"When I dream of Rome, I am always pitted against her, hating her with a ferocity that in my younger days persisted in my waking hours, so that I still remember, with some wonder, the savage pleasure with which I read, at the age of nine, the destruction of Rome by the Germanic barbarians. At the same time, reading of the conquest of Britain by those same races filled me with resentment. Somehow, I have never been able to conceive fully of a Latinized civilization in Britain; to me that struggle has always seemed mainly a war of British barbarians against Germanic barbarians, with my sympathies wholly with the Britons."
- Robert E. Howard, Letter to Lovecraft, ca. January 1931...
A wild Aquiromian appears!
One of my pet Hyborian peeves is the meme which dictates Aquilonia is modelled after the Roman Empire. If you've seen any representation of an Aquilonian in a visual medium, that individual is very likely to resemble a classical Roman. It's endemic in illustration, Marvel and Dark Horse comics, role playing games, video games, board games, even action figures. Aquilonian centurions, Aquilonian legionaries, Aquilonian senators, Aquilonian gladiators... All over the place. When King Conan is illustrated, he's often clad in highly Romanesque attire, be it - again - in books, comics, games, action figures, even films. The implication of Conan wearing Roman attire as king, then, supports the Aquilonia=Roman theme.
The problem is twofold: first, the Aquilonians are not described like Ancient Romans, and second, Robert E. Howard absolutely despised the Romans.
So why is this so prevalent, and why is it such a problem?
A Brief (And By No Means Exhaustive) History of the Aquiromian
It all started back in 1932, with Weird Tales' publication of "The Phoenix on the Sword." J.M. Wilcox provided interior illustrations, and can claim the distinction of being the first person to render Conan in visual media. This, then, is how the world first beheld King Conan (edited from an image provided by Jeff Shanks):
Conan and the Legend of the Dog-Faced Demon
It's almost fitting that the great preoccupation with classical elements in Hyborian Age illustration started from the very beginning. Now, while some details are a bit difficult to discern due to the scan and the state of the print after 80 years, I think it's quite clear that Conan's wearing pteruges, and what is either a tunic with a muscled cuirass, or a very short kilt. Pteruges are the thin decorative strips of leather associated with the Roman military, as seen in dozens of etchings and statues of the likes of Caesar. Now, it's possible that Conan isn't wearing a muscled cuirass, but the straps on his chest are just straps, and that we're seeing his muscles: overall, however, I think the illustration makes more sense if we assume it is indeed a muscled cuirass. Pteruges, skirts and muscled cuirasses are going to be elements we see Conan wearing an awful lot over the years.
It seems that successive illustrators have either taken cues directly from Wilcox, or came to the same conclusions: Gnome's Conan the Conqueror and Conan the Barbarian depict our Cimmerian in decidedly Romanesque armour, while the collection of Historical-to-Hyborian conversions Tales of Conan follows suite with a very Roman tunic. The first published work of fan-fiction, The Return of Conan, doesn't have Conan in armour - instead going for one of the earliest sightings of the dreaded fur nappy - but the soldiers he faces are certainly clad in familiar togs. Having spared myself from The Return of Conan, I don't know if those chaps are in fact meant to be Aquilonians, but it certainly seems in keeping with design conventions already established in the Gnome series.
It wasn't just Gnome perpetuating the Aquiromian convention: Ace's Conan the Conqueror/The Sword of Rhiannon double-pack has Conan rescuing Albiona in centurionesque garb,* while T.V. Boardman's Conan the Conqueror gives us quite possibly the limpest, blandest interpretation of Conan I've ever seen.** It makes Brundage's Conan look like Darral Greene's.
By the time Frazetta, Marvel and the films came around, the Aquiromian paradigm was firmly established, and it persists to this day with Dark Horse, Funcom, McFarlane and others. It all reached a head in Conan the Savage, Marvel's last-ditch attempt to revitalize the character, where they seem to have just given up any pretense that Aquilonia is anything other than Rome: it features the character Lucius Vindictus, "First Centurion of the Ninth." His father was Decurion of the Ninth. Aquilonia has conquered all the way to Vanaheim, having established a fort there manned by the "Fourth Cohort." And, of course, everyone is clad in the lorica, sports the gallic helm, wields the gladius and scutum, and pteruges everywhere:
Also Conan kills a woman with a bow without so much as a twinge of reluctance, and apparently had his entire tribe wiped out AGAIN, but it's clear Dixon and company have different priorities than fidelity to Robert E. Howard...
The next issue would feature Conan in gladiatorial combat, in a tale that seems to be some weird commentary on professional wrestling. Conan fights what are clearly Murmillos, he wears what is clearly lorica segmentata, and Shamar apparently has a Coliseum. (Also, I'm pretty sure Lady Antiva was the visual inspiration for Marique, but I'm not talking about that movie). The fourth issue has Conan as Sire (not king) of the Aquilonian Empire... And it goes on like this. If you think that was shameless, then you haven't read the script for King Conan: Crown of Iron. Not only do we have legions, centurions, gladiators and the like, but an emperor, a consul, a pontifex, the Laurel wreath, senators, legates, tribunes, lictors, fasces, even a carnifex. A carnifex!***
It really does seem to be one of those situations where one artistic interpretation dominates all successive ones: like Wood's fur nappy and Frazetta's jewelry were adopted for the comics and films, Wilcox's Aquiromian has worked as visual shorthand for Conan despite being either absent or outright contradictory to Howard's original descriptions. A similar situation occurred with Sidney Paget's illustrations of Sherlock Holmes practically defining the look of the character for a century. Also, when's the last time you saw a dark-haired Heidi, or a blond Lucy Pevensie?
It would be unfair to compare Wilcox's illustration with what we know from later stories, so let's just go with the evidence from "The Phoenix on the Sword" itself. Here's a description of Conan's armour in the story:
True; there had been lack of time to don the heavy plumed casque, or to lace in place the side-plates of the cuirass, nor was there now time to snatch the great shield from the wall. Still, Conan was better protected than any of his foes except Volmana and Gromel, who were in full armor... In the interim one of his comrades lifted a broadsword with both hands and hewed through the king’s left shoulder-plate, wounding the shoulder beneath.
And for comparison, descriptions of the conspirators' armour:
The king glared, puzzled as to their identity. Ascalante he did not know; he could not see through the closed vizors of the armored conspirators, and Rinaldo had pulled his slouch cap down above his eyes... Blade and casque shivered together and Gromel rolled lifeless on the floor. Conan bounded back, still gripping the broken hilt. “Gromel!” he spat, his eyes blazing in amazement, as the shattered helmet disclosed the shattered head...
While side-plates for a cuirass and shoulder-plates could be considered Roman as well as Medieval, plumed casques and closeable visors are more complex. Casque is essentially the French term for "helmet," and hardly the only one: for a country which has been saddled with a woefully uninformed reputation for cowardice, a great number of components in Medieval armour are derived directly from the French. Aventail, sallet, cap-a-pie, gorget, brigandine, coif, cuirass, even the word armour itself.
As for visors, there are examples of Imperial-era Roman helmets such as the Crosby Garrett, Nijmegen, and Newstead helmets (all dating to the 1st to 3rd century, the rough time period of Bran Mak Morn, amusingly enough) which feature an elaborate mask on a hinge. However, if Howard was intending to evoke that particular style of helmet, then I cannot believe he would not mention the powerful visual of youthful metal faces in his prose. It's the sort of thing that's just too evocative to ignore, if Howard intended it.
Overall, the presence of casque alone should give the indication of a Medieval-style helm, and by extention, Medieval-style armour. But, as we shall see, there's a lot more than that...
*Naturally a complete divergence from the text, as Conan was in disguise as the executioner, but I guess Conan clad in grim black silk wasn't "cool" enough or something.
**And even more egregiously, since this is Conan during his captivity in the Pits of Belverus. Maybe putting Conan in nowt but a loincloth would be too racy for 1950s sensibilities or something - in which case, why not illustrate a different scene?
***No, not that kind, this kind. I wish it was that kind.)