Two-Question Worldbuilding

There are lots of different ways to imagine new secondary worlds and the cultures within them. You can start from the ground up—literally—by drawing a map and thinking about how the landscape shapes the cultures within it. You can start with a big concept and work your way down into the details from that, or go the other way and start with a single detail that serves your narrative, then build the rest of the world around it.

But sometimes you don’t want to mess with all that. Sometimes you’re writing a story or mapping out a game and you need your characters to have a little bit of interaction with a far-off foreign land, but not enough to make it worth developing in every detail.

Here are two quick questions you can ask to lay the basis for simple worldbuilding for side cultures in pre-industrial worlds that still gives them some substance:

  • How many people have control over their own source of food?
  • How much do those people have to compete with others for food sources?

We’re not talking actual numbers or anything quantifiable here, just a general sense: a little bit, a fair amount, or a lot?

(Food sources come in many forms. We most often think of farms and herds of animals, but consider also fishing and hunting, trading with food-producing regions abroad, or raiding richer neighbors.)

The first question tells you about social structure: food is crucial to life, so access to it is one of the most powerful ways people can assert control over others or claim their own independence.

Where only a few people control the available food sources and most other people are in some way dependent on them, there is strong social stratification. It could take many forms: tenant farming, slave plantations, highly-regulated trade markets, or organized piracy of trade routes. Whatever the case, the society will have a small elite marked out by their wealth, way of life, or social privileges.

When most people control their own food sources, you have a much less stratified society. It could be small farms, independent merchant families, or bands of friends who hunt and fish together. The society need not be perfectly egalitarian—some farmers or trading partnerships may be wealthier than others—but when most people are self-sufficient, the rich have less leverage to get the poor to go along with any claims they make to special privileges. Societies where people aren’t dependent on others for survival can also have trouble organizing any kind of large-scale collective action, whether it’s setting up an organized legal system or sending an army on campaign.

In between, you get a range of possibilities: some people manage by fishing and keeping market gardens, others labor on the estates of the rich, while bands of young warriors form up now and then when things get tough to go plunder richer lands, then come home and return to their homesteads. In a society where people live at many different levels of subsistence, social stratification can be complicated, but also fluid. A tenant farmer may be able to save enough over time to buy a plot of their own and join the ranks of independent farmers, while an aristocrat who suffers a run of bad harvests may have to sell their tenanted estates and buy a smaller patch they can farm themselves, but that doesn’t make them social equals.

The second question goes to internal conflict: the more people who have to compete over resources, the more turmoil you are likely to see within a society.

When there is little competition over resources—either because they are abundant enough for everyone or because those who control them have a grip too tight to be challenged—societies are likely to be stable. Some may be inward-looking and peaceful, others may simply export their conflicts abroad: a state full of rich farmers might support a large army to invade and colonize other lands, or a society with no resources available at home might drive the poor and desperate to raid their neighbors or move away as laborers or mercenaries.

By contrast, in a culture where there’s not enough to go around or where those who have resources can’t effectively defend them, expect a high level of internal conflict. This conflict might take violent forms, from ongoing petty raiding between neighbors to civil wars, or it might be channeled into cutthroat negotiations between rival trading houses or a frantic scramble for royal patronage among the highborn families.

In between the extremes, at a moderate level of competition, you are likely to see a society that goes through cycles of stability and fractiousness, where the winners know that they can’t hold onto their gains forever, but the losers can afford to lick their wounds, build new alliances, and hope to come out on top next time.

Below is a rough chart of what a society with a particular combination of resource distribution and competition may look like. Remember that these are patterns and tendencies, not absolute rules. Our own world’s history will furnish plenty of examples of societies that don’t fit these patterns, and you can certainly imagine worlds that don’t. But if you find yourself in need of some quick-and-dirty worldbuilding, this is a good place to start.

Chart by Erik Jensen

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

A Busy Paeonian Woman

The Greek historian Herodotus tells a story about how the Persians were induced to conquer the Paeonians, a people of the southern Balkans. Like many of Herodotus’ stories, this one is probably more folklore than fact, but it’s a story with a point.

The story takes place while the Persian king Darius was campaigning in the Aegean from his base in the Lydian city of Sardis. A couple of ambitious Paeonian aristocrats figured that if they could convince Darius to conquer Paeonia, they could set themselves up as his local representatives and rule the Paeonians in his name. Here’s how they went about piquing Darius’ interest:

After Darius had crossed over to Asia, two Paeonians by the names of Pigres and Mantyes came to Sardis along with their tall and beautiful sister. They wanted to make themselves tyrants over the Paeonians, and when they had observed Darius sitting outside the town of the Lydians to hold his court, they went about it like this: they dressed their sister up in her best and sent her to fetch water carrying a pitcher on her head while leading a horse by her shoulder and spinning flax. Went she went by, the sight of her caught Darius’ interest, since no Persian or Lydian woman did what she did, indeed no woman of Asia at all did. He was so intrigued that he sent some of his guards to keep an eye on the woman and see what she did with the horse. They reported what they had seen: when she reached the river, she watered the horse, filled the pitcher up to the top with water, and went back again by the same route, carrying the water on her head, leading the horse by her shoulder, and turning her spindle.

– Herodotus, Histories 5.12

(My own translation)

Darius falls for the trick and is convinced that such amazingly hardworking people should be added to his empire.

There are some things to notice about this story. One is some rather complicated gender politics. On one hand, you could hardly find a more literal example of men exploiting the hard work of women for their own gain. On the other hand, it’s interesting that the Paeonian brothers thought that the best way to impress the Persian king was not with the bravery or endurance of Paeonian men but with the diligence and skill of Paeonian women. The fact that it worked implies that Darius both appreciated how difficult a task it was to do three things at once—fetch water, manage a horse, and spin flax—and saw such skill as a good addition to his empire. Herodotus’ story is likely fictional, but it may suggest some Greek awareness of how highly women’s labor was valued in Persia.

To look at it from a different point of view, however, we have to remember that the whole thing was a con, and Darius was the dupe who fell for it. Ordinary Paeonian women weren’t going around carrying jugs, watering horses, and spinning all at the same time while looking their best, and Darius was a fool for thinking they did. That’s something for all of us to remember in these days of social media and the fetishization of busy-ness. We are all like Darius, seated outside the city walls watching carefully curated false images of people doing impossible amounts of work and looking fabulous doing it. And, just like Darius, we’ll all be better off it we recognize it for the lie that it is.

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

Well-Dressed Immortals

Very few works of art survived from ancient times with color intact, which can make it hard to imagine just how richly colorful the world may have been in the past. So we’re fortunate to have this frieze of Persian soldiers in glazed brick survive with so much visible color, especially the richly patterned details of their robes. These soldiers, depicted on the Persian kings’ palace at Susa, probably represent the professional core of the Persian army, popularly known as the Immortals.

The brightly patterned robes these soldiers wear may be a ceremonial dress more suited to putting on a display at court than to campaigning on the wild frontiers of the empire, but it is interesting to note that the Greek historian Herodotus makes special mention of the clothing of Persian soldiers when praising the bravery of the Athenian and Plataean soldiers who faced them at Marathon:

These were the first Greeks we know of to charge into battle, and also the first to look on men in Persian clothing unshaken, for up to this time even hearing the name of the Persians had struck the Greeks with terror.

– Herodotus, Histories 6.112

(My own translation)

The Persians were well aware of the use of spectacle for political purposes. It may well be that Persian soldiers dressed to impress when on campaign as well in order to intimidate their opponents, for much the same reasons that the British army of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries loved to put their bright red coats on display in formation.

Image: Immortals relief from the palace at Susa, photograph by mshamma via Wikimedia (currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 5th c. BCE; glazed brick)

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

Matrilineality

Most traditional societies around the world have been patrilineal: power and property are passed down the male line of succession, usually from father to son, sometimes from grandfather to grandson, only on rare occasions to other relatives such as nephews, brothers, or cousins who share a common male ancestor. Some societies, however, have been matrilineal, where lines of succession are defined by descent from a common female ancestor. In these societies, power and property typically pass from brother to brother or uncle to nephew, only rarely from father to son.

Matrilineality should not be mistaken for matriarchy. Matrilineal cultures are often just as patriarchal as patrilineal ones are. Matrilineality is not a matter of women having power or being more important in society than men; it’s just a different way of determining which man is important and powerful.

Matrilineal succession can seem confusing and hard to follow for those of us who are used to the rules of patrilineality, but the principle is straightforward: to identify the next in line, find the nearest male relative who can trace their descent through their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc. to a common female ancestor with the current holder of the property or position in question. The nearest would be a brother by the same mother. Next nearest would be a nephew whose mother was the current person’s sister by the same mother.

Here’s an example. Consider this extended family.

In a patrilineal society, here’s how property and power would pass down from the eldest son of the original couple to his son and grandson.

In a matrilineal society, the line of succession from the same eldest son would go first to his brother, then to a nephew, then another nephew, then his brother.

Matrilineal succession has advantages for certain kinds of societies under certain circumstances. For one thing, it spreads power and property out among the family lines of a clan or extended kin group, rather than letting one line have a monopoly. It can also create incentives for skilled and ambitious men to marry into the family—if we image the example above tracing the lines of succession for a kingdom, the men who marry into the family will never be king themselves, but their sons and grandsons might be. Another advantage to matrilineality is it multiplies the number of legitimate heirs within any given generation, which can be helpful in times of crisis when a man might die leaving no sons of age to take over his position.

For these reasons, matrilineal patterns of succession often appear in societies that need to encourage cohesion and cooperation among different families in the face of a dangerous world.

Thoughts for writers

Lots of good stories involve questions of succession, whether its the return of a lost heir to claim their rightful inheritance, a struggle for power among rival families, or the mysterious death of a rich old miser. If you’re in the mood to write that kind of story, it’s worth thinking about the rules of succession in your world and what consequences they might have for your characters. Even if a matrilineal society isn’t in the cards, it’s good to remember that not everything has to go from father to eldest son.

Charts by Erik Jensen

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

History for Writers Compendium: 2020

History for Writers explores history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s what we’ve been talking about in 2020:

Thinking historically

Thinking mythically

Imagining other places

Living other lives

Writing other worlds

People in the past

Join us in 2021 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

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

Accessibility Ramps at Ancient Greek Sanctuaries

A recent article in the journal Antiquity by archaeologist Debby Sneed argues that some ancient Greek temples were built with ramps to make them more accessible to people with limited mobility.

The argument begins from the observation, already familiar to archaeologists, that some temples had stone ramps leading from ground level up to the sanctuary. While in some places these ramps clearly seem designed to facilitate the movement of carts or chariots as part of religious rituals or the delivery of supplies and offerings, many are too narrow to be explained this way. Nor can these ramps be explained as part of the building process, since they are permanent and built in stone—far more difficult and expensive to construct than the packed earth ramps that would have been used in building—and they reach only to the level where people would have entered the temple, not all the way to the roof where building materials had to reach.

The interesting observation that Sneed adds to the discussion is that the distribution of these ramps is neither universal nor random, but they are particularly associated with temples connected with healing, and especially with temples where the evidence of inscriptions and votive offerings show a special focus on healing afflictions of the legs and other impairments to mobility. This pattern of distribution, while not definitive, does suggest that the ramps were purposely built at these particular sites to make it easier for people who might have difficulty climbing steps to gain access to the temple structures where they could participate in prayers or healing rituals.

Once built, of course, these ramps could well have served other purposes as well, such as making it easier to bring in offerings or supplies such as wood or wine needed for the routine operations of the temple, but this is also true of mobility accommodations today: once there’s a ramp in place, lots of people can use it for lots of different purposes. The planners of these sanctuaries may well have had this kind of multiplicity of functions in mind when building the ramps. Nevertheless, the fact that these ramps tend to appear at healing sanctuaries and not at others does indicate that the particular needs of those temples and their patrons were an important factor in the design.

The study of disability and its accommodation in history is a growing field. Studies like this one show how revisiting familiar evidence with new questions in mind can yield fertile new observations and interpretations.

Sneed’s full article can be read at cambridge.org.

Image: Artist’s reconstruction of the Temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus, Sneed, Debby, “The Architecture of Access: Ramps at Ancient Greek Healing Sanctuaries,” Antiquity (2020): 1-15, 9.

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 Curious Case of Wikipedia, My Book, and Odoacer’s Mother

I recently had the odd experience of discovering that my book Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World is cited as a source on Wikipedia, and then realizing that it is cited as a source for something the book does not actually say.

The reference is on the page about Odoacer, a “barbarian” king who ruled portions of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century CE. Here’s the sentence in which I am cited, at least as it appeared in early September, 2020:

Historian Erik Jensen, avows that Odoacer was born to a Gothic mother and that his father, Edeco, was a Hun.

 

This sentence cites page 16 of Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World, but here is what page 16 actually says:

Classical ideas about identity […] allowed for fluidity and ambiguity, on both the individual and societal level. The last Roman king, Tarquinius Superbus, is an individual example. Though Superbus was identified as Roman, his father Tarquinius Priscus was an Etruscan, whose own father, Demaratus, was a Greek: in three generations of the same family we find three different ethnic identities. At the other end of Roman history we find Orestes, a provincial Roman who joined Attila’s Huns and later made himself de facto western Roman emperor. He was succeeded by his son Romulus Augustus, the famed “last Roman emperor,” who was soon dethroned by Odoacer, a Goth whose father Edeco had been a Hun.

 

Do you notice what’s missing? I said nothing at all about Odoacer’s mother.

We know virtually nothing about Odoacer’s mother. Some ancient sources describe her as coming from the Sciri, one of the numerous Germanic-speaking groups who emerged on the eastern Roman frontier in the third and fourth centuries, but, like all too many women in history, she is almost entirely unrecorded in the sources.

Whoever added this sentence to the Wikipedia article made an assumption not supported by my text. It’s an understandable assumption, of course, in a modern context. Modern definitions of ethnicity tend to rely heavily on ancestry and descent. If we know that someone today identifies as, say, Irish, and their father is Lebanese, it’s a fair bet that their mother is Irish, because their Irishness has to come from somewhere. Similarly, if Odoacer was a Goth and his father was a Hun, it may seem natural to assume that he must have gotten his Gothicness from his mother.

But these kinds of assumptions don’t work in the ancient world. While ancestry was an element of ethnic identity in the ancient Mediterranean, it had much less weight than we give it today. And that, in fact, is the entire point of passage cited: we simply cannot assume that one ancient person’s ethnic identity necessarily tells us anything about how their ancestors or their descendants identified themselves.

Now, to be fair, in talking about Odoacer as a Goth and Edeco as a Hun, I was simplifying a far more complicated and tenuous set of scholarly arguments. This is how these figures are identified in some ancient sources, but there are arguments not just about how we should describe Odoacer and Edeco but even about whether we have correctly identified these individuals and their relationship to one another. These questions are particularly vexed both because the surviving primary sources for late Roman history in the West are so fragmentary and because the various groups that emerged on the late Roman frontiers were often loosely defined alliances rather than rigidly established ethnic tribes. Goth and Hun, in particular, were names that were readily adopted by people of many different backgrounds and cannot be assumed to tell us anything about the ancestry of any given individual.

So I’ll accept the blame for simplifying an issue that should not have been simplified and writing a sentence that suggested more certainty than the sources will really sustain. I will try to take this as a lesson for the future to be more careful about the dangers of choosing brevity over clarity. I hope this can also be a cautionary tale for us all: check that your sources actually say what you think they say.

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

Artemisia: Between Greece and Persia

We know little about the life of Artemisia I (early 5th c. BCE – ca. 460 BCE) apart from one event, but that event and her participation in it give us a valuable insight into how Greeks lived at the frontiers of the Persian Empire.

Artemisia was the daughter of Lygdamis I, the first satrap of the city of Halicarnassus under Persian rule. Halicarnassus was a city on the coast of Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, one of many culturally Greek cities on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea in the region more broadly known as Ionia. Like other such cities, Halicarnassus’ population was a mixture of local peoples—mainly Carians from the surrounding mountains, in the case of Halicarnassus—and the descendants of Greek settlers and merchants who had migrated to the Anatolian coast over several centuries. Artemisia’s family was a product of such interactions, as her father, Lygdamis, was of mixed Greek and Carian ancestry, and her mother was from Crete.

Lygdamis passed his power down to Artemisia’s husband, of whom we know nothing else except that he died soon thereafter, and Artemisia herself came to power in his place, probably acting as regent for their young son Pisindelis. Artemisia ruled Halicarnassus as a satrap, or local governor, on behalf of the Persian kings. Her most famous deeds came in this role.

When the Persian king Xerxes mounted his invasion of Greece in 480 BCE, he called upon the Ionian Greek cities to furnish warships for the campaign. Despite Athenian efforts to persuade the Ionians to defect or hold back in the fighting, Ionian Greek ships and their crews participated eagerly in the Persian invasion.

As satrap of Halicarnassus, Artemisia had the responsibility to furnish her share of ships for the fleet, but she went even further, personally commanding her own contingent and serving Xerxes as an adviser during the campaign. The historian Herodotus describes her this way:

She led the forces of Halicarnassus, Cos, Nisyurs, and Calyndus, crewing five ships. Of all the ships in the fleet, besides the Sidonians, hers were considered to be the best, and of all the allies she gave the king the best advice.

– Herodotus, Histories 7.99

(All translations my own)

Herodotus credits Artemisia with an exceptional display of skill and cunning in the midst of the Persian naval defeat at the battle of Salamis:

I cannot say exactly how any other ship, whether Greek or barbarian, did in that battle, but this is what happened to Artemisia and won her even greater respect in the eyes of the king. The Persian fleet was in chaos and an Athenian ship was bearing down on Artemisia’s. There was nowhere for her to flee to since her ship was hemmed in by friendly ships and close to the enemy lines, so she made a decision which turned out very well for her. Pursued by the Athenian, she rammed a friendly ship at full speed. This ship was crewed by the Calyndians and carried not only many Calyndian men but also their king, Damasythimus. I cannot say whether there had been some quarrel between Artemisia and Damasythimus when they were stationed at the Hellespont, or if she had planned to attack him, or if it was just by chance that the Calyndian ship was nearby. In any case, when Artemisia rammed and sank that ship it turned out well for her in two ways. In the first place, when the Athenian captain saw her ship sink one of the barbarians, he thought she was either on the Greek side or was coming over to their side, so he broke off and turned his attention elsewhere, and so she got away. In the second place, even though she was doing harm to his own fleet, she won high praise from Xerxes.

They say that as the king was watching the battle and saw her ship ram the other one, someone by his side said: “My lord, do you see what a good fight Artemisia is putting up and how she has sunk one of the enemy’s ships?”

The king asked it if was really Artemisia and the bystander confirmed it, since he knew the markings of her ship well and assumed that the ship she destroyed must be an enemy. As I said, all this turned out to her benefit, since no one from the Calyndian ship survived to accuse her.

In response to this observation, it is reported that Xerxes remarked: “My men have become women, and my women have become men!”

– Herodotus, Histories 8.87-89

Artemisia displayed similar shrewdness when, after the defeat of his fleet, Xerxes consulted his advisers on how to continue the war in Greece. When the general Mardonius offered to remain in Greece and keep fighting while Xerxes himself returned to Persia, Artemisia offered this advice:

When consulted on the question of what to do, Artemisia said: “Sire, it is hard to give good advice in such a case, but what seems best to me is for you to march home and leave Mardonius and whatever troops wish to remain with him here, if he is willing to undertake this task. If Mardonius is successful and accomplishes what he says he can, the credit for it will belong to you, since he is your servant. If he is wrong and things go against him, it will be no great disaster for you and your house. As long as you and your line endure, the Greeks will often face great struggles, and no one will much care if anything happens to Mardonius, nor will defeating your servant count as a great victory for the Greeks. You, however, will depart having accomplished what you set out to do, which was to burn Athens.”

Xerxes was delighted with this advice, since he had been thinking exactly the same thing. He was gripped with such fear that he would not have stayed in Greece even if all the men and women in the world had recommended it. He thanked Artemisia for her advice and entrusted her with taking his children to Ephesus, since he had some of his illegitimate children with him.

– Herodotus, Histories 8.102-103

Now, Herodotus—a fellow Halicarnassian—may be accused of partiality and playing up Artemisia’s involvement in the war effort, but the kinds of deeds he attributes to her are telling. Artemisia was actively engaged in Xerxes’ war, but she was also politically canny and willing to seize her own advantage when it came. Given the opportunity to demonstrate her utility to the king, she took it and personally led her forces as part of the Persian fleet. Finding herself in a difficult position in battle, she saved herself at the cost of a friendly ship. When consulted for her advice, she told the king what he wanted to hear and was rewarded with an important commission.

Many Greeks were in positions like Artemisia’s when it came to the Persian Empire. Persia was large, powerful, rich, and right at the Greeks’ doorstep. Persia was a huge market both for Greek exports and for the services of Greek artists, crafters, and mercenaries. For all that historians have tended to celebrate the Athenians and Spartans for resisting Persian invasions in 490 and 480-479, far more Greeks worked for the Persian kings than ever fought against them.

The boundary between Greece and Persia was porous. Many people went back and forth across it as their own interests dictated. While modern narratives have tended to paint the division between Greece and Persia in stark terms, the reality was much more gray than black and white. Not everyone who negotiated the space between Greece and Persia did it with the skill and panache that of Artemisia, but she was far from alone.

Image: A modern artist’s impression of Artemisia, detail from “Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis” via Wikimdeia (Maximillianum, Munich; 1868; oil on canvas; by Wilhelm von Kaulbach)

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

Arcanus, Miles Arcanus

The Roman fort at Vindolanda in northern Britain, established in the first century CE close to where Hadrian’s Wall would later be built, has yielded an amazing variety of documents written on wooden tablets. These sorts of tablets were used for everyday writing in parts of the Roman world for things like personal letters and shopping lists. I’ve talked about a couple of the finds from Vindolanda before (here and here), but today I’ll turn to one of the more perplexing finds from the site.

Vindolanda tablet 162 is a small strip of wood with two words on it: MILES ARCANU[S]. Miles is clear enough: it means ‘soldier,’ which you would have found plenty of in Vindolanda. Arcanus is more of a puzzle. It can be a personal name, although it’s not common, and it could have been the name of a soldier stationed at Vindolanda. The usual word order in that case, though, would be Arcanus miles, ‘Arcanus, the soldier.’ But as a word on its own, arcanus means ‘secret’ or ‘hidden.’ The clearest reading of this tablet is: ‘Secret soldier.’

What is a secret soldier? The answer may lie in a mention from the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus in his Res Gestae, written in the fourth century CE, referring a group in Britain called the areani. The word areani is itself a puzzle: it exists in no other recorded Latin text. It would seem to mean ‘people of the bare lands’ or possibly ‘people of the sheepfolds,’ and might be a reference to people who lived in the wilderness near the Roman frontier. One widely (though not universally) accepted suggestion, however, is that areani is a medieval scribe’s mistake for arcani, ‘secret ones.’

As for who these secret ones were, Ammianus gives us a pretty clear idea:

Their duty was, by hastening far and near, to keep our generals informed of disturbances among nearby tribes.

– Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae 28.8.3

(My own translations)

This account pictures the arcani/areani as scouts or spies who operated outside the frontiers to gather intelligence on potential military threats. One product of their work may also be preserved at Vindolanda, a fragmentary tablet which seems to preserve a piece of a report on the fighting capabilities of the native Britons:

the Britons are naked [or lacking armor?]. They have lots of cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords. The Brits do not take position to throw javelins.

– Tabulae Vindolandenses 164

We don’t know how widely the arcani existed in the Roman Empire, at least as an organized group. They are documented only in Britain and might have been a peculiarity of that frontier. One of Rome’s weaknesses as a world power was a lack of any centralized gathering of intelligence on the frontier and foreign peoples, and the emperors were often poorly informed as to what was happening at the edges of their empires. On the local level, though, Roman commanders on many parts of the frontier made use of scouts and patrols to keep an eye on the border regions that fell under their purview.

If this kind of scouting is what the Miles arcanus text refers to, why would the text itself have been written? Surely it isn’t a very sly spy who carries around a tablet saying: “I’m a spy.”

The dangers that this particular secret soldier faced, though, did not necessarily all come from the British side of the border. Roman soldiers on frontier patrol had a habit of abusing their power for personal gain, roughing up the locals and shaking down merchants. Another fragmentary letter from Vindolanda appears to be the draft of a complaint from a merchant to the provincial governor about just this sort of bad behavior by a soldier (the beginning is damaged, so we know less than we would like about the event in question):

… he beat me further until I would either declare my goods worthless or else pour them away…. I beg your mercy not to allow me, an innocent man from abroad, about whose honesty you may inquire, to have been bloodied with rods like a criminal.

– Tabulae Vindolandenses 344

Under such conditions, someone whose business required them to travel around beyond the frontier, probably blending in with the locals, but also report back regularly to a fort full of Roman soldiers, might be well advised to carry around something to prove that he was who he said he was: a spy for Rome.

Image by Erik Jensen

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

Doricha: Mastering the Art of Cosmopolitanism

There is little we can say for sure about the life of Doricha (sixth century BCE, approximately contemporary with the poet Sappho). Most of what we know about her comes from legends and tales that make her larger than life. Even so, those legends in themselves tell us something important about the world of the Mediterranean in the Greek archaic age.

Doricha was a courtesan (hetaira in Greek) who worked in the city of Naucratis in Egypt. Courtesans were a class of sex workers in the ancient world, but unlike lower classes of sex workers, who provided sexual services in return for fairly standard rates of pay, courtesans offered and expected much more. A courtesan would do more than have sex with a client (although that was part of what she offered); she offered companionship, conversation, artistic performance, and social grace. What she received in return was often not so clearly specified. It could include money, but also gifts of jewelry, clothing, furniture, and food. She might enjoy a house paid for by a client, or even live with him long term. Courtesans often had ongoing relationships with a select few clients, and part of their work was to build the illusion of a purely romantic and emotional relationship around what was at base an economic transaction of pay for services. This was demanding work, and not everyone could do it well. A successful courtesan had to cultivate an aura of mystery and glamour. At the same time, courtesans were exposed to all the same pressures and dangers that women offering sex in exchange for money have always faced in male-dominated societies. Yet for some women, those who were lucky and who were good at their jobs, work as a courtesan offered a path to personal independence and financial security that few other women in the Greek world could claim.

Doricha was both lucky and good at her job. Originally from Thrace, she arrived in Naucratis as a slave being put to sex work by her owner, a Greek merchant from Samos named Xanthes. While working in Naucratis, she met Charaxus, brother of the poet Sappho, who was trading wine from the family’s home on Lesbos to Egypt. Charaxus was so smitten with Doricha that he bought her freedom from Xanthes. (When he got home, Sappho had some choice things to say about how he had spent the family’s hard-earned money on his business trip, bits of which survive in some of the fragments of her poems.) She then chose to remain in Naucratis and keep working as a free woman the trade she had begun as a slave. She became so successful that at the end of her life she wanted to leave a lasting memorial of her wealth. According to a story told by Herodotus, she spent one tenth of her fortune to make a massive pile of iron roasting spits and deposited them at Delphi, the site of the famous oracle, where Herodotus reports that they were still to be seen in his day. (Herodotus, Histories 2.135)

Like other courtesans, she cultivated an intriguing persona to appeal to her clients. This persona included an alias, Rhodopis, meaning rosy-cheeked in Greek, by which name she is better known. (It was not unusual for ancient courtesans to use aliases, for all the same reasons that women today performing as strippers or porn stars do.) This mysterious persona influenced how her life was told and retold in later generations, and a number of folktales became attached to her story. One claims that while she was a slave in Samos, the fable-writer Aesop was at the same time a slave in the same household. While this one is not impossible, the coincidence stretches belief (and it is not even certain among scholars today that Aesop was ever a real person). Other stories are attached to Doricha’s later life and are even more unbelievable.

One popular tale is the earliest known version of the Cinderella story:

They say that one day, when Rhodopis was bathing, an eagle snatched her sandal from her serving maid and carried it away to Memphis. There the king was administering justice in the open air and the eagle, flying over his head, dropped the sandal in his lap. The king, moved by the beauty of the sandal and the extraordinary nature of the event, sent all through the country to find out whose it was. She was found in Naucratis and conducted to the king, who made her his wife.
– Strabo, Geography 17.1.33

(My own translation)

Another popular myth among Greeks held that one of the three great pyramids at Giza was Doricha’s tomb, built for her by the king after her death. (Herodotus correctly points out that this story was impossible as the pyramid actually belonged to the king Mycerinus, who ruled Egypt some two thousand years before Doricha ever got there, but he also documents that it was a tale widely known among Greeks. Herodotus 2.134) Doricha’s life was one that seemed fabulous, bordering on the mythic. Some of that wonder is down to Doricha herself, who certainly seems like she would have been an interesting person to know, but the tales about Doricha also reflect the wider Greek experience in Naucratis.

In Doricha’s day, Naucratis was a newly-founded Greek colony, and a unique one. Over the course of the archaic age (roughly 750-480 BCE), Greek cities founded numerous colonies around the shores of the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Some of these colonies were large settlements devoted to controlling farmland and producing food, which was a scarce resource back home in Greece, and some colonies either began with or in time acquired a military might that was able to dominate and subjugate the local peoples, but not all colonies were of that kind. Many were small, fairly humble trading posts or Greek immigrant neighborhoods already busy foreign cities and ports. In these colonies, good relations with local people as hosts and trading partners were essential. Naucratis was in some respects like these trading colonies, and one of its important functions was as the official port of trade for Greeks in Egypt. (Herodotus 2.178-9)

Naucratis was also different. It was the only foreign settlement in Egypt officially sanctioned by indigenous kings, and it had begun not as a trading post but as a settlement of Greek and Carian mercenaries in Egyptian service. The kings of Egypt found the Aegean world to be useful recruiting ground for professional soldiers. Greece had all the qualities that powerful states have historically looked for to find mercenaries: it was poor, politically disorganized, and wracked by violence. The result was a large population of experienced fighters who had no stable home or livelihood. Naucratis became not only a place where Greek merchants could bring goods that were in demand in Egypt, like iron, wine, and olive oil, but also a place where Greek soldiers who fell on hard times could go to find ready employment in the Egyptian army.

For the Greeks, Naucratis was the gateway to Egypt and to the possibility of striking it rich, whether as a courtesan, merchant, or mercenary. The tales told about Doricha reflect this sense that Naucratis was a place where amazing things could happen, where one could imagine starting out as a slave and ending up the rich and beloved consort of the king. Most people who came to Naucratis, of course, never had such success, but Doricha is evidence of what was possible there for the talented and lucky. While her story may have been exaggerated over time, it is clear that she managed an enviable rise from low status to exceptional wealth.

Opportunities of this kind were available in the Greek colonies for those lucky enough and determined enough to make the most of them, but making it big in a place like Naucratis required one skill above all: the ability to work across cultural boundaries. Doricha was originally from Thrace. She made her name by serving Greek merchants in Egypt, and at the end of her life she proudly proclaimed her success by making a dedication in the international sanctuary at Delphi, a place frequented not only Greeks but by people of many cultures around the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. The legends about her life imagine her becoming the beloved of the Egyptian king and being commemorated with an Egyptian tomb. All of the other merchants and mercenaries who sought their fortune in Naucratis had to negotiate similar boundaries. Doricha’s life is an example of what could be achieved by those who mastered the art of cosmopolitanism.

Image: “The Beautiful Rhodope in Love with Aesop” via Wikimedia (1780; engraving by Bartolozzi after a painting by Angelica Kauffman)

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