Monday, 30 January 2012

Hyborian Musings: Aquiromian Holiday, Part Three

Two nobles of Shamar wearing robes reclining on a couch, eating grapes, drinking wine, watching the gladiators in a coliseum, in a comic from the Conan the Savage era. Howard's Conan would probably just let the Kothians raze this decadent cesspit to the ground.

Looking at Part Two, you'd think that there was more than enough evidence to support a Roman interpretation of Aquilonia. But doing so would require ignoring or re-interpreting evidence of a rather later inspiration.*

Medieval Elements: Society


“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.”

It should go without saying that one does not usually associate Rome with "kingdom."  There was indeed a time where Rome was ruled by kings, up to 509 BC, but it was a mere speck on the map of Italy compared to the lands of the Etruscans, Samnites, Umbrians and Oscans.

Not exactly "reigning supreme in the dreaming west." It was only as a Republic that Rome became a player on the world stage: as a kingdom, it was merely one among dozens of realms and city-states vying for power while the Greeks and Carthaginians battled over Sicily.

Medieval Empires

"Working through them, and through other agents, many of whom have never seen my face, I have honeycombed the empire with sedition and unrest."

There are, of course, many Medieval Empires: the Ottomans, the Mongols, the Seljuks, the Mughals, and beyond. But after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, were there any empires in Western Europe, and called such? There were a few of note: the Holy Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and the Carolingian Empire are the most famous, but there was also Canute's short-lived North Sea Empire, the Latin or Romanian Empire, the Empire of Nicaea, the first and second Bulgarian Empires, and the Serbian Empire. There were also plenty of states which, while neither ruled by an Emperor nor officially titled an Empire, were colloquially referred to as empires for their aggressive military expansions. "Imperial troops" and "imperial squadrons" are terms which have been used to describe the hosts of the Holy Roman Empire: Aquilonian military elements will be discussed more fully in future posts.


It's in Aquilonia's titles that one notices the most profound Medieval elements, each of which I'll look at in turn:

In short I, working in the shadows, have paved the downfall of the king who sits throned in the sun.
First of all, Aquilonia is ruled by a king, automatically divorcing it from the Roman Republic and Empire: what's more, from what we learn of the previous king, it's clear Aquilonia followed a traditional monarchical system. The king rules until abdication or death, succession is hereditary, and major positions of power are awarded to members of the ruling dynasty. This is entirely at odds with both the Republic, ruled by elected consuls and advised by a senate of powerful families, and the Empire, with an emperor over the consuls and senate and increased influence by generals. While kings are not the exclusive domain of Medieval governments, they are certainly not associated with the Ancient Romans beyond their humble pre-Republic origins.
Volmana, the dwarfish count of Karaban;
Counts are, again, staunchly Medieval. Though there is indeed a link back to Rome through the Latin title Comes, "companion," it was a title which only came into being in the very last days of the Western Roman Empire: it is far more associated with the Middle Ages, be it Italian Conte, French Compt, Spanish Conde or the English Count. Howard used foreign terms in the Hyborian Age before, such as Voivod and Spahis, so if Howard intended Count to be anything other than the usual definition, I'm sure he would use it.
Dion, the fat baron of Attalus;
While Counts have something of a Roman link, barons certainly do not. Barons date back to the time of the Norman Kingdoms, where they were vassals of the king: this title spread throughout the Norman sphere, and evolved to the noble title which persists to this day. Ancient Rome had no barons, and nothing particularly resembling them.
Rinaldo, the hare-brained minstrel.
Minstrel as a term for a travelling professional musician, poet and singer dates back to the 13th century, a contraction of Old French ménestrel. It's hard to think of anything more Medieval than the wandering bard amusing his lordship with song and ribaldry. The Ancient Romans seemed to be rather complacent when it came to musical innovations, preferring to adopt those of other cultures, especially the Greeks: in any case, while the Romans undoubtedly had entertainers akin to Minstrels, they did not use that name.
Through his princely kin in Nemedia...
Princes, like counts, have a predecessor in Ancient Rome. The princeps senatus was the informal title given to the leader of the Roman Senate in Republican Rome, but the word itself first appears in the old French prince. The exact nature of princes in the Hyborian Kingdoms is a bit more complex: rather than the denomination for the male relatives of a monarch, it appears Howard was using an older definition - a class of monarch below that of a king. Howard would later hint at the presence of a number of princes in "The Scarlet Citadel," but for now, the word is sufficiently Medieval.
... it was easy to persuade King Numa to request the presence of Count Trocero of Poitain, seneschal of Aquilonia...
Seneschal is a very specific Medieval term, and a fairly late Medieval term at that: in France during the Ancien Régime, it was the title for a royal officer in command of the southern provinces. Even in the first story, the use of this term suggests that Howard's primary inspiration for Poitain was the kingdoms of Occitania, especially the Duchy of Aquitaine. This would be built upon in successive stories, most profoundly in "The Hour of the Dragon."
Conan makes a bad mistake in letting men live who still boast descent from the old dynasty, from which he tore the crown of Aquilonia.
Dynasties are a common feature in a great many historical civilizations, from Ancient Egypt to modern times, but the word itself is from the High Middle Ages. By the references to blood relationships and genealogical tracings, it seems the dynasty to which Numedides and Dion belonged was similar to those of the Middle Ages. The closest approximation Ancient Rome had to the dynasty in this sense is the Gentes, but such a specific and complicated organization is so different from traditional dynasties, it may as well be considered something else entirely. For one thing, there were hundreds of gentes, whereas dynasties are usually only used in reference to the ruling house: there are no references to other dynasties vying for control, suggesting that there were none left. For another, completely unrelated individuals could be part of the same gens: if such were the case for Numedides' house, Conan would be swamped with claimants to the throne.
“Gromel! Volmana! Rinaldo!” exclaimed Publius, the high councillor, wringing his fat hands among the corpses. 
High Councillor was a rank in many Medieval governments, from Scandinavia to Outremer.** "Councillor" suggests a council, and Howard refers to a council of nobles in "The Scarlet Citadel."
“See first to the dagger-wound in my side,” he bade the court physicians... “Had you seen what he and I saw,” growled the king, sitting up despite the protests of the leeches...
While Physician ultimately derives from Latin physica, "natural science," its immediate origins are actually in - again - old French, this time fisician, from fisique, "art of healing." Rome had its own physicians, true - but not court physicians. While the use of leeches in bloodletting is attested in Ancient Greece, it is most commonly associated with the Middle Ages. Surprisingly, leech was used for doctors first: the earliest evidence that creatures were referred to by that name is found from the 18th Century, although folk etymology has combined the two. That said, though leech in its original etymology has an ancient lineage possibly back to Celtic roots, it seems to be found most commonly in Middle Age texts.***

Then a medley of voices reached his ears, and the room was thronged with the finally roused people of the court – knights, peers, ladies, men-at-arms, councillors - all babbling and shouting and getting in one another’s way.
It's difficult to think of a more quintessentially Medieval word than knight. Think of the Middle Ages, and there's a good chance you might think of knights in shining armour, even if your sum knowledge of the period is all that can be gleaned from Monty Python. The name has Germanic as opposed to Latin roots: Old English cniht, deriving from West Germanic. Since the knights are considered "people of the court," it stands to reason that they could be part of the nobility: Medieval knighthood was largely a military position in the Hundred Years War, and only became associated with nobility in the 1500s. Ancient Rome had nothing quite like the knight.  They had heavy cavalry in the later days of the Empire, true, but this was more an adoption of the Eastern Cataphracts' equipment and role in battle than their organization and civil status.

Peers are another fixture of the Middle Ages, at least from the 14th Century, and a reference to nobility. More specifically, "peers" has strong chivalric and romantic connotations, the idea of a group of nobles being of equal standing and rank: the Round Table and Charlemagne's Paladins - the latter even being called the Twelve Peers - being examples. Again, Ancient Rome didn't have a direct analogue to the peerage.

Ladies, in terms of nobility, are the female counterparts to lords: in other words, women of a superior position in society. We know of at least one countess, Albiona of "The Hour of the Dragon," so it's possible there are others: baronesses and princesses in addition to countesses. They are certainly not something you'd see in Ancient Rome: while there were certainly many powerful and influential Roman women - as Howard himself would attest - they did not have the rights or opportunities of women in the Middle Ages, official public offices such as Ladyship being one.

Men-at-Arms can be traced back to the High Middle Ages, as a term for professional warrior, as opposed to a levied or conscripted one, usually one who bought land with military service. The Roman army had a very distinctive, iconic organization of citizens, auxiliaries and mercenaries, and "man-at-arms" doesn't adequately describe any of them.

Councillors has already been discussed in High Councillor, though - again - the word has Medieval origins.


This alone proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Howard intended Aquilonia to be Medieval rather than Roman. After all, if Howard intended  Aquilonia was intended to be Roman, then surely the Aquilonian court would be more Romanesque? Where are the consuls, senators, legates, patricians, tribunes? Why did Aquilonia have knights instead of equestrians or centurions? Why is there no reference to a senate?

“They will continue to think that I serve them, until our present task is completed. Who are they to match wits with Ascalante? Volmana, the dwarfish consul of Karaban; Gromel, the giant legate of the Black Legion; Dion, the fat tribune of Attalus; Rinaldo, the hare-brained cantor. I am the force which has welded together the steel in each, and by the clay in each, I will crush them when the time comes. But that lies in the future; tonight the emperor dies.”
“Days ago I saw the imperial squadrons ride from the city,” said the Stygian.
“They rode to the frontier which the heathen Picts assail – thanks to the strong liquor which I’ve smuggled over the borders to madden them. Dion’s great wealth made that possible. And Volmana made it possible to dispose of the rest of the imperial troops which remained in the city. Through his gentile kin in Nemedia, it was easy to persuade Rex Numa to request the presence of Consul Trocero of Poitain, Praetor of Aquilonia; and of course, to do him honor, he’ll be accompanied by an imperial escort, as well as his own troops, and Prospero, Emperor Conan’s right-hand man. That leaves only the emperor’s personal bodyguard in the city - besides the Black Legion. Through Gromel I’ve corrupted a spendthrift officer of that guard, and bribed him to lead his men away from the emperor’s door at midnight.
... Then a medley of voices reached his ears, and the room was thronged with the finally roused people of the senate – centurions, equestrians, noblewomen****, legionaries, senators – all babbling and shouting and getting in one another’s way. The Black Dragons were on hand, wild with rage, swearing and ruffling, with their hands on their hilts and foreign oaths in their teeth. Of the young officer of the door-guard nothing was seen, nor was he found then or later, though earnestly sought after.
“Gromel! Volmana! Rinaldo!” exclaimed Publius, the princeps senatus, wringing his fat hands among the corpses. “Black treachery! Some one shall dance for this! Call the guard.”
“The guard is here, you old fool!” cavalierly snapped Pallantides, prefect of the Black Dragons, forgetting Publius’ rank in the stress of the moment. “Best stop your caterwauling and aid us to bind the king’s wounds. He’s like to bleed to death.” 

See how the story's tone changes dramatically with the replacement of a few words? Yet there is still more evidence in "The Phoenix on the Sword" alone which suggests Aquilonia was more romantic than Roman. Even if you argue Howard may have intended the use of modern names to facilitate to the readers, that his use of count really meant Comtes, how does that explain the use of the very obscure and specific term seneschal? Howard was historically literate and did not dumb down his language for his audience: this is clearly seen in his historical stories. I'm of the opinion that if Howard wanted to give Aquilonia a Roman veneer, he would've used Roman words, not obfuscate the issue by using commonplace modern European words with ancestry in Latin.

*Because I have no idea how to edit, this five-part series, which was originally a three-part series, will now be a seven part series. If I go beyond that, my brains might leak out of my ears.

**Unfortunately most web searches for High Councillor involve World of Warcraft, which got aggravating in short order. No, fercromssake, I don't want to buy a High Councillor's Sash for my Night Elf Mohawk... That's a thing, right? I don't play World of Warcraft.

***I have decided on the definition of "leeches" as referring to the doctors, as opposed to the creatures: while there's precedent for talking animals in "The Cat and the Skull" and the Golnar fragment, when Howard said the leeches protested the king's sitting up, I don't think he meant the little beasties were voicing their objections. Though such an image would be whimsical and delightful. Then again, comic artists seem to insist that the oliphants in "The Scarlet Citadel" were pachyderms rather than musical instruments, so perhaps we can look forward to that in Truman and Giorello's King Conan: The Phoenix on the Sword

****There's a collective name for influential Roman women who used their guile and wit to manipulate their menfolk which currently escapes me. I'd appreciate anyone pointing it out.


  1. Hero of the Federation30 January 2012 at 23:09


  2. By coincidence, I've got one for you, Al.

  3. Great read, Al. Thanks!

  4. Some good points, although its really hard to draw a clear line between words understandable in our language and their counterpart in the cultures of the hyborian age.
    Lots of what we know about Aquilonian culture is feudal with close resemblance to medieval kingdoms, but what feudal kingdom ever went out to conquer and expand the way aquilonia did? Thats a clerly Roman treat, made obvious with the whole Venarium business.
    Guess Im saying Aquilonia as an Idea borrow from both Roman empire and feudal Europe, mostly in the practical shape of a late medieval picturesqe kingdome.

  5. Several feudal kingdoms tried to expand into the Holy Land during the Crusades.

  6. I don't fully adhere to the "Aquiromian" idea, but playing devil's advocate for a moment, let me ask how many classical civilizations other than Rome had consuls, centurions, decurions, and legionaries? None. On the other hand, how many medieval states had counts, dukes, lords, and so on? Virtually all of them, to my knowledge. Taking that into account, one could argue the use of such titles might be more generic in nature, intended to make Aquilonia look less "cut & paste".

    Regarding the Councillor/senator correlation, the two titles could, in a broad sense, be analogous to each other in many ways.

    As for the king/emperor issue, the idea of a king in charge of a de facto empire isn't unheard of. The British Empire, for example, was ruled by kings and queens. The only British monarch to attain the title of emperor was Matilda of England, but this was only through her marriage to Holy Roman Emperor Henry V and about 400 years *before* the founding of the British Empire.