Myths Are Fanfiction

If you’re like me and a lot of my students, you grew up with Greek mythology. The monster-filled adventures of Odysseus, the (somewhat bowdlerized) philandering of Zeus, the just-so story of Echo and Narcissus, and others were part of my childhood reading. Myths seemed like any other sort of story, with well-defined characters and plots. But there’s something different about mythology. We can’t think of it the same way we think of other kinds of literature. Mythology, in fact, has more in common with fanfiction than with literature as we usually think of it. Greek mythology is one of the best documented and most widely known mythic traditions in the West, so it makes a useful example. When you dig into the primary sources of Greek mythology you find that it is stranger, more complicated, and less cohesive than it seemed when I was a child.

Defining exactly what makes a story a myth can be surprisingly difficult, but if we take as our starting point stories about fictional characters who are larger than life and more than human, we have a good chunk of Greek literature and art to work with. The literary versions of myths that have come down to us must themselves have been based on oral traditions passed down through generations, retold and reimagined in every new performance. There is no canon of Greek mythology. There is no original text that we (or the ancient Greeks themselves) can point to and say: “This story is the correct one; anything that conflicts with it is wrong.”

The nearest thing to a canonical text in ancient Greek culture was the two epics attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Neither of these epic poems was written down until the sixth century BCE, although some version of them circulated orally for hundreds of years prior. These poems were themselves just elaborated snippets of a much broader oral tradition which encompassed the whole story of the Trojan War and its heroes’ return to Greece. There was, however, some collective sense of how the epics ought to go. We know this because of the scandal caused by Peisistratus, the tyrant of Athens, who was accused of tampering with the Iliad by inserting a line to suggest that the nearby island of Salamis ought to belong to Athens. On one hand, the fact that such a minor tweak to the poem caused an uproar suggests a degree of reverence for the text. On the other hand, it is clear that the text could be tweaked. We have no idea how many changes the text of the epics may have gone through over the centuries that went by unremarked because they were less politically dicey.

If the Homeric epics were viewed with a certain reverence by the ancient Greeks, the same is not true of our other major sources of mythic stories. Our knowledge of Greek myth mostly comes from the literary productions of a few particular places and times. These works were regarded as literature, free to be debated, reinterpreted, or ignored. Apart from the oral traditions codified the Homeric poems, these include:

  • Athenian drama, mostly written in the fifth century BCE at a time when Athens was a major economic, military, and political power in Greece, the leader of an Aegean empire known as the Delian League, and wrapped up in ongoing conflicts with Sparta, Thebes, and the Persian Empire.
  • Poetry and prose composed in Hellenistic Alexandria, much of it by scholars working at the Library, which compiled and retold stories from earlier Greek traditions as part of the Ptolemaic kings’ propaganda program celebrating their links to classical Greek culture.
  • Roman poetry of the late republic and early empire, composed at a time when Roman society was in crisis and different factions within the elite were competing for power.

There are significant works of art and literature not from these times that add to our knowledge of Greek mythology, but much of what we know comes from one of these clusters. Each one represents a time of fraught cultural and political tensions, and these tensions are reflected in the literature of the period. Fifth-century Athenian drama often portrays Athens as a place of wisdom and sound democratic government while painting Athens’ major rival Thebes as a chaotic city of violence and tragic folly. Written at a different time and in a different context, Roman versions of mythic stories, such as Vergil’s Aeneid, position the Romans as worthy heirs to the glory of ancient Greece.

The works of these different periods also reflect different literary interests. Athenian comedy often took heroic figures from myth and put them into ridiculous situations for laughs. The Alexandrian authors liked to show off the breadth of their learning by tying together disparate characters and tales into grand narratives, or retelling familiar stories from the point of view of minor characters. The Roman poet Ovid played to the sexual culture of his day by composing a collection of imaginary love letters between famous mythic couples.

All of these variations on mythic tales depended on an audience who already knew the stories and characters that were being referenced. They could also end up representing wildly different interpretations of the same events or figures. Part of the fun for ancient readers and theatre-goers was recognizing familiar stories told in a new way. In this respect, mythology worked the same way fanfiction works today. Whether it’s a passionately rendered love scene between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, a quippy duel between Batman and Iron Man, or the adventures of Aragorn and Galadriel’s secret love child, the fun of fanfic comes in taking the stories we have in common and doing something new with them—sometimes something inspired by the social and political context around us, and sometimes just for the delight of bringing a favorite character back on the stage for an encore.

The fragmentary nature of the literary record from antiquity means that when we try to put together the narrative of a certain character or event from Greek mythology, we are often cobbling together bits and pieces of sources from many different genres, written centuries apart on different continents for widely varying audiences and purposes. The fact that we are able to make any sense out of these stories at all is a testament to how much the ancient Greeks and those who learned their stories loved their myths and enjoyed retelling them. But whenever we deal with mythology—Greek or otherwise—we have to remember that what we are dealing with is a wonderfully strange mishmash of stories, none of it canonical as we understand the term today, but all of it lovingly retold by generations of people who made the stories their own.

Image: Mosaic of Vergil with the muses of history and tragedy, photograph by Giorces via Wikimedia (currently Bardo Museum, Tunis; 3rd c. CE; mosaic)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

History for Writers Compendium: 2019

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 2019:

Ethnicity and identity

Food

Warfare

Social structures

Spooky things

Fun with history

Join us in 2020 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.

Making a Mark

Some things never change. For instance, there will always be people who feel the need to leave their mark wherever they go. The graffiti in this image comes from the temple of Isis, originally located on the island of Philae in the Nile River in southern Egypt (since moved to the nearby island of Agilkia because of the damming of the Nile). The temple to Isis and other buildings were constructed at Philae by pharaohs in Egypt’s Late Period, between the eighth and fourth centuries BCE, and the Macedonian Ptolemaic kings who ruled Egypt between 323 and 30 BCE continued to build there. During this period, Philae marked the southern boundary of Egypt. Garrisons of soldiers were stationed there, and it was also a site of pilgrimage not just for Egyptians but for people from the larger Mediterranean world as well as from farther up the Nile in Africa. Under Roman rule, Philae continued to be an important religious site, and soldiers were stationed at a frontier post nearby.

Many people came to Philae for many reasons, and the temple is filled with inscriptions left by visitors. This one, for example, was carved in honor of the Nubian sun god Mandulis. A companion inscription dates the graffiti to 394 CE, which makes this the last known hieroglyphic inscription carved in ancient Egypt.

Inscription of Esmet-Akhom, photograph by A. Parrot via Wikimedia (Philae; 394 CE; inscription in stone; by Nesmeterakhem)

Later tourists got in on the action, too, like Bauerhorst and Brehm, two European visitors who left their marks in 1851.

Insciptions by Bauerhorst and Brehm, photograph by Michael Brehm2 via Wikimedia (Philae; 1851 CE; inscription in stone)

This one may look like it comes from the Roman period, but B. Mure is not a Roman name. It may have been left by Benoit Mure, a French homeopath who traveled in Egypt in the mid-1800s promoting homeopathy.

Inscription of B. Mure with addition, photograph by Ad Meskens via Wikimedia (Philae; c. 1850 CE; inscription in stone)

Another thing you can always count on is smartasses. After Mure left his mark at Philae, whenever that was, someone else came along and added a Latin inscription stultus est, “is an idiot” below his name.

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

The Sanity of Crowds

The Roman satirist Juvenal complained that all the common people of Rome cared about was “bread and circuses,” and as long as they were fed and entertained they didn’t care about politics. Some modern scholars have taken Juvenal at his word (always a risky thing to do with a satirist) and seen the people of Rome as an easily placated rabble. There is another way of thinking about bread and circuses (which, in Rome, meant chariot races), though: they were not a sop to keep the people complacent but rather what the people expected and demanded of their government.

The Roman emperors originally rose to power by presenting themselves as champions of the poor and downtrodden of the city of Rome. In time, as imperial rule became institutionalized, emperors tended to focus more of their energy on the army, which became a vital political constituency, but ignoring the needs of the ordinary people of Rome was a risky move for any emperor. Ensuring that the Roman poor didn’t go hungry, whether by distributing free grain or guaranteeing a low price, was a priority for most emperors. Providing public entertainments, such as chariot races, gladiatorial shows, or theatrical performances, was also generally expected.

These entertainments were not just for the amusement of the people. They also furnished one of the rare opportunities for the people to interact with the emperor, who was generally expected not just to finance the shows but to attend them if he was in the city. Far from keeping the people of Rome quiet and happy, these spectacles could give the poor a chance to voice grievances and make demands of the emperor.

Aristocratic Roman authors tended to describe the people in the stands at such events as unruly, even unthinking. Bouts of heckling or booing could arise seemingly spontaneously. A shouted request could start in one part of the audience and quickly become a chant echoing through the whole stadium. The Roman elite saw these outbursts as a sign that the common people were fickle and emotional, easily swayed by simple chants and slogans. Some modern historians have taken on these same attitudes and described the crowds in the arena or racetrack as irrational dupes caught up in the frenzy of the moment.

The aristocratic view does not tell the whole story, though. However much the emperors portrayed themselves as champions of the ordinary people, poor Romans had very little opportunity to voice their feelings, wishes, or concerns. In the days of the republic, the annual election of magistrates had forced the political elite to go out, interact with the citizen body, and listen to voters’ concerns. The structure of the Roman political system was skewed heavily in favor of the rich, but the opinions of the poor could not be ignored. One anecdote says that a Roman candidate was once making the rounds shaking hands with potential supporters. When he met a poor laborer whose hands were rough from work, he quipped: “You’re not in the habit of walking on your hands, are you?” This joke smacked of elite condescension and played badly among the working folk of Rome. That candidate lost his race.

Unelected emperors had no such encounters with the people. They also had the military might to arbitrarily punish or abuse anyone they saw as causing trouble. The emperors did not go out on the street shaking hands with ordinary citizens, and even if they had, few among the poor and powerless would have been brave enough to make complaints or demands in person. In the arena, racetrack or theatre, though, the balance of power was changed. When a whole crowd booed an emperor or chanted out some grievance, it was hard for an emperor to ignore or for his guards to single out someone to punish. It is likely that the mass chanting of demands and slogans, which seemed spontaneous and irrational to the Roman elite, was actually to some extent planned and coordinated.

Given the risk of hostile crowds, why would an emperor continue to show up at such public events? Because the consequences of not showing up could be worse. The people of Rome were no strangers to mass mobilization, even violence. Once again, the fact that our written sources come almost exclusively from an elite point of view clouds the picture. Aristocratic authors describe the people of the city as prone to rioting and street violence; we are left to wonder how many of those “riots” were actually organized protests (or began as such before taking a turn for the worse). Wise emperors knew that it was better to listen to the people booing or chanting in the stands than to face them in the streets.

Thoughts for writers

When writing about the behavior of people in large groups, it can be hard to remember that they are still people. The notion of the “madness of crowds,” that people in large groups can lose their sense of reason and behave as one irrational mob, has often been used by the powerful few to dismiss and ignore the will of the powerless many. It’s as important to be careful with this idea in our imagined worlds as in the real one. Crowds may sometimes create a peer pressure effect and lead individuals to say or do thing they wouldn’t have otherwise, but the anonymity and mass of a crowd can also make it safe for individuals to say and do what they really mean. On staged occasions like sporting events, people can even use the crowd to their advantage to amplify the message they want to get across. The feelings expressed by crowds are not to be taken lightly or written as if they represent irrational whims of the moment.

Image: “Geta and Caracalla” via Wikimedia (1907; oil on canvas; by Lawrence Alma-Tadema)

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

Testing Witches with Water

There is an old story about how medieval people used to test whether or not someone was a witch, and it goes like this: Throw them in a pond. If they sink into the water and drown, that means they weren’t a witch. If they float, that means they are a witch, so you haul them out and burn them to death. Either way, just getting accused of witchcraft was a death sentence, but medieval people were too dumb to realize it.

This story is wrong. It was popularized by Victorian writers who spread many false stories depicting people of the European middle ages as ignorant, illogical, and stupid. At best, we might attribute this story to the intellectual laziness of Victorians who didn’t bother to distinguish between the use of ducking victims in water as punishment or torture and the use of immersion in water to test those accused of witchcraft or other crimes. At worst, we can see it as part of a concerted effort by Protestant English and American writers to paint contemporary Catholics as the benighted heirs to an age of barbarity and unreason. The truth about testing witches in water is more complicated, though in some ways even worse.

Here’s how the water test actually worked. In some places, a person accused of witchcraft, heresy, or a variety of other offenses was lowered into a small body of water like a pond or a still river, generally with a rope tied around their waist or something similar for lifting them out again. They were allowed to float for a moment and a jury selected from the surrounding community (or sometimes a priest) observed whether their body seemed to float on the surface or sink into the water. It was believed in some places and times that water would reject an unholy person, so their body would float high, while a blameless person would sink into the water. Once the jury had had a chance to observe the result, the accused was pulled out again and the jury gave its judgment.

No one was supposed to drown, neither the innocent nor the guilty. They were not left in the water for long, and whatever device was used to lower them in could quickly pull them up again. No doubt there were sometimes mishaps, as there can be whenever people are around the water, but being cleared of suspicion did not require drowning.

Trial by ordeal, which included not only the water test but other tests including carrying heavy stones or hot metal, reaching into a boiling cauldron, and similar challenges to physical endurance, was common in the legal traditions of some peoples in early medieval Europe. Such tests were an attempt to create objective tests for complicated questions about an accused person’s character, morals, and other hard-to-quantify qualities.

Trials by ordeal largely disappeared from European custom by the thirteenth century, but there was a revival during the witch-hunting hysteria of the early modern period when variations of the trial by water were used along with other methods of torture to extract false confessions from victims. In those cases the accusation alone was, for most people, a death sentence, since the point of the various “tests” was to compel a confession, not to arrive at a judgment.

The important element in a trial by ordeal is the community jury. Someone had to judge whether the accused was floating or not, which is not as obvious as it may sound. Human bodies are naturally buoyant, but not so much as to float on top of the water like a pool noodle. In the water, everyone kind of floats, and everyone kind of sinks. Distinguishing between how much floating is enough and how much is too much is no simple task. Those who were called for the jury were typically members of the accused’s village, extended family, or social network. They did not go into the test with an unbiased opinion but took with them all their knowledge, history, and feelings about the accused.

The floating ordeal gave the jury an objective external event to lodge those existing prejudices in. Those who went in with a poor opinion of the accused were likely to think that they floated too much, while those who went in well-disposed to the accused were likely to think they had adequately sunk into the water. Attaching those preexisting prejudices to an external event like the water test allowed the members of the jury to treat those prejudices as if they were objective facts and condemn or exonerate the accused with a clear conscience, as they own leanings dictated.

It is this fact about trials by ordeal that makes them, in some ways, even more horrible than the foolish heads-you-drown/tails-you-burn legend. If you were condemned by the water test it didn’t mean you just randomly floated too much. It meant that your own neighbors hated you so much they wanted to see you dead, they just didn’t feel comfortable saying so until the trial gave them permission to.

Image: Illustration of a trail by water via Wikimedia (late 12th c.; manuscript illustration)

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

The Past is Haunted

I grew up in a two-hundred-year-old New England farmhouse. Like many houses houses of that age, it was full of peculiarities left over from the many generations who had lived there before us. There was a set of stairs we never used. My bedroom had a blocked-up door in one wall. If you measured out the rooms, you would find a big blank space between the dining room and the living room where the walls hid an old brick oven. In the decades they were living in that house, my parents were always in the midst of some renovation project, during which they often came across the remnants of previous renovations, and not always very well done ones at that (one of the old families in town had a reputation for having some odd notions about how houses should be built). That house was never quiet, even when the people in it were; the background noise of my childhood was a slow symphony of creaks, groans, gurgles, and yawns, all of them as familiar and comforting as my favorite songs. I never imagined that my house was haunted, but I can understand how someone who hadn’t grown up there might think so.

Our sense of hauntedness, the feeling that some presence we can barely perceive occupies a space, is often attached to places like my old house. Not just places that are old, but places where there is evidence of a previous life we no longer fully grasp. The traditional sites of ghost stories and Gothic novels are such places: abandoned houses, ruined castles, derelict towns. Stories about haunted places manifest our unease at finding ourselves in places that once belonged to other people but whose lives and experiences we cannot recover.

There is nothing new about this feeling that the past is haunted. Many cultures in history have shared the sense that there is something supernatural or unsettling about places that show the trace of lost lives. In classical Greece, temples and shrines to the gods were built on hilltops that had ruins of Mycenaean palaces from hundreds of years earlier, while ancient Greek tourists in Egypt were regaled by their guides with ghostly legends about pyramids and tombs that were thousands of years old. In early medieval Britain, folklore connected supernatural forces with the prehistoric tombs, mounds, and megaliths visible in the landscape. In Edo-period Japan, the popular parlor game Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, in which players took turns telling ghost stories and extinguishing lanterns, encouraged the collection of scary folktales grounded in old rural traditions.

Some places have even been built to artificially evoke the same sense. The classic haunted house in US culture is the Victorian mansion. When houses of this type were built in the 1800s, they were designed in accord with the Romantic style of the times to include asymmetrical layouts, odd corners, superfluous towers and gables, intentionally irregular decorations, and other such purpose-built neo-Gothic oddities meant to evoke the sense of a lost past the house never had. As these houses have themselves become old and sometimes decrepit, it is no wonder that they have attracted more than their share of ghostly tales.

Like any other supposedly supernatural phenomenon, haunted places may lose some of their glamour when we find out the mundane explanations for them. Those eerie sounds are not the wails of ghosts but the whistling of the wind through lose clapboards and decayed horsehair insulation. The empty space between rooms is not a hidden chamber of untold horrors but a brick hearth covered over decades ago when modern heating made it superfluous. The staircase that leads nowhere is not a portal to unknown dimensions but the trace of household servants whose bedrooms have since been turned into storage space. What we sacrifice in eeriness, though, we gain in understanding as history and archaeology help make ways of life of those who went before us more visible and comprehensible to us today.

Image: Historic James Alldis House, photograph by Droncam via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (Torrington, Connecticut, built 1895)

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

Petosiris: Being Roman-Egyptian

We often think of hyphenated identities as a particularly modern thing: Italian-American, African-Caribbean, etc. Not far from where I grew up you could go to a Franco-American heritage festival in the summer and see people walking around in t-shirts that said “Made in America with Irish Parts.” The idea that our identities can contain several distinct strands woven together is a familiar one to us, but not one we often apply to the past.

But look at this wall painting from the tomb of Petosiris, a local official in the Kharga Oasis in the western desert of Egypt. Petosiris lived during the second century CE, a time when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. In his tomb, Petosiris took care to present himself as both Egyptian and Roman.

Wall painting from the tomb of Petosiris, photograph by Roland Unger via Wikimedia (Kharga Oasis; 2nd c. CE; fresco)

The large figure standing on the left is Petosiris himself (the damage to his face may have been done by Christians or Muslims in later centuries who mistakenly thought the image represented a pagan god). Petosiris’ name is Egyptian, but his image is painted in a typically Roman style, he wears a Roman tunic and toga, and he carries a scroll, a symbol of role as a local official for the Roman state. At the same time, he is twice the size of the other two figures in the scene, a characteristic of Egyptian art in which size was often used to indicate social status.

The other two figures are presenting Petosiris with offerings of bread and wine. The one on the left is painted in a Roman style, partially turned toward the viewer and painted with varying shading to suggest a three-dimensional image. He carries a tray of bread and pours wine from a jug into the ground. The figure on the right is painted in classic Egyptian style, clearly outlined and standing in a stylized two-dimensional posture. He offers a jug of wine and several loaves of bread on a tray. The rest of the space is filled up with a Roman-style grapevine and text in Egyptian hieroglyphics.

In this image, Petosiris proclaims an identity that is both Egyptian and Roman. We cannot be sure how he understood the combination of those identities. Did he think of himself as an Egyptian who could dress up as Roman when the occasion called for it? Or as a Roman who showed respect to the customs of his Egyptian ancestors? Or as a Roman-Egyptian, fully embracing both parts of his identity? While we cannot say for sure, it is clear that he wanted to be memorialized in his tomb as someone who could be, in some senses, both Egyptian and Roman. For Petosiris, there was a value in asserting both these parts of his identity.

Where there was one such person, there must have been many more who have not left us evidence of their identities. Clearly the local market in the oasis supported artists who could paint in either Roman or Egyptian style, as their clients requested. Kharga was a small, sleepy backwater far from the busy market towns and great harbor cities of the Mediterranean. If even in Kharga there was a demand to be able to assert a complex identity, we can only imagine how complicated the lives of people in Alexandria, Carthage, or Rome must have been.

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

Roman Law to the Rescue

If you’ve ever had to make a choice with a group—picking what restaurant to go to for dinner with your spouse, what movie to watch with a bunch of friends, where to go on vacation with your family, etc.—you know how frustrating it can be. Some people like one thing, others like something else, some are happy with whatever, some have strong feelings, and yet everyone has to end up agreeing on one thing. In the worst case, you can get into uncomfortable power struggles over who gets to pick and who has to go along with someone else’s choice, which can just ruin what should be a good time for all.

Ancient Roman law provides an answer.

When Romans went to court, the various parties involved had to agree on who would be the judge in the case. Roman judges were not legal professionals and did not make decisions of law (those fell to the praetor or another local magistrate); they were laypeople who heard the evidence of both sides and made a judgment on who was telling the truth, a role similar to that of the jury in modern Anglo-American law. Since judges were just members of the community, there was always a risk that any potential judge might favor one side or the other out of family loyalty, personal ties, business relationships, or similar factors, so the Romans needed some way to ensure that the judge chosen to hear a case would be acceptable to both sides.

Here’s how it worked. Every year, a list was drawn up of respectable members of the community who were eligible to serve as judges. This list was then randomly distributed across three tablets. When it came time for a plaintiff and a defendant to decide who would hear their case, they looked at the three tablets. First the plaintiff eliminated one tablet, then the defendant eliminated another, leaving just one. Then they took turns going through that last tablet, crossing off names one by one until just one name was left. That person was assigned to be the judge in the case: not necessarily either party’s first choice, but the one who was least unacceptable to both of them.

The same method can be a good way of choosing a restaurant, a movie or something similar for a group, as long as there are more choices than there are people in the group. Make a list of all options. Choose someone at random to start. That person crosses off one one option. The next person crosses one off, and so on in turn until only one option is left. It may not have been anyone’s first choice to start with, but it will be the one that will make everyone least unhappy, which is what you really need when trying to choose for a group.

In our house, we sometimes use this method when deciding what to watch together. We have been known to pull piles of DVDs off the shelf, then take turns putting one series or movie back until just one is left. (On a side note, this method also provides a convenient opportunity for dusting the back of the DVD shelf.)

A few notes:

  • If the number of options does not evenly work out with the number of people making the choice, some people will get to more chances to rule things out than others. (If four people are choosing among six restaurants by this method, for instance, whoever gets the first pick will also get one extra pick.) If this feels unfair under the circumstances, you can collectively agree to rule out enough things to make the numbers even, or use this method as a way of reducing the number of options you have to choose among.
  • It can be useful to impose a “no explanations” rule: no one is required to explain why they crossed something off, and no one is allowed to ask anyone else for an explanation.
  • The person who makes the first elimination has the most options to choose from, but the person who makes the last elimination is the one who ultimately decides what the result will be. If that matters to you, keep it in mind when deciding what order people get to pick in.

Image: Artist’s vision of the Roman law of the twelve tables via Wikimedia

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

You Don’t Want War Elephants

If you’re building an army to conquer the pre-modern world (or a fantasy world something like it), you might be tempted to include war elephants. At first glance, they seem like a great idea. Elephants are large, thick-skinned, strong, and intelligent, with long tusks and powerful trunks. Including them in your army is about as close as the real world gets to having dragons on your side. Well, I’m here to tell you that in most cases, they’re actually not such a great idea. (There are a few exceptions; I’ll get back to those later.)

Not all elephants are trainable. Three species of elephants survive in today’s world: Asian, African bush, and African forest. Asian elephants can be trained, but the African bush and forest elephants cannot. Several other species and/or subspecies of elephants once existed in various parts of Africa and Asia, but they went extinct in antiquity as a result of hunting and habitat loss. Elephants susceptible to domestication have historically been used in North Africa and Southeast Asia for labor, transport, and war.

Elephants do have their uses in war. They have been used as mobile platforms for archers and light artillery. They can also trample and gore enemy soldiers, and use their strength to help demolish the defenses of towns and fortresses under siege. Horses who have not been trained with elephants will not go near them, so war elephants can be good for disrupting enemy cavalry. Off the battlefield, they are good for carrying or dragging supplies and heavy pieces of baggage like siege weapons. Despite these uses, there are a number of serious problems with using elephants in combat.

We may as well start with the moral problem. Elephants do not breed well in captivity, and so most elephants used for labor or war must be captured as calves from the wild and trained into obedience, often using quite brutal methods. It goes without saying that this is a terrible thing to do to any creature, let alone such an intelligent and social animal, but if you’re already building an army for world domination, I assume you’re beyond such niceties as moral scruples, so let’s move on to the practical problems.

One big problem is that elephants are not naturally combative. Apart from males competing for mates, mothers defending their young, and occasional rogue elephants behaving abnormally, an elephant is much more likely to run away from danger than toward it. It takes extensive training to get an elephant to withstand the chaos of a battlefield, and even then it was a common practice in the past to feed war elephants fermented fruit to get them drunk before battle. Getting elephants drunk helps keep them aggressive, but it also makes them harder to control. There is a real risk that a sober elephant facing the clamor and commotion of a battle will turn and run away, or that a drunk one will ignore its driver’s commands and simply go on a rampage. Now, I know what you’re thinking—drunk rampaging elephants sound like an awesome weapon to unleash on your foes, but keep in mind that around half the soldiers on an average battlefield are going to be your own, and there’s no way to be sure that an out of control elephant will do more harm to your opponents than to you.

Another problem with war elephants is the cost. Elephants in the wild may eat up to 300 kilograms of forage per day. In captivity, eating a richer diet, elephants consume around 50 kg of grain and vegetables per day, more if they are doing heavy work. That amounts to at least 18,250 kg per year. Pre-industrial agricultural yields could vary widely with region, climate, and farming techniques, but at best you could expect around 500 kg of grain per hectare of farmland per year. That means you’d need about 36 hectares of land dedicated to feeding just one elephant. 1 square kilometer of farmland could, under the very best conditions, just barely maintain three elephants. If you have a big enough empire with a strong enough agrarian economy, this may sound like it’s worth it, but consider the opportunity cost. The same farmland could also support 100 soldiers for a year, who can be trained in any number of specializations, will (hopefully) not get drunk and turn on your own troops, and can be more useful in most situations than three elephants.

Now there are a few situations in which elephants can offer a real advantage in war. One is when you’re fighting forces who have never encountered them before. To the inexperienced foot soldier, an elephant is a huge, loud, monster with giant tusks and a disturbingly prehensile nose. Few inexperienced armies have the discipline to withstand their first sight of an elephant, and many have been known to run in panic in the face of an elephant charge. After a little experience, though, this advantage wears off. Those who have seen elephants a few times learn how to deal with them, by facing them with a dense hedge of pikes or aiming for their eyes, mouths, and the soles of their feet with javelins. The Carthaginian general Hannibal got one battle’s worth of use out of his elephants before the Romans figured out how to counteract them.

The other situation in which elephants can be useful is among warring peoples who all use and fight with elephants. In this case, since all sides know how difficult and expensive it is to maintain elephant forces, putting on a big display of elephants in the field serves as a show of force, demonstrating the resources and organizing capacity of your army, which may convince your opponents to come to terms rather than risk a battle. War elephants were historically used as battlefield showpieces in this way by the kingdoms of India and Southeast Asia, as well as the Hellenistic kingdoms formed from the breakup of Alexander the Great’s empire. Getting effective use of your elephants in such a case, however, requires a major investment of resources which might be more practically spent elsewhere.

In short, if you are bent on conquering the world, I don’t recommend using war elephants. For the occasional times when they would actually be useful, they aren’t worth the cost. (And brutalizing elephants is horrible.)

Image: “The Padava Brothers Do Battle with the King of Anga” from a manuscript of the Razmnama via Wikimedia (currently Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; 1598; paint on paper; by Mohan, son of Bawari)

History for Writers 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.

The Persian Version

We know the story of the Greco-Persian Wars very well from the Greek side of things, especially from Herodotus whose Histories is all about the conflict. Modern histories have tended to tell the story the same way the Greeks told it—as a triumphant victory of hardy, democratic Greeks over soft, despotic Persians—in large part because we have no Persian version for comparison.

Even though we don’t have a Persian account comparable to Herodotus, however, we do have a hint as to how the wars may have been remembered inside the Persian Empire. This hint comes from a second-hand story reported several centuries after the fact by the Greek rhetorician Dio Chrysostom:

I heard a Mede say that the Persians do not agree at all with the Greeks’ version of events. Instead, he said that Darius sent Datis and Artaphernes against Naxos and Eretria, and that after capturing these cities they returned to the king. A few of their ships—not more than twenty—were blown off course to Attica and the crews had some kind of scuffle with the locals. Later on, Xerxes made war on the Spartans. He defeated them at Thermopylae and slew their king Leonidas. Then he captured the city of Athens, razed it, and enslaved those who did not flee. When this was done, he made the Greeks pay him tribute and returned to Asia.

– Dio Chrysostom, Discourses 11.148-149

(My own translation)

This version of events is not exactly wrong. The basic sequence matches up with our other evidence: in 490 BCE, King Darius sent a campaign against Greece that successfully captured the cities of Naxos and Eretria, but was defeated at Marathon and failed to take Athens. Ten years later, Darius’ son and successor Xerxes led an invasion of Greece which defeated a small Spartan-led holding force at Thermopylae and killed the Spartan king Leonidas, then captured and burned Athens. Numerous Greek cities became tribute-paying subjects of Persia rather than fight Xerxes’ force.

The only real differences between this Persian account and the Greek legend are the ways it emphasizes successes and downplays defeats. The battle of Marathon becomes a mere fistfight between a few stragglers and some local color. The capture and destruction of Athens is celebrated, even though the aim of the campaign was to absorb Athens into the empire, not just burn it and leave. The Persian kings could rightly say that they had made a significant show of force against the Greeks, while leaving out the fact that they hadn’t quite achieved what they set out to. As spin goes, this isn’t spun too far.

We know the Greek stories about the wars so well that we can easily see the places where the Persians seem to have burnished their memories, but that observation should also make us question the Greek stories themselves. If Persians could tweak their story to make themselves look better after the fact, what’s to say that the Greeks didn’t do the same? If we had a fuller Persian account of the conflicts in Greece, we might well find plenty of places where Herodotus and his fellow Greeks had played up their own successes and swept some embarrassing missteps under the historical rug.

Image: A Persian “Immortal,” selection from photograph by Mohammed Shamma via Flickr (currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 5th c. BCE; glazed brick) CC BY 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. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.