My new book, Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World, is now available to order, in hardback, paper, or digital formats. Here’s a preview.
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I love geeks and nerds, and being a geek / nerd. Sometimes it occurs to me, though, how terribly odd it must look like seen from the outside. Exhibit 6,430: the exchange below that Erik and I had last weekend:
Me: *mumbling to myself, trying to remember a detail from Star Wars*
Me: Han Solo
Erik: … I don’t know what that’s about, but I’m okay with living in a house where a random “Han Solo” is a thing that happens.
I’m okay with my life choices. 😀
Some things are just too silly not to share!
What did the ancient Greeks and Romans think of the peoples they referred to as barbari? Did they share the modern Western conception—popularized in modern fantasy literature and role-playing games—of “barbarians” as brutish, unwashed enemies of civilization? Or our related notion of “the noble savage?” Was the category fixed or fluid? How did it contrast with the Greeks and Romans’ conception of their own cultural identity? Was it based on race?
These are the questions that my first book addresses. Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World will be published in the fall of 2018. The book explores both the realities of interaction among peoples of different cultures in the ancient Mediterranean and the ways in which Greek and Roman thinkers interpreted these interactions to create the idea of the “barbarian.”
Here’s a preview, discussing the experience of the Greeks in their colonial settlements around the Mediterranean Sea:
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The history of Greek settlement in Egypt demonstrates the complexity of colonial interactions. In the late 600s BCE, Egypt was under Assyrian dominion. An Egyptian noble, Psammetichus, had been appointed as governor, but when the Assyrians were distracted by internal conflicts, Psammetichus raised a rebellion, bolstered by mercenaries from Greece and Caria, a region of southwestern Anatolia. When the fighting was done and Psammetichus had become king of a newly independent Egypt, he settled the remaining mercenaries in the Nile delta. These settlements also attracted other foreigners, such as Phoenician crafters who made imitation Egyptian artworks on the site for export.
The mercenaries remained in Egyptian service, and it appears their descendants did as well, since some were deployed to southern Egypt under Psammetichus II decades later. One such band carved graffiti on the temple of Abu Simbel to commemorate their adventures: “When King Psammetichus came to Elephantine, this was carved by the companions of Psammatichus, son of Theocles, who sailed beyond Kerkis as far as the river went.” The mercenary Psammatichus was evidently named after the pharaoh by his Greek father. Some families went beyond names and embraced Egyptian culture, as shown by the burial of Wahibre-em-akhet, whose name and hieroglyph-inscribed sarcophagus are conventionally Egyptian; the only clue to his foreign ancestry are the Greek names of his parents, Alexicles and Zenodote. Other soldiers left graffiti at Abu Simbel in Carian and Phoenician, another testament to the cultural and linguistic diversity of those traveling and trading around the Mediterranean at this time.
Sometime after 570, the pharaoh Amasis reorganized the Nile delta settlement. Land was granted for the construction of a Greek colony, which, unusually, was collectively founded by nine Greek cities from the coast of Anatolia. Representatives from these cities jointly governed the new community now called Naukratis. Greek ships were banned from landing anywhere else in Egypt for trade. The colony thus became the primary site of exchange between Greeks and Egyptians. Trade connections brought people of many different backgrounds to Naukratis and connected its people to a wider world. One visitor was Charaxos, the brother of the poet Sappho, who traded wine from his home city Mytilene to Naukratis. He met a slave courtesan there, a Thracian woman named Rhodopis who had been brought to Egypt by her Samian owner. Charaxos fell in love with Rhodopis, bought her, and freed her, after which she chose to remain in Naukratis to ply her trade. To celebrate the fortune she had amassed in her work, Rhodopis later made a rich dedication at Delphi in Greece. A hieroglyphic inscription on a stele erected by the pharaoh Nectanebo in the fourth century, dedicating revenues from Naukratis to the temple of Neith, shows that the pharaohs kept an active interest in the administration of the colony. Naukratis retained its importance and trading privileges after the Persian Empire conquered Egypt in 525. It continued to welcome not only traders but tourists and other travelers, like Herodotus, who visited Egypt and whose writings record the existence of a local industry of tour guides and interpreters. The Greeks who settled in Egypt did not exist in isolation but had productive relationships with traders, artisans, and the ruling class alike.
The interactions in and around Naukratis are a window into the complexity of the colonial world. There were Greeks trading with Egyptians, but also Phoenicians making knockoffs of Egyptian art, Greeks assimilating into Egyptian culture, Thracians and Carians negotiating the needs of Egyptian and Greek patrons, and Egyptians making a living off showing the wonders of their country to curious foreigners. Interactions like these were happening all around the Mediterranean. There is no simple way to describe Greek relations with non-Greek peoples in the archaic and classical periods because those relations were never simple.
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If you’ve enjoyed some of my posts about ancient trade connections, the diversity of ancient armies, individuals crossing cultural boundaries, modern peoples’ attempts to claim ancient peoples’ identities for themselves, and the variety of different kinds of “barbarian” you may find something to enjoy in Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World.
Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World comes out in September from Hackett Publishing.
Hardcover: $48 / Paperback: $16
Image: Barbarians paperback cover by Hackett Publishing
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Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky…
Third time pays for all…
Once the number three, being the third number be reached…
Dynamic Text- Monty Python: Holy Hand Grenade by Furnace1717 on YouTube
…it shall be heretowith known as the third anniversary of Co-Geeking.
Following are a few high points from the past year for us:
Erik: My favorite post of the past year is What Makes a Fantasy World Feel European?, in which I tried to dig into some of the deeper elements of worldbuilding that keep imagined worlds tied to European models, even when some of the surface details are changed up. There is a great deal more that could be said on this subject, but I think the pattern I explored of cultural and economic integration combined with political fragmentation is useful for us to keep in mind when reading, writing, or thinking about secondary-world fantasy fiction.
Eppu: Like last year, I have a tie again. Firstly, Good Night, Cassini, Good Work, I’ll Most Likely Kill You in the Morning, for I continue to be flabbergasted over the amazing photos sent by the Cassini mission to Saturn. Secondly—and, interestingly, completely at the other end of human history—is the Ancient Clay Cup Animation of a scene laid out on a clay cup at the Bronze Age site of Shahr-e Sūkhté (or Shahr-e Sukhteh) in Sistan, southeastern Iran.
A Trio of Heroes
(a favorite geeky thing that happened this year)
Eppu: Black Panther the movie! It was visually beautiful and skillfully constructed (both storywise and with respect to the effects), but the absolute best thing about it was the humanity in the story. Like Erik said in our random thoughts post, “Black Panther feels like the movie we most need in 2018: a meditation on the temptations of division, resentment, and revenge and the hard choice of embracing a flawed and fractured world with hope.” Plus so. Many. Awesome. Women!
Erik: Superheroes aren’t just for white men any more. Although there have been non-white- and female-led superhero movies in the past, as aficionados will eagerly point out, the past year has felt like a corner being finally turned. Wonder Woman, Thor:Ragnarok, and Black Panther all showed that getting people who aren’t white and male into significant roles in front of and behind the camera can lead to superhero movies that are both artistically awesome and financially successful, and the follow-up to Infinity War looks set to hand the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe over to a cast that is, at the least, a bit less overwhelmingly white and male than we’ve had so far. We haven’t reached anything like parity yet, but this past year was a good step.
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Then bright Mandulis came from high Olympus
bearing his bright cheeks and walking by the right hand of Isis.
You boast how you provide for the people,
how day and night and all the seasons revere you
and call you kin, Breith and Mandulis,
stars, emblems of the gods rising in heaven.
– Paccius Maximus
(My own translation)
These lines come from a poem written by a Roman soldier named Paccius Maximus and painted on the wall of the temple to Mandulis at Kalabsha, in modern Sudan. We know very little about Paccius besides what he tells us in this and one other poem, but based on some clues he is believed to have been a local African officer in the late Roman army.
Mandulis, often associated with his twin brother Breith, was a Nubian sun god. It’s interesting to note how Paccius readily connected Mandulis with both the Olympian gods and the Egyptian goddess Isis, easily harmonizing Greco-Roman, Egyptian, and Nubian religious traditions. His poem gives us a glimpse at how culturally complex and interconnected the world of the Roman empire was.
But, as fascinating as Paccius’ poem is, it’s on my mind today for a different reason.
It snowed here last night. Again. That’s the fifth snowstorm we’ve had this March.
You see this stuff? You see it? I’m sick of it. I like winter just fine, but it’s time for this winter to be over.
Mandulis, wherever you are, we could really use you and your bright cheeks right now. Any time you want to come start providing for us people here, buddy. Any time. I’ll be waiting.
When the suckage just sucks too much.
There are some things that we can all pretty much agree are part of a good story, whether on the page or on the screen: compelling characters, an interesting setting, a well-crafted plot. These things are basic to most great stories. But then we have our own individual tastes, the particular things we hunger for and that make us excited about one story more than another.
The two of us have spent some time thinking about exactly what we most want out of stories. Here’s what we came up with.
Erik here. What I most want out of a story can be summed up as: Problem-Solving. I want to watch characters go through the process of confronting a problem, considering how to deal with it, and figuring out the best solution. I want to see not just the successful results but all the steps it took to get there. I want to know what the characters did, how it worked, and why it worked.
The obvious sort of story for me to go to is a mystery in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle / Agatha Christie tradition, where the narrative centers around a problem that needs to be solved and the climax comes with the detective meticulously explaining how they worked out that the vicar’s charwoman is actually the long-lost sister of Lady Dudsworthy and the poison was hidden in Colonel Flusterton’s peppermint lozenges.
But I also enjoy other kinds of stories that explore other kinds of problem-solving. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is full of problem-solving and process, from Gandalf working out the magic word to open the doors of Khazad-dum to Frodo and Sam donning orc armor to sneak across Mordor. My favorite part of the novel is the Council of Elrond, when our heroes sit down and spend a chapter just talking about the problem, possible solutions, and the limits of their options, rather than rushing off into heroic battle. Jane Austen’s novels also offer a kind of problem-solving, especially my favorites Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Even though the problems are about relationships and social interactions, Austen’s characters approach them with the same attention to what is possible, what is not, and how to best go about achieving their goals.
On tv, I love shows like Leverage and Burn Notice that focus on the practical details of how their characters pull of heists or get out of scrapes. I also enjoy shows that focus on the processes of problem-solving in more human, less technical terms, like Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey. Some of the movies I enjoy the most combine solving practical problems with working out conflicts between people, like The Avengers and Pacific Rim.
Eppu here. My favorite story moments involve a bunch of characters learning to work together. I haven’t yet found a good existing name to describe the device with. The closest ones I’ve found are We Work Well Together (a trope) and team building, but both have a slightly different focus. For the lack of a better term I’m calling mine Learning to Work Together.
Specifically, what I like is the hard-to-capture process of the characters realising (usually after a struggle or struggles) how to fit into a working whole all the separate strengths that each person brings. Optimally, of course, it will be a well-working whole at least from the point of view of plot. It’s nice if the characters will end up at least appreciating if not outright liking each other, too, even if there might be tense moments. At the very least they will have to deal with each other well enough to fulfill their goal(s).
Many ensemble stories tack on a sequence of Learning to Work Together to explain how the characters become a unit after they find each other. Some devote more time and effort into it, but for others the process of getting to know your teammates is more or less handwaved aside to make space for the all-important plot. While plot is necessary, I don’t think it should override everything else: I’m looking for a balanced story—preferably with a good heaping of Learning to Work Together.
Some favorite screen examples include Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Hunger Games, Marvel’s The Avengers, and the series Leverage (although arguably the latter might better fit under We Work Well Together). One of the reasons I ended up liking Pacific Rim much more than I expected was the attention that was given to the formation of team Raleigh and Mako, with Pentecost hovering at the rim. (Badum-CHING! [Sorry!])
Satisfyingly protracted versions are shown in the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Elementary. While Murdoch Mysteries concentrates more on the problem-solving aspect, now and then recurring side characters or one-off visitors get wonderful sequences of Learning to Work Together. And, come to think of it, several of my favorite Doctor Who episodes involve the characters figuring out who the others are and how to interact with them effectively (“42”, “Blink”, “Silence in the Library”, and “Midnight” to mention a few).
Examples in novels and novellas that I’ve read recently include A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy, Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, and Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series also sprinkle in many instances of Learning to Work Together whenever characters make new connections.
The best stories for the two of us to co-geek over as a couple are stories about groups of people learning to work together in order to solve problems. When we sit down to rewatch a favorite tv series or reminisce about our favorite books together, we go back to the stories about how different people can come together, learn to respect and trust one another, and use their own individual talents to work through a problem that none of them could solve on their own.
Made into a sound bite, Erik’s favorite stories are about “How do we do this?” and Eppu’s favorites are about “As a team.”
Image: screenshot from the 2012 Marvel movie The Avengers
Creative Differences is an occasional feature in which we discuss a topic or question that we both find interesting. Hear from both of us about whatever’s on our minds.
Another year is behind us, and what a year it was. Here are the 2017 posts that got the most views. Most of them are from our How to Helsinki series in the run-up to Worldcon75 in Helsinki in August:
Some posts from previous years have remained popular as well. Here’s the overall list of top five posts people read in 2017, some of them from a year or two back:
Thanks for stopping by. We hope you enjoyed reading our posts as much as we enjoyed writing them!
Messing with numbers is messy.
On one hand, I cannot believe I need to state this explicitly; on the other, I cannot believe I didn’t think it needed to be stated explicitly. This is, after all, the Internet…
With one notable exception (see bigotry rule, below), no-one has or will be excluded from commenting on Co-Geeking for their opinions. Debating views that don’t line up with ours can be stimulating, but we refuse to play pigeon chess. This is because discussion is impossible when one party either hijacks the discussion, refuses to listen, or condescends to or mocks the others. If you ignore a boundary we set, you’re done here. We call this the behavior rule.
Now, everyone can have a bad day, which is why we give people some leeway. Repeatedly ignoring social clues in the first stage and explicit policy statements in the second stage, however, will get you banned. The only acceptable response after being called out on boundary-transgressing behavior is to stop. No means no.
And then the exception: If you think a person or a whole group of people are inferior solely due to their perceived race or ethnicity, sex or gender, orientation, religion, or the like, and proceed to flaunt your prejudice within our social media presence, we will ban your biased ass to the moon and back. This is because beliefs which cause harm to others need not be tolerated and we as the individuals running this blog are not obligated to give a platform to anybody. We call this the bigotry rule.
Comments are closed.
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Co-Geeking is about the things we love: history, art, science fiction, fantasy, language, and so on. It is not about contemporary politics. We would rather just tend our geeky garden than get involved in the affairs of the big world outside.
But sometimes contemporary politics comes blundering through your garden gate and plomps itself down right on top of your petunia bed. And sometimes it proceeds to crap all over your tomatoes and puke on your antique roses. Then you gotta say something, so we’re saying it.
If you’re feeling threatened, worried, angry, or sad about the upsurge of hatred we’re seeing in current events, we’re with you. If you’re someone who loves the things we love but your history classes, SFF conventions, or geeky blogs made you feel like you didn’t belong, you belong here. If you’ve ever felt left out because of your race, religion, gender, orientation, or any other part of your identity, or if you’ve seen that kind of exclusion happen to someone you care about, we’re with you. If you don’t see yourself in the books, movies, tv shows you love, know that we want to see you there, too. If anyone has ever told you are wrong, bad, or dangerous just because of who you are, where you come from, or how you live your life, we stand with you.
Screw the fascists, racists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, Islamophobes, homophobes, sexists, transphobes, and all other flavors of bigot. Screw the people who believe that they are better than other people because of arbitrary details like race, religion, ancestry, sexuality, or gender. Screw the people are afraid of others just because of who they are. And double screw the ones who think that history supports their brand of hatred, or that they can drag it into the kind of stories we love, with a side of get stuffed.
We are in this together. Those who want to divide us will fail. Hatred and fear will fail. As we co-geeks carry on with our usual business of posting about interesting facets of history and squeeing over the latest movie trailers, know that we are here for you.
If want to get away from the problems of the big world for a little while, our garden is open. If you want to talk about what’s going on these days and how that relates to the art, stories, and history we love, we’re here for that, too. You belong here.
Image: Selected screencaps from the Babylon 5 season 1 episode 5, “The Parliament of Dreams”.
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