On Inspiration and Historical Reference: What is 40k?



Two quick observations:

Warhammer 40’000 is a comedy dressed up as a tragedy.

My step-brother, at age 11, earlier this year pointed out that this artwork looked like a mix between Mad Max and Star Wars. He is not acquainted with Warhammer 40’000 yet, and his summary of that Imperial Navy battleship’s aesthetic is the best description to outsiders that I’ve ever heard anyone come up with for 40k. I’ve seen a lot of good descriptions of the 40k setting, but nothing as concise and accurate as his observation.



Finally read the above post (been on my to read list for a bit!)

Yes. So much yes.

I have always said that in my mind the great crusade is the era of Rome on the March expanding its borders. It’s the time of Caesar Augustus and some of his less crazy relatives.

The 41st millennium is late Rome, with barbarians on every side, a fractured empire, constant power struggles and civil war and mercenaries who can can turn from soldier to invader all to quickly.

Obviously it’s a late Rome with the nastiest bits of early medieval times sprinkled in for good measure - especially with the aesthetic.

One could argue that this time of Roboute Guilliman could be almost Constantine the great sort of moment. A kinda renaissance and resurgence with a strong leader kicking butt but still simply an upswing on the general downward trajectory of the empire on a larger timescale. The imperium split in two after the eye of terror blowing up kind gives us a western eastern Rome kinda vibe as well.

On the art you posted below. It’s just beautiful ain’t it. It tells you so much about 40k in one image. This is the forty first millennium; our standard form of transport is to fly city sized cathedrals through a quite literal hell to get from one place to another. Enjoy your stay.


Another Rome parallel possibly is the big theological shift the Imperium underwent; under the Emperor the Imperium was atheistic with deists being fringe, underground cultists while after his ascension to the golden throne the Eclesiarchy took off and cemented itself as one of the pillars and great powers of the Imperium - pre-Constantine Rome was polytheist pagan, while after him it was monotheist Christian with the Catholic Church becoming a major pillar of Roman/European society and one of the major players of European politics. And both Ecclesiarchy and Catholic Church served to give their respective societies a boost of strength (it’s likely without the unifying influence of the former that the Imperium would have fractured post-Heresy, while iirc one of the factors in Constantine promoting Christianity as the state religion was to help prevent Rome fracturing).


Yes this is definitely a thing. Quite a bit of evidence that Constantine wasn’t as Christian as you might think but was more of a savvy politician trying to unite the empire. He seemed to be constantly frustrated by the two big Christian sects of the time being what would later become catholic and the Arian Christians arguing about doctrinal belief. People coming to blows over “is god equal to Jesus or god greater than Jesus.” Constantine tried many. Many times to get these people to work together but it never quite worked out. Whenever I read about the council of Nicaea (the real world not 30k one that was inspired by it where Magnus gets upset) I can feel Constantines frustration where he’s like we’re all Roman and now we’re all Christian - who cares?!

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@Oxymandias & @Lord_of_Uzkulak: Those are indeed the parallells, and a good source of inspiration for 40k in so many ways. :02:

As to early Christian infighting, the theological hairsplitting was usually more of a fig leaf cover for regional interests at play: Antioch versus Alexandria (a theme going back to Seleucids versus Ptolemies, and mirroring Assyria versus Egypt) versus Constantinople versus Rome, with Arianism allowing barbarian converts to have their own branch of church independent from the Roman one. Very Warhammer 40’000.

Note that most of the theological disputes originated from Antioch and in particular Alexandria, two of the Roman Mediterranean’s largest cities and long-established centers of learning. When classically educated upper class people (with Greek philosophy under the belt) embraced Christianity, they wanted to continue their esoteric discussions within the new religion, thereby spawning a fertile field of theology. The regional rivalry was at full display during the various church councils. For instance, one Alexandrian theologian proposed that Christ as man and divine was basically schizophrenic, which the clergy of Alexandria didn’t embrace, but they were damned if they would let those pesky priests from Antioch denounce their prestigious theologian! So Alexandria raised hell about Antioch’s denounciation of their famous thinker, even though the bishop of Alexandria didn’t even agree with him.

Death of Hypatia, the famous Pagan female mathematician of Alexandria, at the hands of a Christian mob.

This rabid regional and religious infighting went so far, that if you were to buy a fruit from a salesman in the market in Alexandria or Antioch, he might ask you if you thought Christ was (basically) 50% divine and 50% human, or 100% divine, or 100% human. If you answered wrong, you wouldn’t get to buy your fruit from him. The compromise solution was to declare Christ 100% human and 100% divine, by the way. This aggressively myopic fixation with obscure matters of theology is definitely fertile inspiration for Warhammer 40’000 as well.

Likewise, the Donatist controversy in Carthage following Diocletian’s great persecution mirrored groups in Roman north Africa, with usually poorer Berbers (who had little to lose) sticking to their faith and dying the martyr’s death, while richer Romanized Punics and Roman colonists (who had a lot more to lose in this world) usually apostasized. After the persecutions, the church in Carthage split over whether apostates were to be allowed back in or not, with rural banditry and vehement urban violence as a result. This is likewise very 40k.

An unfortunate Christian facing Damnatio ad bestias in the amphitheatre.

All this frenzied Church infighting really sabotaged the Roman Empire in the east. Remember that Coptic Egypt in the 7th century AD submitted willingly to both Sassanid Persian and Arab Muslim invaders because those foreign fire worshipper and Ishmaelite occupants weren’t their hated overlords in Constantinople, and both Syrian and Egyptian Christians proved willing collaborators in building their new Arab landlubber rulers a mighty fleet to fight the Roman/Byzantine Thalassocracy. A contributing factor to Constantinople losing Egypt so rapidly despite naval landings in Alexandria to attempt reconquest from the Arabs, was the absentee Roman landlords in the capital demanding 20 years’ backpay (!) on farmland lease from the peasants on their Egyptian estates, after a full generation of Persian occupation during the last, longest and greatest Roman-Persian war (602-628 AD) of them all: The famous war of emperor Heraclius (look it up, it’s a nailbiter with the Roman empire cornered, and really something out of the ordinary).*

Also very 40k.

“Alexamenos worships [his] God,” from a Pagan Roman 3rd century AD blasphemous piece of graffiti.

It should by the way be noted that Alexandria was a hotbed of urban infighting from the start. This great metropolis of half a million inhabitants saw numerous street riots, pogroms and clashes between its large Greek, Coptic Egyptian and Hellenized Jewish populations, not least during the bloodsoaked Kitos war, or Diaspora revolt of 115-117 AD during the reign of Hadrianus.

It was a violent and divisive time, as most eras are.

Which, too, is great fodder of grimdark inspiration for the far future!

  • The last Persian-Roman war was decided by cunning. Toward the end of the war, Heraclius had campaigned from out of his basecamps in eastern Anatolia, but had to return every winter since his horses couldn’t graze amid snow. This went on for several years, until Heraclius allied with the Western Turkic Khaganate, who brought extra horses with them. Suddenly, the Roman-Turkic army had nomadic steppe horses that could graze on grass under snow, which allowed the campaign to continue during the winter and strike deep into Persia, destroying the sacred fire temple of Adur Gushnasp as revenge for the Persians taking Jerusalem and the True Cross. Then the Romans managed to shatter the Sassanids at the ruins of the old Assyrian city of Nineveh in 627 AD. Assyria, meaning Chaos Dwarf! :21:


Christ @Admiral - I could read this stuff all day :relaxed::relaxed::relaxed::relaxed:

(Don’t ask me what percent of the Christ i just blasphemed with was was god or man - I just wanna read articles and buy fruit!)


Fuck me Admiral, that is a lot of very specific information about a very specific topic.
I love it!

I have been hoping (once this whole Covid thing dies down) to put together a larp based on the Council of Nicaea, suitably for dumbed down for ease of play but highlighting exactly these issues - religion used as a cover for power struggles, regionalism and profiteering.

As for 40k, the connection to Catholicism has always been core, alongside the mockery of facism. Given its origin amongst history nerds of the '80s that’s hardly surprising!
I don’t think you are reading anything new in to the setting but I think you are definitely highlighting it’s increasingly obfuscated origins. The fact that the God-Emperor of Mankind has become a fascist icon, when that is exactly what he was set-up to mock just goes to show that irony is dead.


This sounds so cool :scream:

Rick Priestly was raised in a very strict Christian household (Jehovah’s I think :thinking:) but rebelled against it in his youth. Probably a bit of that seeping into the dna of the setting.


@Oxymandias : Good point!

A note on the elite of elite of elite Imperial orders being exclusively female or male:

40k plays on archaic strings. It’s better worldbuilding by being more archaic by having the exclusive elite warrior orders mimic monks and nuns and be separate. Female Sisters of Silence and Sororitas on the one hand, and male Astartes and Custodes are much better worldbuilding ploys than mixed orders of Astartes and Custodes. You don’t mix monks and nuns and retain an archaic impression.

This is one example where GW has stayed a lot truer to the spirit of 40k through all these decades, than one would expect. Kudos to GW for playing the right strings to build their setting, where so many others would have fallen for outside pressure and muddled the setting.

Of course, the elite monks and nuns situation does not apply to the Mechanicus/Titanicus (who cares little about fleshly matters) or the ragtag plebeian hordes of Imperial Guard (where any setup conceivable, such as mixed or separate regiments, or just male or even just female regiments will happen somewhere depending on local culture). Neither does the Inquisition need it, since it’s such an excentric individually focused organization. Sororitas/Astartes and Custodes/Sisters of Silence is the relevant arena. They are the big shining warrior orders.

And they ought to feel archaic. This isn’t the Dark Age of Technology, but the regressed, myopic and parochial Age of Imperium, where things often do not make sense and weird traditions are king. There is a good reason why Games Workshop in the 1990s abandoned the idea of female Space Marines and gave the Sisters of Battle a true remake into their very own cool thing. And the setting is all that richer for it. :smile:

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Wonderful historical commentary on 40k inspiration from historical Rome! I agree 100%on the Monks vs Nuns separation. I see so many people trying to make female space marines and it just doesn’t work in the setting.

My first foray into miniatures and gaming was a 40K Sisters of Battle army, all metal. Still have it. I remember the Female Space marine models in the 90s. The leader figure of my SoB army was one of the two Female Space Marine figures converted with an Escher head, with greenstuff hair and cape.

Religious war as a poor cover for underlying imperialism, is a core part of the 40k universe background; with the great crusades of the imperium using the ecclesiarchical directive, and the threat of chaos to land grab every planet of mankind in the universe, and force all of humanity to worship the golden throne. Run on sentence much? Most assuredly!

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Thank you kindly @Jackswift ! Spot-on, that is indeed how the Imperium works.

Reply to this thread on DakkaDakka, which asked what the tone of 40k should be:

40k should be science fiction gone wrong. It should be a mixture of Mad Max and Star Wars. It should draw upon the most depraved aspects of human history.

Warhammer 40’000 should be grimdark, bonkers and unrelentingly inhumane and cruel with no sane alternatives anywhere to be seen. It should be a place of unavoidable, mechanistic cruelty. It should be an era of lost hope and hypocrisy on every side, all presented with deliciously ironic humour and endless historical references and glorious aesthetics.

40k should be dark. 40k should never be dry and dull. And the Imperium should be a fortified madhouse, a hopeless dead-end of interstellar human galactic civilization and a monster on the prowl in its own right.

Note that the Tau fulfill an important function in such a setting: You need a naïve and optimistic, technologically advanced upstart to be shocked and traumatized by all the insanity and unrelenting horror reigning from end to end of the Milky Way galaxy. Contrast is key. Anyone who thinks the Tau breaks 40k’s tone need to think it all over again. If everything is solidly dark everywhere, then nothing is dark. Only by contrasting the Age of Imperium against stuff like the Tau and humanity’s lost golden era in the Dark Age of Technology can you hope to get the point across on just how regressed, tyrannical and murderous the dark future truly is.

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Some writings on the souring of the entire mood of Roman culture following the 3rd century crisis. Certainly of inspirational value for the grim darkness of the far future. After all, how did it turn grim in the first place?

Speaking of the jaded Imperium Romanorum, a parallel process happened with its high culture, as described by Thersites at the very end of this video:

"The Roman empire would eventually recover from the third century crisis and go on to last a couple of hundred more years, but it was never really the same. It was never as vibrant. It was never as powerful as before. And also, a lot of its traditional culture had been lost, and would never really be recovered.

To give but one example: Rome had largely been fairly easy-going when it came to sexuality for most of its history. But after the third century crisis, Roman writers are very prudish, very judgemental, very uncomfortable with sexuality. They also tend not to have much of a sense of humour, if any. Almost all the Roman literature, and I guess also all the Greek literature from the Roman period, that occurs after the third century crisis, is very bitter. It’s acrimonious. It’s not fun. There’s no life in it. The scholarship becomes very stilted, very backward-looking.

Rome just really isn’t the same, and it’s hard to explain if you haven’t dealt with the material in great detail. Just the fundamental mood of Rome, the fundamental mindset just goes through a major shift after this fifty year crisis. In many ways, you can argue that, for all practical intents and purposes, the Roman empire ends with the third century crisis, and the middle ages begin."

I can support this view based on my own readings. Ammianus Marcellinus is interesting, but he never ignites laughter. Procopius is likewise largely bereft of humour, despite thrilling material. Suetonius, in contrast, offers plenty of gossip fun and jokes, having Augustus quote the Illiad’s lines for a spear-waving hero upon seeing a well-endowed dockworker, or immortalizing this rhyme on the building of Nero’s golden palace following the great fire of Rome:

“The palace is spreading and swallowing Rome,
Let us all flee to Veii and make it our home.
Yet the palace is spreading so damnably fast,
That I fear it will gobble up Veii at last.”

Even the dry Tacitus will sometime skewer someone with his sharp pen. On Galba: “He was a man whom everyone thought would have made for a good ruler, if he had not ruled.” The later Roman stuff makes for more boring reading.

This draining of fun from the culture helps explain emperor Julian’s self-deprecating humour in the Misopogon (the Beard-Hater), which did not find any takers at all in such a humourless age, least of all in the very Christian city of Antioch. The bookish Julian was refreshingly out of sync with his own times. Filled with the enterprising energy and vigour of high antiquity, he modelled himself on classical Greeks and Romans. Julian wanted to revive both paganism and Augustus’ Principate, and sought to tear down the stilted and openly autocratic Dominate established by the nigh-on totalitarian Diocletian. To Julian, the emperor should be accessible and approachable, the first citizen among theoretical equals, and able to both take and give jokes, quips and puns. Just as had been the case before the crisis of the third century, before humour withered amid severity.

Speaking of traumatized empires in decline, refusing to die against all the odds in the face of overwhelming enemies, the last Roman-Persian war of 602-628 is yet another piece from late antique and medieval Roman history that is of high interest for fictional 40k worldbuilding.

In it, we see what some have nicknamed the first crusade as the cornered Roman empire became fired up with religious zeal in a fanatical outburst, in response to the True Cross being taken from Jerusalem by the Sassanid conquerors. We also see a decaying empire falling apart following the failed reign of Phocas and Byzantine infighting (as contrasted to the militarily competent rule of Mauricius just a few years earlier), with swathes of territory being lost to the Persians.

With the Shahanshah ascendant, Constantinople itself was cornered by Avars and Slavs on the Thracian side, and a Persian army on the Anatolian side of the Bosphorus. The defenders of New Rome managed to hold out in the face of overwhelming odds, and they sank Persian vessels attempting to ferry over siege machines. The Walls of Theodosius held firm, while the Patriarch of Constantinople filled the troops with determination and fervour by his zealous speeches.

Even as the capital was surrounded, the Roman field army could not afford to intervene. The Roman empire was broke, and so the church sold off all silver to pay for the elite training of the last Roman army on earth. In a daredevil strategic move, emperor Heraclius landed in the Caucasus and struck deep into Persian core territory, torching the most sacred Zoroastrian fire temple of Adur Gushnasp and beating army after army sent to destroy his force. Finally, with Turkic assistance, the Romans won the war outside the ruins of Nineveh, the ancient capital of feared Assyria.

The bold strategy of a cornered emperor had worked against all the odds, and a combination of zealous fanaticism, Roman military professionalism, luck and skilled command of armies had saved the Roman empire from obliteration. A triumph was held in Constantinople to celebrate the great victory. Shortly thereafter, Roman dominions in Syria and Egypt were lost to Arab invaders, while the same rising power simultaneously managed to conquer the entire Sassanid empire.

Definite interest to 40k: A bitter age, with bittersweet victories amid so much decay and dysfunctionality, set to the tone of religious fervour and stark desperation.


Recently over on Reddit, the question was raised how Ogryns are treated in the Imperium. The question hinged on whether or not Ogryns have the chance to live a normal life akin to baseline humans, despite the latter being raised to hate the mutant, since Ogryns are loyal followers of the Imperial Cult in their simple way. Likewise, Black Library books that touch on the subjects were asked for.

It is a good question, and it would be interesting to see people’s take on it. Here is my response:

Loyalty Met By Ingratitude: On Imperial Ogryns

If an author would write that Ogryns are treated by human societies in the Imperium, just as if they are baseline humans, then that is a surefire sign of bad writing.

The Imperium is meant to embody all the worst depravities of human history. Loyal Ogryns? Trampled upon. Spat upon. Enslaved and abused. Occasionally maybe even culled by pogroms. Humans who see the value in well treated Ogryns are rare exceptions, usually Imperial Guard veterans or enterprising individuals with an unusually independent mind. Imperial man will hate, fear and despise abhumans such as Ogryns. Look to Necromunda for a taste of Ogryn life under Imperial rule, where Ogryn slaves are commonplace, and where one gang in the system consist of rebelling Ogryn Slaves.

I remember a bland group effort at worldbuilding an Earth-like Imperial planet in 40k over on Warseer forums. In it, the participants had actually written that the world had an Ogryn population, and thus the baseline human population was tolerant of abhumans. That is not how you write to the spirit of the setting. If the world has an abhuman population, then that is always a reason for the baseline humans to hate and despise mutants all the more.

After all, it is rather difficult to hate something distant which you have never seen with your own eyes. Hating your neighbour, on the other hand, could not be easier.

Remember that even the most poor and miserable baseline humans, still has their hatred of filthy abhumans to cling to for some semblance of dignity in the cruel world they call home. Even the lowliest of baseline human underclass can sneer at a mutant underclass below them. The social standing of the dirtiest caste of baselines can still be better than that of shunned and even worse enslaved mutant scum. At least the baseline human paupers can find some comfort in their cultic-approved purity of blood, as true sons and daughters of Holy Terra, unlike those wicked abhumans who have deviated from the true template of sacred seed.

It is the fortyfirst millennium, and there is only man’s hate for fellow man.

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