Northlanders: Volume 1 – Sven the Returned

In 2007 comic book writer Brian Wood embarked on a new project for DC’s Vertigo Imprint – something of a passion project, from what I can tell.

Northlanders ran for 50 issues before it was cancelled in 2012.

northlanders-comics-volume-1-tpb-hardcover-cartonnee-28775Set during the Viking Age (for the most part) between 793AD and 1066AD, the series was broken into several major arcs, with each following an independent set of characters in a variety of different settings.

The first arc is called ‘Sven the Returned’, and as the name suggests, it focusses on Sven, a Northman (Viking) from the Islands of Orkney (just north of mainland Scotland) that has been away from home for much of his adult life, and at the beginning of the first issue, is serving in the Varangian Guard in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

After learning that his father, the Lord of Grimness (the settlement where Sven was born and raised) has been killed during a raid on a neighbouring kingdom, and that his uncle Gorm has claimed the title, lands and wealth that should be his, Sven determines to return home and claim what he’s lost. He has less interest in the lordship though, than he does in what he refers to as “his money”…

untitledDisdainful of the culture and beliefs of his own people, Sven believes himself superior thanks to his time spent away from the Northlands. But when he finally arrives in Grimness, he discovers that it’ll take more than his fearsome demeanour to oust Gorm. Moreover, as he prosecutes a one-man war against his uncle’s enforcers, he begins to discover something to love in the bleak, frozen lands of his birth.

To tell you more would be to ruin this well-written, and beautifully illustrated (by Davide Gianfelice) omnibus edition. I’ve yet to read the other editions (numbering 2 to 7), but I’m looking forward to it.

What Brian Wood has done here is one the best examples of Viking-themed fiction I have ever come across. Despite the occasional (and inevitable) historical inaccuracy, the feeling of authenticity doesn’t waver. And the ending, while not what many would be expecting, is both poignant and appropriately grim.

Verdict: 5 stars (out of 5).

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Quote of the Day

“Veni, Vidi, Vici.” (Latin)

“I came, I saw, I conquered.” (English)

Gaius Julius Caesar.

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Forever In His Shadow: The “Other” Alexander

In 331BC, beside a rain-swollen river in Southern Italy, the ruler of the Hellenic kingdom of Epirus lay dying.

His name was Alexander.

Shot through with a javelin by a Lucanian exile, he is said to have remarked (according to Livy, writing centuries later in his seminal work, The History of Rome) at his ill-fortune in comparison to that of his better-known nephew (and brother-in-law by marriage), Alexander “the Great” of Macedon. Specifically, he is to have said that while he had fought men, his nephew had “waged war against women.”

Three years earlier Alexander, at the behest of the Greek colony of Taras, had set sail from Epirus with an army trained in the traditions set down by the recently-assassinated Philip II. It had been the occasion of Alexander’s marriage to Philip’s daughter Cleopatra, the second such marriage alliance between the neighbouring kingdoms (the first having been Philip’s marriage to Olympias, Alexander’s sister), when the assassin Pausanias had struck. An inauspicious inauguration for a new era…

Coin of Alexander I of Epirus. Image used with permission of Classical Numismatic Group; sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Coin of Alexander I of Epirus. Image used with permission of copyright holder; source Wikimedia Commons.

After arriving in Italy, Alexander made his war against the Brutti, Lucanians and their Samnite allies.

A series of victories followed, at Paestum, Heraclea, Terina, and Sipontum. Inspired by his successes, Alexander sought to make alliances with whomever he could, including the Romans.

But the successes proved short-lived.

At Pandosia, events conspired against the budding conqueror. Making his camp on a trio of hills and accompanied by a force of local exiles, the king of Epirus was ideally positioned to attack either the Lucanians or the Bruttians. But heavy rains isolated the hills from one another, and when his enemies attacked they were able to destroy Alexander’s army piecemeal.

Fearing imminent defeat and capture, the Lucanian exiles with Alexander decided to switch sides and sent word to their countrymen, offering the king (dead or alive) in exchange for their freedom.

Catching wind of the plot, Alexander made a breakout with his loyal troops, and managed to kill the general of the Lucanians in the process.

Coming to a river ford, it was here (according to the later-Roman historian Justin) that he came face to face with his own mortality.

Years earlier, the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona had warned him to beware the River Acheron and the city of Pandosia. Naturally, Alexander assumed that the so-named river and city in Epirus were the subjects of the warning. Little did he know though that there were similarly named places in Italy – and he had arrived at them.

Informed as much, he hesitated. But with the Lucanians in pursuit, he had little choice. Spurring his horse into the river, he tried to make good his escape, and almost did. But then the javelin flew, and found its mark.

Thus ended the first attempt by the Epirots to conquer the lands of Italy. Some fifty-one years later, another nephew, Pyrrhus, would try his own luck.

But that is another story…

For the moment, let us consider what might have been. It is an interesting notion to consider what could have happened had this Alexander succeeded in his plans. From Italy it is a short jump to Sicily. And from there to Africa, Spain, and beyond…


Livy, The History of Rome, Book 8, Penguin 1982.

Justin, Epitome of Pompeius Trogus, Books 12, Oxford University Press 1997.

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Quote of the Day

“Victory is reserved for those who are willing to pay its price.”

Sun Tzu.

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“I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne…”

Good news…if you’re a fan of Paradox Interactive’s bestselling grand strategy masterpiece Crusader Kings II, that is! There’s a new DLC on the cards, and it’s all about Charlemagne:

For those who don’t know who Charlemagne was, here’s a link:

Long story short, he was the first man to be called “Emperor” in Western Europe since the Fall of the (Western) Roman Empire in 476AD.

So why did I use a quote from ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ for the title of the post?

No reason, I just like it.

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Quote of the Day

“Never mistake motion for action.”

Ernest Hemingway.

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What’s Next?

I just uploaded the final part of the blog series I’ve been writing for the last seven months, Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes. It took a lot longer to complete than I anticipated, mostly because as I progressed further and further with the story of the Byzantine Empire, the more I realised I needed to cover in order to do the history of the period justice. That being said, I’m sure many of those who’ve been reading it will have noticed that it is in many ways a history for the layperson – that is to say, there were details or asides that I chose to omit for the sake of brevity. I hope you’ll forgive me this indulgence, as this blog remains but a side project.

Speaking of, I’ve been wondering lately what I can do now that Tides of War has been concluded. I still haven’t decided what I’ll be working on from here on, but I have been looking at investing some more time in writing projects away from this blog. That means that the relatively sedate pace of my posts may be slowed even further. And again, I hope you’ll forgive me this. Hopefully, in the end, it will all be worth it.

As always, I’ll endeavour to keep you all updated.

Thanks for reading.

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Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Final Part

Mopping Up

“Over the span of about a century, as the remnants of their empire crumbled around them, the partnership between these Byzantine teachers and their Italian students literally saved ancient Greek literature from destruction at the hands of the conquering Turks. The Byzantine contribution of the Greek classics allowed the promise of Renaissance humanism to be fulfilled, by letting the West reclaim the body of literature that makes up the foundation of Western civilisation. How frightening it is to contemplate a world without these works, and how unsettling to make out the slenderness of the thread by which they dangled over the void.”

 – Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World, Colin Wells (2006)


It didn’t take long after the capture of Constantinople by Mehmed II (thereafter called “the Conqueror”) in 1453AD for things to turn against the few remaining remnants of the once-mighty Byzantine Empire.

The now-wholly independent regions of Morea (in the Peloponnese) and Trebizond were conquered themselves in 1460 and 1461AD respectively.

And with that, the Byzantine Empire was no more.

Thomas Palaiologos and his son Andreas claimed the title of Emperor(s)-in-exile until one died in 1465, and the other in 1503AD; both were guests of the Pope in Rome. But the line of rulers stretching back to Constantine the Great, and through him all the way to Augustus and the founding of the Roman Empire in 27BC is generally accepted to have ended with Constantine XI Palaiologos’ death during the defence of Constantinople.

But like other empires before and since, it could be argued that despite the loss of its territories and political independence, the Byzantine Empire lived on in its institutions, its traditions, and its legend.

Several of those nations who had taken religious and political cues from Byzantium, including Bulgaria, Serbia, and most successfully, Russia, claimed for themselves the title of the “Third Rome”, trying through rhetoric and suggestion to position themselves as the successors to the Byzantines.

The Ottomans too felt they should lay claim to the traditions of the Romani, allowing the Byzantine-Greek religion and culture to continue under their rule.

Meanwhile, in the West, those academics, scholars and theologians who had escaped the Fall of Constantinople brought with them copies and understanding of classical Greco-Roman literature not seen for centuries, helping initiate a resurgent interest that would eventually fuel the Renaissance in Italy and beyond.

The contribution Byzantium made to the world should not be underestimated. In the fields of art, science, medicine, civil and military administration, theology and culture, they had a far wider-reaching effect than most realise (or some care to).

For a thousand years they kept alive the traditions of the Roman Empire that had preceded them, and made a direct contribution to our understanding of a past that could otherwise have been forgotten.

Their fortunes fluctuated like the tide; sometimes, they rose high; and sometimes, they fell low. But always, even unto the end, they fought for their ideals, their history and the promise of the future.

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Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes- Part 12

The Final Decline and the Fall of Constantinople

“To surrender the city to you is beyond my authority or anyone else’s who lives in it, for all of us, after taking the mutual decision, shall die out of free will without sparing our lives.”

- Constantine XI Palaiologos, to Mehmed II during the Siege of Constantinople (1453)

Fatih_Sultan_Mehmet_Alternatif_PortreMehmed II came to the throne of the Ottoman Empire in 1451. He was nineteen years old and bent on conquest.

His forbearers had already done much to expand the power of their people, taking most of Asia-Minor during the 14th-century and even expanding into Europe, defeating numerous attempts to dislodge them from the Christian nations of the Balkans and beyond.

All their achievements were marred though by an inability to take the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople.

Surrounded now on all sides by the Turks, the Byzantines controlled little more than the city itself. Certainly, a few bastions of Imperial authority survived in Epirus, the Peloponnese and Trebizond – but these places were largely independent; and besides that, could do little to aid the capital at any rate.

The Mother of Cities was, for all intents and purposes, on its own.

Constantine_PalaiologosThe Emperor of the day, Constantine XI Palaiologos, like his immediate predecessors, fought valiantly to win allies to the Byzantines’ side, even attempting a Union of the Churches (with the Orthodox subservient to the Catholic) in order to secure support from the West.

However much he may have tried though, the division by this point was too great; and especially for the Byzantines, who, remembering the atrocities of the Fourth Crusade, are said to have believed as Loukas Notaras (an advisor to the last three emperors in Constantinople) did when he exclaimed, “Better the Turkish turban than the papal tiara.”

In the end, when Mehmed II finally set out to lay siege to the city in 1453AD, a mere 2000 foreign troops (mostly Genoese and Venetian) came to the aid of the citizens of Constantinople. Though they would prove invaluable (especially those led by Giovanni Giustinani, an expert in siege defence from Genoa), arrayed against them – and the 5000 Byzantine soldiers Constantine was able to muster – was a force of between 50000 and 80000 Ottomans, including (at least) 5000 elite Janissaries.

Also with Mehmed’s forces was a Hungarian (or possibly German) man named Orban, a master founder of one of the newest weapons in the medieval arsenal: cannons. The history of firearms and gunpowder goes back much farther than the 15th-century, especially in the Far East where gunpowder is believed to have been invented in the 9th-century. But Constantinople in 1453 was one of the first European cities to feel the deadly effect of this emerging technology…

Orban had previously offered his services to Constantine, but the Byzantine emperor had been unable to afford him, so instead he sought someone who could: the Ottomans.

Amongst the weapons Mehmed brought against the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople – which had resisted all for a thousand years – was a cannon (or bombard) designed and cast by Orban that took sixty oxen to haul, such was its size and weight.


On the 5th of April, Mehmed II arrived with the last of his troops and the siege began in earnest. The Ottoman army surrounded the city from the west while the navy blockaded it from the east. Access to the Golden Horn was prevented though by a chain strung across the entrance to Byzantium’s natural harbour. And despite the formidable power of Orban’s cannon, its slow rate-of-fire and imprecise aiming meant that the defenders, despite being spread ridiculously thin along the city’s 20km of walls, were able to repair any damage during the long pause between bombardments.

Despite this, the Ottoman Sultan was not about to give up in his attempts. After failing to prevent a small force of Christian ships from running the blockade, Mehmed had his fleet rolled overland on greased logs into the Golden Horn, effectively cutting Constantinople off from the sea. And until mid-May he kept up constant attacks on the Theodosian Walls, sacrificing thousands of soldiers in inconclusive frontal assaults.

When these proved ineffective he decided to try a new tactic, deploying men to undermine the walls. The Byzantines had on their side though a man named Johannes Grant, a Scottish counter-mining expert who helped them locate and destroy the Ottoman tunnels.

By this time it was late-May and Mehmed was considering whether to continue in the seemingly futile attempt to take the city, or withdraw. One of his most senior advisors insisted that the siege must be concluded soon or the Ottomns would risk humiliation and defeat. Thus a final assault was planned for the 29th of May, to commence at midnight and designed to overpower the weary defenders of the city.

News soon reached the Byzantines and both sides knew it would be a bloody – some would say, apocalyptic – affair. Solemn religious proceedings occurred both in the city and in the Ottoman camp.

The_Fall_of_Constantinople,When the assault came it was led by Mehmed’s disposable Christian and azap auxiliaries, followed by his regulars from Anatolia, and finally, the elite Janissaries. They concentrated their attack on the Theodosian Walls, and eventually managed to overwhelm several sections. When Giovanni Giustinani was wounded trying to fend off the advancing Turks he was carried away by his troops.

His absence demoralized many of the other defenders.

Finally, unable to stem the tide of Janissaries pouring through breaches in the wall, Constantine XI Palaiologos, who had fought bravely and tirelessly throughout the siege, cast off his purple cloak and led a final charge against the enemies of his city and empire. He disappeared in the throng of combatants, and was assumed dead, an anonymous casualty amongst thousands who gave their lives that day.

He was the last Emperor of Byzantium, and by extension, the Roman Empire.

The defence quickly collapsed from there and the Ottomans poured into the city. The Byzantine soldiers who had managed to escape the walls fled back to their homes, to try and defend their families from the coming slaughter, while what foreign troops remained ran to their ships. Quite a few managed to escape this way, running the blockade before Mehmed’s fleet could stop them.

Benjamin-Constant-The_Entry_of_Mahomet_II_into_Constantinople-1876A three-day sack ensued, as was customary. No quarter was given to the Byzantine citizens who tried to hide from the victorious Ottomans, and every form of murder, rape, desecration and theft is recorded to have occurred.

At the end of the third day, Mehmed II ordered his army out of the city, and Constantinople, so long a bastion of Christianity, and the last connection to the old Roman Empire of Constantine, Augustus and Caesar, became the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

Next part: Mopping Up

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Quote of the Day

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse.”

Ernest Hemingway.

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