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.

Hoplites, the Chigi Vase, and the Problems of Artistic Sources

Art can be a priceless source of evidence for early history, especially for areas and periods with limited surviving written sources, but, just like texts, artistic sources can be tricky to interpret.

Chigi Vase, reconstructed frieze via Wikimedia (7th c. BCE; painted pottery)

Take, for example, this scene from an archaic Greek vase (commonly known as the Chigi Vase, named for one of its modern owners). It provides us with some of our earliest evidence for Greek hoplites and the phalanx formation. Although we understand a lot about the essentials of how hoplite warfare worked, many questions remain unanswered about the precise details of both how a hoplite battle was fought and how the hoplite style of warfare developed over time. Arguments about these topics often depend in part on interpretations of the Chigi vase.

The vase depicts warriors arming themselves and marching into battle as hoplites. Many of the characteristic features of hoplite armament and warfare are on display: heavily armored fighters with large round shields and spears confronting one another in a head-on clash. We can date the creation of this vase to the seventh century BCE, around the same time that the hoplite style of warfare first appeared, so this artwork offers us crucial evidence about what the earliest phase of hoplite warfare looked like and how early some of its defining features emerged.

We can be fairly confident that the artist who painted the decorations on this vase was familiar with the realities of hoplite warfare. The ranks of the phalanx were filled by small farmers and prosperous crafters, including potters and artists. If the painter of this vase was not well-off enough to have fought as a hoplite themselves, they would certainly have known people who had. At the same time, the images are also artistically stylized in ways that make it hard to be sure how much we can rely on them as evidence.

For example, all the warriors shown on this vase are similarly equipped: they have the helmets, breastplates, greaves, and round shields that we think of as the standard parts of the hoplite panoply. Is this vase evidence that hoplite equipment was standardized from an early period, or did the artist depict a standard set of armor to create a pleasing image at a time when real hoplite gear was more of a hodge-podge with individuals equipping themselves as best they could? This question goes to more than matters of artistic taste: one of the most vexed questions in the history of the hoplite phalanx is whether it developed gradually out of older, less rigorously organized styles of warfare or it was created as a fully-realized concept in some particular place and time. Because hoplite warfare was connected with the rise and subsequent fall of early Greek tyrants, understanding the origins of the hoplite phalanx better would have implications for our understanding of major developments in political and social history. Knowing what the Chigi vase painter had in mind would tell us some important things about the early history of ancient Greece.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

A Preview of The Greco-Persian Wars

I am pleased to announce that my second book, The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents, is coming out in just a few days. This book tells the story of the wars between Greeks and the Persian Empire in the early fifth century BCE through translations of ancient documents.

While the wars of the early fifth century in Greece dominate modern histories of Greco-Persian interaction, they were only part of a larger history in which the main actors were not Greeks but Persians, and whose events played out not simply in Greece but across the eastern Mediterranean. Looking at a broader history allows us to put the Greco-Persian Wars into a more meaningful context. The story of Persia’s engagement in Greece is not one of East-West cultural clashes or Greek ascendancy, but of Persia’s success in adapting to the challenges of an unstable, frequently violent frontier region, and that is the history my book explores.

This book features over eighty-five separate selections translated from Greek, Old Persian, Elamite, Akkadian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Egyptian, and Lycian, each with contextual notes. They are accompanied by a short historical introduction, a glossary, a chronology, maps, and a select bibliography.

Here is a selection from one of the documents. In this text, set some hundred years after the famous battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea, we see how complicated relations between Greeks and Persians remained. This text is a useful reminder that we have to think not of relations between Greece and Persia but between Greeks and Persians. On both sides, individuals had their own motivations and interests that could lead to unexpected alliances and tricky rivalries.

* * *

Friendship and its complications

Xenophon, Hellenica 4.1.31-39

Relationships of xenia, or guest-friendship were a traditional way in which Greek aristocrats formed personal relationships across the boundaries of the polis. Similar relationships were also extended to Persians who dealt with the Greek frontier. While these relationships could be channels for diplomacy and political negotiation, they could also create conflicting loyalties. The exchange between the Spartan king Agesilaus—at that time ravaging the Persian-held territories in Ionia—and the satrap Pharnabazus in 395 or 394 BCE shows both the potentials of xenia and its dangers.

First they greeted each other and Pharnabazus held out his right hand. Agesilaus clasped it. Then Pharnabazus spoke first, since he was the elder.

“Aegsilaus, and you other Spartans here,” he said, “I became your friend and ally when you were fighting the Athenians. Not only did I support your fleet with money, but I myself fought alongside you on horseback and we drove your enemies into the sea together. You cannot accuse me of ever having played you false, like Tissaphernes. Yet despite this, you have now left my land in such a state that I cannot even feed myself, unless I gather up the scraps you leave behind like an animal. All the beautiful houses and woods full of trees and beasts that my father left me, which I used to enjoy so much, I now see either cut down or burned up. Well, if I don’t know what is righteous and just, you tell me how these are the acts of men who know how to repay favors.”

The thirty Spartans were ashamed and said nothing, but then after a time Agesilaus spoke up.

“Pharanbazus,” he said, “I think you understand that in the Greek cities, people also become guest-friends to one another. But when their cities go to war, such people fight on behalf of their homelands against their friends, and even kill them, if it should so happen. In the same way, since we are now at war with your king, we are compelled to treat everything of his as enemy territory. However, we would think it the best thing in the world to become your friends. Now, if it were a matter of throwing off the king to be ruled by us instead, I certainly would not advise it, but if you side with us now you will have the chance to flourish without having any master or humbling yourself to anyone. I think freedom is, after all, worth any amount of money. Even so, we are not urging that you should be free and poor. Rather, by taking us as your allies, you will increase your own power, not the king’s, and by subduing those who are now your fellow slaves you will make them your own subjects. You will become both free and rich—what else could you need to have perfect happiness?”

“In that case,” said Pharnabazus, “shall I tell you plainly what I will do?”

“That would be a good idea,” said Agesilaus.

“Well then,” he said, “if the king sends another general here and makes me subordinate to him, I will gladly become your friend and ally. On the other hand, if he gives the command to me, ambition is such a powerful force that I will fight you to the best of my ability.”

When he heard these words, Agesilaus grasped Pharnabazus’ hand and said:

“My dear friend, I hope you will be our ally! But know this: I will leave your territory now as quickly as I can, and in the future, even if the war continues, we will leave you and your land alone as long as we have other foes to fight.”

That was the end of the meeting, and Pharnabazus mounted up and rode away, but his son Parapita, a fine young man, stayed behind. He ran up to Agesilaus and said:

“Agesilaus, I make you my guest-friend.”

“For my part, I accept,” Agesilaus replied.

“Remember it,” said Parapita. He at once gave the beautiful javelin he was carrying to Agesilaus. In return, Agesilaus took a splendid decoration from the horse his secretary Idaeus was riding and gave it to Parapita. Then the young man leapt upon his horse and followed after his father.

* * *

If you’ve found some of my previous posts about Persians, life in the Persian Empire, and the complicated relationships between Persians and Greeks interesting, you may enjoy The Greco-Persian Wars.

The Greco-Persian Wars: A Short History with Documents comes out February 24th from Hackett Publishing.

Hardcover: $49 / Paperback: $18 / e-book versions available

You can pre-order directly from Hackett or on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, or from your local bookseller.

Image: Greco-Persian Wars paperback cover by Hackett Publishing

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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.

Good Health with Telesphorus

With Covid-19 still largely unchecked and the winter flu season closing in on us (in the northern part of the world at least), health and illness are on a lot of our minds. So here’s a votive statuette of an ancient Greek god of health, Telesphorus.

Telesphorus represents an interesting combination of influences from several different cultures. Mythology describes him as a son of the Greek healing god Asclepius specifically concerned with recovery from disease or injury. In art he was often shown as a short, squat man similar to some earth-related deities from Phrygia in inland Anatolia wearing a type of hooded cloak typically associated with Gauls. This version, found in France and carved at some time when the Roman Empire ruled the region, has heavily outlined eyes, a triangular nose, and straight bands of hair, all of which are characteristic of Gaulish and British art. Somehow, this seems an appropriate image for a season in which we face a worldwide pandemic.

We wish you all good health in the times ahead.

Image: Telesphorus statuette, photograph by Millevahce via Wikimedia (found Moulézan, currently Musée Archéologique de Nîmes; Roman period; limestone)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

A Striking Greek Gods Photoshoot

Here’s a beautiful new imagining of the Greek gods, “20 Dioses y Diosas para 2020,” photographed by Ana Martinez and styled by Mario Ville. This photoshoot combines ancient ideas, modern fashion, and imaginative graphics with Black models taking the roles of the gods. You can see the full set of photos at N20.

A few of my favorites:

Juana Mum as Hera

Lewis Amarante as Poseidon

Ruben Baika as Apollo

I appreciate how these images combine classic symbols such as Apollo’s lyre and Poseidon’s trident with modern dress and accents. I wish the artists had chosen to use color for the clothing rather than just white, since ancient images of the gods were brightly colored, not the plain white marble we are used to seeing now, but there’s no denying how strikingly the white garb sets of the models’ dark skin. I also enjoy seeing versions of some of the less well-known gods like Hestia, goddess of the hearth, and Eris, goddess of discord.

This photoshoot is another example of how effectively the ancient Greeks crafted their mythology and its visual language in ways to be flexible enough to allow for many new interpretations and to be accessible to a broad and diverse audience.

Images by Ana Martinez via Neo2

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

How Not to Study Linguistics

The Greek historian Herodotus recounts a tale about a rather dubious experiment in linguistics supposedly carried out by the Egyptian king Psammetichus.

The point of the experiment was to find out what people or nation in the world was the oldest. It was based on the assumption that the oldest culture’s language would be the language that people who had never heard spoken language before would speak. Further, Psammetichus assumed that the invention of this original language could be artificially recreated. The result of these mistaken assumptions is a bit of a comedy of errors. Here’s how Herodotus tells the tale:

When Psammetichus could not find out by inquiry what people were the oldest, he devised the following plan. He took two newborn children at random and gave them to a shepherd to bring up among his flocks, with orders that they be raised in such a way that no one should make any sound in their presence, that they stay in a lonely hut, and that he should regularly bring his goats there so they could drink their fill, and attend to their other needs. He did these things, and Psammetichus commanded him to notify him at once what word first burst forth from the children, once they had left behind the meaningless babble of infants. And it did indeed happen. When the shepherd had been taking care of the children for two years, once when he opened the door of the hut and went in, both of them fell upon him stretching out their hands and crying: “Bekos!” At first, the shepherd took no notice of what he had heard, but when he kept hearing the same word on his repeated visits, he began to pay attention to it. He sent word to the king, and when ordered, brought the children before him. When Psammetichus heard it for himself, he investigated what people called something “bekos,” and from his investigations he learned that it was the Phrygian word for bread. Taking this fact into consideration, the Egyptians acknowledged that the Phrygians are older than they are.

– Herodotus, Histories 2.2

(My own translation)

As should be obvious (and probably was to Herodotus’ audience), the experiment was in fact a failure. When the children exclaimed “bekos” at the shepherd’s arrival, they were not producing an actual word but simply imitating the bleating of his goats, the only sound they had heard another living creature produce. The fact that Psammetichus did not realize this (and had not accounted for it in designing the experiment) makes this whole story a joke at his expense. The punch line of the joke may be a little lost on a modern audience: the Phrygians were a people who lived in inland Anatolia and spoke a language related to Greek. Phrygians were stereotyped by the ancient Greeks as ignorant country bumpkins. For the Egyptians—proud of the antiquity and sophistication of their culture—to be forced to yield the title of “most ancient people” to the Phrygians was a deflation of their cultural pretension.

Although Herodotus claims to have heard this story from Egyptian priests, like more than a few of the stories he tells about Egypt it sounds more Greek than Egyptian. Specifically, it sounds like a Greek joke told at the Egyptians’ expense. Greeks and Egyptians had close and friendly relations in Herodotus’ day, but it was a relationship in which the Greeks were definitely the junior partners. Egyptians liked to celebrate the antiquity and wisdom of their culture, and we can understand if Greeks occasionally got a bit fed up with being looked down on. This story uses language was a way of turning the tables to suggest that not only were the Egyptians not as ancient a culture as they liked to claim, perhaps they were not as wise, either.

On, of, and about languages.

Accessibility Ramps at Ancient Greek Sanctuaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artemisia: Between Greece and Persia

We know little about the life of Artemisia I (early 5th c. BCE – ca. 460 BCE) apart from one event, but that event and her participation in it give us a valuable insight into how Greeks lived at the frontiers of the Persian Empire.

Artemisia was the daughter of Lygdamis I, the first satrap of the city of Halicarnassus under Persian rule. Halicarnassus was a city on the coast of Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, one of many culturally Greek cities on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea in the region more broadly known as Ionia. Like other such cities, Halicarnassus’ population was a mixture of local peoples—mainly Carians from the surrounding mountains, in the case of Halicarnassus—and the descendants of Greek settlers and merchants who had migrated to the Anatolian coast over several centuries. Artemisia’s family was a product of such interactions, as her father, Lygdamis, was of mixed Greek and Carian ancestry, and her mother was from Crete.

Lygdamis passed his power down to Artemisia’s husband, of whom we know nothing else except that he died soon thereafter, and Artemisia herself came to power in his place, probably acting as regent for their young son Pisindelis. Artemisia ruled Halicarnassus as a satrap, or local governor, on behalf of the Persian kings. Her most famous deeds came in this role.

When the Persian king Xerxes mounted his invasion of Greece in 480 BCE, he called upon the Ionian Greek cities to furnish warships for the campaign. Despite Athenian efforts to persuade the Ionians to defect or hold back in the fighting, Ionian Greek ships and their crews participated eagerly in the Persian invasion.

As satrap of Halicarnassus, Artemisia had the responsibility to furnish her share of ships for the fleet, but she went even further, personally commanding her own contingent and serving Xerxes as an adviser during the campaign. The historian Herodotus describes her this way:

She led the forces of Halicarnassus, Cos, Nisyurs, and Calyndus, crewing five ships. Of all the ships in the fleet, besides the Sidonians, hers were considered to be the best, and of all the allies she gave the king the best advice.

– Herodotus, Histories 7.99

(All translations my own)

Herodotus credits Artemisia with an exceptional display of skill and cunning in the midst of the Persian naval defeat at the battle of Salamis:

I cannot say exactly how any other ship, whether Greek or barbarian, did in that battle, but this is what happened to Artemisia and won her even greater respect in the eyes of the king. The Persian fleet was in chaos and an Athenian ship was bearing down on Artemisia’s. There was nowhere for her to flee to since her ship was hemmed in by friendly ships and close to the enemy lines, so she made a decision which turned out very well for her. Pursued by the Athenian, she rammed a friendly ship at full speed. This ship was crewed by the Calyndians and carried not only many Calyndian men but also their king, Damasythimus. I cannot say whether there had been some quarrel between Artemisia and Damasythimus when they were stationed at the Hellespont, or if she had planned to attack him, or if it was just by chance that the Calyndian ship was nearby. In any case, when Artemisia rammed and sank that ship it turned out well for her in two ways. In the first place, when the Athenian captain saw her ship sink one of the barbarians, he thought she was either on the Greek side or was coming over to their side, so he broke off and turned his attention elsewhere, and so she got away. In the second place, even though she was doing harm to his own fleet, she won high praise from Xerxes.

They say that as the king was watching the battle and saw her ship ram the other one, someone by his side said: “My lord, do you see what a good fight Artemisia is putting up and how she has sunk one of the enemy’s ships?”

The king asked it if was really Artemisia and the bystander confirmed it, since he knew the markings of her ship well and assumed that the ship she destroyed must be an enemy. As I said, all this turned out to her benefit, since no one from the Calyndian ship survived to accuse her.

In response to this observation, it is reported that Xerxes remarked: “My men have become women, and my women have become men!”

– Herodotus, Histories 8.87-89

Artemisia displayed similar shrewdness when, after the defeat of his fleet, Xerxes consulted his advisers on how to continue the war in Greece. When the general Mardonius offered to remain in Greece and keep fighting while Xerxes himself returned to Persia, Artemisia offered this advice:

When consulted on the question of what to do, Artemisia said: “Sire, it is hard to give good advice in such a case, but what seems best to me is for you to march home and leave Mardonius and whatever troops wish to remain with him here, if he is willing to undertake this task. If Mardonius is successful and accomplishes what he says he can, the credit for it will belong to you, since he is your servant. If he is wrong and things go against him, it will be no great disaster for you and your house. As long as you and your line endure, the Greeks will often face great struggles, and no one will much care if anything happens to Mardonius, nor will defeating your servant count as a great victory for the Greeks. You, however, will depart having accomplished what you set out to do, which was to burn Athens.”

Xerxes was delighted with this advice, since he had been thinking exactly the same thing. He was gripped with such fear that he would not have stayed in Greece even if all the men and women in the world had recommended it. He thanked Artemisia for her advice and entrusted her with taking his children to Ephesus, since he had some of his illegitimate children with him.

– Herodotus, Histories 8.102-103

Now, Herodotus—a fellow Halicarnassian—may be accused of partiality and playing up Artemisia’s involvement in the war effort, but the kinds of deeds he attributes to her are telling. Artemisia was actively engaged in Xerxes’ war, but she was also politically canny and willing to seize her own advantage when it came. Given the opportunity to demonstrate her utility to the king, she took it and personally led her forces as part of the Persian fleet. Finding herself in a difficult position in battle, she saved herself at the cost of a friendly ship. When consulted for her advice, she told the king what he wanted to hear and was rewarded with an important commission.

Many Greeks were in positions like Artemisia’s when it came to the Persian Empire. Persia was large, powerful, rich, and right at the Greeks’ doorstep. Persia was a huge market both for Greek exports and for the services of Greek artists, crafters, and mercenaries. For all that historians have tended to celebrate the Athenians and Spartans for resisting Persian invasions in 490 and 480-479, far more Greeks worked for the Persian kings than ever fought against them.

The boundary between Greece and Persia was porous. Many people went back and forth across it as their own interests dictated. While modern narratives have tended to paint the division between Greece and Persia in stark terms, the reality was much more gray than black and white. Not everyone who negotiated the space between Greece and Persia did it with the skill and panache that of Artemisia, but she was far from alone.

Image: A modern artist’s impression of Artemisia, detail from “Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis” via Wikimdeia (Maximillianum, Munich; 1868; oil on canvas; by Wilhelm von Kaulbach)

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