Rules-Lawyering Monarchy

How do you get rid of a monarchy? Getting rid of kings isn’t the hard part (at least in theory, if not always in practice)—get the peasants angry enough, pass out the torches and the pitchforks, then roll out the guillotine when the time comes. No, the hard part is getting rid of the idea of kings. Monarchs cling to power through force, but also through instilling in people the idea that there is something special about kingship, something an ordinary person would never be able to replace. As long as that idea exists, someone can hitch their own ambitions to it.

I’ve written before about how the myths and legends that make up the part of the DNA of modern fantasy literature often have a pro-monarchical bias and about ways of building your fantasy worlds for something other than monarchy. It’s worth noting that we are not the first people to face this problem. The ancient Greeks and Romans also had to grapple with the monarchic parts of their past as they created new ways of life and they found interesting ways of disarming the idea that kings were necessary.

In the early iron age and archaic periods (roughly 900-490 BCE), societies in ancient Greece were small, and power structures were not particularly stable. We get a glimpse of this life in the Homeric epics. The contentious relationships among the assembled Greek kings at Troy and the competition for wealth and power among Helen’s suitors back on Ithaca reflect a world in which power was held by rich warlords competing with each other for preeminence. The Greek word for these warlords was basileus (plural basileis). The word does not exactly match up with what we typically think of as kings: there was more than one basileus in any community, and their power was more personal than institutional, but a basileus was the closest thing early Greece had to a king. Basileus was also the word Greeks used for the kings of other peoples, such as the Lydians and the Persians.

We don’t know much about how the ideologies by which basileis justified their power, but many basileis in mythology were the children of gods or had other kinds special relationships with the divine. Literary and archaeological evidence shows that basileus families maintained the worship of heroic ancestors. These facts point to a religious element: basileis held onto power in part by claiming a vital role in maintaining their communities’ relationships with the gods.

This ideology presented a problem for those agitating for a wider sharing of power, but it was a problem that had a solution. The earliest organized government we know of in Athens (not one we would call democratic, but one that was clearly designed to keep any one person from holding too much power) had an official position dedicated to overseeing religious affairs. That position was called the basileus. We can imagine some frustrated Athenians at some point saying: “So, the gods will only favor us if we have a king? Fine, we’ll call this guy over here ‘king’ and just not give him any real power. Good enough!”

Something similar happened in Rome. In its early history, the city was ruled by a king (in Latin: rex). Later, the kings were replaced with a republican government that, much like the one in early Athens, was specifically designed to keep power from falling into one person’s hands. We know little about the ideology of Rome’s early kings, but later Roman legends gave them religious associations, and it seems that they also asserted a special role in the city’s relationship with the gods. The Roman republic similarly got around this problem by just calling someone else “king.” Specifically, republican Rome had a priestly official whose title was rex sacrorum, meaning “king of the sacred things,” to carry on the religious duties of the old king. This office came with particular limitations intended to make sure that its holder could never make himself into a real king, including a ban on handling weapons and on being present while the Roman army was assembled for war.

Athenians and Romans found was of disarming monarchic ideology by subverting its claims in ways worthy of the weaseliest of rules lawyers.

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

They’re Good Dogs, Xenophon

The ancient Greek author Xenophon is best known for writing about the life of the philosopher Socrates and his own experiences in a company of mercenaries in the Persian Empire, but he also wrote a handbook on hunting, full of practical advice for youngsters taking up the sport. He devotes a fair amount of time to the proper care and handling of hunting dogs. Here’s his advice on keeping your dogs in good shape:

It is a good idea to take [dogs] into the mountains frequently, but not so much into farmed fields, for in the mountains they can hunt and track game unimpeded, but fields are not good for these exercises because of the paths. It’s good to take your dogs into rough ground even if they don’t find a hare, for this sort of terrain helps develop their feet and bodies. In summer, let them run out until noon, in winter throughout the day, any time apart from midday during the autumn, and in the evening in the spring, since this is when the temperatures are moderate.

Xenophon, On Hunting, 4.9-11

(My own translation)

Having grown up with a dog and having a number of friends who keep dogs, even if we never used them for hunting, I can’t argue with this advice.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

How Wars Begin: The View from Ancient Greece

Explaining why wars begin is an urgent question for a lot of people: if we knew how they started, maybe we’d figure out how to stop them. It is also an important question for a lot of writers. Many works of fantasy literature are set in times of war, and even if the main characters don’t know or understand how it all started, in order to build the world around the story effectively, the author should have some idea of how and why it began.

Greek vase showing hoplites fighting

In European literature, interest in the causes of wars goes back as far as the literary tradition itself. The first major work of literature written down in the West, the Iliad, is about characters caught in the midst of a war whose origins are so remote as to be beyond human knowledge. Much of the tragedy of the Trojan War myths comes from seeing how people suffer because of the capricious rivalries of the gods. Many other stories of Greek mythology have to do with the causes of war, such as the legends of the “Seven Against Thebes,” which follows the tragic fortunes of Oedipus’ family as they suffer the consequences of his rash and misguided actions as a young man. Works grounded in mythology tend to place the causes of wars in the hands of individuals, whether human, divine, or in between. The mischievous spite of Eris caused the Trojan War, and Oedipus’ hotheadedness embroiled generations of his family in conflicts around Thebes. Many Greeks were happy to apply this same kind of mythical thinking to their own history: the playwright Aeschylus’ account of the Persian king Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480, The Persians, focuses on Xerxes’ personal arrogance and irresponsibility.

Early historians shifted their focus away from the personal to look at larger causes. Herodotus, attempting to explain the wars between the Persian Empire and some of the Greek cities, continued to make much of personal motivations, especially when it came to Xerxes. Herodotus expanded on Aeschylus’ portrait of the king, adding more nuance to the image of an overbearing, capricious monarch. At the same time, he was also interested in deeper forces. Herodotus was interested in the idea of balance and reciprocity, and ultimately saw the Persian invasion of Greece as balancing the cosmic scales for the legendary Greek invasion of Troy. He was also interested in how the choices of individuals interacted with and were shaped by the political structures in which they lived, pointing out that Xerxes’ arrogance had such devastating consequences because in a monarchy there was no one who could step in and prevent him from making rash decisions.

Herodotus’ younger contemporary Thucydides witnessed his home city of Athens go to war with Sparta with terrible consequences for both. He dismissed anything that smacked of myth and instead sought explanations in the hard realities of power. Athens, he argued, was becoming more powerful while Sparta was becoming weaker. It was these forces—the results of human actions, but in themselves impersonal and abstract—that led to the conflict, he argued: the Athenians fought out of a desire for more power and wealth, the Spartans out of the fear of losing what they had.

Some centuries later, the historian Polybius, writing at a time when Greece was a newly-conquered province of the Roman Empire, examined the causes of wars with more nuance, using Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Persian Empire as an example. Polybius distinguished three different elements: what he called the beginning, the cause, and the pretext. The beginning was the first event of a war; when Alexander crossed into Anatolia with his army, that was the beginning of the invasion. It is useful for historians to identify the beginning of a war, Polybius argued, but the actual cause must come first: what was it that led people to decide to take that first action? In Alexander’s case, it was a century of Greek experience on the fringe of the Persian Empire which showed that the Persian position in Anatolia was poorly organized and vulnerable to attack. The third element is the pretext, the statements that people put out in public to justify the actions they have already decided to take. In Alexander’s case, the pretext was revenge for the Persian invasion of Greece generations earlier; Alexander’s own actions later showed that his anti-Persian stance was never more than a front to keep his mostly Greek army unified.

How you approach explaining the origins of the wars in your stories depends on what kind of story you want to tell. If yours is an epic tale about the desires and passions of larger than life heroes, then let mythology guide you: have a war that starts because someone didn’t get invited to a party, or because someone got road rage and picked a fight with the wrong person. If your story is more grounded, but you still want some epic flavor, Herodotus may be a good model: let your war start because of the personal, human decisions made by your characters in the context of grand forces beyond their control. For a gritty, hard-edged story of war, follow Thucydides: people start wars because they think they can get something out of it, or because they’re afraid of losing what they have. In any case, remember Polybius: how people start fighting, why they decided that fighting was worth it, and what they said to justify it are three different things.

Image: Vase painting of hoplites fighting, photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia (Staatliche Antikensammlung, Berlin; c. 560 BCE; painted pottery; by the Fallow Deer painter)

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

Even Heroes Take Time Off

Heroes don’t spend all their time being heroic. They need time off, too. That was the idea behind this beautiful vase by the ancient Athenian painter Exekias.

On one side, we see Achilles and Ajax, two of the great Greek warriors of the Trojan War, putting aside most of their armor for a while and playing a board game. Achilles is winning, as Exekias lets us know because he has given us the score: beneath Achilles’ head is the word “four,” beneath Ajax’s, “three.” According to literary tradition, Achilles’ tent was at one end of the Greek line, Ajax’s at the other, so this was not just a casual pick-up game; one or the other of the heroes must have crossed the entire Greek camp so they could play.

Amphora, Achilles and Ajax playing a game, photograph by Daderot via Wikimedia (Athens, currently Vatican Museums; c. 540-530 BCE; black-figure pottery; by Exekias)

On the other side of the vase, the twin heroes Castor and Pollux return home. They are welcomed by their parents, Tyndareus and Leda. On the left, Pollux leans down to greet a dog who jumps up, excited to see him.

Amphora, Castor and Pollux return home, photograph by M. Tiveros via Classical Art Research Centre (Athens, currently Vatican Museums; c. 540-530 BCE; black-figure pottery; by Exekias)

Exekias was an innovative artist. He was one of the first vase painters to show mythic heroes not in the midst of action but at ease, among the familiar surroundings of everyday life.

If you’ve been feeling the weight of the past year, take some inspiration from heroes: play a game, say hello to family, play with a pet. If it’s good enough for Achilles, Ajax, Castor and Pollux, it’s good enough for you, too.

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

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.