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)

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 Functions of Law

Those of us who know the legal system primarily through procedural dramas tend to think of the law as being mostly concerned with punishing criminals (well, that and giving ace lawyers a chance to stage dramatic courtroom antics), but law has many other functions in society. While many of these are still visible in modern times, in many pre-modern cultures, law was focused on a different function or set of functions than we are used to. If you are writing a story set in the past or in an imagined world and you want to include some dramatic courtroom antics of your own, you may want to think about how law fits into the society you are creating differently from how it fits into ours. Here are some functions of law to think about as you go:

Resolving disputes

This is one we still see a lot in modern legal systems. A lot of law is civil, not criminal, that is it is about settling conflicts between private individuals or groups rather than about the state enforcing standards of acceptable behavior. One of the distinguishing features of modern states is that many conflicts between individuals that earlier legal systems treated under civil law have been brought under criminal law. In pre-modern societies, with less developed state systems, many misdeeds that we consider crimes were left to individuals to dispute through civil law, such as trespass, theft, even murder.

Reinforcing power structures

No society has yet managed to create a legal system that actually treats the rich and powerful equally with the poor and powerless, but the notion this is even an ideal worth striving for is rather modern. In pre-modern cultures, legal systems often served to explicitly reinforce social disparities. Rules about who could bring suit against whom, whose testimony was considered valid, and what punishments could be meted out for a given infraction could be dictated by the status of the individuals in question. The progress and results of a court case functioned as public reminders about who had power and who did not.

Testing community opinion

In pre-modern societies, especially ones that operate on a small scale, relationships often matter more than institutions (more on this topic here and here). As such, when people have problems to resolve, it can be important to gauge and even try to influence the wider community’s opinion. Legal proceedings can be a way of seeing how your neighbors feel about your issues and trying to get them on your side.

Venting anger

People who feel they have been wronged often feel angry about it. Without a way of publicly venting that anger, those feelings can fester and poison relationships within a community. The law can provide a venue for people to express their anger and feel heard. Even if they don’t get the substantive result they want, the psychological relief of letting those feelings out can do a lot to restore calm among neighbors and relations.

Constraining violence

People who feel wronged and have no other recourse may decide to redress the injuries they have suffered by force. This violence can spiral out of control as families, villages, and factions get wrapped up in reprisals. There are few real cases in history of violent feuds going on for generations (unlike in fiction, where they are all too common), but even short-term flare ups of violence can be hugely disruptive to smaller societies. The law offers an alternative way of settling disputes that sets limits on who can legitimately use violence, when, where, and for what purpose.

Most legal systems combine some or all of the aspects listed here, but the balance among them tells us a lot about how any given society works. If you’re including some kind of legal tradition in your worldbulding, its a useful exercise to think about which of these functions are more important in it, and how it achieves them. Because not every fantasy court case needs to play like an episode of Law & Order!

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

Toss a Coin to Your Mercenary

If you’ve played a role-playing game, whether tabletop or computer, you’ve probably seen your hero complete a quest and get rewarded with a handful of coins (be they copper, silver, gold, or something more exotic). It’s a perfectly familiar experience that makes sense from a modern point of view: do a job, get money. There’s a historical connection, though, between mercenaries (which, when you come right down to it, is what a lot of RPG characters are) and coins.

Various objects have been used for trade in cultures all around the world, from cowrie shells to cacao beans, but the earliest coins as we traditionally know them—lumps of precious metal in standardized weights stamped with symbols—were produced in the kingdom of Lydia, in the mountains of western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), in the seventh century BCE. Lydia had two good reasons for producing coins. One: they had an abundance of precious metal wealth in the form of electrum (a natural alloy of gold and silver) collected from the rivers that ran through Lydia’s mountainous land. Two: they needed soldiers.

For a period in the seventh and sixth centuries, Lydia was one of four major states that dominated the region we know today as the Middle East. The others were Egypt, Babylon, and Media. These four states competed for dominance in the region and needed to maintain strong military forces. Many of them looked to the smaller, poorer, less well organized societies on their borders as recruiting grounds for mercenary soldiers.

There are certain advantages to hiring mercenaries rather than recruiting your own people to fight your wars. Hiring mercenaries lets you put troops on the front lines quickly while keeping your own peasants in the fields producing food. The loyalty of mercenaries is not constrained by local ties or obligations. They can be tasked with dangerous or onerous tasks like digging siege tunnels or standing guard duty that might prompt unrest if you asked a levy of your own people to do them. Finally, if you send a company of mercenaries into battle and a lot of them die, you don’t have to deal with their angry families back home.

Mercenaries are not integrated into the economies in which they serve. Pre-modern societies were held together by bonds of mutual obligation established over years and generations of living and working together. Landowners had an obligation to protect the tenant farmers who worked for them, and tenant farmers in return had an obligation to work the land. Small farmers living together in a village owed one another mutual support. Crafters and other specialists such as priests, doctors, entertainers, scribes, and others who offered services for pay still did so in the context of long-standing relationships. When people like these were called upon to form an army, they fought in defense of their homes and families, but also within existing relationships of obligation and patronage. Even if there was no formal compensation for militia service, a tenant farmer or a blacksmith who went off to war could expect that some of the benefits of victory would filter down to them through these relationships.

If you want mercenaries to fight for you, though, you have to pay them. You can offer food, clothing, and other goods like that, but a person only needs so many shirts, and extra food is hard to lug around from camp to camp. You can promise them land once their service is done, but that can cause conflicts with your own people who may not want a bunch of foreigners settling nearby. Also, having a lot of experienced fighters with nothing to do hanging around your kingdom can lead to trouble—once they’ve finished fighting your wars, you generally want them to go away again. For similar reasons, you don’t want your mercenaries to feel as though they’re being cheated or paid unequally, so whatever you pay them should be something whose value is easy to measure.

So the ideal characteristics of mercenary pay are:

  • Something that doesn’t excessively burden your own people to spend.
  • Something easily portable.
  • Something whose value is not dependent on being tied into your society or economy.
  • Something whose value is easy to measure.

For the kings of Lydia, the answer was easy: lumps of precious metal in standardized weights stamped with symbols. Or, as we know them now: coins.

Lydia had plenty of electrum to spare; handing it out to mercenaries put no extra burden on the Lydian people. (Electrum, containing variable proportions of silver and gold, was hard to make coins of standard value out of, so early electrum coins were soon replaced with coins made out of pure silver or gold processed out of raw electrum.) Coins were easy to carry. Although the exact value of a given weight of metal could vary depending on local circumstances, a full year’s pay for a mercenary might amount to no more than a kilo and a half of silver or a tenth of a kilo of gold. Precious metals were in demand everywhere. Mercenaries from Greece, Thrace, or Caria could easily take their coins home and exchange them for land or goods. The symbols stamped on coins served in part to guarantee that they were minted to a standard weight, which made it easy for soldiers to confirm that they were being paid what they had been promised and that pay was distributed fairly.

The symbols on coins had another function as well. Early Lydian coins were marked with the heads of a lion and a bull. These images suggested harmony on many levels, including cosmological (the lion representing the sun, the bull the moon), ecological (lion representing the wilderness, the bull cultivated land and civilization), and social (predator and prey together as one). It was an apt symbol for a rich and powerful state recruiting the services of its poor and underdeveloped neighbors. The coins that mercenaries carried around with them were meant to remind them of their role as the hungry lions who fought for the rich Lydian bull and were rewarded for it. Not long afterward, kings began to put their own images and personal symbols on their coins, an even more pointed reminder to the mercenaries who received them of who they owed their loyalty to.

Not long after Lydians began minting coins, many other peoples began to do the same—some directly inspired by the Lydians’ example, others independently but for much the same reasons. The usefulness of these coins for facilitating trade soon also made them appealing to merchants, crafters, wandering minstrels, and lots of other people not embedded in the agricultural economy, but paying mercenary soldiers continued to be an important reason for kings and empires to mint coins for many centuries to come.

So the next time your hero returns to town after clearing out another dungeon full of monsters and gets a handful of coins as a reward, know that you are part of a very long tradition.

Image: Lydian gold Croessid, obverse, photograph by Classical Numismatics Group via Wikimedia (minted Sardis; 564-539 BCE; gold)

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

Tolkien, Fantasy, and Race

Wizards of the Coast recently announced that they will be changing how the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game system handles race. These changes include, among others, reimagining the traditionally evil Drow and Orcs as complex and nuanced cultures, revising how a player’s choice of race affects their character’s stats, and removing racially insensitive text from reissues of old content. You can read the company’s statement about these changes here.

Some of these changes are more obviously necessary than others. It’s not hard for most of us to see how having a race of dark-skinned Elves who are almost universally evil in your game is a poor design choice that needs to be rectified, but it’s less obvious to a lot of people why the game should be changed so that your Elf isn’t necessarily clever and dexterous or your Dwarf stout and tough. To understand why rules like these are problematic, it helps to look at how ideas about portraying non-human beings in fantasy have been shaped. Fantasy is as complex and varied as any other genre of literature and no single person is responsible for the development of its tropes and principles, but when we think about race in fantasy, there is one crucial place to start: Tolkien.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium profoundly shaped fantasy literature in the twentieth century and the other media drawing from it, such as role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Tolkien’s versions of Elves and Dwarves, as well as his invention of Hobbits (made lawyer-friendly as “Halflings”), formed the basis for D&D’s early options for players who wanted an alternative to humans. Much of the popular fantasy archetypes for what non-human races are like (ethereal, wise, bow-wielding Elves; stubborn, pugnacious, axe-hefting Dwarves) were either created or codified by Tolkien.

Tolkien’s relationship to race is complicated. On one hand, he was vocally opposed to the antisemitism common in his time and to the Nazis’ attempts to claim his beloved Germanic mythology as a prop to their racist regime. His Middle Earth tales can be read as a counter-argument to white supremacist ideology, as the “lesser” folk of Middle Earth, like the Hobbits and the Wild Men, prove more resistant to the lies of evil than the “higher” races of Men. At the same time, there is no denying that Tolkien’s fiction is suffused with familiar racial assumptions, filled with white characters and portraying dark-skinned people only as strange or threatening others.

But it is Tolkien’s work as a scholar that is most important for understanding his effect on the depiction of race in fantasy. Tolkien’s academic training as an Oxford student in the early twentieth century was grounded in the traditions of the nineteenth century, which defined nations as coherent, natural entities existing across time and marked by inherent characteristics. This academic worldview was linked to the Romantic and nationalist movements at work in Europe in that century, as well as the ongoing imperialist projects of Britain, France, and other nations of Europe. At its core was the belief that culture and biology are equivalent, that people have fundamental national traits inherited from their ancestors which define their culture, character, even moral worth.

Every academic discipline concerned with the human past was engaged in some way with this project. Historians traced the ancestry of their own and other peoples as far back as written sources would allow, at which point archaeologists stepped in to carry the line further back. Scholars of literature and art looked to both nationally famous artists and rural folk traditions to delineate the defining characteristics of a culture. Scholars in different nations concocted their own versions of national culture and interpreted both ancient and recent history in terms of discreet nations wrangling with one another: while English writers explained their early history as the victory of the serious, diligent Anglo-Saxon over the moody, whimsical Celt, French historians conceived of the French Revolution as a primordial Gallic peasantry overthrowing the Germanic overlords who had dominated them since the fifth century CE. Even forgeries and hoaxes followed the same principle, like the collection of Gaelic poetry attributed to the bard Ossian or the fake primordial Englishman buried with a battered cricket bat at Piltdown. While the work of such historians, folklorists, artists, pranksters and others was in itself fairly benign, it was part of a larger politics that justified the exploitation and oppression of some ethnic groups for the benefit of others based on specious claims about national characters and destinies.

Tolkien’s subject, philology, was no exception. Scholars believed that language could be a key to those parts of the past that neither history nor archaeology could reach, perhaps even the most important parts, for what can be more fundamental to our identity than the words we use to describe our world? Linguistic research, starting in the eighteenth century with the realization that the ancient Indian language Sanskrit came from the same source as Greek and Latin, had demonstrated that it was possible to discover regular principles that governed shifts in sound as languages evolved and split into new languages. Applying these principles to the earliest documented fragments of existing languages made it possible to reconstruct, with a high degree of certainty, elements of vocabulary and grammar belonging to languages that had never been written down.

Tolkien, and other philologists of his generation, believed that it was possible to go a step further and apply the same principles to myths, legends, even history. Working backwards from the earliest recorded elements of a culture—its oldest literature and art, archaeological remains, and whatever fragments of ancient knowledge survived in folk tradition—they hoped to reconstruct the primordial beliefs, practices, and character of that culture. Tolkien carried this same spirit into his literary work and with his Middle Earth stories tried to reimagine a history that might have lain behind the scattered remnants of Germanic mythology that come down to us through English, Norse, German, and Icelandic sources.

The result of this labor was a fictional world that incorporates numerous traces of ancient tradition—Smaug, from The Hobbit, has shades of Fafnir from the Volsunga Saga, while the arrival of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf at Edoras in The Lord of the Rings recreates the Geatish heroes’ arrival at Heorot in Beowulf—but put together in a distinctly nineteenth-century way. The various races of Men in Tolkien’s work reflect contemporary belief in inherent national cultures to the extent that the Dunedain of the north retained their culture for many long generations cut off from Gondor in the south. Other peoples of Tolkien’s world are culturally defined by their ancestry, stretching over thousands of years.

Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves are a similar combination of ancient Nordic lore and nineteenth-century nationalistic culture-construction. Tolkien took stories about Elves and Dwarves from different times, cultures, and genres, extracted the elements he believed were characteristic, and fused them together to create the kind of singular, coherent cultures that scholars of his day believed could be found among real peoples. The idea of Elves as archers comes from a Scottish tradition of referring to prehistoric arrow points as “Elf-shot.” The intermarriage of Elves and humans comes from Icelandic sagas. The bewildering power of an encounter with Elves derives from medieval German folklore. Tolkien believed that these various fragments were the remains of what had once been a clear, consistent belief in Elves as beings with defined characteristics, much as words in Sanskrit, Greek, and Old Norse were the remains of an older language, and that by putting them together he could reconstruct the nature of Elves in same way philologists reconstructed lost languages. The same applies to Tolkien’s Dwarves.

Tolkien’s assumptions about lost cultural knowledge only make sense in the context of the scholarship he worked in. Modern research has found that the image of Elves in northern European mythology is widely varied. Writers in different times and cultures had vastly different ideas about what Elves were, ranging from benevolent ancestor spirits to malicious swamp creatures that would steal your baby and eat it. There is no evidence that the original Elf Tolkien thought he could reconstruct was ever anything but a mirage. Indeed, it is not just that Elves did not have consistent characteristics in northern mythology, early northern writers don’t even seem to have viewed “Elf” as a stable category that could be defined. Many texts use the term fluidly for many different sorts of supernatural creature, overlapping with Dwarves, demons, angels, and others in ways that do not allow for any clear definition.

It is primarily to Tolkien that we owe the idea, not just that Elves, Dwarves, and other fantastical creatures have consistent characteristics, but that they exist as discreet groups that can be defined. This conception of fantasy folks is a product of a particular cultural and scholarly worldview, one that is increasingly out of date. Aloof archer Elves and beefy brawling Dwarves running around your game world may seem perfectly harmless, but the archetypes that define these as the standard types of Elves and Dwarves are rooted in a history of imperialism and racism.

It is time to leave behind this artifact of the nineteenth century and embrace a world in which Dwarves can be slender bookworms and Elves can be boisterous bruisers, or anything else you want them to be.

Post edited for grammar

Image: Elf and Dwarf cosplay, photograph by Tomasz Stasiuk via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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

How We Lost the Library of Alexandria

There are a couple of persistent myths floating around about how the Library of Alexandria was destroyed. One says that it was burned down by Julius Caesar in the first century BCE, the other that it was destroyed by Christians in the fourth century CE. Both of these stories are wrong. That’s not what happened to the Library. The actual history is instructive, especially now.

The story begins with the foundation of the Library itself. After the death of Alexander the Great, his followers fell into a fifty-year struggle for control of his empire. When the dust settled, three major successor states founded by Alexander’s generals controlled most of the eastern Mediterranean and the old Persian Empire: the descendants of Antigonus in Macedonia, the descendants of Seleucus in Syria and Mesopotamia, and the descendants of Ptolemy in Egypt. Other, smaller, states, some of them also led by former officers of Alexander’s army, filled the edges and the gaps in between the Antigonid, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic kingdoms.

Ptolemy and his dynasty ruled from Alexandria, the new city founded at the westernmost mouth of the Nile by Alexander during his campaign. The Ptolemies and their court made up a small Greco-Macedonian elite ruling over a vast and ancient land whose people had a strong sense of cultural identity and a long history of resistance to foreign rule. The Ptolemies faced two major problems in ruling their kingdom: competing against the other successor states, and asserting control over the native population of Egypt.

A large part of the challenge in both cases came down to questions of culture. The Ptolemies needed to attract skilled administrators and mercenary soldiers to staff their bureaucracy and enforce their rule, but they were competing with all the other successor kingdoms who wanted the same people for the same reasons. One way of drawing desirable recruits to Alexandria was to demonstrate the richness and refinement of the Ptolemaic court. At the same time, maintaining order in Egypt meant reaching some degree of accommodation with members of the native elite who could keep the peasants in line. To Egyptian nobles who were proud of their own history and culture, the Ptolemies had to show that they were worthy partners who could live up to the standards of culture and sophistication Egyptians expected from their kings.

The Ptolemies’ propaganda approached these challenges in many different ways, but the Library was one important part of their cultural program. Under royal patronage, the Library amassed the largest collection of literary works in Greek assembled anywhere in the Mediterranean. In doing so, it projected the Ptolemies’ cultural sophistication in the common language of the eastern Mediterranean world. It was one of the institutions that made the city of Alexandria noteworthy and demonstrated the Ptolemaic kings’ power and wealth.

The Library of Alexandria was not created as a benevolent or altruistic center of knowledge. It was as much a part of power politics as the king’s mercenary army, and it could be as ruthless in its operations. Ships arriving in Alexandria were reportedly ransacked for any texts the Library might be lacking. The Library borrowed the official texts of winning dramas from the Athenian state archives, then kept the originals and returned cheap copies. The collection was only accessible by royal permission; it was not a place for the public.

Maintaining such a large collection required a dedicated staff of both specialist curators and laborers. Adding new texts to the collection took a lot of work to prepare the papyrus scrolls on which they were recorded and house them safely, but just maintaining the collection was a major job in itself. Papyrus scrolls are not permanent; they break down over time, even in the best conditions. Every text in the Library had to be periodically recopied as the old scrolls decayed. All of this work was funded by the Ptolemaic kings, for whom the Library was an important prop to their power.

In the mid-first century BCE, Julius Caesar fought a campaign in Alexandria against the reigning king Ptolemy XIV in support of his sister Cleopatra, who would go on to rule as the last Ptolemaic monarch. During the fighting, Caesar’s troops set fire to some of the ships in the port. The fire spread to some dockside buildings, including warehouses that held papyrus intended for the Library. The exact extent of the fire is unclear. While some ancient sources report that the Library itself suffered damage, it is clear that the most of the collection was unharmed, and the loss was largely of materials, not finished texts.

Decades later, after Cleopatra was killed and Egypt was annexed to the Roman Empire, however, the Library went into decline. The later Ptolemaic kings had been less enthusiastic in their support of the Library than the earlier kings had been, and by the first century BCE the Library was already a diminished institution. With no Ptolemaic dynasty to prop up, it no longer served a purpose. Some Roman emperors showed an interest in the Library, but most had no desire to keep supporting an institution that rivaled their own propaganda works in Rome. Without money to pay for upkeep and repairs, to pay the salaries of librarians and workers, the Library of Alexandria faded away. Support from the local elite kept some of the collection intact, some part of which remained active as a much smaller, provincial version of its former self through the third century CE.

Just how long this reduced version of the Library continued on is unclear. The third century was a time of widespread violence and unrest in the Roman world, and Alexandria had always been a rowdy city prone to riots. The growing community of Christians in Alexandria sometimes participated in these upheavals, but they were far from the only ones. In one famous incident, an attack by pagans sparked a Christian counterattack which wrecked a Neoplatonist school, but there is no record that any books were kept there. Whatever was left of the collection may well have suffered in the violence of the times, but by then the Library-with-a-capital-L was a thing of the distant past.

There is a lesson for us in the end of the Library of Alexandria, but it is not one about the brutishness of Caesar or the violence of early Christians. What doomed the Library was not some act of willful destruction but the slow decay that comes on when there is not enough money to keep basic operations going. In these days when we all find our budgets stretched tight, it is important to remember how much the cultural institutions we depend on also depend on us.

As many people have noted recently, the covid-19 pandemic isn’t the apocalypse we expected. We like to imagine that great things end in cataclysm, not in the slow grinding down of underfunded institutions. We prefer the bang to the whimper. But just like the Library of Alexandria, the establishments we rely on—be they local libraries, theater companies, independent bookstores, niche comics publishers, or anything else—will not be destroyed by invaders or violent mobs. They will wear away by inertia and neglect. Now is the time to show your support, in whatever ways you can manage, to the things that make your life brighter, richer, and fuller.

Image: A modern artist’s interpretation of the Library of Alexandria via Wikimedia (19th c.; engraving; by O. Von Corven)

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

Disruptive Technology: Iron

These days, every new decade seems to bring a new technology that totally upends the way we live our lives, but the ability of new technologies to disrupt societal structures is not new. Many times in history, the development or introduction of a new technology had far-reaching effects on how people lived their lives. One such technology is iron. The development of iron for military purposes—to make stronger weapons and tougher armor—led to plenty of disruption, but iron could have powerful effects even when used for peaceful and mundane purposes.

One place we can see an example of iron’s effect on society is in southern Scandinavia. The Iron Age began in Denmark around 500 BCE. The changes that came as a result can be seen throughout much of northern Europe, but they have been particularly well studied in Denmark.

Southwestern Denmark is rich in deposits of bog iron, a form of iron ore that is comparatively easy to extract and process. Iron was soon put to use to produce stronger swords, axes, and spearheads, but it was also used to make sturdy blades for agricultural tools such as sickles, scythes, and pruning knives.

The introduction of iron-bladed tools made possible a dramatic change in the agrarian economy. Earlier flint or bronze tools could not hold a cutting edge well enough to effectively cut large quantities of hay or twigs to be stored as fodder for cattle. Accordingly, cattle could only be kept in relatively small numbers to avoid overgrazing the sparse vegetation available through the winter. With iron tools, winter fodder could be cut, dried, and stored in quantity for the winter, allowing large herds of cattle to be kept in denser concentrations. These cattle provided meat and milk as a food source in addition to the grain people were already growing.

Cattle also produce something else: manure. Manure is a rich source of nitrogen for fertilizing fields. With larger herds of cattle producing more manure, exhausted fields could be refertilized without a long period of lying fallow, which increased grain production.

Keeping larger herds of cattle significantly increased the available supply of food, which allowed for population growth. It also, however, changed social relations. Before iron, individual families largely tended their own fields and kept small herds of cattle, producing only enough for their own subsistence. There was little social differentiation between one family and the next because everyone did essentially the same work and there weren’t many opportunities to get richer than your neighbors. With iron came larger cattle herds, which meant that some people had to do the dirty scut work of cutting hay and mucking out stalls, while those who owned the cattle enjoyed extra food to use for trade or creating new social connections through the giving of expensive gifts. The archaeological evidence from Iron Age settlements in Denmark shows a process of social differentiation, as some families consolidated their economic power and rose to the top while others became dependent workers supporting the new elite.

The availability of economic surplus in the form of grain, cattle, and trade goods also meant that raiding nearby settlements could now be a profitable way of life for those strong enough to get away with it, and so the new cattle-owning elite soon also put iron to work to equip themselves for defense or to launch raids of their own. The agricultural elite became in time a military elite, with farming duties largely handed off to dependent workers. In time, this military elite consolidated its power enough to found royal dynasties commanding wide swaths of land and conducting raiding activities far from home.

These changes did not happen quickly. Unlike the effects of electricity, automobiles, and the Internet in the modern world, the effects of iron in ancient Denmark played out over centuries. The changes came slowly enough that, in lived experience, they probably did not seem all that disruptive. Looking back with the perspective of archaeology and history, though, we can see what enormous social transformations can be traced back to the introduction of stronger tools made of iron.

The most disruptive technologies don’t always come from the sources you expect, nor can we always predict the long-term effects of what seem like simple changes. These observations may seem very modern to us, but they were as true in the past as they are today.

Image: Raw bog iron, photograph by Tomasz Kruan via Wikimedia

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