Dirty Jokes in Ancient Gaul

It’s been said that one of the measures of skill in a language is the ability to tell a dirty joke. It looks like some women in central Gaul were up to snuff in their Latin.

The evidence comes from a set of loom weights with Gaulish and Gaulish/Latin inscriptions. Loom weights are small weights, often made from stone, pottery, or metal, used to keep tension on the fibers in certain types of loom. They are a very common find in archaeological sites because they were simple everyday objects that lots of people used, people needed a lot of them, and they were easy to replace if they got damaged or broken. (So many loom weights turn up in archaeological digs that there’s a joke among archaeologists that if you find something you can’t identify it’s probably a loom weight.) Most loom weights are quite simple objects, like the Saxon examples in the illustration here, but a collection of loom weights with inscribed texts have been found in France, dating from some time during the Roman period.

The texts on these weights are short sayings, often with a good rolling rhythm like these:

Nata imi daga uimpi

Gaulish for: ‘I am a good and pretty girl.’

Nata uimpi curmi da

Gaulish for: ‘Pretty girl, bring me beer.’

But then there are some like this one:

Nata uimpi uim pota

Now, nata uimpi is Gaulish for ‘pretty girl,’ like in the previous examples, but uim pota is Latin. Pota means ‘drink,’ which is clear enough, but uim is a little trickier. Uim is abbreviated from a longer word, and there are two possibilities. If it is shortened from uinum (more typically written as vinum), then the inscription says: ‘Pretty girl, drink wine.’ On the other hand, uim could be short for uirum (or virum), in which case the meaning gets a bit naughtier: ‘Pretty girl, drink the man.’ (Which probably means exactly what your dirty mind thinks it means.)

Early researchers concluded that this naughty loom weight must have been made by a man and given to a woman who didn’t understand the double meaning, because women are delicate flowers who would never say such a thing. More recent scholarship has pointed out that those earlier researchers clearly haven’t spent enough time around women.

These and other (even naughtier) loom weights suggest that there was a community of Gaulish-speaking women who were also sufficiently familiar with Latin to make dirty jokes. Textile work was traditionally a women’s activity and would have taken up a significant part of their time. It could also be a social activity. We should imagine these Gaulish women gathered together weaving, sewing, and chatting, not unlike a modern craft circle. In that context, these loom weights with their rhythmic sayings and naughty suggestions would have been a playful accent to enliven the working day.

Image: Saxon loom weights, photography by Simon Speed via Wikimedia (currently Bedford Museum; stone)

On, of, and about languages.


Race in Antiquity: Skin Color

“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 3: Skin Color

Race, as we use the concept today, applies arbitrary divisions on the wide diversity of human physiology. The fact that these divisions are arbitrary does not make them irrelevant or innocuous. As with many other ways of dividing up humanity, race has often been used to justify inequalities. The ancient Mediterranean world was not free of inequality or arbitrary divisions between people, but that does not mean that those divisions worked the same way as the modern idea of race.

Skin color is a useful place to start. Although many different aspects of human physiology have been used to mark out racial divisions—face shape, hair texture, skeletal proportions—none is more thoroughly interwoven into racial ideology as skin color. The terms black and white are conventional ways of identifying race. Others, such as red, yellow, and brown, though not as widely used as they once were, still appear today, sometimes with more complex meanings than they once had. Even the currently preferred circumlocution people of color still supposes that skin color is a prime marker of identity. In both life and art, we tend to look at skin color as the signal marker of racial identity, and to identify both ourselves and others in those terms.

What did skin color mean to the people of ancient Greece and Rome? It was not irrelevant. Greek and Roman authors and artists were aware that different people had different skin tones and they sometimes connected these distinctions with identity in significant ways, but that is not the same as recognizing race. We cannot read ancient literature or look at ancient art and evaluate it the same way we would treat at a modern movie or news story.

Consider this cheeky couplet from the Roman poet Catullus, addressed to Julius Caesar:

I don’t try too hard to please you, Caesar.

I don’t even know whether you are a black person or a white person.

– Catullus, Songs 93

(All translations my own)

To a modern Western audience, this sounds at once like a reference to race. To call someone a “black person” or a “white person” today is transparently and unambiguously a racial identification. Yet Catullus meant nothing of the kind. He certainly was not ignorant of the ancestry and identity of one of the most powerful people in the Roman world in his day. In Classical Latin, “I don’t know whether it’s black or white” is a common saying meaning “I don’t care in the slightest.” Catullus wasn’t talking about Caesar’s skin color at all.

There are examples in classical literature when people’s skin color is explicitly described, but even those cases do not follow the same patterns as modern racial categories. For example, in the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus is disguised by the goddess Athena when he first arrives home to Ithaca. When he first meets his son Telemachus, however, the disguise is briefly lifted, and part of what marks the transformation is a change in skin color:

Athena pointed with her golden wand.

First she wrapped him well in a cloak

and spread a tunic around his breast, filled out to its prime.

He became black-skinned again, his jaws stretched out,

and a dark blue beard covered his chin.

– Homer, Odyssey 16.172-6

The word used to describe Odysseus’ color, melanchroiēs, can be literally translated as ‘black-skinned,’ but really means ‘deeply suntanned.’ The darkness of Odysseus’ skin is important because it marks his age and experience. It was not part of an ethnic identity he was born with but something he acquired through experience.

Ancient authors similarly associated pale skin with youth and naivete. The comic playwright Aristophanes used whiteness as a marker of foolish inexperience to describe a character who had what his Athenian audience would have regarded as a ludicrously bad idea:

After this, some handsome young fellow,
as white as Nikias, jumped up,
put up his hand to speak,
and said we should hand the city over to the women.

– Aristophanes, The Assemblywomen 427-30

Nikias was a prominent politician of the age who championed the cause of peace between Athens and Sparta. Just like Odysseus’ “black skin” was a marker of his long career as a warrior, Nikias’ “whiteness” distinguished him as a military dilettante. In neither case was the color of their skin meant to convey a racial identity.

It seems that even at a basic level, ancient Greeks and Romans described colors differently than we do today. Latin has two words for both white and black. Albus means pale, lusterless white, while candidus means bright, gleaming white. Ater is flat, matte black while niger is glossy black. In Greek literature, many objects are described with colors we would not associate with them today: wine is black; grass is white; honey is green; iron is blue. (Note also Odysseus’ “dark blue” beard.) When ancient authors describe people in terms of color, we must be particularly cautious in how we interpret them.

In some cases, ancient authors did use skin color as a way of describing ethnic identity, but it was not the only physical feature, or even the most common one, that they paid attention to. Hair color, eye color, facial features, and physical proportions were equally relevant as ethnic traits, as shown in a couple of examples from the Greek philosopher Xenophanes and the Roman historian Tacitus:

Ethiopians say the gods are dark and snub-nosed; the Thracians give them red hair and blue eyes.

– Xenophanes, fragment 16

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

– Tacitus, Agricola 11

These observations should both caution and stimulate us.

On one hand, we cannot simply read ancient sources—or their modern translations—the same way we would read modern texts. Ancient Greek and Roman authors did not think in the same racial terms we use today, and we risk misunderstanding them if we simply apply modern concepts to ancient texts. When we read that the Greek historian Herodotus described the people of Egypt as “black” (Histories 2.22), the question we have to ask is not “What does ‘black’ mean?” but “What did ‘black’ mean to Herodotus?” Like Homer describing Odysseus, he probably meant that they were deeply tanned. He could not have meant that they belonged to the racial category of people we today classify as black because Greeks of his day did not use the word black with that meaning. Quite simply, Herodotus tells us nothing of much use in assigning modern racial categories to the ancient Egyptians.

On the other hand, the fact that ancient authors did not generally use skin color as a way of distinguishing racial groups in the same way we do does not mean that the ancient Mediterranean was ethnically homogeneous. Greek and Roman authors described the world in the terms that mattered to them. They had no idea that we would be coming along a couple of millennia later asking different questions with different ways of describing ourselves. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: the fact that ancient authors tended not to describe people’s ethnicities in terms of skin color does not mean that people of many different ethnic origins and skin tones did not live among them.

Race is a clumsy and historically fraught way of dividing up the rich complexity of human diversity. Just because ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t divide people up in the same way we do doesn’t mean that the world they lived in was any less complex than our own. If we want to find evidence for that diversity, we have to be prepared to look for it in ways that don’t depend on modern conventions.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Portrait of Septimius Severus and family, photograph by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro via Wikimedia (currently Altes Museum, Berlin; c. 200 CE; painted panel)

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.


Whether it’s lembas bread and stewed rabbit or a nice fresh pan-galactic gargle blaster, the things that characters eat and drink can be a useful way of establishing the feel of an unfamiliar world. But how your characters eat and how their food is prepared and served can contribute just as much to your worldbuilding as what they eat. Here are a few things to think about when creating food systems for fantasy worlds.

Wet carbs or dry carbs?

Traditional cuisines in most of the world are based on carbohydrates, but those carbs can come in many different forms. If they’re dry—flatbread, raised breads, tortillas, biscuits, etc.—then people are likely to eat them by hand and may well use them to pick up and hold other dishes like stews and sauces. If they’re wet—porridge, cooked rice, pasta, etc.—people are more likely to use implements like spoons and chopsticks to hold them.

Eating by hand or eating with implements?

While this can be to some extent determined by the nature of the food, many foods can be eaten either by hand or with implements. Implement-eating cultures tend to develop specialized implements for particular foods or kinds of eating; whether or not people have access to or know how to use the correct implements for the right food can be a marker of social status. On the other hand, hand-eating cultures can have just as complicated rules about how to eat. Forget the renfaire stereotypes about grabbing a turkey leg and tearing into it; societies that eat by hand tend to have strict rules governing when and how often you wash your hands, which hand you use to eat with, even which fingers and which individual finger joints should be used for which foods.

Large pieces or small pieces?

Some cuisines, such as most traditional European cookery, tend to cook meats and vegetables in large pieces which individual diners cut up for themselves. Others, such as traditional cuisines across much of south and east Asia, tend to cut meats and vegetable into smaller pieces in the kitchen which are served up to be consumed as they are.

Communal dishes or individual servings?

Sometimes food is served in communal dishes from which everyone takes what they like; other times, everyone gets their own individual serving. Both ways of serving are wrapped up with social etiquette. With communal dishes, there are usually rules about how people serve themselves, in what order, and how much at a time. With individual dishes, there may be rules about whether everyone gets the same things or the same amount.

In any culture, you are also likely to find variations on these possibilities. People of different social classes or ethnic backgrounds within the same society may well follow different eating customs. The same people may also eat differently under different circumstances: a quiet family dinner at home probably has different social rules than a public banquet for a festival day. Drawing out these complexities is also a part of worldbuilding.

Food is important. People often get emotionally invested not just in what they eat but in how they eat it. Many of the customs and norms that societies develop for how food is eaten and served have their roots in protecting hygiene and managing social hierarchies, two very important issues for personal well-being. Even today, when modern food safety practices and the weakening of traditional social hierarchies has made these issues less urgent, people can still have deep emotional reactions to perceived transgressions as trivial as folding a slice of pizza or eating a hamburger with fork and knife.

Imagine how important customs of cooking, serving, and eating food could be in a world in which your character’s standing in society may depend on knowing which finger to use to dip into the shared sauce bowl.

Image: Preparing butter, image from Shiwunbencao (ink on paper, Ming period)

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.

History for Writers Compendium: 2017

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 2017:


Connections between cultures

Ancient wisdom for troubled times

Telling stories

Thinking historically

Past cultures

Race in Antiquity

Join us in 2018 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.

Lost Heirs and Clever Peasants

(Note: minor spoiler ahead for Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Our story-telling traditions often make a big deal out of family and descent. Part of the classic Campbellian Hero’s Journey is the son’s need to measure himself against his father. A Real Princess™ can tell when there’s a pea under a dozen mattresses, or needs a Real Prince™ to wake her up (apparently princesses do a lot of napping). Modern stories often reinforce the importance of true family lines in similar ways, whether they’re directly invoking the mythic tradition (like Star Wars) or just because family is still an important part of the drama of our lives ( like Harry Potter).

The idea that family lines determine our characters’ stories, abilities, and ambitions is such a big part of our narrative legacy that it can seem like a primordial principle of storytelling, but in fact these kinds of stories arise from specific cultural contexts. These contexts have to do with the assertion of class.

Small-scale societies historically tended to be egalitarian. When a culture contained only a few hundred people, everyone knew one another personally, resources were freely shared, and there was no real differentiation between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. As societies got larger, up into the range a few thousand people or more, social distinctions tended to emerge because people were no longer held together primarily by personal and family relationships. In societies of this scale, some families acquired more resources and more influence than others. Over time, these differences hardened into class distinctions, with prosperous families asserting their own superiority over the less fortunate. An aristocratic class with a sense of its own importance took shape.

A rising aristocracy, however, often struggled against the older traditions of egalitarianism and mutual support. To maintain their position, aristocrats had to create and disseminate a new ideology which justified their status. In many societies all over the world, this ideology was framed by stories about heroic ancestors and special powers passed down through family lines. If you weren’t part of the family line, you didn’t inherit the special powers, and therefore you didn’t deserve to be rich or powerful like them.

Many of the ancient stories that have been passed down and become part of our common narrative tradition were stories originally told by and for aristocrats and would-be aristocrats clawing their way into positions of privilege. When ancient Greek bards recited the tales of Achilles, Odysseus, Helen, and Penelope, they weren’t just telling stories to entertain the masses. Bards and singers depended for their livelihoods on the support of aristocratic patrons, and the stories they told were propaganda for the people who paid the bills. Greek aristocrats claimed to be actual descendants of the heroes of the Trojan War and other myths. The Homeric epics are quite clear that no one from outside the family line deserves to get anywhere near the heroes’ wealth and power.

On the other hand, our story-telling traditions also include narratives that are democratic (or at least anti-aristocratic). Some of these take the form of “clever peasant” tales in which someone from an unimportant background gets the better of the rich and powerful through luck, audacity, and wits. These tales often set up the aristocrats as buffoons who are humiliated in the end and forced to acknowledge the individual merits of people with no family claim to riches or power. Stories of this type are common in folk traditions, including English Jack tales and their analogues in other cultures.

Another type of story combines elements of both, often revolving around a lost heir or disguised royal. In these stories, the hero at first appears to be an ordinary person whose individual initiative and skill earn them acclaim and awards, but they turn out in the end to be the misplaced scion of an important family. Sometimes these lost heirs know their own identity and are in hiding; other times they are themselves unaware until their true identity is revealed. King Arthur, in some versions of the Arthurian mythos, fits this pattern: having been raised in obscurity, he comes into his true heritage when he proves his special powers by pulling the sword from the stone. Robin Hood—again, in some versions—represents a different take on the same pattern: by rights a nobleman, he hides his true identity and fights for the common people. This tradition represents a degree of compromise between the aristocratic and anti-aristocratic narratives. The hero acquires something of the common touch and has to get by on individual merits, but the aristocratic claims to a unique status remain unchallenged.

When modern stories draw on these older traditions, they don’t always think about the implications of them. Star Wars, for example, has always awkwardly balanced the democratic ideals of the Republic, Rebellion, and Resistance with the mythic focus on the Skywalker bloodline. This is why I am so happy that The Last Jedi decided that Rey is not part of the Skywalker family or descended from Obi-Wan Kenobi or any other established Jedi but just the cast-off child of drunken scavengers from nowhere. (Assuming, of course, that Kylo Ren is telling the truth or even knows it to begin with, which is not a trivial assumption, but I’m going with it until we hear otherwise from a canonical source.)

Star Wars has always been told in the mode of myth, but myths don’t come out of nowhere and they aren’t just stories. Myths are stories that mean something. If Star Wars is going be meaningful in the world we live in today, it’s time to democratize the Force. We need more clever peasants these days, not more lost heirs.

Image: Arthur pulling the sword from the stone from An Island Story by Henrietta E. Marshall, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1906, 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.

Race in Antiquity: Identities

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

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

Part 2: Identities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Hermippus of Smyrna, frag. 13

(All translations my own.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

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

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Magic Words

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

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

– Cato the Elder, On Agriculture 160

(My own translation.)

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

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

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

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

There’s magic in words, spoken or written.

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

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Race in Antiquity: The Question

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

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

Part 1: The Question

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Further parts to come.)

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

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Custom is King

We often think of multiculturalism as a particularly modern virtue, but the ancient Greek historian Herodotus gave a pretty good argument for respecting other peoples’ cultures more than two millennia ago.

Here’s the story he tells:

When Darius was king [of Persia], he summoned the Greeks who were at his court and asked them how much money it would take to get them to eat the bodies of their deceased fathers. They replied that nothing would make them do so. Darius then summoned some Indians, called Kallatiai, whose custom it is to eat their dead parents, and asked them—in the presence of the Greeks, who had an interpreter to explain the Kallatiai’s words—how much money it would take to convince them to cremate their deceased fathers [as was the Greek custom]. The Kallatiai exclaimed that he should not even mention such an abomination. Custom dictates such things, and it seems to me that [the poet] Pindar got it quite right when he said that custom is king.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.38

Herodotus does not tell this story at random but to illustrate a point. Cambyses, a different Persian king, had mocked the Egyptians for worshiping a white bull, and Herodotus felt that Cambyses had been very wrong, even insane, to do so. This story about Darius’ cultural investigations was meant to drive the point home: everyone believes in their own way of doing things, and it is wrong to dismiss or disparage other peoples’ culture, even if you don’t share it or even understand it. We can respect other people’s culture just as we expect them to respect ours. No culture is right or wrong.

So, for those of you keeping score, that’s a Greek author standing up for Egyptian traditions against the scorn of a Persian king and citing another Persian king’s discussions with Greeks and Indians to do it. Herodotus’ defense of multiculturalism is itself multicultural.

Image: Relief sculpture of Darius via Wikimedia (Persepolis; sixth century BCE; stone)

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.

What Makes a Fantasy World Feel European?

One of the workshops I attended at Worldcon 75 was about non-European-based fantasy worldbuilding. It was a lively and enjoyable workshop, but—no doubt for logistical reasons—the discussion of what exactly makes a setting seem European was cut rather short. It’s not a question that is easy to answer, even though—from Tolkien to Game of Thrones—it is obvious that a lot of fantasy literature and media draws heavily on European, and specifically medieval European, influences. What is it about a fantasy world that makes it feel European, and what kinds of things should we consider changing if we want to create something that doesn’t?

Our popular collective sense of medieval European history is a fairy-tale world of knights on horseback, castles, kings and queens, pageantry and chivalry. For people growing up in the West, fairy tales in this tradition shape some of our earliest exposure to storytelling and it is no surprise that their forms and characters continue to inform how we approach fantasy. If you want to make your fantasy world feel less European, one approach is simply to look around the world for different terms to slot into the formula. Instead of telling a story about a dashing knight riding his trusty steed to rescue the princess from the castle of the wicked queen, you can tell a story about a dashing jaguar warrior riding his trusty ostrich to rescue the geisha from the stone fortress of the wicked maharani. This kind of “palette-swapping” (as Jeannette Ng calls it in an excellent recent Twitter thread) can work, up to a point, but the more depth and detail you have in your story, the more shallow this kind of worldbuilding will feel.

Let’s take a closer look at the details of “fairy tale” Europe. Knights, castles, kings and queens all have some basis in reality, but they are complicated. Mounted knights played only a small part in medieval European warfare and only in certain regions and periods. The crenellated stone fortresses we think of as “castles” had a similarly limited scope. Kingship was a precarious position across most of medieval Europe (where it existed at all). The most powerful actors were often local warlords. Chivalry meant the rules of war, which were followed as haphazardly as rules of war generally are. Their more romantic aspects were an embellishment of popular literature. Indeed, modern fantasy literature that imagines a world of chivalrous knights and fair damsels wandering from castle to castle draws far more on medieval fantasy literature (not to mention the self-serving propaganda of a small warrior elite) than on any of the realities of European history.

Furthermore, many of the things we commonly associate with medieval Europe were not originally European. Heavily-armed cavalry had been pioneered by the Parthians and depended on technologies—most crucially stirrups and large, strong horse breeds—developed in Central Asia. Stone fortifications had a long history of development in the Levant, and European castle designs drew heavily on Islamic examples encountered by Crusaders. Speaking of the Crusades, the Christian texts and ideologies that guided medieval intellectual culture were rooted in Jewish traditions and the cultural turmoil of the Roman empire’s eastern provinces.

So, what, after all, is so European about Europe? When we say that the fantasy we’re reading feels European, or that we want to write something that doesn’t, what are the things that add up to that?

My basic advice for worldbuilding is: start with the land, so let’s look at the land of Europe.

Europe, geographically speaking, is not really a continent but rather the long, vaguely triangular western end of Eurasia. Compared with most other major land areas, Europe is relatively compact. Most of the landmass falls between the 40th and 60th parallels. Many bays and small seas penetrate the land and break it up into numerous peninsulas and islands. A long mountain system sprawls across the southern half, a smaller and more fragmented one across the northwestern diagonal. Wedged between them is a broad plain threaded with numerous rivers, with forests in the west giving way to grasslands in the east. The North Atlantic current brings warm water and wet winds to the western coast while the many bays and small seas bring the climate-moderating effects of water to much of the land.

This geography has several significant effects for human cultures in Europe. One is that the climate is relatively stable and uniform across most of Europe. The southern half tends more warm and dry while the northern half is more cool and wet, but broadly speaking, the temperatures, rainfall, seasonal weather patterns, and growing conditions are similar enough across most of the land that the same crops can be grown and animals raised in most regions. (No, I’m not saying the climates of Spain and Finland are identical; I’m saying they have enough in common that a farmer from one place would not have to learn a whole new way of farming and acquire entirely new crops and animals to get by in the other.) The major staple crops are grains, primarily wheat and barley, with hardier alternatives like rye and oats appearing farther north. The principal farm animals are pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry, with goats being more common in the mountainous south and cattle more common in the northern plains.

The geography also makes travel and transport relatively easy. Most places in Europe are within a few hundred kilometers of the sea and much of the area is crossed by navigable rivers. Since waterborne transport is more efficient than overland, large cargoes can be carried around Europe more easily than in many other regions.

Put together the similarity of climate and the ease of transport and the result is a land where many basic elements of economic and social life—the organization of agricultural labor, the rhythms of the farming year, the structure of local trade—are similar in many different places. The relative ease of connecting local economies into long-distance trade means that goods, people, and ideas flow readily from one region to another.

Despite the ecological cohesiveness of Europe, this landscape has different effects on political life. The profusion of islands, peninsulas, and bays breaks up the landmass into many smaller regions. So do the mountains of the south and the forested areas of the north. While these smaller regions are connected by trade and travel, they are difficult to assemble into large coherent states. There are many places in Europe where one leader with a small following of warriors could easily control a handful of villages or a stretch of river valley, but these small territories are much harder to unite under one leader’s power.

These two tendencies have underlain much of European history and are still visible today: cultural and economic interconnectedness at odds with political fragmentation.

When people are united by culture but divided by politics, their warfare tends to focus on establishing dominance over the enemy rather than destroying them. The respect for shared institutions and values facilitates the development of common diplomatic customs which can limit the destructiveness of warfare and channel competition into symbolic contests. On the other hand, diplomacy can draw conflicts out by delaying a decisive clash. People are likely to find themselves at war repeatedly over the same issues, a feature we can also see in European history.

These factors tend to draw European societies into internal connections and conflicts, but Europe is also well connected to the outside world. The Mediterranean Sea is easy to cross to North Africa or the Levant and the there is an extensive land connection to the rest of Eurasia. A short overland trip from the southeastern Mediterranean leads on to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. North America can be reached either by riding the circular North Atlantic trade winds or by island-hopping by way of Britain, the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland. People have always been moving into and out of Europe both individually and in larger migrations, bringing the influence of outside ideas and cultures into the region and taking European ideas abroad.

All of these factors are part of what makes Europe European. We can see their influence even in the fairy tale version. Many kings and queens (and other kinds of rulers) have competed for power across stretches of Europe, relying on knights (and warriors of other descriptions) who supported themselves on the agricultural produce of small local regions. In parts of this fragmented landscape, local magnates built castles (and other kinds of fortified dwellings) to secure their control of territory and resources. The cultural and economic connections between many of these warring parties fostered the development of a common set of norms for the conduct of warfare, which literature elaborated into a fanciful code of chivalry. Contact with the outside world and immigration of foreign peoples brought new ideas and technologies—like stirrups and stone castles—which then spread widely through networks of trade.

These forces are not always visible in storytelling, but they underlie many of the basic assumptions, social structures, and cultural habits that make so many fantasy worlds feel European. Even some of the most basic staples of fantasy literature have their roots in the European landscape—of course everyone eats bread and cheese when wheat is the dominant crop across most of Europe and cattle are the primary herd animal on half the continent.

If we want to build fantasy worlds that don’t follow the same familiar patterns, we need to understand where those patterns come from.

Images: La Belle Dame sans Merci via Wikimedia (Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery; 1901; oil on canvas; Frank Dicksee). Satellite map of Euopre via Wikimedia. A View of Tallanton Castle via Wikimedia (Scottish National Gallery; 1816; oil on canvas; Alexander Naysmith).

Post edited for clarity and to correct historical inaccuracies.

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.