Worldbuilding in a Sentence

This fall I am finally teaching a course I have long dreamt of: History for Fantasy Writers. The course is built around the same ideas that I often blog about here, that studying history is a good way of exploring the possibilities of human societies and is our best resource when we want to imagine a world that is not like the one we live in.

As an early exercise to examine this idea, I asked my students to consider the following sentence: “The knight in shining armor rode his trusty steed toward the queen’s castle.” What can we tell about the world of this story just from this one sentence? They came up with some good answers:

  • The existence of knights and queens implies a stratified social structure. If we’re hearing about the people at the top, there must also be a lot of people at the bottom.
  • For instance, the knight must have dozens of people supporting them: someone to take care of the horse, someone to polish the shining armor, lots of people working the farms so they all have something to eat. The same and much more goes for the queen. Someone had to build that castle and keep it running. The lifestyle of a queen involves both politics and pageantry, for which she needs advisers and staff. All those people have to be clothed and fed.
  • Castles and knights in armor only make sense with certain kinds of warfare. In particular, this world must not have effective gunpowder weapons, which made both castles and mounted knights obsolete in our history.
  • If the queen lives in a castle, that means there must be a lot of fighting in this world. A castle is designed for defense, and it’s not a particularly convenient kind of place to live in peacetime. A queen wouldn’t be likely to live in one if she didn’t need to defend herself on a regular basis.
  • The fact that it’s the queen’s castle means that at least in some cases women in this world can wield power.
  • Castles and armor tell us something about the level of their technology. Building a castle takes a lot of quarrying, cutting, transport, and fitting of stones; armor requires mining and smelting ore to create metal, then working that metal into some complex shapes to make effective armor.

Of course, any of these observations could be undone in fiction. Maybe in this world horses magically take care of themselves. Maybe everyone is a knight or a queen and they’re all equal. Maybe the castle is carved out of a mountain of crystal, and the armor is made of enchanted tree bark. You can do that sort of thing in fantasy if you want to, but that’s where history helps you understand the “rules” so that you can break them in a way that is thoughtful and interesting.

I’m impressed by my students’ work so far and looking forward to more conversations like this one.

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

Rules-Lawyering Monarchy

How do you get rid of a monarchy? Getting rid of kings isn’t the hard part (at least in theory, if not always in practice)—get the peasants angry enough, pass out the torches and the pitchforks, then roll out the guillotine when the time comes. No, the hard part is getting rid of the idea of kings. Monarchs cling to power through force, but also through instilling in people the idea that there is something special about kingship, something an ordinary person would never be able to replace. As long as that idea exists, someone can hitch their own ambitions to it.

I’ve written before about how the myths and legends that make up the part of the DNA of modern fantasy literature often have a pro-monarchical bias and about ways of building your fantasy worlds for something other than monarchy. It’s worth noting that we are not the first people to face this problem. The ancient Greeks and Romans also had to grapple with the monarchic parts of their past as they created new ways of life and they found interesting ways of disarming the idea that kings were necessary.

In the early iron age and archaic periods (roughly 900-490 BCE), societies in ancient Greece were small, and power structures were not particularly stable. We get a glimpse of this life in the Homeric epics. The contentious relationships among the assembled Greek kings at Troy and the competition for wealth and power among Helen’s suitors back on Ithaca reflect a world in which power was held by rich warlords competing with each other for preeminence. The Greek word for these warlords was basileus (plural basileis). The word does not exactly match up with what we typically think of as kings: there was more than one basileus in any community, and their power was more personal than institutional, but a basileus was the closest thing early Greece had to a king. Basileus was also the word Greeks used for the kings of other peoples, such as the Lydians and the Persians.

We don’t know much about how the ideologies by which basileis justified their power, but many basileis in mythology were the children of gods or had other kinds special relationships with the divine. Literary and archaeological evidence shows that basileus families maintained the worship of heroic ancestors. These facts point to a religious element: basileis held onto power in part by claiming a vital role in maintaining their communities’ relationships with the gods.

This ideology presented a problem for those agitating for a wider sharing of power, but it was a problem that had a solution. The earliest organized government we know of in Athens (not one we would call democratic, but one that was clearly designed to keep any one person from holding too much power) had an official position dedicated to overseeing religious affairs. That position was called the basileus. We can imagine some frustrated Athenians at some point saying: “So, the gods will only favor us if we have a king? Fine, we’ll call this guy over here ‘king’ and just not give him any real power. Good enough!”

Something similar happened in Rome. In its early history, the city was ruled by a king (in Latin: rex). Later, the kings were replaced with a republican government that, much like the one in early Athens, was specifically designed to keep power from falling into one person’s hands. We know little about the ideology of Rome’s early kings, but later Roman legends gave them religious associations, and it seems that they also asserted a special role in the city’s relationship with the gods. The Roman republic similarly got around this problem by just calling someone else “king.” Specifically, republican Rome had a priestly official whose title was rex sacrorum, meaning “king of the sacred things,” to carry on the religious duties of the old king. This office came with particular limitations intended to make sure that its holder could never make himself into a real king, including a ban on handling weapons and on being present while the Roman army was assembled for war.

Athenians and Romans found was of disarming monarchic ideology by subverting its claims in ways worthy of the weaseliest of rules lawyers.

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

Flexible Roman Glass?

Did an ancient Roman inventor come up with flexible glass? That’s one possible interpretation of a curious anecdote told by several Roman sources.

A Roman drinking glass

The evidence

There is no archaeological evidence for flexible Roman glass; nothing like it has turned up in any excavation. All the evidence we have is literary, three mentions from various sources. Here is what we have (my own translations):

In the reign of Tiberius, a kind of glass was invented that was concocted in such a way that it was flexible, but the entire workshop of its inventor was destroyed so that the price of bronze, silver, and gold would not be brought down (a rumor that has for a long time had more repetition than credibility).

Pliny, Natural History 36.66

There was once an artisan who made a glass drinking up that was unbreakable. When he was given an audience with the emperor to show off his invention, he made the emperor hand the cup back to him, then hurled it to the stone floor. The emperor could not have been more alarmed. The man picked the cup up off the ground, and it was dented just like a bronze cup, but he produced a small hammer from his pocket and with very little effort he made the cup good as new. With this performance, he thought he was in the throne of Jupiter.

The emperor then asked: “No one else knows how to make glass like this, do they?”

Now, look what happened. When the man answered “No,” the emperor ordered him beheaded, because if knowledge of this invention got out, we would treat gold like mud.

Petronius, Satyricon 51

[An engineer comes up with a novel way of renovating a collapsing building, for which the emperor Tiberius jealously exiles him.] Later this man came to the emperor as a supplicant and deliberately let a glass drinking cup fall to the floor in front of him, and although the cup was somehow damaged, after rubbing and beating it with his hands on the spot he showed the emperor that it was unbroken. He was aiming to get himself a pardon, but the emperor ordered him executed.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 57.21

Could it be true?

There are a few reasons to think these stories might be true, if not in all details then at least in the most interesting one: that some Roman crafter figured out how to make a material that looked like glass but didn’t shatter like it.

The fact that we have this story from three different sources gives it some credibility, especially since two of those sources, Pliny and Petronius, are roughly contemporary with the emperor Tiberius under whom the unbreakable glass was supposed to have been invented.

Flexible kinds of glass exist today, but they are recent developments. It is unlikely that a Roman glassmaker, even if they had stumbled on the right chemical formula, would have had a furnace capable of high enough temperatures with precise enough control to have achieved the same result. It is more possible to imagine that a Roman artisan came up with something like modern plastic. Early plastics developed in the 1800s used materials that would have been available to the Romans, such as cellulose from wood, the resin of the sweetgum tree, and proteins derived from milk, eggs, and blood. Some of the plastics derived from these materials are translucent and flexible, and might have appeared to onlookers unfamiliar with their source as flexible glass.

Despite these considerations, though, there are much stronger reasons to think that nothing like flexible glass was ever created in antiquity.

Probably not

First of all, we have to look at our sources critically. None of them is very good as evidence. Pliny straight out tells us that he doesn’t believe the story he is relating. Petronius puts the story into the mouth of a boorish and narcissistic fictional character, far from a reliable narrator. And Cassius Dio was writing about two centuries later and seems to have garbled this story with the tale of a later emperor, Hadrian, and his jealousy of a famous architect. Although it is interesting that we have versions of this story from three different sources, all that means is that, as Pliny notes, it was a tale widely told, not necessarily that there was any truth to it.

The fact that this story is connected with Tiberius also points to it being unreliable. Pliny, Petronius, and Cassius Dio were all part of the Roman elite, who generally disliked Tiberius. As the second emperor of Rome after the beloved Augustus, Tiberius had big sandals to fill and little of his predecessor’s charisma and social grace. The accounts of Tiberius as emperor that have come down to us describe him as tactless, cynical, cruel, and prone to paranoia. He also ruled Rome during a time of economic hardship, and his pragmatic concern for financial stability (including worrying about things like the prices of commodities and the steadiness of the gold and silver supply) came off as small-minded stinginess to the rest of the Roman upper crust. The idea of Tiberius responding to a wondrous new invention by destroying both it and the inventor appealed to existing prejudices about him, which helped the story spread. Romans like Pliny and Petronius already believed that Tiberius was cruel when he should have been magnanimous, tight-fisted when he should have been generous, and quick to apply violence to those who did not deserve it. The story of the wondrous glass cup not only made these qualities manifest, it served as a cautionary tale about the foolishness of such behavior. It was, in short, a good story, and good stories spread easily even when they aren’t true.

If there is any kind of truth behind the tale, it may be something less revolutionary. Glassmaking is a skilled art, and in antiquity it practitioners carefully guarded their secrets. To an uninitiated observer, the malleability of hot glass in a glass-blower’s workshop may have seemed quite wondrous, and the story may have spread from there without the crucial understanding that glass only flows so easily when it is fresh from the furnace. Additionally, around the time of Tiberius, new kinds of mold-blown glass were coming onto the Roman market that imitated the shapes of metal vessels. To the average Roman aristocrat shopping for luxury housewares, the idea that a material might exist combining the translucency of glass with the malleability of metal might not seem so far-fetched. If these ideas were already circulating in Roman literary circles, it is not strange to imagine that someone put them together with the existing negative perceptions of Tiberius and concocted a “What if” story that took on a life of its own as gossip and political mudslinging.

In the end, it is unlikely that any Roman artisan ever figured out how to make flexible glass. As interesting as the story is, it tells us more about the perception of Tiberius than it does about any fabulous ancient discoveries.

Further reading:

Champlin, Edward. “Tiberius the Wise.” Historia Bd. 57, H. 4 (2008): 408-425

Keller, Vera. “Storied Objects, Scientific Objects, and Renaissance Experiment: The Case of Malleable Glass.” Renaissance Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2017): 594-632.

Stern, E. Marianne. “Ancient Glass in a Philological Context.” Mnemosyne 4th ser. 60, f. 3 (2007): 341-406.

Image: Roman drinking glass (not flexible), photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia (Domvs Romana, Mdina, Malta; 1st c. BCE-2nd c. CE; glass)

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

How Wars Begin: The View from Ancient Greece

Explaining why wars begin is an urgent question for a lot of people: if we knew how they started, maybe we’d figure out how to stop them. It is also an important question for a lot of writers. Many works of fantasy literature are set in times of war, and even if the main characters don’t know or understand how it all started, in order to build the world around the story effectively, the author should have some idea of how and why it began.

Greek vase showing hoplites fighting

In European literature, interest in the causes of wars goes back as far as the literary tradition itself. The first major work of literature written down in the West, the Iliad, is about characters caught in the midst of a war whose origins are so remote as to be beyond human knowledge. Much of the tragedy of the Trojan War myths comes from seeing how people suffer because of the capricious rivalries of the gods. Many other stories of Greek mythology have to do with the causes of war, such as the legends of the “Seven Against Thebes,” which follows the tragic fortunes of Oedipus’ family as they suffer the consequences of his rash and misguided actions as a young man. Works grounded in mythology tend to place the causes of wars in the hands of individuals, whether human, divine, or in between. The mischievous spite of Eris caused the Trojan War, and Oedipus’ hotheadedness embroiled generations of his family in conflicts around Thebes. Many Greeks were happy to apply this same kind of mythical thinking to their own history: the playwright Aeschylus’ account of the Persian king Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480, The Persians, focuses on Xerxes’ personal arrogance and irresponsibility.

Early historians shifted their focus away from the personal to look at larger causes. Herodotus, attempting to explain the wars between the Persian Empire and some of the Greek cities, continued to make much of personal motivations, especially when it came to Xerxes. Herodotus expanded on Aeschylus’ portrait of the king, adding more nuance to the image of an overbearing, capricious monarch. At the same time, he was also interested in deeper forces. Herodotus was interested in the idea of balance and reciprocity, and ultimately saw the Persian invasion of Greece as balancing the cosmic scales for the legendary Greek invasion of Troy. He was also interested in how the choices of individuals interacted with and were shaped by the political structures in which they lived, pointing out that Xerxes’ arrogance had such devastating consequences because in a monarchy there was no one who could step in and prevent him from making rash decisions.

Herodotus’ younger contemporary Thucydides witnessed his home city of Athens go to war with Sparta with terrible consequences for both. He dismissed anything that smacked of myth and instead sought explanations in the hard realities of power. Athens, he argued, was becoming more powerful while Sparta was becoming weaker. It was these forces—the results of human actions, but in themselves impersonal and abstract—that led to the conflict, he argued: the Athenians fought out of a desire for more power and wealth, the Spartans out of the fear of losing what they had.

Some centuries later, the historian Polybius, writing at a time when Greece was a newly-conquered province of the Roman Empire, examined the causes of wars with more nuance, using Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Persian Empire as an example. Polybius distinguished three different elements: what he called the beginning, the cause, and the pretext. The beginning was the first event of a war; when Alexander crossed into Anatolia with his army, that was the beginning of the invasion. It is useful for historians to identify the beginning of a war, Polybius argued, but the actual cause must come first: what was it that led people to decide to take that first action? In Alexander’s case, it was a century of Greek experience on the fringe of the Persian Empire which showed that the Persian position in Anatolia was poorly organized and vulnerable to attack. The third element is the pretext, the statements that people put out in public to justify the actions they have already decided to take. In Alexander’s case, the pretext was revenge for the Persian invasion of Greece generations earlier; Alexander’s own actions later showed that his anti-Persian stance was never more than a front to keep his mostly Greek army unified.

How you approach explaining the origins of the wars in your stories depends on what kind of story you want to tell. If yours is an epic tale about the desires and passions of larger than life heroes, then let mythology guide you: have a war that starts because someone didn’t get invited to a party, or because someone got road rage and picked a fight with the wrong person. If your story is more grounded, but you still want some epic flavor, Herodotus may be a good model: let your war start because of the personal, human decisions made by your characters in the context of grand forces beyond their control. For a gritty, hard-edged story of war, follow Thucydides: people start wars because they think they can get something out of it, or because they’re afraid of losing what they have. In any case, remember Polybius: how people start fighting, why they decided that fighting was worth it, and what they said to justify it are three different things.

Image: Vase painting of hoplites fighting, photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia (Staatliche Antikensammlung, Berlin; c. 560 BCE; painted pottery; by the Fallow Deer painter)

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 Contradictory Coin

Two faces of an ancient Roman coin, one showing a bearded man wearing a radiate crown, the other showing a young men wearing a wreath.



Palmyrene Antoninianus, photograph by Classical Numismatic Group via Wikimedia (270-272 CE; bronze and silver)

What’s so contradictory about this coin? Well, there’s a story behind it.

In the third century CE, the Roman Empire wasn’t doing well at all. Between 235 and 284, the empire suffered civil war and political chaos as numerous general claimed the imperial title with the backing of their troops, only to be assassinated and replaced with another general. At the same time there was an economic collapse and an outbreak of deadly disease that depopulated the great cities of the Mediterranean.

In this fifty years of crisis, the emperors were mostly concerned with securing their own power and fighting off rivals. People looked to more local powers to handle the ordinary business of governance. With such chaos and weakness at the top, some of these local powers began to operate as effectively independent states.

One such state was the empire of Palmyra. Palmyra was a city in the eastern Mediterranean, in what is today Syria. It had long been an important stop on caravan routes that connected the Mediterranean with Mesopotamia and India beyond. The Palmyrene noble Odaenathus helped to support the Roman position in the region during a flare-up of conflicts with the Parthian Empire to the east. With weakness at the top of the empire, Odaenathus began to rule Palmyra with more and more independence over the course of the 260s. After his death in 267, his wife Zenobia, ruling on behalf of their young son Vaballathus, began an ambitious campaign of conquest that made Palmyra the ruling city of a de facto empire covering much of the Roman East.

While effectively operating as an independent power, Palmyra maintained a show of loyalty to the Roman Emperor at the time, Aurelian. In the early 270s, Zenobia issued coins like this one, bearing the image of Aurelian on one side and Vaballathus on the other. The text of the coin names Aurelian as emperor and calls Vaballathus only a general of the Romans. Since coins could circulate more widely than most other works of public art, these coins represented one of Zenobia’s best efforts to convey the message to Aurelian that she and her son were still loyal.

But the very existence of these coins belies the message they send. The minting of coins was an imperial prerogative, one closely tied to the power of the emperor himself. Rome allowed some of the cities under its rule to mint their own low-value bronze coinage for local trade, essentially small change to make it easier for people to do their day-today business in the market. Palmyra evidently had the right to mint such coins, although surviving evidence suggests that the Palmyrenes had never exercised that right on any large scale.

This coin is different. It is the type of coin known to scholars today as an “Antoninianus.” (We don’t know what, if anything, ancient people called them.) An Antoninianus was a high-value coin typically made of a combination of bronze and silver. Its face value was equivalent to several days’ pay for a legionary (although extreme inflation in the third century seriously eroded the coins’ actual value), and they were largely minted by the emperors to pay the troops who had put them into power. Coins of such value had a strong historical connection to the recruitment and pay of armies.

By minting coins of this type, Zenobia effectively declared her intention to lead armies independently of the Roman emperors. No matter what image she put on the coins, the very act of minting them was tantamount to announcing a rebellion.

Aurelian was not fooled by the display of loyalty. In 272 he attacked Palmyra, captured Zenobia, and reconquered the territory she had claimed. After another outbreak of rebellion in Palmyra the next year, Aurelian captured the city and destroyed it.

An object as seemingly simple as a coin can have complicated and even contradictory intentions behind it.

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

Worldbuilding for Democracy

Whether playing a game of thrones or awaiting the return of the king, fantasy literature tends to have a lot of monarchies. This is true in part because the genre grew out of literary traditions created to justify the power of kings and aristocrats and in part because royal families lend themselves so well to drama (it seems to be the only job the British royals have left, for one example).

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. There’s plenty of room for fantasy to explore societies without kings or thrones. Many cultures in the past have had alternatives to monarchy. Most famous may be the democracies of ancient Greece, but other ways of sharing power out among multiple individuals, families, or factions can be found around the world, in places like the early city-states of Sumer, the medieval cantons of Switzerland, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy in North America. Not all of these societies operated in ways we would recognize as fully democratic today (for instance, Greek democracy excluded women, immigrants, and slaves), but they all represent functional alternatives to a monarchy or entrenched aristocracy.

These forms of governance came about as the result of particular social, historical, and geographic circumstances. If you want to build a democratic society (even in such a loose sense) into your fantasy worldbuilding, here are a few approaches to consider.

Friends don’t let friends start monarchies

Small-scale societies are usually egalitarian and tend to resist individual claims to power. In societies small enough that people all know each other or are bound together by ties of family and friendship, personal relationships matter more than formal structures of power. One person trying to put themselves above others in such a culture is a threat to the stability of those relationships and can expect little support. With the rest of society so closely bound together by ties of kinship and affection, resistance is easy to organize. Monarchies only work in societies large enough that most people are strangers to one another.

Poor lands make poor kings

One of the defining features of monarchy is that it consolidates wealth in one or a few people’s hands. This isn’t just a perk of the job (although, as Mel Brooks said, it’s good to be the king), it’s necessary for keeping a monarch in power. Kings justify their power in many ways, sometimes by providing the benefits of stability and order to the people they rule over, sometimes by cloaking themselves in religious ideology, but at the base of it all is a threat: do what I say or my soldiers will come burn your house and take your stuff. That threat only works if the soldiers will actually back it up, and while a good king may earn the personal loyalty of his troops, you can’t eat loyalty. An army big enough to keep a monarchy in power will fall apart if it doesn’t get paid, and maybe even turn on the monarch themselves. A monarchy can only sustain itself in a place where it can command enough economic resources to be sure of being able to pay its army in a crisis. In regions that don’t have that kind of wealth, or whose wealth is difficult for any one faction or family to control, monarchies tend not to last long.

The divided are hard to conquer

“Divide and conquer” is all well and good, but when the landscape itself divides people, it is hard for even a conqueror to maintain control. Fragmented landscapes that limit the movement of troops and supplies make it hard for would-be rulers to assert control. They also tend to foster a strong sense of local identity that limits a monarch’s ability to command the people’s loyalty. Many different kinds of landscape can have this quality, such as those divided into many small islands or mountain valleys, or lands broken up by marshes and forests. Wherever people are used to being isolated and having to rely on themselves and their neighbors, they tend to create societies that distribute power rather than relying on a distant and unfamiliar king.

We are struggling together

The points above have a common thread: the smaller a society is, the more likely it is to be democratic. The bigger a society gets, the weaker the forces keeping it egalitarian and the more likely that someone will succeed in establishing a durable monarchy. Large-scale democracies tend to arise from a particular historical experience: when lots of small societies find themselves having to work together. When several tribes, clans, islands, or cities of comparable wealth and power have to coordinate their efforts, such as to resist pressure from an invading empire or to control valuable natural resources, compromises have to be made. A single leader is unlikely to get everyone on board without making concessions to ensure the sharing of power and resources. These arrangements can take many forms, such as governance through a council representing all members or rules of succession that guarantee no single family line has a lock on power.

Many different forces can be at work at once in any given culture. Small mountain villages that are egalitarian because of their small size and poverty may band together in a democratic league to coordinate their response to pressure from a nearby kingdom in the lowlands. Once that league is well established, it might expand to take in some of that kingdom’s outlying cities, even pull together an army to conquer the flatlands for itself while still preserving its democratic basis. What happens to such a democracy when it comes to rule over people accustomed to the claims of monarchy? How do people used to being ruled by kings adapt to being part of a league where they have a voice of their own? There are lots of good stories to explore in fantasy that don’t revolve around kings and crowns.

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

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.