History for Writers Compendium: 2018

History for Writers explores world history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s where we’ve been in 2018:

Thinking historically and mythically

Daily life

Crossing cultures

Women in the ancient world

Conflict and resolution

Race in Antiquity

Join us in 2019 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

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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Joy to the World (of Warcraft) 1

Alunaria, over at Alunaria’s Avenue, has proposed a holiday challenge: stay away from the griping, grousing, and general grinchiness about World of Warcraft that’s all to easy to find these days and post something positive instead. We’re always up for some kindness and fun, so here’s a contribution from us: some holiday-themed transmogs to light up the winter darkness.

When you can already turn into a stag, a little Christmas spirit isn’t hard to find. Here’s my guardian druid in her Jolly Holly set.

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

Tali for Saturnalia

The ancient Romans celebrated the holiday of Saturnalia on this day, the 17th of December. (At least in early Roman history it was a one-day holiday; later, it was extended so that it started on the 17th and lasted through the 23rd.) Saturnalia was a festival of good cheer and relaxed social strictures, thought of as recreating a lost golden age ruled over by the god Saturn. Typical practices included feasting, gift-giving, and a holiday from the usual social rules: children got to order their parents around while adults played children’s games; the masters of the household served a feast to their slaves; and gambling, which was a popular passtime but not usually allowed in public, was freely tolerated.

Romans played many different gambling games, but some of the most popular involved dice. One common game, known as tali, was played either with the knucklebones of sheep or goats (called astragals) or with cubical six-sided dice marked with the numbers 1 through 6, like modern dice. Astragals had four sides. For gaming purposes, it seems they were assigned values of 1, 3, 4, and 6. When playing with six-sided dice, only those numbers were used; 2 and 5 were ignored.

The rules of tali are not entirely understood today. Probably there were many different variations with different rules, and all of them were so common that no one bothered to write down instructions for how to play. Here is a playable modern interpretation based on what we can gather from literary references and artistic depictions.

All you need for any version of the game is four six-sided dice and something to bet with (coins, poker chips, chocolates—whatever you like), although a pencil and piece of paper for each player to record their throws can also be useful.

Simple Tali

Each player pays an ante into the pot.

Each player then rolls four dice, either their own set or taking turns with a common set.

Each player’s roll is then scored, and the winner takes the pot. If no one wins a round, everyone rolls again. If two or more players tie, only those players roll again until someone wins.

Dice rolls are scored according to the following system in which “hands” of dice are ranked, much like hands of cards in the modern game of poker.

  • 6,4,3,1 – called Venus, the best roll, always wins.
  • Rolls that include at least one 6 (apart from 6,6,6,6, which is a Vultures—see below) are called Senio and are scored by totaling the numbers shown (excluding the numbers 2 and 5, which are not counted). Any Senio always beats a Vultures or a roll that includes no 6.
  • Rolls that show four of the same number, called Vultures, score at the bottom of the heap, but will win over other 6-less rolls.
    • 6,6,6,6 – called Vultures, beats only a lower Vultures, The Dog, or a roll without a 6.
    • 4,4,4,4 – called Vultures, beats only a lower Vultures, The Dog, or a roll without a 6.
    • 3,3,3,3 – called Vultures, beats only The Dog, or a roll without a 6.
    • 1,1,1,1 – called Vultures or The Dog, beats only a roll without a 6.
  • Any roll that has no 6 (except a Vultures) always loses.

Here’s how a sample round might play:

  • A rolls 6,1,1,1 – a Senio worth 9
  • B rolls 6,5,3,1 – a Senio worth 10 (because the 5 is not counted)
  • C rolls 3,3,3,3 – a Vultures
  • D rolls 4,4,4,3 – a losing roll

B wins this game with a Senio of 10. Even though D’s roll totals higher, it has no 6, and therefore automatically loses.

Tali variations

The version of tali described above is perfectly playable, but it’s a simple game of chance with no real strategy. Here are a few ways you can make it more interesting. (All these variations use the same scoring system described above.)

Liars’ tali

Each player rolls their dice in secret and hides the total (or, if using a common set of dice, records their roll in secret). After an initial bet, players raise, call, or fold in turn, as in poker, until everyone calls or folds. The players still in the game then reveal their rolls and the winner takes the pot.

Draw tali

Each player rolls their own dice (this variation is difficult to manage with common dice). Any player may then ante into the pot again for the chance to reroll a die. Repeat either for a limited number of rerolls or until everyone passes. The player with the best roll on the table wins the pot.

Stud tali

Each player rolls one die and either keeps it (if using individual dice) or records it (if using common dice). After all players have rolled once, each one either antes into the pot or folds. Repeat three more times until all players have rolled a full four dice. The player with the highest roll among those still in the game takes the pot.

Happy Saturnalia!

Image: Roman dice, photograph by Wendy Scott via Portable Antiquities Scheme (Leicestershire; 1-410 CE; lead)

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 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.

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

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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

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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.