Rating: Doctor Who, Season 2

We’re continuing to rewatch and rate Doctor Who (new series) with season 2. Here’s how the season looks to us:

  1. “The Christmas Invasion” – 6
  2. “New Earth” – 3.5
  3. “Tooth and Claw” – 9
  4. “School Reunion” – 5
  5. “The Girl in the Fireplace” – 9
  6. “Rise of the Cybermen” – 4
  7. “The Age of Steel” – 4
  8. “The Idiot’s Lantern” – 5
  9. “The Impossible Planet” – 8
  10. “The Satan Pit” – 7
  11. “Love and Monsters” – 4
  12. “Fear Her” – 5
  13. “Army of Ghosts” – 2.5
  14. “Doomsday” – 2

Season 2 carries on much in the same spirit as season 1, with a mix of highs and lows, and ends up with the same average rating, 5.3. David Tennant slides easily into his role as the tenth Doctor, although we found Rose started to wear thin as a companion in this season and by the end of it we weren’t sorry to see the back of her. (In fact, by the end of the season, we were much more excited to see her erstwhile boyfriend Mickey return than to see any more of Rose.)

The low point of the season comes at the very end, with “Doomsday”—the conclusion to a two-part finale in which Cybermen and Daleks fight in the skies over London—coming it at only a 2. Many things dragged this episode down, including the ham-fisted introduction of Torchwood, which had been teased all season long. Worse, coming after some of the well-crafted storytelling in previous episodes, this one chucks out any attempt at story development or narrative logic in favor of Daleks and Cybermen trash talking each other.

By contrast, the best episodes of the season, “Tooth and Claw” and “The Girl in the Fireplace,” both at 9, show off how effective the slow unfolding of complex stories can be. “Tooth and Claw” has Queen Victoria menaced by an alien werewolf in the Scottish highlands while “The Girl in the Fireplace” has Madame de Pompadour menaced by clockwork robots from the future. Although both these episodes involve historical women in danger, neither is a “damsel in distress” story, as both Victoria and Madame de Pompadour get to play active roles in their stories. These episodes also share a pattern of multi-layered plots in which things that seem bizarre and inexplicable at first gradually become clear as pieces of the story fall into place one after another.

We know there are lots of other Doctor Who fans out there, and some of you probably feel quite different about this season and its episodes. We’d love to hear your take. Let us know which episodes of season 2 worked for you or didn’t.

Image: Doctor Who Season 2 via IMDb

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

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Star Wars Cantina Music for Piano Four Hands

When you’ve been looking forward to something for a long time, the closer it gets, the harder it is to wait. So, to keep you entertained in this last week before The Last Jedi comes out, here’s a father-son duo playing the classic Mos Eisley cantina music on the piano. Enjoy!

Star Wars Cantina Band by Brian Lockard

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

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 1

We have continued our rewatching-and-rating project into a series with a bigger fan following: the rebooted Doctor Who that began its broadcast life in 2005. We know that there are a lot of Who fans out there who are passionate about the series and feel strongly about certain episodes and characters. Here’s how we felt about the first season, starring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and Billie Piper as his companion Rose.

  1. “Rose” – 4
  2. “The End of the World” – 4
  3. “The Unquiet Dead” – 4.5
  4. “Aliens of London” – 6
  5. “World War Three” – 6
  6. “Dalek” – 4
  7. “The Long Game” – 4.5
  8. “Father’s Day” – 5.5
  9. “The Empty Child” – 8.5
  10. “The Doctor Dances” – 10
  11. “Boom Town” – 5
  12. “Bad Wolf” – 4
  13. “The Parting of the Ways” – 3

It’s a rocky start to the new show, which is understandable given how much weight this first season had to carry: living up to the nostalgia for the old show while proving that the Doctor Who formula could be made fresh, new, and relevant for a new generation. The average episode rating for this season is 5.3, which is low but decent.

The lowest-rate episode of the season is the finale, “The Parting of the Ways,” in which the Doctor faces off against a Dalek invasion of Earth in the future while Rose desperately tries to get back to him from the present. It rated only a 3 for several reasons. There are pacing and structural issues with the story and its ending relies too much on an almost literal dea ex machina. We find Dalek stories generally weak because the Daleks are flat as characters and overpowered as antagonists.

The standout best episode of the season, though, is “The Doctor Dances” at a full 10. In WWII-era London, the Doctor and Rose deal with both dashing Time Agent-turned-con artist Jack Harkness and a monster that looks like a little boy in a gas mask but who turns those he touches into mindless gas-mask-faced shadows of themselves. As the conclusion to a two-part story after the very strong “The Empty Child,” this episode is full of both sparkling wit, clever sci-fi ideas, and powerful human drama.

This season’s heart (or hearts) are in the right place, even if it doesn’t always deliver. The “dig in the couch cushions and see what you find” special effects budget of the old show was always part of its quirky charm, but the fist season of the new show clearly struggled to live within its means. Not every episode pulled off the right balance of whimsy and pathos. Still, this season did what it needed to: it brought us back the Doctor and the TARDIS and prepared the way for greater adventures to come.

We know there are lots of other Doctor Who fans out there, and some of you probably feel quite different about this season and its episodes. We’d love to hear your take. Let us know which episodes of season 1 worked for you or didn’t.

Image: Doctor Who Series 1 via IMDb

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

Race in Antiquity: Identities

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

It sounds like a simple question that ought to have a straightforward answer, but both the question and its answer are far more complicated than they appear. In this and some other posts, I dig into the topic to explore what we know, what we don’t know, and what we mean by race in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Part 2: Identities

Race as we know it today is an invention of European imperialism in the last five hundred years. Because most of the world was touched by European imperialism, whether directly or indirectly, race has become a vital category of identity for people in many parts of the modern world. Race creates distinctions that benefit some and disadvantage others, and—whether we agree with its effects or not—we cannot ignore or escape them. Most of us can readily identify ourselves and the people around us in racial terms, and we often have cause to do so.

There are many other categories through which we define our identities, such as gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, language, occupation, and so on. Being a white straight male Buddhist French-speaking Canadian cheese-seller is different from being a black straight male Buddhist French-speaking Canadian cheese-seller, but so is being a black straight female Buddhist French-speaking Canadian cheese-seller, or an Asian asexual trans male atheist Spanish-speaking Peruvian piano tuner, etc.

The rules that govern racial identity are perceived to be less flexible than the rules that govern other categories of identity. In most (though, notably, not all) of the modern West, these rules are defined by an ideology that is problematic and not always compatible with lived experiences or scientific thinking, but whose components are grounded in three fundamental assumptions. According to these assumptions, race is:

Biological. We recognize race primarily in terms of physical features like skin color and facial geometry. Science defines certain genetic and physical features as characteristically “Caucasoid,” “Negroid,” “Mongoloid,” or other categories.

Hereditary. Our race is defined by the race of our parents. A person with two black parents is automatically and necessarily black. Even people of mixed racial heritage can parse out their racial identity into specific proportions.

Immutable. We cannot choose or change our racial identity; a person born white can never be any race other than white, and the same is true of other races.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, and other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean, also recognized that identities are complex, made up of different categories, and that some identities have advantages over others. An ancient Greek sage (the quote is attributed to both Thales and Socrates) said:

I thank fortune for three things: first, that I was born a human, not an animal; second, that I was born a man, not a woman; third, that I was born a Greek, not a barbarian.

– Hermippus of Smyrna, frag. 13

(All translations my own.)

In addition to these categories—humanity, gender, and culture—other categories were important for ancient identity, such as legal status (freeborn, freed, or slave), language, occupation, citizenship, and family affiliation, but race, as we recognize it today, was not among them. No category matching the modern racial assumptions of biology, heredity, and immutability existed in Greek or Roman culture.

There is no word in Greek or Latin that corresponds to “race.” The nearest equivalent is “gens” in Latin or “genos” in Greek, both of which imply a group of people with a coherent cultural identity and a common ancestry. It is better translated as “tribe” or “extended family.” The idea of dividing people up on the basis of skin color would have made no sense to a Greek or Roman, nor would the idea of a category of humanity that did not differentiate between people from Greece, Spain, Ireland, and Ukraine.

Greek and Roman authors were aware of variations in physical features. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes, for instance, noted that different peoples imagine the gods as resembling themselves:

Ethiopians say the gods are dark and snub-nosed; the Thracians give them red hair and blue eyes.
– Xenophanes of Colophon, frag. 16

The Roman historian Tacitus similarly made suggestions about the origins of the Britons based on their physical characteristics:

The physical variety [of the Britons] is suggestive. The golden-red hair and burly limbs of the Caledonians shows them to be of Germanic origin. The colorful faces and curly hair of the Silures, plus their position opposite Spain, suggests their ancestors were Spaniards who came across the ocean.
– Tacitus, Agricola 11

Nevertheless, physical features were not regarded as sufficient to divide people into categories. Languages, customs, and ways of life carried far more weight. When the Greek historian Herodotus argued that the Colchians of the Black Sea region were related to the Egyptians, he dismissed the similarities of their appearances as unreliable and based his argument instead on similarities in their cultures:

It is evident that the Colchians are Egyptians… I guessed this myself since they are both dark-skinned and thick-haired, but that amounts to nothing since others are as well. A better proof is that the Colchians, Egyptians, and Ethiopians are the only peoples who have always practiced circumcision… [The Colchians] and the Egyptians produce linen in the same way; plus their ways of life and their languages resemble one another.
– Herodotus, Histories 2.104-5

Heredity mattered for defining identities, but not in the same way as in modern racial thinking. When Greeks and Romans looked to their ancestry for claims of identity, they discussed it in terms of descent from a specific (historical or mythical) individual, not collective ancestry. King Alexander I of Macedon (the great-great-great-grandfather of Alexander the Great) argued that he ought to be allowed to participate in the Olympic Games, which were open only to Greeks, on the grounds that he was a descendant of the Greek hero Heracles. (Herodotus, Histories 5.22) This kind of ancestral argument could even bridge cultural divides. When the Persian king Xerxes was preparing to invade Greece in 479 BCE, he sent emissaries to the Greek city Argos to persuade them to remain neutral and not join the other Greeks resisting his campaign. He based his argument on the claim that the Persians were descended from the Greek hero Perseus, who came from Argos, and so Persians and Argives, as distant relatives, should not fight one another. (Herodotus, Histories 7.150)

For many ancient authors, culture was far more important than heredity in assessing people’s identities. The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus declared:

For, in my opinion, Greeks are not distinguished from barbarians by name or language, but by intelligence and the inclination to proper behavior, and more than this by the fact that they do not behave inhumanly to one another. Those whose natures are of this kind, I think, ought to be called Greeks; those who are the opposite, barbarians.
– Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 14.6

Furthermore, identity was not always assumed to remain stable across generations. The last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, was identified as a Roman, but his father, Tarquinius Priscus, was an Etruscan, whose own father, Demaratus of Corinth, was a Greek. (Livy, History of Rome 1.34; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 3.46) This same instability applied on a collective basis. Many people in the ancient Mediterranean claimed descent from other peoples. Most famously, the Romans claimed to be descended from the Trojans, but some also claimed the Romans were descended from Greeks. Gauls likewise claimed descent from Troy. Jews asserted that the Spartans of Greece were their long-lost kin, while Tacitus declared that the Jews were descended from Ethiopian exiles. (Vergil, Aeneid; Livy, History of Rome 1.1; Dionysius of Halicarnasus, Roman Antiquities 1.31, 41-44, 60, 72, 89; Lucan, Pharsalia 1.427-8; 1 Maccabees 12.5-23; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 12.225-7; Tacitus, Histories 5.2)

Even individuals might change their identities over time. The Greek physician Galen described his Roman clientele as:

… those who are born barbarians but cultivate the ways of Greeks.
– Galen, On the Preservation of Health 1.10

Ancient Greeks and Romans thought about their identities in many different ways, but none of these ways corresponds to race as we define it today. These differences in how ancient peoples thought about identify shaped how they wrote about themselves and others. The things that mattered to them in defining identities were not always the same things that matter to us.

When we ask what race the ancient Greeks and Romans were, we are applying concepts that the people we are investigating would not themselves have understood. Acknowledging this fact is essential when we look to the primary sources to try to answer our questions. We cannot simply read ancient sources as if we were reading a modern newspaper or Twitter feed and assume that we can identify the people they describe as surely as if we met them on the street today. Looking for evidence of race in antiquity requires understanding what the ancient sources don’t say as much as what they do.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Bull leaping fresco (restored), photograph by Nikater, via Wikimedia (Knossos; 1550-1450 BCE; fresco).

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.

Magic Words

From Gandalf’s “Naur an edraith ammen” to Harry Potter’s “Expelliarmus,” words carry the power to work magic in many stories. The idea is not a new one. Here, for example, is some medical advice from the early Roman writer Cato the Elder’s treatise on agriculture:

A dislocation can be made whole with this incantation. Take a green reed four or five feet long, split it in half, and have two people hold it at your hips. Begin to chant: “Motas uaetas daries dardares astataries dissunapiter” and continue until the halves touch. Flourish an iron blade over them. Where they touch one another, take them in your hand and cut left and right. Bind the pieces to the dislocation or fracture and it will be healed. Keep chanting every day like this: “Haut haut haut istasis tarsis ardannabou dannaustra.”

– Cato the Elder, On Agriculture 160

(My own translation.)

Cato was a Roman traditionalist who preferred folk remedies like this one to the more scientific Greek medicine that was becoming popular in Rome in his day, but Greeks had magic words of their own. A set of six words, known as the “Ephesian letters,” were believed to be particularly powerful: askion, kataskion, lix, tetrax, damnameneus, and aision. These words may have been used for spoken incantations like Cato’s charms, but they were particularly used in writing. Reportedly, they originally came from an inscription on the statue of Artemis at Ephesus. It later became a common practice to write the words on scraps of papyrus which were then tied up in small pouches and carried or tied to various parts of the body for magical protection. Boxers were especially known to use these sorts of amulets for strength and defense in competition.

Magic words often seem to sit somewhere on the line between meaning and nonsense. These magic words—both Cato’s spells and the Ephesian letters—are not meaningful in themselves, but they suggest meanings to those who know Latin and Greek. Cato’s incantation implies the movement of something broken. The Ephesian letters suggest words relating to power—damnameneus, for instance, seems to derive from the verb damazo, meaning to tame an animal.

Other examples of magic words from Greece and Rome are derived from real words in other languages the Greeks and Romans had contact with, such as Egyptian, Hebrew, and Persian. Osoronnophris, for example, another magic word used in various Greek and Roman spells, comes from an Egyptian phrase meaning “Osiris (god of the dead) is beautiful.” In much the same way, although J. K. Rowling’s “expelliarmus” may not be a real word, it sounds a lot like Latin and it is not hard to guess that it is intended to disarm an opponent.

Another way of invoking the magic of nonsense is to use words in ways that disrupt normal understanding. Repetition, for example, like Cato’s “haut haut haut” makes real words into magical nonsense. In written spells, words were sometimes written backwards or with letters reversed.

There’s magic in words, spoken or written.

Image: “Expelliarmus” from Doctor Who, “The Shakespeare Code” via Giphy

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.

Some Random Thoughts on Thor: Ragnarok

In no particular order. Spoiler warnings in effect.

  • This is so much better than either of the previous Thor movies. Apparently goofy comedy smashfest is a better mode for space-Viking superhero movies than Shakespearean family drama is.
  • Chris Hemsworth’s performance in this movie is about halfway between his previous Thor performances and his performance in Ghostbusters. It works.
  • This wacky colorful space opera works for me so much better than the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. I seem to be in a minority position, but I hated Guardians of the Galaxy, both times, though not for the wacky colorful space opera parts. What I hated was the arrogant, incompetent male “heroes” and the misogyny-as-comedy. Without those things, I’m totally down for the wacky colorful space opera.
  • Cate Blanchett and Tessa Thompson both give brilliant performances. Maybe someday—hopefully someday soon—we can get a superhero movie with more than two leading roles for women.
  • Korg was amusing, and I can tell Taika Waititi had a blast playing him, but he really felt unnecessary most of the time. The same can be said for Doctor Strange (although, to be fair, the whole Doctor Strange movie franchise feels a bit unnecessary to me).
  • After the last few Marvel movies, we now have Captain America without his shield, Iron Man without a reactor in his chest, and Thor without his hammer. It’s going to be interesting to see how these characters develop without some of their iconic accouterments.
  • A fun romp with good jokes, exciting fights, and beautiful visuals is pretty much exactly what I needed right now, so thank you, Marvel!

 

Additional thoughts by Eppu

  • As a rule of thumb, I don’t care a whit whether the Marvel Cinematic Universe Thor matches the comic books Thor canon, or even Nordic mythology. There was fairly good consistency, story-wise. However, I’m not sure what to think of the decision to crank up the humor to eleven. I enjoyed the movie a lot, yes, but if memory serves, stylistically it deviates quite a bit from the two previous ones, and that seems to be deviating from the MCU convention. I’m still mulling it over.
  • The design for the trash planet Sakaar was refreshingly different. Colors!
  • Two plotholes stood out (or I missed the explanation because there were no subtitles): 1) Thor and Hulk inexplicably left their arena fight in the middle of action, and were all buddy-buddy afterwards. 2) The gladiators were railroaded to Asgard on their stolen spaceship. Um, I thought they started a revolution…? (If it’s a revolution, you stay; if not, it’s an escape.)
  • It was great to see so many women in the background, and two big speaking roles for women, but I want more. And not just girlfriends, or wives, or hookers, or fridged corpses. More women as people in their own right! More women speaking! More women! MORE WOMEN!

 

Recommended reading

Dan Taipua at The Spinoff reveals the Maori / New Zealander mentality hidden in T:R.

Emily Asher-Perrin’s writeup at Tor.com on all the three Thor movies is really good.

Taika Waititi: Paying It Forward on Thor: Ragnarok (found via Good Stuff Happened Today on Tumblr)

Image: Still from Thor: Ragnarok via IMDb

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

A Ghost Story

The Met Bronze Veiled Masked DancerWe often tell scary stories not just to evoke screams and chills but with a message. The monsters of our creepy tales reflect our larger fears, but sometimes the point of the story is that the most frightening things are done by our fellow human beings, not by spooks or spectres. Such is the case with a ghost story told by Herodotus.

The source of this tale was a meeting of representatives from various Greek cities convened by the Spartans in the late 500s BCE to consider going to war against Athens. Athens had been in a state of political turmoil and the Spartans proposed invading the city and imposing a tyrant to restore order and stability.

The representatives of Corinth spoke out strongly against the proposal. Corinth had been ruled by tyrants for three generations, and Corinthians knew better than anyone what tyrants were like. Socles of Corinth told the story of Periander, the Corinthian tyrant. Periander had killed his own wife, Melissa. He then tried to consult her spirit when he mislaid a treasure that a friend had left with him:

He sent messengers to the oracle of the dead at the River Acheron in Thesprotia to inquire about his friend’s deposit, but when the spirit of Melissa appeared, she would not indicate, by speech or action, where the deposit lay, for she was naked and shivering. The clothes that had been buried with her were of no use to her since they had not been burned. As proof that what she said was true, she added that Periander had put his loaves in a cold oven.

When this message was reported to Periander, he knew it to be the truth, for he had had intercourse with Melissa when she was dead. He at once issued a proclamation that all the women of Corinth should gather at the temple of Hera. They came out dressed in their best as if for a festival, but Periander had his guards fall upon them and strip them all naked, ladies and servants alike. The clothes were heaped up in a ditch and Periander, with a prayer to Melissa, burned them all.

After this he sent a second time to the oracle, and the spirit of Melissa pointed out where the deposit lay.

– Herodotus, Histories 5.92.g

(My own translation.)

Some things are more frightening than ghosts.

Image: Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer, from the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Walter C. Baker in 1971, accession number 1972.118.95, by Eppu Jensen (Greek; 3rd-2nd century BCE)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Race in Antiquity: The Question

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

It sounds like a simple question that ought to have a straightforward answer, but both the question and its answer are far more complicated than they appear. In this and some upcoming posts, I’ll dig into the topic to explore what we know, what we don’t know, and what we mean by race in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Part 1: The Question

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

As simple as it may sound, almost every word in this question hides layers of assumptions. It assumes that race is a valid category for describing human beings, and is equally applicable to ancient societies as to modern ones. It assumes that we can reconstruct ancient demographic information in some comprehensive way. It assumes that “Ancient Greeks and Romans” are definable groups of people, and that we know who we mean by that designation.

These are not trivial issues, and I’ll take them up in future posts, but today I want to address an even more fundamental and persistent assumption: that the racial identity of the ancient Greeks and Romans matters.

Now, I am an ancient historian and a geek. I’ve spent my entire life, both at work and at leisure, being told by people that the things I care about don’t matter. (The title of my field, “ancient history,” is even used as a synonym for “irrelevant.”) That’s never stopped me from trying to figure things out and it shouldn’t stop us from thinking about race in antiquity, but it should make us step back and ask: Why do we want to know?

When we ask questions about the race of ancient peoples, we are not posing these questions in a vacuum. There is, in fact, a long history of people arguing about the answer, and if we don’t understand their reasoning and motivations we may fall into the same traps and make the same mistakes that they did.

We can start around 1500 CE when the Western concept of race was taking on its modern contours. Variations in physical and genetic features—from skin color to blood type—are part of the reality of human biology, but the belief that these features can be used to divide humanity into distinct and meaningful categories, along more or less the terms we recognize today, was a product of European imperialism and colonialism. The European powers that were busy conquering and colonizing the rest of the world had to define themselves as superior to the people they were displacing, exploiting, or massacring. The idea of a “white” race—a superior “white” race, no less—began with the need to justify European activities abroad.

Once Europeans had defined themselves as both white and superior, history had to fall in line. On one hand, the roots of white superiority had to be found in the depths of history; on the other hand, any great accomplishments in history had to become the property of white people. Any evidence that could be interpreted as suggesting that white people had made significant achievements before anyone else were celebrated, such as Piltdown Man, a hoax that got out of hand because it conformed so perfectly to what archaeologists expected: the crucial first steps towards modern humans happened in northwestern Europe. The achievements of non-European peoples were denied or claimed for Europeans wherever possible, like the “dynastic race theory” in Egypt or the assertion that major centers of African civilization like Great Zimbabwe must have been built by white (or white-ish) settlers. Civilizations that could be neither denied nor claimed for whiteness, like those of ancient India, China, and Mesoamerica, were denigrated or dismissed.

European Christian culture had long idolized the civilization of ancient Greece, a habit that went back as far as the Roman Republic. The Romans had had an uneasy relationship with their Greek neighbors and subjects, as they tended to elevate the great literary, artistic, and philosophical works of the classical Greek past while sneering at contemporary Greeks as unworthy of their ancestors. After the fall of the western Roman Empire, as Greek and Latin became learned rather than vernacular languages, Greek and Latin literature collectively acquired an aura of cultural authority. This aura of authority was further supported by the association of Greek and Latin learning with religious authority in the Christian church.

By the imperial age, when European nations were asserting their racial superiority over their colonial subjects and slaves, ancient Greek and Roman civilizations had come to be perceived as the peaks of intellectual, philosophical, and artistic culture. A defense of European superiority therefore required the assertion of a direct link to Greece and Rome. Since race was the accepted currency of identity, that link had to be defined in racial terms. It therefore became essential that the ancient Greeks and Romans should be white.

Various strategies existed for making the argument that the ancient Greeks and Romans were white, but one of the most influential was the Aryan invasion model. According to this model, the Aryans were a primordial superior white race whose origins lay somewhere in northern or northeastern Europe. At various times in history, individual branches of this race would explode outwards, traversing great distances and conquering all the “inferior” peoples in their path, eventually colonizing a swath of Eurasia stretching from England to northern India. These Aryan invaders could be credited with cultural achievements anywhere they went, but most importantly they were hailed as the ancestors of the classical Greeks. Western and northern Europeans who claimed descent from other branches of Aryan settlers could therefore claim an ancestral connection to the glories of Greece and its Roman successors.

It was not enough for the ancient Greeks and Romans to be white. Since Europeans looked back to Greco-Roman culture as a source of authority, those who wanted to validate imperial projects required that the opinions of the great ancient authors should support their sense of racial superiority. Scholars searched ancient texts for passages congenial to the imperialist drive and elevated these as the true beliefs of the Great Thinkers of antiquity. Any passages which expressed a different perspective were dismissed or reinterpreted. Through the centuries of this scholarly activity, the ancient Greeks and Romans became not only “white” but the very founders of white supremacy.

Modern scholarship recognizes that the “Aryan race” was a figment of the imagination (the term “Aryan” is now reserved for certain historical peoples of northern India). Both the ethnic identity of the ancient Greeks and Romans and their opinions about that identity are now seen to be far more complicated issues with no easy answers, but the insights of the past several decades of scholarship are only slowly coming into wider public consciousness. The relics of the racially-determined Aryan invasion model are still all around us, some of them stripped of the most obvious racism of the older scholarship but still grounded in the urge to assert the fundamental whiteness of the ancient Mediterranean.

When we ask questions about the race of the ancient Greeks and Romans, this is the context we must be conscious of. Much older scholarship is suffused with its ideas, and even more recent popular discussions of the subject tend to be unknowingly aligned with the Aryan model.

The mistakes of the Aryan model and other arguments that asserted the whiteness of the ancient Greeks and Romans arose from the desire to made the past reflect the concerns of the present. The past does not exist to make us feel better about ourselves or validate our contemporary politics. This is the assumption we must guard against most carefully in any historical research. If we assume that the Greeks and Romans are a measure of civilization and that any similarities we can find between ourselves and them prove our own worth, our arguments will go hopelessly askew.

Instead, if there is any use in examining Greek and Roman ethnic identity, it is as part of the larger work of history: to help us understand our own society better by giving us useful examples for comparison. We will not prove our own value by showing that the Greeks and Romans were like us, but we may better grasp the complex forces at work in forming our own identities by understanding how they were different from us.

(Further parts to come.)

Image: Janifrom kantharos, via People of Color in European Art History (Etruria, currently Villa Giulia; 6th c. BCE; ceramic)

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.

Secondary Characters in Love

I realized something recently.

There are lot of books, movies, television series, and so on about people falling in love, or whose main characters end up in a relationship. (No, that’s not the thing I realized.) Mulder and Scully. Lizzie and Darcy. Aragorn and Arwen. For a lot of people, these pairings are a big deal. Fans of these works love watching the characters fall in love (or arguing endlessly on the internet about it) and creators tease us with will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation and big payoff wedding days.

All of this is perfectly fine, but it’s not for me. I don’t mind that Mulder and Scully end up together, but that was never what I watched X Files for. I love Pride and Prejudice for the witty dialogue, expertly crafted story, and deliciously wicked satires of social pretension, not for the Darcy-Bennet nuptials.

Now here’s the thing I realized: even though I have no investment in main character romances, I adore secondary character romances. I love watching side and background characters fall in love and get down to happily-ever-after-ing. I don’t care one way or another if Phryne Fisher and Jack Robinson end up together, but I’m all in for Dot and Hugh. To me, the climax of Pride and Prejudice is not when Mr. Darcy proposes (for the second time) to Elizabeth Bennet, but when Mr. Bingley proposes to Jane Bennet.

I think there are some reasons for this. Side characters’ romances are not generally made to carry the same dramatic weight as main characters’. That means they don’t usually get saddled with tedious will-they-or-won’t-they teases or artificial roadblocks to “build drama.” More often they get to be sweet, silly, stories of love. In longer-form works, like television series, secondary characters also often get to make progress in their romance, moving on from flirtation to dating to marriage to wedded life while main characters tend to get stuck in stasis.

Then again, maybe I just love secondary characters.

Anybody else feel this way? Or am I just peculiar?

Image: Jane and Charles via Giphy

In Character is an occasional feature looking at some of our favorite characters from written works and media to see what drives them, what makes them work, and what makes us love them so much.