Wednesday 22 February 2012

Hyborian Musings: Aquiromian Holiday, Part Four

Back to our regularly scheduled programming. Quick forward: the subject of the Aquiromians and question of whether the Hyborian Kingdoms were predominantly ancient or medieval in inspiration has been raging over at the Robert E. Howard Forums. I highly recommend that anyone reading these articles should peruse those topics. The topics on Aquilonia and Acheron are also important reading. My goal in this series is to present my argument that Howard's primary inspiration for the Hyborian Kingdoms (not the Hyborian Age in general, otherwise what would that make Stygia and Shem?) was the Middle Ages, with any influence from ancient or classical sources being either universally applicable, or intrinsic to the Middle Ages themselves.

I was, as always, much interested in your remarks concerning the classical world, of which I know so little. What a city Alexandria must have been! I had no idea of the origin of the word parchment. As I’ve said before, your letters are an actual education for me. Some day I must try to study the ancient Grecian world. Its always seemed so vague and unreal to me, in contrast to the roaring, brawling, drunken, bawdy chaos of the Middle Ages in which my instincts have always been fixed. When I go beyond the Middle Ages, my instincts veer to Assyria and Babylon, where again I seem to visualize a bloody, drunken, brawling, lecherous medley. My vague instincts towards classical Greece go no further than a dim impression of calm, serene white marble statues in a slumbering grove. Though I know the people of the classic times must have wenched and brawled and guzzled like any other people, but I can not concieve of them. The first mythology I ever read was that of Greece, but even then it seemed apart and impersonal, without the instinctive appeal I later found in Germanic mythology.
 - Robert E. Howard, letter to H.P. Lovecraft, 13th July, 1932

In most adaptations and illustrations, the army of Aquilonia resembles a host straight out of the classical period: if not legionary cohorts, then certainly Greek phalanges. But how does this compare to Howard's original descriptions?

Medieval Elements: Military

Whenever Howard went into detail with the Aquilonian army, he rendered them as staunchly medieval in style, formation and organization. However, it was only in "The Scarlet Citadel" that the hosts of Aquilonia were directly described: in "The Phoenix on the Sword," all we have are references to "legions," "imperial squadrons," "men-at-arms," and "knights."

Imperial Squadrons

Squadron is a word with fairly modern connotations, but it has a longer history: in fact, it was originally used since the 1560s, from Italian squadrone, augmentative of squadra, "battalion." The 1560s may not be considered the Middle Ages by many today, but there are strong indications that Howard may have a much broader timeframe which he placed under the Medieval umbrella (more of this in an upcoming post).

Even, so, Howard used the term in his historical Medieval stories:

Around the western promontory of the island they had been trying to reach, came a squadron of great red dromonds, with battle-castles rearing at prow and stern.
 - "Gates of Empire," set in the 12th Century

With a shout they pulled shaft to ear and loosed, and a sudden hail of death smote the charging Mongols. At that range there was no missing. Those long shafts tore through buckler and hauberk, transfixing the wearers. Flesh and blood could not stand it. The charge did not exactly break, but in the teeth of that iron gale the squadrons wheeled and circled away out of range.
 - "Red Blades of Black Cathay," set in the late 13th Century
Across the trampled field of battle no squadrons thundered, no war-cry reverberated.

Ak Boga, watching their battle array, had chk-chk'd his teeth in surprize and disapproval as he saw the glittering squadrons of mounted knights draw out in front of the compact masses of stalwart infantry, and lead the advance.

Like a thunderbolt Suleiman launched his squadrons at the Tatar right wing.
 - "Lord of Samarcand," set in the late 14th Century

And so forth.  Evidently, Howard was using "squadron" in its more general form as a single unit of warriors as opposed to a whole army.

Medieval Legions

Age of Conan's concept art for "Black Legion armour" actually isn't too bad.

As said last time, one might get the impression that the Black Legion was a reference to the Roman cohorts. That said, it isn't as simple as that. A few clues can be found in historical examples of legions, mostly from the early modern period: Lee's Legion, the British Legion, the Polish Legions, the Belgian Legion, and more.

The first likely inspiration, to me, is the Black Brunswickers, who were also known as the Black Horde and... the Black Legion. They wore black broadcloth, and their caps featured the Totenkopf military insignia: a silver skull and crossbones. The BB had a ferocious reputation during the Napoleonic Wars, and were very popular among the Victorians, inspiring some famous artwork and statues, most notably "The Black Brunswicker" by John Everett Millais. Howard's partiality to stick a few gunpowder-era references into the Hyborian Age - the Kozaks/Cossacks being a notable other example, as well as the Afghuli/Afghans, and most particularly the use of a rocket in "The Black Stranger" - seems to be because Howard considered the Middle Ages in a much broader sense than some may think (again, more on this in a future post). I can imagine the Aquilonian Black Legion being similar in some respects.

The other most promising possibility is the Black Army of Hungary. This is far more in line with a Medieval Aquilonia. The Black Army was a mercenary army heavily of around 30,000 men at its height, composed of men from many nations, and fielding multiple formations including cavalry, infantry and artillery. Howard was naturally very interested in the Ottoman-European conflict, and the Black Army were involved in a number of conflicts with the Turks, such as the Battle of Breadfield. A third possibility is La Légion Noire - "the Black Legion," of course - which was a short-lived brigade of the French Revolutionary Army which participated in the final invasion of Britain, but it seems a stretch to me.

It's also worth pointing out that the word "legion" has often been used as a descriptive term to large groups that don't have anything to do with Ancient Rome since the 1700s, and some not even related to the military at all: the French Foreign Legion, the American Legion, the Royal British Legion, and so forth. Legion has its roots in Latin legere, "to choose, gather," and ever since its appearance in the Bible, it has been used as shorthand for "a large number of individuals" even discounting its military origins.

My theory is that the Black Legion was a mix of the first two: a mercenary force raised by Gromel during the War of the Barons, taking advantage of the abundant bloodshed between the squabbling nobles to get a bit of action. When Conan became a force to be reckoned with, Gromel saw the writing on the wall, and joined with him: his army of mostly common or low-nobility soldiers would likely side with Conan anyway. As the historical Black Legions were composed of infantry, cavalry and artillery, I'd imagine the Aquilonian BL was similarly diverse: perhaps mostly infantry spearmen, with some Bossonian regiments (Gromel being Bossonian himself) and a mix of light and heavy cavalry.

What happened to the Black Legion after "The Phoenix on the Sword"? My guess is they were disbanded, the soldiers either going off to new pastures or joining the existing Aquilonian army. We never hear from the Black Legion again in Citadel or HotD, so it's likely without Gromel it dissolved, though it would be neat to imagine there's still a small battalion of soldiers in black with silver Death's Head regalia somewhere about Aquilonia.

Black Dragons

Alphonse V of Aragon was a member of the prestigious Order of the Dragon. Vincent Juan Masip and other artists depicted him in black armour. A... black dragon, wouldn't you say?

Like the Black Legion, the Black Dragons make their only direct appearance in "Phoenix". Did it also seemingly disappear in the subsequent stories, or did it continue, with its name merely omitted? I think it's possible that, like the "Imperial Troops", the Black Dragons were a relic of Aquilonia's imperial phase, and that they were phased out during Conan's rule. However, it's also possible that they continued as Conan's bodyguard, since Pallantides continues to be his top general in the other King Conan tales, and they seemed far more loyal to Conan than the Black Legion.

The Black Dragons appear to employ "giants", and intriguingly swear by "foreign oaths". Although it's possible a few were Aquilonians, it's equally likely more than a few are from other lands. Since all ten of the black-armoured guards are called giants, this is probably a deliberate aspect of the job. Either they're recruited due to their imposing height, or the best men for the job just happened to be big tall chaps. There is precedent for the hiring of taller-than-average warriors for an elite unit in the Potsdam Giants of early modern Prussia, who could have "sworn by foreign oaths" considering many non-Prussians made up their ranks. The famous Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire consisted of Scandinavians, Russians and Balts, and so could be a similar example.

The Black Dragons' name is another matter. It is possible Howard just named them after dragons and used the "black" adjective for effect, as with the Red Slayers in "By This Axe, I Rule!" and the Black Legion in both tales.  However, there are historical military units which had colours in their name: these include the mythological Red Branch, the Black Bands, the Black Company, and so forth. On the dragon side of things, we have the legendary Order of the Dragon, a monarchical chivalric order dedicated to the protection of Christendom against the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Many kings, princes, dukes, counts and voivodes were inducted into the other, as well as some obscure figure from Wallachia. Naturally, its nature meant that it was an international institution not tied to any government, certainly not acting as the bodyguard for an individual monarch, so it is unlikely an inspiration beyond the name.

It's my opinion that Pallantides' Black Dragons consisted of the greatest mercenary warriors any nation had to offer to guard the king: with no noble ties, they would not have the divided loyalties of family to crown. They could be of any nation, but I could imagine established tall races such as Gundermen and Bossonians making up a large part, as well as Kushites, Shemites, maybe even some Nordheimr or Cimmerians. Conan's distrust of Hyperboreans and Stygians would probably mean there are none of those warriors among the Black Dragons.

There's also the possibility that the Black Dragons are an Acheronian relic, though this is extremely conjectural: whenever dragons are present in Aquilonian contexts, it's tied to the past. The original royal symbol of Aquilonia appeared to be a dragon, and of course Acheron with all its dragon imagery is part of the ancient past. Considering how frequently Acheron is compared to dragons, it doesn't seem outside the realms of possibility that the Black Dragons were related somehow. Certain military corps in history gain a powerful cultural status: the Immortals of Achaemenid Persia had spiritual successors in the Athanatoi and Napoleon's Imperial Guard. If this is the case, then the organization, role and equipment of Acheronian Black Dragons would have been very different from Aquilonia's, but the name and idea of a group of giant elite guards may itself have a resonance which resulted in such a legacy. After the conquest of Acheron, the Aquiloni invaders may have been so inspired by the ferocity and valour of Acheron's elite soldiers that in a few centuries their successors would be established.  Certainly the barbarian kingdoms which overthrew Rome didn't take long to bring back what they considered the best aspects of the empire.

Men-at-Arms and Knights

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. 

The 1985 Hyborian War Play-by-Mail game gives us a rare Aquilonian knight in full plate with all the trimmings: lance, barding, plumes and all.

If Aquilonia's armies were meant to be Roman, then surely they would follow the same basic system that served the Republic and Empire from Camillus to Marius: emphasis on heavy infantry and skirmishers, with cavalry in a supporting role, often relying on non-citizens for archers, slingers and cavalry. Instead, Aquilonia's army is practically the reverse: emphasis on heavy cavalry, with infantry and archers being treated as mere meat shields for the knights and men-at-arms. This was made most clear in "The Scarlet Citadel" and "The Hour of the Dragon," but even back in "Phoenix," the focus on cavalry was there:

“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 princely kin in Nemedia, it was easy to persuade King Numa to request the presence of Count Trocero of Poitain, seneschal 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, King Conan’s right-hand man.”
“I wish I might ride with you to Nemedia,” said Conan enviously. “It seems ages since I had a horse between my knees – but Publius says that affairs in the city require my presence. Curse him!”

These imperial squadrons and troops ride. While historical infantry was known on occassion to have utilized horses as transport, it certainly does not evoke vast cohorts marching down a paved road. The Black Dragons march, true - but then, they're in the palace, of course they're on foot. Whenever soldiers or troops are described on the move in the story, they ride - not march, be they the "imperial squadrons" or Trocero's escort, with whom Prospero intended to ride.


Another clue can be found in Conan's armour. This is how the king's armaments are described:

Conan faced them, not a naked man roused mazed and unarmed out of deep sleep to be butchered like a sheep, but a barbarian wide-awake and at bay, partly armored, and with his long sword in his hand.

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.

A dagger point raked along his ribs between breastplate and backplate...
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.

Note especially that despite his armour consisting of breastplate, backplate, side-plates, and shoulder-plates, Conan is described only as partly armoured. One could make the case that these elements of the armour are analogous to the Greek linothorax or Roman lorica segmentata, but then, if that's Conan only partly armoured, what else was there for him to put on? Greaves and bracers are all that's left, which would leave Conan mostly, as opposed to partly, armoured. Similarly, what of the "heavy plumed casque," mentioned in Part One? Casque is a very specific Medieval French term for "helmet," dating to the 1570s: if Howard intended any ambiguity as to the Medieval nature of the helmet, then why wouldn't he simply use the word helmet? If Howard "really" intended the "heavy plumed casque" to resemble, say, a galaea, then why would he not use exactly that word instead of an archaic French term?

In addition to Conan's casque, we know that some of the conspirators wore casques with closable visors:
Ascalante he did not know; he could not see through the closed vizors of the armored conspirators...
Blade and casque shivered together and Gromel rolled lifeless on the floor.

Visors are not unheard of in ancient contexts, even closable ones. However, as stated in part one, it's extremely unlikely that Howard was referring to something like the Crosby Garrett, Nijmegen, or Newstead helmets, as opposed to a more practical and relatively common Medieval helm. Those helmets are very distinctive, they were cavalry display helms (why would a motley crew of assassins wear something so conspicuous when they're on a mission of stealth?) and I cannot believe that if Howard was intending to evoke them, he would not mention the fact that these visors are moulded in the shapes of youthful faces:

The use of casques in Medieval works and historical adventures is well-represented - including Howard's own historical adventures:

"His sword flashed like lightning in the sky, and glancing from my casque, whereby I was half-stunned so that blood gushed from my nose, rent the mail on my shoulder and gave me this wound, which irks me yet when the rains come. "
 - "The Shadow of the Vulture"

What's more likely, that the casques referred to were like the lavishly decorated Roman helms used for cavalry displays, or practical, nondescript, efficient helms used for actual combat?


A number of different weapons are mentioned in this story: swords, axes, and daggers are most frequently referred to, with the conspirators noted as bearing a selection. Romans certainly used swords and daggers in combat, but axes used as tools rather than weapons: in contrast, axes were a fairly common sight on the Medieval battlefield. It seems strange that supposedly Romanesque Aquilonian renegades would use "keen-edged axes" in an assassination attempt: surely they would stick with the gladius or pugio, especially considering the Shakespearean connotations ("Et tu, Rinaldo?")

... on the great blade, close to the heavy silver guard, the ancient traced with a bony finger a strange symbol that glowed like white fire in the shadows... on the broad blade was carven a symbol – the outline of a phoenix.
Conan faced them, not a naked man roused mazed and unarmed out of deep sleep to be butchered like a sheep, but a barbarian wide-awake and at bay, partly armored, and with his long sword in his hand.

A "long sword" with a "great" and "broad" blade with a "heavy silver guard" doesn't sound much like the Roman swords I'm familiar with: they were short as a general rule, and the guard fairly modest. Even the spatha, a longer version of the gladius used by cavalry, cannot truly be described as having a "great" or "broad" blade, nor can it be described as long, except in comparison to the gladius. Conan's sword does, however, more closely describe the typical Medieval arming sword.

What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs—I was a man before I was a king.
– The Road of Kings.
In the interim one of his comrades lifted a broadsword with both hands and hewed through the king’s left shoulder-plate...

Broadsword is - of course - a Medieval term, from Old English brad swurd. While the word is concretely associated with the Early Modern basket-hilt swords, it has also been used in reference to all manner of Medieval swords since the Victorian period. Since Howard used broadsword in several of his Medieval historical adventures ("Hawks of Outremer," "The Lion of Tiberias," "The Shadow of the Vulture" among others) it stands to reason that the broadswords mentioned in this tale are similar. It seems rather unlikely that Howard intended one of the conspirators to cut through Conan's shoulder-plate with a short stabbing weapon like a gladius, or even a longer cavalry weapon like a spatha: such a blow would necessitate a much longer weapon to be remotely believable.


  1. Now explain why Arus the watchman has a crossbow while Kallian Publio rode in his golden chariot up and down the Palian Way in "The god in the bowl".

  2. Great post.

    In order to determine whether the predominant influence is ancient or medieval, one would have to list, agree on, count and weigh everything that makes up Aquilonia or any other Hyborian kingdom. And even that wouldn't be definite answer.

    I think Hyborian kingdoms are a beautiful mix of ancient and medieval which makes them unique. I don't understand why people are so fiercely trying to prove that it is one or the other. Perhaps the roots of this debate are the inaccurate depictions made by artists over the years.?.

  3. I think we have lots of great arguments here why Aquilonia ought to be depicted in a (late)medieval fashion rather than Roman/classic style. A movie about king Conan ought to look quite like the old Excalibur movie (as that movie had some anacronistic pieces of reneissans armour exactly like howard describe it).
    I guess the main reason why it mostly dont go all medieval is because its supposed to be set in a far distant time, and historically medieval fashion is quite uniqe. I think most people would have less problem with accepting roman/greek style as a generic "ancient culture", while a medieval look would pin it far more to an actual era, thus ruining the phantasy somewhat. Atleast thats the best explanation I got.