Nilfgaard was the powerful empire in the south, an enemy the people in the Northern Kingdom always feared. The Nilfgaardians liked conquering and arena fighting, worshipped the sun and had the greatest army the Continent had ever seen. Sounds quite similar to an empire of our own world’s history: Rome. In this essay I want to compare the vast Empire of Nilfgaard, lying south of Temeria and Aedirn to the powerful empire of Rome, whose territory spanned areas from Scotland to Afghanistan and from Mauretania to the Netherlands. Nilfgaard, whereas it could also be interpreted as a run-of-the-mill imperialistic empire standing in for all the suppressive empires throughout mankind’s history, shares many similarities with ancient Rome. And now, lets have a look.
To preface my essay, I want to quote Andrzej Sapkowski on his thoughts about comparing his fake kingdoms from the witcher world to kingdoms, empires and countries of real-world history:
„I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: there is no deliberate world creation in my books! When it comes to the ontology of the entire civilization, it is rudimentary, subservient to the plot and only the plot. (…) My world is a pseudo-world, a mere background, a picture on a canvas moved by a reel. And it’s justified – after all, the story in the books is about the fate of the characters, not about the fate of the world; the setting serves the plot, not the other way around.”
(Andrzej Sapkowski, in: Historia i fantastyka, 2005)
Even though Sapkowski would say „Nilfgaard is not based on the Roman Empire or Napoleon’s France or the Holy Roman Empire or the Soviet Union“, I’m going to show that Rome and Nilfgaard share many similarities. By comparing the two I hope to close some gaps in our knowledge of the Nilfgaardian Empire that Sapkwoski never wrote about. I know my observations won’t be facts, but I try to prove that by this comparison many questions about Nilfgaard can possibly be answered.
But for now, let’s start at the beginning – Let’s compare the early and later years of the history of both Nilfgaard and Rome.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. First archeological evidence for human occupation on the hills of Rome dates back to almost 14,000 years ago. During the 8th century BC several villages on the Palatine Hill aggregated to one big city which would later be named „Roma“. Legend has it that the city was founded in 753 BC by the two twin-brothers Romulus and Remus who were suckled by a she-wolf. The boys were grandsons of the Latin King Numitor of the city of Alba Longa.
First the city of Rome and its surrounding area called Latium were ruled by kings which had their seat on a place that would later become the Forum Romanum. Rome became a religious centre. During the first 100 years the populace of Rome mingled with the Etruscans, highly advanced people from Northern Italy, who formed the aristocratic and monarchical elite and heavily influenced the Roman culture in religion, architecture and customs. According to Roman authors like Livy the Romans established their Republic around 509 BC. King Tarquin the Proud was chased away and a system based on annual elections of various representatives was installed. The two most important magistrates were the consules who worked together with the senate.
During the times of the Roman Republic the Romans started to gradually subdue the other peoples – first they conquered the Italian peninsula, e.g. the Etruscans or the Samnites and later the whole Mediterranean (Carthage, Greece, Seleucid Empire, Gaul or Egypt). In 27 BC Octavian assumed absolute power within the Roman Empire. Even though the government was still republican, he was declared „Augustus“ and became the first Roman Emperor. In the first century AD Rome incorporated many provinces more into their Empire and made many vassal states (e.g. Mauretania or Armenia). But they had some trouble conquering the North when general Varus was defeated by Germanic tribes during the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. The Romans never conquered Germany and the Germanic tribes east of the rivers Main and Elbe. During Emperor Trajan’s reign at the beginning of the 2nd century AD Rome’s power was at its height.
Nilfgaard wasn’t built in a day either. The first settlements that would later become the core of the Nilfgaardian Empire were erected about 1000 years before Emhyr var Emreis sat the throne (about 500 years after the Conjunction of the Spheres). We don’t know if the Nilfgaardians have a founding myth like Rome, as Sapkowski never wrote about it. But it’s definitely possible. The capital of the Empire, named Nilfgaard or „The City of Golden Towers“ originally consisted of several scattered villages by the Alba river. (The name of the river is close to Alba Longa, the city of Romulus’ and Remus’ father’s hometown). These villages were controlled by a king. Later they started growing together and became one. Nilfgaard also became the centre for the worship of the Great Sun.
During this time the early settlers started to mix with the Black Seidhe, a group of elves that also lived in the Alba valley. The elven culture heavily influenced the Nilfgaardian culture, especially their language and certain costums.
After several different kings took the throne of Nilfgaard, the power was given to the oldest and wisest citizens of Nilfgaard. They started to form a senate and turned the Nilfgaardian Kingdom into the Nilfgaardian Republic. They kept this form of government for an unknown amount of time until the senate’s power was overthrown and the first emperor took over. The Nilfgaardian Empire was established and started to conquer the surrounding kingdoms. They started in the south conquering Ymlac, Rowan or Gemmera but also established vassal states like Vicovaro, Ebbing or Toussaint. In 1263 Nilfgaard was at the height of its power when Emhyr var Emreis started to invade the Northern Kingdoms by conquering the kingdom of Cintra. Even though Cintra stayed part of the Empire, Nilfgaard was never able to conquer the North of the Continent beyond the river Yaruga after the Battle of Brenna in 1268.
As you can see the history of Rome and Nilfgaard not only share some similarities – they are even identical in a lot of aspects. These similarities are also reflected in the culture, customs and religion of these two empires.
The benefits of Roman culture helped the people in the conquered provinces to accept their conquerers and adapt to the Roman way of life. Indulgences like Roman bathing culture, arenas, theatres and hippodromes, as well as luxurios feasts or Rome’s art, music and literature were much liked by the conquered peoples. And in return Romans knew how to stop revolts from happening and make them accept their new rulers: They allowed these peoples to keep their own customs and gods (the Romans even included foreing gods into their pantheon) as long as they accepted Roman rule and followed the imperial cult of worshipping the Roman emperor. Maybe the Nilfgaardians handled the conquered peoples in a similar way by accepting their customs, but at the same time showing them the advantages of the superior Nilfgaardian way of life.
But what similiraties are there exactly between Nilfgaardian and Roman way of life? Religion played an important part in both of these cultures. The Roman pantheon is full of gods, the people and even the children new the classic tales of ancient Greek and Roman heroes by heart and the Roman emperor was at the same time the highest ranking priest within the empire itself. In Nilfgaard we don’t know as much about religion. We know that they worshipped the Great Sun, a symbol of solar radiance and heal and the reason for all life on earth. The main centre of worship was Nilfgaard, The City of Golden Towers. But the Romans knew something similar. A very short lived Roman emperor named Elagabalus (218-222 AD) declared a god named „Sol Invictus“ as his personal god. Later, Emperor Aurelian (270-275 AD) set up a state cult for Sol Invictus. The God’s name translates to „The Undefeated Sun“ and feels strikingly similar to the Great Sun that was worshipped in Nilfgaard.
One of the most important officials in the Roman world was the augur. He was in charge of interpreting the will of the gods by watching and studying the flight of birds. Later he made the will of the gods known to the Emperor who acted accordingly (or not). Something quite similar to an augur was Xarthisius, a mage at the Nilfgaardian court. He didn’t talk to the any gods, but he was a fortune-teller and astrologer and often consulted by Emhyr var Emreis before and even during his reign.
But Rome was of course only able to conquer that many regions of Europe, Africa and Asia because of its highly advanced army. Its legions were much better organized and equipped than those of almost all the other foreing countries around the Meditarranien Sea. A barbarian horde say for example in Britain had nothing to stand against this brutal, inescapable force of power. At the beginning of the Roman Republic the military consisted mostly of people with Roman citizenship. But the more provinces they conquered especially in the south and the east, the more foreign mercenaries were hired. During the reign of emperor Augustus the Roman army consisted of about 150,000 soldiers.
The Nilfgaardian military was much more advanced as well. The surrounding provinces stood no chance against the invading enemy from Nilfgaard. Like in Rome the Nilfgaardian army was organized in many different divisions and branches of various sizes. They also hired mercenaries, for example the Gemmerian Pacifiers. During the 2nd Northern War in the middle of the 13th century the Nilfgaardian army constisted of about 370,000 soldiers of which around 320,000 attacked the Northern Kingdoms.
The Roman Emperor also had his personal bodyguards, the so-called Praetorians. They were an elite unit tasked with securing the Emperor’s safety and guarding him through the city of Rome. The Emperor of Nilfgaard had a similar group of highly trained soldiers guarding him, the so-called Impera Brigade. Even its name comes from Latin; im an imperative meaning „Rule!“.
The Romans loved their arenas and amphitheatres and horse races and gladiator fights. Certain gladiators or horse racers who became very succesful even gained a fan following. The horse races in the hippodrome were watched by many. The most famous one in the Roman world was located in the city of Constantinople. Even in the provinces you could find splendid amphitheatres for gladiator fights, for example in Mogontiacum what is Mainz in Germany today.
The Nilfgaardians and the people in the conquered provinces also liked to spend their free time on these locations. In the city of Claremont in Ebbing there was a famous arena where fightings took place. It’s the arena where bounty hunter Leo Bonhart made Ciri fight for her life. We also now that theatres and a stadium were located in the City of Golden Towers. Maybe the Nilfgaardians also enjoyed horse racings.
Slavery was very important to the Roman economy as they were the most important force of labor. They mostly consisted of captured soldiers and people they enslaved after victorious wars. So everybody coud become a slave, regardless of their ethnicity. We don’t know how many slaves were in ancient Rome. But sources claim that after the Battle of Pydna in 168 BC when Rome defeated Carthage and conquered Greece they enslaved almost 700,000 people. Slaves were considered to be at the bottom of the hierarchical Roman society. Even though some slaves were able to pay for their freedom and leave slavery, they were never able to lose the stigma of being a former slave.
We know that slaves were also very important to Nilfgaard. They used prisoners of war as well as criminals as slaves and let them do manual work or fight as a vanguard during battles. During the 2nd Northern War emperor Emhyr conquered the city of Vengerberg. The Nilfgaardians butchered most of the inhabitants, but the ones trying to escape to Temeria or Redania were captured and enslaved. The slaves were looked down upon within the Nilfgaardian Empire. But similar to Rome, maybe some slaves from the North were also able to flee their slavery.
As I have shown Nilfgaard an d Rome share many, many similiraties – a lot of them are directly described in Sapkowski’s books. But there are for sure some questions that Sapkowski doesn’t answer. Especially in light of the recent casting decision for the Netflix show, the question arose if it was possible that a character such as sorceress Fringilla Vigo, who belonged to a aristocratic family in Nilfgaard and was even a cousin to duchess Anna Henrietta of Toussaint, could be play by a people of color. Is it possible that a black person could climb up the societal ladder in an empire like Nilfgaard, be a person of importance and not be racially discriminated against in a story that is based on medieval Slavic folklore and culture?
First, I want yout to remember Sapkowski’s quote from the beginning of this essay. Even though the story is Slavic at its core (in its feel, humour and overall attitude), it doesn’t mean all of the kingdoms and realms in this world are. As I have shown before Nilfgaard is very, very similar to ancient Rome. It’s not based on Rome, but it is similar and therefore it is possible to draw some parallels between the two empires, even though Sapkowski doesn’t describe all of them verbatim in the books.
But let’s ask some questions again. Were people of color discriminated against in Roman society? Were there even black people in the Northern Roman provinces or even in the city of Rome itself? To answer these questions we have to look at archeological evidence and the writings of ancient authors.
In such a vast empire like Rome all kinds of ethnicites were present. We have Picts and Germans in the North, Iberians in the West, Armenians, Egyptians and Persians in the East and of course Aethiopians and Mauretanianss in the south. The Romans of Italy and the core provinces knew people of color. Roman authors wrote about sub-saharan Africans. As Rebecca Gowland wrote in the book „Embodied identitites in Roman Britain“ there were no black communities as we know them nowadays. But e.g. studies on four bodies excavated in Roman London, UK show evidence of African ancestry. This proves that there were in deed black people living even in the outskirts of the Roman Empire. The Romans didn’t even have problems to accept and incorporate religious believes of the conquered people from Africa. In the heart of the city of Rome they built a temple for the Egyptian goddess of Isis.
Dr. Hella Eckhardt of Reading University wrote in an interview for HistoryExtra about what Romans thought about ethnicity, race and discrimination.
„The Romans didn’t think of race in the way that it might be linked with social signifiers today. They weren’t particularly interested in skin colour, and it wasn’t something that they would write about a huge amount. They were more concerned about whether a person spoke Latin well, or whether they had the right sort of social position or rank.“
Romans didn’t care about anybody’s skin color. Only their social backgrounds was important and if they had the Roman civil rights. People of the outer Roman provinces or even outside of the empire were looked down upon and seen as barbaric. There is no evidence for black people being made slaves more often than white people either. As said before, the social status of slaves was deeply-stigmatized in Rome, but the majority of slave were from European or Mediterranean background proving again that physical characteristics such as skin color were irrelevant for social status. Frank Snowden wrote that black people were „not excluded from any profession and there was no social stigma or bias against mixed race relationships.“ How high a black person could rise in terms of social status is not known.
The Nilfgaardian attitude is quite similar. They were very proud of their elven ancestry and blood. They believed the only real Nilfgaardians were those born in the heart of the Empire who share the elven blood and spoke their language. This is why the Nilfgaardians also looked down on the people who were living in the conquered provinces. Even their slaves were mostly only captured enemies and people from their provinces. Could it be that the Nilfgaardians also shared the Roman views about skin color and discrimination?
This essay doesn’twant to persuade you to think it is ok that the producers of the Netflix show cast a black actress as Fringilla Vigo. It only wants to show that black people of importance could definitely play a role within the Nilfgaardian Empire and the viewer’s immersion while watching the show should not be broken. Black people coming from Aethiopia or Subsaharan regions were present in Rome, as well as black people from the kingdoms south of Nilfgaard were propably present in Nilfgaard and its provinces. The Nilfgaardians propably wouldn’t even have shrugged their shoulders if they had seen a black sorceress novice on the streets.
Conclusion: Even though Sapkowski wrote that he didn’t base his kingdoms on any real-life counterparts, you can learn more about Nilfgaard by comparing it to the Roman Empire. We learn more about Nilfgaards culture, religion and their society. If Sapkowski would continue his saga, maybe there would even be a big invasion of Haak people from the east destroying and pillaging the Nilfgaardian provinces forcing Nilfgaard to retreat back to its homeland. Just like in the 3rd century AD and in Late Antiquity Romans were forced back beyond the river Rhine and got attacked by Goths and Huns from Eastern Europe.
I want to end this essay with a quote by our beloved bard Dandelion from the game „The Witcher 2“: „And when in Nilfgaard, do as the Nilfgaardians do.“