"My antipathy for Rome is one of those things I can't explain myself. Certainly it isn't based on any early reading, because some of that consisted of MacCauley's Lays of Ancient Rome from which flag-waving lines I should have drawn some Roman patriotism, it seems. At an early age I memorized most of those verses, but in reciting, changed them to suit myself and substituted Celtic names for the Roman ones, and changed the settings from Italy to the British Isles! Always, when I've dreamed of Rome, or subconsciously thought of the empire, it has seemed to me like a symbol of slavery -- an iron spider, spreading webs of steel all over the world to choke the rivers with dams, fell the forests, strangle the plains with white roads and drive the free people into cage-like houses and towns."
- Robert E. Howard, letter to HP Lovecraft, ca. February, 1931
Ancient Romans in Feudal Japan? What is this, The Twilight Zone?
An analysis of Conan's armour in "The Phoenix on the Sword," with its references to plumed casques and moveable visors, should indicate that at least Conan's armour would be more Medieval in tone than Classical. That said, arguments could be made that it isn't enough: the ambiguity of "casque" as a phrase and the presence of Roman helms with masks that functioned similarly to moveable visors offer possibilities. However, when taken in conjunction with other clues in the tale, the support for a Romanesque interpretation starts to lose ground.
Nonetheless, it has to be acknowledged that there are Roman or Romanesque elements in the Conan stories.
"The Phoenix on the Sword" is unusual in that, of all the Aquilonian stories, it contains the most Classical elements. "The Scarlet Citadel," "The Hour of the Dragon" the borderline "Beyond the Black River" and "Wolves Beyond the Border" have practically none outside names. This post will explore and analyse those elements which could be tied to Ancient Rome.
An Age Undreamed Of
“Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
That first paragraph has a lot of classical references in it, and especially a Roman one. We'll look at each in turn.
Nemedia = IRISH. Nemedia is obviously from the Nemedians of Irish Mythology, and so the name can't be considered any more classical than King Arthur.
Ophir = HEBREW. Ophir was famously mentioned in the Bible, as one of the many trade links of King Solomon's court, and likely where Howard got the name (Howard being a fan of Solomon).
Brythunia = WELSH. The most obvious etymological connection is Brython, as supported by "The Hyborian Age" essay. There's a very remote possibility of Bithynia, a Thracian kingdom of Anatolia which became a Roman province, but it should be considered strictly secondary.
Hyperborea = GREEK. The Greek mythological Hyperborea is one of the more clear-cut cases of etymological derivation.
Zamora = SPANISH. Zamora is likely from the Spanish city and province of the same name which came to prominence in the Middle Ages, particularly its role in the story of El Cid. There are a number of successive Zamoras dating to Spanish colonization dotted around Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador and the United States.
Zingara = ITALIAN. Zingara is the name for a gypsy woman, most famously evoced in the opera and song titled "La Zingara" by Donizetti and Verdi respectively.
Koth = UNKNOWN. De Camp mentioned the city of Koth in Gujarat, India in "Hyborian Names," but it seems unlikely. There is also an ancient town with the name in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh, which seems similarly improbable as an inspiration. It's possible this is a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft's Koth, or simply a completely made up word with no link to history. Whatever the case may be, it isn't Latin.
Shem = HEBREW. Named for one of the Sons of Noah, naturally.
Stygia = GREEK. Obviously deriving from Stygian, an adjective used in reference to the River Styx of Greek Mythology.
Hyrkania = GREEK. Hyrcania was an ancient kingdom of the Caspian Sea region - indeed, the Caspian was known to the Greeks as the Hyrcanian Sea - and the name was derived from the Old Persian Verkâna, "Wolf-land." The kingdom became a satrapy of the many Persian Empires of the classical period, and it was one of the few lands which was never fully conquered by the mighty Islamic Caliphate; nonetheless, it split into smaller realms following the fall of the Sassanid Empire. Thus, while Hyrcania may be of Greek derivation, it is strongly tied to Late Antiquity before falling in the Dark Ages.
Aquilonia = LATIN. Naturally the Italian town of Aquilonia, itself named for Aquilo or Aquilon, the Roman's name for Boreas, the personification of the North Wind.
Cimmerian = LATINIZED GREEK. The name for the Cimmerians naturally stems from the Cimmerians of Greek Mythology, and later the historical Cimmerians of the Crimean.
So of the names in the first paragraph, we have one Irish (Nemedia), two Hebrew (Ophir and Shem), one Welsh (Brythunia), one Spanish (Zamora), one Italian (Zingara), one unknown (Koth), four Greek (Hyperborea, Stygia, Hyrkania and Cimmerian), and one Latin (Aquilonia). Altogether, there are five definitely classical names in that first paragraph, and two Hebrew which could be tied due to the Biblical connection. On the face of it, that could be used as proof that Aquilonia is Roman in name as a method of distinction from the other kingdoms. The other names will be discussed in Part 3.
Kingdoms and Empire
"Working through them, and through other agents, many of whom have never seen my face, I have honeycombed the empire with sedition and unrest."
“Your destiny is one with Aquilonia. Gigantic happenings are forming in the web and the womb of Fate, and a blood-mad sorcerer shall not stand in the path of imperial destiny.”
Aside from "The Hyborian Age" and its description of the later Hyborian Age, these are the only descriptions of Aquilonia as an empire in all the Conan stories. Certainly one of the first things that comes to mind when connected with the word "Empire" is the Roman Empire, and when faced with very classical-sounding names in the first paragraph like, one could get the definite impression that this is set in a classical-tinted age.
At the same time, though, one must remember that there were plenty of other empires in history: preceding Rome there were the many Mesopotamian and Greek empires, and succeeding it the various Germanic ones. Asking someone the first empire that comes to mind, and you may get the British, Ottoman or Persian Empires as much as Rome. Medieval Empires will be discussed in Part 3.
Over the course of the stories, we encounter Aquilonians with distinctly Latin names, most notably Soractus of "Beyond the Black River," Tiberio, Publius, Servius Gallanus, Valerius and Zelata of The Hour of the Dragon, and Valeria of "Red Nails". However, this is not inclusive, as some names are Greek, such as Epe(i)us of the Tombalku typescripts, Thespius and Tiberias of The Hour of the Dragon. Others are Greco-Latin adoptions of Gallic, Germanic or Indo-European, such as Albiona and Amalric of The Hour of the Dragon. Some I can't even tell: Arpello, Attelius, Valannus, and Vilerus all *sound* vaguely Greco-Latin, or at least Indo-European. There are Latin-inspired place names too, such as Pellia, Amilius, and Aquilonia itself, and others like Shamar and Tanasul that aren't.
An Age of Conan player hanging out with Pallantides. At least this version doesn't have a buzzcut...
So, what of "The Phoenix on the Sword"? Here are the Aquilonian names that appear:
Ascalante = POSSIBLY SPANISH. A holdover from "By This Axe, I Rule!" and so could technically be a Valusian as well as Aquilonian name. Etymology is uncertain, but I believe the Spanish Escalante is a strong possibility. Father Silvestre Vélez de Escalante was an 18th Century Fransiscan monk who explored much of what would become the southwestern United States: his name is taken by several places in the region, including a river, desert, city and monument in Utah.
Dion = GREEK. Kaanuub in "By This Axe, I Rule!" Dion has a solid precedence in Greek culture: it is the name of a mythical Laconian king, a Syracusian tyrant of the 4th century BC, and a prominent city and shrine to Zeus in Greece. Notably for the purposes of this post, Dion of Naples was a Roman astronomer mentioned by Augustine of Hippo in De Civitate Dei contra Paganos (Concerning the City of God and the Pagans).
Epemitreus = GREEK. Likely from Epimetheus, the mythological brother of the more famous Prometheus, and husband to the also-more-famous Pandora. It's likely only the name which inspired Howard, since Epimetheus was a fool and dullard compared to his wily and intelligent brother.
Mitra = PROTO-INDO-IRANIAN. Obviously, much has been written in regards to a Mitra-Mithras connection, and on the face of it, it seems to make more sense to connect the Roman Mithras to Aquilonia than the Indo-Iranian Mitra, on account of the Western European connection. A discussion of Mitra deserves much more scrutiny and depth than within the bounds of this post, but suffice to say I believe Howard's Mitra was more complex than an analogue of either the Indo-Iranian Mitra or Roman Mithras. That said, I think the former is certainly the inspiration for the name, given Mitra's mention in Jack London's The Star-Rover, which we know Howard read and reread.
Numedides = GREEK. The first of a few Hyborian portmanteaus, Numedides (Namedides in later stories) could be a conflation of Greek Numa or Numed, and the Greek gentile suffix -ides. Thus, Numedides could mean "son of Numa/Numed."
Pallantides = GREEK. One of the more straightforward ones, as Pallantides was the name given to the fifty children of Pallas in Greek Mythology.
Publius = ROMAN. One of the few truly Roman names, and so common that listing the number of historical individuals bearing the name would be prohibitive.
Rinaldo = ITALIAN. Ridondo in "By This Axe, I Rule!" Rinaldo is a proper Italian name, a cognate of Reynold and Ronald, which gained prominence in the late Medieval/Early Modern period: Rinaldo Conti, who later became Pope Alexander IV; Giovanni Rinaldo, a Venetian economist and antiquarian. One particularly interesting possible allusion is in the cousin of the titular character of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, which translates as The Frenzy of Orlando, or more literally, Mad Orlando. Hmm.
Volmana = POSSIBLY ITALIAN. Another carry-over. It's difficult to discern a possible etymology for Volmana since Howard tended to use much more fantastical names for the Kull tales (Kaanuub, Rotath, Kelka, Murom bora Ballin, Ronaro atl Volante), but Italian Vomano seems a possibility: it's the name of a river and town in Italy, and most interestingly the site of a temple to Hercules.
So of the names of the Aquilonian characters, only one can truly be considered Roman (Publius), one has possible Roman connections (Dion), three are Greek (Epemitreus, Numedides, Pallantides) two are Italian (Rinaldo and possibly Volmana), one is possibly Spanish (Ascalante), and one is proto-Indo-European (Mitra).
However, one must consider the impact of Latin on the Romance Languages in the Middle Ages, as well as the use of Latin in general. There were Medieval Armenian, Bulgarian, Ethiopian and even Scottish kings called Constantine, for example. Albertus Magnus, Albertus Parisiensis, Andreas Vesalius, Carolus Magnus, Duns Scotus, Paracelsus, Paschasius Radbertus, Petrus Abaelardus, Rabanus Maurus Magnentius, Remigius of Auxerre, and Saxo Grammaticus all have Latin names, but none were Ancient Romans.
"Days ago I saw the imperial squadrons ride from the city..."
"And Volmana made it possible to dispose of the rest of the imperial troops which remained in the city..."
"...he'll be accompanied by an imperial escort, as well as his own troops..."
"Your only danger is assassination, and that's impossible, with men of the imperial troops guarding you day and night."
The most obvious answer to me is that this is a relic of Namedides. This is the first story to feature Conan as King, and also the earliest chronologically, meaning that he hasn't quite made his mark yet. As such, it's likely to me that the imperial soldiers referred to are a result of Namedides' political ambitions. We have an idea of how rough Aquilonia was in the War of the Barons, but we don't seem to know what other countries felt about it. What if one of the reasons for the War of the Barons was a result of attempted conquest of other nations? A costly, failed invasion of Nemedia, Zingara, Ophir or barbarian lands could have ignited the internal conflict. It could also offer an interesting new light on Koth and Ophir's betrayal in "Citadel": perhaps Ophir's nobles felt justified in betraying Aquilonia if they themselves were treated poorly by Aquilonia. Perhaps the chaos Zingara's in in HotD is also a result of Namedides' imperial ambitions. Indeed, Numa of Nemedia seemed quite amicable with Conan: could it be because of his less cordial relationship with Namedides, so sour that he'd prefer a red-handed barbarian as a fellow statesman?
Whatever it is, Imperial soldiers, squadrons and troops are not referred to in either of the other King Conan tales: this suggests that they no longer exist, as artefacts of Aquilonia's aggressive and imperialist nature before Conan came in to shake things up. Exactly what these Imperial Troops were is unclear, but I think it's just a reference to their status than any particular difference in organization, equipment or nature: they're likely composed of the same tough individuals like Valannus and Tiberias, just under a different name.
The Black Legion
On the face of it, the Black Legion sounds like an obvious reference to the Roman legion. The word derives from the latin legio, "military conscription," and was originally used in reference to the legionary cohorts, originally conscripted from Roman citizenry. There is no description of the black legion's makeup, composition or appearance, save what can be gleaned from its commander, Gromel. The fact that Gromel is a Bossonian suggests that individuals from allied or subject provinces like Bossonia, Gunderland and Poitain can be admitted along with genuine Aquilonians: later Roman legions did the same in the expansion of the Empire. Then again, there are historical legions - most notably, ones that are named or nicknames "black legions" - from the Middle Ages and Early Modern times, which will be discussed in Part 3.
Considering how often Conan has been depicted as a gladiator, it's surprising that the single closest reference to the classic Roman bloodsport is in a vague reference to the cestus:
He flung aside the dagger-wielder with his left arm, and smashed his broken hilt like a cestus into the swordsman’s temple.
Howard is speaking using the narrative voice here: it's entirely possible that cestuses don't even exist in the Hyborian Age - at least not in the way we normally think of them.
Temples and Mitra
“They have put a statue of that swine in the temple of Mitra...”
“Now in Mitra’s temple there come to burn incense to Numedides’ memory...”
It was the high-priest of Mitra who cried out, and his countenance was ashen...
“It is one of the Mysteries, on which Mitra’s cult stands.”
Age of Conan artist's conception of the Temple of Mitra at Tarantia
The Middle Ages are understandably inextricable from Christianity in many ways, so it can be somewhat jarring to encounter a Medieval setting with "high-priests," "temples," "mysteries" and "cults." A discussion of Mitra and his cult is too broad to be fully encapsulated here, but for now I'll discuss these elements briefly.
Temples are naturally strongly tied to Roman religion, though obviously they have a far greater history in the pre- and post-Christian era. The practise of burning incense to the memory of the dead is truly ancient: the Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians burned incense - in particularly, the Babylonian practise of incense burning to divine oracles was carried over to the Greeks and Romans. High priests are a role found in many ancient religions, most notably Ancient Egyptian, Judaism and Zoroastrianism: roles analogous to high priest in Classical religion include the heirophant of Greece and the Pontifex Maximus of Rome. The mysteries of Mitra are perhaps the most Romanesque elements of the religion, if compared to the Greco-Roman mysteries. The strongest correlation is that mysteries are exactly that: the rites, initiation, members, even knowledge of its existence, are kept secret from the world. The high-priest's desire to keep the return of Epemitreus secret may support this. "Cult" is another possible Roman link: the Empire, like the Greeks, had a plethora of cults dedicated to historical heroes as their religion.
Man of the elements discussed above are not unique to Ancient Rome, or even the ancient world. Next time, we'll look at the more Medieval elements of "The Phoenix on the Sword," many of which are connected to some of the supposedly Romanesque features mentioned above: names, empires, temples and so forth. In addition, there are possible Early Modern links in the Black Legion and Black Dragons.
If these were the only clues in "The Phoenix on the Sword," one could see how the Aquiromian interpretation came about. If they were the only clues...