Gaulish Wheelbarrow Pigs: A Cautionary Tale

Primary sources are a historian’s best friend, and sometimes worst enemy. Primary sources are essential to our understanding of the past, but if not handled carefully, they can also be deceptive. For a case in point, here are a couple of comments on the Gauls of northern Italy in the third and second centuries BCE.

The Gauls were a warrior elite who had migrated into northern Italy over about a century and established themselves as leaders of scattered towns and settlements in the Po river valley. Some of these groups settled down and built up local power bases based on agriculture and trade. Others made their living by raiding the rest of the Italian peninsula or taking service as mercenaries in the many local wars being fought between Italian peoples like the Etruscans, Romans, Sabines, and Samnites. The native people of the Po valley sometimes resisted Gaulish influence and sometimes assimilated into Gaulish culture. By the second century, the expansion of Roman power had subdued or eliminated many of these groups, while some others had allied themselves with Rome.

The cultural realities of northern Italy were complicated. The view from Rome tended to be simplifying and stereotyping, but even the stereotypes themselves could be complicated.

Here is how the Greek author Polybius, who lived in Rome and aligned himself with Roman culture, described the Italian Gauls:

They lived in unwalled villages without permanent structures. Sleeping on leaves and eating meat, they knew nothing but war and farming; they lived simple lives and had no acquaintance with any art or science.

– Polybius, History 2.17-18

(My own translations)

The image is one of poverty in both material and cultural terms. Polybius’ Gauls are little better than wild animals.

Should we take Polybius’ account as an authoritative statement on what the Romans and their Greek allies thought about the Gauls? There is no doubt that the image of Gauls as feral savages lacking even the rudiments of civilized life was common in the ancient Mediterranean, but it was not the only possibility. In fact, just the opposite was also possible.

Cato the Elder, a Roman statesman, took a different view of the Gauls. Most of his account is lost, but a couple of fragments survive in quotations in later works:

The Gauls devote themselves most diligently to two things: war and cunning talk.

– Cato the Elder, Origins 2, quoted in Charisius, Ars Grammatica 2

 

The Insubres [a Gaulish tribe] in Italy lay up cuts of pork, three or four thousand at a time, and the pigs grow so big that they cannot stand on their own or walk anywhere. If they want to take a pig somewhere, they must put it in a cart.

– Cato the Elder, Origins 2, quoted in Varro, On Farming 1.2.7, 2.4.11; Columella, Res Rustica 3.3.2; Pliny, Natural History 14.52

Cato was no friend to the Gauls any more than Polybius was, but his view of them is different. Unlike Polybius’ ignorant savages with no art or sceince, Cato’s Gauls are cunning talkers. In contrast to the poverty of unwalled villages and beds of leaves, Cato pictures Gauls as so rich in agriculture that their pigs grow too fat to walk unaided.

Polybius and Cato were roughly contemporary and moved in the same elite social circles in Rome. Despite the differences in their points of view, they both reflect attitudes that must have been current among the Roman upper class. We can explain the differences in their views by their different audiences. Polybius was writing primarily for his fellow Greeks and aimed to portray the Romans as a force for order and stability in the Mediterranean. The more wild and bestial he could make their enemies, the more he could burnish the Romans’ credentials. Cato, by contrast, was writing for a Roman audience in the aftermath of Rome’s complete conquest of the Po valley. By building up the Gauls as a worthy foe, he made the conquest seem more glorious.

The variations in these perspectives should not surprise us. It is rare that any group of people has a single opinion about anything. Even the most reductive stereotypes are rarely universal among the people who hold them. Individuals and groups alike can hold multiple attitudes at the same time, calling up one opinion or another as the occasion demands.

For more recent historical periods when we have richer records of peoples’ thoughts and words, it is easier to get a fuller sense of this sort of complexity. In more distant periods of history when we have much more limited records, it can be tempting to assume that the documents we do have represent an accurate picture of what people thought on a given topic. Polybius and Cato are a good cautionary example that even among people who traveled in the same social circles in the same places and times, multiple different opinions were equally possible.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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Stars in Your Bathroom Floor

Oh my, this is stunning: a DIYed bathroom floor lights up with tiny fiber optics stars!

Instructables Balrd Star Floor
Balrd at Instructables

The secret is to thread the fibers into the grout lines. Apparently, for safety, the light source needs to be outside the bathroom (or, I imagine, whatever the local code calls for) and, of course, you need to start with a bare floor or to demo the existing surface, so it’s not a quick project by any measure. The results are amazing, though.

See the full star floor tutorial by Balrd at Instructables.

Found via Buzzfeed.

In Here is an occasional feature highlighting geeky spaces created by our fellow geeks all over the world.

Traditional Andean Design Finds New Life in Architectural Details

The city of El Alto in Bolivia, high up in the Andes, is the country’s second largest city and right next to the third largest one, La Paz. Something that El Alto beats its richer neighbor in is unique eye candy right on the building facades.

That’s because an architect, Freddy Mamani Silvestre, is slowly working bright colors into El Alto’s red-brick and concrete scenery.

Wikipedia Mamani Cholet1

Information on Silvestre seems scant in English. A member of the indigenous Aymara, he apparently started working on buildings as a bricklayer. There’s a feature on El Alto in The New York Times in 2013 and in The Washington Post in 2014. He’s referred to in a 2014 BBC News article on president Evo Morales. The Architectural Association, Inc., still has their exhibition info Salones de Eventos from 2015 available online. I also found two articles via the German Wikipedia entry for Silvestri: one in The Architectural Review and the other in Quartz, both from 2015. The best bet at the moment might be the 2017 book El Alto by Silvestre and Peter Granser. For Spanish readers there’s more, including the 2014 book La arquitectura de Freddy Mamani Silvestre.

Quartz Mamani Salon Montecarlo

Silvestri draws on traditional shapes and colors in his designs. Some of the detailing reminds me of jugend (I believe the phrase art deco is used in the U.S. instead), but Silvestri’s work is clearly not derivative of it.

Architectural Association Mamani Green Building

If the exteriors seem colorful and detailed, just wait until you see the interiors!

Colossal Mamani Green Interior

Wow! His style has been described as Neo-Andean, new Andean, space-ship architecture or, plainly, kitch. However you may want to describe it, the word colorful will have to be there!

Found via Colossal.

Images: Cholet (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikipedia. Salón Montecarlo by Alfredo Zeballos / The Architecture of Freddy Mamani Silvestre via Quartz. Green exterior via The Architectural Association, Inc. Green interior via Colossal.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

A Drink from an Octopus

Some ideas are so good they come around again, even thousands of years later. I recently stumbled across this beautiful glass bottle adorned with a sinuous octopus on Etsy seller Elstwhen’s shop. You can find this particular bottle here.

The Beast of the Void by Elstwhen

 

It reminded me of Minoan pottery, which is often adorned with vividly rendered sea life. While Elstwhen’s work is not a copy of the Minoan style, it makes similar use of asymmetry, flowing lines, and strong contrasts to create a similarly impressive effect.

Minoan flask, photograph by Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia (Archaeological Museum, Herakleion; c. 1500 BCE; painted pottery)

 

(We have no connection, financial or otherwise, with Elstwhen.)

In Making Stuff, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

Some Random Thoughts on Captain Marvel

In no particular order. Spoiler warnings in effect.

Erik’s random thoughts:

  • My overall impression of this movie is that it was good, but not great. And that’s fine. For Marvel’s first woman-led movie, the pressure is on to excel, and we would have loved it if this movie had measured up to some of the great Marvel triumphs like Avengers and Black Panther, but it’s also perfectly okay for this movie to just be perfectly okay. In a franchise where Tony Stark gets six or seven movies to learn not to be a total raging jerk all the time, there’s plenty of room for women to lead good, great, and even not-so-great movies.
  • As someone who doesn’t know the comic character, I was rather lost for the first hour or so until Carol Danvers’s history finally got explained. Some of the narrative choices made in the first half of the movie even seemed to deliberately push Carol’s confusion about her identity onto the audience. I expect to enjoy the movie more on a second or third viewing when I can focus on the characters and the action rather than trying to sort out who is who, where we are in the timeline, and which memories are reliable.
  • There are also some individual plot elements that would have benefited from taking a little more time to introduce and develop, like the background of the Pegasus project, Mar-Vel’s plans, “Vers’s” relationship with Yon-Rog, and the power-inhibiting neck disk. As it is, there are some moments in the film that don’t have the emotional weight they should because we lack an adequate set-up.
  • They’ve really nailed the de-aging technology. In the brief scenes they’ve done in previous movies it’s been very good, but still looked a little fake. Even Coulson in this movie looked just a bit digital, but young Nick Fury was absolutely convincing.
  • I loved the Carol Danvers / Nick Fury buddy cop road movie parts of this film. The two actors played beautifully off one another, and I could easily have had a full movie of Danvers’s and Fury’s road trip adventures.
  • And while we’re on the subject of Nick Fury, notice that he doesn’t make any fuss about helping with the washing up. That’s class.
  • Brie Larson is perfectly cast as Carol Danvers / Captain Marvel. She plays the character as tough, resourceful, and snarky without being overbearing, but also wounded and sometimes unsure of herself without undermining her own strength. By the end of the movie, we can totally believe that she is not only a super-powered hero who can blow up an invading spaceship by punching right through it, but also the kind of person whose response to an alien invasion would be to blow up their ship by punching right through it.
  • Monica is great, full of life and spirit in a believable way, and the relationship she has both with her mother Maria and her auntie Carol is beautiful to watch. It’s nice to see a movie quietly acknowledge that women can be loving mothers and aunties while also flying fighter jets, blowing up alien spaceships, and generally kicking ass. There is no reason why these things cannot be compatible.
  • Well, now we know how Fury lost his eye, and really, could it have happened in any better way?

 

Eppu’s random thoughts:

  • Going in, I had no idea what powers Captain Marvel has in the comics nor how she got them; everything I knew came from the trailers, but of course they don’t really explain anything. I confess I was curious how the heck was she able to fire photon blasts from her hands and fly. Aha—the Tesseract; a-okay.
  • The movie not only easily passed the Bechdel test, it chomped it up for breakfast. LOVED THAT. Just like in Black Panther, all the women were competent, complex, and clearly their own personas instead of cardboard cutouts or boob bimbos reciting lines.
  • Great acting all round, too. Brie Larson, Lashana Lynch, and Akira Akbar’s power trio was awesome! You could almost feel the history between the three. (And I really hope we get to see an older Monica Rambeau in MCU some day.) Annette Bening was wonderful despite her relatively short appearances, and Ben Mendelsohn was very impressive even through the latex mask. Jude Law I’ve never cared for, but he didn’t bother me in this.
  • While the pacing was ok, the plot felt overly complicated—and to be explicit, I’m not convinced it’s necessarily a bad thing. Then again, BP really has raised the stakes for MCU movies for me; stories are facing a steep uphill battle to get the gold star.
  • The movie sure had a lot on its plate. First it needed to introduce this new MCU character, give us some idea of who the Kree are, and outline the Skrull threat. Then we get glimpses into Danver’s previous life on Earth, the identities of Dr. Lawson / Mar-Vell plus Maria and Monica Rambeau, and the eventual regaining of Danver’s memories and relationship with the Rambeaus (but whether it was all memories or just most I’m still unsure about). Add to that not only the super-duper-short intro to S.H.I.E.L.D. and a more extensive one to Nick Fury, but also bringing Fury and Danvers together to chase leads, reversing the Skrull threat, adding the threat to Earth by Kree, the secret underneath the cute surface of Goose, Danvers discovering the extent of her abilities, and, finally, Danvers / Captain Marvel winning the day. Still, Captain Marvel didn’t feel quite as jam-packed as Avengers: Infinity War did.
  • Speaking of AIW, CM was clearly geared to directly feed into the upcoming Avengers: Endgame; the focus was on explaining how come this Captain Marvel character is the one Fury calls when shit really, truly hits the fan. Consequently, there wasn’t much room for showing how Carol Danvers came to be who she is, especially compared to the male heroes (say, Steve Rogers). It was interesting, though, to compare this origin story with that of the first few MCU origin stories / introductions (Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America). I’m not the only one to compare Steve Rogers’s and Carol Danvers’s tenacity and their steadfastness in working towards their goals. Abigail Nussbaum put it best: “When she finally embraces what she is, she becomes unstoppable.” (As a side note, I thought the Carol Danvers character is quite good an example of the Finnish concept sisu. Steve Rogers is also in the right direction, but he didn’t have to time and again break through the glass ceiling women face.)
  • I loved how different a Fury we see, and can easily believe how this version could turn into the older one we were first introduced to—Samuel L. Jackson has great acting chops for sure. He didn’t just feel younger and less hardened than Director Fury, for the lack of a better word he felt lighter (more optimistic? more trusting? more naive? all of the above???).
  • Which reminds me: I almost cried out loud out of frustration towards the beginning when Fury and Coulson pursue Vers / the train in LA and they drove the wrong direction. That’s been done a gazillion times in action movies and I’ve had my fill of it. Fortunately it lasted only a few seconds. Phew.
  • Goose the cat being a Flerken able to swallow the Tesseract was a really interesting choice. Where did he end up living afterwards? And how long do they live to begin with?
  • Coulsooooon! Nice to see a glimpse of the young Coulson, too. (I’ve seen the first two seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with Coulson of course, but I just don’t find the series as satisfying as the movies.)
  • Ditto on Fury and dishes.
  • The canyon dogfight between Minn-Erva and Maria Rambeau was great. I was starting to be worried that Rambeau wasn’t going to be given any moments to shine in her own right (apart from being shown a great best friend and mother; i.e., only in relation to others). There were just two soldiers who happened to be women doing their jobs. Awesome.
  • Speaking of, Maria Rambeau got some of the best lines: “You call me ‘young lady’ again, I’ll shove my foot up somewhere it’s not supposed to be.”
  • Minor nitpicks include the crest on Vers’s helmet (looks stupid to me) and the unrealistically low amount of catcalling and/or harassment she gets at the train station looking for the Skrull runaway while wearing the Kree armor—then again, if LA residents are as focused on their own thing as NYC commuters are, it’s not that unrealistic after all. (Haven’t been to LA myself, so I don’t know.)
  • Best moments: “I’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind my back!” and “I have nothing to prove to you.” *pow!*
  • I’ll end with a note from a Forbes article by Scott Mendelson listing some of the film’s earnings: “Because the financial metrics, both in North America and overseas, clearly show that the future of the MCU is essentially everything except more white guys named Chris.” *harf!* 😀 You got that right.

 

Image: Brie Larson as Carol Danvers from Captain Marvel via IMDb

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

Happy Pi Day!

Happy Pi Day!

I’m the kind of geek you can (within reason) egg on to doing something by saying most people don’t act in a particular way or do whatever it is you’re describing.

Case in point: our high school math teacher told us that most people won’t ever learn the approximation for pi further than 2 or 4 decimals places. So, I had to go and memorise it to 8 decimal places. I can still remember it: 3.14159265.

Dinner3 Dessert

Don’t ask me why it was so important to me—I can’t remember anymore. I am, however, surprised that I can still produce it without any hesitation whatsoever even though I haven’t used it in decades. (It only works in Finnish, though; clearly there’s some connection with the rhythm and sounds that made it easy for me to memorize.) I wish I was as speedy with my U.S. social security number, for instance. 🙂

P.S. For a full appreciation of my dorkiness, look at the tags for this post. :p

Messing with numbers is messy.

Turning Vinegar and Lobster Shells into Sustainable Bioplastic

Four Master’s students from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, London, UK, have created a bioplastic from chitin combined with vinegar. This sustainable plastic can be manipulated to produce items of varying stiffness, flexibility, thickness, and translucence by adjusting the ratios of the base ingredients.

Instagram Shellworks Variety of Material Properties

Instagram Shellworks Bags Bubblewrap

Apparently, the material can also be turned back into the original bioplastic solution.

Shellworks is Ed Jones, Insiya Jafferjee, Amir Afshar, and Andrew Edwards. Their work is still at prototype stage, but it sounds like there is a potential for increasingly (if not utterly and entirely) recyclable, non-toxic plastic here. Sounds awesome!

Visit the Shellworks website or Instagram for more.

Found via Colossal.

Images: Variety of Material Properties by Shellworks on Instagram. Bags and bubblewrap by Shellworks on Instagram.

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

Wine and Sheep for a Princess

Administrative records from the Persian Empire preserve some evidence of a lady of the royal court gathering resources, probably in preparation for a feast:

A message to Yamaksheda, the wine carrier, from Pharnaces: Issue 200 marrish [about 2,000 liters] of wine to Princess Artystone. By the king’s order.

First month of the nineteenth year [March or April, 503 BCE]. Ansukka wrote the text. Mazara conveyed the message.

– Persepolis Fortification Texts (published) 1795

A message to Harriena, the herdsman, from Pharnaces: King Darius commanded me in these words: “Issue 100 sheep from my estate to my daughter, Princess Artystone.”

Now Pharnaces says: “As the king commanded me, I command you: Issue 100 sheep to Princess Artystone as the king ordered.”

First month of the nineteenth year [March or April, 503 BCE]. Ansukka wrote the text. Mazara conveyed the message.

– Persepolis Fortification Texts (collated) 6754

(My own translations.)

We can learn some interesting things from this evidence.

For one thing, it gives us a sense of how the Persian imperial bureaucracy worked. There were higher officials like Pharnaces who were responsible for overseeing the distribution of goods, scribes like Ansukka, messengers like Mazara, and lower officials in charge of particular categories of goods. Messages like these directed those who were lower down in the hierarchy to issue certain quantities of goods while at the same time keeping a record of what had been issued and where it came from.

Secondly, this is evidence for the scale on which elite Persian women could command economic resources. 2,000 liters of wine and 100 sheep cost no small amount of labor to produce. Artystone could, with her father’s consent, draw on the fruits of all that labor.

And finally: it looks like Artystone really know how to throw a party.

Image: Tribute bearer with rams, photograph by A. Davey via Flickr (Persepolis Apadana staircase; c. 518 BCE; stone relief). CC BY 2.0

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Celebrating International Women’s Day with a Captain Marvel Viewing

March 08 is International Women’s Day. Very appropriately, we are celebrating by going to see Captain Marvel!

IMDB Captain Marvel Eyes Horizontal

I’m hoping it’ll be as awesome as the trailers look!

To the people complaining that this version of Marvel is too political and therefore massively off-putting, I have only one thing to say.

(Long post warning.)

Read the whole post.

Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 6

It’s another season of Murdoch for us to rewatch and rate. This one flies high at the beginning, then crashes and burns at the end. Here’s our take:

  1. “Murdoch Air” – 10
  2. “Winston’s Lost Night” – 6.5
  3. “Murdoch on the Corner” – 8
  4. “A Study in Sherlock” – 7
  5. “Murdoch au Naturel” – 7.5
  6. “Murdoch and the Cloud of Doom” – 6.5
  7. “The Ghost of Queen’s Park” – 6
  8. “Murdoch in Ladies’ Wear” – 2.5
  9. “Victoria Cross” – 5.5
  10. “Twisted Sisters” – 3.5
  11. “Lovers in a Murderous Time” – 3
  12. “Crime and Punishment” – 0
  13. “The Murdoch Trap” – 0

This is a remarkable season of Murdoch Mysteries, ranging from the very best the show has to offer to the very worst. The average for this season is only 5.1, which is the lowest yet for a season of Murdoch, but the average is deceptive since this season is half good-to-brilliant and half disappointing-at-best with not a lot falling in the middle range. It’s an odd roller coaster of a season, and, like all roller coasters, it eventually ends at the bottom.

That bottom is pretty darned low. “Crime and Punishment” and “The Murdoch Trap,” both rating a solid 0, make up a two-parter in which two of our least favorite things get combined: overly clever serial killers who get away with everything and artificial barriers thrown up by writers to squeeze more drama out of romantic angst. Darcy Garland, the multi-season speed bump to the blossoming relationship between Detective Murdoch and Doctor Ogden, suffers a character assassination this season as he goes from being reasonable and charming to being obstreperous and capricious, all for the writers’ increasingly desperate ploys to keep Murdoch and Ogden apart as long as possible. Rather than offer us something truly new and original on tv—reasonable adults dealing with complicated emotions with compassion, self-awareness, and generosity—the writers fall back on one of the most worn-out tropes of mystery fiction: have the offending interloper murdered by a genius serial killer who frames the detective. These are two episodes we will never be watching again.

But what a joy of an episode we get to start the season off with! “Murdoch Air” earns its full 10 rating with a thrilling opening, some great character moments, the return of the beloved James Pendrick, a dash of international intrigue courtesy of Myers and Clegg, and an exhilarating ending that has Murdoch soaring over Niagara Falls years before the Wright brothers got airborne. “Murdoch Air” has a little bit of everything that makes Murdoch so delightful.

There are a lot of other good episodes in the first half of the season, too, bringing us young Winston Churchill boozing around Toronto, a Sherlock Holmes impersonator with a mystery of his own to solve, an introduction to the turn-of-the-century nudist movement, and a poison-gas terrorist. On the other hand, you can skip the second half of the season and not miss much.

How did you like this season of Murdoch? Was the final two-parter right up your alley? Not thrilled by the airborne first episode? Let us know!

Image: Constable Crabtree trying pizza, from Murdoch Mysteries via IMDb.

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