On the Move

You may have noticed that we’ve been posting less often recently. Also, usually in the beginning of June we write a blog anniversary post, but this obviously isn’t one. This year, we just don’t have the requisite spoons, because we’re moving. Not just houses. Not just states. Not just countries. Continents.

My Finland in the Sky

Gosh, even saying that out loud wearies me out. A trans-Atlantic move is challenging at the best of times, never mind during a pandemic.

If you have well-wishes to spare, we’d appreciate it if you sent one our way. Please and thank you.

Announcements from your hosts.

Quotes: I Wouldn’t Want to Suddenly Make a Fool of Myself

How nice that you feel so sure of my affections.

I wouldn’t want to suddenly make a fool of myself

Go ahead, chase that cheap, wool-spinning

whore rather than Servius’ daughter Sulpicia.

I have people who care about me, and their greatest worry

is that I might fall into bed with some worthless nobody.

– Sulpicia, Poems 4

(My own translation)

Sulpicia is among the few female writers whose work has come down to us from antiquity. She was a Roman poet writing in the late first century BCE. Her surviving poems chart a tempestuous love affair with one Cerinthus. Like the lovers described in poetry by her male contemporaries, we cannot be sure whether Cerinthus was a real person or just a literary invention.

Sulpicia’s poetry relates in interesting ways to the major philosophical movement among Romans of her time: Stoicism. Stoicism was an originally Greek school of thought that emphasized emotional steadiness through the ups and downs of life. This idea appealed to Romans, who traditionally valued discipline and dispassionate self-control. Many Romans among the elite espoused versions of Stoic philosophy as a guiding principle.

Controlling one’s emotions first requires observing and understanding them. This is where Sulpicia’s poetry fits in. Her poems are like little gems of precisely observed emotion. This one captures the cold, controlled anger that comes of holding in a rage that is about to explode. Another poem expresses the exasperation of a young person at well-meaning but clueless relatives.

While other Romans were exploring Stoicism as a philosophical idea, Sulpicia was turning it into art.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: Time Belonged to a Higher Realm

There’s a lot (a lot!) I liked about Karen Lord’s scifi novel The Best of All Possible Worlds. This snippet, for instance, puts words to a childhood wonder I remember from elementary school when learning math:

Karen Lord The Best of All Possible Worlds

“Standard Time was invented by Sadiri pilots. Most Sadiri procedures and quantification followed straight lines and linear progressions, created for the convenience of the ten-fingered. But Time… Time belonged to a higher realm. It could not be carried in human hands, not while it constantly carried human minds. It was all circles, wheels within wheels, a Standard year of three hundred sixty Standard days coiled up in twelve months, which in turn were composed of the small whirlings of twelve hours day and twelve hours night, tiny spinning minutes and seconds, ever-cycling breaths and blinks and beats.

“To be described as having a pilot’s mind was both curse and compliment; it could mean being unable to tell the difference between prophecy, memory, and mere déjà vu.”

– Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds

I just couldn’t fathom why the decimal system is different from time measurements, and remember that for a time trying to reconcile them was very confusing. But time—heh, heh—helped with that, of course, along with more advanced classes, in addition to a certain amount of shrugging and just getting on with life.

It’s intriguing when a book serendipitously reminds you of thoughts you thought were long buried, isn’t it?

Lord, Karen. The Best of All Possible Worlds. New York: Ballantine Books, 2013, p. 40.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Even Heroes Take Time Off

Heroes don’t spend all their time being heroic. They need time off, too. That was the idea behind this beautiful vase by the ancient Athenian painter Exekias.

On one side, we see Achilles and Ajax, two of the great Greek warriors of the Trojan War, putting aside most of their armor for a while and playing a board game. Achilles is winning, as Exekias lets us know because he has given us the score: beneath Achilles’ head is the word “four,” beneath Ajax’s, “three.” According to literary tradition, Achilles’ tent was at one end of the Greek line, Ajax’s at the other, so this was not just a casual pick-up game; one or the other of the heroes must have crossed the entire Greek camp so they could play.

Amphora, Achilles and Ajax playing a game, photograph by Daderot via Wikimedia (Athens, currently Vatican Museums; c. 540-530 BCE; black-figure pottery; by Exekias)

On the other side of the vase, the twin heroes Castor and Pollux return home. They are welcomed by their parents, Tyndareus and Leda. On the left, Pollux leans down to greet a dog who jumps up, excited to see him.

Amphora, Castor and Pollux return home, photograph by M. Tiveros via Classical Art Research Centre (Athens, currently Vatican Museums; c. 540-530 BCE; black-figure pottery; by Exekias)

Exekias was an innovative artist. He was one of the first vase painters to show mythic heroes not in the midst of action but at ease, among the familiar surroundings of everyday life.

If you’ve been feeling the weight of the past year, take some inspiration from heroes: play a game, say hello to family, play with a pet. If it’s good enough for Achilles, Ajax, Castor and Pollux, it’s good enough for you, too.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

First Trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The newest trailer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings:

Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings | Official Teaser by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

Um, okay?

If I knew little of the Avengers upon first being untroduced to the MCU, I know absolutely nothing about this Shang-Chi and his (their?) connection to the rest of the Marvel characters. Disappointingly, the trailer itself didn’t answer a single question of how they’re connected either. Oh, we got a lot of fisticuffs and action—speedy fight scenes handsomely filmed, sure—but no answers.

If the rest of the trailers aren’t going to link Shang-Chi to the characters or events we already know, I doubt I’ll want to see the movie in the theaters. I might not even rustle up the enthusiasm to see it on disc via the library.

At the time of this writing, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is set to open September 03, 2021, in the U.S.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

The Connection of a 8th-Century Saint and Finnish May Day

In Finland, May the first is known as vappu (Finnish) or as vappen (Finnish Swedish), and it is one of the four biggest holidays in the country. Sometimes it’s translated into English as Walpurgis night (as opposed to May Day). I’d always just shrugged my way past that weird translation until I ran into the history of vappu: the phrase comes from Saint Walburh’s Day.

Saint Walburh was an English nun, missionary, and abbess in the 8th century. She was a part of Saint Boniface’s famous mission to German lands beyond the old Rhine-Danube frontier. The tidbit on Walburh below comes from Kathleen Herbert’s work:

“For example, St. Walburh trained at Wimborne in Dorset, then went with her two brothers to join the German mission. She became abbess of the double monastery of Heidensheim, which had a distinguished scholarly record. Her feast day is May 1st, so in her district the rites of Spring become traditionally celebrated as Walpurgisnacht. This is not a sarcastic joke but a tribute to her power, ranking her locally with such mighty ones as St. Michael and St. John the Baptist.”

– Kathleen Herbert, Peace-Weavers & Shield-Maidens: Women in Early English Society

Clearly Saint Boniface is the more prominent character of the two in history, but it’s intriguing to me that Saint Walburh’s name is still, well over a thousand years after her death, attached to a spring festival celebrated on the day of her canonization. (Granted, it helps that May Day had long been celebrated as one of the transition points in the yearly cycle; cf. Beltane).

So, in a minor way, even though we mostly don’t care or remember in the middle of everyday hullabaloo, we keep passing her name to future generations. That’s more than Saint Boniface can boast in Finland.

I sometimes wonder how much else in our culture that’s passed on without remark has similar hidden histories. I suspect more than we’d imagine.

Juhannus Bubbly Sm

Anyway. Hyvää vappua! Glada vappen! Happy May Day!

Herbert, Kathleen. Peace-Weavers & Shield-Maidens: Women in Early English Society. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2013, p. 44.

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

Medieval Huntresses

Here are some ladies enjoying a good stag hunt, from an illumination in a copy of “The Letter of Othea to Hector” by Christine de Pizan. The image represents the mythical huntresses of the goddess Diana, as imagined by a medieval artist. We see one lady driving game by beating the bushes and another taking aim with her bow while two more blow the hunting horn and manage the dogs.

Hunting scene from the “Letter of Othea to Hector” via Wikimedia (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris; 1407-1409; paint on parchment; by the Master of the Letter of Othea)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Dragonfly in Morning Dew

I can’t say I’m a night owl, but I nevertheless am definitely not a morning person. That makes me a little wistful sometimes, since mornings can be beautiful.

Case in point: nature photographer David Chambon’s dew-laden insect photos. They are. Just. Stunning!

[Content note: extreme closeups of insects!]

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Read the whole post.

Slavery Was Always Wrong

Slavery was integral to the societies and economies of the ancient Mediterranean, so much so that discussing almost any topic in ancient history will end up touching on it at some point, and as historians we do not always take the time to address slavery as an institution in itself. The practice of slavery in Greece and Rome also differed from the modern American version in significant ways, which we often have to explain. The combination of these facts can sometimes leave the impression ancient slavery was in some way less wrong than modern slavery.

So this is me as an ancient historian taking the time to say: it was not. Slavery is, was, and has always been wrong.

The practice of slavery—that is, treating some people as possessions who have no rights to autonomy or claims to humanity and who can be exploited for labor without their consent and without compensation—is common across many cultures in history. Almost every pre-modern society (and many societies in the modern period) complex enough to have a division of labor had some mechanism for forcing a particular class of people to labor against their will. In many cases, this class of people came from outside that society or were the descendants of people who had, but local people could be among the exploited as well. Cultures that did not practice slavery have existed in history, but they are rarities. Just as different cultures in history varied widely in their ways of life, they also varied in how they practiced slavery, but inherent in all slave systems is the violence—whether actual or implicit—that comes of treating people as things.

In all slave societies, those who benefited from the exploitation of others generally found ways of justifying the practice. The voices of the rich and powerful dominate the historical record, especially as we look farther back in time. The voices of enslaved people themselves are often missing from the sources (at least until more recent centuries), and we should not suppose that they shared the opinions of the people who were exploiting them. If our image of ancient slavery is not one of violence and horror, that tells us more about whose stories we are hearing than about the actual experience of slavery. We are never on solid ground making judgments based on what the rich and powerful think is okay for them to do to other people in order to stay rich and powerful.

Slavery played an important role in the economies of both ancient Greece and Rome, more so than in some of the other cultures they lived alongside. Greeks were major players in Mediterranean trade for centuries, and trafficking in enslaved people was a significant part of that trade. The islands of Delos and Rhodes were major centers of the trade in enslaved people, as documented by numerous inscriptions found in both places left by the traders. Slavery was particularly important in the Roman economy because Rome was an expansive empire. Enslaving war captives was one of the most direct ways of profiting off the near constant warfare that marked the growth of the empire.

There are important ways in which the practice of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean was different from that in modern-period America. For example, enslaved people were not distinguished by race from those who exploited them. Greeks and Romans did not have a concept of race as we understand it, but even so, enslaved and free were not distinguishable by physical appearance (a point made clear by numerous legal and literary sources about enslaved people passing themselves off as free). In Rome, there was a custom of granting freedom to some enslaved individuals after a period of time. These freed people gained some legal status in Roman society (either citizenship or a lesser status as “Latins,” depending on the time period) and they and their descendants could integrate themselves into Roman society.

Still, the fact the Greek and Roman slavery was different does not make it less wrong. The exploitation, violence, and dehumanization inherent in slavery are always wrong. The experiences of individuals may vary between times and cultures—and even within the same time and culture—but those variations are not a defense of slavery, neither as a general practice nor in any particular case.

There has never been a time when slavery was morally defensible. It has always been wrong.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Rating: Deep Space Nine, Season 7

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ends on a high note. Here’s our ratings for the seventh and final season:

  1. “Image in the Sand” – 5.5
  2. “Shadows and Symbols” – 5
  3. “Afterimage” – 4.5
  4. “Take Me out to the Holosuite” – 10
  5. “Chrysalis” – 2
  6. “Treachery, Faith, and the Great River” – 6.5
  7. “Once More unto the Breach” – 2
  8. “The Siege of AR-558” – 5
  9. “Covenant” – 1
  10. “It’s Only a Paper Moon” – 8.5
  11. “Prodigal Daughter” – 3.5
  12. “The Emperor’s New Cloak” – 6
  13. “Field of Fire” – 4
  14. “Chimera” – 2
  15. “Bada-Bing Bada-Bang” – 8
  16. “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” – 5
  17. “Penumbra” – 4.5
  18. “’Til Death Do Us Part” – 3.5
  19. “Strange Bedfellows” – 7
  20. “The Changing Face of Evil” – 5.5
  21. “When It Rains…” – 5
  22. “Tacking into the Wind” – 6.5
  23. “Extreme Measures” – 6
  24. “The Dogs of War” – 7
  25. “What You Leave Behind” – 7

The final season comes with an average rating of 5.4, a solid way to end and the best season of the whole series. This average comes from a whole lot of episodes the decent-but-not-stellar range of 4-6. This season has only one real standout, but only a couple of clunkers, too. The final ten episodes of the season make up an arc covering the conclusion of the Dominion War, and these mostly hold up well (apart from “Penumbra” (4.5) and “”Til Death Do US Part” (3.5), which are a bit weaker as both mostly serve to set up plotlines for later episodes to pay off).

Nicole de Boer joins the cast this season, playing the next host to the symbiont Dax after Jadzia’s death. As the newest addition, she gets a fair number of episodes focused on her and her struggles to reconcile herself to her new memories without the years of preparation usually given to Trill host candidates. We’re sad to lose Terry Farrell and her swashbuckling smart-ass science officer Jadzia, but Ezri Dax is a worthy addition to the crew.

The weakest episode this season is “Covenant,” in which we discover Gul Dukat leading a cult of Bajoran pah wraith worshipers in an abandoned Cardassian station. Marc Alaimo is as brilliantly slimy as ever in his performance, but he can’t save an episode that feels both predictable and hollow. The pah wraiths had potential as an inscrutable foil to the equally inscrutable prophets, but the writers decided to turn them into standard-issue evil gods and never put much effort into thinking about their relationship to Bajor.

At the other end of the scale, though, we get the wonderfully warm and silly “Take Me out to the Holosuite,” a full 10, in which Sisko goes a bit off the rails trying to beat an old rival who challenged him at his favorite game: baseball. It’s charming to see how the crew rallies around Sisko, even as he gets too caught up in the competition, and utterly heartwarming to see him finally realize how his obsession with winning had blinded him to what made him love the game in the first place. This episode is a refreshing break from the ongoing Dominion War story, and the best realization I’ve seen of the old adage that “It’s not whether you win or lose that matters, but how you play the game.”

A couple of other episodes are worth noting. “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” at 8.5, deals with the consequences of Nog losing his leg a couple of episodes earlier in “The Siege of AR-558.” This episode rests on the performances of Aron Eisenberg as Nog and James Darren as the holographic singer Vic Fontaine. Both pull the episode off with subtlety and depth, and it is a tribute to the series that it trusted such a weighty episode to two side characters. Vic also features in “Bada-Bing Bada-Bang,” (8) a light-hearted holosuite casino caper that gives us a nice breather before the plunge into the final arc.

Thanks for being with us for our Deep Space Nine rewatch. Feel free to share your favorite episodes and memories!

Image: The Niners celebrate a manufactured triumph, from “Take Me out to the Holosuite” via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.