A Contradictory Coin

Two faces of an ancient Roman coin, one showing a bearded man wearing a radiate crown, the other showing a young men wearing a wreath.



Palmyrene Antoninianus, photograph by Classical Numismatic Group via Wikimedia (270-272 CE; bronze and silver)

What’s so contradictory about this coin? Well, there’s a story behind it.

In the third century CE, the Roman Empire wasn’t doing well at all. Between 235 and 284, the empire suffered civil war and political chaos as numerous general claimed the imperial title with the backing of their troops, only to be assassinated and replaced with another general. At the same time there was an economic collapse and an outbreak of deadly disease that depopulated the great cities of the Mediterranean.

In this fifty years of crisis, the emperors were mostly concerned with securing their own power and fighting off rivals. People looked to more local powers to handle the ordinary business of governance. With such chaos and weakness at the top, some of these local powers began to operate as effectively independent states.

One such state was the empire of Palmyra. Palmyra was a city in the eastern Mediterranean, in what is today Syria. It had long been an important stop on caravan routes that connected the Mediterranean with Mesopotamia and India beyond. The Palmyrene noble Odaenathus helped to support the Roman position in the region during a flare-up of conflicts with the Parthian Empire to the east. With weakness at the top of the empire, Odaenathus began to rule Palmyra with more and more independence over the course of the 260s. After his death in 267, his wife Zenobia, ruling on behalf of their young son Vaballathus, began an ambitious campaign of conquest that made Palmyra the ruling city of a de facto empire covering much of the Roman East.

While effectively operating as an independent power, Palmyra maintained a show of loyalty to the Roman Emperor at the time, Aurelian. In the early 270s, Zenobia issued coins like this one, bearing the image of Aurelian on one side and Vaballathus on the other. The text of the coin names Aurelian as emperor and calls Vaballathus only a general of the Romans. Since coins could circulate more widely than most other works of public art, these coins represented one of Zenobia’s best efforts to convey the message to Aurelian that she and her son were still loyal.

But the very existence of these coins belies the message they send. The minting of coins was an imperial prerogative, one closely tied to the power of the emperor himself. Rome allowed some of the cities under its rule to mint their own low-value bronze coinage for local trade, essentially small change to make it easier for people to do their day-today business in the market. Palmyra evidently had the right to mint such coins, although surviving evidence suggests that the Palmyrenes had never exercised that right on any large scale.

This coin is different. It is the type of coin known to scholars today as an “Antoninianus.” (We don’t know what, if anything, ancient people called them.) An Antoninianus was a high-value coin typically made of a combination of bronze and silver. Its face value was equivalent to several days’ pay for a legionary (although extreme inflation in the third century seriously eroded the coins’ actual value), and they were largely minted by the emperors to pay the troops who had put them into power. Coins of such value had a strong historical connection to the recruitment and pay of armies.

By minting coins of this type, Zenobia effectively declared her intention to lead armies independently of the Roman emperors. No matter what image she put on the coins, the very act of minting them was tantamount to announcing a rebellion.

Aurelian was not fooled by the display of loyalty. In 272 he attacked Palmyra, captured Zenobia, and reconquered the territory she had claimed. After another outbreak of rebellion in Palmyra the next year, Aurelian captured the city and destroyed it.

An object as seemingly simple as a coin can have complicated and even contradictory intentions behind it.

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

Worldbuilding for Democracy

Whether playing a game of thrones or awaiting the return of the king, fantasy literature tends to have a lot of monarchies. This is true in part because the genre grew out of literary traditions created to justify the power of kings and aristocrats and in part because royal families lend themselves so well to drama (it seems to be the only job the British royals have left, for one example).

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. There’s plenty of room for fantasy to explore societies without kings or thrones. Many cultures in the past have had alternatives to monarchy. Most famous may be the democracies of ancient Greece, but other ways of sharing power out among multiple individuals, families, or factions can be found around the world, in places like the early city-states of Sumer, the medieval cantons of Switzerland, and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy in North America. Not all of these societies operated in ways we would recognize as fully democratic today (for instance, Greek democracy excluded women, immigrants, and slaves), but they all represent functional alternatives to a monarchy or entrenched aristocracy.

These forms of governance came about as the result of particular social, historical, and geographic circumstances. If you want to build a democratic society (even in such a loose sense) into your fantasy worldbuilding, here are a few approaches to consider.

Friends don’t let friends start monarchies

Small-scale societies are usually egalitarian and tend to resist individual claims to power. In societies small enough that people all know each other or are bound together by ties of family and friendship, personal relationships matter more than formal structures of power. One person trying to put themselves above others in such a culture is a threat to the stability of those relationships and can expect little support. With the rest of society so closely bound together by ties of kinship and affection, resistance is easy to organize. Monarchies only work in societies large enough that most people are strangers to one another.

Poor lands make poor kings

One of the defining features of monarchy is that it consolidates wealth in one or a few people’s hands. This isn’t just a perk of the job (although, as Mel Brooks said, it’s good to be the king), it’s necessary for keeping a monarch in power. Kings justify their power in many ways, sometimes by providing the benefits of stability and order to the people they rule over, sometimes by cloaking themselves in religious ideology, but at the base of it all is a threat: do what I say or my soldiers will come burn your house and take your stuff. That threat only works if the soldiers will actually back it up, and while a good king may earn the personal loyalty of his troops, you can’t eat loyalty. An army big enough to keep a monarchy in power will fall apart if it doesn’t get paid, and maybe even turn on the monarch themselves. A monarchy can only sustain itself in a place where it can command enough economic resources to be sure of being able to pay its army in a crisis. In regions that don’t have that kind of wealth, or whose wealth is difficult for any one faction or family to control, monarchies tend not to last long.

The divided are hard to conquer

“Divide and conquer” is all well and good, but when the landscape itself divides people, it is hard for even a conqueror to maintain control. Fragmented landscapes that limit the movement of troops and supplies make it hard for would-be rulers to assert control. They also tend to foster a strong sense of local identity that limits a monarch’s ability to command the people’s loyalty. Many different kinds of landscape can have this quality, such as those divided into many small islands or mountain valleys, or lands broken up by marshes and forests. Wherever people are used to being isolated and having to rely on themselves and their neighbors, they tend to create societies that distribute power rather than relying on a distant and unfamiliar king.

We are struggling together

The points above have a common thread: the smaller a society is, the more likely it is to be democratic. The bigger a society gets, the weaker the forces keeping it egalitarian and the more likely that someone will succeed in establishing a durable monarchy. Large-scale democracies tend to arise from a particular historical experience: when lots of small societies find themselves having to work together. When several tribes, clans, islands, or cities of comparable wealth and power have to coordinate their efforts, such as to resist pressure from an invading empire or to control valuable natural resources, compromises have to be made. A single leader is unlikely to get everyone on board without making concessions to ensure the sharing of power and resources. These arrangements can take many forms, such as governance through a council representing all members or rules of succession that guarantee no single family line has a lock on power.

Many different forces can be at work at once in any given culture. Small mountain villages that are egalitarian because of their small size and poverty may band together in a democratic league to coordinate their response to pressure from a nearby kingdom in the lowlands. Once that league is well established, it might expand to take in some of that kingdom’s outlying cities, even pull together an army to conquer the flatlands for itself while still preserving its democratic basis. What happens to such a democracy when it comes to rule over people accustomed to the claims of monarchy? How do people used to being ruled by kings adapt to being part of a league where they have a voice of their own? There are lots of good stories to explore in fantasy that don’t revolve around kings and crowns.

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

Slavery Was Always Wrong

Slavery was integral to the societies and economies of the ancient Mediterranean, so much so that discussing almost any topic in ancient history will end up touching on it at some point, and as historians we do not always take the time to address slavery as an institution in itself. The practice of slavery in Greece and Rome also differed from the modern American version in significant ways, which we often have to explain. The combination of these facts can sometimes leave the impression ancient slavery was in some way less wrong than modern slavery.

So this is me as an ancient historian taking the time to say: it was not. Slavery is, was, and has always been wrong.

The practice of slavery—that is, treating some people as possessions who have no rights to autonomy or claims to humanity and who can be exploited for labor without their consent and without compensation—is common across many cultures in history. Almost every pre-modern society (and many societies in the modern period) complex enough to have a division of labor had some mechanism for forcing a particular class of people to labor against their will. In many cases, this class of people came from outside that society or were the descendants of people who had, but local people could be among the exploited as well. Cultures that did not practice slavery have existed in history, but they are rarities. Just as different cultures in history varied widely in their ways of life, they also varied in how they practiced slavery, but inherent in all slave systems is the violence—whether actual or implicit—that comes of treating people as things.

In all slave societies, those who benefited from the exploitation of others generally found ways of justifying the practice. The voices of the rich and powerful dominate the historical record, especially as we look farther back in time. The voices of enslaved people themselves are often missing from the sources (at least until more recent centuries), and we should not suppose that they shared the opinions of the people who were exploiting them. If our image of ancient slavery is not one of violence and horror, that tells us more about whose stories we are hearing than about the actual experience of slavery. We are never on solid ground making judgments based on what the rich and powerful think is okay for them to do to other people in order to stay rich and powerful.

Slavery played an important role in the economies of both ancient Greece and Rome, more so than in some of the other cultures they lived alongside. Greeks were major players in Mediterranean trade for centuries, and trafficking in enslaved people was a significant part of that trade. The islands of Delos and Rhodes were major centers of the trade in enslaved people, as documented by numerous inscriptions found in both places left by the traders. Slavery was particularly important in the Roman economy because Rome was an expansive empire. Enslaving war captives was one of the most direct ways of profiting off the near constant warfare that marked the growth of the empire.

There are important ways in which the practice of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean was different from that in modern-period America. For example, enslaved people were not distinguished by race from those who exploited them. Greeks and Romans did not have a concept of race as we understand it, but even so, enslaved and free were not distinguishable by physical appearance (a point made clear by numerous legal and literary sources about enslaved people passing themselves off as free). In Rome, there was a custom of granting freedom to some enslaved individuals after a period of time. These freed people gained some legal status in Roman society (either citizenship or a lesser status as “Latins,” depending on the time period) and they and their descendants could integrate themselves into Roman society.

Still, the fact the Greek and Roman slavery was different does not make it less wrong. The exploitation, violence, and dehumanization inherent in slavery are always wrong. The experiences of individuals may vary between times and cultures—and even within the same time and culture—but those variations are not a defense of slavery, neither as a general practice nor in any particular case.

There has never been a time when slavery was morally defensible. It has always been wrong.

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

Superheroes and Fascism

There’s an idea that sometimes raises its head in pop culture discussions that superheroes are fundamentally fascist. (Here’s a version of the argument from a few years back, some pushback from the time, and some more recent reflections on the same idea.) The essential argument is that superheroes are a version of the might-makes-right ideology of fascism, grounded in the idea that the only way to solve problem is to look to a single, nearly (or actually) superhuman individual who reshapes the world, often with violence. Superhero stories portray a world incapable of coping with injustice without the intervention of such a superior individual, which is the same claim made by fascist movements, whether past or present. Others have objected to this idea, pointing out that while fascists seek power, superheroes traditionally reject it, many of them even hiding behind secret identities to avoid even taking credit for the good they do.

As with many challenging ideas, there may be some merit in both sides of the argument, but I think it helps us make sense of the debate to look at it from a greater distance and think about both superheroes and fascism in the deeper context they both draw on: heroes. I’ll speak specifically about the heroes of Greek mythology—in part because they are the ones I know best, and in part because they were particular points of reference both for the fascist movements of the twentieth century and for the creators of early superheroes—but similar patterns can be found in cultures throughout the world.

Heroes in ancient Greece were not just figures of myth and story; they were surrounded with religious, cultural, and political significance. Their significance varied, though, with time and context.

Some of the earliest signs of the veneration of heroes is archaeological. In the 800s and 700s BCE, there is evidence for religious rituals at tombs dating from the Mycenaean period hundreds of years earlier. The people of the ninth and eight centuries had very little understanding of the realities of the Mycenaean kingdoms, but they seem to have associated those tombs with heroic figures from their mythic past. These characters first appear to us in literary form in the Homeric epics as warrior kings like Achilles, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, but their legends must have been circulating in oral tradition for generations before.

In the eighth century, these heroes were claimed as literal, direct ancestors by aristocratic families around Greece. These families maintained the ceremonies at the Mycenaean tombs and sponsored the poets who performed epics like the Iliad and Odyssey. The claims they made to descent from such famous heroes were political, part of how they competed for power against rival families. The epics reflect the way in which heroes were perceived as the exclusive property of the aristocrats—when the rank-and-file soldier Thersites dares speak up against Agamemnon in the Iliad, the hero Odysseus gives him a dressing down for daring to challenge his betters and threatens to strip him naked and beat him with Agamemnon’s scepter. When Odysseus returns home to Ithaca, he comes home not as a leader of the whole community but as an avenging warlord defending his own property against rivals. (Homer, Iliad 2.212-277; Homer, Odyssey 22)

But heroes did not remain the sole property of the aristocrats. In the volatile politics of the seventh and sixth centuries, those who agitated to wrest power from the entrenched aristocrats and create more inclusive democratic governments also laid claim to the heroes. Figures of myth were reinterpreted not as the literal ancestors of specific families but as part of the shared heritage of whole communities. Some heroes were claimed by cities in the regions they were historically connected to, such as Theseus in Athens or Orestes in Sparta. Other heroes, like Heracles, were more wide-ranging, and could be invoked by the Greeks who traveled and settled throughout the Mediterranean.

The process of making these heroes the collective heritage of a community rather than the exclusive property of aristocratic families had many aspects. Unlike the private tomb cults of the ninth and eighth centuries, heroes and their worship became part of communal religious practices, including public shrines and festivals. The stories of heroes were reimagined; unlike the Homeric heroes, who behaved as larger-than-life aristocrats defending their own private interests, heroes of the later archaic and classical periods were defenders of their homelands and peoples who stood for justice. Theseus, for instance, is portrayed unifying the people of Athens by journeying through Attica and around nearby coastlands slaying dangerous monsters and subduing bandits and murderers—a long way from Odysseus slaughtering his wife’s suitors to defend his own home and property. Heroes were often physically incorporated into the life of the community through the practice of collecting and preserving what were believed to be their bones. Herodotus recounts how the Spartans brought the bones of Orestes back to Sparta from neighboring Tegea to give them victory in war and how Greek preparations for the naval battle against the invading Persians at Salamis included sending a ship to the island of Aegina to retrieve sacred images of the hero Aeacus and his equally heroic sons. These relics belonged to whole communities, not to single families. By these means, the exclusive, aristocratic heroes of early Greece became the collective, democratic heroes of the classical age. (Herodotus, Histories 1.67-68, 8.64, 8.84; Plutarch, Parallel Lives, “Life of Theseus”)

The tension between these two kinds of heroes—the exclusive ones who justify the power of a narrow elite and the inclusive ones who stand for the best qualities of a whole community—is not unique to ancient Greece. We can see it repeated in cultures throughout history up to the present day. The “heroes” involved need not be figures of myth and legend, either; historical figures, celebrities, and political leaders can receive the same treatment as well.

Fascism and superheroes both draw on this history, but they apply different aspects of it. Fascism looks back to the exclusive, aristocratic kind of heroism that claimed a connection with great figures of myth and history to justify the power of a limited group, whether defined by class, ethnicity, family, or political affiliation. Fascist leaders of the twentieth century claimed the heritage of a semi-historical, semi-mythical past as an exclusive property of their followers. Modern quasi-fascistic movements have a similar obsession with jealously gatekeeping their own chosen semi-historical models, from the inhabitants of medieval Europe to the Founders of the United States.

Superheroes, by contrast, represent the inclusive, democratic response that makes heroes represent not the interests of a self-defined elite but the aspirations of a broad community. Superman is the immigrant experience in the US writ large. Captain America stands for the courage and integrity of Americans at their best, while Iron Man represents Americans rising to do the right thing despite the arrogance and materialism that defines them at their worst. The “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” is the neighborhood Spider-Man for a reason.

So my answer, in the end, is: no, superheroes aren’t fascist, even if they draw on some of the same roots. Fascism is the modern world’s darkest kind of heroism; superheroes are our answer.

Image: A version of Captain America’s shield, photograph by ze_bear 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.

Two-Question Worldbuilding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chart by Erik Jensen

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

A Busy Paeonian Woman

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

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

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

– Herodotus, Histories 5.12

(My own translation)

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

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

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

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

Well-Dressed Immortals

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

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

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

– Herodotus, Histories 6.112

(My own translation)

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

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

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

Matrilineality

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

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

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

Here’s an example. Consider this extended family.

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

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

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

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

Thoughts for writers

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

Charts by Erik Jensen

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

History for Writers Compendium: 2020

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

Thinking historically

Thinking mythically

Imagining other places

Living other lives

Writing other worlds

People in the past

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

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

Accessibility Ramps at Ancient Greek Sanctuaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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