Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 3

Onward to season 3 of Murdoch Mysteries we go, rewatching and rating each episode. Here’s our take:

  1. “The Murdoch Identity” – 8
  2. “The Great Wall” – 6
  3. “Victor, Victorian” – 6.5
  4. “Rich Boy, Poor Boy” – 6
  5. “Me, Myself & Murdoch” – 8.5
  6. “This One Goes to Eleven” – 7.5
  7. “Blood and Circuses” – 5
  8. “Future Imperfect” – 4
  9. “Love and Human Remains” – 9
  10. “The Curse of Beaton Manor” – 7
  11. “Hangman” – 6
  12. “In the Altogether” – 4
  13. “ The Tesla Effect” – 8

The average rating for this season is a strong 6.6, a bit up even from last season’s quite good 6.2. Season 3 continues to build on the series’ strengths—complex mysteries, whimsical humor, and an eye for finding Victorian equivalents to modern issues—while also striking out in some new ways. One innovation this season is the introduction of an ongoing plot surrounding the newly-introduced character of James Pendrick, a visionary inventor who keeps getting tangled up in Detective Murdoch’s investigations. Starting halfway through the season, Mr. Pendrick’s misadventures lead up to a surprise finale that changes our perception of him and the preceding episodes in clever ways.

Unfortunately, the Pendrick storyline also gives us the two lowest-rated episodes of this season, both rating 4: “Future Imperfect,” in which Murdoch and company intersect with H. G. Wells and the eugenics movement, and “In the Altogether,” in which prostitutes and pornographers are caught up in a blackmailing scandal. Each episode has its merits and good moments, but they are dragged down by the need to serve the unfolding Pendrick drama, which leaves too little room for their own individual stories to develop.

By contrast, the best episode of the season, “Love and Human Remains,” at 9, tells a story that, for all its small and self-contained scope, offers a bounty of human drama and investigative intrigue. When the bodies of a murdered couple turn up at a building site, Murdoch goes digging through the past, peeling back layers of time to uncover a story of cruelty, desperation, and, ultimately, the triumph of love over adversity. It is one of the rare mysteries where you want the crime to be solved, but you end up glad that it goes unpunished.

Honorable mention goes to “Me, Myself & Murdoch,” the second best episode of the season at 8.5, which offers a similarly tangled tale of murder, abuse, mental illness, and the unbreakable bonds of love. In this episode, which nods to the historical Lizzie Borden case, a young woman is suspected of having murdered her father with an axe, only to turn out to have multiple personalities whose different perspectives allow Murdoch to piece together an older, even more grisly crime. Guest star Anastasia Phillips gives a virtuoso performance as the young woman under suspicion, whose shifts in personality from terrified to terrifying are amazing to watch.

Murdoch Mysteries remains a pleasure to watch and rewatch.

Image: Murdoch Mysteries main cast via IMDb

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

Advertisements

Rolling for Charity

What’s even better than gaming? Gaming for a good cause! Roll for Charity is an organization based in Buffalo, New York, USA, that sponsors gaming events with a good purpose: supporting food aid to combat hunger and food insecurity. One thing they do is host gaming events in which players can make charitable donations (in cash or canned food) to get special perks and powers to help them win. Has there ever been a better use of cheat codes?

We’re not close enough to Buffalo to take part in any of their activities (we heard about the organization by chance), but it’s a marvelous idea and we hope there are more people out there doing similar things. If you are in the Buffalo area, though, you might want to look them up.

These days when it can feel like the news is always bad, it’s good to see people working toward something that isn’t just in a good cause, but sounds like an awful lot of fun.

Image: Roll for Charity logo by Seijen

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

Race in Antiquity: The Ivory Bangle Lady

“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 these 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 9: The “Ivory Bangle Lady”

In the past entries in this series, we have talked a lot about theories of identity, how we can interpret (and sometimes misinterpret) both written and artistic sources, and the problems in knowing just who we mean by Greeks and Romans in the first place. Today we approach the question from a different angle, looking at one individual and the world she lived in.

Around 400 CE, a wealthy lady was buried near the Roman city of Eburacum (modern York) in northern Britain. She was buried with jewelry including an assortment of bangles, some of white ivory from Africa, others of black jet from Britain. Her name is not recorded, but she has come to be known, because of her jewelry, as the Ivory Bangle lady.

Examination of the Lady’s remains using the techniques of forensic anthropology shows that she was of African ancestry and had spent her childhood in a warmer climate, perhaps somewhere in southern Europe or North Africa. Her skull has features typical of sub-Saharan African populations and in fact the reference measurements that most closely match her skeletal morphology come from nineteenth-century black Americans. Although no indication of her skin color survives, it is almost certain that, if we passed her on the street today, we would describe her as a woman of color.

Roman York may seem like the last place we would expect to find evidence of racial diversity. It was the northernmost city in the Roman empire, just a little over a hundred kilometers from the Scottish frontier. There are few places in the Roman world that were farther from the cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean, yet archaeology has revealed late Roman York to have been a vibrantly multi-ethnic city. Individuals from Gaul, Italy, and Egypt are mentioned in Roman-period inscriptions from around York. Local potters made cooking vessels characteristic of North African cuisine. A Germanic king with his retinue of warriors is attested in the city backing the emperor Constantine’s rise to power. Not far away, in the forts along Hadrian’s Wall, soldiers were worshiping gods imported from Syria and Persia. A North African woman of Sub-Saharn African descent would have been right at home in such a place.

What did she think of herself? We have no way of knowing except to try to interpret the circumstances of her burial. The bangles with which she was buried may suggest a consciousness of being both African and British, although ivory and jet were both prized in late Roman jewelry. They certainly, however, point to a family of wealth and status. The remains of a wooden box were also found in the grave, including a decorative mount carved with the text “Hail, sister, may you live in God” (AVE S[OR]OR VIVAS IN DEO). The text suggests a Christian connection, although the richness of the lady’s grave is at odds with the contemporary Christian preference for simple burial. The Lady may or may not have been Christian herself, but she certainly had contact with the Christian movement.

The most noteworthy thing about the Lady’s burial may be how unremarkable it is. It is in many ways an entirely typical late Roman provincial grave for a woman of high status. Her choice of jewelry may have been meant to say something about her origin, but it was a choice that would not have stood out among her peers. She was in touch with one of the major religious movements of the day but buried in a traditional fashion; she was neither ahead of nor behind the times. If we had only the grave goods and not the remains, there would be nothing to suggest that the deceased belonged to an ethnic minority.

The most important thing for us to learn from the Ivory Bangle Lady is this paradox: the relative scarcity of people of African origin in the ancient Mediterranean literary record is the product of their presence, not their absence. There were enough North Africans in York to influence the local pottery market, but in most respects they were just like other provincial Romans. They followed the same social trends and religious developments as their neighbors. They had come as soldiers in Roman service, as merchants, or as travelers, just like the Gauls, Italians, and Germans who also ended up in York. They were of all genders and lived at all levels of provincial society, from the bottom to the very top. Among them were people with features typical of sub-Saharan Africa and who would likely appear to us as black, but in their historical context, they were just Romans like everybody else.

If there were women like the Ivory Bangle Lady in York, the farthest Roman city from Africa, then people of black African descent cannot have been uncommon in the cosmopolitan cities of the Mediterranean. If they are not evident to us in the sources, it is in part because they were so commonplace and so thoroughly integrated into ancient Mediterranean culture that contemporary authors didn’t feel the need to mention them. People tend not to write about the ordinary. We know this well enough from modern social media: our Facebook friends and Twitter celebrities mostly post about the unusual things that happen to them, good or bad, not the everyday events of a typical day. The same principle applies, even more so, to ancient authors, given how much more costly and difficult it was to put their observations onto papyrus in ink than it is to fire off a tweet today.

Archaeology, especially with current developments in genetic research, may provide us with individual cases like the Ivory Bangle Lady, but most of the racial diversity of ancient populations will always be invisible to us because most graves don’t survive in good enough condition and the resources available for research are limited. But individual cases like late Roman York are a reminder that there was nothing the least bit unusual about people of many different backgrounds and—in modern terms—different races living side by side in antiquity.

Further reading

H. Cool, “An Overview of the Small Finds from Catterick,” in Cataractonium: Roman Catterick and its Hinterland ed. P. Wilson. York: Council for British Archaeology, 2002, 23-43

S. Leach et al., “A Lady of York: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain,” Antiquity 84, no. 323 (March, 2010): 131-45.

Patrick Ottaway, Roman York. Stroud: Tempus, 2004.

V. G. Swan, “Legio VI and its Men: African Legionaries in Briatin,” Roman Pottery Studies, 5 (1992): 1-33

R. Warwick, “The Skeletal Remains,” in The Romano-British Cemetery at Trentholme Drive, York, ed. Leslie P. Wenham. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1968, 113-76

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Modern artist’s reconstruction of the burial of the Ivory Bangle Lady, from Leach, “A Lady of York.”

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.

Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 2

Here we go, rewatching and rating season 2 of Murdoch Mysteries, the Canadian show about a scientifically-minded detective in Victorian Toronto.

  1. “Mild, Mild West” – 7.5
  2. “Snakes and Ladders” – 4
  3. “Dinosaur Fever” – 5.5
  4. “Houdini Whodunnit” – 4
  5. “The Green Muse” – 5
  6. “Shades of Grey” – 5
  7. “Big Murder on Campus” – 7.5
  8. “I, Murdoch” – 8
  9. “Convalescence” – 8
  10. “Murdoch.com” – 7
  11. “Let Us Ask the Maiden” – 6
  12. “Werewolves” – 6
  13. “Anything You Can Do…” – 7

Season 2 makes a strong showing with an average rating of 6.2, improving on season 1’s 5.3. While there are no truly outstanding episodes this season, there are none that really falter, either. Everything works pretty well. The characters continue to develop, building on the strengths of the first season, and this season offers further opportunities for Murdoch to tinker with technology that’s ahead of its time, for Dr. Ogden to assert herself in a man’s world, and for Constable Crabtree to pursue outlandish theories.

The lowest-rated episodes this season are a pair of 4s, “Snakes and Ladders,” about a serial killer who may be Jack the Ripper in Toronto, and “Houdini Whodunnit,” in which the titular magician is suspected of plotting a bank robbery. Neither of these episodes is really bad, but both suffer from some weaknesses. “Snakes and Ladders” turns us off because we’ve really lost interest in serial killer narratives, but it still works as an episode. “Houdini Whodunnit” has a clever heist for Murdoch to unravel, but is hampered by some uninspired guest performances, especially in the role of the great magician himself. Still, even these episodes have their moments.

The best of the season is a pair of 8s, “I, Murdoch,” in which a daring assassination in the streets of Toronto leads to an international conspiracy and an early attempt at robotics, and “Convalescence,” in which Detective Murdoch uncovers a daring plot while laid up in bed after a fall off a rooftop. Each of these episodes offers a great example of something Murdoch Mysteries does well: “I, Murdoch” gives us a steampunk-ish Victorian story of intrigue with a twist (and a clever nod to Marvel’s Iron Man franchise), while “Convalescence” lets us watch Murdoch think and tinker in a tale that is no less thrilling for being slow-paced.

This season throws a wrench into the budding romance between William Murdoch and Julia Ogden, as the devout Murdoch, who hopes to some day be a father, discovers that Dr. Ogden had an abortion when she was younger and now cannot have children. Unlike most such will-they-or-won’t-they narrative ploys, this one taps into real emotional issues and treats both characters with dignity and respect.

This season also adds some side characters to the series, some of whom we’ll see again and some we won’t. Dr. Ogden’s sister Ruby will pop up again now and then, though Detective Murdoch’s half brother Jasper Linney won’t. Physics student James Gillies makes his first appearance here, only to reappear a few times in later seasons.

Season 2 is a worthy continuation of season 1, and it prepares the way for more great adventures yet to come.

Image: Murdoch Mysteries main cast via IMDb

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

A Couple of My Favorite Sea Shanties

The nautical theme and music of Battle for Azeroth has put me in mind of sea shanties, traditional work songs used on large sailing vessels to coordinate sailors doing big jobs like hauling up the anchor or pumping out the bilge.

Shanties, like other work songs, tend to be rhythmic, repetitive, and easy to sing, which makes them great for singing in the car on long drives or while pottering around doing housework. As the songs of folks who had to live together in cramped quarters for months or years on end, they also often have a sly bit of humor to them to ease the tensions.

Here are a couple of personal favorites:

Roll the Old Chariot Along by The Fool via Jiří Šantora

Skipper Jan Rebeck by John Schomburg Shanty Man via John Locke

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

Puquios

Out in the deserts of the Nazca region of southern Peru there are spiral-shaped holes bored into the ground. These holes are connected to networks of underground channels that bring fresh water from subterranean aquifers into the arid landscape. The spiral holes help the system work by channeling wind into the tunnels, which increases pressure and forces the water to move to where it is needed. These water systems are called puquios.

It is not known just when the puquios were constructed. Textual sources from the early days of the Spanish conquest do not mention them, but neither is there any record of them having been built post-conquest. They seem to be related to indigenous settlements that date to the first millennium CE, and some samples of organic material from the construction have been dated to the 6th-7th c. CE. On balance, the evidence suggests that they were built by precolonial cultures.

Despite their age, many of the puquios are still functioning and delivering water to desert communities today. What an interesting alternative they make for something so fundamental as water systems!

Image: Spiral entrance to the puquios, photograph by Ab5602 via Wikimedia

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

Self-Help Law

“Self-help law” may sound like a book you would pick up to figure out how to make a will or file a lawsuit on your own, but it’s actually an important concept in history. Many societies in history have operated under a self-help legal system, especially small societies without developed governments, but even large, complex societies like the Roman Empire have operated under self-help law.

Most of us today live in legal systems that have mechanisms for enforcing legal judgments. If you take someone to court and win a judgment against them, you can rely on the police and courts to ensure that the judgment is fulfilled. Self-help legal systems don’t have those mechanisms. In a self-help system, you may take someone to court (or before a council of elders, or to a family tribunal, or whatever the system is) to get a judgment on who is legally in the right and what you are entitled to, but once the judgment is given it is up to you to carry it out. If the court decides that your neighbor owes you three bars of silver for cutting down your hedge, no one is going to come along and make them pay up. You have to go and get the silver from them yourself.

That may not sound like much of a legal system—if it all comes down to you having to barge into your neighbor’s house and grab their cash, it looks a lot like might making right. The difference, though, is that a self-help system requires you to get a legal judgment first. Once your neighbor cuts down your hedge, you can’t just bust in their door and take the silver. You have to present your case before a court (or council, or whatever the equivalent legal body is). You have to submit your grievance against your neighbor to someone who has the authority to represent the values of the community and judge how badly your neighbor has transgressed them. If you bust in and take the silver before going to court, that’s theft, and your neighbor has a case against you; if you do it after getting a judgment from the court, then you are executing justice and they have no case.

Self-help law accomplishes certain things that are useful in maintaining an orderly society. For one thing, it interrupts the cycle of vengeance by making people slow down, not act in the heat of anger but give wiser heads a chance to prevail. It offers a check on personal vendettas by submitting individual grievances to a neutral party. At the same time, though, it avoids burdening society with any kind of formal law enforcement, which could be a disruptive presence, especially in small-scale societies where disorder and crime are not everyday problems.

Self-help law also has its limitations. The obvious one is that some people are in a much better position to enforce their rights than others are. The rich and powerful have always been better able to wield the power of the law against the poor and humble, but under self-help law the weak often have very little real recourse against the strong. Another problem with self-help law is the tendency to escalate conflicts. Even with the intervention of a neutral party’s judgment, it’s hard for people to set aside their feelings of personal grievance. When your neighbor has cut down your hedge, even if you are legally entitled to go into their house and take three bars of sliver, it may be hard to resist urge to kick their dog and knock over their shelves while you do it, which just gives your neighbor a new legal claim against you. Self-help law may be described as a state of suspended violence, which carries within it the implicit threat of real violence breaking out.

A system of legal self-help also has broader social consequences. To be able to effectively carry out judgments (or resist people carrying out judgments against you), it’s useful to have a large network of friends and family you can rely on to stand up for you. Naturally, they’ll expect you to stand up for them in return. The bonds of friendship and family are more than sentimental in such a society; they can make the difference between living safe in your home and having your property under attack by your neighbors. They can also, on the other hand, drag you into conflicts that you had no part in beginning. As the old joke goes: “A friend will help you move; a good friend will help you move a body.” In a world of legal self-help, you might say: “A good friend will help you shove in your neighbor’s door and get the three silver bars that hedge-cutting menace owes you.”

Thoughts for writers

There is a lot of potential for drama in a self-help legal system. Modern law enforcement can sometimes create its own problems, but it also—by design—interrupts a lot of conflicts that would otherwise play out between individuals, families, and communities, sometimes violently. When you can’t just call the police on your annoying neighbors, interpersonal relationships evolve differently than we are used to today. A lot of stories from the past—the Mahabharata, the Iliad, Romeo and Juliet, etc.—have at their core the tensions that arise from the suspended violence and mutual obligations of a self-help society.

It is also important for us to understand that these tensions are real and have consequences. The conflicts that break out between feuding families or rival princes are not the result of overinflated egos but the consequence of living in a world where there is no one to guarantee your rights other than yourself and the friends and family you can count on to back you up.

Image: Balance scales, photograph by Mbiama via Wikimedia

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.

Battle for Azeroth: Our Thoughts So Far

The Battle for Azeroth expansion to World of Warcarft has been out for a couple of months now, long enough to play around with it, get used to its quirks, and discover some of its surprises. We have leveled up a few of our Alliance characters and just started playing through the Horde experience, so there are plenty of things we just haven’t seen yet, but here’s our take on what’s working, what isn’t, and what’s going on so far.

The Good

  • It’s beautiful. All of it. The landscapes, the buildings, the gear, the skies, everything is visually incredible. Since Mists of Pandaria, really, the visual design teams have been improving with every expansion, but in BfA the terrains really shine. We still spend so much of our playing time just pausing to look at the artwork.
  • The questline stories in the zones are great. We don’t usually read quest text too carefully, but this time it’s worth taking the time to see what the characters have to say. There are a lot of compelling and entertaining individual stories out in the world.
  • The Tortollans are the best new NPCs in a long time—crotchety old turtle people who want to play games and tell you stories! They add some wonderful comic relief to the more serious events going on in the world.
  • Boralus and Dazar’alor feel like real, living cities, full of people, with their own neighborhoods and back alleys and stories going on at the periphery of your adventure. Boralus is the quasi-British age-of-sail/smuggler/pirate town of your fantasy dreams, and Dazar’alor is a gorgeous Mesoamerican-inspired city of living gods and golden pyramids. They are both amazing places to spend time in and hands-down the most successful built environments we’ve seen in WoW so far.
  • The music is fabulous all-round. From epic and rousing to serene and unobtrusive, they all come with interesting real-world comparisons or sources of inspiration.
  • The number of female characters in the storytelling has increased noticeably, and women are depicted as active decision-makers. Because even though this is a fantasy world, a lot of it is based on our real one and you wouldn’t want to be historically inaccurate.
  • On the Alliance side, the combination of ferry stations and flight points is a great demonstration of world-internal logic at work, and it works really well from the UX (user experience) point of view. Do the Horde have anything similar?

WoW BfA Nazmir Azeroth World Q Nov 2018

The Meh

  • The mission table is back, stripped down and streamlined to just about the most efficient version you can imagine, but also feeling pretty pointless. There aren’t many followers to collect, the rewards are uninspiring, and getting War Resources to run the mission table is doable but tiresome. It doesn’t feel like compelling content, but it’s not a great drag, either.
  • The Heart of Azeroth is a similarly stripped down and streamlined version of the Artifact weapons from Legion. It works just fine, but it’s not very interesting. Leveling up the Heart of Azeroth with azerite is relatively painless, but there’s also nothing exciting about it.
  • The azerite gear tied to the Heart of Azeroth is a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s fun to pick bonus traits and some of the perks can really make a difference to how your character plays. On the other hand, the gear is hard to get and clunky to use. Having to wait an indeterminate amount of time to level up your Heart of Azeroth before your upgraded gear actually becomes an upgrade doesn’t feel good.
  • The two of us play together and we play strictly PvE. We’re not interested in doing larger group content or anything that even feels like PvP. This means that a lot of the new content this expansion—islands, warfronts, war mode—just isn’t for us. That’s fine, and we don’t mind there being content in the expansion that isn’t for us, but it does leave max-level content feeling a little threadbare.

The Bad

  • The faction conflict story is back. Again. There’s never been anything interesting about faction conflict and there’s still nothing interesting about it. Despite what Blizzard seems to think, “Horde vs. Alliance” is not the core of WoW. The core of WoW is beating up monsters and taking their stuff. We don’t need faction conflict to motivate us to go to Kul Tiras and Zandalar to beat up monsters and take their stuff. Just the fact there are monsters there who have stuff we can take is more than enough. If Blizzard really felt like they needed a story reason for us to go to these new places, having Jaina/the spirit of Vol’jin show up and say “Hey/Hey mon, there’s something strange in Kul Tiras/Zandalar and it don’t look good!” would be plenty.
  • Not only is Blizzard pushing hard on the faction conflict this time, they’ve chosen to do so in a heavy-handed, aggravating way. On both the Alliance and Horde sides, players have been made to play through content that is needlessly cruel but unskippable.
  • Fortunately, the actual content of Battle for Azeroth has very little to do with faction conflict, but that in itself is a problem. There are three narrative threads running through this expansion: the internal problems of Kul Tiras and the Zandalari, the Alliance vs. Horde faction conflict, and Magni’s attempts to heal the wounded Azeroth. None of these three threads is well integrated with the other two. While the Kul Tiras and Zandalari stores are compelling on their own, the faction conflict is annoying, and Magni’s planetary first aid is tedious and repetitive. It feels like Blizzard had three different ideas for this expansion, only had time to develop one, but tried to do all three anyway.
  • You can’t seem to be able to go beyond two advancements without doing at least some PvP group content (islands). Not a great design choice. (Corrected)
  • Did they have to destroy Teldrassil?

On balance, there’s a lot to like about Battle for Azeroth, and we’re certainly going to keep playing. At the same time, there are some annoying problems that are hard to ignore. Some people have speculated that Blizzard has an A team and a B team putting out expansions alternately. That may not be true, but there certainly are some aspects to BfA that remind of us of what went wrong back in Warlords of Draenor, when we got a beautiful new world to explore, but an overarching story best ignored and some poorly designed mechanics that dragged the experience down.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Race in Antiquity: Bad Answers, Part 2

“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 these 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 8: Bad Answers 2

Hard questions don’t have easy answers. Sometimes, the best way to get a good answer is to start with some bad answers and try to understand why they are bad. Today we look at a few bad answers that people have given about race in antiquity to see what we can learn from them.

When I call these answers “bad,” I don’t mean that there is nothing good in them or that the people who gave them were bad or foolish people. They are “bad” in the sense that they miss important facts or misunderstand the realities of the ancient world, but this is where most answers to most interesting questions start. The process of research, in almost any field, is a process of making our answers less bad through gathering more facts and thinking more carefully about them. We can’t do that effectively if we don’t have a place to start or if we don’t take a close look at our bad answers to understand how to make them better.

If you have spent any time reading about the question of race in the ancient Mediterranean, you have probably come across some version of these answers. I’m not linking to any particular sites because I don’t want anyone to feel called out or personally criticized. What’s important is that we learn from these bad answers in order to come up with better ones. In the last installation, we looked at some simple bad answers that were easy to move past. Today we look at couple of more complicated bad answers. These ideas take more work to explain and understand, but the reward of doing so is a fuller and deeper grasp of the problem.

Hair Color

Skin color is one of the primary markers of race in the modern West, but ancient authors and artists did not describe or depict skin color in ways that match up with modern racial categories. Knowing this, some historians have gone looking for other indicators of racial identity such as hair.

There are various descriptions of individuals and groups of people, both mythic and historical, in classical literature that mention hair color. The legendary hero Achilles, son of Peleus, for instance, is typically described as having fair hair.

[Athena] stood behind him and grasped the son of Peleus by his yellow hair,

visible to him alone

– Homer, Iliad 1.197-8

All translations my own

Although Greek word for colors do not always match up with our own, the word used to describe Achilles’ hair here, xanthos, generally refers to a yellowish color tending towards orange or red. It can be used to describe not just hair but gold, wine, even fried fish. However we might interpret this description of Achilles, it seems clear that the epics imagine him somewhere on the spectrum between blond and redhead.

The Roman emperor Commodus was described in a similar way, even with an explicit reference to gold:

He was a young man then, fine to look at, with a strong body and a face that was handsome without being boyishly pretty. His eyes were powerful and seemed to flash with lightning. His hair, reddish blond and naturally curled, seemed to gleam as if on fire when the sun struck it. Some were of the opinion that he scattered gold dust in his hair before going out, while others believed that he was bathed in a holy light.

Herodian, Roman History 1.7.5

Some people point to descriptions like these, as well as other references to people in the ancient Mediterranean having blond or red hair (or blue or green eyes), as evidence that the people of ancient Greece and Rome must therefore have been, in modern terms, white. That argument, though, will not stand.

We might first point out that some of these people never actually existed (like Achilles), and that for those who did (like Commodus), we have no independent way of verifying whether the accounts are accurate or not, but this is not the real problem. Achilles may not have been a living person, but it seems clear that the oral tradition about him intended the audience to understand him as being fair haired. Herodian’s description of Commodus may be exaggerated (with the lightning eyes and the holy light in the hair), but he was clearly writing to an audience that was prepared to accept the idea of a blond Roman.

We can also point out that hair color is not a perfect proxy for race. Yellow-red hair and pale skin do often go together, but it is perfectly possible to have either one without the other. Still, statistically speaking, any human population with a significant number of blonds in it is almost certain to also have a significant number of people in it we would call white. The problems with the hair argument are deeper.

Imagine, if you will, that some future student asks some future historian: “What race were the people of the United States in the twentieth century?”

And the future historian answers: “Well, Marilyn Monroe was blonde, and the Marvel character Natasha Romanoff was a redhead, so that means Americans were white.”

We can all recognize what’s wrong with that answer. Knowing the racial identities of a few real and/or made up people tells us almost nothing about the racial makeup of the larger societies they existed within. The number of people from antiquity whose hair color (or other physical features) we know about is vanishingly small, and the individuals in question are far from a representative sample.

The contention that a few blonds here and there in classical literature tells us anything meaningful about race in the Greek and Roman world assumes that there can only be one answer, that Greeks and Romans had a single, coherent racial identity which allowed for no change or variation. We don’t have to scour ancient sources for references to hair color to know that this was far from true.

Cleopatra

You knew we’d get here eventually, didn’t you? Of all individual people in antiquity, no one’s racial identity has been more fiercely debated than that of Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt.

Some people argue that Cleopatra should be identified as black. Sometimes this argument is made on very thin premises. (Cleopatra was queen of Egypt, which is on the continent of Africa, but that is not the same as being ethnically Egyptian, nor is being Egyptian necessarily the same as being black. Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra refers to her skin as dark, but Shakespeare lived a millennium and a half after Cleopatra and had no first-hand knowledge of her appearance.) But there are more serious arguments about Cleopatra’s race that require more serious engagement.

Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, descendants of the Macedonian general Ptolemy, who ruled Egypt for three centuries after the empire of Alexander the Great broke up on his death. The Ptolemies prized the purity of their bloodline and frequently intermarried among different branches of the family line, sometimes even between brother and sister. As a royal dynasty whose claim to power depended on descent, the Ptolemy family preserved lots of information about their ancestral line. We know more about Cleopatra’s family tree than almost anyone else in the ancient Mediterranean, but the fact is that this information only covers about three fourths of her ancestry. Despite the careful record-keeping of the Ptolemies in general, Cleopatra’s mother is poorly documented, and we know nothing at all about her maternal grandmother.

Some have argued that the lack of information about Cleopatra’s grandmother is itself significant, that it reflects the family’s attempt to bury evidence of a marriage (or non-marital relationship) that was outside the norm for Ptolemaic kings, who resided among a mostly Greco-Macedonian court in Alexandria. They argue that the mystery woman must therefore have been an Egyptian. Advocates of this position further argue that Greek, Roman, and other European authors whitewashed Cleopatra, removing any reference to her African heritage in order to claim such a symbol of beauty and power for white Europe.

This argument is a nuanced one that draws on real and substantial knowledge not only of the Ptolemies but of the sordid history of modern Western scholarship, which has often embraced racist and white supremacist interpretations of history, erasing or ignoring the lives of non-white peoples and individuals. It is an argument that some people of color today understandably find empowering and satisfying: it must feel good to “reclaim” one of the most widely-recognized names in history. Still, it is an argument that ultimately rests on the same faulty premises and flawed reasoning as the other bad answers we have looked at.

To begin with, we cannot assume that Cleopatra’s grandmother was Egyptian. “Unknown” simply means “unknown.” Most of the women at or in the orbit of the Ptolemaic court were ethnically Greek or Macedonian. Few Egyptians even lived in Alexandria, which was considered separate from Egypt, not a part of it. There were, however, substantial Jewish, Persian, and Syrian populations in the city, whose elite members had a better chance at finding their way into the royal court than most Egyptians did. It is not impossible that a member of the royal family could have had a relationship with an Egyptian woman, but the odds of any given unidentified woman in the Ptolemaic court being Egyptian are very long.

Even if Cleopatra’s grandmother was Egyptian, Egyptian is not the same as black. Certainly no ancient Egyptian would have described themselves that way, but even if we approach ancient Egypt in the terms of modern racial categories—what would we call them if we saw them passing by on the street today?—this simple equation will not stand. The ancient population of Egypt was complex. Genetic evidence reveals a core population most closely tied to other North African peoples of the Mediterranean coastal zone, but also with traces of long-term immigration from both southwestern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Artworks and literary sources suggest that Egyptian skin tones could range from very dark brown to very light tan. Certainly there were some ancient Egyptians who, if they appeared before us today, we would describe as black, but there were many more we would not.

It is not impossible that Cleopatra’s grandmother was Egyptian. If she was, it is also not impossible that she had sub-Saharan ancestry and dark skin. Literary evidence suggests that one early Ptolemaic king had taken an Egyptian woman as a mistress, known as Didyme, who may have been dark-skinned, so there would be historical precedent for such a relationship. (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 13.37 = 576e-f; Asclepiades, in the Palatine Anthology 5.210) It may be more significant, however, to note that although the Ptolemaic family ruled Egypt for some three hundred years, Didyme is the only Egyptian woman we know of who was involved with a member of the family. All of this is very tenuous grounds for making claims about Cleopatra’s race.

Was Cleopatra whitewashed by Greek and Roman authors who wanted to claim her for “their” people? Quite the opposite. Cleopatra was embroiled in the last stage of the long-running Roman civil war as a supporter of Mark Anthony against Octavian, the future emperor Augustus. Octavian’s propaganda strategy depended on convincing the Roman people that the civil war was over. He therefore portrayed his struggle against Antonius not as the last gasp of that conflict but as the glorious Roman conquest of Egypt. Anything that made Cleopatra appear as an exotic foreign potentate was perfectly suited to his needs. Although the Roman sources do their best to exoticize Cleopatra, none of them makes any remarks on her skin color or ancestry.

Here is how the Roman poet Vergil pictured Cleopatra leading her ships in the naval battle of Actium:

In the midst, the queen shakes her native sistrum and calls her people to fight,

not seeing the twin snakes coming behind her.

Her monstrous, feral god, the barking Anubis,

shakes his spear against Neptune, Venus,

and Minerva

– Vergil, Aeneid 8.696-701

And here is the poet Horace on the same theme:

… the insane queen schemed

to bring death and ruin

to the Capitol and our state

with her foul throng of thugs,

drunk with vain hopes

of sweet victory.

– Horace, Odes 1.37.6-12

The images invoked against Cleopatra were of drunkenness, luxury, and the (from a Roman point of view) strangeness of Egyptian religion, but not her appearance or ancestry. Roman political invective could make hay out of even the most trivial personal quirks; if the smear campaign against Cleopatra said nothing about her ethnicity, that must mean there was nothing about it that a Roman audience would have found unusual.

Assumed whiteness

As different as the arguments are, both the attempt to classify Greeks and Romans by their hair color and the assertion of a “black” Cleopatra fall victim to the same problem: they both accept the fundamental assumption of an all-white ancient Mediterranean. The hair argument assumes that the ancient Greeks and Romans were racially uniform, and that if we identify a few of them, the same answer must apply to the rest. The case for Cleopatra’s black grandmother similarly assumes that the ancient Mediterranean was so blindingly white that our only way of finding any possible exceptions is to clutch at scraps and plead that “it’s not entirely impossible” can be turned into “it must be so.”

Both of these approaches, intentionally or not, buy into racist claims about a pure white ancient Mediterranean. They only make sense within the parameters set by that assumption. Achilles’ blond hair only seems useful as a measure of ethnic identity if we already assume that the ancient Greeks were uniformly white. The gaps in Cleopatra’s family tree only appear tantalizing if we buy into the notion that people of color in the ancient Mediterranean were a rare and scandalous secret to be covered up. Without the assumption of whiteness, neither of these cases is particularly interesting or useful at all.

The mistakes of the past can be hard to overcome, even when we are actively trying to challenge them. Sometimes that hardest thing to do when looking for new answers to old questions is to see the weaknesses in the questions themselves.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Mosaic of Achilles having his first bath, photograph by Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia (“House of Theseus”, Paphos; 2nd c. CE; mosaic)

Post edited for spelling

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.

Rating: Murdoch Mysteries, Season 1

Our next series up for rewatching and rating is Murdoch Mysteries, a Canadian show about a scientifically-minded detective at the turn of the twentieth century. This show combines the spirit of Sherlock Holmes with a touch of steampunk as Detective Murdoch loves to tinker and invents everything from the lie detector to internet catfishing in the service of Victorian crimefighting. Here’s our take on the first season:

  1. “Power” – 6
  2. “The Glass Ceiling” – 4
  3. “The Knockdown” – 6
  4. “Elementary, My Dear Murdoch” – 4
  5. “Till Death Do Us Part” – 5.5
  6. “Let Loose the Dogs” – 4.5
  7. “Body Double” – 5.5
  8. “Still Waters” – 6
  9. “Belly Speaker” – 2
  10. “Child’s Play” – 5.5
  11. “Bad Medicine” – 5.5
  12. “The Rebel and the Prince” – 4.5
  13. “The Annoying Red Planet” – 10

Murdoch Mysteries gets off to a good start with an average rating of 5.3, modest but respectable. It takes the series a while to warm up as the actors find their roles, but by the end of the season our favorites are all on the screen: the thoughtful, soft-spoken Detective Murdoch; the erudite, self-assured medical examiner Dr. Ogden; the pugnacious Inspector Brackenreid; and the whimsical but good-hearted Constable Crabtree. This season mostly plays as a fairly standard police show, just set a century ago, but by the end of the season you can see the team starting to have fun with the series’ trademark of transposing modern ideas into a Victorian setting, suitably adapted to the society and technology of the time.

Most of this season’s episodes are solidly in the middle range from 4 to 6, competent but not always inspired, but there are two outliers, one in each direction. The lowest-rated episode is “Belly Speaker,” a 2, about a mentally disturbed ventriloquist who seems to be confessing to murder through his dummy. This episode was probably meant to be a tense psychological thriller that keeps the audience guessing, but it’s just a one-trick pony. One-trick ponies can be entertaining if the trick is good enough, but this one’s trick is a puppet with a bad attitude and a super annoying voice. It’s not enough.

On the other hand, the season goes out with a bang in “The Annoying Red Planet,” at a full 10, in which a dead body mysteriously lodged in a tree leads to fears of alien visitation and an international conspiracy. This episode deftly weaves together contemporary speculations about life on Mars and phantom airships with the tropes of modern political thrillers and UFO narratives. It also introduces one the series’ most delightful recurring characters in the mysterious man in (a) black (top hat), Terrence Myers.

It’s a good start to Murdoch Mysteries, showing the series’ potential while also leaving room to grow.

Are you a Murdoch fan? Got a take of your own on season 1? Let us know!

Image: Murdoch Mysteries main cast via IMDb

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