Slavery Was Always Wrong

Slavery was integral to the societies and economies of the ancient Mediterranean, so much so that discussing almost any topic in ancient history will end up touching on it at some point, and as historians we do not always take the time to address slavery as an institution in itself. The practice of slavery in Greece and Rome also differed from the modern American version in significant ways, which we often have to explain. The combination of these facts can sometimes leave the impression ancient slavery was in some way less wrong than modern slavery.

So this is me as an ancient historian taking the time to say: it was not. Slavery is, was, and has always been wrong.

The practice of slavery—that is, treating some people as possessions who have no rights to autonomy or claims to humanity and who can be exploited for labor without their consent and without compensation—is common across many cultures in history. Almost every pre-modern society (and many societies in the modern period) complex enough to have a division of labor had some mechanism for forcing a particular class of people to labor against their will. In many cases, this class of people came from outside that society or were the descendants of people who had, but local people could be among the exploited as well. Cultures that did not practice slavery have existed in history, but they are rarities. Just as different cultures in history varied widely in their ways of life, they also varied in how they practiced slavery, but inherent in all slave systems is the violence—whether actual or implicit—that comes of treating people as things.

In all slave societies, those who benefited from the exploitation of others generally found ways of justifying the practice. The voices of the rich and powerful dominate the historical record, especially as we look farther back in time. The voices of enslaved people themselves are often missing from the sources (at least until more recent centuries), and we should not suppose that they shared the opinions of the people who were exploiting them. If our image of ancient slavery is not one of violence and horror, that tells us more about whose stories we are hearing than about the actual experience of slavery. We are never on solid ground making judgments based on what the rich and powerful think is okay for them to do to other people in order to stay rich and powerful.

Slavery played an important role in the economies of both ancient Greece and Rome, more so than in some of the other cultures they lived alongside. Greeks were major players in Mediterranean trade for centuries, and trafficking in enslaved people was a significant part of that trade. The islands of Delos and Rhodes were major centers of the trade in enslaved people, as documented by numerous inscriptions found in both places left by the traders. Slavery was particularly important in the Roman economy because Rome was an expansive empire. Enslaving war captives was one of the most direct ways of profiting off the near constant warfare that marked the growth of the empire.

There are important ways in which the practice of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean was different from that in modern-period America. For example, enslaved people were not distinguished by race from those who exploited them. Greeks and Romans did not have a concept of race as we understand it, but even so, enslaved and free were not distinguishable by physical appearance (a point made clear by numerous legal and literary sources about enslaved people passing themselves off as free). In Rome, there was a custom of granting freedom to some enslaved individuals after a period of time. These freed people gained some legal status in Roman society (either citizenship or a lesser status as “Latins,” depending on the time period) and they and their descendants could integrate themselves into Roman society.

Still, the fact the Greek and Roman slavery was different does not make it less wrong. The exploitation, violence, and dehumanization inherent in slavery are always wrong. The experiences of individuals may vary between times and cultures—and even within the same time and culture—but those variations are not a defense of slavery, neither as a general practice nor in any particular case.

There has never been a time when slavery was morally defensible. It has always been wrong.

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

Superheroes and Fascism

There’s an idea that sometimes raises its head in pop culture discussions that superheroes are fundamentally fascist. (Here’s a version of the argument from a few years back, some pushback from the time, and some more recent reflections on the same idea.) The essential argument is that superheroes are a version of the might-makes-right ideology of fascism, grounded in the idea that the only way to solve problem is to look to a single, nearly (or actually) superhuman individual who reshapes the world, often with violence. Superhero stories portray a world incapable of coping with injustice without the intervention of such a superior individual, which is the same claim made by fascist movements, whether past or present. Others have objected to this idea, pointing out that while fascists seek power, superheroes traditionally reject it, many of them even hiding behind secret identities to avoid even taking credit for the good they do.

As with many challenging ideas, there may be some merit in both sides of the argument, but I think it helps us make sense of the debate to look at it from a greater distance and think about both superheroes and fascism in the deeper context they both draw on: heroes. I’ll speak specifically about the heroes of Greek mythology—in part because they are the ones I know best, and in part because they were particular points of reference both for the fascist movements of the twentieth century and for the creators of early superheroes—but similar patterns can be found in cultures throughout the world.

Heroes in ancient Greece were not just figures of myth and story; they were surrounded with religious, cultural, and political significance. Their significance varied, though, with time and context.

Some of the earliest signs of the veneration of heroes is archaeological. In the 800s and 700s BCE, there is evidence for religious rituals at tombs dating from the Mycenaean period hundreds of years earlier. The people of the ninth and eight centuries had very little understanding of the realities of the Mycenaean kingdoms, but they seem to have associated those tombs with heroic figures from their mythic past. These characters first appear to us in literary form in the Homeric epics as warrior kings like Achilles, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, but their legends must have been circulating in oral tradition for generations before.

In the eighth century, these heroes were claimed as literal, direct ancestors by aristocratic families around Greece. These families maintained the ceremonies at the Mycenaean tombs and sponsored the poets who performed epics like the Iliad and Odyssey. The claims they made to descent from such famous heroes were political, part of how they competed for power against rival families. The epics reflect the way in which heroes were perceived as the exclusive property of the aristocrats—when the rank-and-file soldier Thersites dares speak up against Agamemnon in the Iliad, the hero Odysseus gives him a dressing down for daring to challenge his betters and threatens to strip him naked and beat him with Agamemnon’s scepter. When Odysseus returns home to Ithaca, he comes home not as a leader of the whole community but as an avenging warlord defending his own property against rivals. (Homer, Iliad 2.212-277; Homer, Odyssey 22)

But heroes did not remain the sole property of the aristocrats. In the volatile politics of the seventh and sixth centuries, those who agitated to wrest power from the entrenched aristocrats and create more inclusive democratic governments also laid claim to the heroes. Figures of myth were reinterpreted not as the literal ancestors of specific families but as part of the shared heritage of whole communities. Some heroes were claimed by cities in the regions they were historically connected to, such as Theseus in Athens or Orestes in Sparta. Other heroes, like Heracles, were more wide-ranging, and could be invoked by the Greeks who traveled and settled throughout the Mediterranean.

The process of making these heroes the collective heritage of a community rather than the exclusive property of aristocratic families had many aspects. Unlike the private tomb cults of the ninth and eighth centuries, heroes and their worship became part of communal religious practices, including public shrines and festivals. The stories of heroes were reimagined; unlike the Homeric heroes, who behaved as larger-than-life aristocrats defending their own private interests, heroes of the later archaic and classical periods were defenders of their homelands and peoples who stood for justice. Theseus, for instance, is portrayed unifying the people of Athens by journeying through Attica and around nearby coastlands slaying dangerous monsters and subduing bandits and murderers—a long way from Odysseus slaughtering his wife’s suitors to defend his own home and property. Heroes were often physically incorporated into the life of the community through the practice of collecting and preserving what were believed to be their bones. Herodotus recounts how the Spartans brought the bones of Orestes back to Sparta from neighboring Tegea to give them victory in war and how Greek preparations for the naval battle against the invading Persians at Salamis included sending a ship to the island of Aegina to retrieve sacred images of the hero Aeacus and his equally heroic sons. These relics belonged to whole communities, not to single families. By these means, the exclusive, aristocratic heroes of early Greece became the collective, democratic heroes of the classical age. (Herodotus, Histories 1.67-68, 8.64, 8.84; Plutarch, Parallel Lives, “Life of Theseus”)

The tension between these two kinds of heroes—the exclusive ones who justify the power of a narrow elite and the inclusive ones who stand for the best qualities of a whole community—is not unique to ancient Greece. We can see it repeated in cultures throughout history up to the present day. The “heroes” involved need not be figures of myth and legend, either; historical figures, celebrities, and political leaders can receive the same treatment as well.

Fascism and superheroes both draw on this history, but they apply different aspects of it. Fascism looks back to the exclusive, aristocratic kind of heroism that claimed a connection with great figures of myth and history to justify the power of a limited group, whether defined by class, ethnicity, family, or political affiliation. Fascist leaders of the twentieth century claimed the heritage of a semi-historical, semi-mythical past as an exclusive property of their followers. Modern quasi-fascistic movements have a similar obsession with jealously gatekeeping their own chosen semi-historical models, from the inhabitants of medieval Europe to the Founders of the United States.

Superheroes, by contrast, represent the inclusive, democratic response that makes heroes represent not the interests of a self-defined elite but the aspirations of a broad community. Superman is the immigrant experience in the US writ large. Captain America stands for the courage and integrity of Americans at their best, while Iron Man represents Americans rising to do the right thing despite the arrogance and materialism that defines them at their worst. The “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” is the neighborhood Spider-Man for a reason.

So my answer, in the end, is: no, superheroes aren’t fascist, even if they draw on some of the same roots. Fascism is the modern world’s darkest kind of heroism; superheroes are our answer.

Image: A version of Captain America’s shield, photograph by ze_bear via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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

Two-Question Worldbuilding

There are lots of different ways to imagine new secondary worlds and the cultures within them. You can start from the ground up—literally—by drawing a map and thinking about how the landscape shapes the cultures within it. You can start with a big concept and work your way down into the details from that, or go the other way and start with a single detail that serves your narrative, then build the rest of the world around it.

But sometimes you don’t want to mess with all that. Sometimes you’re writing a story or mapping out a game and you need your characters to have a little bit of interaction with a far-off foreign land, but not enough to make it worth developing in every detail.

Here are two quick questions you can ask to lay the basis for simple worldbuilding for side cultures in pre-industrial worlds that still gives them some substance:

  • How many people have control over their own source of food?
  • How much do those people have to compete with others for food sources?

We’re not talking actual numbers or anything quantifiable here, just a general sense: a little bit, a fair amount, or a lot?

(Food sources come in many forms. We most often think of farms and herds of animals, but consider also fishing and hunting, trading with food-producing regions abroad, or raiding richer neighbors.)

The first question tells you about social structure: food is crucial to life, so access to it is one of the most powerful ways people can assert control over others or claim their own independence.

Where only a few people control the available food sources and most other people are in some way dependent on them, there is strong social stratification. It could take many forms: tenant farming, slave plantations, highly-regulated trade markets, or organized piracy of trade routes. Whatever the case, the society will have a small elite marked out by their wealth, way of life, or social privileges.

When most people control their own food sources, you have a much less stratified society. It could be small farms, independent merchant families, or bands of friends who hunt and fish together. The society need not be perfectly egalitarian—some farmers or trading partnerships may be wealthier than others—but when most people are self-sufficient, the rich have less leverage to get the poor to go along with any claims they make to special privileges. Societies where people aren’t dependent on others for survival can also have trouble organizing any kind of large-scale collective action, whether it’s setting up an organized legal system or sending an army on campaign.

In between, you get a range of possibilities: some people manage by fishing and keeping market gardens, others labor on the estates of the rich, while bands of young warriors form up now and then when things get tough to go plunder richer lands, then come home and return to their homesteads. In a society where people live at many different levels of subsistence, social stratification can be complicated, but also fluid. A tenant farmer may be able to save enough over time to buy a plot of their own and join the ranks of independent farmers, while an aristocrat who suffers a run of bad harvests may have to sell their tenanted estates and buy a smaller patch they can farm themselves, but that doesn’t make them social equals.

The second question goes to internal conflict: the more people who have to compete over resources, the more turmoil you are likely to see within a society.

When there is little competition over resources—either because they are abundant enough for everyone or because those who control them have a grip too tight to be challenged—societies are likely to be stable. Some may be inward-looking and peaceful, others may simply export their conflicts abroad: a state full of rich farmers might support a large army to invade and colonize other lands, or a society with no resources available at home might drive the poor and desperate to raid their neighbors or move away as laborers or mercenaries.

By contrast, in a culture where there’s not enough to go around or where those who have resources can’t effectively defend them, expect a high level of internal conflict. This conflict might take violent forms, from ongoing petty raiding between neighbors to civil wars, or it might be channeled into cutthroat negotiations between rival trading houses or a frantic scramble for royal patronage among the highborn families.

In between the extremes, at a moderate level of competition, you are likely to see a society that goes through cycles of stability and fractiousness, where the winners know that they can’t hold onto their gains forever, but the losers can afford to lick their wounds, build new alliances, and hope to come out on top next time.

Below is a rough chart of what a society with a particular combination of resource distribution and competition may look like. Remember that these are patterns and tendencies, not absolute rules. Our own world’s history will furnish plenty of examples of societies that don’t fit these patterns, and you can certainly imagine worlds that don’t. But if you find yourself in need of some quick-and-dirty worldbuilding, this is a good place to start.

Chart 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.

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.

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.

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.

Accessibility Ramps at Ancient Greek Sanctuaries

A recent article in the journal Antiquity by archaeologist Debby Sneed argues that some ancient Greek temples were built with ramps to make them more accessible to people with limited mobility.

The argument begins from the observation, already familiar to archaeologists, that some temples had stone ramps leading from ground level up to the sanctuary. While in some places these ramps clearly seem designed to facilitate the movement of carts or chariots as part of religious rituals or the delivery of supplies and offerings, many are too narrow to be explained this way. Nor can these ramps be explained as part of the building process, since they are permanent and built in stone—far more difficult and expensive to construct than the packed earth ramps that would have been used in building—and they reach only to the level where people would have entered the temple, not all the way to the roof where building materials had to reach.

The interesting observation that Sneed adds to the discussion is that the distribution of these ramps is neither universal nor random, but they are particularly associated with temples connected with healing, and especially with temples where the evidence of inscriptions and votive offerings show a special focus on healing afflictions of the legs and other impairments to mobility. This pattern of distribution, while not definitive, does suggest that the ramps were purposely built at these particular sites to make it easier for people who might have difficulty climbing steps to gain access to the temple structures where they could participate in prayers or healing rituals.

Once built, of course, these ramps could well have served other purposes as well, such as making it easier to bring in offerings or supplies such as wood or wine needed for the routine operations of the temple, but this is also true of mobility accommodations today: once there’s a ramp in place, lots of people can use it for lots of different purposes. The planners of these sanctuaries may well have had this kind of multiplicity of functions in mind when building the ramps. Nevertheless, the fact that these ramps tend to appear at healing sanctuaries and not at others does indicate that the particular needs of those temples and their patrons were an important factor in the design.

The study of disability and its accommodation in history is a growing field. Studies like this one show how revisiting familiar evidence with new questions in mind can yield fertile new observations and interpretations.

Sneed’s full article can be read at cambridge.org.

Image: Artist’s reconstruction of the Temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus, Sneed, Debby, “The Architecture of Access: Ramps at Ancient Greek Healing Sanctuaries,” Antiquity (2020): 1-15, 9.

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

The Curious Case of Wikipedia, My Book, and Odoacer’s Mother

I recently had the odd experience of discovering that my book Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World is cited as a source on Wikipedia, and then realizing that it is cited as a source for something the book does not actually say.

The reference is on the page about Odoacer, a “barbarian” king who ruled portions of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century CE. Here’s the sentence in which I am cited, at least as it appeared in early September, 2020:

Historian Erik Jensen, avows that Odoacer was born to a Gothic mother and that his father, Edeco, was a Hun.

 

This sentence cites page 16 of Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World, but here is what page 16 actually says:

Classical ideas about identity […] allowed for fluidity and ambiguity, on both the individual and societal level. The last Roman king, Tarquinius Superbus, is an individual example. Though Superbus was identified as Roman, his father Tarquinius Priscus was an Etruscan, whose own father, Demaratus, was a Greek: in three generations of the same family we find three different ethnic identities. At the other end of Roman history we find Orestes, a provincial Roman who joined Attila’s Huns and later made himself de facto western Roman emperor. He was succeeded by his son Romulus Augustus, the famed “last Roman emperor,” who was soon dethroned by Odoacer, a Goth whose father Edeco had been a Hun.

 

Do you notice what’s missing? I said nothing at all about Odoacer’s mother.

We know virtually nothing about Odoacer’s mother. Some ancient sources describe her as coming from the Sciri, one of the numerous Germanic-speaking groups who emerged on the eastern Roman frontier in the third and fourth centuries, but, like all too many women in history, she is almost entirely unrecorded in the sources.

Whoever added this sentence to the Wikipedia article made an assumption not supported by my text. It’s an understandable assumption, of course, in a modern context. Modern definitions of ethnicity tend to rely heavily on ancestry and descent. If we know that someone today identifies as, say, Irish, and their father is Lebanese, it’s a fair bet that their mother is Irish, because their Irishness has to come from somewhere. Similarly, if Odoacer was a Goth and his father was a Hun, it may seem natural to assume that he must have gotten his Gothicness from his mother.

But these kinds of assumptions don’t work in the ancient world. While ancestry was an element of ethnic identity in the ancient Mediterranean, it had much less weight than we give it today. And that, in fact, is the entire point of passage cited: we simply cannot assume that one ancient person’s ethnic identity necessarily tells us anything about how their ancestors or their descendants identified themselves.

Now, to be fair, in talking about Odoacer as a Goth and Edeco as a Hun, I was simplifying a far more complicated and tenuous set of scholarly arguments. This is how these figures are identified in some ancient sources, but there are arguments not just about how we should describe Odoacer and Edeco but even about whether we have correctly identified these individuals and their relationship to one another. These questions are particularly vexed both because the surviving primary sources for late Roman history in the West are so fragmentary and because the various groups that emerged on the late Roman frontiers were often loosely defined alliances rather than rigidly established ethnic tribes. Goth and Hun, in particular, were names that were readily adopted by people of many different backgrounds and cannot be assumed to tell us anything about the ancestry of any given individual.

So I’ll accept the blame for simplifying an issue that should not have been simplified and writing a sentence that suggested more certainty than the sources will really sustain. I will try to take this as a lesson for the future to be more careful about the dangers of choosing brevity over clarity. I hope this can also be a cautionary tale for us all: check that your sources actually say what you think they say.

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

Artemisia: Between Greece and Persia

We know little about the life of Artemisia I (early 5th c. BCE – ca. 460 BCE) apart from one event, but that event and her participation in it give us a valuable insight into how Greeks lived at the frontiers of the Persian Empire.

Artemisia was the daughter of Lygdamis I, the first satrap of the city of Halicarnassus under Persian rule. Halicarnassus was a city on the coast of Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, one of many culturally Greek cities on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea in the region more broadly known as Ionia. Like other such cities, Halicarnassus’ population was a mixture of local peoples—mainly Carians from the surrounding mountains, in the case of Halicarnassus—and the descendants of Greek settlers and merchants who had migrated to the Anatolian coast over several centuries. Artemisia’s family was a product of such interactions, as her father, Lygdamis, was of mixed Greek and Carian ancestry, and her mother was from Crete.

Lygdamis passed his power down to Artemisia’s husband, of whom we know nothing else except that he died soon thereafter, and Artemisia herself came to power in his place, probably acting as regent for their young son Pisindelis. Artemisia ruled Halicarnassus as a satrap, or local governor, on behalf of the Persian kings. Her most famous deeds came in this role.

When the Persian king Xerxes mounted his invasion of Greece in 480 BCE, he called upon the Ionian Greek cities to furnish warships for the campaign. Despite Athenian efforts to persuade the Ionians to defect or hold back in the fighting, Ionian Greek ships and their crews participated eagerly in the Persian invasion.

As satrap of Halicarnassus, Artemisia had the responsibility to furnish her share of ships for the fleet, but she went even further, personally commanding her own contingent and serving Xerxes as an adviser during the campaign. The historian Herodotus describes her this way:

She led the forces of Halicarnassus, Cos, Nisyurs, and Calyndus, crewing five ships. Of all the ships in the fleet, besides the Sidonians, hers were considered to be the best, and of all the allies she gave the king the best advice.

– Herodotus, Histories 7.99

(All translations my own)

Herodotus credits Artemisia with an exceptional display of skill and cunning in the midst of the Persian naval defeat at the battle of Salamis:

I cannot say exactly how any other ship, whether Greek or barbarian, did in that battle, but this is what happened to Artemisia and won her even greater respect in the eyes of the king. The Persian fleet was in chaos and an Athenian ship was bearing down on Artemisia’s. There was nowhere for her to flee to since her ship was hemmed in by friendly ships and close to the enemy lines, so she made a decision which turned out very well for her. Pursued by the Athenian, she rammed a friendly ship at full speed. This ship was crewed by the Calyndians and carried not only many Calyndian men but also their king, Damasythimus. I cannot say whether there had been some quarrel between Artemisia and Damasythimus when they were stationed at the Hellespont, or if she had planned to attack him, or if it was just by chance that the Calyndian ship was nearby. In any case, when Artemisia rammed and sank that ship it turned out well for her in two ways. In the first place, when the Athenian captain saw her ship sink one of the barbarians, he thought she was either on the Greek side or was coming over to their side, so he broke off and turned his attention elsewhere, and so she got away. In the second place, even though she was doing harm to his own fleet, she won high praise from Xerxes.

They say that as the king was watching the battle and saw her ship ram the other one, someone by his side said: “My lord, do you see what a good fight Artemisia is putting up and how she has sunk one of the enemy’s ships?”

The king asked it if was really Artemisia and the bystander confirmed it, since he knew the markings of her ship well and assumed that the ship she destroyed must be an enemy. As I said, all this turned out to her benefit, since no one from the Calyndian ship survived to accuse her.

In response to this observation, it is reported that Xerxes remarked: “My men have become women, and my women have become men!”

– Herodotus, Histories 8.87-89

Artemisia displayed similar shrewdness when, after the defeat of his fleet, Xerxes consulted his advisers on how to continue the war in Greece. When the general Mardonius offered to remain in Greece and keep fighting while Xerxes himself returned to Persia, Artemisia offered this advice:

When consulted on the question of what to do, Artemisia said: “Sire, it is hard to give good advice in such a case, but what seems best to me is for you to march home and leave Mardonius and whatever troops wish to remain with him here, if he is willing to undertake this task. If Mardonius is successful and accomplishes what he says he can, the credit for it will belong to you, since he is your servant. If he is wrong and things go against him, it will be no great disaster for you and your house. As long as you and your line endure, the Greeks will often face great struggles, and no one will much care if anything happens to Mardonius, nor will defeating your servant count as a great victory for the Greeks. You, however, will depart having accomplished what you set out to do, which was to burn Athens.”

Xerxes was delighted with this advice, since he had been thinking exactly the same thing. He was gripped with such fear that he would not have stayed in Greece even if all the men and women in the world had recommended it. He thanked Artemisia for her advice and entrusted her with taking his children to Ephesus, since he had some of his illegitimate children with him.

– Herodotus, Histories 8.102-103

Now, Herodotus—a fellow Halicarnassian—may be accused of partiality and playing up Artemisia’s involvement in the war effort, but the kinds of deeds he attributes to her are telling. Artemisia was actively engaged in Xerxes’ war, but she was also politically canny and willing to seize her own advantage when it came. Given the opportunity to demonstrate her utility to the king, she took it and personally led her forces as part of the Persian fleet. Finding herself in a difficult position in battle, she saved herself at the cost of a friendly ship. When consulted for her advice, she told the king what he wanted to hear and was rewarded with an important commission.

Many Greeks were in positions like Artemisia’s when it came to the Persian Empire. Persia was large, powerful, rich, and right at the Greeks’ doorstep. Persia was a huge market both for Greek exports and for the services of Greek artists, crafters, and mercenaries. For all that historians have tended to celebrate the Athenians and Spartans for resisting Persian invasions in 490 and 480-479, far more Greeks worked for the Persian kings than ever fought against them.

The boundary between Greece and Persia was porous. Many people went back and forth across it as their own interests dictated. While modern narratives have tended to paint the division between Greece and Persia in stark terms, the reality was much more gray than black and white. Not everyone who negotiated the space between Greece and Persia did it with the skill and panache that of Artemisia, but she was far from alone.

Image: A modern artist’s impression of Artemisia, detail from “Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis” via Wikimdeia (Maximillianum, Munich; 1868; oil on canvas; by Wilhelm von Kaulbach)

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