Race in Antiquity: Identities

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

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

Part 2: Identities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Hermippus of Smyrna, frag. 13

(All translations my own.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

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

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

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Magic Words

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

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

– Cato the Elder, On Agriculture 160

(My own translation.)

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

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

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

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

There’s magic in words, spoken or written.

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

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

Race in Antiquity: The Question

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

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

Part 1: The Question

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Further parts to come.)

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

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

Custom is King

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

Here’s the story he tells:

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

– Herodotus, Histories 3.38

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

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

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

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

What Makes a Fantasy World Feel European?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post edited for clarity and to correct historical inaccuracies.

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

Sun, Moon, and Stars

Today, as many of us eagerly await the coming solar eclipse, is a good time to think about how peoples of the past experienced the sky. While eclipses were rare and sometimes frightening events for ancient cultures, living day to day with the rhythms of the sun, moon, and stars shaped how different peoples measured and thought about time.

Peoples whose way of life depended on mobility, such as hunter-gatherers and pastoralists, had good reason to care about the cycles of the moon. A bright full moon could provide enough light to travel long into the night while at the same time bringing out both prey animals that hunters depended on and

nocturnal predators that could be a danger to pastoralists and their flocks. Timing movement, hunting, and watchful nights around the cycles of the full moon was advantageous to peoples whose lives and livelihoods were shaped by forces like these. The lunar cycle—the period of just over 29.5 days between one full moon and the next—formed the basis for dating systems organized around months alternating between 29 and 30 days.

Agriculturalists, on the other hand, depended more on the sun, whose light and warmth they needed for their crops. Timing planting and harvest to the cycle of the seasons was crucial—plant too early and the crops could die from cold or drought; plant too late and the harvest would not mature before the growing season ended. Since the lunar cycle does not match up with conveniently with the solar year of just under 365.25 days, early farmers had to either adjust their calendars by fudging with the number of months in each year (a process called “intercalation”) or else track the time by counting the days in the year.

But the solar year doesn’t come out to an even number of days, so solar calendars require adjusting as well. We do this today by adding an extra day to February in leap years, but ancient peoples often depended on the observation of astronomical phenomena, such as the solstices and equinoxes or the yearly cycle of observable stars in the night sky. Different cultures approached this problem in different ways. In some places, people built megalithic monuments, like Stonehenge or the aboriginal Australian stone arrangement at Wurdi Youang, to mark critical astronomical alignments. Other peoples, such as the Maya, Babylonians, and ancient Chinese, developed sophisticated mathematical methods of observing and predicting astronomical events. Hindu sages in the fourth through tenth centuries CE calculated the length of the year to an accuracy within a few minutes of modern observations. Pre-modern people pictured familiar images in the constellations of the stars not just out of an impulse to explain the visible world around them but as a memory aid for tracking the movements of important markers of the cycle of the year.

The various lunar, solar, and astronomical ways of calculating time have all left their mark on the cultures who used them. Some important modern holidays, like Christmas and the midsummer holidays celebrated in many parts of the world, fall on or near important days in the solar calendar. Others, like Ramadan, are determined by a lunar calendar and move through the seasons year by year. Still others, like Passover and Diwali, represent a compromise between lunar and solar systems—tied to a season, but falling each year on a day determined by lunar cycles. The tracking of the year through the movement of constellations across the sky, once vital to the survival of agrarian societies, remains with us in the popular pseudoscience of astrology.

Thoughts for writers

In worldbuilding, calendars are useful not just for coordinating the events of your plot but as a reflection of the societies your stories take place in. If the celestial mechanics of your world is anything like ours, people will look to the sky to help them keep track of the conditions that matter in their way of life, but different societies will care about different things. Cultures that place a premium on mobility or who care about the movements of animals—whether predators or prey—will particularly pay attention to the cycles of the moon (or whatever else lights up the night). Sedentary, agricultural societies will need to mark the turning of the seasons by the movements of the sun and stars. A lot of societies will have reasons to combine solar and lunar calendars: herders and hunters need to manage the migration of animals from one season to the next, and lunar cycles are useful for farmers to coordinate market days, social events, and political gatherings. Cultures that have incorporated both pastoral and agricultural traditions are likely to reflect the history of that negotiation in how they mark the passage of the year. The sun, moon, and stars are not just beautiful parts of the natural world; they were vital tools in the lives of people all around the world in history, as they continue to be for many people today.

Image: Two diagrams with the sun and the moon via Wikimedia (currently Getty Center; late 13th c.; ink, paint, and gold leaf on parchment)

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.

The Secret of Roman Concrete

Trajan’s Market, Rome, with a vaulted concrete ceiling over brick walls, photo by Szilas via Wikimedia

Roman concrete is an architectural marvel. It made it possible for the Romans to build structures unlike any built with the techniques of stone masonry. It turns out Roman concrete is also a chemical marvel. The combination of volcanic ash and rock, lime, and seawater gradually becomes stronger over time as the interaction of the volcanic components and the seawater forms new minerals that fill up cracks and reinforce the structure.

An article from the Guardian explains the process:

Over time, seawater that seeped through the concrete dissolved the volcanic crystals and glasses, with aluminous tobermorite and phillipsite crystallising in their place. These minerals […] helped to reinforce the concrete, preventing cracks from growing, with structures becoming stronger over time as the minerals grew.

Given the limitations of Roman science, it’s doubtful that an ancient Roman concrete expert could have explained the chemical processes that happened in concrete, but that doesn’t mean that Romans just stumbled onto this formula by accident. Even with a limited theoretical understanding, smart people can acquire a lot of practical knowledge through experimentation and careful observation.

Thoughts for writers

Something to keep in mind when worldbuilding: practical knowledge doesn’t have to come from theoretical knowledge. In fact, it is often the opposite: theoretical knowledge develops from an attempt to explain what we already know practically to be true. If you want your fictional cultures to be able to make sturdy concrete, or airships, or vaccines, that doesn’t require them to have a modern understanding of chemistry, physics, or biology. Pre-modern peoples discovered lots of useful things by trial and error and paying close attention to the world around them, even if their attempts to explain why those things worked were sometimes wide of the mark, or they never attempted to explain them at all.

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.

Greek Myth, Etruscan Tomb

We like to think of the modern world as one in which different cultures intertwine and overlap with one another, but there were complicated cross-cultural interactions in the ancient world as well. For example, look at this wall painting from an Etruscan tomb.

Sacrifice of Trojan captives, photograph by Battlelight via Wikimedia (François Tomb, Vulci; late 4th c.; fresco)

This scene depicts an incident from the Trojan War. After his friend Patroclus was killed in battle, the great Greek warrior Achilles went mad with grief. He piled up an enormous funeral pyre for Patroclus, on top of which he also killed twelve Trojan prisoners. At the center of this painting, Achilles slits the throat of a naked Trojan prisoner while a Greek soldier leads another prisoner to the slaughter from the right. To the left, the ghost of Patroclus, in a blue cloak with a bandage over the fatal wound in his chest, looks on in dismay.

This incident comes from the Greek legends of the Trojan War and is mentioned in the Iliad, but it is a rather obscure scene. It was rarely, if ever, referred to in later Greek literature or depicted in Greek art. The fact that an Etruscan artist could use this event as the basis for a tomb painting demonstrates a more than passing knowledge of Greek myth.

The Etruscans were a people of northern Italy who had extensive trade contacts with the Greeks and imported large quantities of fine pottery and other Greek luxury goods. They also imported Greek legends and stories, which they frequently depicted in their own artworks. Like the painting in the François Tomb, Etruscan art often picks up on obscure or unusual incidents that were not widely depicted in Greek art. This selectiveness tells us that Etruscans were not just copying the Greek art that they acquired but were making conscious artistic choices based on extensive knowledge of the Greek material.

This painting also adds some uniquely Etruscan elements to the scene. The winged woman directly behind Achilles is Vanth, an Etruscan goddess whose role seems to have been to decide the fate of the souls of the dead. The blue-skinned man to Achilles’ right is Charu, another Etruscan god who led the souls of the dead to wherever Vanth decided to send them. Vanth and Charu are purely Etruscan characters with no basis in the Iliad. Greek myth had figures who performed similar functions, but they looked nothing like Vanth and Charu.

These two figures are not simply added to the scene. The way that they frame the sacrificial act and share a knowing look over Achilles’ head changes the scene’s meaning. Rather than just seeing Achilles’ awful act, we see that his act happens in a context that transcends the mortal world. The Greek afterlife was pretty much universally bleak, except for a few select troublemakers who got ironically tortured. The Etruscan afterlife is poorly understood, but they seem to have believed that the deeds of the living affected the fate of the dead, which could be pleasant or terrifying. In this painting, Vanth and Charu seem to be saying to one another: “We see what’s happening here, and it won’t be forgotten. We’re here for the Trojans this time, but Achilles’ day is coming.”

This painting is one that a Greek artist would never have painted and that a Greek viewer wouldn’t have understood. It only made sense to an Etruscan, but to an Etruscan who knew their Iliad well enough to recognize the figures of Achilles and Patroclus and identify the moment in the story that was being depicted. Here in this image we have a moment of cross-cultural interaction on display.

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.

Know Your Barbarians

The word “barbarian” today conjures a fairly specific image: a large, muscular man or woman wearing leather or furs hefting an enormous weapon. They are ragged and dirty and if they have any kind of organization, it is as a rabble of warriors following whoever happens to be the strongest. This image has its roots in classical Greek and Roman literature, but Greco-Roman ideas about barbarians were broader and more complicated than this.

Greeks and Romans both had complicated relationships with the outside world. The economy of ancient Greece depended on foreign trade, especially with Egypt, but Greece was also on the northwestern frontier of the Persian empire, which often threatened Greek cities or interfered in their internal politics. Rome was an expansionist empire with ambitions of conquering the whole world, but the strength and stability of the empire depended on integrating conquered peoples into Roman culture.

Out of these historical experiences, Greek and Roman writers, artists, and philosophers developed a wide repertoire of narrative models for describing other peoples. These narratives ranged from the nuanced and admiring to the stereotyping and pejorative. “Barbarian” could mean many different things in different times and contexts. Among this repertoire, there were conventional archetypes that authors and artists could draw on and expect that their audience would recognize them.

These archetypes were nebulous conglomerations of tropes and stereotypes, not always consistent and liable to be manipulated, tweaked, and subverted in individual works of art or literature. They could be reduced to caricature or filled out with individual details. They functioned much like modern national and ethnic stereotypes. Imagine the caricature version of a British gentleman, replete with bowler hat and umbrella. We might expect such a character to have certain typical qualities, both positive (unflappable, chivalrous, witty) and negative (stodgy, proud, insensitive) and engage in typical behaviors (sipping tea, playing polo, driving a Jaguar). Of course, stereotypes don’t have to be followed. A Brit in a bowler hat with an umbrella may also turn out to be a tongue-tied chocoholic who raises miniature goats and likes to watch telenovelas, but the author who creates such a character and the audience that encounters them will recognize how the standard tropes have been played with.

Greeks and Romans had two principal archetypes for barbarians. One was based on small, materially poor, less well organized cultures mostly found to the west or north, such as Scythians, Thracians, Gauls, Germans, Iberians, Britons, and Dacians. The other was based on large, wealthy, sophisticated cultures mostly found to the east or south, such as Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, Lydians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans.

The northwestern barbarians are the ancestors of the modern “barbarian” image. They were portrayed as violent, ignorant, savage, and lacking in technology and social organization. They had no idea how to behave in a civilized society and were almost like wild animals. They lived in poverty and with barely any kind of government except the ability of the strong to impose their will on others. They could also be shown with good qualities, such as generosity and honesty. The were the original “noble savages,” ignorant of the benefits of civilization but also uncorrupted by its temptations.

The southeastern barbarians were the opposite. They were portrayed as weak, decadent, devious, overwhelmed by luxury and tangled in arcane social hierarchies. They had given in to the corrupting effects of civilization and overindulged in every kind of physical pleasure. They lived like slaves under the rule of despotic tyrants, but they were so accustomed to the comforts of luxury that they lacked the will to resist. They could have positive qualities as well. Their cultures were ancient and sophisticated, rich in accumulated knowledge. We don’t have a good term for the opposite of “noble savages,” but we might call them “depraved sophisticates.”

Central to both of these archetypes is one of the key values of Greco-Roman society: self-control. The southeastern barbarians displayed too little of it, giving in every kind of indulgence and unable to resist the rule of a tyrant. The northwestern barbarians, by contrast, were too willful, unable to subordinate themselves to the structures of law and social order. By creating these archetypes, Greeks and Romans positioned themselves in the middle—sophisticated enough to enjoy the benefits of civilization, but strong enough to resist its corrupting effects.

Both of these archetypes have come down into modern literature. The northwestern barbarian has become the standard modern “barbarian,” but aspects of it can also be seen in modern Western stereotypes of Africans, African Americans, and Native Americans. “Darkest Africa” stories about wild cannibal tribes dumbfounded by modern technology and scientific knowledge play upon the same images of violence, savagery, and technological ignorance that Romans applied to the Gauls and Germans. The southeastern barbarian formed the basis for romanticized Western depictions of the Islamic world, China, and India. “Arabian Nights” fantasies of scandalous harems and treacherous palace politics, ancient secrets and fabulous treasures hidden in the twisting back streets behind markets filled with spices and gems evoke Greek tales about Egypt and Persia.

These archetypes have also found their way into fantasy and science fiction. Tolkien’s Elves reflect some of the more positive southeastern qualities of wisdom and sophistication while his Orcs display the violent, fractious, bestial traits of the northwest. Star Trek‘s Klingons and Romulans represent the tropes of warlike honor and treacherous sophistication. The people of Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones face the rugged, wild, disorderly peoples of the north and the rich, old, devious kingdoms of the east.

Once you know your barbarians, you’ll recognize them everywhere.

Images: Hyboria, by Yan R. via Flickr. Sultan from the Arabian Nights, by Rene Bull via Wikimedia.

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

Heroic Warfare and Mass Warfare

There are many ways to fight a battle, even in worlds without modern weapons and techniques. Two terms that are useful for thinking about pre-modern battles are heroic warfare and mass warfare.

Heroic warfare is centered on a small number of leaders. These leaders are usually the most experienced and best equipped fighters their side of the fight can muster. They rely on their reputation as great warriors, so they need to stand out and be seen by everyone on both sides. In heroic warfare, battle begins not with both sides rushing into the fight but with the leaders stepping forward to identify themselves, boast about their victories, taunt leaders on the other side, and generally try to intimidate the enemy while boosting their own troops’ morale.

Mass warfare relies upon large numbers of soldiers who are all similarly equipped and who fight as a group. Commanders often stand out so that their own troops can identify them and follow their lead on the field, but they fight as part of the group and success does not depend on their individual reputation.

Historically, heroic warfare tended to be practiced in small-scale, culturally homogeneous societies. As societies grow larger and more complex, they tend to shift away from heroic warfare to mass warfare. There are practical reasons for this. The advantage of fighting in heroic style is that it greatly limits the number of casualties. The point of all the showing off and boasting at the beginning of the battle is try to convince the other side that they can’t win and so they’d be better off coming to terms and avoiding the fight altogether. For that to work, though, both sides have to have enough confidence in one another that they can make an agreement and expect the other side to honor it. That kind of confidence usually depends on having a shared set of cultural norms and values. It is much harder to manage across a wide cultural divide.

At the same time, heroic warfare is not all for show. The message that a heroic leader is trying to send is: “If we actually do start fighting, we’re going to beat you.” For that message to be credible, the leader has to be able to back it up, and even the best leader is no good without followers. Heroic warfare depends not just on the leader standing in front but on the soldiers standing behind them ready to fight if the other side doesn’t back down. Heroic warfare works when the number of troops on both sides is small enough that one well-equipped, skilled leader’s participation in battle might actually make a difference. In larger societies that can put thousands of soldiers on the field, the talents of individual leaders are much less relevant to the outcome of a fight.

Thoughts for writers

We like heroes. As storytellers, we tend to focus on the stories of individuals, even in settings where the actions of groups matter more to the outcome. There is nothing new about this. Ancient myths and medieval romances are full of heroic warriors, even though they were told by people who lived in times of mass warfare. The ethos of heroic warfare is undeniably appealing, but if it is going to make sense in our stories we have to think about how to make it work in settings where it doesn’t naturally fit.

There is a place for heroic warriors in settings of mass warfare. Where most of the real fighting is done by mass armies, there are still times when a powerful leader can make a difference—when events that play out on a small scale matter to the larger battle and when threat and intimidation are called for. These are the moments we need to craft as writers.

In other words, even when most of the fighting is done by these guys

you can still find a place for someone like this.

Images: Battle of Issus via Wikimedia (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples; 1st c. BCE; mosaic). Stormtroopers via Giphy. Darth Vader via Giphy.