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.

Classifying Warfare: Predatory and Hierarchical

In his history of Western weapons and warfare, Of Arms and Men (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), Robert O’Connell proposes an interesting model for examining the military systems of different cultures by analogy to the animal world. Animals use violence for different purposes and in different ways. Some violence is predatory, as when a wolf hunts a deer or an owl snatches a mouse out of a field. The point of the violence is to kill and consume prey. These animals’ methods and weapons (fangs, claws, beaks) are practical and efficient. They are meant to get the job of killing done as quickly and effectively as possible. Some prey animals have evolved similarly efficient weapons (hooves, horns, teeth) for self-defense. Other times, violence is hierarchical, as when deer lock antlers or dogs tussle with each other to establish an order of dominance within a pack. In these cases, the way that animals fight each other tends to be limited, almost ritualized, in a way that focuses more on display and intimidation than actual wounding—when deer are defending themselves from predators, they can kick and bite with wounding force, but when competing for dominance they lock antlers and shove in a way that minimizes the chance of one deer seriously harming another. The same model can be used as a way of thinking about warfare in human societies.

Some cultures’ ways of making war are like predatory animals’. Their weapons are simple and brutally efficient. Their goal is to kill and destroy, not just to force their opponents into submission. They do not recognize rules of war or limits on where, when, how, or against whom violence can legitimately be used. A classic example is the Roman legion. A legionary’s primary weapon was the gladius, a short sword used for thrusting and slashing at an enemy’s lower torso. The wounds left by a gladius were gory and horrible; the sight of bodies mutilated by Roman blades was enough to demoralize some warriors. Contemporary observers describe Roman soldiers going into a bestial frenzy on the battlefield and slaughtering everything in their path, not just enemy fighters but civilians, children, even animals.

Other cultures fight more like animals competing for dominance within a herd. Their warfare is contained within rules dictating what violence is acceptable and what is not. Battles often begin only after showy demonstrations of power and attempts to negotiate some peaceful resolution. The act of battle itself is brief and bounded by rituals; the goal is not to annihilate the enemy but to compel them to submit and recognize the superiority of the winning side. Ancient Greek hoplite warfare fits this model. Hoplites fought in brief campaigns between city-states, often decided in a single battle on a field which had been mutually agreed to by the two sides. Casualties in a hoplite battle were generally low; victory came when one side broke ranks and fled the field, not with the elimination of one army by the other. The violence of hoplite fighting was real, but it was strictly limited by rules of engagement and commonly understood principles of honor.

Whether a society leans toward predatory or hierarchical violence often depends on who their enemies are. Among people who share culture, history, and traditions, violence tends to be hierarchical. When communicating with the other side is easy and the belligerents in a war already agree on certain principles and ideals, it is easier to agree on limits and rules about war and to be confident that your opponents will abide by their promises. When fighting people with whom you don’t share culture and history, it is harder to rely on commonly agreed rules of war or to trust that the other side will stick to their agreements. Hoplite warfare developed among Greek city-states who were repeatedly fighting their close neighbors, and legionary warfare developed in an expansionist empire venturing further and further into unknown territory, but we can see similar patterns play out in other historical settings as well.

During the eighteenth century, wars among European states were often carried out in hierarchical ways. A British commander facing French troops and not feeling confident of victory could trust that if he surrendered instead of chancing a battle, he and his troops would not be slaughtered but would be treated according to certain basic rules and eventually ransomed back or released at the end of hostilities. Conditions for prisoners of war could certainly be horrendous—especially for the rank and file—but surrender was an acceptable, even honorable, option when there was no reasonable chance of victory. Since the best way to win a battle is to not have to fight it in the first place, convincing enemy troops to give up became as tactically important as fighting them in the first place. Hence the development of flashy, colorful uniforms and elaborate drill performances. The goal was to make one’s own troops look as impressive as possible in order to intimidate the enemy into giving up without a fight.

Meanwhile, in European colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, European settlers faced off against native peoples whose languages, cultures, and traditions they did not share. Neither side could trust that the other would honor agreements or abide by even basic rules on the treatment of prisoners or civilians. Colonial warfare tended to be brutal and predatory. There was no point to trying to intimidate the enemy or force them to come to terms; the only goal of warfare was to kill as efficiently as possible. In England’s North American colonies, settlers developed a style of warfare for fighting against the indigenous people which diverged very far from the elaborate rituals of European warfare at the time. In the early battles of the American Revolution, the orderly performance of the British redcoat drill came up against the guerrilla tactics of American minutemen trained in the harsh school of frontier raiding and counter-raiding.

Hierarchical warfare, seen from outside the culture that practices it, can seem ineffective or even silly, war reduced to symbols and shadowplays, but hierarchical warfare is serious. It has real casualties, sometimes even carnage on a terrible scale. The point of the displays of power, the rules and rituals, is to preserve one’s own fighting force for the moment when it can make a decisive difference. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was one large struggle for hierarchical dominance, but it had real and devastating consequences for people throughout the world.

Societies that practice predatory warfare, encountering hierarchical-war cultures for the first time, often have an advantage, at least at first. The army not limited by rules of engagement and focused on killing rather than putting on an impressive display can be devastatingly effective against an unprepared opponent. At the same time, predatory warfare can also be self-defeating. The force that does not respect common rules of war can have a hard time concluding truces and treaties and may find itself dragged into wars it does not want to fight because no one trusts them enough to make peace with them.

Thoughts for writers

This way of classifying how societies fight can be useful for defining the terms of conflict in your stories. When you have powers that share a lot of culture and history fighting one another, like a world based on medieval European kingdoms or the states of ancient India, it makes sense to build in rituals, displays of power, and rules of war that are generally recognized. Of course, just because rules of war exist doesn’t mean that everyone follows them, but breaking those rules has consequences, not just for how your enemies treat you but for how your allies or potential allies think about you, too. Therein lies plenty of potential for interesting conflict and character development.

On the other hand, when two or more very different cultures run up against one another, such as in the borderlands between different cultures or at the edge of an expanding empire, warfare is likely to take on a more predatory nature. The absence of agreed-upon rules of war or rituals for establishing dominance without fighting will lead to more violence and brutality. Again, even within a predatory context, there can be opportunities for displays of power taking the place of fighting or the emergence of rough-and-ready rules of engagement. These sorts of developments would be important in-world events for characters engage in, too.

Image: “Battle of Bunker Hill” via Wikimedia (1909; paint on canvas; by E. Percy Moran)

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.

Guest-Friendship

Small-scale societies have ways of dealing with problems that arise within the community, but dealing with the outside world is often a more serious challenge. Small, subsistence-level communities are rarely entirely self-sufficient. Some level of contact with the outside world is useful for trade and joint self-defense, but leaving your home community is risky when you cannot be sure of being safe elsewhere. Within your own village, you may be surrounded by family, neighbors, and people bound to you by mutual bonds of obligation whom you can count on to stand up for your safety and your rights, but once you head out into the wider world, you are alone. If someone attacks you, steals from you, or tries to cheat you in a bargain, who can you look to for help? Different societies have different ways of dealing with this problem, but one useful strategy is known as guest-friendship.

Aspects of guest-friendship are documented in practice in ancient Greece, where the custom was known as xenia, based on the word xenos, which could mean foreigner, stranger, or friend. In the early archaic society described in the Homeric epics, wealthy warrior-nobles—the sort of people represented in the epics by heroes like Odysseus and Menelaus—had faithful retainers to protect them while at home, but traveling with a large retinue was difficult. Since the two major reasons for leaving home were to trade with neighboring communities or to raid them for supplies and slaves, it is understandable that travelers did not always find a warm welcome, even when they came in peace.

To keep themselves safe when away from home, aristocratic families from different communities made agreements of guest-friendship among themselves. These families would provide lodging and food to visiting guest-friends and expect the same when they went traveling themselves, but more importantly guest-friends protected one another. In essence, a guest-friendship was a promise to treat your visitors as if they were members of your own family. That could mean more than just hosting them for a few days. It could also mean standing up for them if they were mistreated or cheated while doing business in your town, even fighting in their defense if they were attacked. In a world without police, courts, or enforceable contracts, where your rights ended at the borders of your home town, these relationships were essential to keeping trade routes and lines of communication open.

In ancient Greece, as in many other places, these relationships were personal, but also hereditary. They could be passed down from generation to generation, sometimes even being revived after lying dormant for many years. Between individuals, guest-friendship could even take precedence over inter-communal hostilities. The Iliad records a battlefield encounter between two heroes, Diomedes and Glaucus, one fighting on the Greek side, the other on the Trojan side. Approaching each other on the field, they shout out challenges and boast about their ancestry and accomplishments, but in doing so, they discover that their grandfathers were guest-friends. Once they realize their connection, Diomedes and Glaucus agree that it would be wrong for them to fight one another. Instead, they exchange armor as a token of friendship and agree to go find other people to fight. (Homer, Iliad 6.119-191)

As a means of ensuring safety for travelers, guest-friendship was unreliable. It depended on mutual personal obligations which could not be enforced on the unwilling. There was no way to prevent the abuse or neglect of the relationship, other than the threat of ending it. As much as Homer’s epics celebrate the uses of guest-friendship among honorable people of good will, they also reflect how precarious such codes of behavior could be when there wasn’t force behind them. While the fairy-tale wanderings of Odysseus are a fantasy version of the dangers of traveling without the protection of familiar customs and norms, the greedy Ithacan suitors eating up Odysseus’ wealth in his absence bring the problems closer to home. Indeed, in Greek myth, the institution of guest-friendship fails at least as often as it succeeds.

Nevertheless, even in later periods of ancient Greek history when legal and diplomatic institutions were better developed, the idea of guest-friendship still had a place. Some aspects of guest-friendship, in a less personal and more formalized way, continued in the role of proxenoi (singular proxenos), who acted as representatives and advocates for outside communities. The Athenian aristocrat and politician Cimon, for example, acted as Sparta’s proxenos in Athens. He hosted Spartan emissaries when they came to Athens and used his influence in Athenian politics to try to make peace between the two cities in the early years of the Peloponnesian War. Like guest-friendship, this role was also often hereditary, passed down through aristocratic family lines from father to son. Guest-friendship itself was even revived as a way of forging relationships across political lines between Greek aristocrats and representatives of the Persian Empire.

The details of ancient Greek guest-friendship are particular to one culture and one time period, but similar relationships—with all their attendant possibilities and problems—existed in many other places and times among small societies lacking strong institutions to keep order. We can find similar patterns of mutual obligation among historical peoples from places as diverse as the Scottish highlands, the Arabian peninsula, and the Pacific islands. Many customs still surviving in the modern industrialized world, such as exchanges of gifts between guests and hosts or the maintaining of multi-generational family friendships, preserve vestiges of practices that were once vital to making it safe tor travel beyond the boundaries of our own homelands.

Image: detail from “Helen Recognizing Telemachus, Son of Odysseus” via Wikimedia (Hermitage Museum; 1795; oil on panel; Jean-Jacques Largenée)

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.

Fantasy Religions: Novel Religions

The religions that exist in our world can be broadly divided into two categories: traditional religions, which developed gradually in their own native societies and have no clear beginning point, and novel religions, which began at a fixed point in time. Many of the great world religions of the modern day, like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, are novel religions, while some traditional religions, like Shinto, still thrive. Some religions, like Hinduism and Judaism, have features of both. In earlier posts, we’ve discussed what sort of things you may want to keep in mind in your worldbuilding for stories or games to make your imaginary religions feel more authentically traditional. Today we’ll take a look at what makes a novel religion feel alive.

There have been many novel religions in world history. A few have gathered large followings and become major forces in the world. Many have faded away after a few generations. Some have done well for a long time, even for centuries, before finally disappearing. There is no single thing that every novel religion has in common, but looking at history, we can see definite patterns as to what makes a new religious movement thrive, even if only for a time. It takes more than a charismatic leader with a new idea, although that is where most of them start.

Connection to the past

New ways of life can be hard to adopt, but they are easier if they connect to things people already know. Christianity and Islam both drew on Jewish traditions, as Buddhism did with the same ancient Indian traditions that informed Hinduism. The ancient Mediterranean cult of Isis based itself on ancient Egyptian religion. Similarly, Zoroastrianism drew on ancient Iranian religious ideas. New movements within existing religions that do not split off on their own also often share the features of novel religions, like the Protestant denominations within Christianity or the Shia branch of Islam. The degree to which new religious movements identify themselves as new or as reforms to or revivals of older traditions can vary widely.

Texts and beliefs

Not every religion, novel or traditional, has sacred texts, but many novel religions do. Such texts help to define how the new movement differs from what has come before and what its followers are expected to do or believe in order to be counted as part of the group. Depending on the religion, these texts may be openly available to anyone who wants to read them, or access to them may be limited only to those who have joined the movement. Novel religions are also more likely to focus on belief, unlike traditional religions which tend to focus on practices and rituals.

Hope in times of trouble

The success of any new religion depends largely on its ability to attract new followers in sufficient numbers to keep the movement going. Most people most of the time aren’t really “in the market” for a new religion, but there are certain times in history when large numbers of people are ready to embrace something new. It tends to happen in times of suffering and uncertainty, among people who have been displaced from their homes and familiar ways of life. The Bacchanal cult of the second century BCE appealed to Italian peasants who had been driven from the countryside into the cities by economic desperation. Haitian Vodou and related religions came out of the traumas of enslaved West Africans in the Caribbean and the Americas. Christianity and Islam both, in different periods and different ways, emerged among the victims of Roman imperialism. Novel religions often offer purpose, identity, and community to people who have lost the things that gave them those comforts before.

Difficult (but not too difficult)

A novel religion often thrives when it demands practices of its followers that are difficult, but not excessively difficult, to carry out. Muslims are expected to pray five times a day. Buddhists engage in meditation of many different kinds. Followers of Isis were expected to furnish a feast for their fellow worshipers upon joining. These kinds of practices, which require time, focus, and effort, but are not overly demanding, help foster a sense of community by creating shared experiences. At the same time, religions which demand overly difficult practices tend to see their followings dwindle. Converts to Mithraism went through initiations involving withstanding heat, cold, and pain (although probably not bathing in bull’s blood, as sometimes alleged). The rigors of these initiations, as well as the fact that it seems to have been open only to men, may have limited the cult’s appeal and kept it from gaining a critical mass of followers.

Outward from the middle

Novel religions tend to begin neither at the top nor at the bottom of the social scale but somewhere in the middle. Simply put, the rich and powerful have little to gain from upending the order of things, while the poor and powerless don’t have the time to ponder on the mysteries of the universe. New religious movements tend to begin among people who, if not always “middle class” by a modern definition, are somewhere on the middling ranks of the social and economic hierarchy. How they spread from there differs. Some religions grow by promising the hope of a better life to the poor, as Christianity did, while others, such as Confucianism, grow by appealing to a discontented elite.

Food

Food, for many of us, is a vital part of our sense of identity and community—think of your favorite family recipes or the special holiday dishes that remind you of heritage and home. Many novel religions present new ways of eating as part of the creation of a new communal identity. One of the central rituals of Christianity involves consuming (literally or metaphorically, depending on one’s theology) the body and blood of the founding figure. Muslims are enjoined to fast during daylight hours during Ramadan and to avoid certain food and drink, including pork and alcohol, altogether. Manichaeism taught that adherents had a duty to spread light in the world and combat darkness by eating certain foods and avoiding others. Eating together, or eating in similar ways to other followers elsewhere, helps to maintain the bonds that hold the adherents of a new religion together.

Thoughts for writers

As an example of how these features of novel religions can inform worldbuilding, here is a short description of an imaginary movement in an imaginary world.

The borderlands of Jash have been ravaged by decades of war between the Jashite cities and the invading armies of the Akluni Empire. As refugees from the rugged hills and scrublands of northern Jash stream into the cities of the lush Jash River valley, they find misery, poverty, and violence. Many of the refugees, looking for the solace of the familiar, have filled the neglected temples of Uzuli, the moon goddess favored by borderland shepherds but little regarded by the city folk.

Among the merchants and farmers of the Jash cities, tensions have been growing as no city seems capable of leading a coordinated response to the Akluni threat. Factions have formed within the cities, some arguing for peace with Aklun, others for resistance to the death; some for throwing the refugees out to fend for themselves, others for redistributing farmland to provide for the hungry. Encounters between members of these factions in the streets and market often lead to harangues, arguments, even fistfights.

Lately, a woman calling herself the Moon Daughter has been gathering crowds in the side streets of the city of Busa, giving stirring speeches promising a return of peace and prosperity. She comes from one of the lesser merchant families of Busa, but no longer speaks to them after beginning her work in the streets. She reports visions from Uzuli that call for all the people of Jash to be as one, to return to the simpler ways of the country, and to withstand the assault of Aklun not by arms but with the patience of Uzuli, who does not fear the waning because she knows that the full moon will come again.

The Moon Daughter’s early followers came from among other merchants families, whose fortunes have fallen under the pressure of war, but she increasingly draws crowds of hinterland refugees. Some of her followers have begun writing down her speeches and publishing them as pamphlets. “Eat of the bitter terebinth and the prickly pear” she says, “in memory of our home that is lost. Then drink of the honeyed wine that promises peace and harmony forever in the turning of the moon.” Her followers gather for common meals, eating and drinking as she commands, but also sharing what food they have with those who have none.

Building in some of the common features of novel religions helps the Moon Daughter’s movement feel fuller and more grounded in the world. It also offers interesting storytelling hooks. What happens if Busa is conquered by Aklun and the Moon Daughter and her followers have to flee elsewhere? What if the priestesses of Uzuli challenge the Moon Daughter for false prophecy? What if the Moon Daughter’s movement becomes so popular its followers take control of Busa, and then have to negotiate with the other Jashite cities who haven’t joined the movement? What if the Akluni Empire collapses and the refugees return home bringing the Moon Daughter’s words and ideas with them, but leaving the life of the city far behind? There are lots of directions you could take a story or a game from this beginning.

Other entries in Fantasy Religions:

Image: Manichaean diagram of the universe via Wikimedia (China; 1279-1368 CE; paint and gold on silk)

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