Broken of Body, Sound of Mind: Examining the Reign of the Emperor Claudius.

By Pat Lowinger

It had been nearly 90 years since Julius Caesar had crossed the Rubicon when Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (Claudius) donned the purple as Emperor. The civil wars of the first century BCE had transformed Rome into a mighty Principate- a monarchy ceremonious draped in the tattered rags of the Republic.  While Augustus’ reign had brought wealth and stability to much of the known world, within two decades of his death, the Empire hovered on the verge of collapse.  The dark, sinister and possibly neurotic reign of Caligula had been disastrous for the Empire . [1]  Following Caligula’s assignation at the hands of his own Praetorian Guard was thrust the fifty-one year old Claudius, a man who would not only need to overcome the increasing instability within the empire, but also his own frailties of body.



Marble statue of the Emperor Claudius

Claudius (10 BCE- 54 AD), the son of Drusus Claudius Nero and Antonia the younger, was born at Lugdunum in Gaul. [2] The limited information we have on Claudius’ childhood  paints a portrait of a sickly child of unknown cognitive abilities.  “He was orphaned as a baby, and nearly the whole of his childhood and youth was so troubled by various diseases that he grew dull-witted and had little physical strength; and on reaching the age at which he should have won a magistracy or chosen a private career he was considered by his family incapable of doing either.” [3] Claudius, born infirm, was further subjected to the scorn and rejection of both his mother and maternal grandmother. [4] Augustus, through excerpts of letters to his sister Livia, speaks on no less than three occasions regarding Claudius’ role within the dynasty as well as his concerns regarding Claudius faculties:

“The question is whether he has, so to speak, full command of his five senses.  If so, I can see nothing against sending him through the same degrees of office as his brother Germanicus; but should he prove physically and mentally deficient, the public (which is always amused by trifles) must not be given the chance of laughing at him or us.  I fear we shall find ourselves in constant trouble if the question of his fitness to officiate in this or that capacity keeps cropping up.” [5]

Depicted in numerous historical sources are references to Claudius’ involuntary head movements (wagging) and repetitive shaking in his limbs. [6] Sources also tell us that Claudius had an unsteady gait or limp.  This strongly suggests the possibility that Claudius suffered from a neurological disorder. [7] Modern historians and medical experts have attempted to diagnose (if possible) what particular illness afflicted Claudius- to which many speculations have been offered, such as: cretinism, hydrocephalus and alcoholism.  While there is no clear consensus, the most plausible suggestions to date have been cerebral palsy [8] or possibly dystonia– a hereditary or trauma induced neurological disorder which causes uncontrolled muscular contractions and/or spasms, bearning many similarities to cerebral palsy.  Bacterial and viral meningitis or encephalitis are typically strong candidates for causation, as is environmental poisoning (via lead). [9] Dystonia is typically characterized by an onset in early through late childhood, and symptoms can typically be reduced with ample rest and regular exercise.  Dystonic episodes (spasms) can be triggered by physical assertion, positional fatigue or stress. [10]

Even in our modern age we can too often observe the cultural biases which accompany a mental or physical disability.  Whether it be mocking, ridiculing or avoidance of association, these remnants of bias may never be fully eradicated from a society.  Rome was not immune, and in many ways perpetuated a bias against those with observable mental or physical imperfections. [11] While Suetonius’ account indicates that Claudius was ‘infirm’ from birth, this is somewhat doubtful given the Roman cultural acceptance of infanticide of ‘imperfect’ or sickly newborns. [12] In recounting Claudius’ treatment during the reign of Caligula, Suetonius illustrates the following:

…these honours did not protect him from frequent insults.  If ever he arrived a little late in the dining hall, there was nothing for it but to tour the tables in search of a vacant couch; and whenever he nodded off after dinner, as he usually did, the company would pelt him with olives and date stones.  Some jokesters exercised their wit by putting slippers on his hands as he lay snoring, and then gave him a sudden blow of a whip or cane to wake him, so that he rubbed his eyes with them.  [13]

Claudius was an accomplished scholar. A student of Livy who wrote in both Latin and Greek- completing a 40 volume history of Rome, a 20 volume history of Etruria, and an 8 volume work on Carthage. [14] These accomplishment are at odds with various claims regarding his ‘being dull-witted’ or mentally deficient.  While none of these works have survived into our modern age, excerpts were encapsulated in the works of Pliny and Tacitus. [15]


The Assassination of Caligula by Bartolomeo Pinelli (1810).

Upon Caligula’s death the empire was thrown into disorder.  Unlike the three previous emperors, no imperial decree had been made or offered regarding Caligula’s successor.  Some members of Senate considered the Julio-Claudian dynasty to  be without issue (heir) and pondered the restoration of the Republic. [16]   As the uncle of Caligula and grand nephew of Augustus, Claudius assuredly possessed the blood-right necessary for ascension, but was initially ‘kept’ within the Praetorian camp. Whether he was being kept safe from assassination or as a hostage is unclear.  What is certain is that after remaining with the Praetorian Guard for two days that there a popular movement within Rome of those whom wanted the imperial throne restored. [17] After securing the loyalty of army by payment (donativum) of 15,000 sesterces a man, Claudius ascended to the imperial throne as Rome’s fourth Emperor.

As Emperor

Claudius’ first actions were definitively not those of someone who was mentally infirm or irrational.  By decree, all senatorial records which referred to the reconstruction of the Roman Constitution were destroyed- irritum facit“He (Claudius) ordered a general amnesty and observed it himself, apart from executing a few of the tribunes and centurions who had conspired against Gaius [Caligula]- both to make and example of them and because they had, he knew, planned his own murder as well.” [18]

We get a confused picture of Claudius’ mental faculties during his reign.  At times he is referred to as ‘scatter-brained’, ‘shortsighted’ and ‘thoughtless’- at others as, ‘careful’ and ‘keen-witted’. [19] Scholars still debate today, as his contemporaries had during his reign, if Claudius’ range of emotional states and cognitive clarity were the manifestation of some undiagnosed psychopathy.  It would not be a stretch to associate many of his ‘attitudes’ and ‘reactions’ as reasonable given both his life experience before and after his ascension to the throne.  Suetonius in particular takes exception to Claudius’ early practice of being escorted by ‘javelin-bearing bodyguards’ and being ‘waited upon by soldiers.’ [20] On the surface actions such as these could be seen as paranoid by some, but rather reasonable by others.  Claudius had narrowly survived the same assassination attempt which had taken Caligula and had secured the throne only by the offering of donativum, as previously mentioned.  Claudius’ vigilance appears to have been warranted.  In 48 CE, Claudius’ third wife, Valeria Messalina, would be executed for participation in a plot to remove him from the throne.


Marble Statue of Valeria Messalina and the infant Britannicus.

“Just because you aren’t paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” – Colin Soutar.

In appearance and physical abilities we are also presented with extremes.  “Claudius had a certain dignity of presence, which showed to best advantage when he happened to be standing or seated, and especially when he was expressing no emotion.  This was because though tall, well built and handsome, with a fine head of white hear and firm neck…” [21] A narrative which inspires thoughts of regal majesty and confidence, all but destroyed by Suetonius’ continued imagery, “…he stumbled was he walked owing to the weakness of his knees, and also because if excited by either play or serious business, had several disagreeable traits.” [22] Suetonius records the most pronounced manifestations to coincide with, “the stress of anger,” which resulted in, “slobbering at the mouth and running at the nose, a stammer, and persistent nervous tic- which grew so bad under emotional stress that his head would toss from side to side.” [23] As previous discussed, modern science demonstrates a marked increase in symptomatology of many neurological disorders- such as cerebral palsy and dystonia during stressful episodes. [24]

Tacitus, whose account of Claudius’s reign was no less flattering, presented the emperor as an indecisive leader who was easily manipulated by the Roman Senate and/or his wife Agrippina. [25] Portrayed as a hen-pecked husband, unable to control his wife- Claudius allows Agrippina to mettle in the affairs of state and terrorize other women who she saw as potential rivals, whether real or imagined. [26]


The Emperor Claudius depicted as Jupiter

Numerous effigies of Claudius survive into our modern age.  None of which better depicts the idealist Roman form than that of his depiction as Jupiter, currently on display in the Vatican, in Rome. [27] Perfect in appearance, Claudius’ form is unmarred by disease or infirmity- a commanding presence.  Crowned in laurels as befits an emperor, his left hand holds the sceptrum Augusti– denoting his unquestioned rank as consul and imperator.  In his right hand Claudius holds a libations dish, acknowledging his ritualistic connection to the divine.

The contrasts are often more nuanced and obscure.  Minted in 41-42 AD is the gold aureus, which on its reverse, depicts Claudius in a seated position- a subtle acknowledgement of his frail constitution. [28] Much less complimentary is a image of Claudius on copper coin(s) minted from 41-50 AD, with emphasis placed upon the heavily musculature of his neck- perhaps a reference to his known spasmodic episodes. [29] Others, such as a simple bronze coin bearing the image of the Emperor Claudius- TICLAVD IV SCAESARAVGPMTRPIMP (Claudius 4th Emperor), which on the back bears a depiction of the goddess Spes, bearing an inscription invoking hope (providence) for our Emperor, or perhaps a desperate plea for his continued health. [30] See image below.


Accomplishments of his Reign

What can not be debated are the marked changes which Claudius’ rule brought to the Empire- the drainage of Lake Fucine and the building of a harbor at Ostia, completion of new aqueducts and the refurbishment of the Circus Maximus. [31] Each of these works apparently arose out of necessity and not opulence.

Claudius appeared practical and handled exigency well, as displayed in his actions during a severe fire of the Aemilian quarter.  When it became apparent the fire would not be subdued with the manpower normally available, he ordered people from every district to respond and serve in the firefighting effort, a task for which they were justly compensated.  As Emperor, he remained constantly vigilant in regards to Rome’s supply of grain and was always interested in the proper upkeep of the city. [32] This efficiency as an administrator goes far to belie the allegations of reduced mental capacity or vacillation during a crisis.  In fact, it demonstrate the ability to prioritize and make quick executive decisions.  While not a militarist, Claudius enacted new regulations in regards to the Roman army.  Members of the equites, after a proscribed length of service in command of an infantry cohort (typically 480 men), were then required to serve as a Decurion, a commander of a cavalry squadron.  Only after these two previous conditions were filled could a posting to military Tribune be made. [33] Claudius also strengthened the separation of the military and the Roman Senate by prohibiting unofficial fraternization between the two groups.

Perhaps the most wide-sweeping of Claudius’ reforms was the breaking down of social barriers and cultural stigmatization of Roman Freedmen and slaves.  By appointing Freedmen to positions of confidence, Claudius was not only able to surround himself with persons loyal to him, but decrease the stranglehold upon public service by the aristocracy.  By imperial decree, Claudius allowed the sons of freedmen to be adopted by equites and thus be able to enter the senatorial ranks. [34] In regards to the treatment of slaves, Claudius ordered that injured and ill slaves had to be given medical treatment rather than be abandoned to die by their masters.  Likewise, any slave which had previously so abandoned, only to later have recovered from their illness was set free.  Claudius also prohibited the killing of slaves with the intent to deny medical treatment- doing so would be considered murder. [35] These progressive and compassionate acts did much to popularize him the freedmen and plebs, but earned the ire of the patricians.


Historians will never know with absolute certainty the exact cause and pathology of Claudius’ neurological disorder(s).  Having never been considered for the purple, Claudius in all likelihood would have never found himself thrust into the annals of history, except for a specific chain of events which ended with the death of his nephew Caligula.  The exact limitations his disabilities placed upon him are rather unclear but certainly presented challenges almost unimaginable to persons similarly afflicted in antiquity- let alone those who reigned as Emperor of Rome for 13 years.

Despite his disabilities, or perhaps because of them, Claudius was a clever and practical leader who surrounded himself with a cadre of loyal soldiers and freedmen whom he could trust and rely upon.  Under his leadership, the Roman economy was relatively stable, and practical public works were completed.  Whether motivated by populist views or a distrust of the aristocracy, Claudius made numerous social reforms which where in antiquity key points of criticism, but today regarded, by many as a legacy of enlightenment.


Armstrong, Keith. “Emperor Claudius I: The Man, His Physical Impairment, and Reactions to It.” 2013. Accessed March 07, 2015.

Cary, Earnest. “Roman History, 60.” Cassius Dio, Roman History 60. Accessed March 02, 2015.

Cary, M. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 1975.

“Claudius as Jupiter.” Roman Emperors. Accessed March 06, 2015.

“Claudius Bronze Coin.” Roman Emperors. Accessed March 06, 2015.

“Claudius Gold Aureus.” Museum Victoria. Accessed March 08, 2015.

“Claudius Copper Coin.” Museum Victoria. Accessed March 09, 2015.

“Dystonias Fact Sheet.” : National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Accessed March 08, 2015.

Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 1996.

Rice, Jane E. “The Emperor with the Shaking Head: Claudius’ Movement Disorder.” Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine 93 (April 2000): 198-201.

Shelton, Jo-Ann. As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Suetonius, and Robert Graves. The Twelve Caesars. London: Penguin Books, 2007.

Tacitus, Cornelius, Alfred John Church et al. The Complete Works of Tacitus: The Annals. The History. The Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola. Germany and Its Tribes. A Dialogue on Oratory. New York: Modern Library, 1942.  Accessed March 08, 2015.

References and Citations

[1] Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 1996, 262-263.

[2] Suetonius, Life of Divus Claudius 2/Graves, 179; all translations of Suetonius are taken from Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars, translated by Robert Graves; revised with an introduction and notes by J. B. Rives (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).

[3] Suetonius, 2/Graves, 179.

[4 & 5] Suetonius, 3-4/Graves, 180.

[6] Suetonius, 30/Graves, 198.

[7] Cary, Earnest. “Roman History, 60.” Cassius Dio, Roman History 60. Accessed March 02, 2015., 60.23.1

[8] Armstrong, Keith. “Emperor Claudius I: The Man, His Physical Impairment, and Reactions to It.” 2013. Accessed March 07, 2015.

[9] Rice, Jane E. “The Emperor with the Shaking Head: Claudius’ Movement Disorder.” Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine 93 (April 2000), 198.

[10] “Dystonias Fact Sheet.” : National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Accessed March 08, 2015.

[11] Armstrong, Keith. “Emperor Claudius I: The Man, His Physical Impairment, and Reactions to It.” 2013. Accessed March 07, 2015.

[12] Shelton, Jo-Ann. As the Romans Did: A Source Book in Roman Social History. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, 26-29.

[13] Suetonius, 8/Graves, 182-183.

[14] Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 1996, 264-265.

[15] ibid., 264.

[16] Cary, M. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 1975, 355.

[17 & 18] Suetonius, 10-11/Graves, 184.

[19] Suetonius, 15 & 39/Graves, 186 & 202.

[20] Suetonius, 35/Graves, 200.

[21-23] Suetonius, 30/Graves, 198.

[24] Rice, Jane E. “The Emperor with the Shaking Head: Claudius’ Movement Disorder.” Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine 93 (April 2000), 200.

[25] Tacitus, The annals 12.7/ Church; all translations of Tacitus taken from The Complete Works of Tacitus: The Annals. The History. The Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola. Germany and Its Tribes. A Dialogue on Oratory. New York: Modern Library, 1942. Accessed March 08, 2015.

[26] Tacitus, 12.22/ Church.

[27] “Claudius as Jupiter.” Roman Emperors. Accessed March 06, 2015.

[28] “Claudius Gold Aureus.” Museum Victoria. Accessed March 08, 2015.

[29] “Claudius Copper Coin.” Museum Victoria. Accessed March 09, 2015.

[30] “Claudius Bronze Coin.” Roman Emperors. Accessed March 06, 2015.

[31-32] Suetonius, 18-20/Graves, 190-191.

[33] Suetonius, 25/Graves, 194.

[34] Suetonius, 24/Graves 193-194.

[35] Suetonius, 25/Graves 194-195.

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Hero of Alexandria: Bringing the Gods to Life.

By Pat Lowinger


Aeolipile (basic steam engine)- Modern Reproduction by John R. Bentley, 2007.

Hero (Heron) of Alexandria was a well-known mathematician and engineer of the 1st century AD.  Many people are aware of some, if not several, of his ancient inventions which relied upon the use of steam power to achieve mechanical movement.  By trial and undoubtedly error, Hero devised grand displays of automated movement and music to the bewildered crowds of ancient Alexandria.  For some of his inventions Hero would receive public praise and notoriety, others would remain secret- a grand mystery to be exploited by a select group of ancient Greco-Egyptian priests and temple workers.

The Theory of Pneumatics

Hero is traditionally credited as the founder of the field of pneumatics or more simply the study of gases and the properties they exhibit when heated and then cooled or vice versa.  Many of our modern conveniences and machines are based on the application of pneumatics.  Those who have seen a steam locomotive in action or heard the hissing of air-breaks on a modern semi-truck likely don’t ever take a few brief moments to silently offer thanks to Hero or his pioneering work, but perhaps they should…

Modern historians, engineers and scientists are fortunate that some of Hero’s written works have survived and are available to us today.  One of Hero’s surviving works, Pnuematica, details the early principles of gas (air) theory and the creation of vacuums within closed systems.  Perhaps Hero’s best known inventions was the aeolipile, or basic steam engine, which utilized steam pressure to spin (rotate) a sphere around a fixed axis.   In addition to pnuematics, Hero typically incorporated hydraulics, pulleys and gears into many of his inventions, demonstrating his advanced knowledge of science which was previously unrivaled in the ancient world.

The Magical Doors


A diagram of Hero’s magical doors taken from Bennet Woodcroft’s 1851 translation (and commentary) of Hero’s original text(s).

In order to help the gods amaze their faithful worshipers, Hero designed an elaborate set of temple doors which would appear to open without the aid of person or mechanism.  As believers neared the temple the doors would be closed.  As worshipers gathered, the priest would begin ‘divine’ incantations and light a sacred fire.  This fire was positioned over a a metallic vessel containing water which would be heated as the ritual progressed and prayers to the gods were offered by the priest and possibly the worshipers in attendance.  When enough steam had been generated, the doors which had been built upon ‘mechanical hinges’ would open.

As Hero experimented and further refined his inventions, additional ‘features’ could be added to his devices.  By adding an additional system of gears, pulleys and partially filled (sealed) container of water, Hero could combine the opening of the temple door to the sounding of a trumpet.  As the door opened, the lower portion of a specially designed trumpet containing a reservoir of trapped air would be lowered (submerged) into the water-filled vessel.  The resulting pressure would force air up and through the trumpet, creating a musical tone (of unknown tonal quality).

To the faithful worshipers, this was a divine pronouncement by the gods that the prayer (sacrifice) offered on their behalf had been accepted.  For the priests, this was a way to inspire continued patronage and contributions to the temple which they faithfully served.  For Hero, this was simply the application of science and an expedient way for him to not only test his various theories, but also to provide him with considerable financial support.  Hero’s own complicity as a co-conspirator in these acts of charlatanism seems rather obvious, but in the ancient world the line separating science from mysticism was often unclear.  An occurrence we can still observe today in our analysis of religious and metaphysical beliefs.

Hero’s Musical Birds


A diagram of Hero’s musical bird taken from Bennet Woodcroft’s 1851 translation (and commentary) of Hero’s original text(s).

Another of Hero’s creations was his ‘magical’ singing birds.  By the clever use of a fountain of water, Hero was able to bring his metallic birds to life.  By pouring water into the air-tight container (altar or pedestal), air was forced up and through a tube which caused ‘the bird’ to ‘sing.’  Depending on the scale desired, a larger pedestal could be constructed and by adjusting the number of birds and/or volume of water poured into the pedestal, flocks of ‘singing birds’ could be brought to life.   Hero’s writings also explain that by varying the size and quality of the pipes, that different notes (tones) could be created- as well as incorporating various ‘automations’ or mechanical movements, giving even more wonder and splendor to his creations.

The Coin Machine

Perhaps not the most ingenious of Hero’s inventions, the ‘coin machine’ was perhaps the most lucrative.  This was Hero’s answer for an otherwise busy and occupied priest who did not have the time necessary to take donations from the multitudes of temple patrons who wanted to make small monetary sacrifices in exchange for ‘divine’ blessings.


A diagram of Hero’s Coin Machine taken from Bennet Woodcroft’s 1851 translation (and commentary) of Hero’s original text(s).

Upon entering the temple, a patron would approach a statute of their beloved god or goddess.  After offering a short prayer or a few moments of silent reflection, they would place a coin (of five drachms) into a slot located on the top a vessel (appearing as a sealed vase).  The weight of this coin would cause a lever to be raised and a small amount of ‘sacred’ water (or wine) contained within the vessel would be poured out.  When the weight of the coin had depressed the level to a certain point (and released the prerequisite amount of liquid), the coin would ‘fall’ into the vessel, releasing the arm and shutting off the flow of liquid. The water or wine could then be used in whatever manner desired to insure continued blessings from the gods.  Again, this was a miracle to those who had little or no understanding of machines or science in the ancient world, but could be considered rather simple by today’s standards.  In some respects, Hero’s coin machine was the ancient equivalent of an automated horoscope or tarot card reader.

Discussion and Conclusion

As a pioneer in the field of pneumatics Hero’s contribution to ancient science were revolutionary and inspiring to modern historians, physicists and science enthusiasts alike.  In Pneumatica, Hero describes no less than 78 ‘inventions’ which could be utilized for various tasks or as displays of wonderment.  Of those 78, 10 were specifically created for ‘use’ in the temples of Alexandria and beyond.  Of the remaining 68, most could have been easily incorporated into one or more rituals or divine mysteries presented by priests to amaze and astound the temple’s patrons.

As modern people we might view Hero of Alexandria as little more than an elitist who made a living by bilking the simple and gullible people of Alexandria.  This opinion is not without some merit.  As for myself, I see Hero as a much more socially complex and fascinating person than this.  Through his inventions, Hero offered the people of Alexandria a tangible connection to the divine as well as amazing and wonderful displays of science- admittedly without full disclosure.  It can be easy to dismiss this assertion, or is it?  Are Hero’s inventions any different than modern faith healers and televangelists who will ‘cure’ or ‘save’ someone in exchange for a small ‘faith donation.’  For only $2 a minute, you too can have your own personal psychic reading done by ‘trained and certified’ psychics.

I would encourage anyone with an interest in Hero’s story and/or his considerable inventions to read one of more of the current literary works which discuss his story in detail, such as The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, paying special attention to chapter 12.


The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria translated by Bennet Woodcroft (1851), originally published via University College, London.

Available digitally via the Hopkin Thomas Project, University of Rochester:

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Viking DNA: Reexamining the Scandinavian Migration to Great Britain.

By Pat Lowinger


DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid): Google Public Images.

In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published their first paper of what was to become the first of many in a series in the emerging field of molecular biology, The Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid (DNA).[1]  Building upon this monumental discovery, science has, over the past seventy years had continued to examine, catalog and ultimately sequence the DNA of over sixty thousand plant and animal species.[2] In regards to humans, this technology has allowed for the testing and diagnosis of numerous genetic diseases, genetic inheritance patters and questions of paternity.  In the past two decades, there has been an increased use of genetic material in the examination of human migration patterns.  One powerful technique which has been utilized is the ‘finger-printing’ of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sometimes referred to as maternal DNA for reasons which will be fully examined throughout this narrative.  By using a variety of recently pioneered techniques mtDNA can now be extracted from the remains of long dead persons and be compositely analyzed to an ever growing list of regional and ethnic genomic markers.[3]  In light of this new technology and recent archaeological discoveries it is necessary to reexamine the impact of Scandinavian migrations to the British Isles, but also dispel long-held and often dogmatic historical narratives which are very often perpetuated in the historiography of the British Isles and their closely related neighbor, Iceland.  Often mis-characterized as being solely motivated by plunder and military conquest, the Scandinavian migrations during the late Eighth through Eleventh Centuries AD were in fact a complex series of migration events, at times characterized by raiding, military conquest, in order to establish colonies throughout the British Isles by Scandinavian settlers. 

Historical Introduction


Illuminated Manuscript, The Life of St. Edmund, dated to the early 12th century AD.  The illustration depicts the Scandinavian Invasion of Britain in 865 AD- The Great Heathen Army

The Scandinavians were relative newcomers to the British Isles during the late Eighth and Ninth Centuries AD- having come after both the Saxons (Late Fourth through Fifth Centuries AD) and the Romans (First through Fourth Centuries AD).[4] But both Romans and Saxons appear to have settled to the southern portion of Britain.  For the Romans, Hadrian’ Wall is generally accepted to mark the point of Roman expansion, while for the Saxons, conquest and settlements appear to have been concentrated along the Saxon Shore.[5]

The year 789 AD holds dubious distinction in English history, as it was the first known (and recorded) hostile action between Scandinavian raiders (Vikings) and the people of Portland (in Dorset).[6] This relatively small band of 3 Norwegian longships (misidentified as Danish by English chroniclers) arrived, possibly for the purpose of trade, instead murdered the Reeve for unknown reasons and subsequently looted the town.  English chroniclers would continue to note intermittent Viking raids of towns and monasteries along Britain’s northern coast for the until the mid 850’s AD.

In 865 AD, the first large Scandinavian ‘army’ (commonly known as the Great Heathen Army) landed in East Anglia and soon captured the city of York.  Following these initially successes, additional Scandinavians arrived and settled along Britain’s eastern coast.  By 878 AD, the Scandinavians had conquered sizable holdings of east and central Britain- including the cities of York, Leicester and London.  In 884 AD, the Scandinavians (predominately Danes) and Anglo-Saxons established what is now commonly referred to as the ‘Danelaw’– the region which allowed for Danish self-rule in territories previously under Anglo-Saxon control.  As noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “The same year [876] Healfden divided the land of the Northumbrians; so that they became afterwards their harrowers and plowers.”[7] While brief, this entry indicated a significant investment by the Scandinavians into developing newly acquired agricultural holdings for long-term investiture.  The Scandinavian migration and settlement was not only limited to the eastern coast of Britain, but was also significant in Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, Normandy and the Baltic region.[8]

Fundamentals of mtDNA Technology and Inheritance

DNA within animal cells, such as Homo sapiens is normally categorized into two broad types.  The first type in commonly referred to as intra-nuclear which is associated with the formation of chromosomes.  Chromosomes are the key loci of genetic information within a human cell, containing a complete copy of all of the genetic material and coding(s) necessary for the development of cells, tissues and organs.[9]  In effect, most eukaryotic cells (animal cells) contain a complete copy of all of the genetic information of their parent organism, thus a single leukocyte (white blood cell) or follicular stem cells (hair growing cells) can be utilized to examine the entire genetic profile of the organism from which they originated.  As the products of sexual reproduction, an individual Homo sapiens genetic profile is in fact a complex hybridization of the DNA received from their parents.[10]  In the case of humans, a male sperm carries 23 single chromosomes which will fertilize a female egg cell- which also contains 23 single chromosomes.  Together, each of these 23 single chromosomes ‘pair-up’ to form a single cell containing 23 pairs of chromosomes and a diploid cell (which is what a typical human eukaryotic cell is).


Diagram contrasting nuclear DNA and mtDNA inheritance- The Family History Guide.

While the overwhelming amount of genetic material is located within the nucleus, there is a small amount (less than 0.25 %) to be found outside, or extra-nuclear.  This extra-nuclear DNA is associated with small, self- replicating organelles, know as mitochondria.  Mitochondria are responsible for the conversion of glucose into ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which powers the metabolism of the cell- often referred to as the ‘power house’ of the cell.  Mitochondria are unique not only because they produce energy within the cell, but that they self-replicate via their own DNA which is stored within their own structures.  To distinguish mitochondrial DNA from cellular DNA, the prefix ‘mt’ is added.  These relatively small pieces of mtDNA contain nearly 17,000 base pairs and code for 37 different genes which has been fully sequenced (and mapped) by geneticists.[11]

Like DNA, mtDNA undergoes point mutations leading to genetic drift- or more simply genetic drift within the human species.  These mutations, unless immediately fatal are occasionally conserved within the host organism and passed along to its progeny, with one notable exception which will bed addressed at greater length shortly.  So, just as there are DNA markers (genes or more precisely sets of genes) which code for various hair and eye colors, there are mtDNA markers and mutations which can be readily identified by modern biotechnology.  And as with phenotypic expressions of hair and eye color, DNA markers can be utilized to identify regional or ethnic origins- such as the use of haplogroup R1b to identify those of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.[12]  The same kind of markers in mtDNA can be utilized to identify regional and/or ethnic groups, yet unlike DNA, mtDNA mutations or variations do not manifest in visibly different characteristics between two groups (such as hair and eye color).

In addition, mtDNA is not transferred by the male during sexual reproduction.  The mother’s egg supplies all of the cells (ovum) mitochondria for the soon to develop fetus. Thus all of the mtDNA contained within successive progeny can be traced entirely through matriarchal lines.[13] Thus by process of ‘genetic subtraction’ it is possible to determine if subsequent offspring arose from distant and distinct parentages in the remote past.

The Scandinavian Settlers of Britain

Those Scandinavians who came in the wake of the great military invasion(s) of 865 AD were made up not only of able bodied men and youths of military age, but also a moderate to high percentage of women.[14] Previously suggested models of Scandinavian migration theory have postulated that the majority of Scandinavian settlers were men, who often intermarried with Anglo-Saxon women as suggested the all too often repeated narrative of widespread Viking raiding, pillaging and raping throughout the areas of Britain which they had conquered.  While forced sexual relations by Viking conquerors upon the native Anglo-Saxon population can not be fully dismissed, the extremely low frequency and detection of non-Scandinavian mtDNA suggests such copulation was rather rare prior the end of the Tenth Century AD.[15] This further supports assertions that newly constructed Scandinavian settlements remained largely isolated from their Anglo-Saxon neighbors, even within the Danelaw region.   The earlier established and accepted theory regarding Scandinavian migration patterns were based largely upon written source materials and the examination of known Scandinavian graves and burial mounds.  Recent examination and DNA analysis of female Scandinavian remains, dated between the Ninth and Eleventh Centuries AD indicate the migrating population consisted of no less than one-third of women and was as possibly high as forty percent.[16]


Map of Britain c. 848 AD denoting the regions of the Danelaw, from the Atlas of European History, Earle W. Dowe (1910).

Knowing what percentage of the Scandinavian migrants to Britain were female brings us no closer to a positive cultural identification of the Scandinavians themselves.  Where they all Danish and/or Norwegian?  It has been the long standing limitation that identification of the origins of various Scandinavian migrants were based on their point of demarcation to Britain or the particular king or warlord they traveled or settled under.[17]  By examining the remains (and their DNA) of known Vikings who immigrated during the Ninth through Eleventh Centuries, it becomes immediately clear that Scandinavian migrants to Britain were an ethnically diverse group.[18]  While most Scandinavian migrants did originate from known Scandinavian countries- a small, but notable percentage bear genetic markers which showed origins in Baltic Europe, South-western Russia and Northern Ireland.[19]

What these rather small groups show us is that Scandinavian settlers from other areas, such as the Baltic or Ireland first immigrated to those areas were some level of intermarrying occurred, followed then by subsequent immigration and settlement within the Danelaw region- commonly referred to as ‘second generation’ migrations.  This information presents several new questions which remain largely unanswered; what forces drove these particular Scandinavians from their recently settled homelands to the eastern coast of England?  what where the political or social pressures which inspired renewed settlement efforts within the Danelaw? It is possible that a decisive answer may never be obtained, but in light of the strong archaeological and genetic evidence, the Danelaw region was experiencing a significant influx of settlers apparently intent upon establishing permanent residence.

The Huxley and Surrounding Viking Hoards

In 2004, a Scandinavian hoard was discovered in Northwest England (Huxley), dated to around the year 900 AD.  The relative size and wealth contained within the hoard suggests a growing importance of the settlement in regards to its position between Dublin, the Irish Sea and the northern Danelaw.[20] To date there have been three Viking hoards found in the Cheshire region; Huxley, Eccleston and the so-called ‘coin hoard’ at Chester.  Of the armbands (arm rings) found at Huxley, many contain features which are classified as Hiberno-Scandinavian, being of mixed Irish and Scandinavian cultural and artistic influences.[21] Two plausible explanations for the hoards existence in this region:  The first is that these items belonged to Scandinavian settlers who had been forced to flee or otherwise migrate to the Danelaw from Dublin.  The second possibility is that the items were created locally, by Hiberno-Scandinavians who had settled in the region.  Whichever is the case, it demonstrates the transitory nature of Scandinavian settlers, who resettled as needs and/or desires prompted them to.


The 21 silver armbands of the Huxley Hoard discovered in 2004.  National Museum of Liverpool.

The high number of silver coins found at Chester demonstrates that by the 920’s the minting of coinage by the Scandinavians was widespread- occurring at Lincoln and Rochester in addition to York.  In addition to the locally minted coins, there were a significant number of imported coins- namely southern England.[22] The Danelaw, consisting to two independent kingdoms; Northumbria and East Anglia appears to have regarded the coinage of the other as foreign, demonstrating the relative disconnect of authority (or submission) between the two respective powers within the Danelaw.  It is also interesting to observe that coins minted after Guthrum’s (christened as Aethelstan) conversion to Christianity in 878 AD contain the obvious Christian iconography of the cross.[23]  While Scandinavians living in the areas of the northern Danelaw remained largely pagan, the conversion of Guthrum and several of his key chieftains marked a significant shift culturally among these early Scandinavian settlers, which in many ways brought them culturally and politically closer to the Anglo-Saxons living within and outside the southern Danelaw region.[24]  Thus further suggests that the Danelaw was more politically and culturally fragmented than once thought and not a unified and thoroughly Danish or Norwegian as suggested in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles– but rather a mixture of various Scandinavian, Hiberno-Scandinavian and other so-called ‘second generation’ settlers.

Scotland, the Orkneys and the Shetlands

The Scandinavians had desires which extended beyond just Britain- northward into Scotland, and the Orkney and Shetland Islands.  In Scotland, Scandinavian settlement appears to have been rather rapid, although unlike the Danelaw region the Vikings (Norwegians) who settled in Scotland appear to have done so in isolated pockets.  One issue plaguing historians and archaeologists is a marked lack of historical writings in regards to the establishment and/or location Scandinavian settlements along the coasts of Scotland.[25] In those areas where known Scandinavian settlements have been located, remains have been identified and genetic testing has determined that the Shetland Islands were settled by equal (~5-10%) numbers of males and females.[26] Similar genetic testing of remains found in the Orkney Islands indicate that will approximately 30% of the islands inhabitants were descended from Scandinavian ancestors (44% in the Shetlands), again, as was the case in the nearby Shetlands the remains of Scandinavian settlers dated to the Late Eighth through Eleventh Centuries AD show approximately equal numbers of ethnically and genetically Scandinavian males and females.[27]  Genetic evidence of this kind indicates the strong likelihood that Scandinavian settlers of the northern coast and islands regions of Scotland were composed of family groups- possibly of an extended nature.  In the words of Ceiridwen Edwards, “So, perhaps we had it wrong all these years and the vicious Viking warrior was really nothing more than a doting dad- but this does not seem to be the whole story.”[28] While most historians likely aren’t ready to go this far… it does call for a renewed discussion on the topic.


While remotely located, and laying outside the sphere of the British Isles, the Scandinavian settlement of Iceland serves as an important an unique point of comparison.  Largely dissimilar from the Danelaw region and completely reversed from the observations of Northern Scotland- the genetic studies of Iceland revealed results which followed what many would consider the time honored and notorious historical narrative of Viking expansion.  In 2003, Geneticist Agnar Halgason and his team colleagues undertook and extensive genetic study of the relatively small population of Iceland.  The results indicated that while nearly all Icelanders contained numerous chromosomal DNA markers with marked Scandinavian ancestry, nearly 87% of the populations’ mtDNA had distinct genetic markers associated with persons of Irish and Scottish (non-Scandinavian) ancestry.[29] What this demonstrates is that while the original male colonists of Iceland were in fact Scandinavian, the majority of the females were either culturally Irish and/or Hiberno- Scandinavians transported to Iceland from Scotland or Ireland.[30] “It seems in these areas [Iceland and Ireland], that Viking settlement was mainly for the unattached male, who subsequently ‘acquired’ partners from among the local populations [before settling in Iceland].”[31]

Leap-Frog Migrations


Overview of Viking Invasion (including Settlement) routes provided (public) by

In 2000, Historian N. Price put forward an iteration of the long held Scandinavian migration theory which added additional conditions and permutations on pre-existing models in his explanation of Viking settlement patterns in the region of Kiev and the Baltic region.[32] This rather simple hypothesis offers that Scandinavian settlements were either proceeded by trade and/or raiding into areas on the established peripheries of Scandinavian control and influence.  Then following the establishment of a successful settlement these ‘transplanted’ Scandinavians would themselves travel, trade and raid and possibly establish new settlements of their own.  While it is possible that some Viking settlements were transitory- existing for only a few seasons before the inhabitants moved on, the existence of numerous large and structurally significant Viking settlements calls this assertion into question.  The more likely scenario is that within one to three generations of being founded, these new settlements were themselves well enough established to in turn support the establishment of ‘newer’ settlements which became the ‘new’ frontier of Scandinavian exploration and settlement.

If correct in its assertion, the ‘leap-frog’ migration theory would constitute a renewed dialog and examination of many long held historical premises in regards to the Scandinavian invasion and settlement within the British Isles.  One immediate implication is that while ‘waves’ of Scandinavian immigrants did in fact originate from regions traditionally associated with Scandinavian peoples (such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway), other important groups of secondary or second-generation Scandinavians played a significant role in the expansion of the Scandinavian sphere of influence during the Eighth through the Eleventh Centuries AD.


The impact of the Scandinavian migrations upon Europe during the Eighth through Eleventh Centuries can not be understated.  Historian George Holmes makes the following insightful statement regarding this period of history, “the effects of the Viking experience were just as profound in Scandinavia itself as in the parts of northern Europe touched by the Viking raids.”[33] Holmes goes on to add, “The [Viking] raids brought Scandinavia into much closer contact with the other parts of Europe, paving the way for conversion to Christianity, and bringing economic and social changes which were to lead to the political unification of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.”[34]  Beginning in the early Tenth Century and throughout the next century, the Scandinavians found themselves in the center of an ever increasing territory which shaped much of the history of northern Europe, particularly the British Isles.

As previously discussed, the Danelaw region was not homogeneous mixture of Danes and Norwegians.  The presence of numerous Hiberno- Scandinavians at Chester show the settlement of second-generation Scandinavians who displayed a strong Scandinavian heritage, but one that had also been influenced by exposure and intermarriage with the indigenous Irish, had themselves settled in the Danelaw region.  In addition, the presence of other second-generation Scandinavians within the Danelaw shows at least a tacit cultural acceptance of those born outside of the traditional Scandinavian homelands.

Further close examination of the Danelaw region itself presents some difficulties in the traditional historiography of England.  While the Danelaw served as the nominal delineation between Scandinavian and English rule, it fails to show the overwhelming presence of Scandinavians in the British Isles or the relatively transitory nature of Scandinavians traveling into and out of the region.  Despite the false narrative of historians such as Barrie Markham Rhodes who stated, “[The Scandinavians within the Danelaw established] farms and village communities [which] needed both men and women to run them, so the Vikings would have had to find themselves wives”– the genetic examination of archaeological evidence proves that relatively few Scandinavian males within the Danelaw took Anglo-Saxon women as wives, but instead relocated large numbers of Scandinavian women into the region.  This evidence largely dispels any assertions that the Vikings arrived in Britain, killed all the men and subjugated their widows as wives, which implies a more peaceful co-existence between newly arrived Scandinavians and the native Anglo-Saxons.  This should by no means imply that the two groups did not engage in protracted and often costly military campaigns against each other, but rather to imply the Scandinavian migration into the Danelaw resembled the military campaigns which were occurring in mainland Europe- with the caveat that the Vikings often arrived by boat.  This new and less ruthless narrative of the Scandinavian settlements within the Danelaw region also offers possible new insights into the early agreements by Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons to agree to peaceful negotiations and relative succession of hostilities, as well as the early acceptance of Christianity by Guthrum and by extension presumably that of many of his pagan subjects.

Conclusion and More Consideration

The Scandinavian migration of the British Isles is a complex narrative which is poorly served by encapsulation into short, dogmatic points of view.  No single narrative can address what is observed in the Orkney Islands, Iceland or the Danelaw.  In each case it is necessary to examine the available evidence and apply the latest scientific modes of inquiry to support or refine previously held positions and/or theories.  What is evident is what begun as a forceful military expansion along the eastern shore of Britain was quickly followed by settlers who established themselves in the interior regions of the country.  These settlers, while initially cultural isolationists (to various degrees), were not bent on the destruction or eradication of the native Anglo-Saxon population.  The Danelaw region was not an area completely populated by Scandinavians and their thralls, but the acknowledgement of the preeminence of Scandinavian lordship over mixed population of Scandinavian settlers and the native Anglo-Saxons who continued to live, trade and worship largely as they had done before.

In a future article (date unknown), I will examine the Scandinavian migration and settlement patterns of Ireland, Normandy and the Baltic region in the hope of shedding even more light upon this fascinating subject.  But with that, I must caution all of my students and readers that as powerful as DNA technology is… it does have theoretical and practical limitations.  Quality archaeological and anthropological research will remain a fundamental component in the analysis and understanding of Medieval and Ancient History.

Sources & References:

Barrett, James H. “What Caused the Viking Age?” Antiquity 82, no. 317 (2008): 671-85.

Blair, John. The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Fleming, Robin. Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070. London: Penguin, 2011.

Graham-Campbell, James, and Robert A. Philpott. The Huxley Viking Hoard: Scandinavian Settlement in the North West. Liverpool: National Museums Liverpool, 2011.

Goodacre, S., and A. Helgason. “Genetic Evidence for a Family-based Scandinavian Settlement of Shetland and Orkney during the Viking Periods.” January 2005.

Helgason, A., G. Nicholson, K. Stefansson, and P. Donnelly. “A Reassessment of Genetic Diversity in Icelanders: Strong Evidence from Multiple Loci for Relative Homogeneity Caused by Genetic Drift.” Annals of Human Genetics Ann Human Genet 67, no. 4 (2003): 281-97. doi:10.1046/j.1469-1809.2003.00046.x.

Holmes, George. The Oxford History of Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Mcevoy, B., and C. J. Edwards. “Human Migration: Reappraising the Viking Image.” Heredity 95, no. 2 (2005): 111-12. doi:10.1038/sj.hdy.6800695.

McLeod, Shane. The Beginning of Scandinavian Settlement in England: The Viking ‘Great Army’ and Early Settlers, C. 865-900.

Ostrer, Harry and Karl Skorecki. “The Population Genetics of the Jewish People.” National Center for Biotechnology Information.  Hum Genet. 2013 Feb; 132(2): 119–127.

Richards, J. D. The Vikings: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Schwartz, Marianne, and John Vissing. “Paternal Inheritance of Mitochondrial DNA.” New England Journal of Medicine N Engl J Med 347, no. 8 (2002): 576-80. doi:10.1056/nejmoa020350.

Sykes, Bryan, and Bryan Sykes. Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2006.

Sykes, Bryan. The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2002.

“Genomic Sequences.” National Center for Biotechnology Information.

“Anglo Saxon Chronicle.” Anglo Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram (1823).

[1] Sykes, Bryan. The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2002), 25

[2] “Genomic Sequences.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. Accessed December 09, 2015.

[3] Sykes, Bryan. The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2002), 29-31.

[4] Fleming, Robin. Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070. (London: Penguin, 2011), 4-6, 40-41.

[5] Hadrian’s Wall is in fact south of Antonine’s Wall built during the mid Second Century AD.  While ultimately unknown, Antonine’s wall likely served as a point of demarcation between pro-Roman Celtic tribes and hostile tribes living northward.

[6] Fleming, Robin. Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070. (London: Penguin, 2011), 219-220.

[7] “Anglo Saxon Chronicle.” Anglo Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram (1823).

[8] Richards, J. D. The Vikings: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 56-57 & 102-104.

[9] Sykes, Bryan. The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2002), 26-27.

[10] Ibid., 25.

[11] Schwartz, Marianne, and John Vissing. “Paternal Inheritance of Mitochondrial DNA.” New England Journal of Medicine (347, no. 8 2002), 576-80.

[12] Ostrer, Harry and Karl Skorecki. “The Population Genetics of the Jewish People.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2013), 123-125.

[13] Sykes, Bryan, and Bryan Sykes. Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland. (New York: W.W. Norton &, 2006), 102-105.

[14] McLeod, Shane. The Beginning of Scandinavian Settlement in England: The Viking ‘Great Army’ and Early Settlers, (C. 865-900), 88-90.

[15] Sykes, Bryan, and Bryan Sykes. Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland. (New York: W.W. Norton &, 2006), 260-262.

[16] McLeod, Shane. The Beginning of Scandinavian Settlement in England: The Viking ‘Great Army’ and Early Settlers, (C. 865-900),100-108.

[17] Ibid., 66-68.

[18] The burial site at Repton and Heath Wood consists of three separate burial areas, the first dating to the 9th Century.  Unlike the burial mounds commonly associated with military action, these burials were accompanied by very few grave-goods with both sexes interred in similar states of adornment.

[19] McLeod, Shane. The Beginning of Scandinavian Settlement in England: The Viking ‘Great Army’ and Early Settlers, (C. 865-900), 109-110 &112-132.

[20] Graham-Campbell, James, and Robert A. Philpott. The Huxley Viking Hoard: Scandinavian Settlement in the North West. (Liverpool: National Museums Liverpool, 2011), 82-83.

[21] Ibid., 79.

[22] Ibid., 76.

[23] Ibid., 32.

[24] Blair, John. The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 43.

[25] McLeod, Shane. The Beginning of Scandinavian Settlement in England: The Viking ‘Great Army’ and Early Settlers, (C. 865-900),201.

[26] Goodacre, S., and A. Helgason. “Genetic Evidence for a Family-based Scandinavian Settlement of Shetland and Orkney during the Viking Periods.” January 2005.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Mcevoy, B., and C. J. Edwards. “Human Migration: Reappraising the Viking Image.” Heredity 95, no. 2 (2005), 111-112.

[29] Helgason, A., G. Nicholson, K. Stefansson, and P. Donnelly. “A Reassessment of Genetic Diversity in Icelanders: Strong Evidence from Multiple Loci for Relative Homogeneity Caused by Genetic Drift.” Annals of Human Genetics Ann Human Genet 67, no. 4 (2003),

[30] Ibid.,

[31] Mcevoy, B., and C. J. Edwards. “Human Migration: Reappraising the Viking Image.” Heredity 95, no. 2 (2005), 112.

[32] Barrett, James H. “What Caused the Viking Age?” Antiquity 82, no. 317 (2008), 676.

[33] Holmes, George. The Oxford History of Medieval Europe. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 107-108.

[34] Ibid., 108.

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Romulus: The Savior-God of Rome.

By Pat Lowinger


Relief sculpture depicting the early lives of Romulus and Remus upon the Altar of Mars and Venus, dated to the early 2nd century AD. Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome.

Despite assertions to the contrary, there were in fact many religions which included beliefs and practices centered around dying and rising deities.  One such god was Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, whose worshipers could be found throughout the Roman sphere of influence.

By the time Augustus had wrestled supreme control of the Roman state in 27 BCE, the number and diversity of religious traditions to be found within the Roman sphere was astounding.  One fascinating aspect of some of these religions, was the existence of ‘Mystery Cults’ oftentimes associated with dying and rising deities. These Mystery Cults offered ‘secret knowledge’ that granted unto an inner circle (initiates and above) some type of advantage in the afterlife.  In some cases Mystery Cults were local or regional.  Others, such as the Mystery Cults of Isis and Dionysus (Bacchus) were well-known throughout the Roman Empire.  While it is unknown if Romulus had a Mystery Cult associated with his worship, his mythology followed a general theme which was often repeated (with various permutations) throughout the Mediterranean and Near East; that of a dying and rising savior-deity.

A Short Discussion Regarding Sources:

Several ancient sources record the mythology of Romulus.  Some of these sources, such as Lucius Calpurnius Piso, Quintus Aelius TuberoDiocles of Peparethus and Fabius Pictor, were well-known in the 1st century BCE and referenced to in several surviving accounts but have been otherwise lost.  Those that have survived from ancient times include, but are not limited to: Livy’s The History of Rome, Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Roman Antiquities, Ovid’s epic poem Fasti, Cassius Dio’s History of the Romans, and Plutarch’s Life of Romulus.

In the case of Diocles of Peparethus and Fabius Pictor, these works appear to have been written during the 3rd century BCE and were heavily utilized by Plutarch in the Life of Romulus.  Since Plutarch’s account of Romulus’ mythology generally agrees with those of other surviving sources, this discussion will limit itself to the use of it, as this discussion is likely not aided by the superfluous inclusion of other sources.  Those who wish to make a more detailed examination of available source materials are encouraged to do so.

Romulus’ Basic Mythology: 


2nd century AD mosaic depicting Romulus and Remus suckling from a she-wolf.  Ma’arat al-Nu’man Museum, Syria.

One of the most extensive ‘histories’ regarding the life of Romulus comes to us from the ancient historian Plutarch (c. 45-120 AD).  In his Life of Romulus, Plutarch cobbled together several older sources and developed a narrative he believed to be the most authoritative.[1] Without recounting every facet of Romulus’ divine origin and story, these are the major foci of Romulus’ mythology:

  1. Romulus was the son of Rhea, the daughter of Numitor, who had been miraculously impregnated by the god Mars.
  2. Rhea, a Vestal Virgin, would have been cruelly punished (persecuted) by her uncle (the King Amulius), but for the protests of Antho (Amulius’ daughter and Rhea’s cousin).
  3. At birth, Romulus (and his brother Remus) were larger and more beautiful than normal (mortal) babes- alerting those who viewed them of their divine origins.
  4. Fearing the (divine) children, Amulius ordered Romulus and Remus to be taken and cast away (into a river).  Instead of being immediately drowned as the king had ordered, Romulus and Remus were placed along the riverbank and swept away (floated away) by the rising river (inside a trough).[2]
  5. Famously, as the boys wandered in the wilderness they were suckled by a she-wolf in order to help sustain them.  Then are later found (and raised) by a humble shepherd and his wife.[3]
  6. mars

    Marble bust (relief) of Mars, the divine father of Romulus. Getty Museum.

    Romulus grew to adulthood not knowing of his divine origin nor his status as a demigod.

  7. After Remus is discovered and captured (imprisoned) by King Amulius, Romulus becomes aware of his true parentage and leads a revolt against the wicked king who is subsequently killed.  Romulus then returns rightful kingship to his grandfather (Numitor).
  8. Romulus (and prior to his death, Remus) founded the city of Rome.  The founding was believed to have been on the 21st of April.[4a]
  9. On that same day, there was an eclipse of the sun.[4b]
  10. Romulus (as king) established the fundamentals of Roman Law and the order of patricians- of which he was the wealthiest and most noble. [5]
  11. Romulus was a great general (hero) that led the Romans to great victories over their rivals- displaying superhuman strength and martial abilities (a la the heroes of the Trojan War).
  12. Romulus’ death (disappearance) was shrouded in mystery.  Of which Plutarch offers three explanations:
    1. That on the Nones of July (July 7th), Romulus disappeared with neither his body nor his cloths to be found- a metaphor for ascending to godhood.
    2. So that some fancied the Senators, having fallen upon him in the temple of Vulcan, cut his body into pieces and took each part away his [their] bosom. –Life of Romulus.

    3. But that it came to pass that, as he was haranguing [lecturing, preaching] the people without [throughout] the city, near a place called the Goat’s Marsh, on a sudden strange and unaccountable disorders and altercations took place in the air; the face of the sun was darkened, with terrible thunderings, and boisterous winds from all quarters; during which the common people fled, but the senators kept close together [Romulus vanishes]. –Life of Romulus.

  13. Following his disappearance (or murder at the hands of the senators) Romulus appeared to Julius Proculus who spoke to the now exalted Romulus saying: “Why, O King, or for what purpose have you abandoned us to unjust and wicked surmises, and the whole city to bereavement and endless sorrow?” and that he [Romulus] answered, “It pleased the gods, O Proculus, that we [half-gods], who come from them, should remain so long a time amongst men as we did; and having built a city to be the greatest in the world for empire and glory, should return again to heaven.  But farewell, and tell the Romans that by the exercise of temperance and fortitude they shall attain the height of human power; we [I will be henceforth] to you the propitious god Quirinus.”- Life of Romulus. [6]

  14. The date of July 7th (the Nones of July) was established as a date of worship in celebration of Romulus’ formal accent to godhood.  This celebration included a religious procession, which possibly began at the temple dedicated in his honor, proceeded through the streets of Rome, and which ended at the legendary site of Goat’s Marsh where ritual sacrifices were made.

The Mortal And Transcended Romulus:

A key facet of Romulus’ mythology is the manifestation of both a human and divine nature (dual-aspect).  While Plutarch goes through great lengths to show the superior and divine nature of Romulus’ life, he also offers proof of Romulus’ mortal frailties and supplication to Jupiter, the supreme god of the Roman state.  The following narrative, that described a great battle against Rome’s historical enemy the Sabines, provides direct evidence of the previous two points:

There were many other brief conflicts, we may suppose, but the most memorable was the last, in which Romulus having received a wound on his head by a stone, and being almost felled by to the ground by it, and disabled, the Romans gave way, and, being driven out of the level ground, fled towards the Palatium.  Romulus, by this time recovering from his wound a little, turned about to renew the battle, and, facing the fliers [retreating soldiers], with a loud voice encouraged them to stand and fight.  But being overborne with numbers, and nobody daring to face about, stretching out his hands to heaven, he prayed to Jupiter to stop the army, and not to neglect, but maintain the Roman cause, now in extreme danger.- Life of Romulus.

According to Plutarch, Jupiter answered Romulus’ prayer and the outnumbered Romans stopped fleeing and returned to battle.  Through Jupiter’s divine intervention, the Roman rout had turned into a decisive victory. This is in stark contrast to the description provided of a transcended and now fully divine (a god without mortal frailties) Romulus who’s seen on the road by Julius Proculus:

…he had seen Romulus coming to meet him, looking taller and comelier than ever, dressed in shining and flaming armour; and he [Proculus], being affrighted [frightened] at the apparition…- Life of Romulus.


While the precise details of Romulus’ mythology was unique unto itself, the general theme was not.  The lives of demigods, often placed within a historical narrative, were repeated in numerous mythologies throughout the ancient world.  Few historians, and I would venture to say none that are alive today, would assert that Romulus was in fact a historical personage.  This is despite Plutarch’s and others sincere belief to the contrary.  As was common for their time, the story of Romulus was placed within the backdrop of history and whose myth was supported by the insertion of known people, places and dates in  an attempt to validate it.  This isn’t to imply that historians such as Plutarch were being dubious.  On the contrary, when relaying prehistoric events, the insertion of mythical  origins was common.   Again, Romulus’ story follows a very common format, in which we see the offspring of an immortal god and earthly mother, a miraculous birth, harrowing survival into adulthood, discovery of divine ancestry, great and miraculous works, disappearance or death, followed by assent to godhood.

These similarities should not be surprising and should instead be expected given the high degree of interaction and exchange between the numerous and diverse cultures found throughout the Roman world. Nor should historians or anyone else neglect to fully analyze the prevailing religious and cultural trends present in the Mediterranean and Near East during the 1st century BCE (and afterwards).  To do so creates a false assumption of widespread cultural isolation and conservatism throughout the Hellenistic and Roman world.

Citations & References:

[1] Plutarch identifies both the works of Diocles of Peparethus and Fabius Pictor as his primary sources, he fails to distinguish on which points the two works reportedly vary.

[2] In one variation, Faustulus is the same person who charged with taking Romulus and Remus to the river to be cast in (and drown).

[3] Faustulus’ wife, Larentia, may have been referred to as lupae (wolf) which was also a term used by ancient Romans to refer to loose or sexually available women.  Thus, the young Romulus and Remus may have been nursed by Larentia rather than a she-wolf.

[4a & 4b] In regards to the eclipse, Plutarch does admit that the Greek and Roman calendars do not comply (support) with each other.  The traditional date of Rome’s foundation is 753 BCE.

[5] Romulus’ right of earthly kingship passed from his grandfather (Numitor) through his earthly mother, Rhea.  Numitor himself was a descendant of Aeneas the Trojan, thus granting Romulus an ancestral connection to Troy.

[6] In the testimony of Proculus, Plutarch goes to some length to demonstrate the witness’ noble and thus truthful nature as well as Proculus’ invocation of sacred oaths to ensure his credibility- given the extraordinary nature of Proculus’ claims.

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Engineering an Empire: Roman Units of Linear Measurement (Part 1 of 3).

By Pat Lowinger

From the Iberian Peninsula of modern Spain, to the isles of Britain, across the shores of North Africa and to the eastern borders of the Empire, the Romans were united not only by the Pax Romana, but also a very precise system of measurements which spread uniformity in construction, trade, cartography and science to all corners of the Empire.  

The Romans have long been hailed by modern scholars for their ability to undertaken great feats of engineering and construction throughout the span of the Empire.  Whether it is the famous aqueducts, vast roadways or the grand monuments which dotted the landscape, Roman engineers and labors relied upon a precise system of measurement in order to bring civilization to a barbaric world.


Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (62 -12 BCE).  A key Roman general, statesman and cartographer during the reigns of Julius Caesar and Augustus, Agrippa is believed to have standardized all units of measurement throughout the Roman Empire.

The Romans devised fourteen commonly referenced units for linear measurement (length).  The most basic unit was the pes (plural pedes) or Roman foot.  In terms of modern reference, the Roman foot measured 0.97 feet (296 mm).[1] One of the problems facing historians is finding those points of reference (objects) which the Romans themselves defined as being equivalent to one Roman foot.  While this may seem rather easy, there are numerous examples of objects purported as being the equivalent of one foot but varying slightly (albeit subtly) in length from other similar objects.[2] One of the most common objects used for reference were brass or wooden rods measuring 10 feet in length (decempeda).  Other commonly used measurements were the gradus (step) which measured 2.5 pedes and the passus which measured 5 pedes.  For measurements of less than one pedes the Romans commonly used the digitus (1/16 of a pedes), uncia (1/12 of a pedes) and palmus (1/4 of a pedes).  When it came to longer distances, the Roman mile (mille passus) was simply 1000 passus or 5000 pedes.  Again, despite its name, the Roman mile was not equal to its later Imperial counterpart, being only 0.92 miles (1.48 km).

An Army of Engineers

One of the more fascinating features of the Roman military was the inclusion of a cadre of trained engineers (architecti) within each legion.  These men were not civilians attached to the legion, but instead were legionary soldiers often recruited for their knowledge in arithmetic and geometry.  When in the field or on campaign the duty of these engineers was threefold.  The first was to oversee the construction of camps, buildings and bridges.  The second was to construct and maintain the legions siege engines (ballista, onagers) and towers as well as the construction of earthen siege ramps and investments (counter fortifications).  The third and possibly least glamorous duty of a Roman engineer was to measure the distance which the army had traveled, construct roads and map major geographical features of the Empire’s expanding territories.  Roman milliarium  (milestones) are a testament to the precision of Roman road engineers.[3]


The aqueduct (bridge) at Segovia in Roman Iberia (Spain) completed c. 100 AD

The Roman legions were the greatest military force of their day.  But their greatness was not only limited to their ability to make war.  The Roman army was a vital component in the construction of much of the Empire’s infrastructure.  One obvious example are the hundreds of aqueducts built during Rome’s history.  The aqueduct was a complex system which typically combined tunneling, piping and bridge building of monumental proportions.  The legions provided a ready source of trained labors and engineers which was combined with local artisans, laborers and slaves. Depending on the purpose and scale, projects could take years and sometimes decades to complete.  As a result, legions which had fought on the frontier were often tasked in the building of infrastructure necessary to promote Roman lifestyles as well as encouraging the relocation of Roman civilians to these areas.

The Odometer

As previously mentioned one of the most prolific activities of Roman military engineers was the construction and measurement of roads.  But how where accurate measurements made over long distances?  The repeated use of a measuring stick would have been ludicrous and although the use of a known length of rope may have seemed plausible the Romans needed a more rapid, accurate and reliable method of measuring a distance traveled by Rome’s armies.


Reconstruction of a typical Roman Odometer.  Not shown is the container in which the small stones would fall located under the central horizontal gear.

The answer as we now know it came down from the hands of a Roman engineer, named Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (Vitruvius).  During the 1st century BCE Vitruvius wrote extensively on the topics of engineering and architecture in his 10 volume work, De Architectura, in which he details a ‘mechanical cart for measuring distances’ – the odometer.  While most historians believe the concept of the odometer originated with the Greek inventor Archimedes of Syracuse during the 3rd century BCE, it is unknown if Archimedes had ever constructed the device or had only conceptualized it.[4] Although it appears Vitruvius was basing his invention (in whole or in part) upon the concepts of Archimedes, widespread utilization of the odometer helped reshape the Roman Empire.  No longer would the distances between to far removed places be given in crude estimations, instead, precise measurements (in mille or miles) were available not only to the military but also traders and travelers throughout the Empire.

The true genius of the odometer is its simplicity and reliability.  Basically, the odometer was cart which had mechanical gears which turned as the wheels of the cart (cartwheels) moved along the ground.  As the cartwheel completed a revolution (or a known number of multiple revolutions), a gear would trigger the release of a small round stone (pea-sized) which dropped into a bucket located under the ‘gear-box.’  Since the length of one revolution (or more) of the cartwheel could be easily measured and one stone had been placed in the bucket for each complete revolution of the cartwheel, the rest became a simple matter of mathematics.  So if for example at cartwheel made a complete revolution every five feet (passus) and deposited  one stone per revolution, if 120 stones where in the bucket, a distance of 600 feet (0.6 miles) had been traveled.  If instead one stone in the bucket equaled four revolutions (1:4) of the cartwheel, the same 120 stones whole have indicated a distance of 2400 feet (2.4 miles).  It was simply a matter of knowing the ratio of cartwheel revolutions to stones deposited by the odometers gear mechanism or what we commonly refer today as ‘gear-ratio.’

Part 2 will examine the units of measuring wet and dry goods and well as the effect that standardization of these measurements had on the economy of the Roman Empire.  


[1] Values of Roman lengths and measurements were taken from the 8th Chapter (Roman Weights and Measures) of Heinrich Glarean’s Books: The Intellectual World of a Sixteenth-Century Musical Humanist. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[2] Several ‘colossal’ monuments were purported to have had measurements incorporated into their bases of a ‘true Roman foot’ which themselves show variation of 0.1 and 0.5%.

[3] It has been estimated that the Romans constructed approximately 400,000 km of roads throughout the Empire, of which 20-25% were stone-paved.   For more information see the works of Robert James Forbes- Studies in Ancient Technology (mult. volumes).

[4] Archimedes original work on the odometer is unknown to us but Plutarch does comment on Archimedes’ extensive work in the area of gears and gear-ratios.  Diagrams of many of Archimedes’ inventions were kept in the Great Library of Alexandria and subsequently lost to history.




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The ‘Historical’ St. Nicholas

By Pat Lowinger

A few weeks ago I was approached by one of my students who was attempting to write a short letter regarding the history of Nicholas (Nikolaos) of Myra, a bishop of the early Christian Church.  After helping her analyze some of the more credible evidence of his life and works I thought it would be worthwhile write a short post regarding the topic.

Who was Nicholas?


Reproduction of Icon depicting St. Nicholas.  Note the absence of mitre (bishop’s hat of office).

Nicholas was born in the later half of the 3rd century (c. 270) CE in Patara- a city located along the southwestern coast of Anatolia (modern Turkey). The identity of Nicholas’ parents is still debated but it is fairly certain that both were ethnically Greek and practiced the Christian faith. While there is a fair amount of myth surrounding Nicholas’ early life, there is very little credible information on the subject.  What we do know is that shortly after (or just prior) he had been ordained a priest by his uncle, the bishop of Patara, Nicholas undertook a pilgrimage to Palestine and Egypt.  In c. 317 CE (at the age of 47), Nicholas was ordained as the bishop of Myra- another coastal town located in southwestern Anatolia.

The Bishop of Myra

Nicholas served as the bishop of Myra until death on December 6, 343 CE.  Prior to his appointment, Nicholas was purportedly imprisoned by the Emperor Diocletian during the Roman Empire’s last attempt to combat the growing influence of Christianity. While the length of Nicholas’ imprisonment is unknown, it appears that his release was ordered following the assent of the Emperor Constantine to the imperial throne in 312 CE.  Following his release, Nicholas returned to Myra, serving nearly 3 decades as bishop. There is good evidence to believe that Nicholas attended the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.  In addition to these events, there is some evidence to suggest (not without debate) Nicholas was responsible for the following acts during his tenure as bishop:

  • Ordered the destruction of the Temple of Artemis in Myra.
  • Authored a theological text (by his own hand) which is currently in the custody of the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
  • During the Council of Nicaea he became enraged and struck another bishop for what he considered to be the ‘uttering of heretical teachings.’ As a result, he was officially censored, and forbidden to wear his mitre for an unknown period of time.  See above depiction.

Charity For The Poor

One of the most interesting aspects of Nicholas’ life are the reports of large-scale charitable acts attributed to him.  Later church biographies shape various stories demonstrating Nicholas’ overwhelming acts of kindness to the poor and destitute residents of Myra and the adjacent countryside.  The least fanciful and most credible of these accounts tell how Nicholas converted a large portion (all or nearly all) of his family and personal wealth in order to finance the feeding and clothing of the poor.  Several medieval sources indicate one of Nicholas’ chief concerns was the purchasing of sandals (shoes) for children whose families couldn’t otherwise afford them.  Unlike our modern tradition of gift-giving at Christmas, it appears that Nicholas’ acts of charity were continuous (year-round) and undertaken with the sole purpose of aiding the neediest among Myra’s residents.

Myths & Legends


Icon depiction of the three sisters who were gifted their dowries by St. Nicholas.

There are numerous stories surrounding Nicholas’ life which appear to have been contrived or greatly exaggerated after his death.  Three of the most interesting are briefly described below:

  • Perhaps the most miraculous of the stories attributed to Nicholas is the restoring of three children back to life after the they had been murdered and then dismembered by an ‘unscrupulous’ butcher who wished to sell the children as ‘fresh meat’ during a time of famine.
  • Nearly as fantastic is the story of Nicholas’ enticement of half of a grain shipment from the merchants (sailors) who were charged with taking it to the Emperor.  Although reluctant, the merchants agreed to give half of their shipment to feed the needy.  Nicholas blessed the merchants and sent them on their way.  Upon their arrival at the capital, the merchants were amazed to find that all of the grain they had donated to the poor had been miraculously replaced.
  • A much less fanciful story is of Nicholas offering (by secret gift) the dowry to 3 young and very poor women, who without any other means would have been sold off as prostitutes.  The story asserts that after receiving the rather handsome dowry (several pieces of gold), each of the three women were married and led godly lives.

Nicholas’ Death

Nicholas’ body was entombed in Myra and in the centuries that followed his tomb became a popular pilgrimage destination for early Christians.  By the 6th century CE, Nicholas was already widely known as a ‘Saint’ and a church was dedicated in his honor by the Emperor Justinian which acted as de facto canonization within the Byzantine Empire.  In the 11th century CE, Nicholas’ body was removed from its tomb and divided by rival Italian groups from Bari and Venice.  Each returned to their native cities and dedicated reliquaries (tombs) in Nicholas’ honor.  Like many church relics, Nicholas’ bones and trappings were attributed with mystical properties.  At Bari, water pooling around Nicholas’ tomb is believed to possess miraculous healing powers.



Depiction of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE at the Church of St. Nicholas in Myra (Turkey).  Note Nicholas’ prominent position next to the Emperor.

While prominent historical figures such as Nicholas undoubtedly existed, much of what is attributed to them both during their lives and afterwards falls directly into the category of mythology.  This is the true purpose of a prudent modern historian and archaeologists- to seek out evidence in order to evaluate, create, modify, verify or redact from the current and ever growing body of history information.

Author’s Note:

Typically I would make a detailed list of all source material/references utilized for possible reference by interested parties.  In this case, some of my information was drawn from the current theological teachings of the Greek Orthodox Archdioceses of America and/or other related church websites.  In regards to theology or religious traditions there is not always consensus between various groups.  This post is less formal than most and should be viewed/referenced as such.  For those that are interested, I have listed my references below so you may examine some of the various traditions if you so choose. 

Sources Utilized:

Jones, Charles W. “Saint Nikolaos of Myra, Bari and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend”. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Ott, Michael.”Nicholas of Myra” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 11, New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907.

Wheeler, Joe. “Saint Nicholas”. New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 2010.

Poulos, George. “Orthodox Saints: Spiritual Profiles for Modern Man”. Volume 1,  United States: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1992.

Rostov (Rostovsky), Demitri. “Life of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Archbishop of Myra in Lycia”.


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From Warriors to Raiders: The Evolution of Mycenaean Weapons, Armament & Tactics.

by Pat Lowinger

Prior to the 12th century BCE collapse of the Mycenaean citadels (city-fortresses), Mycenaean armies controlled Crete and the western coast and littoral regions of the Aegean Sea.  These armies had developed a rather complex and advanced system of warfare which included considerable advances in weapons, armor and chariotry.  Although the exact causation is still debated among archaeologists and historians, the collapse of many, if not all of the Mycenaean population centers, ushered in a dramatic change in the weapons, tactics, and the very nature of Mycenaean warfare.   By the end of the 11th century BCE, the previously large land-based armies which had arisen during the height of the Mycenaean Palatial Period (15-13th century BCE), had evolved into numerous bands of semi-autonomous sea-born raiders.

Warriors of the Palatial Period


A portion of the ‘Tarzan Fresco’ at Pylos (reconstructed).

Any serious discussion regarding the nature of warfare during the Mycenaean Palatial Period must begin by examining the available archeological evidence.  Of particular interest are the ruins of Mycenae and Pylos.  The ‘Tarzan Fresco’ at Pylos gives clues as to the nature of Mycenaean warfare during this period. [1]  Depicted are three Mycenaean warriors, each clad in helmet, greaves and kilt who battle five ‘barbarians’ clad only in animal skins.  Only two of the ‘barbarians’ appear to be armed, one with a sword and the other with what could possibly be a club.  In contrast, the Mycenaeans are well-armed, two with swords and the third with a two-handed spear.  Similar in style, appearance and depiction(s) is the ‘River Battle Fresco’ at Tiryns. [2] In addition to these frescoes there are numerous carvings which depict the panoply of weapons and armor (or lack thereof) of Mycenaean infantry, such as the ‘Ivory Plaque from Delos.’[3] There appears to be 3 major components to the armament of a Mycenaean infantryman during the Palatial Period; a spear, large body shield and helmet- and who often carried a thrusting sword as a secondary or back-up weapon.  [4]


Ivory carving of Mycenaean warrior with helmet and figure-eight shield.  Archaeological Museum, Delos.

It is necessary to take close look at Mycenaean shields which can be classified into two types: the ‘figure-eight’ and ‘tower.’  Each type were constructed out of similar materials, composed of a wooden frame supporting a wicker-wood body, covered by one or more layer of hide, and typically measured to a height and width of 1.5 and 1 meter(s) respectfully. [5] The weight of the shield was born by the means of a heavy strap which passed over the left shoulder, which tells us much about its function. [6] The shield rested against the left side of the warrior’s body, leaving both of his arms free to grasp his spear, which measured 3.5-4 meters in length.  Thus, even a 2 meter tall man (who would be taller than average male for the period), would have nearly 75 percent of his front facing protected by the shield- a very effective form of protection. [7] The final piece of protection was a helmet, most often composed of boar’s-tusk, but bronze helmets, while rarer, are not unknown. [8]

The result was a warrior who was very well protected against frontal attacks.  Yet, all this protection wasn’t without a price, the shield was very cumbersome.  While we have little information regarding how infantry equipped this way actually formed up for battle, the ‘Fragmented Battle’ fresco at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera gives some evidence that infantry operated in close formation(s). [9] Another important piece of related evidence found emblazoned upon the ‘Lion Hunt’ dagger which depicts warriors protected with figure-eight and tower shields in close order while being supported to the rear by an archer. [10] While not definitive, it does pose the question if Mycenaean infantry of this period ever operated in an early type of mixed-order formation.


Fresco depiction of chariot and two warriors at Pylos.

Chariot Warriors

The Mycenaeans, like many of their contemporaries, employed chariots in battle. As was common throughout the Mediterranean, these chariot-warriors comprised an ‘elite arm’ of the military. [11] Chariots and the nature of their use is no small point of contention amongst historians.  Some, like Robert Drews have offered that Mycenaean chariots were used “as mobile platforms for archers.” [12] While this hypothesis would allow for a certain level of contiguity between various chariot-warrior cultures, such as the Egyptians and Hittites, many historians remain unconvinced.  The lack of corroborative archaeological evidence doesn’t seem to support the assertion. [13] To date, there have been no discoveries of composite bows or bows with comparable strengths or functionality found; the only depiction of such is a signet ring which clearly shows two armored charioteers engaged in hunting. [14A &B]  By weight of comparison, every other depiction of charioteers from this time period are depicted with armed with spears, helmets and occasionally wearing armor- such as the wall painting at Pylos and the carved grave marker at the citadel at Mycenae.  To add more debate to this question, the Linear B tablets found at the armory at Knossos (Minoan) do make references to composite bows, but offer no connection to their use by charioteers. [15]Unlike the landscapes of Egypt and the Levant, the coastlines and interiors of Greece are much more rugged and restricted, which poses grave consequences for any attempts to employ tactics similar to those of Egypt during the same period. In addition, by way of numerical comparison, the Linear B tablets at Knossos indicate that typically 400 chariots (perhaps as high as 550), compared to the 2000 chariots which Thutmose III brought with his army from Egypt to Megiddo. [16] The construction of Mycenaean chariots appears to have differed from that of Egypt, the construction was heavier and the axle was positioned near the center of the cab with a horizontal shaft and numerous over construction techniques to give greater strength at the cost of significantly increased weight and reduced speed. [17] This increased strength did allow it to operate over the rough and broken ground so common in the landscape with which it was employed but it was not suitable to the hit-and-run archery tactics pioneered by Egyptian charioteers.


Dendra armor with bore-tusk helmet at National Archaeological Museum, Corinth.

A feature wholly unique to Mycenaean charioteers was Dendra; an armor consisting of 15 bronze plates which cover the torso, arms, and legs. [18] When adorned, Dendra (dated to 1400 BC) offered significant protection to the wearer if engaged in close quarters.  “The Dendra panoply is usually interpreted as having belonged to a chariot-borne warrior, who would probably dismount to fight on foot in a manner familiar from the Homeric epics, probably using spears or the rapier-like swords characteristic of the era.” [19] Simply put, Dendra, was quite possibly the most formidable and protective form of armor in use throughout the Mediterranean, Egypt and the Near East.  The Mycenaeans had taken the chariot and made it their own.  It was still a key symbol of status and power, but had been adapted to their own needs- to bring the elite arm of the army to bear upon the battlefield.

Cavalry, Archers and Light Infantry

Not every Mycenaean warrior could be carried into battle on a chariot or even take his place amongst the large-shielded infantry.  The bow was a weapon in common usage by the Mycenaeans and its role on the battlefield attested to in numerous instances, such as the ‘Lion Hunt’ dagger mentioned earlier as well as the ‘Siege Rhyton’ in Mycenae. [20] In addition to archers, the Mycenaeans deployed javelineers armed with short thrusting swords to operate in difficult terrain were the previously discussed close-order infantry would have been put to a disadvantage. [21] While never consisting in large numbers, javelineers and their specialized role(s) was a key component of the Mycenaean army during the Palatial Period.

While no means commonplace cavalry was not unknown to the Mycenaeans as depicted in the ‘Amphoroid Krater’ (dated 1300-1250 BCE), along with a crewed chariot. [22] While there is no evidence to support that Mycenaeans fought from horseback, horsemanship was known to them and so the possibility of cavalry can not be entirely dismissed for any serious discussion of the topic. [23]


Amphoroid Krater. Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam

Builders of Ships & Swords

Throughout the Palatial Period, the Mycenaeans were competent ship builders.  A detailed discussion and typology of Aegean ships of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age has been created by archaeologist Micheal Wedde.  “The Myceneans were the first to use the oared galley and adopted a new (non-Minoan) hull shape, at the start of the Late Helladic IIIB Period (1350-1200 BCE).” [24] Vessels of this type are primarily designed for war.  The design of these ships allowed for swift raids on coastal towns and crewed by warriors who typically ground the vessel, disembark, fight, loot and quickly return- rowing away to safety. From Wedde, “the Mycenaeans developed a ship type well adapted for lighting visits to recalcitrant subjects, as well as for opportunist raids on non-aligned settlements.” [25]

To complement these ‘swift boats’ the Mycenaeans developed larger ‘Type VI’ boats which appeared to be solely designed for war.  A representation of the Type VI was found near Pylos and dated to c. 1200 BCE.  With up to 50 oars, the Type VI was the heavy warship of its day. Yet even the Type VI was constructed with a low gunwale, which allowed for easy beaching and the oars provided for rapid speed in coastal waters.  Another feature of the Type VI was the inclusion of ‘fighting platforms’ located at the fore and aft of the ship, which made it very capable of engagements at sea. [26] But life aboard ship, even for short periods of time, forced the adoption of new practices.  Sea-borne transportation of chariots was impractical as was the transportation of large bodies of men- although on occasion that did occur when a large scale invasions were undertaken.

In addition to advances in shipbuilding by the Mycenaeans, “in a few decades before and after 1200 BC, the eastern Mediterranean world underwent a transformation in the tools of war…’virtually all forms of offensive and defensive weaponry’ change ca.1200.”[27] “Both archaeologists and typologists of weapons have noted it was at this time that a new type of sword, the Naue Type II, arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean.” [28] Simply put, the size, shape and construction of the Naue Type II made it very effective in both thrusting and slashing attacks- so effective was the weapon, that by no later than the end of the 11th century BCE, it had replaced all other types of swords in Mediterranean.  So prevalent was the use of the Naue Type II among the Mycenaeans that many weapon typologists simply refer to it as the ‘Mycenaean sword”. [29]

The Collapse

War, disease, civil war, economic failures, famine, drought, hostile migrations, earthquakes and even floods have been offered as explanation for the collapse of the Mycenaean citadels.  In fact, one or more of these explanations is plausible- with a multi-causational theory gaining wider acceptance amongst archeologists.  What is known is that sometime at the beginning the 12th Century BC, many of the Mycenaean citadels were severely damaged or destroyed. [30] While some citadels at this time were wholly abandoned, others were partially repopulated and repaired.  For additional discussion of this topic please see previous discussion dated November 1, 2016.

Prior to the collapse we see improvements in citadel defenses, such as the famous ‘Lion Gate’ at Mycenae completed in c.1250 BCE or construction of the Cyclopean Wall at Athens at approximately the same period. [31] Beginning c. 1250 BCE, there are widespread instances of the construction of defense walls and fortifications throughout the western Aegean.  Most of the Mycenaean palaces fell one by one to fire; within two generations many of the surrounding towns and villages had also been similarly destroyed or abandoned. Even Athens which had escaped destruction existed as shadow of its former glory. [32]

Rise of the Raiders 


The ‘Warrior’ vase found at Mycenae.

By way of examination, it is important to look at the ‘Warrior Vase’ from 12th century BCE  found at Mycenae.[33] In many ways in bears no resemblance to early Mycenaean depictions- on one side of the vase are 6 warriors, each very similar in appearance to each other.  Each carries a spear in one hand with proportions suggesting a length of not greater than 3 meters. Each wears a helmet, commonly referred to as a ‘hedgehod’, most likely constructed of leather or hide.   The shields appear to be ¾ crescent shaped and carried in the left hand, with a diameter of no greater than 1 meter. “The round shield on the other hand, was certainly meant for a hand-to-hand fighter.  For him agility and mobility counted for much, and he sacrificed the security of a full-body shield in order to be fast on his feet and to have free use of his offensive arm.” [33] Each warrior also wears torso armor (cuirass) and leg greaves. It is uncertain if this armor were made of bronze, bronze-scale or leather-hide.  In addition, each warrior appears to be carrying supplies attached to his spear, and behind them while a woman waves good-bye.  Although over three millennia old, the vase’s theme of soldiers marching off to war echoes even today.  The adoption of new types of shields, armor and swords (discussed in the earlier section) were combined with some of the previously specialized equipment of light troop types, namely the javelin.  A warrior would carry a short spear or javelins which could be thrown to great effect against chariots.  Following this initial discharge of hurled missiles, a warrior was free to engage in a rapid assault with effective and versatile close combat weapons.

Despite Homer’s assertion in the Iliad the strong fortifications and numerous instances of weapon caches found in grave sites, combined with martial themes represented throughout their societies, “it is highly likely that rival states sought dominance and that feuds, fragile alliances, broken truces, and pitched battles were commonplace.” [34] Regardless of the cause, the collapse resulted in the depopulation of the Mycenaeans from their citadels- the manpower, resources and materials were no longer available to support the large land-based armies of the Palatial Period.  Without a large army to protect them, the citadels were easy prey for bands of fast, well-equipped sea-borne raiders.


As with any treatment or discussion regarding Bronze Age peoples, the availability of evidence or lack thereof is always an important consideration to a historian.  Hypothesis’s must be carefully analyzed and remain flexible in their interpretation(s).  Only by the examination of all available evidence, gathered from a wide range of research and disciples, is it likely to better understand ancient societies like the Mycenaeans.

The Mycenaean warrior of the 12th  century BCE looked very different than his 15th century BCE counterpart, the evolution of which was a result of not only being pushed by the eventual collapse of c. 1200 BCE, but also their innovations in shipbuilding and sword-craft. The Mycenaeans had found a new method of bringing war to their enemies, either at land or at sea…ships.  The Mycenaeans had become seaborne raiders.


Bibliography, References & Citations:

Amphoroid Krater. Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam. Accessed March 07, 2015.;metadata=chariot.

Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers, 2013.

Cline, Eric (editor). The Oxford Handbook of The Bronze Age Aegean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Fields, Nic, and Brian Delf. Bronze Age War Chariots. Oxford: Osprey, 2006.

Fields, Nic, and Donato Spedaliere. Mycenaean Citadels C. 1350-1200 BC. Oxford: Osprey, 2004.

Fields, Nic, Donato Spedaliere, and S. S. Spedaliere. Troy, Ca. 1700-1250 BC. Oxford: Osprey, 2004.

Fragmented (Battle) Fresco. Akrotiri. Accessed March 10, 2015.

Grguric, Nicolas, and Angus McBride. The Mycenaeans: C. 1650-1100 BC. Oxford: Osprey, 2005.

Hartzler, Bruce. Chariot Hunt. Mycenae.

Hartzler, Bruce. River Battle Fresco. Tiryns. Accessed March 06, 2015.

Hartzler, Bruce. Siege Rhyton. Mycenae. Accessed March 09, 2015.

Hartzler, Bruce. Tarzan Fresco. Plylos. Accessed March 06, 2015.

Hartzler, Bruce. Warrior Vase. Mycenae. Accessed March 04, 2015.

Ivory Plaque from Delos. Archeaological Museum of Delos. Accessed March 04, 2015.

Lion Hunt Dagger. National Museum of Athens, Athens. Accessed March 07, 2015.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Spalinger, Anthony John. War in Ancient Egypt: The New Kingdom. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005.

Weede, Michael. AEGEAN BRONZE AGE SHIP IMAGERY: REGIONALISMS,, 1990, 01-23. Accessed March 08, 2015.

[1] Hartzler, Bruce. Tarzan Fresco. Plylos. Accessed March 06, 2015.

[2] Hartzler, Bruce. River Battle Fresco. Tiryns. Accessed March 06, 2015.

[3] Ivory Plaque from Delos. Archeaological Museum of Delos. Accessed March 04, 2015.

[4] Grguric, Nicolas, and Angus McBride. The Mycenaeans: C. 1650-1100 BC. Oxford: Osprey (2005), 7.

[5] Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers (2013), 31.

[6 & 7] Grguric, Nicolas, and Angus McBride. The Mycenaeans: C. 1650-1100 BC. Oxford: Osprey (2005), 9-10.

[8] Eric Cline, The Oxford Handbook of The Bronze Age Aegean. New York: Oxford University Press (2010), 309-310.

[9] Fragmented Fresco. Akrotiri. Accessed March 10, 2015.

[10] Lion Hunt Dagger. National Museum of Athens, Athens. Accessed March 07, 2015.

[11] Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (1993), 112.

[12] ibid., 119.

[13] Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers (2013), 27-28.

[14A] Hartzler, Bruce. Chariot Hunt. Mycenae.

[14B] Eric Cline, The Oxford Handbook of The Bronze Age Aegean. New York: Oxford University Press (2010), 312-313.

[15] Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (1993), 124-125.

[16] Spalinger, Anthony John. War in Ancient Egypt: The New Kingdom. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. (2005), 89-90.

[17] Fields, Nic, and Brian Delf. Bronze Age War Chariots. Oxford: Osprey (2006), 23-24.

[18 & 19] Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers (2013), 18.

[20] Hartzler, Bruce. Siege Rhyton. Mycenae. Accessed March 09, 2015.

[21] Grguric, Nicolas, and Angus McBride. The Mycenaeans: C. 1650-1100 BC. Oxford: Osprey (2005), 25-30.

[22] Amphoroid Krater. Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam. Accessed March 07, 2015.;metadata=chariot.

[23] Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers (2013), 27-28.

[24] ibid., 38.

[25]Weede, Michael. AEGEAN BRONZE AGE SHIP IMAGERY: REGIONALISMS,, 1990, 73-96. Accessed March 08, 2015. 92. pdf.

[26] ibid., 92-93.

[27]Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (1993), 174.

[28] ibid., 192-193.

[29] ibid., 203-204.

[30] ibid., 33-35.

[31] ibid., 28.

[32]Pomeroy, Sarah B. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, (2012), 51-52.

[33] Hartzler, Bruce. Warrior Vase. Mycenae. Accessed March 04, 2015.

[34] Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (1993), 178.

[35] Pomeroy, Sarah B. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press (2012), 43-44.



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