renaissance Festival enthusiasts.

But the art of war does remain, and it serves of a reminder of the past and the reasons for it.

Next time you are at a replica shop, re-enactor fair, or Renaissance festival, be sure to slip an ancient or medieval helmet replica over your head. You’ll be taking one step closer to understanding and feeling the past.

Thank you for reading.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

IMMORTUI - Carpathian Interlude Part I

A while ago, I wrote a post detailing all of the upcoming historical and literary treats that I was planning on releasing in 2014. 

One of those items was a re-release of IMMORTUI, Part I of the Carpathian Interlude series.

If you haven't read this novella yet, it's a cross between historical fiction and horror.

As usual, I've paid a lot of attention to the history of the age (i.e. the reign of Emperor Augustus). I never cheat on the history!

Also, the cult of Mithras plays a big part in this story, so if ancient mystery religions fascinate you, you'll like this. 

Here is the fantastic new cover design for IMMORTUI by LLPix Photography and Design

If ancient history and zombies are your thing, be sure to check it out and tell others about it! It's available on Kobo and Amazon

This series is a joy to write and the second part is on the way! For now, here is the outline of IMMORTUI:

The Legions of Emperor Augustus have returned victorious from putting down a massive revolt among the Germanic tribes of the Danube frontier. While Rome basks in its success, a new foe is gathering in the darkness of the Carpathian Mountains. When a young boy shows up at the distant fortress of Troesmis, it falls to Optio Gaius Justus Vitalis and his centurion to investigate the horrors described by the young refugee.

It is just the beginning of a struggle between the Eagles of Rome and the undead forces of an enemy that could halt the Empire’s northern advance.

It’s Romans vs. Zombies in this first novella of the Carpathian Interlude series. Get ready for action, mystery and blood in this clash between Light and Dark. 

If you have read and enjoyed this novella do be sure to leave a review wherever you purchased it as this always helps other readers to discover the series. 

Finally, so that I can get a bit more history into this post, here are some pictures related to the story. 

As ever, thank you for reading!

Remains of the Legionary base of Troesmis,
where the story begins on the Danube frontier
in modern Romania.

Image of the 'Tauroctony' - Mithras slaying the Bull.

An ancient Mithraeum.
Mithraic rites took place in caves such as this, where
the worshipers reclined and shared a sacred meal.

If you missed the previous posts called 'IMMORTUI - Fighting the Undead', you can still read them. There are three posts on:


LYKOI - Carpathian Interlude Part II will be coming this Spring, so stay tuned!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Sneak Peek - Killing the Hydra - Eagles and Dragons Book II

Salve fellow history lovers!

A couple of posts ago, I told you that I would be posting short excerpts of Killing the Hydra prior to the official launch.

And so, as promised, here is the first one. I've tried to pick something that won't have any spoilers in it.

In this scene, Lucius is back in North Africa. He is travelling incognito (for a very good reason!) to the legionary base at Lambaesis in Numidia, where his men are stationed.

On the way, he must stop for a night in the town of Thugga. This was a massive Roman settlement in what is now central Tunisia. It contains some of the most impressive and intact remains that I have ever seen.

When Lucius arrives in Thugga, he finds himself in trouble and it is then that he enlists the help of a very unlikely person.

This is from Chapter V - 'On the Road to Cirta':

A day later, after another damp night out of doors, Lucius passed the milestone indicating that Thugga was a mere eight miles away. The sun was somewhat blotted out due to the low clouds that encircled the surrounding hills as he drew near to the city. It seemed odd that such a large and prosperous settlement should be found in so remote and quiet a region. The road was extremely well-kept and was flanked with many impressive shrines and tombs the closer he came to the settlement. Finally, the city came into full view, its vast array of bright buildings cutting through the cloud, foremost among them the tall peak of the Capitol with the image of an eagle soaring above the streets.

Thugga overlooked vast olive groves that blanketed the rolling land. It was a prosperous city with many new buildings in evidence; it even had an arch recently dedicated to the Emperor through which Lucius passed as he entered the city on the Carthage road. As he looked up, he was struck by how the buildings radiated from the Capitol at the top to cover the sloping hill like the surrounding olive groves. To the south of the city limits stood a lonely Punic mausoleum jutting out among the trees.

The streets were densely packed and Lucius could hear noise from the theatre at the top of the hill and the hippodrome to the north. Beautiful temples stood all around the walls providing the citizens with pockets of peaceful silence away from the forum and places of entertainment. Just inside the eastern gate, along the main road, Lucius spotted a large inn with stables in the rear and decided it might be a good place to spend the night as he could not take the wagon further into the city.

The inn was at the corner of two streets. Lucius left the wagon with the slave out front to whom he gave a denarius to watch his belongings. The man nodded, planted himself next to the horses and held the reigns tightly in his hand while Lucius went inside. He was welcomed by a man of Punic origin who was gaudily dressed in purple, gold and orange robes. His bangled arms clanged as he raised them in greeting to the traveller.

“Come, come inside, oh weary traveller!” he said in what must have been a completely new version of Latin. Lucius struggled to understand him. “You need a room for the night, two nights, a week?” His groomed eyebrows pointed upward curiously as he looked for a money pouch at Lucius’ waist.

“Just one night.”
“Very well, very well. I have a room for you. Only twenty denarii!”
“Twenty!” He must be putting me on? Lucius wondered.
“Thugga is a prosperous city, citizen, and very expensive during the games.”
“Very well.” Lucius laughed to himself as the man continued looking for a money pouch. “I’ll take it as long as you stable my horses and wagon for the night. I set out early in the morning.”
“Very good! Excellent!” The man clapped his hands and rubbed them together briskly. “You do have coins, do you not?”
“Something better, my good man!” Lucius reached into his satchel.
“Gold!” The proprietor was practically jumping up and down like a child awaiting honeyed sweets. “You have gold! Oh, may the Gods bless you!”
“No. Not gold. Here.” Lucius produced the Imperial pass and handed it to the man whose giddiness soon vanished as if he had lead weights tied to his feet. He frowned and huffed. Evidently, he had seen this sort of thing before and was clearly disappointed.
“Not another!” he said to himself. “I knew I should have opened an inn in the area closer to the forum! Everybody has coin there. But here? No! Travellers passing through with Imperial passes!”
“I can go elsewhere if you do not wish to honour the Emperor’s seal,” Lucius said sternly. The man lightened up slightly.
“No! It is fine. I honour the Emperor’s seal.” He knew that if he did not, he would have trouble from the local magistrate. “Come with me to your room.” Lucius followed him up some stairs to a small room with a single bed and a small table. Not the most luxurious room in the house, but good enough for one night. “Here it is. The stables are around back. I keep them guarded all the time, so do not worry about any belongings,” he said curtly.
“Good. Are there baths in the town?” Lucius asked.
“Of course there are baths in the town!” The man looked greatly insulted. “Thugga has three baths! There is the large one down the road you came in on, there is the one at the brothel up the street in front of this inn if that is to your taste…” He winked at Lucius who ignored him. The man cleared his throat and stepped back. “Or, if you prefer, the family of the Licinii has recently constructed a beautiful bath complex toward the centre of town. Very nice, that one!”
“That sounds good.” Lucius then followed the man downstairs and took his wagon to the rear of the building where he stabled the horses and hid the wagon as best he could, covering the trunks with some loose planks of wood so that they were not evident in the dark. They had locks on them, but one never knew who was about at night.
With a change of clothes in his satchel, Lucius left the inn and walked up the street. At the second intersection, he found himself in the shadow of a giant marble phallus that protruded, very erect, from the front of a small complex. The brothel.
“By Bacchus!” Lucius laughed. He could hear giggling from within, mingled with moans and pitched screams of some form or another. A half-dressed man came running out into the street smiling and entered the next door where the public latrines were located. Soon after, he emerged quite relieved and re-entered the brothel beneath the giant phallus. Lucius moved on to the new baths. Just as he turned, a woman appeared in the doorway of the brothel.
“Hellooo!” she said in a feigned sultry voice. “Looking for company, Roman?” She was of an average height, dark and slender. She would have been beautiful if not for the thick layer of stibium around her eyes, the scent of previous customers and a musky oil that emanated from her body.
“No, erm, thank you,” he said politely as he turned to go.
“Don’t leave so soon!” She skipped after him, her silver anklets and bracelets jingling as she went. “I’m only being friendly!”
“Sorry, but I really must go now. Thanks for the offer.” Lucius continued walking, embarrassed by the unwanted stares he received by passing locals. The girl was unperturbed.
“My name’s Dido,” she said.
“Of course it is.”
“What’s yours?”
“Ha! You’re playing with me, Roman! What’s your real name?” she persisted.
“Titus.” Lucius did not want to give his real name to her. He walked faster to escape her strong smell but she was fleet-footed.
“Oooo. I like that name. Titus, how would you like to play with me? Half price for the entire night. You look like you could do that.” She poked Lucius in the side and he stopped.
“Look here, Dido! I’ve been travelling for two days, I’m tired and there’s only ever one woman on my mind or in my bed: my wife! So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to be alone, understand?” He continued walking and she followed him up the wide marble avenue that curved around the baths up the hill.
“Oh ho! You’re a feisty one! I like that. But since when is being married something to prevent a man travelling by himself from having a little fun?”
“Since me, woman! All right?” He stopped outside the doors to the baths. Dido lowered her head a little, either in disappointment or embarrassment. “Look,” said Lucius, feeling badly he had raised his voice to her so loudly. “I’m tired, filthy and otherwise extremely happy with my situation. Thank you again for your offer, but I’m sure that there are plenty of other men who would welcome a night immersed in your pleasures. Just not me.” Dido raised her head and smiled understandingly, her eyes glistening behind the dark stibium. 

“Forgive me, Titus. It’s rare that a man like you passes through Thugga. I respect your situation and though my offer still stands, I understand your reasoning. Good evening to you and may Baal protect you on your journey.” With that, she turned and went back down the white street, her bare feet smacking on the marble to the tune of her jingling jewellery.

The Capitol of Thugga

An average street in Thugga

The 'House of the Cyclops'
Thugga's brothel
(draw your own conclusions about the name)

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Learning from Historical Fiction

This week I spent three days at a fantastic event known as the Ontario Library Association Super Conference with 5000 delegates, mostly librarians, and all of them lovers of the written word. It was brilliant.

I was there in my capacity as a 'day-jobber'. However, one of the perks of my work is that once a year I can shrug my cubicle for a few days to interact with a group of people whom it is a privilege to know.

Librarians know their stuff and are some of our most precious community resources. They help patrons of all ages with an infinite number of valuable things like research, job search, small business startup info, early learning etc. etc. The list goes on.

One thing they are very good at is readers' advisory. Sometimes people just don't know what to read, so they ask the librarian.

That seems like a regressive statement in the face of all they do, but to a writer and lover of fiction it's highly relevant.

While sitting in one of the crowded corridors between sessions, I bumped into someone who also happens to be an Eagles and Dragons fan and avid reader of historical fiction.

Big shout out to Jim!

We got to talking about historical fiction, of course, and some of our favourite reads. During our talk, he reminded me of something that I sometimes take for granted.

He said that historical fiction a wonderful way to learn about, and teach, history.


This stuck with me afterward, resonated in my mind for the rest of the day. I remembered that this was one of the reasons I began writing historical fiction.

Historical Fiction is, if done well, the BEST way to learn about history. I believe that.

Take the Roman world, for example. I've been researching that period and writing in that world for years now. I think in that space and time so much that the lines between present and past become a little blurry.

And I love it!

But for the average person who doesn't know much about the Roman world, or the lives of people in ancient Rome, reading a work of historical fiction can be a very rich, rewarding and entertaining experience.

It can be far more engaging that the sad dry lectures of, I'm sorry to say it, far too many school and university educators who only end up turning students off of history.

Reading a well-researched work of historical fiction can teach the reader about everything from home life and food to politics, warfare and the events that shaped the world. You can get inside the head of a Caesar, or a slave.

The fact that historical fiction helps to connect you with the past on a visceral or emotional level, only helps to cement your knowledge even more. 

But therein lies the great responsibility of the author of historical fiction - the author has the power to shape people's vision of the past, especially if their book is the reader's only exposure to history.

However, ancient and medieval history have come down to us with more holes than a gladiator's sparring post. So there will always be a need for the author to fill in the gaps.

I always try to do that honestly and make sure to say so in the author's note.

One of my greatest joys has been when a reader told me they learned so much about Roman history and life by reading one of my books. That made me feel fantastic.

I also felt good because I could rest easy in the knowledge that I had done my research so that someone could learn about the past in an accurate and entertaining way.

Historical fiction is indeed the best way to learn about the past. I know that owe much to authors such as Steven Saylor and Colleen McCullough for their brilliantly researched and written work. For those, and other novels like them, I'm grateful.

So, if ever there has been a historical fiction novel that helped to enlighten you and switch you on to history, no matter the period, be sure to let others know.

As ever, thank you for reading.