The Persian Version

We know the story of the Greco-Persian Wars very well from the Greek side of things, especially from Herodotus whose Histories is all about the conflict. Modern histories have tended to tell the story the same way the Greeks told it—as a triumphant victory of hardy, democratic Greeks over soft, despotic Persians—in large part because we have no Persian version for comparison.

Even though we don’t have a Persian account comparable to Herodotus, however, we do have a hint as to how the wars may have been remembered inside the Persian Empire. This hint comes from a second-hand story reported several centuries after the fact by the Greek rhetorician Dio Chrysostom:

I heard a Mede say that the Persians do not agree at all with the Greeks’ version of events. Instead, he said that Darius sent Datis and Artaphernes against Naxos and Eretria, and that after capturing these cities they returned to the king. A few of their ships—not more than twenty—were blown off course to Attica and the crews had some kind of scuffle with the locals. Later on, Xerxes made war on the Spartans. He defeated them at Thermopylae and slew their king Leonidas. Then he captured the city of Athens, razed it, and enslaved those who did not flee. When this was done, he made the Greeks pay him tribute and returned to Asia.

– Dio Chrysostom, Discourses 11.148-149

(My own translation)

This version of events is not exactly wrong. The basic sequence matches up with our other evidence: in 490 BCE, King Darius sent a campaign against Greece that successfully captured the cities of Naxos and Eretria, but was defeated at Marathon and failed to take Athens. Ten years later, Darius’ son and successor Xerxes led an invasion of Greece which defeated a small Spartan-led holding force at Thermopylae and killed the Spartan king Leonidas, then captured and burned Athens. Numerous Greek cities became tribute-paying subjects of Persia rather than fight Xerxes’ force.

The only real differences between this Persian account and the Greek legend are the ways it emphasizes successes and downplays defeats. The battle of Marathon becomes a mere fistfight between a few stragglers and some local color. The capture and destruction of Athens is celebrated, even though the aim of the campaign was to absorb Athens into the empire, not just burn it and leave. The Persian kings could rightly say that they had made a significant show of force against the Greeks, while leaving out the fact that they hadn’t quite achieved what they set out to. As spin goes, this isn’t spun too far.

We know the Greek stories about the wars so well that we can easily see the places where the Persians seem to have burnished their memories, but that observation should also make us question the Greek stories themselves. If Persians could tweak their story to make themselves look better after the fact, what’s to say that the Greeks didn’t do the same? If we had a fuller Persian account of the conflicts in Greece, we might well find plenty of places where Herodotus and his fellow Greeks had played up their own successes and swept some embarrassing missteps under the historical rug.

Image: A Persian “Immortal,” selection from photograph by Mohammed Shamma via Flickr (currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 5th c. BCE; glazed brick) CC BY 2.0

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

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Classifying Warfare: Predatory and Hierarchical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts for writers

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

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

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

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

Guest-Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantasy Religions: Novel Religions

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

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

Connection to the past

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

Texts and beliefs

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

Hope in times of trouble

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

Difficult (but not too difficult)

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

Outward from the middle

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

Food

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

Thoughts for writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other entries in Fantasy Religions:

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

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

Chariots

War may never change, but the technology of war is always being updated, adapted, and replaced with new inventions. Because of the powerful emotions invoked by our experience of war, outdated military technology is sometimes invested with cultural meaning and takes on a new symbolic life when its functional utility is past. Suits of armor designed to protect soldiers from spears and arrows in wars hundreds of years in the past have become decorative objects that convey a sense of antiquity and dignity to a stately home. Swords have been obsolete on the battlefield for a century, but they still exercise such a fascination for us that we give them to heroes in stories set in the present and future. The town where I live boasts of its possession of a disabled artillery piece from a war more than a hundred years past. In the ancient world, chariots went through a similar transition from practical military hardware to symbolic possession.

A chariot is a light cart, usually on two wheels, though four-wheeled examples exist, designed to be pulled by one or more animals, usually horses. Four-wheeled versions, using heavy solid wheels and pulled by onagers (a type of wild ass) are documented in southern Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BCE. These wagons would have been relatively slow and ponderous, but they allowed the transport of fighters across the battlefield faster than infantry on foot and provided a defensible fighting platform. Light, fast chariots became possible with the invention of the spoked wheel on the steppes of Central Asia around 2000 BCE.

Light, mobile chariots pulled by horses offered several advantages in war. They allowed swift movement around the battlefield, provided an elevated platform from which to observe the progress of battle, and, on open ground, could stage mass charges to intimidate opposing troops. Horses that were too small to carry a rider under the rigors of war could be used to pull chariots. Between 2000 and 500 BCE, the use of chariots spread across a large swath of Eurasia and northern Africa, from China to Ireland, and from Egypt to the Baltic Sea.

Chariots also had some drawbacks, however. They required skilled construction and maintenance. To be effectively mobile, they had to be built light, but such light construction also made them relatively fragile. They required lots of space to operate and were of limited use on narrow, uneven, or muddy battlefields. Driving and fighting from a chariot solo was a virtuoso feat that few could manage, so the need to provide separate drivers in addition to the fighting troops was a drain on fighting power. In most places, chariots were retired from the battlefield as soon as horse breeds that were large and strong enough to carry an armored soldier became available.

In a few places, like the wide, open plains of Mesopotamia, where the terrain was favorable, chariots were used for fighting into the first century CE, but in most places they had vanished from military use centuries earlier. The glory of the chariot, though, kept its hold on people’s imaginations. In most places where they had been used in war, they were repurposed for symbolic and artistic purposes. In China, chariots were used to make impressive showpieces of engineering, like the famous South-Pointing Chariot, equipped with a figure that always pointed to the south no matter how the chariot turned. In India, chariots were reimagined to become vessels for carrying images of the Hind gods in ceremonial processions. In the Mediterranean, they were used for racing and military parades. In many of these places, chariots also entered mythology, remaining the conveyance of heroes and gods long after they had ceased to be used to carry soldiers around the battlefield.

Image: Model of a four-horse chariot, photograph by BabelStone via Wikimedia (found in Takht-i-Kuwad, Tajikistan, currently British Museum; 5th-4th c. BCE; gold)

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.

Gaulish Wheelbarrow Pigs: A Cautionary Tale

Primary sources are a historian’s best friend, and sometimes worst enemy. Primary sources are essential to our understanding of the past, but if not handled carefully, they can also be deceptive. For a case in point, here are a couple of comments on the Gauls of northern Italy in the third and second centuries BCE.

The Gauls were a warrior elite who had migrated into northern Italy over about a century and established themselves as leaders of scattered towns and settlements in the Po river valley. Some of these groups settled down and built up local power bases based on agriculture and trade. Others made their living by raiding the rest of the Italian peninsula or taking service as mercenaries in the many local wars being fought between Italian peoples like the Etruscans, Romans, Sabines, and Samnites. The native people of the Po valley sometimes resisted Gaulish influence and sometimes assimilated into Gaulish culture. By the second century, the expansion of Roman power had subdued or eliminated many of these groups, while some others had allied themselves with Rome.

The cultural realities of northern Italy were complicated. The view from Rome tended to be simplifying and stereotyping, but even the stereotypes themselves could be complicated.

Here is how the Greek author Polybius, who lived in Rome and aligned himself with Roman culture, described the Italian Gauls:

They lived in unwalled villages without permanent structures. Sleeping on leaves and eating meat, they knew nothing but war and farming; they lived simple lives and had no acquaintance with any art or science.

– Polybius, History 2.17-18

(My own translations)

The image is one of poverty in both material and cultural terms. Polybius’ Gauls are little better than wild animals.

Should we take Polybius’ account as an authoritative statement on what the Romans and their Greek allies thought about the Gauls? There is no doubt that the image of Gauls as feral savages lacking even the rudiments of civilized life was common in the ancient Mediterranean, but it was not the only possibility. In fact, just the opposite was also possible.

Cato the Elder, a Roman statesman, took a different view of the Gauls. Most of his account is lost, but a couple of fragments survive in quotations in later works:

The Gauls devote themselves most diligently to two things: war and cunning talk.

– Cato the Elder, Origins 2, quoted in Charisius, Ars Grammatica 2

 

The Insubres [a Gaulish tribe] in Italy lay up cuts of pork, three or four thousand at a time, and the pigs grow so big that they cannot stand on their own or walk anywhere. If they want to take a pig somewhere, they must put it in a cart.

– Cato the Elder, Origins 2, quoted in Varro, On Farming 1.2.7, 2.4.11; Columella, Res Rustica 3.3.2; Pliny, Natural History 14.52

Cato was no friend to the Gauls any more than Polybius was, but his view of them is different. Unlike Polybius’ ignorant savages with no art or sceince, Cato’s Gauls are cunning talkers. In contrast to the poverty of unwalled villages and beds of leaves, Cato pictures Gauls as so rich in agriculture that their pigs grow too fat to walk unaided.

Polybius and Cato were roughly contemporary and moved in the same elite social circles in Rome. Despite the differences in their points of view, they both reflect attitudes that must have been current among the Roman upper class. We can explain the differences in their views by their different audiences. Polybius was writing primarily for his fellow Greeks and aimed to portray the Romans as a force for order and stability in the Mediterranean. The more wild and bestial he could make their enemies, the more he could burnish the Romans’ credentials. Cato, by contrast, was writing for a Roman audience in the aftermath of Rome’s complete conquest of the Po valley. By building up the Gauls as a worthy foe, he made the conquest seem more glorious.

The variations in these perspectives should not surprise us. It is rare that any group of people has a single opinion about anything. Even the most reductive stereotypes are rarely universal among the people who hold them. Individuals and groups alike can hold multiple attitudes at the same time, calling up one opinion or another as the occasion demands.

For more recent historical periods when we have richer records of peoples’ thoughts and words, it is easier to get a fuller sense of this sort of complexity. In more distant periods of history when we have much more limited records, it can be tempting to assume that the documents we do have represent an accurate picture of what people thought on a given topic. Polybius and Cato are a good cautionary example that even among people who traveled in the same social circles in the same places and times, multiple different opinions were equally possible.

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.

Wine and Sheep for a Princess

Administrative records from the Persian Empire preserve some evidence of a lady of the royal court gathering resources, probably in preparation for a feast:

A message to Yamaksheda, the wine carrier, from Pharnaces: Issue 200 marrish [about 2,000 liters] of wine to Princess Artystone. By the king’s order.

First month of the nineteenth year [March or April, 503 BCE]. Ansukka wrote the text. Mazara conveyed the message.

– Persepolis Fortification Texts (published) 1795

A message to Harriena, the herdsman, from Pharnaces: King Darius commanded me in these words: “Issue 100 sheep from my estate to my daughter, Princess Artystone.”

Now Pharnaces says: “As the king commanded me, I command you: Issue 100 sheep to Princess Artystone as the king ordered.”

First month of the nineteenth year [March or April, 503 BCE]. Ansukka wrote the text. Mazara conveyed the message.

– Persepolis Fortification Texts (collated) 6754

(My own translations.)

We can learn some interesting things from this evidence.

For one thing, it gives us a sense of how the Persian imperial bureaucracy worked. There were higher officials like Pharnaces who were responsible for overseeing the distribution of goods, scribes like Ansukka, messengers like Mazara, and lower officials in charge of particular categories of goods. Messages like these directed those who were lower down in the hierarchy to issue certain quantities of goods while at the same time keeping a record of what had been issued and where it came from.

Secondly, this is evidence for the scale on which elite Persian women could command economic resources. 2,000 liters of wine and 100 sheep cost no small amount of labor to produce. Artystone could, with her father’s consent, draw on the fruits of all that labor.

And finally: it looks like Artystone really know how to throw a party.

Image: Tribute bearer with rams, photograph by A. Davey via Flickr (Persepolis Apadana staircase; c. 518 BCE; stone relief). CC BY 2.0

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.

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.

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.