History for Writers Compendium: 2019

History for Writers explores world history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s where we’ve been in 2019:

Ethnicity and identity

Food

Warfare

Social structures

Spooky things

Fun with history

Join us in 2020 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

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.

Making a Mark

Some things never change. For instance, there will always be people who feel the need to leave their mark wherever they go. The graffiti in this image comes from the temple of Isis, originally located on the island of Philae in the Nile River in southern Egypt (since moved to the nearby island of Agilkia because of the damming of the Nile). The temple to Isis and other buildings were constructed at Philae by pharaohs in Egypt’s Late Period, between the eighth and fourth centuries BCE, and the Macedonian Ptolemaic kings who ruled Egypt between 323 and 30 BCE continued to build there. During this period, Philae marked the southern boundary of Egypt. Garrisons of soldiers were stationed there, and it was also a site of pilgrimage not just for Egyptians but for people from the larger Mediterranean world as well as from farther up the Nile in Africa. Under Roman rule, Philae continued to be an important religious site, and soldiers were stationed at a frontier post nearby.

Many people came to Philae for many reasons, and the temple is filled with inscriptions left by visitors. This one, for example, was carved in honor of the Nubian sun god Mandulis. A companion inscription dates the graffiti to 394 CE, which makes this the last known hieroglyphic inscription carved in ancient Egypt.

Inscription of Esmet-Akhom, photograph by A. Parrot via Wikimedia (Philae; 394 CE; inscription in stone; by Nesmeterakhem)

Later tourists got in on the action, too, like Bauerhorst and Brehm, two European visitors who left their marks in 1851.

Insciptions by Bauerhorst and Brehm, photograph by Michael Brehm2 via Wikimedia (Philae; 1851 CE; inscription in stone)

This one may look like it comes from the Roman period, but B. Mure is not a Roman name. It may have been left by Benoit Mure, a French homeopath who traveled in Egypt in the mid-1800s promoting homeopathy.

Inscription of B. Mure with addition, photograph by Ad Meskens via Wikimedia (Philae; c. 1850 CE; inscription in stone)

Another thing you can always count on is smartasses. After Mure left his mark at Philae, whenever that was, someone else came along and added a Latin inscription stultus est, “is an idiot” below his name.

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

The Sanity of Crowds

The Roman satirist Juvenal complained that all the common people of Rome cared about was “bread and circuses,” and as long as they were fed and entertained they didn’t care about politics. Some modern scholars have taken Juvenal at his word (always a risky thing to do with a satirist) and seen the people of Rome as an easily placated rabble. There is another way of thinking about bread and circuses (which, in Rome, meant chariot races), though: they were not a sop to keep the people complacent but rather what the people expected and demanded of their government.

The Roman emperors originally rose to power by presenting themselves as champions of the poor and downtrodden of the city of Rome. In time, as imperial rule became institutionalized, emperors tended to focus more of their energy on the army, which became a vital political constituency, but ignoring the needs of the ordinary people of Rome was a risky move for any emperor. Ensuring that the Roman poor didn’t go hungry, whether by distributing free grain or guaranteeing a low price, was a priority for most emperors. Providing public entertainments, such as chariot races, gladiatorial shows, or theatrical performances, was also generally expected.

These entertainments were not just for the amusement of the people. They also furnished one of the rare opportunities for the people to interact with the emperor, who was generally expected not just to finance the shows but to attend them if he was in the city. Far from keeping the people of Rome quiet and happy, these spectacles could give the poor a chance to voice grievances and make demands of the emperor.

Aristocratic Roman authors tended to describe the people in the stands at such events as unruly, even unthinking. Bouts of heckling or booing could arise seemingly spontaneously. A shouted request could start in one part of the audience and quickly become a chant echoing through the whole stadium. The Roman elite saw these outbursts as a sign that the common people were fickle and emotional, easily swayed by simple chants and slogans. Some modern historians have taken on these same attitudes and described the crowds in the arena or racetrack as irrational dupes caught up in the frenzy of the moment.

The aristocratic view does not tell the whole story, though. However much the emperors portrayed themselves as champions of the ordinary people, poor Romans had very little opportunity to voice their feelings, wishes, or concerns. In the days of the republic, the annual election of magistrates had forced the political elite to go out, interact with the citizen body, and listen to voters’ concerns. The structure of the Roman political system was skewed heavily in favor of the rich, but the opinions of the poor could not be ignored. One anecdote says that a Roman candidate was once making the rounds shaking hands with potential supporters. When he met a poor laborer whose hands were rough from work, he quipped: “You’re not in the habit of walking on your hands, are you?” This joke smacked of elite condescension and played badly among the working folk of Rome. That candidate lost his race.

Unelected emperors had no such encounters with the people. They also had the military might to arbitrarily punish or abuse anyone they saw as causing trouble. The emperors did not go out on the street shaking hands with ordinary citizens, and even if they had, few among the poor and powerless would have been brave enough to make complaints or demands in person. In the arena, racetrack or theatre, though, the balance of power was changed. When a whole crowd booed an emperor or chanted out some grievance, it was hard for an emperor to ignore or for his guards to single out someone to punish. It is likely that the mass chanting of demands and slogans, which seemed spontaneous and irrational to the Roman elite, was actually to some extent planned and coordinated.

Given the risk of hostile crowds, why would an emperor continue to show up at such public events? Because the consequences of not showing up could be worse. The people of Rome were no strangers to mass mobilization, even violence. Once again, the fact that our written sources come almost exclusively from an elite point of view clouds the picture. Aristocratic authors describe the people of the city as prone to rioting and street violence; we are left to wonder how many of those “riots” were actually organized protests (or began as such before taking a turn for the worse). Wise emperors knew that it was better to listen to the people booing or chanting in the stands than to face them in the streets.

Thoughts for writers

When writing about the behavior of people in large groups, it can be hard to remember that they are still people. The notion of the “madness of crowds,” that people in large groups can lose their sense of reason and behave as one irrational mob, has often been used by the powerful few to dismiss and ignore the will of the powerless many. It’s as important to be careful with this idea in our imagined worlds as in the real one. Crowds may sometimes create a peer pressure effect and lead individuals to say or do thing they wouldn’t have otherwise, but the anonymity and mass of a crowd can also make it safe for individuals to say and do what they really mean. On staged occasions like sporting events, people can even use the crowd to their advantage to amplify the message they want to get across. The feelings expressed by crowds are not to be taken lightly or written as if they represent irrational whims of the moment.

Image: “Geta and Caracalla” via Wikimedia (1907; oil on canvas; by Lawrence Alma-Tadema)

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

Shadows of Athens

While the subgenre of mysteries set in ancient Rome already has a number of talented practitioners, ancient Greece is a largely unexplored territory, which makes J. M. Alvey’s Shadows of Athens a special treat. In this book we follow an Athenian playwright, Philocles, whose preparations for presenting a new comedy are interrupted when a dead body turns up on his doorstep. From there the action unfolds both in the theatre—for the show must go on—and in the streets of Athens as Philocles, aided by his family and patron, investigates a shadowy conspiracy that somehow seems bent on both starting a war in the Aegean and cornering the market for leather.

Shadows of Athens is a skillfully handled mystery whose various threads are deftly woven together. The stories of Philocles’ play, his family’s leather business, and the geopolitics of the Delian League all come together in a satisfying conclusion. Along the way, we get some wonderful treats including a fully-staged Greek comedy, a sloshy symposium, and Philocles’ views of both the bustle of the Athenian street and everyday family life. Alvey’s ancient Athens is alive, full of both joy and trouble, and Philocles is a companionable guide to its twisting streets, even as he pieces together the conspiracy that left a dead body in front of his house.

For myself, as a historian, Alvey’s work is a particular treat to read. The book captures the richness and complexity of Athenian life in a specific moment—a generation after the Greco-Persian Wars, as the empires of Athens and Sparta were beginning to tilt toward war—with a liveliness that no textbook or scholarly history can match but with exacting attention to historical detail. It was delightful to be able to pick out details and know which primary sources Alvey was reading (and to recognize a cameo appearance by my dear old friend Herodotus).

I thoroughly enjoyed Shadows of Athens and eagerly recommend it to anyone with a taste for historical mystery looking for something new to pick up.

Image by Erik Jensen

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Testing Witches with Water

There is an old story about how medieval people used to test whether or not someone was a witch, and it goes like this: Throw them in a pond. If they sink into the water and drown, that means they weren’t a witch. If they float, that means they are a witch, so you haul them out and burn them to death. Either way, just getting accused of witchcraft was a death sentence, but medieval people were too dumb to realize it.

This story is wrong. It was popularized by Victorian writers who spread many false stories depicting people of the European middle ages as ignorant, illogical, and stupid. At best, we might attribute this story to the intellectual laziness of Victorians who didn’t bother to distinguish between the use of ducking victims in water as punishment or torture and the use of immersion in water to test those accused of witchcraft or other crimes. At worst, we can see it as part of a concerted effort by Protestant English and American writers to paint contemporary Catholics as the benighted heirs to an age of barbarity and unreason. The truth about testing witches in water is more complicated, though in some ways even worse.

Here’s how the water test actually worked. In some places, a person accused of witchcraft, heresy, or a variety of other offenses was lowered into a small body of water like a pond or a still river, generally with a rope tied around their waist or something similar for lifting them out again. They were allowed to float for a moment and a jury selected from the surrounding community (or sometimes a priest) observed whether their body seemed to float on the surface or sink into the water. It was believed in some places and times that water would reject an unholy person, so their body would float high, while a blameless person would sink into the water. Once the jury had had a chance to observe the result, the accused was pulled out again and the jury gave its judgment.

No one was supposed to drown, neither the innocent nor the guilty. They were not left in the water for long, and whatever device was used to lower them in could quickly pull them up again. No doubt there were sometimes mishaps, as there can be whenever people are around the water, but being cleared of suspicion did not require drowning.

Trial by ordeal, which included not only the water test but other tests including carrying heavy stones or hot metal, reaching into a boiling cauldron, and similar challenges to physical endurance, was common in the legal traditions of some peoples in early medieval Europe. Such tests were an attempt to create objective tests for complicated questions about an accused person’s character, morals, and other hard-to-quantify qualities.

Trials by ordeal largely disappeared from European custom by the thirteenth century, but there was a revival during the witch-hunting hysteria of the early modern period when variations of the trial by water were used along with other methods of torture to extract false confessions from victims. In those cases the accusation alone was, for most people, a death sentence, since the point of the various “tests” was to compel a confession, not to arrive at a judgment.

The important element in a trial by ordeal is the community jury. Someone had to judge whether the accused was floating or not, which is not as obvious as it may sound. Human bodies are naturally buoyant, but not so much as to float on top of the water like a pool noodle. In the water, everyone kind of floats, and everyone kind of sinks. Distinguishing between how much floating is enough and how much is too much is no simple task. Those who were called for the jury were typically members of the accused’s village, extended family, or social network. They did not go into the test with an unbiased opinion but took with them all their knowledge, history, and feelings about the accused.

The floating ordeal gave the jury an objective external event to lodge those existing prejudices in. Those who went in with a poor opinion of the accused were likely to think that they floated too much, while those who went in well-disposed to the accused were likely to think they had adequately sunk into the water. Attaching those preexisting prejudices to an external event like the water test allowed the members of the jury to treat those prejudices as if they were objective facts and condemn or exonerate the accused with a clear conscience, as they own leanings dictated.

It is this fact about trials by ordeal that makes them, in some ways, even more horrible than the foolish heads-you-drown/tails-you-burn legend. If you were condemned by the water test it didn’t mean you just randomly floated too much. It meant that your own neighbors hated you so much they wanted to see you dead, they just didn’t feel comfortable saying so until the trial gave them permission to.

Image: Illustration of a trail by water via Wikimedia (late 12th c.; manuscript illustration)

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

The Past is Haunted

I grew up in a two-hundred-year-old New England farmhouse. Like many houses of that age, it was full of peculiarities left over from the many generations who had lived there before us. There was a set of stairs we never used. My bedroom had a blocked-up door in one wall. If you measured out the rooms, you would find a big blank space between the dining room and the living room where the walls hid an old brick oven. In the decades they were living in that house, my parents were always in the midst of some renovation project, during which they often came across the remnants of previous renovations, and not always very well done ones at that (one of the old families in town had a reputation for having some odd notions about how houses should be built). That house was never quiet, even when the people in it were; the background noise of my childhood was a slow symphony of creaks, groans, gurgles, and yawns, all of them as familiar and comforting as my favorite songs. I never imagined that my house was haunted, but I can understand how someone who hadn’t grown up there might think so.

Our sense of hauntedness, the feeling that some presence we can barely perceive occupies a space, is often attached to places like my old house. Not just places that are old, but places where there is evidence of a previous life we no longer fully grasp. The traditional sites of ghost stories and Gothic novels are such places: abandoned houses, ruined castles, derelict towns. Stories about haunted places manifest our unease at finding ourselves in places that once belonged to other people but whose lives and experiences we cannot recover.

There is nothing new about this feeling that the past is haunted. Many cultures in history have shared the sense that there is something supernatural or unsettling about places that show the trace of lost lives. In classical Greece, temples and shrines to the gods were built on hilltops that had ruins of Mycenaean palaces from hundreds of years earlier, while ancient Greek tourists in Egypt were regaled by their guides with ghostly legends about pyramids and tombs that were thousands of years old. In early medieval Britain, folklore connected supernatural forces with the prehistoric tombs, mounds, and megaliths visible in the landscape. In Edo-period Japan, the popular parlor game Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, in which players took turns telling ghost stories and extinguishing lanterns, encouraged the collection of scary folktales grounded in old rural traditions.

Some places have even been built to artificially evoke the same sense. The classic haunted house in US culture is the Victorian mansion. When houses of this type were built in the 1800s, they were designed in accord with the Romantic style of the times to include asymmetrical layouts, odd corners, superfluous towers and gables, intentionally irregular decorations, and other such purpose-built neo-Gothic oddities meant to evoke the sense of a lost past the house never had. As these houses have themselves become old and sometimes decrepit, it is no wonder that they have attracted more than their share of ghostly tales.

Like any other supposedly supernatural phenomenon, haunted places may lose some of their glamour when we find out the mundane explanations for them. Those eerie sounds are not the wails of ghosts but the whistling of the wind through lose clapboards and decayed horsehair insulation. The empty space between rooms is not a hidden chamber of untold horrors but a brick hearth covered over decades ago when modern heating made it superfluous. The staircase that leads nowhere is not a portal to unknown dimensions but the trace of household servants whose bedrooms have since been turned into storage space. What we sacrifice in eeriness, though, we gain in understanding as history and archaeology help make ways of life of those who went before us more visible and comprehensible to us today.

Image: Historic James Alldis House, photograph by Droncam via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 (Torrington, Connecticut, built 1895)

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

Just a Happy Little Sea Monster

Wherever you want it to be, there it will be.

Sea monster, photograph by Carole Raddato via Wikimedia (Casa del Drago, Caulonia, Italy; 3rd c. BCE, mosaic)

 

This particular sea monster is in a mosaic from a house in the ancient Greek city of Caulonia in southern Italy from the third century BCE. Ancient depictions of sea monsters like this one often have long, snaky bodies, spiky fins, broad tails, and wings. These various pieces may have been cobbled together in the imagination from scattered sightings of whales, dolphins, sharks, squid, and other large sea creatures.

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

Alexander and the Sea Monsters

Sea monsters prevented Alexander from building Alexandria. He took a wooden container in which a glass box was inserted, and dived in it to the bottom of the sea. There he drew pictures of the devilish monsters he saw. He then had metal effigies of these animals made and set them up opposite the place where building was going on. When the monsters came out and saw the effigies, they fled. Alexander was thus able to complete the building of Alexandria.

– Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-‘Ibar

Translated by Franz Rosenthal

This wild tale about the foundation of Alexandria is cited by the 14th-century North African historian Ibn Khaldun as an example of the ludicrous fictions that some earlier historians had filled their histories with but that had no place in the kind of scientific, rational history he set out to write.

The story as Ibn Khaldun relates it seem to go back to a legend in the Alexander Romance, a highly fictionalized account of Alexander the Great’s campaigns, about a large snake that frightened the workers who were building the city of Alexandria on the coast of Egypt until Alexander had the snake caught and killed. Over centuries of retelling, the hunt for one big snake turned into a struggle against terrible sea monsters.

The story of Alexander and the sea monsters is fiction, not history, as Ibn Khaldun rightly points out, but what a story it is! Wood and glass submarines! Ancient kaiju! Tactical deployment of art! How has no one made a movie out of this already?

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

Quotes: Where Despotism Can Be Taken Pure

Abraham Lincoln, later the President of the U.S., is reported to have reacted to the white supremacist movement of 1840s thus:

“As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, exept Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” [original emphasis]

– Abraham Lincoln

Whoa, that’s pretty pointed. Granted, it’s decades since my U.S. history classes—not that we were taught that much to begin with, the focus was always on our fellow Nordics, Europe, and Russia—so it’s no wonder I can’t remember coming across this view of Lincoln’s.

Ghaemi, Nassir. A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. New York: Penguin, 2011, p. 71-72.

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

Petosiris: Being Roman-Egyptian

We often think of hyphenated identities as a particularly modern thing: Italian-American, African-Caribbean, etc. Not far from where I grew up you could go to a Franco-American heritage festival in the summer and see people walking around in t-shirts that said “Made in America with Irish Parts.” The idea that our identities can contain several distinct strands woven together is a familiar one to us, but not one we often apply to the past.

But look at this wall painting from the tomb of Petosiris, a local official in the Kharga Oasis in the western desert of Egypt. Petosiris lived during the second century CE, a time when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. In his tomb, Petosiris took care to present himself as both Egyptian and Roman.

Wall painting from the tomb of Petosiris, photograph by Roland Unger via Wikimedia (Kharga Oasis; 2nd c. CE; fresco)

The large figure standing on the left is Petosiris himself (the damage to his face may have been done by Christians or Muslims in later centuries who mistakenly thought the image represented a pagan god). Petosiris’ name is Egyptian, but his image is painted in a typically Roman style, he wears a Roman tunic and toga, and he carries a scroll, a symbol of role as a local official for the Roman state. At the same time, he is twice the size of the other two figures in the scene, a characteristic of Egyptian art in which size was often used to indicate social status.

The other two figures are presenting Petosiris with offerings of bread and wine. The one on the left is painted in a Roman style, partially turned toward the viewer and painted with varying shading to suggest a three-dimensional image. He carries a tray of bread and pours wine from a jug into the ground. The figure on the right is painted in classic Egyptian style, clearly outlined and standing in a stylized two-dimensional posture. He offers a jug of wine and several loaves of bread on a tray. The rest of the space is filled up with a Roman-style grapevine and text in Egyptian hieroglyphics.

In this image, Petosiris proclaims an identity that is both Egyptian and Roman. We cannot be sure how he understood the combination of those identities. Did he think of himself as an Egyptian who could dress up as Roman when the occasion called for it? Or as a Roman who showed respect to the customs of his Egyptian ancestors? Or as a Roman-Egyptian, fully embracing both parts of his identity? While we cannot say for sure, it is clear that he wanted to be memorialized in his tomb as someone who could be, in some senses, both Egyptian and Roman. For Petosiris, there was a value in asserting both these parts of his identity.

Where there was one such person, there must have been many more who have not left us evidence of their identities. Clearly the local market in the oasis supported artists who could paint in either Roman or Egyptian style, as their clients requested. Kharga was a small, sleepy backwater far from the busy market towns and great harbor cities of the Mediterranean. If even in Kharga there was a demand to be able to assert a complex identity, we can only imagine how complicated the lives of people in Alexandria, Carthage, or Rome must have been.

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