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.

History Doesn’t Look Historical

It’s an unavoidable fact that when we look at historical artifacts, we’re looking at things that are many years old, sometimes centuries or millennia. Physical objects, even those made of enduring materials like metal or stone, are changed by the processes of time. Exposure to light, moisture, changing temperatures, air pollution, wind, water, and other effects works changes on artifacts that can range from subtle to drastic. Our sense of what history looks like is shaped by things that no longer look like what they were when they were first being made, admired, and used by people in their daily lives.

Take, for example, the sculptures and architecture of ancient Greece. Our perception of ancient Greek art is shaped by the white marble statues and temples that remain today, but the originals were not white. We know from ancient descriptions and a few pieces with surviving traces of paint that the stone buildings and sculptures of ancient Greece were brightly colored.

Examples like this statue of a woman, with traces of paint on her dress, suggest what such a statue might have originally looked like.

Statue of a woman (kore), photograph by Nemracc via Wikimedia (Keratea, Greece, currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 580-560 BCE; marble)

Evidence like this makes it possible to attempt to reconstruct what statues of this type looked like when first created. The two reconstructions on the right here offer two possible interpretations of what the original, on the left, may have looked like when it was new.

Statue of a woman (kore) and two reconstructions, composite of photographs by Marsyas, via Wikimedia (original: Acropolis, Athens; c. 530 BCE; marble; reconstructions: Acropolis Museum, Athens)

The striking colors of the past are not just a phenomenon of ancient Greece. At Stirling Castle, in Scotland, a recent restoration project has brought back the original rich yellow color of the walls of the medieval great hall, which was determined from traces of ochre mixed with the remains of the lime wash applied to the stone. You can see the striking contrast between the restored great hall in the background and the bare stone of the buildings in front.

Stirling Castle, photograph by dun_deagh via Flickr (Stirling, Scotland; c. 1500-1600; stone and lime wash)

Studying history requires an act of imagination. Just as we have to imagine ancient monuments are artifacts new and fresh, not as the worn-out relics we see today, we also have to imagine peoples of the past as vibrant, complicated, living societies, not the stilted, dry facts of textbooks. Fiction has a great value to the student of history, as it helps us imagine ourselves into the lives of people different from ourselves. Our history is always somebody else’s daily life.

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:

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Herodotus on Resisting Tyranny

170220dancerThe ancient Greek historian Herodotus was deeply concerned with the question of how democratic societies can defend themselves from tyranny. In the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, cities all across Greece saw outbreaks of tyranny: wealthy aristocrats seized power by force and ruled without regard to law or tradition. A few of these regimes lasted for a few generations, but most were overthrown in a matter of years. In the fifth century, Greece faced the larger threat of conquest by the Persian empire, whose Great King the Greeks perceived as kind of tyrant writ large.

Herodotus wrote about this history in his account of the wars between Greece and Persia. He told the stories of how the Athenians ousted their tyrants and how the Greeks organized to repel the Persian invasions. Some of his lessons in resisting tyranny, however, come in less obvious ways. Consider, for example, the story of Hippocleides (Herodotus, Histories 6.129).

The tale is set in the Greek city of Sicyon, generations before the Greco-Persian wars. A rich man named Cleisthenes had made himself tyrant and was looking to marry off his daughter, Agariste, to some rich young man from another city who could be a useful ally. Young men of fortune from all around Greece came to Sicyon to compete for Agariste’s hand. Cleisthenes hosted them for a year in his house, testing them on their credentials and talents. After a year, an Athenian, Hippocleides, son of Teisandrus, emerged as the favorite and preparations were made for a wedding. The story picks up on the day of the wedding:

After dinner, the suitors held a competition in music and speaking before the assembled audience. As the drinking began, Hippocleides, holding the attention of the room, called for some pleasant music, and having gotten the flute player to play, began to dance. And while I suppose Hippocleides pleased himself with his dancing, Cleisthenes looked on the whole thing with distaste. After a while, Hippocleides called for a table to be brought in. Getting onto the table he first danced some Laconian figures on it, next some Attic ones, but for his third act he planted his head on the table and waved his legs in the air.

Now Cleisthenes, at the first and second performances, was horrified at the thought that he might still end up tied by marriage to such a shameless dancer, but he kept silent; yet when he saw the man’s legs waving about he could no longer contain himself and declared: “Son of Teisandrus, you have danced yourself out of a marriage!”

The young man replied: “Hippocleides doesn’t care.”

– Herodotus, Histories 6.129

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Being a Spartan

170123spartiateSpartans are renowned as some of the greatest warriors of the ancient Mediterranean world, and with good reason. Sparta had a 3-century streak undefeated on the battlefield (minus the battle of Thermopylae, where they lost only to encirclement by Persia’s overwhelming numbers). They won many of their wars without even a fight because when their opponents saw a wall of Spartan shields coming towards them, they just gave up and ran.

How did they do it? What’s so special about the Spartans?

The exceptional experience of being a Spartan began at birth when a state official judged the newborn baby’s physical health. Only healthy babies were allowed to be raised. Those that were sickly, weak, or had visible birth defects were exposed in the wilderness to die. (Only the children of the kings were exempt from this rule.) At the age of seven, all male Spartans were taken from their parents and put into a state-run education called the agōgē. The agōgē experience was brutal. The boys were trained in hoplite combat while living on meager rations. They slept outside, all year long, with only one cloak. Violence between boys of different age groups was encouraged as a way of toughening them up.

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Fake News in Ancient Athens

170109athenaThere’s been a lot of talk lately about fake news and its effect on politics, but the phenomenon is not a new one. Consider this story about how the tyrant Peisistratus seized power in Athens in 556 BCE.

There had been long-simmering unrest between three broad groups in Attica: the wealthy farmers of the plains, the fishing and trading people of the coast, and the poor villagers of the hills. Peisistratos organized the hill people as his base of support, promising to represent their interests if they helped him take power. After a first attempt that fell apart when the plains and coast factions organized against him, Peisistratos made a second bid for power a few years later when the coastal faction switched sides and backed him. Here’s how Herodotus tells the story of how Peisistratus managed to take power the second time:

In Paeania [a hilly region of Attica] there was a woman named Phye who was very tall and beautiful. They dressed her in full armor and put her in a chariot, decking her out to make her the most impressive spectacle, and drove her to the city. Heralds ran on ahead and when they reached the city they proclaimed: “Athenians! Welcome Peisistratus, whom Athena has honored above all! She herself is driving him to the acropolis!” They went all around saying these things and the rumor spread at once throughout Attica that Athena was returning Peististratus to the acropolis. The people of the city believed the woman to be the goddess herself, so they worshiped her and received Peisistratus as their tyrant.

– Herodotus, Histories 1.60

My own translation

Were the people of ancient Athens really that gullible? We shouldn’t doubt that most of them believed that the goddess Athena existed and could intervene in human affairs, but it’s still a bit of a leap from there to believe that she would show up in person to deliver a controversial politician back into power. The idea of dressing up a woman like Athena and having her ride into town in a chariot was nothing strange, either. The Panathenaic Festival, one of the major holidays in the Athenian year, featured exactly that. In fact, many historians believe that Peisistratus was actually using the festival as the occasion for his comeback. In that case, everyone knew that Phye was not really Athena, just playing a role in the procession. It may actually be Herodotus who is the gullible one and the “fake news” is the story that anyone was fooled by Phye at all, as opposed to participating in a well-orchestrated bit of political theatre.

We know from modern research that people tend to change their beliefs to suit their politics, not their politics to suit their belief. If anyone in Athens really did believe that Athena was bringing Peisistratus to town, it’s more likely that they were already a backer of his faction and so were willing to accept the story than that believing the story made them back Peisistratus. Similarly, Herodotus was a firm anti-monarchist, so he was disposed to believe that the Athenians must have been tricked into welcoming Peisistratus rather than willingly choosing him to be tyrant.

Either way you cut it, there’s nothing new about people believing false reports that happen to suit their political outlook.

Image: Athena carrying Heracles in her chariot, photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Berlin; 420-400 BCE; red-figure pottery; by the Cadmus Painter)

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.

Cosplaying Hercules

Heracles on a black-figure pot, photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia (Currently Louvre; c. 520 BCE; pottery)
Heracles on a black-figure pot, photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia (Currently Louvre; c. 520 BCE; pottery)

Cosplay may seem like a recent invention, but the ancient Greeks and Romans weren’t above dressing up like their favorite heroes. The Greek hero Heracles (better known to us by his Roman name “Hercules”) was easily recognizable with his lion-skin cloak and rough wooden club. While we don’t know that anyone actually did walk around dressed up like Heracles, a few works of art show that Greeks and Romans certainly imagined doing so.

One example is theatrical, from Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs. The play is about Dionysus getting fed up with the contemporary theatre and deciding to go down to Hades to bring back one of the great tragic playwrights from the past. Being a bit of a coward, Dionysus dresses up like the brave Heracles by putting a lion skin over his luxurious yellow robe and carrying a club while wearing an actor’s high boots, just to keep his spirits up. For extra comedy, Dionysus, dressed as Heracles, goes to visit the actual Heracles at the start of the play for advice on his adventure. Here’s what happens when Dionysus, accompanied by his smart-ass slave Xanthias, knocks on the hero’s door:

Heracles: Who banged the door? Someone pounded it like a centaur. Tell me who it is. (He opens the door and falls over laughing.)

Dionysus: I say, Xanthias!

Xanthais: What is it?

Dionysus: Didn’t you notice?

Xanthias: Huh? What?

Dionysus: How afraid I made him!

Xanthias: Afraid you’ve gone mad, more like!

Heracles: Oh, by Demeter, I can’t stop laughing! I’ll bite my tongue, but still I can’t help it!

Dionysus: Oh, pull yourself together. I’ve got something to ask you.

Heracles: I can’t stifle this laughter, though, at the sight of that lion skin over your saffron gown. Whose idea was this, the club and the high heels at once?

Aristophanes, The Frogs 38-46

(My own translation)

161208commodus
Commodus as Hercules, photograph by Sailko via Wikimedia (Currently Musei Capitolini, Rome; late 2nd c. CE; marble)

Over in the Roman world, the emperor Commodus decided he was not content with traditional portrait sculptures and had himself portrayed dressed up as Hercules. Here he is wearing the lion skin, carrying the club in one hand and the apples of the Hesperides (from one of the hero’s twelve labors) in the other. For an emperor who was obsessed with his public image, adopting the guise of a popular hero like Hercules made sense.

Just like we can recognize our modern heroes by their symbols and distinguishing attributes—an S on the chest and a curl of hair for Superman, a bow and a mockingjay pin for Katniss Everdeen—people of the past knew their heroes in the same way.

In Character is an occasional feature looking at some of our favorite characters from written works and media to see what drives them, what makes them work, and what makes us love them so much.

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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The Attack on the Hermas

161114hermaA strange thing happened one night in ancient Athens. This incident, the attack on the hermas, provides the background for my short story “How I Saved Athens from the Stone Monsters,” in the collection Hidden Youth. While there are no stone monsters in the actual history, it’s a fascinating story in its own right.

It was the spring of 415 BCE. All around the city—at crossroads, in marketplaces, in front of houses and temples—stood square stone posts carved with human heads on top and crude penises in front. These were the hermas, stones sacred to the god Hermes that the Athenians believed protected their homes and city against bad fortune. The people of the city woke up one morning to discover that the hermas had been smashed up in the night.

Now, in any city, you would expect people to be upset to wake up to widespread vandalism, but Athens was no ordinary city and these were no ordinary times. Athens had been at war with Sparta for more than a decade. A war that both sides had expected to be quick and decisive had turned into a long, unwinnable slog. The Spartans had repeatedly ravaged the Athenian countryside. Farms had been burned and vineyards wrecked. Behind the walls of Athens, plague had slaughtered the refugees who sought shelter from the Spartans. Athens had not seen such suffering since the Persian army of Xerxes captured and burned the city more than half a century before.

In the midst of the destruction, democracy and social cohesion suffered. The poor farmers from the countryside whose homes and fields got burned lost everything while the rich merchants and landowners in the city were mostly unaffected. The leading general Pericles’ strategy of pulling back behind the walls and sending out the fleet to raid the Spartan coast felt slow and cowardly to people used to the swift clash of the hoplite phalanx. Indeed, it was the solidarity of standing shoulder-to-shoulder, row upon row in the phalanx, regardless of family or property, that grounded the Athenian democracy, but those who served as hoplites were now helpless behind the walls. When the plague struck, already weakened social bonds were snapped as everyone looked out for themselves and people who felt sure they were going to die anyway indulged in every impulse and vice.

In times like this, when social solidarity was strained by factional and regional conflicts, many Greek cities had turned to tyrants: aristocrats who held themselves out as champions of the people and leveraged popular anger as a way to propel themselves into power. Athens itself had had tyrants, in the decades before the wars with Persia. Wherever tyrants had risen, they crushed their rivals and abused their power until finally they were driven out and replaced with new, more balanced forms of democracy. The same had happened in Athens, but the time seemed ripe for a new tyrant to rise and sweep away the democratic system with the anger of a frustrated and fed-up populace.

A new leader had already arisen to promise the people of Athens a better future. Alcibiades, a rich and flamboyant aristocrat with time on his hands, had pushed for a major expedition to sail to Sicily and attack Syracuse. Syracuse had largely stayed out of the war between Athens and Sparta, but they had cultural ties to Sparta and were a major exporter of grain, so there was a fear that Syracuse might decide to step in and shore up Sparta against Athenian raids. The people of Athens were enthusiastic about the prospect of getting out of the city for a fight they could win. They looked forward to looting the treasuries of Syracuse and coming home victorious and rich.

Then the hermas got smashed.

Suspicion fell immediately on Alcibiades. It seemed like the sort of thing he would do. He was well known for holding raucous drinking parties with other rich young men and had a reputation for flippancy and arrogance. He was a student of Socrates, that annoying old man who refused to participate in the democratic assembly but liked to ask people tricky questions and make them look stupid. If anyone in Athens wouldn’t respect the hermas and would think that running around town at night doing some property damage would be a good joke, it would be Alcibiades.

There was some legal wrangling about whether to bring charges against Alcibiades at once or let the expedition go ahead as planned, but the upshot was that the expedition went out and Alcibiades fled Athens to find refuge among his friends in Sparta.

This all may seem like an overreaction to what amounts to little more than the ancient Athenian equivalent of some frat boys going on a bender and playing a little mailbox baseball, but context is everything. It wasn’t just that the people of Athens valued their good luck statues. This sort of flippant disregard for tradition was exactly what one expected from a tyrant. The hermas may have been old-fashioned relics of simpler times, but so, in its way, was the democracy. In the Athenian assembly, the will of the people was the law, and if it was the will of the people to have crude statues in front of their houses, to disrespect that choice was to disrespect democracy itself.

Alcibiades was exactly the sort of person who aimed at tyranny: rich, idle, and dismissive of tradition. The smashing of the hermas made those qualities obvious in a way that no one could ignore.

Thoughts for writers

It’s easy to look at the past and be perplexed by the weight people attached to symbols and minor events, but it is context that gives importance to those things that seem trivial to us. In other times, the attack on the hermas would have been a case of petty vandalism, a scandal to be argued over in the marketplace for a few days and in time forgotten. Because of the times in which it happened, it became the tangible symbol of something far more perilous: a threat to Athenian democracy itself.

This is one of the challenges of worldbuilding. Making a world that works differently from our own means creating contexts in which things that seem trivial to us carry profound weight. The power of such small things depends on the context in which they occur. The smashing up of the hermas might not seem important to us, just like no one from a hundred years ago would grasp the significance of yellow stars and shattered shop windows, or a woman refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Creating such moments—and giving our readers the context to understand them—is part of how we make our worlds feel real.

Image: herma, photograph by André Frantz via Wikimedia (Siphnos; c 520 BCE; marble)

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.

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.