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.

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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.

Lost Heirs and Clever Peasants

(Note: minor spoiler ahead for Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Our story-telling traditions often make a big deal out of family and descent. Part of the classic Campbellian Hero’s Journey is the son’s need to measure himself against his father. A Real Princess™ can tell when there’s a pea under a dozen mattresses, or needs a Real Prince™ to wake her up (apparently princesses do a lot of napping). Modern stories often reinforce the importance of true family lines in similar ways, whether they’re directly invoking the mythic tradition (like Star Wars) or just because family is still an important part of the drama of our lives ( like Harry Potter).

The idea that family lines determine our characters’ stories, abilities, and ambitions is such a big part of our narrative legacy that it can seem like a primordial principle of storytelling, but in fact these kinds of stories arise from specific cultural contexts. These contexts have to do with the assertion of class.

Small-scale societies historically tended to be egalitarian. When a culture contained only a few hundred people, everyone knew one another personally, resources were freely shared, and there was no real differentiation between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. As societies got larger, up into the range a few thousand people or more, social distinctions tended to emerge because people were no longer held together primarily by personal and family relationships. In societies of this scale, some families acquired more resources and more influence than others. Over time, these differences hardened into class distinctions, with prosperous families asserting their own superiority over the less fortunate. An aristocratic class with a sense of its own importance took shape.

A rising aristocracy, however, often struggled against the older traditions of egalitarianism and mutual support. To maintain their position, aristocrats had to create and disseminate a new ideology which justified their status. In many societies all over the world, this ideology was framed by stories about heroic ancestors and special powers passed down through family lines. If you weren’t part of the family line, you didn’t inherit the special powers, and therefore you didn’t deserve to be rich or powerful like them.

Many of the ancient stories that have been passed down and become part of our common narrative tradition were stories originally told by and for aristocrats and would-be aristocrats clawing their way into positions of privilege. When ancient Greek bards recited the tales of Achilles, Odysseus, Helen, and Penelope, they weren’t just telling stories to entertain the masses. Bards and singers depended for their livelihoods on the support of aristocratic patrons, and the stories they told were propaganda for the people who paid the bills. Greek aristocrats claimed to be actual descendants of the heroes of the Trojan War and other myths. The Homeric epics are quite clear that no one from outside the family line deserves to get anywhere near the heroes’ wealth and power.

On the other hand, our story-telling traditions also include narratives that are democratic (or at least anti-aristocratic). Some of these take the form of “clever peasant” tales in which someone from an unimportant background gets the better of the rich and powerful through luck, audacity, and wits. These tales often set up the aristocrats as buffoons who are humiliated in the end and forced to acknowledge the individual merits of people with no family claim to riches or power. Stories of this type are common in folk traditions, including English Jack tales and their analogues in other cultures.

Another type of story combines elements of both, often revolving around a lost heir or disguised royal. In these stories, the hero at first appears to be an ordinary person whose individual initiative and skill earn them acclaim and awards, but they turn out in the end to be the misplaced scion of an important family. Sometimes these lost heirs know their own identity and are in hiding; other times they are themselves unaware until their true identity is revealed. King Arthur, in some versions of the Arthurian mythos, fits this pattern: having been raised in obscurity, he comes into his true heritage when he proves his special powers by pulling the sword from the stone. Robin Hood—again, in some versions—represents a different take on the same pattern: by rights a nobleman, he hides his true identity and fights for the common people. This tradition represents a degree of compromise between the aristocratic and anti-aristocratic narratives. The hero acquires something of the common touch and has to get by on individual merits, but the aristocratic claims to a unique status remain unchallenged.

When modern stories draw on these older traditions, they don’t always think about the implications of them. Star Wars, for example, has always awkwardly balanced the democratic ideals of the Republic, Rebellion, and Resistance with the mythic focus on the Skywalker bloodline. This is why I am so happy that The Last Jedi decided that Rey is not part of the Skywalker family or descended from Obi-Wan Kenobi or any other established Jedi but just the cast-off child of drunken scavengers from nowhere. (Assuming, of course, that Kylo Ren is telling the truth or even knows it to begin with, which is not a trivial assumption, but I’m going with it until we hear otherwise from a canonical source.)

Star Wars has always been told in the mode of myth, but myths don’t come out of nowhere and they aren’t just stories. Myths are stories that mean something. If Star Wars is going be meaningful in the world we live in today, it’s time to democratize the Force. We need more clever peasants these days, not more lost heirs.

Image: Arthur pulling the sword from the stone from An Island Story by Henrietta E. Marshall, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1906, 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.

Klingons, Homer, Falstaff, and the Dread Pirate Roberts: Understanding Honor

161024klingonsIf you grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation like me, you’re probably most used to hearing the word “honor” come out of the mouths of Klingons, especially our beloved Lt. Worf. Star Trek offers one of the most brilliant portrayals of honor in fiction. As you watch Worf’s story unfold over the seasons of TNG and Deep Space Nine, it seems like, for all that Klingons like to talk about honor, Worf is the only one who actually cares about it. Worf always makes the honorable choice, even when it’s not the smart one. Other Klingons are cynical and self-serving. They pay lip service to the idea of honor, but they don’t follow it.

But what is honor? It seems like such a simple word, but what does it really mean? When we say that a person, either someone in the real world or a fictional character, is driven by a sense of honor, what actually motivates them? I often put this question to my students when we read the the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad. They usually answer something like: “Pride,” or “Following a code.” Those are ideas related to honor. They are honor-adjacent. But at its core, honor is something else: honor is reputation.

Agamemnon and Achilles are warrior kings in a world where there is no one to enforce rules. There are no police, no courts, barely anything we would recognize as law. What is it that stops people from being constantly at war with one another? How can Achilles or Agamemnon have a single moment’s rest from every other warrior in the world trying to take away their homes, families, and treasures? Because of their reputation. Because everyone knows that if you hurt them, they will come after you and they will not stop until they have destroyed you. That’s what honor is. It’s the first line of defense.

161024achillesHonor is not an emotion, a code, or an abstract concept. It is a practical tool that Homer’s warrior kings and people in similarly lawless societies use to keep control of their homes and property. When Agamemnon and Achilles break into a fight at the beginning of the Iliad, it’s not because they’re being petty or overly sensitive about wounded feelings. It’s because neither one of them can afford to look weak. A warrior who gets a reputation for giving up easily or not standing up to defend his property is a warrior who will soon be dead.

Honor is what people believe about you. Honor is why, when the Trojans had almost routed the Greeks, Achilles was able to turn the tide of battle just by showing up—unarmed—on the battlefield and yelling his warcry. In other words, honor is like the dread pirate Roberts.

161024robertsWhich also means that there is something artificial about honor. It’s sort of a bluff. The greater a warrior’s reputation as an unbeatable fighter, the less actual fighting they have to do. At the same time, anyone who lets slip that they may not live up to their reputation is just inviting attack, which is why, like in the Iliad, warriors often fight hardest not for the things they want but for the reputation itself.

Honor only matters if it is seen, and it is only what is seen that matters. What makes honor is not what kind of person you are but what kind of person people think you are. What happens in the darkness does not matter to honor. It’s easy to get cynical about honor and call it out as a kind of bullshit. Falstaff, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, does just that:

Can honor set to a leg? no. Or an arm? no. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon.

– Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 1, act 5, scene 1

Falstaff isn’t wrong. Neither are Achilles and Agamemnon. Honor is a kind of game that everyone plays along with. The wise understand that it’s a game and what seems like cynicism is really just practicality. Only the naive think that honor is real.

This is what makes Star Trek‘s take on honor so brilliant. It seems at first that Worf is the only Klingon who understands honor, but really it’s the other way around: Worf is the only Klingon who doesn’t understand honor. Worf thinks that honor is real. Other Klingons know it’s a game—a game with the highest of stakes that they play for all they’re worth, but a game nonetheless.

Images: Worf and Martok via Memory Alpha. Achilles battling Memnon, photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia (Vulci, currently Staatliche Antiknesammlungen, Munich; c. 510 BCE; black-figure pottery). Dread Pirate Roberts via History Mine.

Ancient Models for Writing About Language Barriers

160718graffitoThe ancient Mediterranean was a multilingual place. Although a few languages were in common usage—Phoenician, Greek, Aramaic, Punic, and Latin, in different times and places—many other languages were spoken, including Iberian, Gaulish, Etruscan, Oscan, Hittite, Hebrew, Egyptian, and Numidian. Many people, especially in the great port cities like Carthage, Rhodes, and Alexandria, would have encountered numerous different languages in their daily lives. It is no surprise that this experience of a polyglot world was reflected in classical literature. The ways in which ancient writers represented multilingualism and language barriers offer some useful models for us as speculative fiction writers today.

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Recommended Reading: Homer, The Quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon

150928IliadOne of my weaknesses as a writer is dialogue, particularly dialogue that needs to carry subtext. I’m not good at writing the kinds of things that people say when they’re not actually saying what they’re saying. When I need inspiration for how to write a scene in which people say one thing while really conveying something else, the place I look is the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon in book 1 of the Iliad (lines 101-244).

There are a lot of good translations of the Iliad available if you want to check it out. I’m especially fond of the Robert Fagels translation for the strength of its poetry. Richmond Lattimore’s version is good if you really want to get close to the rhythms and patterns of the original Greek. The translation on Perseus is older and less readable, but you can pick up the scene I’m talking about around the middle of this page (start after [100]). There are plenty of other choices.

To set the scene: As the Iliad opens, the Trojan war has been going on for ten years and has come to a stalemate. The Greeks are not able to breach the high walls of Troy while the Trojans cannot dislodge the Greeks from their camp on the shore. To break the impasse, the Greeks have begun trying to put pressure on the Trojans by raiding the smaller towns nearby that are allied with Troy. One of these raids carried off a young woman, Chryseis, who was awarded to Agamemnon as his prize. Chryseis’ father Chryses, a priest of Apollo, comes to the Greek camp to ask for his daughter’s return, but Agamemnon refuses and sends him away. Chryses prays to Apollo for aid and Apollo obliges by spreading plague through the Greek camp. After ten days of suffering, the Greek kings gather together to discuss the situation. The seer Chalcas reveals the cause of Apollo’s wrath.

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Hugh Jackman to Play Odysseus?

Hugh Jackman might play the eponymous protagonist in the forthcoming Odyssey movie.

Twitter Hugh Jackman

According to The Wrap,

“[…] Jackman doesn’t have a deal in place yet but has had multiple conversations with the filmmaking team about playing Odysseus, the hero of the film who embarks on a long voyage home following the conclusion of the Trojan War.”

I rather like Jackman’s work, and it also turns out he has actual Greek ancestry which is nice. (Too bad that Chris Sarandon, who also is of Greek issue, is too old now; he’d make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts Odysseus.)

Image: Hugh Jackman on Twitter

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Lionsgate to Adapt The Odyssey

Flickr Robert The Odyssey of Homer Easton Press

The first great European adventure story, The Odyssey by Homer, is being adapted again to the big screen, this time by Lionsgate. So far the project includes director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson (of the Hunger Games movie adaptation fame), and writer Peter Craig (known for co-screenwriting The Town and Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2). According to Deadline Hollywood, production is planned to begin early in 2016.

With the advances in visual effects technology, this adaptation will surely look grander and more epic than any preceding ones. I hope that the screenwriting will be great, too.

Image: The Odyssey of Homer – Easton Press edition by Robert on Flickr (Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0)

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History for Writers: Introduction

640px-Herodotus_plate_in_Volissos_entranceWriters of fiction and writers of history have long had a kinship with each other.

It is a telling fact that Herodotus, founding father of western historiography, saw himself as carrying on the work of Homer, the great epic poet. Herodotus himself has often been accused of being better at spinning a yarn than at getting his facts right, and Homer tells us quite a lot about the real warlords and merchants of his day through his stories of epic battles and heroic wanderings. Fiction and history have always sat at the same table. As a professional historian and an amateur writer, I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about how the two go together.

Writing fiction means imagining people and worlds that do not exist. That, in its essence, is also what the study of history is about. Now, historians must keep our imaginations grounded in testable evidence and rational argument, but all those facts add up to nothing without imagination. We will never shadow the emperor’s agents as they crept the back streets of Rome sniffing out agitators, or break bread with a gang of workers in the shadow of a half-built pyramid and listen in to their work-camp gossip, or watch over Confucius’ shoulder as one petty, corrupt, minor official after another slowly drove him to consider whether there could be a better way to live. Those people and the times they lived in are gone, and if we are to make any sense of the evidence they left behind we must try to imagine the worlds in which they lived.

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