The Muslim Conquest of Roman Syria, Part One: A Prelude to War.

By Pat Lowinger


Illustration of Muhammad receiving divine revelation(s) from the angel Gabriel by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani (1307 CE).

By the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, the armies of Islam had already consolidated their control of the vast territories of the Arabian Peninsula.[1] It was from these strongholds in Arabia that the first Rashidun Caliph, Abu Bakr, began several well-organized and coordinated military campaigns against the war-weary Byzantine and Sassanid empires.  In 634 CE the Arabs launched a devastating military campaign into Roman Syria. The success of the Arabs against the Byzantine Empire owes as much to their own discipline and flexibility as it does the repeated tactical and logistical failures of the Byzantines.[2] There are multiple additional factors which ultimately led to the Byzantine defeat in Roman Syria: recurring plagues during the 6th century, depleted imperial coffers, inadequate recruitment and retention of seasoned troops, and the appointment of inexperienced military commanders.

The Plagues of the 6th Century

In the century prior to the Arab invasions of Syria, the populace of the Byzantine Empire had been devastated by several outbreaks of bubonic plague.  The first and most well known of these plagues struck Constantinople in 541 CE.[3] The Byzantine scholar Procopius recorded outbreaks in Egypt and Syria during the same year.  Historian William Rosen, author of Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe, estimates the plague killed nearly 5,000 people a day in Constantinople following the diseases’ initial outbreak until the plague subsided four months later.[4] Rosen further estimates that 15-25% of the Empire’s population died as a result of the initial outbreak and subsequent resurgences of the disease during the 6th century CE.[5] In Roman Syria, three additional outbreaks of the disease struck again in 568, 581 and 635 CE.[6] While it is unknown how many Syrians died in these subsequent outbreaks, scientists have determined that the same bacterial strain responsible for the initial outbreak in 541 CE was also responsible for these subsequent outbreaks as well.[7]

These plagues disrupted the economy, military and political structure of the Empire.  The resulting shortage of able bodied agricultural workers led to a severe drop in grain production throughout the empire.[8] The relative scarcity of grain was followed by a dramatic rise in its price that crippled the Empire’s predominantly agrarian economy.  Military recruitment and readiness levels fell as an increased number of men remained on their farms rather than enlisting in the army. The 540s saw a marked decrease in tax revenues as increasing numbers of taxpayers became victims of the disease.[9] As the plague continued, the coinage of the empire was repeatedly debased, which caused rampant inflation to occur.[10] The Emperor Justinian I (482-565 CE) responded by increasing the tax obligations of the landed aristocracy, who in turn demanded increased rents from their tenant farmers.   These increased economic burdens produced severe strains upon the patron-client system which ultimately led to political unrest in Constantinople and abroad.  In order to secure the legal status of tenant farmers, Justinian enacted several pieces of legislation prohibiting the confiscation of farms owned by members of the military.  With no legal recourse to remit their lost income, many aristocratic landowners began to openly commit tax evasion in direct opposition to the Emperors’ decrees.[11]

The Byzantine-Sassanid War (602-628 CE)


Map illustrating the territories of the Byzantine Empire prior to the outbreak of the Byzantine-Sassanid War (602-628 CE).  It is important to note that control of the province of Illyricum was subject to constant Slav and Avar raids (effective control and authority in the region).

The murder of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice in 602 CE not only brought political instability to the Empire, but also a renewed conflict with the Sassanid Empire.[12] The first two decades of the war saw several Persian victories.  It wasn’t until 610 CE that Heraclius seized the Byzantine throne for himself, ending the civil war.  Heraclius then marshaled and reorganized existing regional forces.  Heraclius’ initial counterattacks into Anatolia were defeated.[13] These defeats further sapped the empire’s limited amounts of men and materials.  By 618 CE the Sassanid’s and their allies had captured Armenia, Syria, the Levant, Egypt and eastern Anatolia.  With little or no financial reserves, the Emperor sought financial support from the Patriarch of Constantinople.[14] After having gained access to the wealthy coffers of the Eastern Church, Heraclius rebuilt his tattered army over the next four years.

Cherub_plaque_Louvre_MRR245 (2)

Gilded plaque illustration of the Emperor Heraclius’ (ERACLIUS REX) triumph over Khosrau II c. 1160 CE.  On display at the Louvre, Paris.  

In the spring of 622 CE, Heraclius led an army against the Persians and their allies in Armenia. After securing the western portion of Armenia, Heraclius reestablished the former border garrisons in the region.  In the spring of 624 CE, Heraclius’ armies were again on the march and conquered eastern Armenia.  This was followed by the unsuccessful siege of Constantinople in 626 by the Sassanids and their Avar allies.  In 627 CE, Heraclius’ armies penetrated into the heart of the Persian Empire.  At Nineveh, in September of 627 CE, the Byzantine forces surprised the Persian army and defeated it.[15] Having defeated the only remaining army in Mesopotamia, the Byzantines plundered the region at will.  Faced with the possible loss of his kingdom, Khosrau II accepted humiliating terms of ‘peace.’  The victorious Byzantines returned home only to find the provinces of Syria, the Levant, Egypt and Armenia ravaged and in disarray.  Victory in Persia had not eased the economic issues of the empire.  The imperial treasury remained at critically low levels as much of the wealth taken from the coffers of Persia had been used to pay the army.  Many of the army’s veterans retired soon after returning home.[16] With very little money to recruit new soldiers, the numbers of garrison troops fell dramatically.[17]

Author’s Note:  Part 2 will contain a complete list of all reference material.


[1] Arthur Goldschmidt and Lawrence Davidson, A Concise History of the Middle East. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2010),  34-35.

[2] Ibid., 45-46.

[3] Cyril Mango, The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 49.

[4] William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague, and the End of the Roman Empire (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2008), 16-18.

[5] William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: The First Great Plague, and the End of the Roman Empire (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2008), 41-47.

[6]  Costas Tsiamis et al., “Earthquakes and Plague During Byzantine Times,” Acta Medico-Historica Adriatica 11 (2013): 57.

[7]  Ibid., 58-59.

[8]  Mango, Byzantium, 49.

[9] Ibid., 49-50.

[10] Georgije Ostrogorski, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswich, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 76-77.

[11] Mango, Byzantium, 51.

[12] Ibid., 53.

[13] Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes: An English Translation of Anni Mundi 6095-6305 (A.D. 602-813), trans. Harry Turtledove (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 8-9.

[14] Ostrogorski, History of the Byzantine State, 100.

[15] Ibid., 103-104.

[16] John F. Haldon, The Byzantine Wars (Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2008), 64-65.

[17] Ibid., 65.

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Of Gods, Heroes and War: The Historiography of Classical Greece.

by Pat Lowinger

The earliest ‘historians’ of the Mediterranean were Greek and as such they serve as both a template and warning for modern Historiography.  From the eighth through sixth centuries BCE, various Greek city-states grew and prospered.  In turn, these city-states founded numerous colonies throughout the Mediterranean which brought the Greeks into contact with previously unknown lands and cultures.  As the Greeks continued to explore and colonize even more remote parts of the Mediterranean, many of these explorers (and colonists) began to record the geography, cultures and histories of themselves (as foundation cults) and those they encountered.[1]  This desire of the Greeks to create these records and preserve them for themselves and future generations- as well to aggrandize the accomplishments of Greek culture is the spark which ignited Greek Historiography and laid the foundations for subsequent historical traditions. 

The Greek World


Map of the ‘known world’ based on the accounts of Herodotus.  Original map published by Hatchett & Co. 1884.  Click to expand.

The Greek city-state (polis) emerged during the eighth century BCE.  In the simplest of terms, the polis was the city itself and surrounding country side which fell under its control.[2]  This was much more than a village or town; it was a center of government formed by the unification of the populace into a body known as the politai.  Members of individual poleis typically identified themselves with the polis itself (i.e. Sparta) rather than a larger cultural identifier (i.e. Greek).  As previously mentioned the Greeks undertook extensive exploration and colonization efforts throughout the Mediterranean- which by the end of the fifth century BCE resulted in Greek colonies stretching from the coast of the Black Sea to Southern Spain.

As Greek civilization continued to develop during the Archaic Age, many Greeks undertook intellectual and academic pursuits.  While much of these early intellectual pursuits were confined to the development of lyric poetry and philosophy, others undertook the process of categorizing and describing the known world.  The vastness of the world, as the Archaic Greeks knew it, as well as their apparent mastery of it; either birthed or fostered beliefs in the superiority of themselves and of their culture.  To the Greeks, the outside world was the domain of the ‘barbarians’ and lesser races of people.  While various poleis competed among themselves, by the end of the sixth century BCE the Greeks found themselves in the center of a huge world, or so they believed, which was inhabited by strange, mystical and often warlike peoples.

Before Herodotus: The Homeric Epic


Greek amphora (c. 525 BCE) depicting the hero Achilles slaying Penthesilea.  On display at the British Museum.

The beginning of Greek history as we know it owes its humble beginnings following the collapse of the Mycenaean Greece at the end of the Late Bronze Age.  Whether ‘The Collapse’ was due to earthquakes, drought, or changes in militaristic organizations and weapons production- the precise cause for the collapse of these great kingdoms is still under debate by scholars.[3] Neither the Mycenaeans nor their Minoan neighbors were without written records, in fact the discovery of both the Linear A and Linear B tablets contain a wealth of information regarding Mycenaean society and culture,but the script used to make these records were undecipherable to the Greeks of the sixth century BCE. [4] This isn’t to imply that the Mycenaeans were unknown to their Dorian, Ionian and Aeolic descendants.  Many of which lived in the shadow of the once great Mycenaean citadels of Knossos, Argos, Athens, Orchomenos and Mycenae.  Likewise, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had also extensive written records, but these appear to have been preserved in support of religious and/or bureaucratic functions.

In the four-hundred-year span (1200-800 BCE), commonly known as the Greek or Geometric Dark Age grew traditional stories commonly known as Homeric Epics.  The Iliad and the Odyssey are perhaps two of the best known pre-Christian works of literature which emerged during this post-Mycenaean period.  While custom attributes the genesis of these tales to Homer it is quite plausible these tales were derived from multiple rhapsodes.[5] Regardless of their precise origin, these epics formed the basis for many ‘Greek ideals’.

Throughout the Iliad, several themes present themselves.  The first is religious, that the gods not only exist but interact and often interfere in the lives of mortal men.  The second theme espouses the deeds of great men which served to demonstrate the ideals of virtue and bravery in war.  The last theme is one of disgrace for cowards or cowardly behavior.  The following is an example of Homer’s contempt for the coward and adoration of the hero, “The skin of the coward changes color all the time, he can’t get a grip on himself, he can’t sit still, he squats and rocks, shifting his weight from foot to foot, his heart racing, pounding insides the fellow’s ribs, his teeth chattering- he dreads some grisly death.  But the skin of the brave solider never blanches.” [6]

herodotus (1)

Bust depicting Herodotus (Roman copy of Greek original), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Herodotus: The Histories

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 484- 425 BCE) is known to have lived during the fifth century BCE and is often credited by his proponents as The Father of History and as The Father of Lies by his detractors.[7] While it is true that as a historian Herodotus and his Histories are not without serious concern to modern scholars, it is important to understand that his work was founded on the earlier Homeric model.  The Histories were written to serve both a record and commentary of the Greco-Persian Wars which had been the major military conflict of Herodotus’ lifetime.[8] While Herodotus attempted to detail major historical events, places and peoples- he often lacked good data and was prone to occasional fabrication and/or inclusion of divine intervention.  This was done not only to fill in the gaps, but to promote a dramatic flair to his historical narrative.  Detractors aside, historiography, in the west is credited to have begun with Herodotus and while far from perfect, he undertook the previously unprecedented task of, at least nominally, differentiating fact from myth.[9]

After Herodotus: Thucydides and Xenophon


Bust depicting Thucydides (Roman copy of Greek original), Pushkin Museum.

Thucydides (460-400 BCE) was a contemporary of Herodotus, but whose own work seems to have been built upon the best precepts of the Histories.  Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides was not only an observer, but was a participant in the history which he recorded- serving as a general in the army of Athens.  What is initially obvious to the reader of both works is that Thucydides’ style and organization is very different from Herodotus.  Rather than a post-facto account, major portions of Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War appear to have been written as major events unfolded- in painstakingly chronological order.  Those parts which were written afterwards appear to have been completed within a year or two after to conflict had concluded.  According to historian Victor David Hanson, “what stands out about Thucydides is not his weakness but his strengths as a historian.  We note his omissions, but no account of the Peloponnesian War or of fifth-century Greece in general is more complete.” [10] Even so, Thucydides’ history is not without its own problems regarding a lack of crediting his sources and details very few non-militarily related incidents.[11]

Xenophon (c. 430-354 BCE), like Thucydides was an Athenian general.  Yet, unlike Thucydides, Xenophon traveled extensively into Anatolia and Persia as detailed in the Anabasis and the Cyropaedia.  Xenophon also wrote extensively on the Constitution of Sparta, a detailed biography of the Spartan King, Agesilaus II and the Hellenica which details the history following the Peloponnesian Wars until approximately 360 BCE.  As with his predecessors, Xenophon’s style is unique, but more closely related to Thucydides, than Herodotus- but like his fellow Athenian also fails to cite his sources.  Even so, most historians agree that Xenophon’s accounts are much more credible that Herodotus’, appearing to have either been an eye-witness to events or been only one or two persons removed. [12] As with all early sources, Xenophon’s work shows significant problems, not the least of which is his pro-Spartan bias and his factual misrepresentation of certain historical events.


Greek Historiography grew as a natural extension of the Homeric epic and the need within the culture of ancient Greece to superiority of their history to those of others.  History was not only an academic pursuit; it was a matter of cultural identity.  The ancient Greeks saw themselves as both intellectually and morally superior than those people(s) and cultures surrounding them.  While the concept of nationalism was unknown to the early Greeks, this collective history often bound them in common purpose as seen during the Greco-Persian Wars.

From its humble beginnings with Herodotus, within just two generations a vibrant tradition of creating historical records was alive and flourishing within the Greek world.  While no means perfect, there appears to have been an ever-increasing self-imposed obligation to records as many verifiable facts as possible and to distinguish those facts from that which was merely speculation or founded upon myth.  This tradition would continue through the later Hellenistic and into the Roman period.  The discipline of history had been born.

Bibliography & Citations:

Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

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

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

Herodotus, and Aubrey De Sélincourt. The Histories: Herodotus. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981.

Homer, and E. V. Rieu. The Iliad: By Homer. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950.

Howell, Martha C., and Walter Prevenier. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Marincola, John (editor) & various contributors.  A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2011.

Pipes, David. “Herodotus: Father of History, Father of Lies.” Loyola University New Orleans. Accessed October 01, 2015.

Palmer, Leonard R. The Interpretation of Mycenaean Greek Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

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

Thucydides, and Robert B. Strassler. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian Wars. New York, NY: Simon Et Schuster, 2008.

Xenophon, John Marincola, and Robert B. Strassler. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika: A New Translation. New York: Pantheon Books, 2009.

[1] Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 9.

[2] Pomeroy, Sarah B. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 104-105.

[3] Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe Ca. 1200 B.C. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 175-208.

[4] Palmer, Leonard R. The Interpretation of Mycenaean Greek Texts. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 60-62.

[5] Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, & Modern. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 5.

[6] Homer, and E. V. Rieu. The Iliad: By Homer. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950), 350.

[7] Pipes, David. “Herodotus: Father of History, Father of Lies.” Loyola University New Orleans.

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

[9] Howell, Martha C., and Walter Prevenier. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 4-5.

[10] Thucydides, and Robert B. Strassler. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian Wars. (New York, NY: Simon Et Schuster, 2008), xxii.

[11] Leone Porciani and John Marincola (editor).  A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography. (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2011), 328-334.

[12] Xenophon, John Marincola, and Robert B. Strassler. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika: A New Translation. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009), lix.

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Fighting for the Enemy: Greek Mercenaries in Persian Service.

By Pat Lowinger

An old man on the point of death summoned his sons around him to give them some parting advice.  He ordered his servants to bring in a bundle of sticks, and said to his eldest son: “Break it.”  The son strained and strained, but with all of his efforts was unable to break the bundle.  The other sons also tried, but none of them was successful.  “Untie the bundle,” said the father, “and each of you take a stick.”  When they had done so, he called out to them: “Now break and each stick was easily broken.  “You see my meaning,” said their father, “unity gives strength.”- Aesop [1]


Depiction of Greek hoplite attacking (and presumably killing) a Persian soldier on a kylix (bowl) c. 5th century BCE on display at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

Herodotus and Aristotle record few details regarding of the life of the Aesop (620-564 BCE), we do know that among the Greeks of 5th thru 3rd Centuries BCE, the fables attributed to him were commonplace among Greek culture.   No doubt stories such as these were used as inspiration among the Greek City-States when confronting the threat of the Persian Invasion of Greece in 492 BCE.  Herodotus offers a similar theme of unity against the Persians, attributed to Themistocles prior to the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE.  Greece had watched as the Kingdom of Lydia and the Greek cities of Ionia had been systematically conquered and subjugated by the Persians.  In fact, by the beginning in the early 5th Century BCE, virtually every independent Greek polis lived under the ever present threat of war and conquest by Persian forces.  In The Histories, Herodotus frames this struggle with the Greeks as the defenders of liberty against the despotic and tyrannical rule of Persian Kings.  While Herodotus’ narrative undoubtedly oversimplifies the complex history and politics of this Greco-Persian conflict, it remains the basis for analysis by many of those who study this fascinating period of ancient history.

Why then, were so many men of Greece drawn into the service of the armies of Persia?  Whether its Xenophon’s account in the Anabasis, or other historians such as Herodotus and Plutarch, we know that men young and old, common and noble, Spartan and Athenian were drawn into services as mercenaries for various Persian rulers.  How did these men reconcile the generally negative ‘cultural attitude’ of Greeks towards xeno or non-Greeks, particularly the Persians, who they had been in bitter conflict with for generations?

War, Power and Gold

The mercenary soldier is to be found in almost every society and still exists in our modern age.  To produce him three conditions are necessary: first, a war, or the prospect of a war; second, a person (or a community) willing and able to pay for somebody else to fight for him; third, a man who is either so poor, or so desperate, or so adventurous, that he is willing to risk his life for a livelihood in a cause that means nothing to him.  For Greek and Hellenistic history in general the first condition may be regarded as a constant. [2]


Illustration of typical hoplite weapons and armor c. 480 BCE.  From John Warry’s Warfare in the Classical World.

By use of this formula leading to the existence appears to be rather simplistic.  You only need a war, someone with money and someone willing to fight for profit.  Numerous historical sources do tell us that the life of a mercenary could be very profitable and financially rewarding.  If fact, depending upon the length of his service, a mercenary could amass a sum of money which could secure him financially for the rest of his life. [3] The risks were great.  Continued employment and payment were normally contingent upon victory in battle, or upon the overall success of a military campaign.  The mercenary of a defeated employer could expect no pay, and it was not uncommon if captured, to be enslaved or executed.  The vast wealth of Persia was well known- as what that of the former Lydian King, Croesus – whose conquered kingdom remained as a Persian Satrapy.   While money does appear to have been a key motivation to inspire a career as a mercenary, was it the only one?   

But what about the desire for adventure?  A test of one’s ability not unlike Homer’s Odysseus.  Xenophon attributes his own motivation(s) for entering employment with the armies of Cyrus the Younger, was result of the prods by his friend Proxenus and his assurance that their knowledge of warfare would be tested.  As a member of the Athenian Equestrian class, we can assume Xenophon’s primary motivation was not money, but a sense of adventure.  Ultimately, Xenophon would come be ranked among the top generals of the Greek mercenaries of which he was a part, and his military exploits would become a model for future military leaders, such as Philip II of Macedonia, but his early motivation appears to have arisen out of boredom and a desire to ‘see the world from the tip of a spear.’

Herodotus wrote, “Themselves [Persians] they consider in every way superior to everyone else in the world, and allow other nations a shore of good qualities decreasing accordingly to distance, the further off being in their view the worst.” [4] Herodotus also details the thinness of a Persian skull and tells how it can be shattered by merely being struck by a pebble, which was by no means complimentary. [5] We know that many Greeks were ethnocentric, and commonly referred to non-Greeks as ‘barbarians’.  It is apparent that both cultures were in competition with each other, economically as well as militarily- which naturally produced stereotypes and biases against the other.

The ‘Culture’ of Greek Mercenaries

The examination of various mercenary armies in Persian service shows a marked separation from the normal identification of self with the politics of his polis.  While mercenaries were usually accredited with the cities from which they had originated, very often they formed combined units, acting in unison with each other, despite the apparent rivalries that were common among various Greek poleis.  It appears it was common for Greek Mercenaries, when acting as a band of professional mercenaries to see themselves as ‘Greeks’ and share in the common bond of culture and comradeship.  Xenophon himself records his close friendship with men of Thebes, Thessaly, Arcadia and Sparta.  In fact, Xenophon would declare his deep friendship with the Spartan King Agesilaus II, who would later command a mercenary army in which Xenophon would serve as an officer.

There is little evidence to suggest how individual mercenaries were treated when they returned from Persia.  We can note from Xenophon’s writings, that he (and those with him) were accorded no special treatment or punishment- his service was viewed employment.  In contrast, Xenophon, would later be exiled for his service as a mercenary in the army of King Agesilaus, who crushed a combined forces of Thebes, Argos and Athens at the Battle of Coronea in 394 BCE.  The conflicting nature of the Greek warrior ethos, prevailing attitudes of Greeks regarding Persians and the extensive history of Greeks seeking employment as mercenaries in Persia is illustrated in Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander.

Our enemies are Medes and Persians, men who for centuries have lived soft and luxurious lives; we of Macedon for generations past have been trained in the hard school of danger and war. Above all, we are free men, and they [Persians] are slaves. There are Greek troops, to be sure, in Persian service — but how different is their cause from ours! They will be fighting for pay — and not much of it at that; we, on the contrary, shall fight for Greece, and our hearts will be in it. As for our foreign troops — Thracians, Paeonians, Illyrians, Agrianes — they are the best and stoutest soldiers in Europe, and they will find as their opponents the slackest and softest of the tribes of Asia. And what, finally, of the two men in supreme command? You have Alexander, they — Darius!  – Alexander the Great (c. 335 BCE).


The nature of the Greek mercenary in Persian service appears to be somewhat unique.  Greek men, from all strata of society throughout Greece sought employment among their traditional rivals.  Often their motivations were as diverse as their backgrounds.   Among the Greeks themselves, long standing rivalries between competing poleis were curtailed, if not suspended entirely, resulting in more inclusive identification of themselves as ‘Greeks’.   It appears that life as a mercenary was accepted among mainland Greeks, as long as said service was not against their home polis or its allies.  These men risked it all and were truly the victims of whatever fate or fortune may have brought to them.

Bibliography & Cited Sources

Aesop, and Fritz Kredel. Aseop’s Fables. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1947.

Arrian of Nicomedia, and Brunt P.A. The Anabasis of Alexander.  London: Harvard University Press, 1976.

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

Griffith, G. T. The Mercenaries of the Hellenistic World. Cambridge: University Press, 1935.

Herodotus, and Aubrey De Sélincourt. The Histories: Herodotus. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981.

Trundle, Matthew. Greek Mercenaries: From the Late Archaic Period to Alexander. London: Routledge, 2004.

Warry, John.  Warfare in the Classical World.  London: Salamander Books Unlimited, 1980.

Xenophon and Cawkwell, George. The Persian Expedition. London: Penguin Classics, 1952.


[1] Aesop, 40.

[2] Griffith, 1.

[3] Griffith, 308-316.

[4] Herodotus, 1.134.

[5] Herodotus, 3.12.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Archetype of Ancient Flood Mythologies.

By Pat Lowinger

The ancient literature and religious traditions of the Greeks, Egyptians and Hebrews each contained mythologies of a great and catastrophic flood that nearly destroyed all of mankind.  One of the earliest written accounts originated in Mesopotamia, in what is commonly known as The Epic of Gilgamesh.  First recorded in the early to mid second millennium BCE, this ancient Mesopotamian flood myth was widely disseminated, emulated and modified throughout the ancient Mediterranean.

Ancient Mesopotamia


Map depicting region(s) commonly referred to as ‘The Fertile Crescent.’

The name Mesopotamia is derived from ancient Greek, and means the land between two rivers.  These two great rivers were the Tigris and Euphrates which formed the eastern portion of what archaeologists, anthropologist and historians commonly refer to as the Fertile Crescent.  By c. 3000 BCE, numerous city-states had formed and cuneiform writing had been established. By c. 2250 BCE, the Akkadian Empire had established its dominance in the region.  In the south, the native language of Sumerian was slowly replaced by Akkadian, which became the prevailing language of the region.  In c. 2154 BCE, an invasion by the Guti (a nomadic tribe) ended the power of Akkadian kingship.  This in turn allowed for the rise of the Assyrian Empire in the north- which included the powerful cities of Assur, Nineveh and Gasur (modern Nuzi), to eventually seize control of Akkad’s former holdings in the south.

By c. 1900 BCE, the military presence of the Assyrian Empire had withdrawn from the south which allowed for the establishment of the relatively short-lived dominion of the Babylonian Empire, famously ruled by the warrior-king, Hammurabi.  From c. 1700 BCE, the control of Babylon and other southern Mesopotamian cities would be seized by various foreign invaders: first by the Kassites, followed by the Elamites, only to be reconquered by a reinvigorated Assyrian Empire in c. 1225 BCE.  The rich history and archaeology of this region continues to fascinate people the world over and is the focus of intense study by numerous academic institutions.

Who Was Gilgamesh?


Stone relief depicting Gilgamesh c. 8th century BCE, on display at the Louvre, Paris.

Defining ‘who’ Gilgamesh was is a complex undertaking.  Gilgamesh, if he in fact existed,  is believed to have lived and ruled the city of Uruk at some point during the early to mid second millennium BCE.  While Gilgamesh is often assumed to have been a real (and historic) person, many archaeologists and historians remain unconvinced.  Nevertheless, The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving literary work known to mankind.  First discovered in 1853 by Hormuzd Rassam, numerous copies of the text(s) have been unearthed since. Typically written (and transmitted) in cuneiform on twelve clay tablets (or cylinders), the epic relays the mythological quest(s) of the demigod Gilgamesh, not the least of which was his ultimately futile attempt to gain immortality.

Of particular interest to this discussion is a portion of the epic contained upon what is commonly referred to simply as Tablet 11 or the ‘Flood Tablet.’ The tablet gives no date or indication as to when the ‘The Great Flood’ supposedly took place other than a mysterious reference to a time before the reign of Gilgamesh.  Modern historians and archaeologists are very fortunate that numerous copies of this text were created in antiquity and have survived (in whole or in part) until today.   Putting the lack of a date aside, the Flood Tablet clearly establishes the existence of a ‘flood mythology’ within Mesopotamia, no later than 1800 BCE.


Tablet 11 (later copy), dated to c. 7th century BCE, on display at British Museum, London.

The Great Flood

The Epic of Gilgamesh contains numerous references to early mythological beliefs.  But it is in the critical Flood Tablet that we can read about the growing anger of the gods of Mesopotamia towards the ‘babel’ (or murmuring) of men who had been created to toil the earth in servitude of the gods.  Following their creation, mankind had greatly multiplied across the face of the earth.  This babbling was incessant and annoyed the gods to the point of anger.  Thus, it was agreed to by all but one of the gods that for their collective wickedness, that mankind should be destroyed by a great flooding of the earth.  Torn between his love of mankind and his loyalty to the supreme god Anu and his brother-god Enlil, that Ea (also known as Enki) sent forth a messenger to warn the righteous Utnapishtim to build a boat so that he and his family might be spared from divine destruction.

“[in a dream Ea spoke to Utnapishtim] O’ man of Shurrupak, son of Ubara-Tutu; tear down your house [of reeds] and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your sole alive.  Tear down your house, I say, and build a boat.  These are the measurements of the barque as you shall build her: let hex beam equal her length, let her deck be roofed like the vault that covers the abyss; then take up into the boat the seed of all living creatures.”- Tablet 11

Obedient, Utnapishtim did as he was commanded.  The people (and elders) saw what he was doing and questioned Utnapishtim as to why he was building a boat.  Utnapishtim issued a warning to the people that the god Enlil was wrathful and wished to destroy all men with a mighty deluge of water which would cover the earth- killing all living creatures.  Apparently, Utnapishtim’s warnings went unheeded and he returned to his task.  The building of Utnapishtim’s boat was a monumental task, undertaken and completed in what can only be described as ‘miraculously short’ period of time.

[Utnapishtim speaking] “In the first light of dawn all my household gathered round me, the children brought pitch and the men whatever necessary.  On the fifth day I laid the keel and the ribs, then I made fast the planking.  The ground-space was one acre, each side of the deck measured one hundred and twenty cubits, making a square.  I built six decks below, seven in all, I divided them into nine sections with bulkheads between.  I drove in wedges where needed, I saw to the punt poles, and laid in the supplies.  The carriers brought oil in baskets,  I poured pitch into the furnace and asphalt and oil: more oil was consumed in caulking, and more again the master of the boat took into his stores.  I slaughtered the bullocks for the people and every day I killed sheep.  I gave the shipwrights wine to drink as though it were a river of water, raw wine and red wine and oil and white wine.  There was feasting then as- there is the New Year’s festival; I myself anointed my head.  On the seventh day the boat was complete.” – Tablet 11

Then, Utnapishtim continues:

“I loaded into her [the boat] all that I had of gold and of living things, my family, my kin, the beast of the field both wild and tame, and all the craftsmen. I sent them on board, for the time that Shamash had ordained was already fulfilled when he said, “in the evening, when the rider of the storm [Enlil] sends down the destroying rain, enter the boat and batten her down.”- Tablet 11

The epic continues and describes in detail the perilous voyage taken by Utnapishtim over the next ‘six days and six nights’ as the winds blew and the entire world was covered in waters coming from heaven and from the nether [sea].  With all of mankind thus destroyed, the storm subsided and Utnapishtim’s boat eventually came to rest at Mount Nisir (possibly Pir Omar Gudrun in Iraq).  Upon landing, Utnapishtim sent forth two doves which were unable to find dry land.  On the seventh day Utnapishtim sent forth a raven which discovered dry land.  In thanks, Utnapishtim made joyous offerings to the gods, who were pleased.  For his piety, Enlil granted Utnapishtim eternal life- that he would remain undying in a distant land, known as the mouth of the rivers.


With its numerous rivers and seasonal flooding it should come to no surprise that the point of origin for this mythological tradition would be ancient Mesopotamia.  While the mythology of ancient Egypt, Greece, and by later extension Rome, contained their own flood mythologies with several notable similarities, it is with the Abrahamic religions that those similarities give way to obvious emulation of this earlier Mesopotamian tradition. The Epic of Gilgamesh serves as a powerful example of the process of cultural diffusion in the ancient world.  Ancient peoples did not live in vacuums.  They traded with, warred with, conquered or where themselves conquered by foreign peoples with whom they exchanged ideas, traditions and mythologies.  While drawing a direct (point to point) connection between the flood mythology of Mesopotamia to Egypt and/or Greece would be difficult, its not impossible.  The same comparison between the Abrahamic myth of Noah (Nuh in Islam) is obvious.  To deny this causal link between the two mythologies is simply absurd.

Sadly, a more detailed discussion of this topic goes beyond the intended scope of this particular article and has been the subject of numerous academically critiqued texts on the subject.  I would encourage anyone seeking more information on either the mythology (religion) or history of Mesopotamia to do so only from credible sources.  Mesopotamia, as the originator of cities (urbanization), written language and numerous technical advancements truly deserves its title as the Cradle of Civilization- but perhaps this title should also acknowledge (or at least do so more often) the rich mythological and religious traditions which can be linked to it.


Dalley, Stephanie. Myths From Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others. Oxford World Press (Oxford), Revised Edition (2009).

Schneider, Tammi. An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion.William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company (Cambridge, U.K.), (2011).

Sanders, Nancy (Translation by).  The Epic of Gilgamesh. Assyrian International News Agency Books Online.

Radner, Karen & Robson, Eleanor (Editors).  The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture. Oxford University Press (Oxford), First Edition (2011).

Various Authors/Topics Related to Mesopotamia.  Ancient History Encyclopedia.  www.

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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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