Whoosh! Issue 51 - December 2000


Page 2

The Scythians

When good manes go bad.

Argo is recovered from the marauding Scythians.

[38] IN SICKNESS AND IN HELL (72/404) sees Argo captured by marauding Scythians. Historically these were a race of steppe nomads, a branch of which (the Parthians) would eventually inherit the Persian Empire and become a perennial thorn in Rome's side. Scythians fought as mercenaries for both the Greeks and Persians, having already taught the latter a costly lesson.

[39] In about 512 BCE the Persians, under Darius the Great, had crossed the Bosporus and invaded Europe. They bridged the Danube and advanced into the Russian steppes. The Scythians, along with their Sarmatian allies, adopted a scorched earth policy as they retreated before the invaders. The Persians were subjected to hit-and-run attacks, which sapped the army's morale. The Scythian and Sarmatian horse archers would advance at a canter, breaking into a gallop at about 90 m and firing their powerful bows as they charged. At about 45 meters they wheeled to the right and galloped along the Persian front, still pouring arrows into the enemy ranks. If counterattacked they simply rode away, firing behind them as they retreated. This maneuver, practiced by all steppe nomads, later became known as the "Parthian shot". Eventually the dispirited Persians turned and marched home again.

[40] The 4th century BCE saw a major shift in the balance of power. Coming under pressure from the powerful tribes of central Asia, the Sarmatians were forced to move west into Scythian lands. Their cataphracti gave them an advantage against the Scythians, who lacked large numbers of heavy cavalry. By the 1st century BCE the Sarmatians dominated the steppes northeast of the Black Sea. Only in the Parthian Empire were the Scythians still a force to be reckoned with.

Celtic Warriors

When blue filter is cheaper than blue makeup.

Boadicea makes an appearance in THE DELIVERER.

[41] These fearsome fighters, who sacked Rome itself in 390 BCE, appear twice in Season Three. The first great leader featured is Boadicea (more properly Boudicca, who rebelled against Roman rule in 60-61 AD) in THE DELIVERER (50/304). Jennifer Ward-Lealand is perfect in the role. If Boadicea was not like this, she should have been! Her heavily embossed bronze cuirass can be dated to the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age phase of Celtic development. Several centuries out of date, it is nevertheless clearly valuable and probably a family heirloom. Her earrings appear to be miniature replicas of the long Celtic shield, which may have served as a prototype for the Roman scutum.

[42] Boadicea's followers look passably Celtic, with some tartans in evidence, but their clothing is rather drab. The Celts were noted for their use of bright colors and bold patterns, particularly stripes and checkerboard weaves. The kilts worn in this episode were a much later invention. Celtic men, like those in most "barbarian" nations, wore trousers. Drooping moustaches were common, and warriors sometimes washed their hair with lime before combing it back in fierce looking spikes. The Celtic love of display also manifested itself in the wearing of armlets and torcs (neck rings). These could be of gold, electrum, silver or bronze, and were often of exquisite workmanship.

[43] Although the Celts were skilled horsemen, they fought primarily as infantry, with nobles and their retainers providing the cavalry. The British chariots came as a surprise to the Romans, as they were no longer used in Gaul. Boadicea's chariot is far larger than that used by the Britons. This was very light, with a cab about 1 meter square and wheels some 90 cm in diameter. Caesar was deeply impressed by the skill of the British charioteers, recording their ability to maneuver at high speed, even on slopes. The charioteer would often steer his vehicle whilst standing on the yoke pole between the horses, while the warrior behind him hurled javelins at the enemy before dismounting for hand-to-hand combat.

[44] Celtic weaponsmiths were arguably the best in the ancient world. Chain mail was probably a Celtic invention, and their superb iron helmets were quickly adopted by the Roman legions. These helmets with their characteristic "eyebrow" decoration were worn by a fair number of warriors, although body armor was restricted mainly to the nobility and their most trusted followers. Many Celtic warriors relied solely on the large shield and their own agility for protection. Spears and a variety of missile weapons were used but the main weapon was the sword, about 90 cm long and employed solely as a slashing weapon by the Gauls. The Britons, however, used a sword with a sharp point for both cutting and thrusting. Some warriors were skilful enough to knock aside hurled Roman javelins with their sword blades.

[45] The Celts were fierce headhunters, often stopping to decapitate their fallen enemies in the midst of battle. Another peculiarity was that of sometimes fighting naked except for helmet and shield. The reason for this is unknown - it may have had some ritual significance, as with the headhunting, or it may simply have been sheer bravado. Women seem to have played a largely supporting role in Celtic warfare, preparing the camp and provisions of their warriors. There are records of battles, however, where Celtic women attacked both their own fleeing menfolk and the pursuing Romans before killing their children and themselves.

[46] The Romans did not take long to adapt to Celtic battle tactics, which consisted primarily of a screaming headlong charge, but the eventual downfall of the Gauls was their disunity. Caesar was able to exploit this by playing one tribe off against another. "Divide and conquer" was his strategy. Too late the Gauls united under the Arvernian nobleman Vercingetorix, called Vercinix in WHEN IN ROME... (62/316). After suffering a serious reverse at Gergovia in 53 BCE, Caesar was able to bottle up Vercingetorix and his forces in the hilltop fortress of Alesia the following year. Despite being besieged in turn by a huge Gallic relief army, Caesar was able to force the garrison to surrender, and Gaul fell at last to Rome. Vercingetorix spent six long years in chains before being ritually strangled. The same tribal disunities were played upon in the Roman invasion of Britannia in 43 AD, although in this case the Celts were never entirely subjugated.

Rome's Legions

Whoa!  That's the last time I ask Lucy to use her cell phone!

Brutus finds killing Amazons isn't all fun and games in ENDGAME.

[47] The Roman army of the 1st centuries BCE and AD was at its peak as an offensive weapon. The key to Rome's military might was the legion, comprised entirely of Roman citizens, although these were not necessarily from Italy itself. The basic tactical unit of the legion was the century that, despite its name, was only 80 men strong. It was commanded by a centurion (equivalent to a captain in modern armies), assisted by a lieutenant (optio) and a guard sergeant (tesserarius). Battlefield signals were transmitted to each century by a trumpeter (cornicen), with a rallying point provided by the standard bearer (signifer). Six centuries comprised a cohort, commanded by the senior centurion, and ten cohorts made up a legion. The centurions of the first cohort were known as the primi ordines. These were men of higher rank, the first centurion of the legion (primus pilus) being equal to a full colonel.

[48] The legate, or general commanding the legion, relied heavily on the experience of his senior centurions, most of whom had come up from the ranks. Six tribunes, who seem to have functioned as staff officers, also assisted him. From the reign of Augustus onwards one tribune was senior to the others. This young man was the son of a senator, who was expected to gain some military experience prior to joining the senate himself, and acted as the legate's executive officer. The other tribunes were of the "knightly" class (equites) and continued in their staff roles, although they would have had several years' experience commanding auxiliary cohorts. A new office was that of camp prefect (praefectus castrorum). The camp prefect was usually a former primus pilus with a wealth of combat experience. This would have enabled him to keep a fatherly eye on the senior tribune, who was not a professional soldier and would doubtless be more than a little "wet behind the ears".

[49] Roman soldiers in the Xenaverse wear a form of segmented body armor that did not appear until the reign of Tiberius (14-37 AD) and was made of iron, not leather as usually represented. The legionaries of Caesar and Augustus wore chain mail. Bronze helmets of a simple mass-produced type were worn by most of Caesar's troops. This was soon replaced by an improved version showing clear Celtic influence. The first iron helmets of the "Imperial-Gallic" type appeared around 15 BCE. Crests were usually worn at this time and were typically brush or plume types, with centurions marked out by their transverse crests. The large curved shield (scutum) was also probably Celtic in origin. It was made of plywood faced with hide, and had a spindle-shaped wooden boss to cover the handgrip. A metal reinforcing plate over the boss allowed it to be used as a punching weapon. In Caesar's day the scutum was more or less oval, about 1.2 m long and 0.75 m wide. The top and bottom curves were removed in about 10 BCE, reducing the length by some 20 cm. The straight-sided form seen in the series did not appear until the 1st century AD.

[50] Unlike soldiers in earlier armies, the legionary was a professionally trained swordsman. His primary weapon was the gladius, a short sword with a blade length of 50-56 cm. A dagger was also usually carried. The swords in most episodes appear to be of the 1st century AD "Pompeii" type, with parallel sides and a short point. In later episodes however, notably AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE (104/514) and LIVIA (110/520), the correct early pattern gladius is used. This had a long point and broad "shoulders" to the blade. Although many Roman soldiers in XWP carry spears, these were not used by legionaries of this period. The standard missile weapon of the legions was the pilum, a heavy javelin with a small head on a long iron shank.

The Legion in Action

[51] In his writings Caesar describes a legion as drawn up for battle in three lines, with four cohorts in the first line, three in the second and three in reserve. Initially only the first line would engage, advancing to within 50 m of the enemy before breaking into a run. At about 30 m the legionaries hurled their pila and drew their swords. The pilum was a beautifully designed weapon. The pyramidal head and iron shank, propelled by the missile's inertia, would often punch clean through a shield to reach the man behind it. Even if unwounded, the target would now find his shield virtually useless, weighed down as it was by the heavy javelin. Many opponents chose to simply throw their shields away rather than spend time trying to extract the pila. If the pilum failed to penetrate, or missed altogether, the carefully tempered shank would often bend under the weight of the wooden shaft. This prevented the weapon from being thrown back by the enemy.

[52] While the enemy was still reeling under the barrage of pila, the legionaries put their shoulders behind their shields and struck their opponents at a run, aiming to knock them off balance. The gladius could be used as a slashing weapon, but this was frowned upon. Standard Roman practice was to keep the hilt low and thrust at the opponent's abdomen. Quite often the charge of the first line was enough to carry the day. If not, the open order formation used by the legions allowed the second line to advance between the files of the first line while their comrades disengaged. If even this attack failed to break the enemy, the second line would disengage and filter through the third line. These cohorts would then either continue the attack, or form a rearguard to cover the legion's retreat. As a result, on the few occasions when Roman armies were defeated they were seldom wiped out.

[53] The most notable exception in this period was the disaster at Carrhae in 53 BCE, alluded to in WHEN IN ROME... (62/316). Ignoring advice to advance through the Armenian Mountains, Crassus led his troops across flat terrain that was perfectly suited to the Parthian horse archers. The Romans were surrounded and gradually worn down by a hail of arrows. When their cavalry attempted to break out, they were annihilated. Crassus ordered a withdrawal under cover of darkness, leaving his wounded to be slaughtered by the Parthians. After a brief stop at Carrhae the retreat continued. Some splinter groups escaped to Syria, but Crassus was lured away by the promise of a parley and killed. 20,000 Romans were killed and another 10,000 captured.

[54] The defensive tactics displayed in THE DELIVERER (50/304) could come straight from a Roman manual. When facing cavalry or chariots, the legionaries closed ranks and presented a hedge of steel against which no horse would charge. The testudo (tortoise) of raised shields, seen in the attack on the temple of Dahak, was a highly effective defense against missile fire. It was never intended to withstand an airborne Warrior Princess, nor the type of incendiary attack seen in AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE (104/514).

The Auxilia

Don't let my army being out of focus fool you into thinking they are not worthy adversaries!

Athena assembles quite an auxilary of forces in AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE.

[55] These were exactly what their name suggests - auxiliary troops intended to supplement the legions. For many years Rome had recruited foreigners to serve alongside her citizens, particularly Gallic and Thracian cavalry. When Octavius assumed the Imperial throne as Augustus, he restructured the auxilia along more formal lines. Previously they had fought with their native weapons and in their own style. They were now organized along Roman lines and used Roman weapons. Infantry were formed into centuries and cohorts identical to those in the legions. Armor was similar but of inferior quality and a flat oval shield (clipeus) carried instead of the scutum. The gladius was retained, but the pilum was replaced by a thrusting spear (hasta). Some men also appear to have carried a pair of light javelins.

[56] A new type of saddle transformed cavalry's role on the battlefield. This had a projecting "horn" at each corner of the wooden frame and, like many Roman "innovations" may have been of Celtic origin. The rider sat back against the rear horns, which supported the hips, and tucked his legs under the front horns. He was thus prevented from being knocked off backwards and slipping off sideways. Having tried out a modern reconstruction I can personally vouch for the secure seat afforded. This enabled the Roman cavalryman to swing his sword freely and couch his spear like a lance without fear of being unhorsed. The cavalry regiment (ala) was the same size as a cohort, but divided into 16 troops (turmae) of 30 men. Cavalry tended to have better quality armor than the infantry. The main weapon was the hasta, backed up by the spatha, a long sword with a blade length of some 60-70 cm. The cavalry clipeus could be oval or an elongated hexagon. A third type of unit, the cohors equitata, comprised a standard infantry cohort with four cavalry troops attached. The troopers' equipment was inferior to that of the cavalry alae, reflecting the lower rate of pay.

[57] Slingers were typically recruited from Spain's Balearic Islands and do not appear to have worn any armor. Slings may seem primitive weapons considering the Romans' military sophistication, but the effect of a well-aimed barrage of high-velocity "cobblestones" should not be underestimated. Archers from Syria and other Levantine countries retained much of their native dress, and are immediately recognizable in reliefs by their long robes, conical helmets, and scale armor. These men used the recurved composite bow, the same weapon that had devastated Crassus' legions at Carrhae. "Irregular" infantry were still recruited for use as skirmishers and scouts. These were typically wild German tribesmen who continued to fight with their traditional weapons, protected only by large shields.

[58] Auxiliary troops fulfilled both a light and medium infantry role in the Roman army. Their flexibility allowed them to skirmish, but the armor of the regular cohorts enabled them to take their place in the line of battle. In several campaigns the auxilia seem to have done most of the fighting, with the legions held in reserve - the lives of Roman citizens were clearly at a premium. Auxiliaries were rarely citizens, but they received citizenship on completion of service, normally 25 years in duration. Exceptional acts of heroism could speed up the process, however, and the emperor Trajan is known to have granted an early discharge to an entire British cohors equitata for their service in Dacia. Citizenship granted its recipient many benefits, and judging by the number of volunteers for the auxilia it was regarded as something worth fighting for.

Xena: Warrior Princess

[59] Xena's character seems to combine those of the Homeric hero and Celtic warrior. She is very much an individual on the battlefield, and her strength, skill, and courage allow the Warrior Princess to fight and win against seemingly impossible odds. Her chakram, like the bow of Odysseus, is a weapon unique to its owner. Much of Xena's motivation is also Homeric/Celtic. She began fighting to defend her home, rather like Hector. She has been, and sometimes still is, driven by rage and vengeance. Xena has also shown her willingness to fight and, if necessary, die for those she loves. This is well demonstrated in ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313), together with her "heroic" combat skills.

[60] When first seen in THE WARRIOR PRINCESS (HTLJ 09/109), Xena resembles the legendary Irish ruler Maeve of Connaught. Although an able warrior, Maeve was equally ready to employ seduction and treachery to achieve her ends. Xena appeared to have left this behind her, but in several episodes of Season 5, notably AMPHIPOLIS UNDER SIEGE (104/514) and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA (108/518), she displays a disturbing regression to her old ways. Clearly the Warrior Princess's sexuality remains a potent weapon in her arsenal, and she is not afraid to use it.

[61] Although she was born in Thrace, Xena may well be of Celtic descent. It is worth noting that the Gauls invaded Greece, Macedon and Thrace in 279 BCE, many of them later going on to serve in Greek armies. Physically, Xena bears a strong resemblance to the Celtic subtype commonly known as "Black Irish". Her sheer enjoyment of hand-to-hand combat is definitely Celtic, as is the shrill, high-pitched war cry. The curvilinear patterns on her breastplate and armlets are also reminiscent of Celtic artwork, and in A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215) she displays a typically Gallic fondness for riddles and word games. While the evidence is purely circumstantial, it remains an intriguing possibility.


I am indebted to Virginia Carper for her information regarding Pompey's encounter with the Sarmatian Amazons.


HACKETT, General Sir John, ed. WARFARE IN THE ANCIENT WORLD. London: Sidgwick and Jackson Ltd., 1989.

HERZOG, Chaim and GICHON, Mordechai. BATTLES OF THE BIBLE. London: Greenhill Books, Lionel Levanthal Ltd., 1997.

NEWARK, Tim. WOMEN WARLORDS. London: Blandford, 1989.

PEERS, C. J. "Ancient Chinese Armies 1500-200 BCE" MEN-AT-ARMS SERIES No. 218. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1990.

SIMKINS, Michael. "The Roman Army from Caesar to Trajan," MEN-AT-ARMS SERIES No. 46. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1984.

WARRY, John. WARFARE IN THE CLASSICAL WORLD. London: Salamander Books Ltd., 1980.

WILCOX, Peter. "Rome's Enemies (2): Gallic and British Celts," MEN-AT-ARMS SERIES No. 158. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1985.


No amateur military historians were harmed during the production of this research project.


Andrew Shaughnessy, "Season Three: A Chronological Minefield" WHOOSH #43 (April 2000)


shaughnessy Andrew Shaughnessy
Andrew Shaughnessy was born in England but lives and works in Wrexham, Wales. The first book he can remember owning was entitled TALES OF THE GREEKS AND TROJANS, and he never really outgrew his first love, going on to study Classical Civilizations at college. Apart from Xena-related issues his main interest is photography, especially female portraiture. He is currently seeking to share his life with a woman who has an abiding affection for ancient history and bears an uncanny resemblance to Renee O'Connor. His family and friends think he would be better off seeking professional help.

Favorite episodes: IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE? (24/124); A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215); ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313); FALLEN ANGEL (91/501), and A FAMILY AFFAIR.
Favorite lines: Gabrielle: "You're not alone." SINS OF THE PAST (01/101); Xena: "But you're my source, Gabrielle. When I reach down inside myself and do things I'm not capable of, it's because of you. Don't you know that by now?" ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313).
First episode seen: SINS OF THE PAST (01/101).
Least favorite episode: Any episode in which Xena physically or emotionally abuses Gabrielle.

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