Race in Antiquity: Skin Color in Art

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

It sounds like a simple question that ought to have a straightforward answer, but both the question and its answer are far more complicated than they appear. In these posts, I dig into the topic to explore what we know, what we don’t know, and what we mean by race in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Part 4: Skin Color in Art

In the previous post, we looked at how Greeks and Romans wrote about skin color. Today we look at how they represented it in art.

In looking at how ancient artists handled skin color, we have to begin by recognizing that not all ancient artworks have come down to us intact or preserving their original colors. We must especially shake off the association of ancient art with gleaming white marble. Marble was favored for sculpture in the ancient Mediterranean because the stone is slightly translucent and it reacts to light in a way similar to human skin, but marble statues were not usually left white. They were painted, often in bright colors which have faded or disappeared entirely after thousands of years of exposure. To get a more accurate sense of how ancient artists represented skin color, we have to choose our sources carefully and look for types of artwork that hold color better over time or that have been protected from exposure.

Although people of the ancient Mediterranean were aware that human skin tones could vary widely, they did not attach the same meaning to this variation that we tend to today. Since skin color was not a primary way of marking ethnic identity, artists could use it to convey other meanings, or simply for decorative effect.

It was a widespread custom in the ancient Mediterranean to use skin color as an indicator of gender. Men were often portrayed with dark reddish-brown skin, women with pale yellow-white skin. This artistic convention reflects a conventional ideology in which the socially acceptable activities for men were agriculture and war, outdoor occupations which exposed them to the sun. Women were similarly expected to stay indoors, working in the home and preserving their pale skin. For a man to be pale suggested that he worked indoors at trades that, though necessary for society, were less prestigious. Similarly, for a woman to appear dark-skinned suggested that she had to work outside the home, implying that her household was not rich enough to be self-sustaining. When patrons directed artists to depict them with conventional skin colors, they were responding to the social pressure to look their best. We cannot assume that artworks like these represent the actual appearance of their subjects.

Funerary statues of Rahotep and Nofret via Wikimedia (Egyptian Museum, Cairo; c. 2500 BCE; painted limestone)
Portrait of a couple from Pompeii via Wikimedia (Pompeii, currently Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli; 1st c. CE; fresco)

 

Skin color could also be used to indicate other features of identity. Darker skin, for instance, was associated with age, lighter skin with youth. Children were often depicted with light-colored skin, regardless of gender. In this portrait of the family of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, Septimius’ skin is distinctly darker than his wife Julia Domna’s, but their son Caracalla’s skin is even a little paler than his mother’s. (Their other son Geta’s face was obliterated in antiquity after Caracalla became emperor and assassinated his brother).

Portrait of Septimius Severus and family, photograph by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro via Wikimedia (currently Altes Museum, Berlin; c. 200 CE; painted panel)

 

The degree to which skin color was emphasized as a feature in art also varied between cultures and across time. These two examples of Etruscan tomb art from Tarquinia show how much variation there could be even within the same community. While both follow the dark men / light women pattern (gender is also marked by differences in clothing, hair style, and activity) one makes the distinction very stark and schematic while the other is much more subtle.

Banquet scene from the Tomb of the Leopards, photograph by AlMare via Wikimedia (Tarquinia; 480-450 BCE; fresco)
Banquet scene from the Tomb of the Shields via classconnection (Tarquinia; c. 340 BCE; fresco)

 

In many cases, the skin color of human figures in ancient art is dictated by the choice of medium more than by a desire to convey any message. The two sides of this vase, for instance, present similar scenes, the hero Heracles at a feast, in opposite color schemes.

“Bilingual” vase, composite of photographs via Wikimedia (Vulci, currently Staatliche Antikensammlung, Berlin; 520-510 BCE; pottery; believed to be by Andokides Painter)

 

This statue of the Tetrarchs, four emperors who governed the Roman Empire in a short-lived experiment in joint rule, is carved out of porphyry, a very hard stone with a dark purple hue. This stone was chosen for several reasons, partly because of the traditional association of purple with imperial power and partly because the dense, hard stone suggested the strength of the institution the joint rulers were trying to create. A realistic depiction of skin tone was not a priority.

Tetrarchs statue, photograph by Nino Barbieri via Wikimedia (currently St. Mark’s Square, Venice; early 4th c. CE; porphyry)

 

When depicting beings beyond the human realm, skin color could carry many other meanings. The Egyptian god of the dead, Osiris, was traditionally depicted with green skin, symbolic of regrowth and new life. In these wall paintings, the green-skinned Osiris appears in two different scenes in the company of other gods.

Wall paintings from the tomb of Horemheb, photograph be Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Wikimedia (Valley of the Kings; c. 1292 BCE; fresco)

 

Similarly, the Etruscan god Charu, who was responsible for guiding the souls of the dead into the afterlife, was typically shown with blue skin, representing decaying flesh.

Charu from the François Tomb, detail of photograph via Wikimedia (Vulci; c. 330 BCE; fresco)

Sometimes ancient artists used skin color to indicate ethnicity in ways that are easy for us to recognize, such as this vase representing two women’s faces. The light-skinned woman’s features, such as her pointed nose, thin lips, and wavy hair, suggest that she is meant to be of European descent while the black-skinned woman has features characteristic of a sub-Saharan African origin, such as a flat nose, fuller lips, and tightly coiled hair.

Janiform aryballos, photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia (from Greece, currently Louvre; 520-510 BCE; pottery)

 

In other cases, we cannot be entirely sure what the skin color in ancient art is meant to convey. This fresco from Minoan Knossos depicts bull leapers in distinctly different skin tones, but it is difficult to be sure what significance, if any, that difference has. It may be meant to show differences in gender, although the figures’ similar proportions, clothing, and hair do not confirm it. It might be intended to indicate people of different ethnic origins. Alternatively, it could be simply for aesthetic variation. We do not know enough about Minoan culture and its conventions for representing ethnicity, gender, and other identities in art to be certain.

Bull leaping fresco (restored), photograph by Nikater via Wikimedia (Knossos; 1550-1450 BCE; fresco)

 

As with literary descriptions of skin color, we have to approach ancient artistic representations with a cautious awareness of how far removed we are from the cultures that created them. The artists who made these images and the patrons who commissioned them did not share many of our basic assumptions about what skin color means and how it should be represented. Their cultural context was unlike ours and they created their works to communicate with other people of their place and time, not to send time capsules to us millennia later. It is not enough for us to stroll through museums or flip through the pages of art books looking for faces that look the way we think people of different ethnic origins ought to look.

Ancient art is not a representative snapshot of ancient demographics. Art represents what people consider important, not necessarily the reality of the world they live in. In a world in which privilege, power, and identity were not wrapped up with race in the same way they are today, the representation of race in art was much less of a priority. Just because ancient artists, like ancient writers, often chose not to depict skin color as a defining mark of ethnic identity does not mean that they did not live surrounded by people of all different hues with ancestries spanning the globe. As with how we read literature, we have to learn to read ancient art in new ways if we are to make sense of it as evidence for the diversity of ancient Mediterranean societies.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

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

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Rosetta Stone Online in 3D

The British Museum has made a 3D-scan of the Rosetta Stone and released it for exploration, download, and sharing. The model is available at the museum’s Sketchfab site:

Sketchfab British Museum Rosetta Stone Screencap
Screencap of the Rosetta Stone 3D model by the British Museum at Sketchfab

I just love the effort museums and libraries are making to bring their collections online. Providing 3D models is another step in making the collections relevant to the 21st century life.

Visit The British Museum at Sketchfab for additional 3D models—over 200 at this writing!

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Nitocris’ Vengeance

Here’s a story told by the Greek historian Herodotus about an ancient queen of Egypt, as told to him by the Egyptian priests he was interviewing about their country’s history:

The priests read out from a papyrus scroll the names of three-hundred and thirty kings. In all these generations there were eighteen Ethiopians and one Egyptian woman; the rest were Egyptian men. The woman’s name was Nitocris… They said that she avenged her brother. The Egyptians had killed him when he was their king and then given the kingship to her, so she slaughtered many Egyptians by a trick to avenge him. She had an underground chamber built and invited those Egyptians whom she knew to be most guilty of her brother’s death on the pretense of an inaugural feast, although she was actually planning something else. As they were feasting, she had the river let in to flood the chamber through a great hidden channel.

– Herodotus, Histories 2.100

My own translation

Like Herodotus’ other stories about Egypt, this shows an interesting mix of actual historical knowledge with folklore, probably both Egyptian and Greek.

It is very difficult to verify the number of kings Herodotus’ interviewees listed for him. Earlier Egyptian records of kings have survived only in very fragmentary forms and later writings about Egyptian history, even those by Egyptians, tended to rely on Herodotus. When Egyptian dynasties recorded the reigns of their kings, they had as much incentive as an other politicians to exaggerate some things and erase others. When Herodotus was traveling in Egypt, the country was under Persian rule and not particularly happy about it. The priests that Herodotus talked to had their own reasons to encourage a certain view of Egyptian history.

Nevertheless, in rough terms, 330 is a reasonable estimate of the number of kings who had ruled in Egypt over 3,000 years. The priests’ count also includes a number of “Ethiopian” kings, who correspond to the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, when Egypt was conquered and ruled by Nubians for about a hundred years between the mid-eighth and mid-seventh centuries BCE.

That leaves Nitocris herself. The name may be a garbled form of a very early king who had otherwise been forgotten about by Herodotus’ time. We now know from ancient inscriptions that more than one woman ruled Egypt, whether as regents for their sons or as pharaoh themselves. The most famous of these female pharaohs is Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1478 to 1458 BCE, just over a thousand years before Herodotus visited Egypt. The “underground chamber” mentioned in the story may be a distorted recollection of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, which was built partially into the side of a cliff and which is surrounded by the underground tombs of later pharaohs who chose to be buried at the same site (now known as the Valley of the Kings).

Hatshepsut’s successor, Thuthmosis III, had her name stricken from monuments and her public statues destroyed—not necessarily out of any personal animosity, but simply because the existence of a female predecessor may have threatened the legitimacy of his own and his descendants’ reign. The erasure of her public memory, though, may have opened room for some of the more outlandish and dramatic elements of her legend to grow (and may explain the loss of her name).

At the same time, the themes of family chaos, murder, and revenge that run through this story are very much in tune with Greek mythology. Whether Herodotus invented them or the priests enlivened the tale, they seem calculated to appeal to a Greek audience. There may well be some of both: the priests may have adapted their native oral tradition to better suit their Greek interviewer, while Herodotus may have amplified the familiar elements of the story as he retold the story for his Greek readers.

It may best for us to see the story of Nitocris as a kind of collaborative Greco-Egyptian historical fiction.

Image: Portrait statue of Hatshepsut, photograph by Rob Koopman via Wikimedia (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden; granite; c. 1450 BCE)

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.

Keep Out

The image above is a papyrus sign found near an ancient temple complex at Saqqara, Egypt. The original is 36 cm (a little more than a foot) wide. The text is in Greek and reads:

By order of Peukestes:

No entry.

This is a sacred enclosure.

My own translation

What does this sign mean and why was it posted in Greek somewhere near an Egyptian temple?

The name Peukestes helps us towards an answer. There is one important Peukestes we know from the sources with a connection to Egypt. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt with his Greek and Macedonian army. The Egyptian people had lived unhappily under the rule of the Persian empire for generations and they greeted the newcomers as liberators. When Alexander moved on the next year to continue his conquest of Persia, he left Egypt under the charge of two of his commanders, Balakros and Peukestes. (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander 3.5.5)

The Greeks and Macedonians of Alexander’s army had Egyptian good will on their side and they did not want to lose it. At the same time, Egypt and its great monuments were a source of endless fascination to foreign visitors in antiquity, just as much as today, and not all foreigners knew how to behave with respect. Centuries earlier, Greek mercenaries in the service of the Egyptian pharaohs had carved graffiti into the stones of ancient temples. Balakros and Peukestes, trying to hold onto a valuable province through the turmoil of liberation, certainly did not want any of that going on.

The sign was probably originally posted outside of the temple complex at Saqqara as a warning to any Greek troops indulging in a bit of sight-seeing that they had better be on their best behavior, including staying out of places that were sacred to their Egyptian friends.

Multicultural and cross-religious encounters are nothing new in the world. People have been thinking about the problem of how to get along peacefully with those whose ways of life are different from ours for thousands of years. Respecting other peoples’ religious traditions isn’t just polite, it’s sound policy.

Reference for the papyrus: Eric G. Turner, “A Commander-in-Chief’s Order from Saqqara,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 60 (1974): 239-42.

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.

Bad Day at the Office, 257 BCE

Being in middle management sucks. You’re stuck between unreasonable bosses and uncooperative workers. If you’ve ever been in that position, you might have some sympathy with Panakestor, the overseer of a farm in Ptolemaic Egypt some of whose daily correspondence has been preserved on papyrus in the desert climate.

Between 323 and 30 BCE, Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemies, descendants of one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Ruling from Alexandria on the coast, the Greek-speaking Ptolemies depended on a large class of local administrators and subordinates to deal with the Egyptian-speaking population. Some of these subordinates were immigrants from Greece or other regions around the Aegean Sea; others were native Egyptians who saw opportunities working for the new regime. Panakestor was a Carian, from southwestern Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). He oversaw an estate near a town called Philadelphia belonging to Apollonius, a big shot in Alexandria who owned many such estates around Egypt.

The original agreement between Apollonius and the Egyptian farmers who worked his land was simple: at harvest time, they would hand over one third of their crop as rent and keep two thirds for themselves. In 257, however, Apollonius decided he wanted to change the system, even though it was very late in the season and almost harvest time anyway. Now he wanted the farmers to estimate the value of their crop at the beginning of the growing season and pay a portion of that as rent up front. This new arrangement would be good for Apollonius as he could guarantee his income, but if the crops failed the whole risk would be on the farmers.

Apollonius sent out a message ordering Panakestor to put the new system in place. Panakestor did his best, but soon wrote back explaining that things were not going well. Apollonius then sent out an impatient second memo:

[To Panakestor] from Apollonius. I was astounded at your negligence that you have written nothing, either about the estimation or about the harvest of the grain. Write to me now how each matter stands.

– PSI (Papiri della Societa Italiana) 5.502

(My own translations)

Panakestor wrote back giving fuller details of the problem. His letter also survives:

Continue reading

Celebrating Hidden Youth With Rhodopis

161121bendisHidden Youth comes out today! Among the many short stories in this collection about young people from marginalized groups in history is my story, “How I Saved Athens from the Stone Monsters,” about the adventures of two flute girls, one Egyptian and one Thracian, on one strange and terrifying night in ancient Athens. I hope you’ll consider picking up the collection, not just for my story but for all the other amazing work in it.

My story was inspired in part by the Egyptian and Thracian immigrant communities we know existed in Classical Athens. There were temples in the city to both the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Thracian goddess Bendis. But Athens wasn’t the only place Egyptians and Thracians crossed paths.

A famous Thracian courtesan named Rhodopis worked in Naucratis, the Greek trading city in Egypt in the 6th century BCE. She seems to have been a larger-than-life character whom people liked to tell stories about. It was apparently widely believed in antiquity that one of the three great pyramids at Giza was built for her by her lovers. Another fanciful story about her is the closest ancient equivalent to the story of Cinderella:

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

– Strabo, Geography 17.1.33

(My own translation)

While this is obviously just a bit of a fairy tale, Rhodopis was a real person. One of her lovers was Charaxus, the brother of the lyric poet Sappho. Sappho evidently didn’t think much of the relationship. A fragment of one of Sappho’s poems throws a little shade the courtesan’s way (referring to Rhodopis as Doricha—it was not unusual for courtesans to use several different names):

O, Aphrodite, may she find you too bitter for her taste,

and don’t let her go boasting:

“What a sweet thing Doricha has got herself into

this time around!”

– Sappho, fragment from Oxyrhynchus papyrus 1231.1.1.(a)

(My own translation)

Herodotus reports that the rich offering Rhodopis made at Delphi at the end of her life to celebrate her good fortune—an enormous pile of iron roasting spits—was still to be seen there in his day. (Herodotus, Histories 2.135)

Rhodopis sounds like she would have been an interesting person to hang around with, and Hidden Youth is one more reminder that interesting people were everywhere in history, not just in the places we expect.

Image: Greek statue of Bendis, photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia (Cyprus, currently Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 3rd c. BCE; limestone)

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Ancient d20s

If you’re a role-playing gamer, you probably recognize the profile of a twenty-sided die, or d20, right away: the collection of triangles making up a bumpy sphere by which we invoke the capricious god of random numbers. This shape (technically known as an “icosahedron”) has been in use a lot longer than Dungeons & Dragons has been around. Here’s an example from Roman-period Egypt which has the names of Egyptian gods marked on its faces in demotic, an Egyptian script.

161103dakhleh
Dakhleh die showing “Isis” face via Martina Minas-Nerpel, “ A Demotic Inscribed Icosahedron from Dakhleh Oasis,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 93 (2007), 137-48 (Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt, currently Valley Museum, Kharga, Egypt; 1st c. CE; limestone)

Here’s another example from Egypt. This one has Greek letters on each of its faces.

Icosahedron via Metropolitan Museum of Art (Egypt, currently Metropolitan Museum; 2nd c. BCE - 4th c. CE; serpentine)
Icosahedron via Metropolitan Museum of Art (Egypt, currently Metropolitan Museum; 2nd c. BCE – 4th c. CE; serpentine)

It’s possible that these dice were used for some kind of game, but more likely they were used for divination. The die with the names of gods may have been used to determine which god a person should pray to for help. The Greek letters probably corresponded to a list of pre-written oracular responses: ask your question, roll the die, and consult the table for the answer, sort of like the ancient version of a magic 8-ball.

Some might say the uses of the twenty-sided die haven’t changed much in a couple thousand years.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Becoming Egyptian

Sarcophagus of Wahibre-em-akhet, via Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (Egypt, possibly Giza, currently Rijksmuseum van Oudheden; basalt; 664-525 BCE)
Sarcophagus of Wahibre-em-akhet via Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (Egypt, possibly Giza, currently Rijksmuseum van Oudheden; basalt; 664-525 BCE)

The sarcophagus of Wahibre-em-akhet, from Egypt in the seventh or sixth centuries BCE, is a typical Egyptian sarcophagus, not for a king but for a man of wealth and status in Egypt’s Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. The Egyptian iconography is easily recognized: the long beard and braided wig of the portrait; the conventional Egyptian ways of depicting eyes, ears, and other features; the winged protective goddesses; the hieroglyphic text. There is nothing about this sarcophagus to suggest its owner was anything other than a native Egyptian, born and bred, from a people who had lived in the Nile valley since time immemorial. Nothing, that is, until you read the hieroglyphic text and find out that Wahibre-em-akhet’s parents were named Alexicles and Zenodote; both are Greek names.

We know nothing else about Wahibre-em-aket or his parents. We can’t say definitively where they came from, where they grew up, what language or languages they spoke, or how they identified themselves in daily life. It seems very likely, though, that we are looking at someone who was born to Greek parents but lived as an Egyptian.

Wahbire-em-akhet’s family probably had connections to Naukratis, a Greek city founded in Egypt with royal permission. The original settlers of Naukratis were Greek mercenaries who had served the Egyptian pharaohs in their war for freedom from the Assyrian empire. Alexicles may have been one of those mercenaries or the descendant of one. The mercenaries and their descendants continued to serve the kings of Egypt and seem to have gradually assimilated into Egyptian culture. One gang of soldiers left graffiti on the temple of Abu Simbel in upper Egypt while on campaign, including a soldier who identified himself as Psammatichus, son of Teocles, another Egyptian-named son of a man with a Greek name.

Whatever role he played, Wahibre-em-akhet must have done well for himself to afford such a fine sarcophagus. Like many other later-generation immigrant communities, the Greeks in Egypt probably found that assimilating to local customs, names, and languages was useful for getting ahead. They were not the first people to do so. We tend to think of Egypt as isolated, even xenophobic, but Egypt was also a powerful and wealthy kingdom that needed foreign trade connections and could afford to supplement its army with mercenaries from abroad. Greeks, Carians, Jews, Nubians, and Libyans are all well documented as traders and soldiers in Egypt. Many other peoples certainly found their way to the Nile valley as well. As they assimilated into the local culture, adopting Egyptian names and presenting themselves according to Egyptian traditions, these peoples become hard to discern in the archaeological record, but the occasional find like Wahibre-em-akhet’s sarcophagus reminds us that they were still there.

Thoughts for writers

Traditional histories have conditioned us to think of ancient cultures as discrete units: this is Greek, that is Egyptian, that over there is Persian, and the other thing in the corner is Etruscan. It’s useful to be reminded that the lived experience has always been more complicated. Wahbire-em-akhet was, in some ways, both Egyptian and Greek. Most likely his parents were, too. They must have faced many of the same challenges and intersections that immigrant families still face today.

People like Wahbire-em-aket and his parents existed in history. They belong in our stories, too. There is nothing new about multiculturalism.

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.

Connections: Denmark and Egypt

More than 3,500 kilometers separate the tombs of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt from the village of Ølby in Denmark, but thousands of years ago they were connected by trade.

160523mapRecent archaeological work has identified a blue glass bead found in a bronze age woman’s grave in Ølby as originally Egyptian. In fact, based on the composition of the glass, researchers have suggested that the glass bead was made in the same workshop that produced the blue glass inlay on Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s gold funerary mask. Similar beads are known from several other Danish burials. In an age when glass-making as a skill known only in a few regions, colorful glass beads were as precious as gemstones.

160523glassGlass beads like these could have come to Denmark in exchange for amber from the shores of the Baltic Sea. Amber was highly prized in the ancient Mediterranean and not just as jewelry. It was sometimes fashioned into amulets for warding away evil or burned like incense. (The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder complained about his fellow Romans’ superstitions about it; see: Pliny, Natural History 37.11.)

Amber has not been found in large quantities in Egypt, but it was used in some jewelry. In fact, one of the pectorals (pendants worn over the chest as amulets) wrapped up in the linen with Tutankhamun’s mummy is set with a piece of amber.

160523scarabIt’s unlikely that many Danes traveled to Egypt or Egyptians to Denmark in the bronze age. More likely both amber pieces and glass beads were carried short distances by chains of traders in between. Small, easily portable, but high-value objects like beads and gemstones are perfectly suited to this sort of down-the-line trade. A ship that was wrecked off the coast of Turkey around the same time as Tutankhamun’s burial (known as the Uluburun or Kaş Shipwreck) may have been part of that trade network. The ship, whose home port may have been in northern Syria or on Cyprus, was carrying both blue Egyptian glass and Baltic amber when it went down. Also in the ship’s cargo, interestingly, was a gold scarab inscribed with the name of Nefertiti, queen to Tutankhamun’s father Akhenaten (though she was not Tutankhamun’s mother).

Thoughts for writers

The evidence of archaeology is always a bit haphazard in nature. So much is unpredictable about what artifacts survive and what gets found. We are lucky to have the evidence from both the tombs of Tutankhamun and the woman in Ølby, as well as the Uluburun shipwreck, to help us trace out the lines of connection between Egypt and the Baltic. There is no question that connections between different peoples in the distant past were deeper and stronger than we know, but the evidence to document those connections has been lost.

Historians (at least those of the responsible sort) are limited by evidence, but fiction writers don’t have to be. When building your fictional worlds, let the fragments of evidence from our own inspire you to imagine far-flung connections and enterprising traders. Connections like these have always been important.

Images: Map by Erik Jensen based on Portable Atlas. Blue glass bead, detail of photograph by Roberto Fortuna and Kira Ursem via Haaretz (Ølby; 14th c. BCE; glass). Scarab pectoral, photograph by Jon Bodsworth via Wikimedia (tomb of Tutankhamun; 14th c. BCE; gold, glass, and precious stones)

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.

Quotes: Archers String Their Bows Only When They Need Them

This was how Amasis managed the affairs of the Egyptians: from dawn until midday he handled all the matters that were brought before him; the rest of the day he gave over to drinking and joking with his companions.

His advisers, being vexed by his behavior, admonished him: “Majesty, it is not right that you should behave so foolishly. You should be seated on your august throne throughout the day conducting affairs of state. Thus the Egyptians would be certain that they are ruled by a great man and you would have a better reputation. What you do now is not at all kingly.”

But he replied: “Archers string their bows only when they need them. If they were kept strung all the time, bows would snap and be of no use when needed. It is the same with people: if you try to be serious all the time and not allow yourself a share of relaxation, you will surely either go insane or fall dead of a stroke. Knowing this, I take both business and leisure in turn.”

– Herodotus, The Histories 2.173

 

The Egyptian king Amasis, as reported by Herodotus, giving some good advice about making time for yourself.