Race in Antiquity: The Ivory Bangle Lady

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

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

Part 9: The “Ivory Bangle Lady”

In the past entries in this series, we have talked a lot about theories of identity, how we can interpret (and sometimes misinterpret) both written and artistic sources, and the problems in knowing just who we mean by Greeks and Romans in the first place. Today we approach the question from a different angle, looking at one individual and the world she lived in.

Around 400 CE, a wealthy lady was buried near the Roman city of Eburacum (modern York) in northern Britain. She was buried with jewelry including an assortment of bangles, some of white ivory from Africa, others of black jet from Britain. Her name is not recorded, but she has come to be known, because of her jewelry, as the Ivory Bangle lady.

Examination of the Lady’s remains using the techniques of forensic anthropology shows that she was of African ancestry and had spent her childhood in a warmer climate, perhaps somewhere in southern Europe or North Africa. Her skull has features typical of sub-Saharan African populations and in fact the reference measurements that most closely match her skeletal morphology come from nineteenth-century black Americans. Although no indication of her skin color survives, it is almost certain that, if we passed her on the street today, we would describe her as a woman of color.

Roman York may seem like the last place we would expect to find evidence of racial diversity. It was the northernmost city in the Roman empire, just a little over a hundred kilometers from the Scottish frontier. There are few places in the Roman world that were farther from the cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean, yet archaeology has revealed late Roman York to have been a vibrantly multi-ethnic city. Individuals from Gaul, Italy, and Egypt are mentioned in Roman-period inscriptions from around York. Local potters made cooking vessels characteristic of North African cuisine. A Germanic king with his retinue of warriors is attested in the city backing the emperor Constantine’s rise to power. Not far away, in the forts along Hadrian’s Wall, soldiers were worshiping gods imported from Syria and Persia. A North African woman of Sub-Saharn African descent would have been right at home in such a place.

What did she think of herself? We have no way of knowing except to try to interpret the circumstances of her burial. The bangles with which she was buried may suggest a consciousness of being both African and British, although ivory and jet were both prized in late Roman jewelry. They certainly, however, point to a family of wealth and status. The remains of a wooden box were also found in the grave, including a decorative mount carved with the text “Hail, sister, may you live in God” (AVE S[OR]OR VIVAS IN DEO). The text suggests a Christian connection, although the richness of the lady’s grave is at odds with the contemporary Christian preference for simple burial. The Lady may or may not have been Christian herself, but she certainly had contact with the Christian movement.

The most noteworthy thing about the Lady’s burial may be how unremarkable it is. It is in many ways an entirely typical late Roman provincial grave for a woman of high status. Her choice of jewelry may have been meant to say something about her origin, but it was a choice that would not have stood out among her peers. She was in touch with one of the major religious movements of the day but buried in a traditional fashion; she was neither ahead of nor behind the times. If we had only the grave goods and not the remains, there would be nothing to suggest that the deceased belonged to an ethnic minority.

The most important thing for us to learn from the Ivory Bangle Lady is this paradox: the relative scarcity of people of African origin in the ancient Mediterranean literary record is the product of their presence, not their absence. There were enough North Africans in York to influence the local pottery market, but in most respects they were just like other provincial Romans. They followed the same social trends and religious developments as their neighbors. They had come as soldiers in Roman service, as merchants, or as travelers, just like the Gauls, Italians, and Germans who also ended up in York. They were of all genders and lived at all levels of provincial society, from the bottom to the very top. Among them were people with features typical of sub-Saharan Africa and who would likely appear to us as black, but in their historical context, they were just Romans like everybody else.

If there were women like the Ivory Bangle Lady in York, the farthest Roman city from Africa, then people of black African descent cannot have been uncommon in the cosmopolitan cities of the Mediterranean. If they are not evident to us in the sources, it is in part because they were so commonplace and so thoroughly integrated into ancient Mediterranean culture that contemporary authors didn’t feel the need to mention them. People tend not to write about the ordinary. We know this well enough from modern social media: our Facebook friends and Twitter celebrities mostly post about the unusual things that happen to them, good or bad, not the everyday events of a typical day. The same principle applies, even more so, to ancient authors, given how much more costly and difficult it was to put their observations onto papyrus in ink than it is to fire off a tweet today.

Archaeology, especially with current developments in genetic research, may provide us with individual cases like the Ivory Bangle Lady, but most of the racial diversity of ancient populations will always be invisible to us because most graves don’t survive in good enough condition and the resources available for research are limited. But individual cases like late Roman York are a reminder that there was nothing the least bit unusual about people of many different backgrounds and—in modern terms—different races living side by side in antiquity.

Further reading

H. Cool, “An Overview of the Small Finds from Catterick,” in Cataractonium: Roman Catterick and its Hinterland ed. P. Wilson. York: Council for British Archaeology, 2002, 23-43

S. Leach et al., “A Lady of York: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain,” Antiquity 84, no. 323 (March, 2010): 131-45.

Patrick Ottaway, Roman York. Stroud: Tempus, 2004.

V. G. Swan, “Legio VI and its Men: African Legionaries in Briatin,” Roman Pottery Studies, 5 (1992): 1-33

R. Warwick, “The Skeletal Remains,” in The Romano-British Cemetery at Trentholme Drive, York, ed. Leslie P. Wenham. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1968, 113-76

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Modern artist’s reconstruction of the burial of the Ivory Bangle Lady, from Leach, “A Lady of York.”

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

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Medieval Realism: Holding a Distaff Under One Arm While Feeding Chickens

As usual, some days ago while doing something quite different I found an intriguing detail I wanted to look into. Finally I had the time to chase it down.

So: I was struck by this scene from an English illuminated manuscript.

British Library Add MS 42130 f166v Feeding Chickens
Add MS 42130, f.166v via British Library (England; 1325-1340; illuminated manuscript)

The way the woman in the image is holding a distaff under one arm while she feeds chickens from a bowl feels incredibly authentic. I may not have to spin my own yarn nor feed chickens in 2018, but I have often held a thing under my arm momentarily while taking care of a small, short task. Such a lovely, realistic detail.

I do have one question for the artist, though: what on earth is that chick doing, standing on top of the hen and pecking her? (“Mom, look, I’m up here! Mom? Mom? Mooom!”) LOL!

The manuscript is from England and known as The Luttrell Psalter. Fortunately for us, British Library has digitized the whole manuscript. In addition to the chicken-feeding one above, the illuminations include a slew of other everyday scenes, like a miller in his windmill, bear-baiting(!), a wattle pen full of sheep, and various stages of tending fields and preparing food.

Being a textile nerd, I enjoyed the image of two women preparing fibers into yarn: one is using a spinning wheel, the other is carding.

British Library Add MS 42130 f193r Spinning Carding
Add MS 42130, f.193r via British Library (England; 1325-1340; illuminated manuscript)

The coloring is quite lovely. I do wonder, however, what’s with the awkward poses. The chicken-feeding image felt much more natural in that respect, too.

Images via British Library

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

Stockholm University: Research Reveals Half of Viking Age Sigtuna Residents Were Immigrants

I’ve been meaning to share this for a while now, but something or other was always supposedly more important or interesting. No more! 🙂

The Viking Age Sigtuna, Sweden, was formally founded around 980 AD, and it was a much more cosmopolitan city than thought before. According to new DNA analysis, approximately half of city’s population were immigrants.

Flickr Guillen Perez Sigtuna Viking Rune Stone

The study looked at the remnants of 38 individuals who lived and died in Sigtuna between the 900s and 1100s CE, and included other scientific approaches as well (like analysing the strontium isotope contents of the residents’ teeth).

Roughly half of the population grew up in the near-by region Mälardalen (the Mälaren Valley, or Stockholm-Mälaren Region). The other half arrived either from southern Scandinavia (including Norway and Denmark) or further away. The long-distance immigrants came from the British Isles, Ukraine, Lithuania, northern Germany, and other parts of central Europe, and were more likely to be women than men (approx. 70 percent of women vs. 44 percent of the men).

Read more on the Stockholm University research news page: article in Swedish / article in English.

I guess I’m by far not the first woman to fall in love with a Viking and to move far away with him. 🙂

Found via Yle uutiset.

Image: section of a Viking rune stone from Sigtuna by Guillén Pérez on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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

Self-Help Law

“Self-help law” may sound like a book you would pick up to figure out how to make a will or file a lawsuit on your own, but it’s actually an important concept in history. Many societies in history have operated under a self-help legal system, especially small societies without developed governments, but even large, complex societies like the Roman Empire have operated under self-help law.

Most of us today live in legal systems that have mechanisms for enforcing legal judgments. If you take someone to court and win a judgment against them, you can rely on the police and courts to ensure that the judgment is fulfilled. Self-help legal systems don’t have those mechanisms. In a self-help system, you may take someone to court (or before a council of elders, or to a family tribunal, or whatever the system is) to get a judgment on who is legally in the right and what you are entitled to, but once the judgment is given it is up to you to carry it out. If the court decides that your neighbor owes you three bars of silver for cutting down your hedge, no one is going to come along and make them pay up. You have to go and get the silver from them yourself.

That may not sound like much of a legal system—if it all comes down to you having to barge into your neighbor’s house and grab their cash, it looks a lot like might making right. The difference, though, is that a self-help system requires you to get a legal judgment first. Once your neighbor cuts down your hedge, you can’t just bust in their door and take the silver. You have to present your case before a court (or council, or whatever the equivalent legal body is). You have to submit your grievance against your neighbor to someone who has the authority to represent the values of the community and judge how badly your neighbor has transgressed them. If you bust in and take the silver before going to court, that’s theft, and your neighbor has a case against you; if you do it after getting a judgment from the court, then you are executing justice and they have no case.

Self-help law accomplishes certain things that are useful in maintaining an orderly society. For one thing, it interrupts the cycle of vengeance by making people slow down, not act in the heat of anger but give wiser heads a chance to prevail. It offers a check on personal vendettas by submitting individual grievances to a neutral party. At the same time, though, it avoids burdening society with any kind of formal law enforcement, which could be a disruptive presence, especially in small-scale societies where disorder and crime are not everyday problems.

Self-help law also has its limitations. The obvious one is that some people are in a much better position to enforce their rights than others are. The rich and powerful have always been better able to wield the power of the law against the poor and humble, but under self-help law the weak often have very little real recourse against the strong. Another problem with self-help law is the tendency to escalate conflicts. Even with the intervention of a neutral party’s judgment, it’s hard for people to set aside their feelings of personal grievance. When your neighbor has cut down your hedge, even if you are legally entitled to go into their house and take three bars of sliver, it may be hard to resist urge to kick their dog and knock over their shelves while you do it, which just gives your neighbor a new legal claim against you. Self-help law may be described as a state of suspended violence, which carries within it the implicit threat of real violence breaking out.

A system of legal self-help also has broader social consequences. To be able to effectively carry out judgments (or resist people carrying out judgments against you), it’s useful to have a large network of friends and family you can rely on to stand up for you. Naturally, they’ll expect you to stand up for them in return. The bonds of friendship and family are more than sentimental in such a society; they can make the difference between living safe in your home and having your property under attack by your neighbors. They can also, on the other hand, drag you into conflicts that you had no part in beginning. As the old joke goes: “A friend will help you move; a good friend will help you move a body.” In a world of legal self-help, you might say: “A good friend will help you shove in your neighbor’s door and get the three silver bars that hedge-cutting menace owes you.”

Thoughts for writers

There is a lot of potential for drama in a self-help legal system. Modern law enforcement can sometimes create its own problems, but it also—by design—interrupts a lot of conflicts that would otherwise play out between individuals, families, and communities, sometimes violently. When you can’t just call the police on your annoying neighbors, interpersonal relationships evolve differently than we are used to today. A lot of stories from the past—the Mahabharata, the Iliad, Romeo and Juliet, etc.—have at their core the tensions that arise from the suspended violence and mutual obligations of a self-help society.

It is also important for us to understand that these tensions are real and have consequences. The conflicts that break out between feuding families or rival princes are not the result of overinflated egos but the consequence of living in a world where there is no one to guarantee your rights other than yourself and the friends and family you can count on to back you up.

Image: Balance scales, photograph by Mbiama via Wikimedia

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.

Race in Antiquity: Bad Answers, Part 2

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

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

Part 8: Bad Answers 2

Hard questions don’t have easy answers. Sometimes, the best way to get a good answer is to start with some bad answers and try to understand why they are bad. Today we look at a few bad answers that people have given about race in antiquity to see what we can learn from them.

When I call these answers “bad,” I don’t mean that there is nothing good in them or that the people who gave them were bad or foolish people. They are “bad” in the sense that they miss important facts or misunderstand the realities of the ancient world, but this is where most answers to most interesting questions start. The process of research, in almost any field, is a process of making our answers less bad through gathering more facts and thinking more carefully about them. We can’t do that effectively if we don’t have a place to start or if we don’t take a close look at our bad answers to understand how to make them better.

If you have spent any time reading about the question of race in the ancient Mediterranean, you have probably come across some version of these answers. I’m not linking to any particular sites because I don’t want anyone to feel called out or personally criticized. What’s important is that we learn from these bad answers in order to come up with better ones. In the last installation, we looked at some simple bad answers that were easy to move past. Today we look at couple of more complicated bad answers. These ideas take more work to explain and understand, but the reward of doing so is a fuller and deeper grasp of the problem.

Hair Color

Skin color is one of the primary markers of race in the modern West, but ancient authors and artists did not describe or depict skin color in ways that match up with modern racial categories. Knowing this, some historians have gone looking for other indicators of racial identity such as hair.

There are various descriptions of individuals and groups of people, both mythic and historical, in classical literature that mention hair color. The legendary hero Achilles, son of Peleus, for instance, is typically described as having fair hair.

[Athena] stood behind him and grasped the son of Peleus by his yellow hair,

visible to him alone

– Homer, Iliad 1.197-8

All translations my own

Although Greek word for colors do not always match up with our own, the word used to describe Achilles’ hair here, xanthos, generally refers to a yellowish color tending towards orange or red. It can be used to describe not just hair but gold, wine, even fried fish. However we might interpret this description of Achilles, it seems clear that the epics imagine him somewhere on the spectrum between blond and redhead.

The Roman emperor Commodus was described in a similar way, even with an explicit reference to gold:

He was a young man then, fine to look at, with a strong body and a face that was handsome without being boyishly pretty. His eyes were powerful and seemed to flash with lightning. His hair, reddish blond and naturally curled, seemed to gleam as if on fire when the sun struck it. Some were of the opinion that he scattered gold dust in his hair before going out, while others believed that he was bathed in a holy light.

Herodian, Roman History 1.7.5

Some people point to descriptions like these, as well as other references to people in the ancient Mediterranean having blond or red hair (or blue or green eyes), as evidence that the people of ancient Greece and Rome must therefore have been, in modern terms, white. That argument, though, will not stand.

We might first point out that some of these people never actually existed (like Achilles), and that for those who did (like Commodus), we have no independent way of verifying whether the accounts are accurate or not, but this is not the real problem. Achilles may not have been a living person, but it seems clear that the oral tradition about him intended the audience to understand him as being fair haired. Herodian’s description of Commodus may be exaggerated (with the lightning eyes and the holy light in the hair), but he was clearly writing to an audience that was prepared to accept the idea of a blond Roman.

We can also point out that hair color is not a perfect proxy for race. Yellow-red hair and pale skin do often go together, but it is perfectly possible to have either one without the other. Still, statistically speaking, any human population with a significant number of blonds in it is almost certain to also have a significant number of people in it we would call white. The problems with the hair argument are deeper.

Imagine, if you will, that some future student asks some future historian: “What race were the people of the United States in the twentieth century?”

And the future historian answers: “Well, Marilyn Monroe was blonde, and the Marvel character Natasha Romanoff was a redhead, so that means Americans were white.”

We can all recognize what’s wrong with that answer. Knowing the racial identities of a few real and/or made up people tells us almost nothing about the racial makeup of the larger societies they existed within. The number of people from antiquity whose hair color (or other physical features) we know about is vanishingly small, and the individuals in question are far from a representative sample.

The contention that a few blonds here and there in classical literature tells us anything meaningful about race in the Greek and Roman world assumes that there can only be one answer, that Greeks and Romans had a single, coherent racial identity which allowed for no change or variation. We don’t have to scour ancient sources for references to hair color to know that this was far from true.

Cleopatra

You knew we’d get here eventually, didn’t you? Of all individual people in antiquity, no one’s racial identity has been more fiercely debated than that of Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt.

Some people argue that Cleopatra should be identified as black. Sometimes this argument is made on very thin premises. (Cleopatra was queen of Egypt, which is on the continent of Africa, but that is not the same as being ethnically Egyptian, nor is being Egyptian necessarily the same as being black. Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra refers to her skin as dark, but Shakespeare lived a millennium and a half after Cleopatra and had no first-hand knowledge of her appearance.) But there are more serious arguments about Cleopatra’s race that require more serious engagement.

Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, descendants of the Macedonian general Ptolemy, who ruled Egypt for three centuries after the empire of Alexander the Great broke up on his death. The Ptolemies prized the purity of their bloodline and frequently intermarried among different branches of the family line, sometimes even between brother and sister. As a royal dynasty whose claim to power depended on descent, the Ptolemy family preserved lots of information about their ancestral line. We know more about Cleopatra’s family tree than almost anyone else in the ancient Mediterranean, but the fact is that this information only covers about three fourths of her ancestry. Despite the careful record-keeping of the Ptolemies in general, Cleopatra’s mother is poorly documented, and we know nothing at all about her maternal grandmother.

Some have argued that the lack of information about Cleopatra’s grandmother is itself significant, that it reflects the family’s attempt to bury evidence of a marriage (or non-marital relationship) that was outside the norm for Ptolemaic kings, who resided among a mostly Greco-Macedonian court in Alexandria. They argue that the mystery woman must therefore have been an Egyptian. Advocates of this position further argue that Greek, Roman, and other European authors whitewashed Cleopatra, removing any reference to her African heritage in order to claim such a symbol of beauty and power for white Europe.

This argument is a nuanced one that draws on real and substantial knowledge not only of the Ptolemies but of the sordid history of modern Western scholarship, which has often embraced racist and white supremacist interpretations of history, erasing or ignoring the lives of non-white peoples and individuals. It is an argument that some people of color today understandably find empowering and satisfying: it must feel good to “reclaim” one of the most widely-recognized names in history. Still, it is an argument that ultimately rests on the same faulty premises and flawed reasoning as the other bad answers we have looked at.

To begin with, we cannot assume that Cleopatra’s grandmother was Egyptian. “Unknown” simply means “unknown.” Most of the women at or in the orbit of the Ptolemaic court were ethnically Greek or Macedonian. Few Egyptians even lived in Alexandria, which was considered separate from Egypt, not a part of it. There were, however, substantial Jewish, Persian, and Syrian populations in the city, whose elite members had a better chance at finding their way into the royal court than most Egyptians did. It is not impossible that a member of the royal family could have had a relationship with an Egyptian woman, but the odds of any given unidentified woman in the Ptolemaic court being Egyptian are very long.

Even if Cleopatra’s grandmother was Egyptian, Egyptian is not the same as black. Certainly no ancient Egyptian would have described themselves that way, but even if we approach ancient Egypt in the terms of modern racial categories—what would we call them if we saw them passing by on the street today?—this simple equation will not stand. The ancient population of Egypt was complex. Genetic evidence reveals a core population most closely tied to other North African peoples of the Mediterranean coastal zone, but also with traces of long-term immigration from both southwestern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Artworks and literary sources suggest that Egyptian skin tones could range from very dark brown to very light tan. Certainly there were some ancient Egyptians who, if they appeared before us today, we would describe as black, but there were many more we would not.

It is not impossible that Cleopatra’s grandmother was Egyptian. If she was, it is also not impossible that she had sub-Saharan ancestry and dark skin. Literary evidence suggests that one early Ptolemaic king had taken an Egyptian woman as a mistress, known as Didyme, who may have been dark-skinned, so there would be historical precedent for such a relationship. (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 13.37 = 576e-f; Asclepiades, in the Palatine Anthology 5.210) It may be more significant, however, to note that although the Ptolemaic family ruled Egypt for some three hundred years, Didyme is the only Egyptian woman we know of who was involved with a member of the family. All of this is very tenuous grounds for making claims about Cleopatra’s race.

Was Cleopatra whitewashed by Greek and Roman authors who wanted to claim her for “their” people? Quite the opposite. Cleopatra was embroiled in the last stage of the long-running Roman civil war as a supporter of Mark Anthony against Octavian, the future emperor Augustus. Octavian’s propaganda strategy depended on convincing the Roman people that the civil war was over. He therefore portrayed his struggle against Antonius not as the last gasp of that conflict but as the glorious Roman conquest of Egypt. Anything that made Cleopatra appear as an exotic foreign potentate was perfectly suited to his needs. Although the Roman sources do their best to exoticize Cleopatra, none of them makes any remarks on her skin color or ancestry.

Here is how the Roman poet Vergil pictured Cleopatra leading her ships in the naval battle of Actium:

In the midst, the queen shakes her native sistrum and calls her people to fight,

not seeing the twin snakes coming behind her.

Her monstrous, feral god, the barking Anubis,

shakes his spear against Neptune, Venus,

and Minerva

– Vergil, Aeneid 8.696-701

And here is the poet Horace on the same theme:

… the insane queen schemed

to bring death and ruin

to the Capitol and our state

with her foul throng of thugs,

drunk with vain hopes

of sweet victory.

– Horace, Odes 1.37.6-12

The images invoked against Cleopatra were of drunkenness, luxury, and the (from a Roman point of view) strangeness of Egyptian religion, but not her appearance or ancestry. Roman political invective could make hay out of even the most trivial personal quirks; if the smear campaign against Cleopatra said nothing about her ethnicity, that must mean there was nothing about it that a Roman audience would have found unusual.

Assumed whiteness

As different as the arguments are, both the attempt to classify Greeks and Romans by their hair color and the assertion of a “black” Cleopatra fall victim to the same problem: they both accept the fundamental assumption of an all-white ancient Mediterranean. The hair argument assumes that the ancient Greeks and Romans were racially uniform, and that if we identify a few of them, the same answer must apply to the rest. The case for Cleopatra’s black grandmother similarly assumes that the ancient Mediterranean was so blindingly white that our only way of finding any possible exceptions is to clutch at scraps and plead that “it’s not entirely impossible” can be turned into “it must be so.”

Both of these approaches, intentionally or not, buy into racist claims about a pure white ancient Mediterranean. They only make sense within the parameters set by that assumption. Achilles’ blond hair only seems useful as a measure of ethnic identity if we already assume that the ancient Greeks were uniformly white. The gaps in Cleopatra’s family tree only appear tantalizing if we buy into the notion that people of color in the ancient Mediterranean were a rare and scandalous secret to be covered up. Without the assumption of whiteness, neither of these cases is particularly interesting or useful at all.

The mistakes of the past can be hard to overcome, even when we are actively trying to challenge them. Sometimes that hardest thing to do when looking for new answers to old questions is to see the weaknesses in the questions themselves.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Mosaic of Achilles having his first bath, photograph by Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia (“House of Theseus”, Paphos; 2nd c. CE; mosaic)

Post edited for spelling

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.

Ancient Women as Generals

It has come to my attention that some folks online have been making a fuss about the fact that the strategy game Rome: Total War II allows players to recruit women as generals to lead their armies in fighting around the ancient Mediterranean. They decry this addition to the game as modern politics intruding anachronistically on the purely masculine history of war. Well, that’s a load of hogwash.

As your friendly neighborhood ancient historian, I’m happy to present a brief, selective, far-from-comprehensive list of women who led military forces in antiquity. Enjoy.

(All translations my own)

Amage

A Sarmatian queen, 2nd century BCE, who led her people against foreign invaders.

Amage, wife of Medosaccus, a Sarmatian king… seeing that her husband was diverted by luxury, took matters in hand, giving many judgments, organizing the defense of the realm, and fighting off foreign attacks.

– Polyaenus, Strategms 8.56

 

Amanirenas

A Kushite queen, 1st century BCE, who led forces against Roman armies encroaching on her territory from southern Egypt. (Strabo mistakes her title, Candace, for her name)

Queen Candace, in my day the ruler of the Ethiopians, a masculine woman who was blind in one eye… led an army many thousands strong against the [Roman] garrison

– Strabo, Geography 17.54

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Tamias

Let me tell you about the word tamias.

Tamias is a word in Ancient Greek. It was the title of the official in charge of the Athenian state treasury. It is related to the verb temnō, which means to cut something up into pieces, especially used of carving meat.

Now, meat was not always easy to come by in ancient Greece. Most people would not have eaten meat on a regular basis, at least not from land animals—bird and fish meat was probably a little easier to come by, but meat from animals like cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs was a rarity. In fact, meat from these animals was almost always consumed as part of a sacrifice. When the ancient Greeks offered an animal to the gods in sacrifice, only a small representative portion of the animal was usually burned for the gods. The rest of the meat was cooked and consumed by the community.

Since sacrifice was a religious act, there were important rules about the procedure. One was that the portions of meat shared out among the participants had to be of equal size. To do otherwise would be to suggest that the blessings of the gods invoked by the ritual should come down unequally. The carver who prepared the meat for cooking therefore had a job that required both expertise and a solemn devotion to the good of the whole community.

When the Athenians were organizing their state and assigning one official to responsible for managing the state finances, it makes sense that they would invoke the image of the old sacrificial carver for an official who would take on a post of such weighty responsibility, but this is not where the saga of tamias ends.

A treasurer’s job is not just to share out funds equitably but also to store and guard valuable goods so they will be available in the future when needed. This is the idea invoked by the scientific name Tamias striatus (literally ‘stripey treasurer’) for this fellow. The chipmunk carries food in its big cheek pouches and stores it for the winter in its burrow.

From food to gold and back to food again: that’s the history of tamias.

Image: Eastern chipmunk, photograph by Cephas via Wikimedia

On, of, and about languages.

Queen Teuta, Piracy, and War

Let’s talk about pirates. (No, not talk like pirates—that comes later this week.) In popular culture, we typically think of pirates in the waters of the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the practice of cruising the seaways and taking plunder by force is an ancient and worldwide custom. For some people, raiding passing ships was an accepted and ordinary way of life. Among those people were the ancient Illyrians.

The Illyrians lived along the mountainous western coast of the Balkan peninsula, in the vicinity of modern-day Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Much like the Greeks who lived to their south, they shared a common culture and language, but were not politically unified. Small-scale warfare and raiding between Illyrian tribes was a normal part of life, but Illyrians also frequently went beyond their borders, raiding nearby cities and sailing out into the sea in small, fast boats to attack passing ships.

The Illyrians were well placed to make a profit on plundering shipping. From their position along the Adriatic coast, they could easily strike at trade routes through the Adriatic, and more organized raiding parties could hit the major routes that between Greece and Italy, connecting the eastern and western Mediterranean.

For much of the ancient period, Illyrian piracy was a present but manageable danger in the Mediterranean, more an occasional nuisance than a real threat to trade, but in times of turmoil, when the more organized states of the region were less able to deter attacks, Illyrian tribes could become more ambitious. One tribe that took advantage of such chaotic circumstances was the Ardiaei, who aggressively pursued not only raiding at sea but conquests on land as well under their queen Teuta (ruled 231-227 BCE).

At this time, the major powers of the both the eastern and western Mediterranean were busy with their own problems. The Greek world was consumed with wars between the kingdom of Macedonia and several alliances of Greek cities. Tensions were rising between Rome and Carthage as the two major powers in the west slid towards a second war. Teuta’s husband and predecessor as ruler, Agron, had gotten his people involved in Macedonia’s wars and expanded his tribe’s control over large areas of Illyria. Teuta carried on with an aggressive policy that combined piratical raids on nearby shipping lanes with territorial expansion along the Adriatic coast.

As Teuta’s people began to threaten Roman merchants, the Romans decided to intervene and sent a pair of ambassadors to demand reparations and an end to the attacks. Teuta dismissed the ambassadors’ complaints saying:

…that she would try to take care that no injustice should be done to the Romans by the Illyrian nation, but that it was not the custom for Illyrian monarchs to prevent their people from making their living on the sea.

– Polybius, History 2.8.8

(My own translation)

Teuta’s response was somewhat disingenuous, given that she had directed and made use of seaborne raids for her own purposes, but it also shows how the Illyrians thought about their piratical activities.

Teuta was making a distinction between piracy and war. War, from her point of view, was a collective effort by a whole nation, directed by its leaders against a defined enemy. Illyria was not at war with Rome, and she promised the Roman emissaries that she and her forces had no intention of attacking Roman territory. Her wars were in Greece.

Piracy was something different. It was not a way of making war but a way of making a living, something done by private individuals. She, even as queen, had no right to interfere in her people’s piracy, any more than she could tell farmers not to farm or hunters not to hunt. The Illyrians regarded passing ships as a kind of natural resource. Plundering those ships was just a way of harvesting that resource, like pulling fish from the sea in nets. It was not an attack upon a particular people or nation. Anyone who sailed the seas was accepting the risk of being plundered and had little right to complain about it.

As far as Teuta was concerned, the Romans had no business complaining to her: she wasn’t at war with them, and her people had a natural right to plunder any ship that passed by.

Of course, the Romans didn’t see it like that. From the point of view of Roman merchants, it didn’t much matter whether the people raiding their ships and stealing their goods were agents of a monarch or private entrepreneurs. In response to Teuta’s seemingly dismissive answer, Rome launched an attack on Illyria. After brief fighting, Teuta’s forces were beaten and she, though allowed to remain in power, was stripped of most of her territory and forced to pay tribute to Rome.

Queen Teuta’s response to the Romans offers us an alternative view to the dominant Greco-Roman narrative of Mediterranean history. Even though her answer comes to us filtered through the perspective of a Greek historian who casts the Romans as the heroes of the story, we can still understand the logic of her point of view. To her, the difference between war and piracy mattered; as queen, she had the right to control one activity, but not the other.

Image: Modern Albanian coin with an artist’s depiction of Teuta, photograph by Numista via Wikimedia

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.

Oldest Surviving Maya Codex Declared Authentic

According to CBC News, a thousand-year-old Maya text has been authenticated by scholars at Mexico’s National Institute of History and Anthropology (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, or INAH).

The pictographic calendar-style text was made between 1021 and 1154 CE, and is the oldest known pre-Hispanic manuscript from the Americas. It was made from three layers of amate paper (bark paper). Only 10 pages of a conjectured set of at least 20 sheets currently survive.

INAH Mexico Maya Codex Photo 10

The document’s authenticity was questioned on the basis of two main concerns: missing archaeological records of its original context (due to it having been looted and traded), and its differing style compared to other authenticated Mayan codices.

According to Sofia Martínez del Campo from the National Coordination of Museums and Exhibitions (Coordinación Nacional de Museos y Exposiciones del instituto, or CNME, at INAH), quoted in the INAH announcement, the current analysis included making a detailed photographic record, as well as examining the dating, materials, entomology, iconography, chemical-mineralogical characterization, morphometry, chronology, style, and symbolism, among others.

INAH Mexico Maya Codex Photo 5

The specialists found the presence of Maya blue color (azul maya) and pigments based on cochineal dye as well as leftover drops of a chapopote resin. (Britannica says: “[…] chapopote [was a] a native asphalt commonly applied to clay figurines as a decoration; occasionally, chapopote entirely covers the figures, while in other examples it is used to decorate only the face, mouth, or eyes.”)

INAH Alba Barrios-Laboratorios Analysis

In addition, INAH announced that the folding book will no longer be known by its previous name (Grolier); instead, the work will be known as Mexico Maya Codex (Códice Maya de México).

INAH Mexico Maya Codex Photo 9

The Mexico Maya Codex will be shown to the public for one month, from September 27 to the end of October, 2018, as part of the International Book Fair of Anthropology and History (Feria Internacional del Libro de Antropología e Historia, or FILAH).

Also during the FILAH book fair the book El Códice Maya de México (The Mexico Maya Codex) will be released. It will include a facsimile edition of the pre-Hispanic text in addition to academic and scientific articles.

Only three other pre-Hispanic codices are known, called Madrid, Dresden, and Paris (for the cities where they are kept).

Visit the INAH announcement in Spanish for more details and a link to the announcement video.

Found via N. K. Jemisin on Twitter.

Apparently someone somewhere deemed an earlier analysis (reported e.g. by the Smithsonian.com in September of 2016) not conclusive enough, even though that one also authenticated the Mexico Maya Codex. (My Spanish isn’t good enough to spot any specific reasoning for the 2018 study in the INAH announcement.)

In any case, getting more information on traditional Maya religion and life before Europeans destroyed it can only be a good thing in my book—if you’ll pardon the pun. 🙂

Images of individual pages by Martirene Alcántara; laboratory analysis by Alba Barrios-Laboratorios, INAH; all via INAH.

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