Artavos was once the greatest empire in the world. Nowadays, even after being reduced to a shadow of they former glory, the Artavians still fancy themselves the most civilized people of the world. They are, indeed, part of a cosmopolitan and literate nation, where many people are welcome and innumerable religions practiced. Gods from foreign lands are worshiped side by side with the Artavian pantheon, and barbarian warriors can rise to some of the highest ranks in the legions.
After all, a man's religion or origin doesn't really matter. They will all die.
Physically, the Artavians are shorter and darker than their "barbarian" neighbors. Closely trimmed hair is common in both men and women, specially in the legions. Long hair and long beards are for aristocrats, sibarites and the elderly. Some of the legions paint their faces white. It makes them look like ghosts or skeletons. Since this is sometimes seem within the cities, it might be fashion instead of intimidation.
But the Artavians do not worship Death itself. Well, not exactly. They make no statues of the Pale Lady and ask no blessings in Her name, although they acknowledge and respect Her infinite power.
Mostly, the Artavians worship the dead. They keep masks of their deceased ancestors in their walls, and burn incense to their memory. They study ancient philosophies of forgotten civilizations, and search for wisdom only in the words of the ancients. Their churches are full of cold, black and white statues, and littered with bones, while the sands of the arenas are constantly red and wet.
This doesn't make the Artavian savages. They avoid suffering, and frown on torture. Their highly advanced codes of laws commands that even traitors are killed quickly. They have no executioners or hangmen - a man condemned to death can, and will, be killed by any honest citizen.
If death isn't enough, the punishment is to send the soul quickly to Oblivion, where all will eventually go to disappear. The convict has his name removed from the records, their statues defaced, their memoirs burned and their houses destroyed. Even the relatives are forbidden to honor their names.
Sometimes, the punishment of Oblivion is cast upon a living person, turning it to a soulless non-being. Few survive the ordeal to start their lives in some distant nation. Most prefer to fall on their swords.
Death is not welcome by the Artavians, but is usually not feared as well. Abortion, infanticide, suicide and euthanasia are widespread solutions to such problems as unwanted or malformed children, dishonor and senility.
The Artavians respect the vessels that carry their souls as respectable objects. They do not embalm or venerate them like the serpent worshipers, nor carve cups out of skulls like the barbarians of the Crimson Lands. Corpses are burned or buried, and seldom desecrated, because Artavians abhor disorder and disease. Ghosts and spirits are not part of everyday life, but accepted as natural. In one Artavian island, it is said that the dead come to dance with the living during carnival nights.
Still, the Artavians enjoy life like most other peoples. They like red wine dark bread. They like music, theater and sport, although only lasting works of sculpture and literature are seem as true art, since they transcend death. They are objective and pragmatic, which makes some of their art seem unsophisticated to other people. Their technology is fairly advanced, their tactics excellent, their logistics unsurpassed.
The Artavians enjoy sex and are not ashamed of worshiping fertility deities in the wild during the festivals. An individual life might not be sacred, but the power that creates life is. Marriage is a tool of politics and economics, not love, so both spouses are usually free to pursue their own goals with little regard for fidelity.
And the Artavians do seem to enjoy war. But not really.
There is glory in war, but not much happiness. There is also profit to be had. For all the talk of honor and empire, there are many who believe that Artavian generals are more interested in pillaging other peoples and taking slaves to further their own political status, and little else.
In fact, money, glory, honor and status are all means to one end the Artavians do not usually mention.
There is an old superstition that says that after all is said and done, and all the incense burned, and all the children and their children have forgotten the man that lived behind the cold mask in their halls, so that the spirit will leave all ties to the world... then the Pale Lady herself will stare unto your soul and, if she finds it worthy, will uncover Her eyes so you can stare back - if you have enough courage to avoid looking away - and get a glimpse of the meaning beyond it all, before you march into Oblivion.