Mountains and Valleys

Landscape and geography shape the ways people live and the kinds of societies they build. While we cannot lay it down as a rule that a particular kind of landscape always produces a corresponding type of society, there are definite patterns that can be found in many parts of the world. One important set of such patterns revolves around the interaction between mountain societies and river valley societies.

River valleys have long been centers of population and growth. Rivers provide crucial resources including drinking water, irrigation water, and fish, which allow for a large population to grow in a small area. Rivers also provide easy transport for people and goods, encouraging travel and trade. As a result, river valleys support the development of large-scale, densely populated settlements. It is no surprise that most of the world’s earliest urbanized societies emerged in river valleys, including the Nile River in Egypt, the Tirgis and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, the Indus River in India, and the Yellow River in China.

Because of the ways that river valleys encourage dense, concentrated populations, the people who live along rivers have to develop ways of managing social conflicts that aren’t necessary in more widely scattered settlements. Early valley cultures were faced with the problem of working out competing claims to resources like irrigation water and access to navigable streams. They also confronted situations in which one person’s actions, such as discharging waste into a common waterway, could affect many other people. Different cultures found different ways of dealing with these problems. Some arrived at relatively peaceful and stable solutions while others frequently fell into conflicts over rights and resources. In the end, though, many river valley cultures ended up with complex, socially-stratified societies ruled over by centralized, bureaucratic governments.

Mountain societies, by contrast, tend to be small-scale, economically simple, and egalitarian. In the mountains, crucial resources such as fertile land and fresh water tend to be scattered in small pockets rather than concentrated in large quantities. Travel is difficult and time-consuming. These facts of geography lead to people living in very small communities, individual farmsteads, or movable camps. Self-sufficiency is at a premium when you can’t easily reach out to a larger community to help solve your problems. Mountain cultures therefore tend to remain small and highly local, and to rely more on personal relationships than organized institutions. Large-scale, organized mountain empires do exist in history, such as the Inca Empire in the Andes, but they are rare.

In some mountain cultures, the very sparseness of the population helps to maintain peace—you don’t fight your neighbors if you never see your neighbors—but the same factors that shape mountain cultures also often encourage violent conflict. When resources are limited, population growth can lead to spikes of competition, sometimes escalating into violence. Without well-developed institutions for managing interpersonal or inter-family conflict, fights over land and other vital resources can spiral out of control or drag on for generations. Many mountain societies have historically been subject to frequent violent conflicts, and those who live in them develop fighting skills as a matter of course.

These basic patterns have tended to shape how mountain cultures and river valley cultures have developed in history, but neither valleys nor mountains exist on their own. When valley societies and mountain societies interacted with one another, a whole new set of dynamics came into play.

Valley societies and mountain societies have often found themselves in conflict, but it is has historically been difficult for one to decisively overcome the other. River valley societies have the resources and surplus population to field large, well-organized armies and to provide those armies with a reliable source of supplies for long campaigns. Valley armies, however, have often struggled to assert control over mountainous regions. The fragmented nature of mountains makes it difficult to move large numbers of troops and supplies around. At the same time, mountains provide plenty of hiding places for local fighters who know the terrain well. Mountainous terrain favors the kind of small, mobile, skirmishing bands and guerrilla tactics that small, feuding, fragmented mountain cultures develop. Sometimes in history, valley empires have been able to assert control over the mountains at their edges, but it requires a concerted effort. The Assyrian Empire of Mesopotamia, for instance, kept up steady pressure against the mountain tribes to the north and east, but never had much direct control over them. The Roman Empire had secure control of the lowlands on both sides of the Alps generations before it could claim success in the mountains themselves.

On the other hand, mountain people rarely have much success at invading well-developed valley cultures. While mountain warriors tend to be good at hit-and-run raiding and harassing tactics that can effectively limit a valley culture’s reach, conquering a valley takes a more coordinated effort and larger numbers of troops than most mountain societies can muster. Without a well-established centralized government, mountain armies are more dependent on ties of family loyalty and negotiated compromises that are hard to maintain far from home under the rigors of a campaign. While there are often hostilities in the hinterlands where organized, expansive river valley powers run up against the scattered but tenacious resistance of mountain-dwellers, it is rare that one side manages to decisively defeat the other.

Decisive defeats can happen, however. Sometimes, as with the Roman conquest of the Alps, Spain, Illyria, and other mountainous parts of the greater Mediterranean, river valley cultures can gather the resources and effort for a concerted push that overwhelms the locals’ ability to resist. Other times, moments of weakness in the valley can create an opening for aggressive mountain neighbors to sweep down and take control. The Zhou Dynasty in China was founded when a people from the mountainous uplands of the west seized power from the Shang Dynasty that had ruled the lowlands of the Yellow River valley. The Persians came from the mountains of the Iranian Plateau to build an empire that took in two of the great ancient river valley civilizations, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The legends of the Mexica, whom we often refer to as Aztecs, say that they came from a mountainous home called Aztlán before migrating into the Valley of Mexico and dominating it with their warriors. There may well be some historical truth behind this myth.

Not all mountain-valley interactions are hostile, however. Sometimes mountain and valley societies can coexist peacefully and profitably. River valleys produce agricultural surplus, which is often in demand in the mountains where farming is harder and less predictable. Mountains can produce useful commodities such as metals, timber, and stone that are harder to come by in the lowlands. Mountains can also be good recruiting grounds for mercenaries to build up valley armies. The rugged mountains of Greece provided trade goods and experienced warriors to Egypt and Egypt in return furnished surplus food to Greece in a relationship that was stable and mutually beneficial.

There are no hard rules in history. The study of the past is as much the study of exceptions and unexpected results as it is of familiar patterns. Still, the patterns are there. History is full of mountain people and river valley people, and the problems and opportunities that arise when they come into contact with one another.

Thoughts for writers

As always, my advice for worldbuilding is: start with the land. The ways that societies shape themselves, cope with problems, and interact with one another are always influenced by the landscape in which they were created.

The dynamics of mountain and valley societies are also applicable to other landscapes. Wherever large numbers of people settle around a shared resource—a mystical Elven city on a nexus of magic-bearing ley lines, say, or a space station guarding a hyperspace portal—similar conflicts are likely to arise, leading to a similar range of possible solutions. Wherever people live in small, scattered communities with limited resources—whether it’s desert nomads traveling from oasis to oasis or hardscrabble asteroid miners—their cultures will likely reflect many of the same influences as mountain societies. When these disparate groups of people interact, they will show the effects of many of the same forces at work between mountain and valley peoples.

The interactions of mountain people and valley people have shaped history. They can shape imagined worlds as well.

Image: Nanga Parbat, Pakistan, photograph by Imrankhakwami 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.

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Bread and Cheese

A sturdy adventurer in a fantasy novel pauses to take a break from their journey to the Land of Quest Completion. They open their knapsack looking for something to eat and what do they find? Bread and cheese.

Always bread and cheese.

It’s a well enough known trope to make an easy, low-hanging joke. It’s the sort of thing you expect in fantasy media whose worldbuilding can be charitably described as “medieval Europe but with magic and dragons and also I’ve never actually read a book on medieval Europe.”

But bread and cheese is not a joke. It is, in fact, a very good and sensible choice for an adventurer to pack for a long and difficult journey.

The human body needs nourishment. For long term health, there are a lot of things you need: a proper balance of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and so on. Doing without any of these essentials for prolonged periods means risking malnutrition, disease, and other serious health problems. For getting through several days or weeks of hard physical work, like traveling in rough terrain or fighting monsters, though, three things are crucial: water, calories, and protein.

An average adult human requires a minimum of about 2 liters of water, 3,000 calories, and 70 grams of protein each day in order to remain fit for physically demanding labor. More is better, but these will get you through if you don’t keep it up for too long. These are the requirements a meal must meet to be suitable for basic adventuring rations.

Water can be found in most parts of the world where people live. It may not be available in large quantities and it may not be safe or pleasant to drink straight from the source, but chances are your standard adventurer can find enough to survive on in most terrains. That leaves calories and protein.

There are lots of different ways of getting both. Your adventurer might eat meat, fish, eggs, milk, beans, vegetables, mushrooms, fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, insects, or plenty of other things. When a variety of food options is available, people like to indulge themselves (as we moderns and our waistlines know all too well). But not all these food items travel well. Fresh vegetables and fruit will wilt and rot. Meat and fish go bad and may attract dangerous animals. Eggs won’t hold up well to being jostled around in a traveler’s knapsack. Some of these products can be dried, salted, pickled, or otherwise preserved to last longer, but processing adds to cost. Depending on growing seasons and local farming practices, these foods may not be available when your adventurer needs them.

Hence the advantages of bread and cheese. In agricultural regions, staple crops like grain are almost always available. Unprocessed grain, if kept dry and safe from vermin, can be kept for a long time. Bread kept similarly dry and safe may become unappealing and tough to chew, but will preserve its nutritional value even after many days of jostling around in a hero’s handy haversack. Cheese can be made wherever there are milk-giving animals (often reared on marginal or fallow land in agrarian communities), and will last a long time without deterioration if well taken care of. In farming societies throughout large parts of the world, bread and cheese are both readily available, inexpensive, and easy to make portable.

Bread provides a good dose of calories and protein; cheese even more. Combined, they provide the complete set of amino acids that the body needs. (It turns out that combining different protein sources is nowhere near as complicated as conventional wisdom says it is. As long as you have a variety of different foods in your diet and you’re not trying to subsist on on a single non-animal source of calories, you’re pretty much covered. Still, for an adventurer braving the wilderness without a lot of variety easily available, it doesn’t hurt to make sure you’ve got everything your body needs in one meal.)

Bread and cheese. Don’t leave on an adventure without it.

Thoughts for writers

Bread and cheese make good sense for adventurers’ traveling rations in a lot of settings, but that doesn’t mean that if you’re writing an adventure you should just fall back on bread and cheese for all your heroes’ dietary needs.

Food is a fundamental part of life. As such, it is an indispensable element in worldbuilding. People eat the things they eat for good reasons, and societies are often structured, in very basic ways, around the production and distribution of foodstuffs. The availability of a single plant can have far-reaching effects on the culture that grows it. The consequences for worldbuilding don’t end with the food itself but carry on into how it is produced and consumed. Descriptions of food in fantasy literature often feature just as local color, but food can in fact inform major parts of your worldbuilding.

Bread and cheese may seem like an overused cliché, but it has been used so much for a reason. It is an entirely sensible and realistic choice of provisions for travelers in the hinterlands of any fantasy world that broadly resembles the living conditions across most of the premodern world. Don’t be afraid to fall back on bread and cheese if it is the right choice for your story, as long as you are choosing it for a reason and not just because it’s what fantasy adventurers always eat.

Image: Bread and cheese wheel, photograph by Andrew Malone via Flickr

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: Short Answers

Over the past year, I’ve been posting on the topic of race in ancient Greek and Roman society. The subject is a much more complicated one than it may at first appear and there is a lot to say about it. Today, to bring things to a conclusion, I’d like to offer some short, simple answers to some basic questions. Like most things in history, the full answers are always more complicated, but these are a start.

Did ancient Greeks and Romans have a concept of race?

Not as we understand it today. They primarily thought of human populations as defined by language, culture, family, and legal status. While they were aware of the kinds of natural variations in skin tone, face shapes, hair types, and other physical features we typically use to categorize race today, they did not generally regard these variations as markers of identity.

Did skin color matter in Greek and Roman society?

Yes, but not as an indicator of race. Across much of the ancient Mediterranean world there was a cultural ideal (at least among the elite levels of society who have left us written evidence) that men should work outdoors, preferably as farmers or soldiers, and women should work indoors, especially at textile production. As a result, dark skin was valued in men—a sign that they had spent plenty of time working in the sun—and light skin was valued in women. Light-skinned men and dark-skinned women were often looked down on for failing to meet this social standard. Judgments about skin color stemmed from prejudices relating to gender and class, not race.

Were there any black people in ancient Greece or Rome?

Yes. Blackness is a modern identity grounded not just in physical features but in historical experience and which we cannot simply apply onto people in the past; however, in simple biological terms, people whose features we would today associate with blackness have been identified in Greek and Roman contexts from as early as the thirteenth century BCE to as as late as the fourth century CE. As genetic evidence becomes more available in archaeological research, the number of known examples will surely grow, but literary and artistic evidence is already abundant.

Were there any East Asian people in ancient Greece or Rome?

Yes. Contacts of trade and diplomacy across Eurasia are well documented and people from East and Southeast Asia have been identified in Greek and Roman contexts as far north and west as Roman London.

Were there any Indigenous American, Australian, or Oceanian people in ancient Greece or Rome?

Not as far as I know, but the development of genetic research may yet surprise us on this score. As far as the present evidence will take us, we can say that Greece and Rome were connected to networks of trade, travel, and migration that spanned Eurasia and Africa, but that appears to be their limit.

Were the black and East Asian people who lived in Greece and Rome seen as different?

It’s hard to say. Ancient authors didn’t spend much time writing about the issue, which in itself may suggest that these sorts of differences didn’t matter, but arguments from silence are hard to rely on. Since Greek and Roman culture did not have a concept of race, though, it seems unlikely that these sorts of variations mattered very much. Just as we notice peoples’ hair and eye color today but don’t generally attach much meaning to it, Greeks and Romans may well have noticed if someone had a different skin tone or facial shape, but they didn’t necessarily think it mattered very much.

Were the black and East Asian people who lived in Greece and Rome also Greeks and Romans?

Most of them probably were. The definition of who could be counted as a Greek or a Roman was flexible and depended on circumstance. In some times and places, lines of identity were tightly policed and newcomers were not welcomed in; in other times and places, the definitions were expansive and new people were easily incorporated. A lot of people who came to the Mediterranean from other parts of the world settled down and had families. Even if the original immigrants were not accepted as Greeks and Romans, there is a good chance that their children and grandchildren thought of themselves and were thought of by their neighbors as being just as Greek or Roman as anyone else.

Were ancient Greece and Rome white civilizations?

No. The majority of people who identified as Greeks and Romans in any given time and place were probably, in modern terms, white, but that does not mean that Greek and Roman culture were themselves “white” or had any necessary connection with whiteness. The category of “white” did not exist in Greek or Roman culture, nor did Greeks and Romans believe that their culture was inherently linked to their ancestry. Indeed, they were generally quite happy to point out where they had taken cultural ideas and influences from other peoples. The idea of a “white civilization” would have sounded very strange to Greek and Roman ears.

For more information and further discussion, check out other entries in this series:

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.

History for Writers Compendium: 2018

History for Writers explores world history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s where we’ve been in 2018:

Thinking historically and mythically

Daily life

Crossing cultures

Women in the ancient world

Conflict and resolution

Race in Antiquity

Join us in 2019 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. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Tali for Saturnalia

The ancient Romans celebrated the holiday of Saturnalia on this day, the 17th of December. (At least in early Roman history it was a one-day holiday; later, it was extended so that it started on the 17th and lasted through the 23rd.) Saturnalia was a festival of good cheer and relaxed social strictures, thought of as recreating a lost golden age ruled over by the god Saturn. Typical practices included feasting, gift-giving, and a holiday from the usual social rules: children got to order their parents around while adults played children’s games; the masters of the household served a feast to their slaves; and gambling, which was a popular passtime but not usually allowed in public, was freely tolerated.

Romans played many different gambling games, but some of the most popular involved dice. One common game, known as tali, was played either with the knucklebones of sheep or goats (called astragals) or with cubical six-sided dice marked with the numbers 1 through 6, like modern dice. Astragals had four sides. For gaming purposes, it seems they were assigned values of 1, 3, 4, and 6. When playing with six-sided dice, only those numbers were used; 2 and 5 were ignored.

The rules of tali are not entirely understood today. Probably there were many different variations with different rules, and all of them were so common that no one bothered to write down instructions for how to play. Here is a playable modern interpretation based on what we can gather from literary references and artistic depictions.

All you need for any version of the game is four six-sided dice and something to bet with (coins, poker chips, chocolates—whatever you like), although a pencil and piece of paper for each player to record their throws can also be useful.

Simple Tali

Each player pays an ante into the pot.

Each player then rolls four dice, either their own set or taking turns with a common set.

Each player’s roll is then scored, and the winner takes the pot. If no one wins a round, everyone rolls again. If two or more players tie, only those players roll again until someone wins.

Dice rolls are scored according to the following system in which “hands” of dice are ranked, much like hands of cards in the modern game of poker.

  • 6,4,3,1 – called Venus, the best roll, always wins.
  • Rolls that include at least one 6 (apart from 6,6,6,6, which is a Vultures—see below) are called Senio and are scored by totaling the numbers shown (excluding the numbers 2 and 5, which are not counted). Any Senio always beats a Vultures or a roll that includes no 6.
  • Rolls that show four of the same number, called Vultures, score at the bottom of the heap, but will win over other 6-less rolls.
    • 6,6,6,6 – called Vultures, beats only a lower Vultures, The Dog, or a roll without a 6.
    • 4,4,4,4 – called Vultures, beats only a lower Vultures, The Dog, or a roll without a 6.
    • 3,3,3,3 – called Vultures, beats only The Dog, or a roll without a 6.
    • 1,1,1,1 – called Vultures or The Dog, beats only a roll without a 6.
  • Any roll that has no 6 (except a Vultures) always loses.

Here’s how a sample round might play:

  • A rolls 6,1,1,1 – a Senio worth 9
  • B rolls 6,5,3,1 – a Senio worth 10 (because the 5 is not counted)
  • C rolls 3,3,3,3 – a Vultures
  • D rolls 4,4,4,3 – a losing roll

B wins this game with a Senio of 10. Even though D’s roll totals higher, it has no 6, and therefore automatically loses.

Tali variations

The version of tali described above is perfectly playable, but it’s a simple game of chance with no real strategy. Here are a few ways you can make it more interesting. (All these variations use the same scoring system described above.)

Liars’ tali

Each player rolls their dice in secret and hides the total (or, if using a common set of dice, records their roll in secret). After an initial bet, players raise, call, or fold in turn, as in poker, until everyone calls or folds. The players still in the game then reveal their rolls and the winner takes the pot.

Draw tali

Each player rolls their own dice (this variation is difficult to manage with common dice). Any player may then ante into the pot again for the chance to reroll a die. Repeat either for a limited number of rerolls or until everyone passes. The player with the best roll on the table wins the pot.

Stud tali

Each player rolls one die and either keeps it (if using individual dice) or records it (if using common dice). After all players have rolled once, each one either antes into the pot or folds. Repeat three more times until all players have rolled a full four dice. The player with the highest roll among those still in the game takes the pot.

Happy Saturnalia!

Image: Roman dice, photograph by Wendy Scott via Portable Antiquities Scheme (Leicestershire; 1-410 CE; lead)

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 Ivory Bangle Lady

“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 these 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 9: The “Ivory Bangle Lady”

In the past entries in this series, we have talked a lot about theories of identity, how we can interpret (and sometimes misinterpret) both written and artistic sources, and the problems in knowing just who we mean by Greeks and Romans in the first place. Today we approach the question from a different angle, looking at one individual and the world she lived in.

Around 400 CE, a wealthy lady was buried near the Roman city of Eburacum (modern York) in northern Britain. She was buried with jewelry including an assortment of bangles, some of white ivory from Africa, others of black jet from Britain. Her name is not recorded, but she has come to be known, because of her jewelry, as the Ivory Bangle lady.

Examination of the Lady’s remains using the techniques of forensic anthropology shows that she was of African ancestry and had spent her childhood in a warmer climate, perhaps somewhere in southern Europe or North Africa. Her skull has features typical of sub-Saharan African populations and in fact the reference measurements that most closely match her skeletal morphology come from nineteenth-century black Americans. Although no indication of her skin color survives, it is almost certain that, if we passed her on the street today, we would describe her as a woman of color.

Roman York may seem like the last place we would expect to find evidence of racial diversity. It was the northernmost city in the Roman empire, just a little over a hundred kilometers from the Scottish frontier. There are few places in the Roman world that were farther from the cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean, yet archaeology has revealed late Roman York to have been a vibrantly multi-ethnic city. Individuals from Gaul, Italy, and Egypt are mentioned in Roman-period inscriptions from around York. Local potters made cooking vessels characteristic of North African cuisine. A Germanic king with his retinue of warriors is attested in the city backing the emperor Constantine’s rise to power. Not far away, in the forts along Hadrian’s Wall, soldiers were worshiping gods imported from Syria and Persia. A North African woman of Sub-Saharn African descent would have been right at home in such a place.

What did she think of herself? We have no way of knowing except to try to interpret the circumstances of her burial. The bangles with which she was buried may suggest a consciousness of being both African and British, although ivory and jet were both prized in late Roman jewelry. They certainly, however, point to a family of wealth and status. The remains of a wooden box were also found in the grave, including a decorative mount carved with the text “Hail, sister, may you live in God” (AVE S[OR]OR VIVAS IN DEO). The text suggests a Christian connection, although the richness of the lady’s grave is at odds with the contemporary Christian preference for simple burial. The Lady may or may not have been Christian herself, but she certainly had contact with the Christian movement.

The most noteworthy thing about the Lady’s burial may be how unremarkable it is. It is in many ways an entirely typical late Roman provincial grave for a woman of high status. Her choice of jewelry may have been meant to say something about her origin, but it was a choice that would not have stood out among her peers. She was in touch with one of the major religious movements of the day but buried in a traditional fashion; she was neither ahead of nor behind the times. If we had only the grave goods and not the remains, there would be nothing to suggest that the deceased belonged to an ethnic minority.

The most important thing for us to learn from the Ivory Bangle Lady is this paradox: the relative scarcity of people of African origin in the ancient Mediterranean literary record is the product of their presence, not their absence. There were enough North Africans in York to influence the local pottery market, but in most respects they were just like other provincial Romans. They followed the same social trends and religious developments as their neighbors. They had come as soldiers in Roman service, as merchants, or as travelers, just like the Gauls, Italians, and Germans who also ended up in York. They were of all genders and lived at all levels of provincial society, from the bottom to the very top. Among them were people with features typical of sub-Saharan Africa and who would likely appear to us as black, but in their historical context, they were just Romans like everybody else.

If there were women like the Ivory Bangle Lady in York, the farthest Roman city from Africa, then people of black African descent cannot have been uncommon in the cosmopolitan cities of the Mediterranean. If they are not evident to us in the sources, it is in part because they were so commonplace and so thoroughly integrated into ancient Mediterranean culture that contemporary authors didn’t feel the need to mention them. People tend not to write about the ordinary. We know this well enough from modern social media: our Facebook friends and Twitter celebrities mostly post about the unusual things that happen to them, good or bad, not the everyday events of a typical day. The same principle applies, even more so, to ancient authors, given how much more costly and difficult it was to put their observations onto papyrus in ink than it is to fire off a tweet today.

Archaeology, especially with current developments in genetic research, may provide us with individual cases like the Ivory Bangle Lady, but most of the racial diversity of ancient populations will always be invisible to us because most graves don’t survive in good enough condition and the resources available for research are limited. But individual cases like late Roman York are a reminder that there was nothing the least bit unusual about people of many different backgrounds and—in modern terms—different races living side by side in antiquity.

Further reading

H. Cool, “An Overview of the Small Finds from Catterick,” in Cataractonium: Roman Catterick and its Hinterland ed. P. Wilson. York: Council for British Archaeology, 2002, 23-43

S. Leach et al., “A Lady of York: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain,” Antiquity 84, no. 323 (March, 2010): 131-45.

Patrick Ottaway, Roman York. Stroud: Tempus, 2004.

V. G. Swan, “Legio VI and its Men: African Legionaries in Briatin,” Roman Pottery Studies, 5 (1992): 1-33

R. Warwick, “The Skeletal Remains,” in The Romano-British Cemetery at Trentholme Drive, York, ed. Leslie P. Wenham. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1968, 113-76

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Modern artist’s reconstruction of the burial of the Ivory Bangle Lady, from Leach, “A Lady of York.”

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.

Self-Help Law

“Self-help law” may sound like a book you would pick up to figure out how to make a will or file a lawsuit on your own, but it’s actually an important concept in history. Many societies in history have operated under a self-help legal system, especially small societies without developed governments, but even large, complex societies like the Roman Empire have operated under self-help law.

Most of us today live in legal systems that have mechanisms for enforcing legal judgments. If you take someone to court and win a judgment against them, you can rely on the police and courts to ensure that the judgment is fulfilled. Self-help legal systems don’t have those mechanisms. In a self-help system, you may take someone to court (or before a council of elders, or to a family tribunal, or whatever the system is) to get a judgment on who is legally in the right and what you are entitled to, but once the judgment is given it is up to you to carry it out. If the court decides that your neighbor owes you three bars of silver for cutting down your hedge, no one is going to come along and make them pay up. You have to go and get the silver from them yourself.

That may not sound like much of a legal system—if it all comes down to you having to barge into your neighbor’s house and grab their cash, it looks a lot like might making right. The difference, though, is that a self-help system requires you to get a legal judgment first. Once your neighbor cuts down your hedge, you can’t just bust in their door and take the silver. You have to present your case before a court (or council, or whatever the equivalent legal body is). You have to submit your grievance against your neighbor to someone who has the authority to represent the values of the community and judge how badly your neighbor has transgressed them. If you bust in and take the silver before going to court, that’s theft, and your neighbor has a case against you; if you do it after getting a judgment from the court, then you are executing justice and they have no case.

Self-help law accomplishes certain things that are useful in maintaining an orderly society. For one thing, it interrupts the cycle of vengeance by making people slow down, not act in the heat of anger but give wiser heads a chance to prevail. It offers a check on personal vendettas by submitting individual grievances to a neutral party. At the same time, though, it avoids burdening society with any kind of formal law enforcement, which could be a disruptive presence, especially in small-scale societies where disorder and crime are not everyday problems.

Self-help law also has its limitations. The obvious one is that some people are in a much better position to enforce their rights than others are. The rich and powerful have always been better able to wield the power of the law against the poor and humble, but under self-help law the weak often have very little real recourse against the strong. Another problem with self-help law is the tendency to escalate conflicts. Even with the intervention of a neutral party’s judgment, it’s hard for people to set aside their feelings of personal grievance. When your neighbor has cut down your hedge, even if you are legally entitled to go into their house and take three bars of sliver, it may be hard to resist urge to kick their dog and knock over their shelves while you do it, which just gives your neighbor a new legal claim against you. Self-help law may be described as a state of suspended violence, which carries within it the implicit threat of real violence breaking out.

A system of legal self-help also has broader social consequences. To be able to effectively carry out judgments (or resist people carrying out judgments against you), it’s useful to have a large network of friends and family you can rely on to stand up for you. Naturally, they’ll expect you to stand up for them in return. The bonds of friendship and family are more than sentimental in such a society; they can make the difference between living safe in your home and having your property under attack by your neighbors. They can also, on the other hand, drag you into conflicts that you had no part in beginning. As the old joke goes: “A friend will help you move; a good friend will help you move a body.” In a world of legal self-help, you might say: “A good friend will help you shove in your neighbor’s door and get the three silver bars that hedge-cutting menace owes you.”

Thoughts for writers

There is a lot of potential for drama in a self-help legal system. Modern law enforcement can sometimes create its own problems, but it also—by design—interrupts a lot of conflicts that would otherwise play out between individuals, families, and communities, sometimes violently. When you can’t just call the police on your annoying neighbors, interpersonal relationships evolve differently than we are used to today. A lot of stories from the past—the Mahabharata, the Iliad, Romeo and Juliet, etc.—have at their core the tensions that arise from the suspended violence and mutual obligations of a self-help society.

It is also important for us to understand that these tensions are real and have consequences. The conflicts that break out between feuding families or rival princes are not the result of overinflated egos but the consequence of living in a world where there is no one to guarantee your rights other than yourself and the friends and family you can count on to back you up.

Image: Balance scales, photograph by Mbiama 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.

Race in Antiquity: Bad Answers, Part 2

“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 these 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 8: Bad Answers 2

Hard questions don’t have easy answers. Sometimes, the best way to get a good answer is to start with some bad answers and try to understand why they are bad. Today we look at a few bad answers that people have given about race in antiquity to see what we can learn from them.

When I call these answers “bad,” I don’t mean that there is nothing good in them or that the people who gave them were bad or foolish people. They are “bad” in the sense that they miss important facts or misunderstand the realities of the ancient world, but this is where most answers to most interesting questions start. The process of research, in almost any field, is a process of making our answers less bad through gathering more facts and thinking more carefully about them. We can’t do that effectively if we don’t have a place to start or if we don’t take a close look at our bad answers to understand how to make them better.

If you have spent any time reading about the question of race in the ancient Mediterranean, you have probably come across some version of these answers. I’m not linking to any particular sites because I don’t want anyone to feel called out or personally criticized. What’s important is that we learn from these bad answers in order to come up with better ones. In the last installation, we looked at some simple bad answers that were easy to move past. Today we look at couple of more complicated bad answers. These ideas take more work to explain and understand, but the reward of doing so is a fuller and deeper grasp of the problem.

Hair Color

Skin color is one of the primary markers of race in the modern West, but ancient authors and artists did not describe or depict skin color in ways that match up with modern racial categories. Knowing this, some historians have gone looking for other indicators of racial identity such as hair.

There are various descriptions of individuals and groups of people, both mythic and historical, in classical literature that mention hair color. The legendary hero Achilles, son of Peleus, for instance, is typically described as having fair hair.

[Athena] stood behind him and grasped the son of Peleus by his yellow hair,

visible to him alone

– Homer, Iliad 1.197-8

All translations my own

Although Greek word for colors do not always match up with our own, the word used to describe Achilles’ hair here, xanthos, generally refers to a yellowish color tending towards orange or red. It can be used to describe not just hair but gold, wine, even fried fish. However we might interpret this description of Achilles, it seems clear that the epics imagine him somewhere on the spectrum between blond and redhead.

The Roman emperor Commodus was described in a similar way, even with an explicit reference to gold:

He was a young man then, fine to look at, with a strong body and a face that was handsome without being boyishly pretty. His eyes were powerful and seemed to flash with lightning. His hair, reddish blond and naturally curled, seemed to gleam as if on fire when the sun struck it. Some were of the opinion that he scattered gold dust in his hair before going out, while others believed that he was bathed in a holy light.

Herodian, Roman History 1.7.5

Some people point to descriptions like these, as well as other references to people in the ancient Mediterranean having blond or red hair (or blue or green eyes), as evidence that the people of ancient Greece and Rome must therefore have been, in modern terms, white. That argument, though, will not stand.

We might first point out that some of these people never actually existed (like Achilles), and that for those who did (like Commodus), we have no independent way of verifying whether the accounts are accurate or not, but this is not the real problem. Achilles may not have been a living person, but it seems clear that the oral tradition about him intended the audience to understand him as being fair haired. Herodian’s description of Commodus may be exaggerated (with the lightning eyes and the holy light in the hair), but he was clearly writing to an audience that was prepared to accept the idea of a blond Roman.

We can also point out that hair color is not a perfect proxy for race. Yellow-red hair and pale skin do often go together, but it is perfectly possible to have either one without the other. Still, statistically speaking, any human population with a significant number of blonds in it is almost certain to also have a significant number of people in it we would call white. The problems with the hair argument are deeper.

Imagine, if you will, that some future student asks some future historian: “What race were the people of the United States in the twentieth century?”

And the future historian answers: “Well, Marilyn Monroe was blonde, and the Marvel character Natasha Romanoff was a redhead, so that means Americans were white.”

We can all recognize what’s wrong with that answer. Knowing the racial identities of a few real and/or made up people tells us almost nothing about the racial makeup of the larger societies they existed within. The number of people from antiquity whose hair color (or other physical features) we know about is vanishingly small, and the individuals in question are far from a representative sample.

The contention that a few blonds here and there in classical literature tells us anything meaningful about race in the Greek and Roman world assumes that there can only be one answer, that Greeks and Romans had a single, coherent racial identity which allowed for no change or variation. We don’t have to scour ancient sources for references to hair color to know that this was far from true.

Cleopatra

You knew we’d get here eventually, didn’t you? Of all individual people in antiquity, no one’s racial identity has been more fiercely debated than that of Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt.

Some people argue that Cleopatra should be identified as black. Sometimes this argument is made on very thin premises. (Cleopatra was queen of Egypt, which is on the continent of Africa, but that is not the same as being ethnically Egyptian, nor is being Egyptian necessarily the same as being black. Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra refers to her skin as dark, but Shakespeare lived a millennium and a half after Cleopatra and had no first-hand knowledge of her appearance.) But there are more serious arguments about Cleopatra’s race that require more serious engagement.

Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, descendants of the Macedonian general Ptolemy, who ruled Egypt for three centuries after the empire of Alexander the Great broke up on his death. The Ptolemies prized the purity of their bloodline and frequently intermarried among different branches of the family line, sometimes even between brother and sister. As a royal dynasty whose claim to power depended on descent, the Ptolemy family preserved lots of information about their ancestral line. We know more about Cleopatra’s family tree than almost anyone else in the ancient Mediterranean, but the fact is that this information only covers about three fourths of her ancestry. Despite the careful record-keeping of the Ptolemies in general, Cleopatra’s mother is poorly documented, and we know nothing at all about her maternal grandmother.

Some have argued that the lack of information about Cleopatra’s grandmother is itself significant, that it reflects the family’s attempt to bury evidence of a marriage (or non-marital relationship) that was outside the norm for Ptolemaic kings, who resided among a mostly Greco-Macedonian court in Alexandria. They argue that the mystery woman must therefore have been an Egyptian. Advocates of this position further argue that Greek, Roman, and other European authors whitewashed Cleopatra, removing any reference to her African heritage in order to claim such a symbol of beauty and power for white Europe.

This argument is a nuanced one that draws on real and substantial knowledge not only of the Ptolemies but of the sordid history of modern Western scholarship, which has often embraced racist and white supremacist interpretations of history, erasing or ignoring the lives of non-white peoples and individuals. It is an argument that some people of color today understandably find empowering and satisfying: it must feel good to “reclaim” one of the most widely-recognized names in history. Still, it is an argument that ultimately rests on the same faulty premises and flawed reasoning as the other bad answers we have looked at.

To begin with, we cannot assume that Cleopatra’s grandmother was Egyptian. “Unknown” simply means “unknown.” Most of the women at or in the orbit of the Ptolemaic court were ethnically Greek or Macedonian. Few Egyptians even lived in Alexandria, which was considered separate from Egypt, not a part of it. There were, however, substantial Jewish, Persian, and Syrian populations in the city, whose elite members had a better chance at finding their way into the royal court than most Egyptians did. It is not impossible that a member of the royal family could have had a relationship with an Egyptian woman, but the odds of any given unidentified woman in the Ptolemaic court being Egyptian are very long.

Even if Cleopatra’s grandmother was Egyptian, Egyptian is not the same as black. Certainly no ancient Egyptian would have described themselves that way, but even if we approach ancient Egypt in the terms of modern racial categories—what would we call them if we saw them passing by on the street today?—this simple equation will not stand. The ancient population of Egypt was complex. Genetic evidence reveals a core population most closely tied to other North African peoples of the Mediterranean coastal zone, but also with traces of long-term immigration from both southwestern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Artworks and literary sources suggest that Egyptian skin tones could range from very dark brown to very light tan. Certainly there were some ancient Egyptians who, if they appeared before us today, we would describe as black, but there were many more we would not.

It is not impossible that Cleopatra’s grandmother was Egyptian. If she was, it is also not impossible that she had sub-Saharan ancestry and dark skin. Literary evidence suggests that one early Ptolemaic king had taken an Egyptian woman as a mistress, known as Didyme, who may have been dark-skinned, so there would be historical precedent for such a relationship. (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 13.37 = 576e-f; Asclepiades, in the Palatine Anthology 5.210) It may be more significant, however, to note that although the Ptolemaic family ruled Egypt for some three hundred years, Didyme is the only Egyptian woman we know of who was involved with a member of the family. All of this is very tenuous grounds for making claims about Cleopatra’s race.

Was Cleopatra whitewashed by Greek and Roman authors who wanted to claim her for “their” people? Quite the opposite. Cleopatra was embroiled in the last stage of the long-running Roman civil war as a supporter of Mark Anthony against Octavian, the future emperor Augustus. Octavian’s propaganda strategy depended on convincing the Roman people that the civil war was over. He therefore portrayed his struggle against Antonius not as the last gasp of that conflict but as the glorious Roman conquest of Egypt. Anything that made Cleopatra appear as an exotic foreign potentate was perfectly suited to his needs. Although the Roman sources do their best to exoticize Cleopatra, none of them makes any remarks on her skin color or ancestry.

Here is how the Roman poet Vergil pictured Cleopatra leading her ships in the naval battle of Actium:

In the midst, the queen shakes her native sistrum and calls her people to fight,

not seeing the twin snakes coming behind her.

Her monstrous, feral god, the barking Anubis,

shakes his spear against Neptune, Venus,

and Minerva

– Vergil, Aeneid 8.696-701

And here is the poet Horace on the same theme:

… the insane queen schemed

to bring death and ruin

to the Capitol and our state

with her foul throng of thugs,

drunk with vain hopes

of sweet victory.

– Horace, Odes 1.37.6-12

The images invoked against Cleopatra were of drunkenness, luxury, and the (from a Roman point of view) strangeness of Egyptian religion, but not her appearance or ancestry. Roman political invective could make hay out of even the most trivial personal quirks; if the smear campaign against Cleopatra said nothing about her ethnicity, that must mean there was nothing about it that a Roman audience would have found unusual.

Assumed whiteness

As different as the arguments are, both the attempt to classify Greeks and Romans by their hair color and the assertion of a “black” Cleopatra fall victim to the same problem: they both accept the fundamental assumption of an all-white ancient Mediterranean. The hair argument assumes that the ancient Greeks and Romans were racially uniform, and that if we identify a few of them, the same answer must apply to the rest. The case for Cleopatra’s black grandmother similarly assumes that the ancient Mediterranean was so blindingly white that our only way of finding any possible exceptions is to clutch at scraps and plead that “it’s not entirely impossible” can be turned into “it must be so.”

Both of these approaches, intentionally or not, buy into racist claims about a pure white ancient Mediterranean. They only make sense within the parameters set by that assumption. Achilles’ blond hair only seems useful as a measure of ethnic identity if we already assume that the ancient Greeks were uniformly white. The gaps in Cleopatra’s family tree only appear tantalizing if we buy into the notion that people of color in the ancient Mediterranean were a rare and scandalous secret to be covered up. Without the assumption of whiteness, neither of these cases is particularly interesting or useful at all.

The mistakes of the past can be hard to overcome, even when we are actively trying to challenge them. Sometimes that hardest thing to do when looking for new answers to old questions is to see the weaknesses in the questions themselves.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Mosaic of Achilles having his first bath, photograph by Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia (“House of Theseus”, Paphos; 2nd c. CE; mosaic)

Post edited for spelling

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.

Ancient Women as Generals

It has come to my attention that some folks online have been making a fuss about the fact that the strategy game Rome: Total War II allows players to recruit women as generals to lead their armies in fighting around the ancient Mediterranean. They decry this addition to the game as modern politics intruding anachronistically on the purely masculine history of war. Well, that’s a load of hogwash.

As your friendly neighborhood ancient historian, I’m happy to present a brief, selective, far-from-comprehensive list of women who led military forces in antiquity. Enjoy.

(All translations my own)

Amage

A Sarmatian queen, 2nd century BCE, who led her people against foreign invaders.

Amage, wife of Medosaccus, a Sarmatian king… seeing that her husband was diverted by luxury, took matters in hand, giving many judgments, organizing the defense of the realm, and fighting off foreign attacks.

– Polyaenus, Strategms 8.56

 

Amanirenas

A Kushite queen, 1st century BCE, who led forces against Roman armies encroaching on her territory from southern Egypt. (Strabo mistakes her title, Candace, for her name)

Queen Candace, in my day the ruler of the Ethiopians, a masculine woman who was blind in one eye… led an army many thousands strong against the [Roman] garrison

– Strabo, Geography 17.54

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Queen Teuta, Piracy, and War

Let’s talk about pirates. (No, not talk like pirates—that comes later this week.) In popular culture, we typically think of pirates in the waters of the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the practice of cruising the seaways and taking plunder by force is an ancient and worldwide custom. For some people, raiding passing ships was an accepted and ordinary way of life. Among those people were the ancient Illyrians.

The Illyrians lived along the mountainous western coast of the Balkan peninsula, in the vicinity of modern-day Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Much like the Greeks who lived to their south, they shared a common culture and language, but were not politically unified. Small-scale warfare and raiding between Illyrian tribes was a normal part of life, but Illyrians also frequently went beyond their borders, raiding nearby cities and sailing out into the sea in small, fast boats to attack passing ships.

The Illyrians were well placed to make a profit on plundering shipping. From their position along the Adriatic coast, they could easily strike at trade routes through the Adriatic, and more organized raiding parties could hit the major routes that between Greece and Italy, connecting the eastern and western Mediterranean.

For much of the ancient period, Illyrian piracy was a present but manageable danger in the Mediterranean, more an occasional nuisance than a real threat to trade, but in times of turmoil, when the more organized states of the region were less able to deter attacks, Illyrian tribes could become more ambitious. One tribe that took advantage of such chaotic circumstances was the Ardiaei, who aggressively pursued not only raiding at sea but conquests on land as well under their queen Teuta (ruled 231-227 BCE).

At this time, the major powers of the both the eastern and western Mediterranean were busy with their own problems. The Greek world was consumed with wars between the kingdom of Macedonia and several alliances of Greek cities. Tensions were rising between Rome and Carthage as the two major powers in the west slid towards a second war. Teuta’s husband and predecessor as ruler, Agron, had gotten his people involved in Macedonia’s wars and expanded his tribe’s control over large areas of Illyria. Teuta carried on with an aggressive policy that combined piratical raids on nearby shipping lanes with territorial expansion along the Adriatic coast.

As Teuta’s people began to threaten Roman merchants, the Romans decided to intervene and sent a pair of ambassadors to demand reparations and an end to the attacks. Teuta dismissed the ambassadors’ complaints saying:

…that she would try to take care that no injustice should be done to the Romans by the Illyrian nation, but that it was not the custom for Illyrian monarchs to prevent their people from making their living on the sea.

– Polybius, History 2.8.8

(My own translation)

Teuta’s response was somewhat disingenuous, given that she had directed and made use of seaborne raids for her own purposes, but it also shows how the Illyrians thought about their piratical activities.

Teuta was making a distinction between piracy and war. War, from her point of view, was a collective effort by a whole nation, directed by its leaders against a defined enemy. Illyria was not at war with Rome, and she promised the Roman emissaries that she and her forces had no intention of attacking Roman territory. Her wars were in Greece.

Piracy was something different. It was not a way of making war but a way of making a living, something done by private individuals. She, even as queen, had no right to interfere in her people’s piracy, any more than she could tell farmers not to farm or hunters not to hunt. The Illyrians regarded passing ships as a kind of natural resource. Plundering those ships was just a way of harvesting that resource, like pulling fish from the sea in nets. It was not an attack upon a particular people or nation. Anyone who sailed the seas was accepting the risk of being plundered and had little right to complain about it.

As far as Teuta was concerned, the Romans had no business complaining to her: she wasn’t at war with them, and her people had a natural right to plunder any ship that passed by.

Of course, the Romans didn’t see it like that. From the point of view of Roman merchants, it didn’t much matter whether the people raiding their ships and stealing their goods were agents of a monarch or private entrepreneurs. In response to Teuta’s seemingly dismissive answer, Rome launched an attack on Illyria. After brief fighting, Teuta’s forces were beaten and she, though allowed to remain in power, was stripped of most of her territory and forced to pay tribute to Rome.

Queen Teuta’s response to the Romans offers us an alternative view to the dominant Greco-Roman narrative of Mediterranean history. Even though her answer comes to us filtered through the perspective of a Greek historian who casts the Romans as the heroes of the story, we can still understand the logic of her point of view. To her, the difference between war and piracy mattered; as queen, she had the right to control one activity, but not the other.

Image: Modern Albanian coin with an artist’s depiction of Teuta, photograph by Numista 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.