A Busy Paeonian Woman

The Greek historian Herodotus tells a story about how the Persians were induced to conquer the Paeonians, a people of the southern Balkans. Like many of Herodotus’ stories, this one is probably more folklore than fact, but it’s a story with a point.

The story takes place while the Persian king Darius was campaigning in the Aegean from his base in the Lydian city of Sardis. A couple of ambitious Paeonian aristocrats figured that if they could convince Darius to conquer Paeonia, they could set themselves up as his local representatives and rule the Paeonians in his name. Here’s how they went about piquing Darius’ interest:

After Darius had crossed over to Asia, two Paeonians by the names of Pigres and Mantyes came to Sardis along with their tall and beautiful sister. They wanted to make themselves tyrants over the Paeonians, and when they had observed Darius sitting outside the town of the Lydians to hold his court, they went about it like this: they dressed their sister up in her best and sent her to fetch water carrying a pitcher on her head while leading a horse by her shoulder and spinning flax. Went she went by, the sight of her caught Darius’ interest, since no Persian or Lydian woman did what she did, indeed no woman of Asia at all did. He was so intrigued that he sent some of his guards to keep an eye on the woman and see what she did with the horse. They reported what they had seen: when she reached the river, she watered the horse, filled the pitcher up to the top with water, and went back again by the same route, carrying the water on her head, leading the horse by her shoulder, and turning her spindle.

– Herodotus, Histories 5.12

(My own translation)

Darius falls for the trick and is convinced that such amazingly hardworking people should be added to his empire.

There are some things to notice about this story. One is some rather complicated gender politics. On one hand, you could hardly find a more literal example of men exploiting the hard work of women for their own gain. On the other hand, it’s interesting that the Paeonian brothers thought that the best way to impress the Persian king was not with the bravery or endurance of Paeonian men but with the diligence and skill of Paeonian women. The fact that it worked implies that Darius both appreciated how difficult a task it was to do three things at once—fetch water, manage a horse, and spin flax—and saw such skill as a good addition to his empire. Herodotus’ story is likely fictional, but it may suggest some Greek awareness of how highly women’s labor was valued in Persia.

To look at it from a different point of view, however, we have to remember that the whole thing was a con, and Darius was the dupe who fell for it. Ordinary Paeonian women weren’t going around carrying jugs, watering horses, and spinning all at the same time while looking their best, and Darius was a fool for thinking they did. That’s something for all of us to remember in these days of social media and the fetishization of busy-ness. We are all like Darius, seated outside the city walls watching carefully curated false images of people doing impossible amounts of work and looking fabulous doing it. And, just like Darius, we’ll all be better off it we recognize it for the lie that it is.

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

Well-Dressed Immortals

Very few works of art survived from ancient times with color intact, which can make it hard to imagine just how richly colorful the world may have been in the past. So we’re fortunate to have this frieze of Persian soldiers in glazed brick survive with so much visible color, especially the richly patterned details of their robes. These soldiers, depicted on the Persian kings’ palace at Susa, probably represent the professional core of the Persian army, popularly known as the Immortals.

The brightly patterned robes these soldiers wear may be a ceremonial dress more suited to putting on a display at court than to campaigning on the wild frontiers of the empire, but it is interesting to note that the Greek historian Herodotus makes special mention of the clothing of Persian soldiers when praising the bravery of the Athenian and Plataean soldiers who faced them at Marathon:

These were the first Greeks we know of to charge into battle, and also the first to look on men in Persian clothing unshaken, for up to this time even hearing the name of the Persians had struck the Greeks with terror.

– Herodotus, Histories 6.112

(My own translation)

The Persians were well aware of the use of spectacle for political purposes. It may well be that Persian soldiers dressed to impress when on campaign as well in order to intimidate their opponents, for much the same reasons that the British army of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries loved to put their bright red coats on display in formation.

Image: Immortals relief from the palace at Susa, photograph by mshamma via Wikimedia (currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 5th c. BCE; glazed brick)

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

A Roman Boat Trip to Nowhere

Most of us aren’t doing a lot of traveling these days, what with the pandemic restrictions. Some people are missing the travel experience so much they’re paying for flights to nowhere, but it’s good to be reminded that travel can also be a real pain—uncomfortable accommodations, bad food, rude fellow passengers, awkward schedules, and the like.

Travel could be just as difficult in the past, too. Here’s the Roman poet Horace’s description of an unintentional canal boat trip to nowhere to remind you of what you’re (not) missing.

[…] An hour went by in taking fares
and hitching up the mule. The vile marsh midges and frogs
kept sleep at bay; all the while a boatman, sloshed on cheap wine,
competed with a passenger in crooning to absent
girlfriends. At last, worn out, the passenger went to sleep
and the lazy boatman hitched the mule to a rock
to graze, then flopped down and snored.
When morning dawned we realized the old tub
wasn’t moving, not until some hothead jumped up and gave
the mule and boatman both a good thrashing about the head and hindquarters
with a willow switch. […]

– Horace, Satires 1.5.13-23

(My own translation)

Enjoy the pleasures of just staying home!

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

Matrilineality

Most traditional societies around the world have been patrilineal: power and property are passed down the male line of succession, usually from father to son, sometimes from grandfather to grandson, only on rare occasions to other relatives such as nephews, brothers, or cousins who share a common male ancestor. Some societies, however, have been matrilineal, where lines of succession are defined by descent from a common female ancestor. In these societies, power and property typically pass from brother to brother or uncle to nephew, only rarely from father to son.

Matrilineality should not be mistaken for matriarchy. Matrilineal cultures are often just as patriarchal as patrilineal ones are. Matrilineality is not a matter of women having power or being more important in society than men; it’s just a different way of determining which man is important and powerful.

Matrilineal succession can seem confusing and hard to follow for those of us who are used to the rules of patrilineality, but the principle is straightforward: to identify the next in line, find the nearest male relative who can trace their descent through their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc. to a common female ancestor with the current holder of the property or position in question. The nearest would be a brother by the same mother. Next nearest would be a nephew whose mother was the current person’s sister by the same mother.

Here’s an example. Consider this extended family.

In a patrilineal society, here’s how property and power would pass down from the eldest son of the original couple to his son and grandson.

In a matrilineal society, the line of succession from the same eldest son would go first to his brother, then to a nephew, then another nephew, then his brother.

Matrilineal succession has advantages for certain kinds of societies under certain circumstances. For one thing, it spreads power and property out among the family lines of a clan or extended kin group, rather than letting one line have a monopoly. It can also create incentives for skilled and ambitious men to marry into the family—if we image the example above tracing the lines of succession for a kingdom, the men who marry into the family will never be king themselves, but their sons and grandsons might be. Another advantage to matrilineality is it multiplies the number of legitimate heirs within any given generation, which can be helpful in times of crisis when a man might die leaving no sons of age to take over his position.

For these reasons, matrilineal patterns of succession often appear in societies that need to encourage cohesion and cooperation among different families in the face of a dangerous world.

Thoughts for writers

Lots of good stories involve questions of succession, whether its the return of a lost heir to claim their rightful inheritance, a struggle for power among rival families, or the mysterious death of a rich old miser. If you’re in the mood to write that kind of story, it’s worth thinking about the rules of succession in your world and what consequences they might have for your characters. Even if a matrilineal society isn’t in the cards, it’s good to remember that not everything has to go from father to eldest son.

Charts by Erik Jensen

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

Rating: Deep Space Nine, Season 4

Season 4 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has some great episodes and some fairly bad misfires. The Klingons, having been quiet for years, are suddenly feeling aggressive again, and our favorite Klingon, Worf, joins the station crew to help them deal with the consequences. This story fuels a good part of the season, but there’s plenty more to see, too. Here’s our take:

  1. “The Way of the Warrior” – 7
  2. “The Visitor” – 9
  3. “Hippocratic Oath” – 5.5
  4. “Indiscretion” – 5.5
  5. “Rejoined” – 8
  6. “Starship Down” – 8
  7. “Little Green Men” – 8
  8. “The Sword of Kahless” – 1.5
  9. “Our Man Bashir” – 10
  10. “Homefront” – 3
  11. “Paradise Lost” – 5
  12. “Crossfire” – 2
  13. “Return to Grace” – 4
  14. “Sons of Mogh” – 1
  15. “Bar Association” – 7
  16. “Accession” – 2
  17. “Rules of Engagement” – 2
  18. “Hard Time” – 2
  19. “Shattered Mirror” – 3.5
  20. “The Muse” – 2
  21. “For the Cause” – 4
  22. “To the Death” – 6
  23. “The Quickening” – 4.5
  24. “Body Parts” – 6
  25. “Broken Link” – 4

The average rating this season is 4.9, the same as in season 3, but season 4 gets there a different way. Where season 3’s episodes were mostly in the weak-average to average-good range, season 4 sends its episodes to the far ends of the scale. Only a handful fall in the 4-6 okay-but-not-great range; most are either well above or well below.

The distribution of ratings shows a certain level of confidence by the writers this season. You can tell that they felt comfortable enough with the characters and the setting at this point that they were ready to try new ideas, even really weird ones. What if we spent an episode in the holosuite playing a James Bond pastiche? What if we met a suicidal Klingon? What if Quark, Rom, and Nog were the Roswell aliens? What if there were a conspiracy to stage a military coup on Earth?

Some of these ideas really flop, like “Sons of Mogh,” scoring only a 1, in which Worf has to deal with his brother Kurn, who is depressed about the loss of status their family has suffered in the empire. The story presents the kind of ethical dilemma Star Trek specializes in—suicide is an honorable end for a Klingon with no hope, but it is unacceptable for a Starfleet officer like Worf—but never goes anywhere interesting with it. The episode boils down to Kurn standing on one side of Worf shouting “Kill me!” and the rest of the station crew on the other shouting “Don’t!” There’s nowhere interesting for this story to go.

On the other hand, some of these ideas pay off brilliantly, like “Our Man Bashir,” a full 10, which finds Dr. Bashir and Garak playing a swinging-sixties spy game in the holosuite for much higher stakes than they expected. DS9 largely avoids the Next Generation shtick of having the holodeck go haywire so the crew can have an adventure in period garb, but this episode figures out a way to make the holosuite matter: after a transporter accident, the main station crew’s physical patterns are stored on the holosuite until they can be rescued, but if the game shuts down they could be lost forever. This set-up gives us several delightful results: Bashir, the doctor playing spy, and Garak, the spy playing tailor, take their witty repartee to new heights in this episode, while some of the other regular cast get to go full ham in their holosutie roles—Nana Visitor as a sultry Russian agent and Avery Brooks as an omnicidal mad scientist steal every scene they’re in.

The rest of this season largely follows suit. Some ideas, like sending Worf and Dax on a quest for a lost Klingon artifact in “The Sword of Kahless”, just sputter and die. Others yield fantastic episodes, like “Little Green Men,” a hilarious romp through pulp sci-fi tropes, or “The Visitor,” a touching meditation on the power of love and memory.

While the Klingon war story at times just feels like a holding action while waiting for the Dominion to make its move, it also gives the series some new avenues to explore. This season does a lot of interesting work by overturning the status quo and seeing what happens to familiar characters in unfamiliar situations. Worf, Quark, Odo, and Dukat all find themselves cut off from their people in different ways; Sisko faces the possibility of treason within Starfleet; Dax has to grapple with the legacy of her past lives in ways she has not faced before; and Rom and Nog start new lives outside the traditional bounds of Ferengi culture.

Season 4 has a lot going for it, even if not every idea works. There’s a lot here that’s well worth coming back to.

Image: Bashir and Garak all tuxed up from “Our Man Bashir” via IMDb

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

History for Writers Compendium: 2020

History for Writers explores 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 what we’ve been talking about in 2020:

Thinking historically

Thinking mythically

Imagining other places

Living other lives

Writing other worlds

People in the past

Join us in 2021 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.

Rating: Deep Space Nine, Season 3

We’re back with season 3 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and things are starting to look up as the series moves further toward developing its characters and its longer-term plots. Here’s our episode ratings:

  1. “The Search, Part I” – 4
  2. “The Search, Part II” – 5.5
  3. “The House of Quark” – 8
  4. “Equilibrium” – 4.5
  5. “Second Skin” – 5.5
  6. “The Abandoned” – 2
  7. “Civil Defense” – 6.5
  8. “Meridian” – 3.5
  9. “Defiant” – 4.5
  10. “Fascination” – 4.5
  11. “Past Tense, Part I” – 3
  12. “Past Tense, Part II” – 3
  13. “Life Support” – 4
  14. “Heart of Stone” – 7
  15. “Destiny” – 6
  16. “Prophet Motive” – 6.5
  17. “Visionary” – 6
  18. “Distant Voices” – 3.5
  19. “Through the Looking Glass” – 4
  20. “Improbable Cause” – 6
  21. “The Die is Cast” – 5
  22. “Explorers” – 6
  23. “Family Business” – 5
  24. “Shakaar” – 4
  25. “Facets” – 5
  26. “The Adversary” – 4.5

The average rating for this season is 4.9, a good step up from last season’s 3.9. There are few particularly good episodes this season, but also few particularly bad ones. Most sit comfortably in the okay-but-not-great 4 to 6 range.

You can tell that both the writers and the actors are more at ease with the characters and ready to push them in interesting directions. This season Kira has to reckon with the consequences of her violent past as a freedom fighter, Jake takes his first faltering steps as an adult, while Sisko the elder gets a promotion to captain, a new ship, and a handsome bald head. Even minor characters such as Nog, Garak, and Kai Winn experience substantial changes. No one faces as much of a challenge this season, though, as Odo, who discovers his people only to learn the horrible truth about them.

Our lowest rating this season goes to “The Abandoned,” at 2, in which Odo tries to show a young Jem’Hadar an alternative to violence. Despite a strong performance by Rene Auberjonois, this episode falls flat. There is little development and no payoff in this story. Other episodes do a much better job of both exploring the Jem’Hadar and showing us how Odo deals with the atrocities committed by the Founders. It also hews uncomfortably close to the racist 90s discourse of “superpredators.”

At the other end, we have the delightful “House of Quark,” at 8, as our highest-rated episode. This episode is a violent but entertaining comedy of manners as the bloody, honor-bound world of Klingon dynastic politics collides with the cowardly but cunning financial chicanery of the Ferengi. Armin Shimerman and guest star Mary Kay Adams play marvelously off one another as the lovable Ferengi rogue Quark and the imperious Klingon grande dame Grilka, while Robert O’Reilly, who plays the normally intense and calculating Chancellor Gowron gets to do a bit of slapstick comedy. Also worth noting is “Heart of Stone,” at 7, in which Odo confesses his love to what he thinks is a dying Kira, and Nog seeks Sisko’s support for joining Starfleet Academy; both stories give us some excellent acting and interesting character development.

This season sees some significant shifts toward the long-term storytelling that would define DS9‘s later seasons. Although most episodes remain standalone (or self-contained two-parters), many of them bring important changes to characters or plotlines which are picked up by later episodes. The politics of both Bajor and Cardassia, as well as the relationship between them, see major upheavals this season, while the threat of the Dominion becomes more sharply defined and its relationship with the Alpha Quadrant more complicated.

Got any favorites of your own from season 3? Let us know!

Image: Grilka and Quark in a marriage of (in)convenience, from “House of Quark” via IMDb

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

Good Health with Telesphorus

With Covid-19 still largely unchecked and the winter flu season closing in on us (in the northern part of the world at least), health and illness are on a lot of our minds. So here’s a votive statuette of an ancient Greek god of health, Telesphorus.

Telesphorus represents an interesting combination of influences from several different cultures. Mythology describes him as a son of the Greek healing god Asclepius specifically concerned with recovery from disease or injury. In art he was often shown as a short, squat man similar to some earth-related deities from Phrygia in inland Anatolia wearing a type of hooded cloak typically associated with Gauls. This version, found in France and carved at some time when the Roman Empire ruled the region, has heavily outlined eyes, a triangular nose, and straight bands of hair, all of which are characteristic of Gaulish and British art. Somehow, this seems an appropriate image for a season in which we face a worldwide pandemic.

We wish you all good health in the times ahead.

Image: Telesphorus statuette, photograph by Millevahce via Wikimedia (found Moulézan, currently Musée Archéologique de Nîmes; Roman period; limestone)

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

Evidence for Donkey Polo in Ancient China

An interesting archaeological find was reported earlier this year from western China where the excavation of a noblewoman’s grave has provided evidence for the use of donkeys for games of polo by elite women in the Tang dynasty.

The sport of polo was popular among the Chinese aristocracy in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Literary sources document that women played as well as men, and that, even though donkeys were typically associated with low social status as pack and farm animals, they were also favored by the elite for playing polo. The excavation of the tomb of a Tang noblewoman, Cui Shi, for the first time offers archaeological evidence to support the written accounts.

Although polo has traditionally been played on horseback, the authors of this study, led by archaeologist Songmei Hu, mention that donkeys may sometimes have been preferred because their natural response to stress and danger, something a polo match would frequently present, is different. While horses, as herd animals, have developed a sensitivity to commotion among nearby animals and tend to respond by fleeing, donkeys, with a more solitary history, are less perturbed by the kinds of chaos that a polo field might present.

The authors identified the remains of at least three donkeys in Cui Shi’s tomb. For animals more traditionally connected with the peasantry than the elite, this was an unusual find for the grave of a woman whose family moved in the higher circles of the imperial aristocracy. But the family’s status was also connected to polo: written sources document that Cui Shi’s husband, Bao Gao, was promoted by the emperor to the rank of general on the strength of his skill in the sport. The bones of the donkeys themselves also show signs that they may have been used for playing polo, as they show patterns of growth reflecting strong and sudden stresses, such as animals suddenly starting, stopping, and changing direction on the polo field would experience, rather than those typical of animals used for carrying burdens or pulling carts.

This find is both an example of how archaeological and literary evidence can support one another and a view into the lives of elite women in ancient China who weren’t content to let the men have all the fun of donkey polo!

Image: Tang dynasty polo players via Wikimedia (tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, Qianling Mausoleum, Xi’an; 706 CE; wall painting)

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