Race in Antiquity: Who Were the Romans?

“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 6: Who Were the Romans?

In the last post in this series, I explored the question of who we mean by the ancient Greeks. It’s a more complicated question than it seems and doesn’t offer any easy answers. When we turn to the Romans, find that, if anything, Roman identity was even more complicated than Greek.

The history of Rome was one of expansion and contact with a larger world. The city of Rome itself was located at the crossing point of two important routes of travel: the Tiber river, which ran from the Apennine mountains to the sea, and an ancient trade route that ran along the western coast of the Italian peninsula. Early Rome flourished from the trade that ran along these routes, and a degree of openness to outsiders was part of Roman identity from its earliest days. Indeed, the city of Rome itself was formed out of several originally independent hilltop villages that merged into one city-state as they grew. The people of Rome were Latins and they shared an ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identity with the people of other nearby Latin cities. There was never a time in Roman history when Roman identity did not embrace people of multiple different origins.

The early Roman state was ruled by kings. Roman kingship was not hereditary; rather, on the death of a king the people of Rome elected a new one. Many of the kings recorded in Roman legends are likely entirely mythical, but the myths have important implications for how early Rome related to the outside world. Few kings were from Rome. Instead, the list includes Sabines (from the hills east of Rome), Etruscans (from the prosperous cities to the north), and Latins from other communities. Indeed, it appears that the early Romans may have favored outsiders for their kings in order to avoid conflicts between the aristocratic families of the city over the office. (Livy, History of Rome 1.10-49; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.36-58, 3.36-46, 4.1-28; Eutropius, Compendium of History 1.1-8)

Roman of later ages continued to assert their connections to other peoples. Roman priests adopted Etruscan methods of interpreting messages from the gods. Even long after Rome had conquered the Etruscan cities, Romans continued to practice what they called the “Etruscan method.” The Claudian family, one of the most powerful noble clans in Rome and part of the first dynasty of Roman emperors, proudly declared their Sabine origins. (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, “Life of Tiberius,” 1; Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 1.1)

Being open to the world was not just a Roman habit; it was key to the success of Rome as an expansionist state. Rather than subjugate or exterminate the peoples they conquered, the Romans incorporated them into their state, extending legal and political rights and creating incentives for the conquered and their descendants to think of themselves as Romans. The practical benefits for the empire were considerable. Provincials who felt like part of the empire were less likely to revolt. They provided a practically inexhaustible stream of new recruits for the Roman army. The best and brightest gravitated towards the city of Rome where they became the leading lights of Roman art, literature, scholarship, and law. Some of the great names of Roman history came form the provinces, including the comic poet Martial, who came from Spain, the biographer of the early emperors Suetonius, from North Africa, and the jurist Ulpian, from the old Phoenician city of Tyre. Even emperors could come from the provinces. By the end of the third century CE, Rome had been ruled by men from Thrace, Illyria, Arabia, North Africa, and Gaul. (Martial, Epigrams 10.65, 10.103, 10.104; Herodian, Roman History 7.1; Epitome de Caesaribus 31; Eutropius 13, 18; Zosimus, New History 1.13; L’anneé épigraphique 1953 73)

Many people who remained in the provinces also claimed Romanness as part of their identity. Being Roman did not necessarily exclude other identities, and it could mean different things to different people. Being Roman was part of the complex set of identities that people could assert, adapt, question, and repurpose as they saw fit, in much the same way that people today who identify as American, or British, or Hungarian can have very different ways of understanding and expressing those identities. A gravestone on the Danube frontier identifies the soldier it was set up for as both a Roman and a Frank. An orator who came from the Aeduan tribe of central Gaul declared: “What people in all the world is more in love with the Roman name than the Aedui?” Throughout the empire, people who spoke Latin but were not Roman citizens, or who had Roman citizenship but dressed in British style, or who wore Roman clothes but spoke Greek could all call themselves Romans with an equal claim to that identity. At the same time, not everyone who lived under Roman rule or participated in Roman culture wanted to be thought of as Roman. There were those who rejected Roman identity entirely, or embraced it only when circumstances demanded it, like Saint Paul, who asserted his Roman citizenship only when threatened with torture. (Acts of the Apostles 22; Panegyrici Latini 8.2; Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum III 3576)

Like Greekness, Romannes had never been conceived of as an ethnic or racial identity. There was never a moment in Roman history when those who called themselves Romans believed that they were a genetically distinct people, separated from the rest of the world by an uncrossable barrier. Although Rome’s empire was created and sustained by acts of violence against outsiders, some of them arguably rising to the level of genocide, Roman culture did not invent or impose racial categories on its victims in the same way the modern empires have done. The question of whether someone was Roman or not was never one that could be answered by the characteristics of a person’s body or an examination of their origins and ancestry. As with the ancient Greeks, any questions we pose about the race of the ancient Romans must contend with the ways in which those who identified themselves as Romans thought about themselves and the world around them.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Portrait of two brothers from Roman Egypt, via Wikimedia (currently Egyptian Museum, Cairo; 2nd c. CE; distemper on wood)

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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A Random Find: Ancient and Early Medieval Persian or Iranic Women’s Clothing

I randomly ran into a collection of recreations of Persian or Iranic women’s clothing from different eras, from ancient times to a few hundred years ago. Below are the five oldest outfits.

Tumblr Non-West Hist Persian Iranic 2nd Millenium BC
“Second Millennium B.C. From the collection of Ph. Ackerman”
Tumblr Non-West Hist Persian Iranic Elam
“Elam. 3rd millennium B.C. – Silver vase found at Marvdasht – Iran Bastan Museum”

They seem to be images of modern interpretations based on artwork of various kinds: statuettes, carvings, reliefs, paintings, and drawings.

Tumblr Non-West Hist Persian Iranic Achaemenian
“Achaemenian II”
Tumblr Non-West Hist Persian Iranic Parthian
“Parthian II. Statue found at Harta – Baghdad Museum”
Tumblr Non-West Hist Persian Iranic Sassanian
“Sassanian period I (224-652 A.D.). Silver plate – Walter Art Gallery in Baltimore”

 

Aren’t they fascinating? The images clearly come from a print publication, but apart from that I unfortunately don’t have any source information.

I don’t know much about these eras and areas, but I can’t escape the impression that these recreations may be relatively old and, perhaps, not entirely reliable. For instance, the Sassanian dress seems very polyester-like (too shiny). On the other hand, a lot of the draping looks very plausible. It would be so interesting to read an analysis on each outfit by the researchers / creators.

I’ve long been into early history, specifically of textiles and clothing, usually the older the better. Sadly, it’s an area that we tend to have very spotty evidence. I’m so glad digitization and the Internet help get more information out to interested audiences. There are so many more sources and preserved fragments than many may realize, and now we get to see them!

Images found via Non-Western Historical Fashion on Tumblr.

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

Race in Antiquity: Who Were the Greeks?

“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 5: Who Were the Greeks?

As we have discussed before, modern racial categories are not easy to apply to the ancient Mediterranean world. Ancient peoples like the Greeks and Roman had complicated ideas about their own identities, but those ideas do not readily line up with the ways in which we modern people define race. If we want to better understand the identity of the ancient Greeks—in ancient or modern terms—we first have to know who we’re talking about. That may sound like a silly question. Isn’t the answer obvious? The Greeks! But who was a Greek?

This is a more difficult question than it may seem. In the modern world, nations have citizenship laws to regulate who is, say, an American, a Canadian, a Belgian, etc. Even today, though, not everyone’s identity is easily defined. Immigrants, expatriates, refugees, and other people who travel between nations can have complicated relationships to the places they come from and the places they end up. Individual feelings and societal attitudes are not always in line with the letter of the law.

The situation was even more complicated in ancient Greece. The people of ancient Greece were never politically unified on their own initiative. Individual city-states like Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes had their own citizenship laws, but these regulations varied widely between cities and changed in response to political pressures. Spartans who fled from battle could lose their citizenship. In Athens, challenging a rival’s citizen status was a common tactic in the tussle of political and family feuding. New citizens were enfranchised to serve political and military needs. The nearest thing there was to a central arbiter of Greekness was the Hellanodikai, the judges who oversaw the Olympic Games, in which only Greeks were allowed to compete. The judgments they made, though, were individual and only applied to the athletes. Decisions could also be swayed by political considerations: the Hellanodikai judged King Alexander I of Macedonia (great-great-great-grandfather of Alexander the Great) to be a Greek, while holding that the people of Macedonia themselves were not. (Herodotus, Histories 5.22)

The standards used for arguing about Greekness could also change with time and circumstances. In the sixth century BCE, most discussions of Greek identity were framed in terms of descent, specifically descent from particular mythic ancestors. The crucial figure was Hellen (a son of either the god Zeus and a human woman, Pyrrha, or Pyrrha and a human man, Deucalion—and not to be confused with the beautiful Helen, who sparked the Trojan War). Those who claimed descent from Hellen were counted among the Greeks, while those who did not were excluded. One of the fullest renderings of this tradition is in the poem known as the Catalogue of Women, a sixth-century poem known today only in fragments, which presented an account of the Greek heroic age structured around the genealogies, marriages, and progeny of certain women. This poem identified various groups of Greeks with three sons of Hellen: Dorus, Xuthus, and Aeolus.

The Catalogue, though, was not the final word on Greekness. As a primarily oral tradition, Greek myth had no canonical texts, and the family lines of gods and heroes were always up for debate. Other sources rearranged the family trees to change the determination of who did or did not count as Greek. (Thucydides, History 2.80.5-6; Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.11.1) Nor did ancestry remain the only way of asserting Greek identity. In the fifth century, many writers also began to refer to shared language, culture, and ways of life as defining who was Greek. (Herodotus 8.144) By the fourth century, we find the Athenian orator Isocrates explicitly rejecting common ancestry as a way of determining who was a Greek or not:

[Athens] has caused the name of “Greek” to apply not to a tribe but to a way of thought, so that those who are called Greeks are those who share our education rather than those who share our origins.

– Isocrates, Panegyric 50

(All translations my own)

In the Successor Kingdoms of the Hellenistic age (the remnants of Alexander’s empire in the Aegean, Egypt, and southwestern Asia), Greekness took on new meanings. In Egypt under the Ptolemaic kings, “Greek” was an administrative rather than ethnic designation applied to anyone who was not a native Egyptian. Thus not only immigrants from Greece and Macedonia were classed as “Greeks,” but also, for instance, Jews, Syrians, and Persians. Being designated Greek carried certain legal and tax benefits, so even members of the native Egyptian aristocracy who supported the Ptolemaic regime were granted Greek status. In the Seleucid kingdom, centered on Mesopotamia and Syria, Greekness was a communal rather than individual status. Certain cities founded by immigrants from Greece and Macedonia were recognized as “Greek,” which brought some administrative benefits to everyone who lived there, regardless of their origins.

Many different people lived with identities that were more complex than simply “Greek” or “not Greek.” From the seventh century BCE on, many individuals with special skills left the small, economically underdeveloped cities of the Aegean to find employment elsewhere, including mercenaries, physicians, courtesans, artisans, and actors. These emigrants settled in places ranging from the Iberian peninsula to the Iranian plateau and integrated themselves into local societies. Their descendants tended to adopt local names, languages, and cultures, such as Wahibre-em-Akhet, the son of two Greek-named parents who was buried in Egypt in a traditional Egyptian sarcophagus. Larger groups of emigrants founded colonies around the Mediterranean and Black Seas. While some of these colonies asserted a strong sense of Greek identity, many had more complex cultures, such as the Geloni of the Black Sea steppes, a fusion of Greek settlers and local peoples who spoke a Greek-Scythian creole language. (Herodotus 4.108)

Many people from the greater Mediterranean world also settled in the Greek cities of the Aegean. By the fourth century BCE there were Egyptian and Thracian immigrant communities in Athens that were substantial enough to successfully petition for the right to build temples to their own goddesses, Isis and Bendis. (Inscriptiones Graecae II2 337) The Carthaginian philosopher Hasdrubal moved to Athens and, in 129 BCE, became head of Plato’s Academy. Like Wahibre-em-Akhet in Egypt, Hasdrubal accommodated himself to the local culture by adopting the Greek name Clitomachus. (Cicero, Academica 2.31; Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 4.10) At the other end of the social scale, the Aegean cities of Delos and Rhodes were major centers for the slave trade. Captive people from origins stretching from Gaul to Persia and Scythia to Egypt are recorded passing through their harbors. Farther afield, Hellenistic-era Jews claimed to have proof that they shared a common ancestry with the Spartans and that sons of the Jewish patriarch Abraham had accompanied the Greek hero Heracles on his adventures. (1 Maccabees 12.5-23; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1.240-41, 12.225-27)

Greek culture and identity did not stand alone and aloof from others. The sense of cultural interconnection and flexibility was expressed in Egypt by a poem written in Greek but addressed to the Egyptian goddess Isis which explicitly identified Isis with the goddesses of several other peoples:

The Syrians call you Astarte, Artemis, and Nanaia,

the people of Lycia address you as Queen Leto,

men of Thrace call you the mother of the gods,

and the Greeks name you great-throned Hera, sweet Aphrodite,

good Hestia, Rhea, and Demeter,

but the Egyptians call you The Only One, for you are the one who is all

other goddesses named by humanity.

– Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 8.584.18-24

The multiplicity of ways in which Greekness could be claimed may be best exemplified by comparing two examples. On one hand, there were descendants of Hellenistic settlers in India in the last centuries BCE and early centuries CE who had assimilated into Indian culture but who still identified themselves as “Yavana,” the word for Greek in the local language. This term appears in inscriptions on offerings made to Indian gods in local temples. In terms of culture, language, and ways of life, these Yavana had become thoroughly Indian; it was only through their ancestry that they still identified as Greek. On the other hand, the philosopher Favorinus, in the second century CE, argued that he counted as Greek despite his Gaulish ancestry because he had adopted a Greek culture, language, and way of life. (Favorinus, Corinthian Oration 25-26)

Greekness was never a racial identity; it was a cultural identity, and one that was open to many different interpretations, not all of them compatible with one another. Any questions we ask about the racial identity of the ancient Greeks are bound to have complex answers. Nor are we, as modern people, in a position to dispute the lived and felt identities of ancient peoples. To impose our own rules on whose Greekness was legitimate and whose was not would simply be begging the question. The idea that people can be categorized into coherent ethnic groups with well-defined boundaries that were stable over time and across great distances is a figment of the imperialist and Romantic nationalist imagination. If we are serious about investigating the identity of the ancient Greeks, we have to be prepared for the bewildering and irreducible complexities involved in defining exactly who we mean.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Corinthian capital with seated Buddha, via Wikimedia (originally Gandhara, currently Musée Guimet, Paris; 3rd-4th c. CE; stone)

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.

Historiography (With Comics)

I encourage anyone who wants to write SFF to read history, and to go beyond popular history to good scholarly history. Historical scholarship has its challenges for non-specialists, though, first among them: historiography.

It’s a rather intimidating word. The bane of history majors everywhere and a source of confusion to ordinary folks who pick up an academic history book trying to learn a little more about people and places in the past. It doesn’t have to be so intimidating, though. Historiography just means the ways in which we explain history.

There are many different theories of history with bewildering and unhelpful names: Marxism (which is not the same as Marxist economic theory), the Annales school, Whig history (which has nothing to do with wigs), and many more. Each of these theories encompasses a different set of questions that historians ask about the past, a different way of organizing evidence, and a different approach to interpreting cause and effect. At the most basic level, though, they are all just different ways of explaining change.

The study of change is, fundamentally, what the study of history is about. The past was not the same as the present. People lived in different ways, they held different beliefs about the world and made different decisions. When you take all of the individual choices that individual people made while going about the business of their daily lives and add them all together, the result is large-scale changes over time.

Different historical theories see that change differently. While every school of historical thought has its own specific approaches, some of the basic differences can be summed as the difference between seeing history as a pendulum, a circle, or a line.

Pendulum

Pendulum theories are based on the idea that most societies most of the time are basically static. People get up, go to work, come home, go to bed, and not much changes from one day, year, or generation to the next. Occasionally something will happen that upsets that equilibrium, like an outbreak of deadly disease or the introduction of a new crop, and it takes time for people to adjust to the new circumstances. Eventually, though, things settle down and people get back to the business of getting up, going to work, coming home, and going to bed. The population recovers as survivors acquire immunity to the disease or markets catch up as farmers start growing the new crop instead of some old ones.

From this point of view, the thing that’s important to study is the resting state of the pendulum, the condition that everything will tend back towards when its not being knocked about. We study history in order to understand basic things about human nature and society. The things that bump the pendulum are less important than where it will eventually come back to.

Circle

Circle theories believe that rather than one natural state to which societies return, there is a cycle that societies repeatedly go through. Each generation is shaped by the circumstances it grew up in and makes different choices than the generation that came before, but eventually things come back around again. A generation of spendthrifts, for instance, leaves its children in debt. When those children grow up, they tend to pinch their pennies. Their children grow up free from the fear of privation and more willing to take risks. Some of them get rich and raise children who grow up spoiled and irresponsible with money, which starts the cycle again.

To historians of this persuasion, the study of history is not about identifying a basic state we will return to but recognizing where we are in the cycle so we can better prepare for what comes next.

Line

Line theories believe that history is going somewhere and it won’t turn back. Small changes accumulate over time. Every choice that people make creates a new set of circumstances that future people have to respond to, and things will never go back to the way they were before. From this point of view, changes in society whether small, like a new drink becoming popular, or big, like industrial production taking over from individual crafting, has consequences that roll forward and are impossible to ever entirely undo. The demand for tea in England, for instance, created new incentives for trade, which led to new imperialist policies in Asia, which destroyed some local governments and elevated others, and so on. Even if Brits someday stop drinking tea, none of these effects will be undone.

Some line historians see the line pointing towards progress and an ultimate good for all humanity; others see it pointing towards degeneration and the collapse of the human race. Others simply see it as a process of ongoing and inevitable change. The point of studying history for all of them, though, is that we can make better choices for the future by understanding how we got to the present. The past is never going to come around again, but if we can tell which way the wind is blowing, we know which way to spit.

If this still seems a bit too theoretical, here’s an example in practice. How would historians of these different persuasions approach a particular historical event? Let’s take, say, the American Revolution.

To a pendulum historian, not much really changed because of the revolution. After several years of fighting that killed many people and interfered with daily life, Anglo-American men replaced one distant aristocracy with a slightly closer one who only inherited land and wealth, not land, wealth, and titles. For many colonial denizens, the revolution simply changed who they paid their taxes to and which politicians they grumbled about over their beer after coming in from the fields or workshops at the end of the day. For women, poor folks, enslaved Africans, indigenous peoples, and anyone else outside the landowning elite, hardly anything was different in the years after the war compared with the years before it.

To a circle historian, the revolution was an example of an ongoing pattern in which the inability to reconcile political differences leads to violence. Stresses had been building up over time as the British government had different needs and priorities than the American colonists. Eventually these stresses reached a breaking point where negotiation and accommodation failed. The only way forward was turn to violent revolt. This pattern had played out before in English history going back at least as far as the Magna Carta and would continue to play out in American history, leading to the Civil War and to unrest in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The same cycle of stress, failed attempts at reconciliation, and violent upheaval has occurred all across the world in societies large and small

To a line historian, the revolution was a turning point which changed everything that came after. There are many different ways of understanding that change. One historian might call it the beginning of American exceptionalism while another might see it as a step in the disintegration of European empires in the western hemisphere. Another historian might see it as cutting off American law from the progress Britain was making toward ending slavery, or changing the focus of American trade towards the Pacific Ocean rather than the Atlantic. Whatever the focus, the war created a new set of circumstances that led people to behave in new ways.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. Not all histories fall neatly into one of these categories, but these basic ideas are at the core of many. Understanding what kind of history you’re reading can help you get what you want out of it, and knowing what kind of histories are out there can help you find the one you’re looking for. Happy history reading!

Comics by Erik Jensen

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.

The Rules of (Ancient) Magic

Not too long ago I was perusing a post by the fantasy author N. K. Jemisin about magic in fantasy. (The post is from several years back, but it only came to my attention recently—it’s well worth reading both the post and the comments after, if you’re interested in fantasy writing.) Jemisin takes issue with contemporary writers who obsess over rules and systems for magic rather than letting magic be the strange, unpredictable, sometimes frightening force that it often was in older fantasy by authors like Tolkien and Le Guin.

Naturally, being a historian of the ancient Mediterranean by training and a fantasy fan and author by inclination, it got me thinking about how magic is used in ancient Greek and Roman literature. The first problem is how to define magic. Lots of strange things happen in classical myths, but most of those are the action of gods, to whom turning people into peacocks or birthing fully-armed daughters out of their heads comes naturally. Ancient societies also widely believed that humans had the ability to invoke the gods to take action on their behalf through rituals including offerings, prayers, curses, and dances. I’m taking a more limited definition of magic, however: supernatural powers and events produced directly by humans at their will without requiring the aid and participation of gods or other superhuman entities. Using this definition, magic is actually quite rare in ancient literature, but here are a few examples.

In the Odyssey by Homer, the witch Circe uses enchanted food and a magic wand to transform Odysseus’ crew into animals. The god Hermes points Odysseus to a special herb which protects him from Circe’s magic as long as he is holding it, which allows him to overcome Circe and force her to restore his crew. (As a side note, this part of the epic may ultimately derive from Babylonian myths about the god Marduk, who held a sweet-smelling herb to protect himself from the poisonous blood of the dragon Tiamat and her monstrous children.)

In Euripides’ drama Medea, the sorceress Medea, abandoned by her husband Jason, sends a poisoned robe and crown to Jason’s new bride, Glauce. When Glauce dons the poisoned gifts, they cling to her body and burn her to death.

In Apuleius’ novel Metamorphoses (often also called The Golden Ass), the narrator Lucius learns that his friend’s wife dabbles in magic and can transform into a bird by rubbing a magic potion on her body. Lucius wants to try the same and steals some of her potion, but by mistake he gets the wrong one and is turned into a donkey. From the lady’s maid, Photis, he learns that the secret to reversing his transformation is to eat rose petals, but roses are not in season and the rest of the novel follows Lucius the donkey from one misadventure to the next as he tries to find roses to eat.

From these examples, we can notice some patterns about how Green and Roman authors thought about and used magic. On one hand, there is no sign of a magic system, as described by Jemisin. There are no universal rules and no explanation for how or why magic works. Every individual case is different. It depends upon secrets known only to its users, never shared with the audience, and its results often shock and terrify those who encounter them.

At the same time, even though we cannot call this magic systematic, there is a consistency to it. It tends to require special objects or substances, such as enchanted food, magic flowers, poisons, and potions. Those who are initiated into its powers can use them with confidence: Medea knows that her poison will be effective, just as Circe knows she is defeated when she sees Odysseus carrying the plant that makes him immune to her power. When the effects fail or go awry, it is because of ignorance or ineptitude on the part of the wielders, like Lucius using the wrong potion.

Despite this general consistency, the magic remains narratively powerful. It does not become dull and predictable or divert the stories away from the characters’ choices and their consequences. In fact, magic makes possible the human stories that are at the center of these narratives, from Medea’s calamitous vengeance to Lucius’ comic wanderings. How does it achieve these things? A few observations:

The stories include magic; they aren’t about magic. Magic is a MacGuffin. It sets things in motion or presents characters with choices to make, but once the magic has done its job, it disappears into the background and lets the characters get on with things.

Magic does not solve or circumvent the crucial problems. The human issues and choices at the center of these stories are ones that magic cannot touch. Odysseus is trying to get home. He deals with magic and monsters on his way, but it isn’t magic that gets him where he wants to go. Medea’s magic gives her the power to deeply hurt Jason in a way that a mundane woman in her position could not, but the story is about how she makes the choice to use that power. Lucius’ magical mishaps drive him to rethink his unsatisfying life and resolve to be a better person. Magic presents these characters with challenges and choices they wouldn’t otherwise face, but their stories are still about what happens in their hearts and minds.

We know only as much as we need to know. Apuleius does not list the ingredients in Lucius’ donkeyfying draught, nor is there an appendix at the end of the Odyssey to explain how Odysseus’ magical plant disrupted the mystical ether currents that Circe manipulated with her wand. Medea does not take time out from her revenge plot to give the audience a primer on fiery poisons. The magic simply works the way it is supposed to, and that’s all we need to know.

Thoughts for writers

There’s room in fantasy literature for many kinds of magic, from complex and internally consistent systems to strange and unpredictable effects. There’s even a place for fantasy with no magic at all. Whatever kind of fantasy you feel like writing, though, remember this: the story comes first. Whatever you do with your magic, don’t let it get in the way of your characters and the choices they have to make.

Image: Circe flees from Odysseus, with animal-headed crew, detail of photograph via Wikimedia (Metropolitan Museum of Art; c. 440 BCE; red-figure vase; by the Persephone Painter)

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

Some Interesting Early Photo Portraits

I’m not a fan of the Victorian age per se, but watching Murdoch Mysteries has piqued my interest somewhat. Here are some intriguing photographs from the later 1800s to early 1900s.

From a set of unscripted photos taken in the streets of 1890s Norway by Carl Størmer, a young woman with books:

Imgur Carl Stromer Young Woman w Books 1890s
Young woman with books, photograph by Carl Størmer via Imgur (Oslo, Norway, 1890s)

All of the subjects in this set are remarkably relaxed. Love the contrast to the stiff studio portraits of the era!

(I’ve had trouble finding a more detailed source, unfortunately. Possibly Størmer’s photos are gleaned from the 2008 book 80 millioner bilder: Norsk kulturhistorisk fotografi 1855-2005 [’80 Million Pictures: Norwegian Culture-Historical Photography 1855-2005′], edited by Jonas Ekeberg and Harald Østgaard Lund.)

Finnish ladies and gentlemen on a ski trip in the 1890s:

Helsinki City Museum N252030 Hiihtoretkelaiset
Hiihtoretkeläiset ryhmäkuvassa (‘ski trip participants in a portrait’), photograph via Helsinki City Museum (Helsinki, Finland, 1890s, image number N252030, CC BY 4.0)

Judging by their attire, they are indeed ladies and gentlemen. What struck me is that, apparently, it wasn’t at all odd for the upper class to go skiing in their regular daywear.

Speaking of sports and Victorians, from 1891, here is high school dressage equestrian Selika Lazevski by Félix Nadar:

Black Female Equestrians Felix Nadar Selika Lazevski
Selika Lazevski, photograph by Félix Nadar courtesy of Ministère de la Culture, France, via Black Female Equestrians (Paris, France, 1891)

What an arresting portait!

A Victorian couple from Leeds trying not to laugh while getting their portraits done in the 1890s:

Twitter Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies Couple Trying Not to Laugh
Victorian couple trying not to laugh while getting their portraits done, photograph via Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies on Twitter (Leeds, England, 1890s)

It’s like a photo version of a blooper reel! 🙂

Two Victorian ladies making a life-sized snow lady, also from Leeds in the 1890s:

Twitter Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies Making Snow Lady
Two Victorian ladies making a snow lady, photograph via Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies on Twitter (Leeds, England, c. 1890s)

With the correct corseted posture, dress ruffles, and hairdo. Wow, ladies, what a great job!

Nellie Franklin photographed holding a parasol in Tallahassee, Florida, between 1885 and 1910:

Florida Memory Nellie Franklin with Parasol HA00227
Nellie Franklin with parasol, photograph by Alvan S. Harper via Florida Memory (State Library & Archives of Florida) (Tallahassee, Florida, between 1885 and 1910, image number HA00227, public domain)

This photo clearly references painted portraits as ancestors of photographic ones.

A young man in a wheelchair:

Yale Robert Bogdan Disability Collection Wheelchair
Young man in a wheelchair, photograph via the Robert Bogdan Disability Collection at Yale University’s Medical Historical Library

Victorians certainly loved their wheels! I wonder exactly how one would’ve operated this chair—there’s clearly a handle bar connected to the front wheel, but if grabbing it with both hands, where does the propelling force come from?

A Sami woman from Finland photographed at Ellis Island in the U.S., so presumably immigrating, around 1905-1914:

NYPL Digital Augustus Sherman Sami Woman 418041
Laplander / Sami woman from Finland, photograph by Augustus F. Sherman via New York Public Library digital collections (Ellis Island, New York, NY, c. 1905-1914, image ID 418041, public domain)

I wish the portrait hadn’t cut off at the waist; I would’ve liked to see the rest of the details of her dress (the belt looks especially interesting). I know that nowadays Sami outfits (gákti) are unique. Each is made for its wearer to reflect the personal / family history and area (and possibly the people as a whole?). I don’t know, however, how far back in time that practice goes.

Anyway. These old photos give fascinating glimpses of western life only about 100 years ago. So similar and yet so, so different.

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

 

 

Race in Antiquity: Skin Color in Art

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

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

Part 4: Skin Color in Art

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

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

Imagining a Minoan Home

Imagining the mundane details of daily life in past cultures can be difficult. Everyday things like houses, clothing, and daily routines tend not to be well-represented in textual or archaeological sources because they were so ordinary that no one thought to write about them or take care to preserve them. Yet these are exactly the sorts of everyday details that can be most useful when looking to the past for inspiration for worldbuilding. To try to understand what daily life looked like in the past, we often rely on chance finds and careful reading of sources that weren’t intended as guides to the mundane.

For example, we have only a limited idea of what an ancient Minoan house may have looked like. The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete and some of the southern islands of the Aegean Sea in the first half of the second millennium BCE, at its height between roughly 2100 and 1400 BCE. Minoan palaces have been thoroughly excavated at sites such as Knossos and Phaistos, but what about the homes of ordinary people?

We have a few valuable sources of evidence. One is this pottery house model found at Archanes, on Crete. This model shows many features that must have been part of everyday Minoan architecture: solid lower-story walls and a breezy columned upper story, windows barred with slats, a projecting balcony, and perhaps a small walled garden. (The entry door is on the other side of the model; the upper story is modern reconstruction.)

House model, photograph by Zde via Wikimedia (Archanes, currently Archaeological Museum, Heraklion; c. 1700 BCE; pottery)

To get a sense of how houses like this fit together to make up a village, we can look to the site of Akrotiri, a Minoan settlement on the island of Thera (now called Santorini) that was buried in a volcanic eruption sometime around the late 1600s BCE. Despite the destructive effects of the eruption, excavation at the site has found a tightly-built settlement of multi-story houses connected by streets and drainage channels.

Photograph of Akrotiri excavation by F. Eveleens via Wikimedia

 

More evidence comes from a fresco that was preserved on the wall of a house at Akrotiri, depicting a panoramic view of the island. This segment shows the town. While the image is a little hard to interpret, we can clearly see a densely-built settlement with houses made of regularly cut stone sitting on many levels. These houses display many of the same features as the Archanes house: low doorways, porticoed porches, windows covered by slats, and people looking out from balconies or rooftops.

Akrotiri fresco, photograph by Dirk Herdemerten via Wikimedia (Akrotiri; c. 1700 BCE; fresco)

Akrotiri fresco, photograph by Dirk Herdemerten via Wikimedia (Akrotiri; c. 1700 BCE; fresco)

When we put all these different sources together, we can begin to imagine everyday life in a Minoan house: the shady lower floor and the breezy upper floor, the slivers of sunlight coming in through the window grilles, the gurgle of water running by in the drain channel right outside, and the endless chatter of the neighbors on their overhanging balcony. For creating any sort of pre-modern culture in a warm, dry setting like the Mediterranean, it’s not a bad start.

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: Skin Color

“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 3: Skin Color

Race, as we use the concept today, applies arbitrary divisions on the wide diversity of human physiology. The fact that these divisions are arbitrary does not make them irrelevant or innocuous. As with many other ways of dividing up humanity, race has often been used to justify inequalities. The ancient Mediterranean world was not free of inequality or arbitrary divisions between people, but that does not mean that those divisions worked the same way as the modern idea of race.

Skin color is a useful place to start. Although many different aspects of human physiology have been used to mark out racial divisions—face shape, hair texture, skeletal proportions—none is more thoroughly interwoven into racial ideology as skin color. The terms black and white are conventional ways of identifying race. Others, such as red, yellow, and brown, though not as widely used as they once were, still appear today, sometimes with more complex meanings than they once had. Even the currently preferred circumlocution people of color still supposes that skin color is a prime marker of identity. In both life and art, we tend to look at skin color as the signal marker of racial identity, and to identify both ourselves and others in those terms.

What did skin color mean to the people of ancient Greece and Rome? It was not irrelevant. Greek and Roman authors and artists were aware that different people had different skin tones and they sometimes connected these distinctions with identity in significant ways, but that is not the same as recognizing race. We cannot read ancient literature or look at ancient art and evaluate it the same way we would treat at a modern movie or news story.

Consider this cheeky couplet from the Roman poet Catullus, addressed to Julius Caesar:

I don’t try too hard to please you, Caesar.

I don’t even know whether you are a black person or a white person.

– Catullus, Songs 93

(All translations my own)

To a modern Western audience, this sounds at once like a reference to race. To call someone a “black person” or a “white person” today is transparently and unambiguously a racial identification. Yet Catullus meant nothing of the kind. He certainly was not ignorant of the ancestry and identity of one of the most powerful people in the Roman world in his day. In Classical Latin, “I don’t know whether it’s black or white” is a common saying meaning “I don’t care in the slightest.” Catullus wasn’t talking about Caesar’s skin color at all.

There are examples in classical literature when people’s skin color is explicitly described, but even those cases do not follow the same patterns as modern racial categories. For example, in the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus is disguised by the goddess Athena when he first arrives home to Ithaca. When he first meets his son Telemachus, however, the disguise is briefly lifted, and part of what marks the transformation is a change in skin color:

Athena pointed with her golden wand.

First she wrapped him well in a cloak

and spread a tunic around his breast, filled out to its prime.

He became black-skinned again, his jaws stretched out,

and a dark blue beard covered his chin.

– Homer, Odyssey 16.172-6

The word used to describe Odysseus’ color, melanchroiēs, can be literally translated as ‘black-skinned,’ but really means ‘deeply suntanned.’ The darkness of Odysseus’ skin is important because it marks his age and experience. It was not part of an ethnic identity he was born with but something he acquired through experience.

Ancient authors similarly associated pale skin with youth and naivete. The comic playwright Aristophanes used whiteness as a marker of foolish inexperience to describe a character who had what his Athenian audience would have regarded as a ludicrously bad idea:

After this, some handsome young fellow,
as white as Nikias, jumped up,
put up his hand to speak,
and said we should hand the city over to the women.

– Aristophanes, The Assemblywomen 427-30

Nikias was a prominent politician of the age who championed the cause of peace between Athens and Sparta. Just like Odysseus’ “black skin” was a marker of his long career as a warrior, Nikias’ “whiteness” distinguished him as a military dilettante. In neither case was the color of their skin meant to convey a racial identity.

It seems that even at a basic level, ancient Greeks and Romans described colors differently than we do today. Latin has two words for both white and black. Albus means pale, lusterless white, while candidus means bright, gleaming white. Ater is flat, matte black while niger is glossy black. In Greek literature, many objects are described with colors we would not associate with them today: wine is black; grass is white; honey is green; iron is blue. (Note also Odysseus’ “dark blue” beard.) When ancient authors describe people in terms of color, we must be particularly cautious in how we interpret them.

In some cases, ancient authors did use skin color as a way of describing ethnic identity, but it was not the only physical feature, or even the most common one, that they paid attention to. Hair color, eye color, facial features, and physical proportions were equally relevant as ethnic traits, as shown in a couple of examples from the Greek philosopher Xenophanes and the Roman historian Tacitus:

Ethiopians say the gods are dark and snub-nosed; the Thracians give them red hair and blue eyes.

– Xenophanes, fragment 16

The physical variety [of the Britons] is suggestive. The golden-red hair and burly limbs of the Caledonians shows them to be of Germanic origin. The colorful faces and curly hair of the Silures, plus their position opposite Spain, suggests their ancestors were Spaniards who came across the ocean.

– Tacitus, Agricola 11

These observations should both caution and stimulate us.

On one hand, we cannot simply read ancient sources—or their modern translations—the same way we would read modern texts. Ancient Greek and Roman authors did not think in the same racial terms we use today, and we risk misunderstanding them if we simply apply modern concepts to ancient texts. When we read that the Greek historian Herodotus described the people of Egypt as “black” (Histories 2.22), the question we have to ask is not “What does ‘black’ mean?” but “What did ‘black’ mean to Herodotus?” Like Homer describing Odysseus, he probably meant that they were deeply tanned. He could not have meant that they belonged to the racial category of people we today classify as black because Greeks of his day did not use the word black with that meaning. Quite simply, Herodotus tells us nothing of much use in assigning modern racial categories to the ancient Egyptians.

On the other hand, the fact that ancient authors did not generally use skin color as a way of distinguishing racial groups in the same way we do does not mean that the ancient Mediterranean was ethnically homogeneous. Greek and Roman authors described the world in the terms that mattered to them. They had no idea that we would be coming along a couple of millennia later asking different questions with different ways of describing ourselves. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: the fact that ancient authors tended not to describe people’s ethnicities in terms of skin color does not mean that people of many different ethnic origins and skin tones did not live among them.

Race is a clumsy and historically fraught way of dividing up the rich complexity of human diversity. Just because ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t divide people up in the same way we do doesn’t mean that the world they lived in was any less complex than our own. If we want to find evidence for that diversity, we have to be prepared to look for it in ways that don’t depend on modern conventions.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

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

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.

Eating

Whether it’s lembas bread and stewed rabbit or a nice fresh pan-galactic gargle blaster, the things that characters eat and drink can be a useful way of establishing the feel of an unfamiliar world. But how your characters eat and how their food is prepared and served can contribute just as much to your worldbuilding as what they eat. Here are a few things to think about when creating food systems for fantasy worlds.

Wet carbs or dry carbs?

Traditional cuisines in most of the world are based on carbohydrates, but those carbs can come in many different forms. If they’re dry—flatbread, raised breads, tortillas, biscuits, etc.—then people are likely to eat them by hand and may well use them to pick up and hold other dishes like stews and sauces. If they’re wet—porridge, cooked rice, pasta, etc.—people are more likely to use implements like spoons and chopsticks to hold them.

Eating by hand or eating with implements?

While this can be to some extent determined by the nature of the food, many foods can be eaten either by hand or with implements. Implement-eating cultures tend to develop specialized implements for particular foods or kinds of eating; whether or not people have access to or know how to use the correct implements for the right food can be a marker of social status. On the other hand, hand-eating cultures can have just as complicated rules about how to eat. Forget the renfaire stereotypes about grabbing a turkey leg and tearing into it; societies that eat by hand tend to have strict rules governing when and how often you wash your hands, which hand you use to eat with, even which fingers and which individual finger joints should be used for which foods.

Large pieces or small pieces?

Some cuisines, such as most traditional European cookery, tend to cook meats and vegetables in large pieces which individual diners cut up for themselves. Others, such as traditional cuisines across much of south and east Asia, tend to cut meats and vegetable into smaller pieces in the kitchen which are served up to be consumed as they are.

Communal dishes or individual servings?

Sometimes food is served in communal dishes from which everyone takes what they like; other times, everyone gets their own individual serving. Both ways of serving are wrapped up with social etiquette. With communal dishes, there are usually rules about how people serve themselves, in what order, and how much at a time. With individual dishes, there may be rules about whether everyone gets the same things or the same amount.

In any culture, you are also likely to find variations on these possibilities. People of different social classes or ethnic backgrounds within the same society may well follow different eating customs. The same people may also eat differently under different circumstances: a quiet family dinner at home probably has different social rules than a public banquet for a festival day. Drawing out these complexities is also a part of worldbuilding.

Food is important. People often get emotionally invested not just in what they eat but in how they eat it. Many of the customs and norms that societies develop for how food is eaten and served have their roots in protecting hygiene and managing social hierarchies, two very important issues for personal well-being. Even today, when modern food safety practices and the weakening of traditional social hierarchies has made these issues less urgent, people can still have deep emotional reactions to perceived transgressions as trivial as folding a slice of pizza or eating a hamburger with fork and knife.

Imagine how important customs of cooking, serving, and eating food could be in a world in which your character’s standing in society may depend on knowing which finger to use to dip into the shared sauce bowl.

Image: Preparing butter, image from Shiwunbencao (ink on paper, Ming period)

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.