Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Sandy Pyrenees

Now that it’s cold again in the northern hemisphere, it doesn’t feel wrong to post about this phenomemon.

I discovered that in March 2022, storms in Sahara threw a lot of dust into the atmosphere, and winds carried it hundreds of miles away. Here’s a photo from a ski resort in the French Pyrenees, where the slopes were covered with a layer of reddish sand:

Twitter BBC Weather Saharan Dust in Pyrenees

An amazing sight, isn’t it?

Although, as someone who’s grown up using sand and gravel on snow to stop motion, I do have to wonder at one thing: how on earth are you able to ski down these slopes?

(Being the wrong kind of Master of Science, I can only guess it has to do with the skier’s weight pushing the skis below the surface of the snow, therefore escaping the sand friction and still enabling skiing, but I don’t know.)

Image by BBC Weather on Twitter

Out There highlights intriguing art, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

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Minoan Mugs as Handsome as Modern Ones

It’s a common misconception that the further you go in history, the poorer the materials and decorations used were. Materials were simpler, yes; complex metal alloys, synthetic textile fibres, or clean rooms, for example, were a long way in the future.

But the more we study extant material remains, the clearer it is that humans have always appreciated beauty in their surroundings and—if they possessed the means—decorated both themselves and their everyday environment. Case in point: Minoan mugs from ca. 1,500 BCE.

Flickr George Plakides Minoan Mugs

Mugs in similar shapes can easily be found in modern tea shops, even if we don’t use exactly the same decorative motifs in the same combinations or colors anymore.

What’s also fascinating is that the handles are exquisitely formed, with just about exactly the same range of variations you can find nowadays. These people clearly knew how to make a practical and pretty mug.

Image by George Plakides on Flickr

Out There highlights intriguing art, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

An Ancient Minoan Saffron Gatherer

Here’s a beautiful ancient Minoan fresco of a woman gathering saffron on a rocky hillside.

Saffron is a spice derived from the crocus flower, and since each flower produces only a tiny amount of the spice, gathering it on any scale is a labor-intensive process. With her large earrings and the many colorful, decorated layers of her clothing, this lady seems a little overdressed for such hard work. There may be various explanations. Perhaps this fresco represents a ceremonial harvest, not unlike the use of a golden shovel to dig the first scoop of dirt on a building project, or possibly a small harvest for religious use. It might also be simply an artistic depiction suitable for an elite home and not intended to represent the actual attire of an agrarian worker.

Whatever the case, it’s a beautiful work of art.

Image: Detail of saffron-gathering fresco, photograph by Yann Forget via Wikimedia (Akrotiri; c. 1700 BCE; fresco)

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

Toss a Coin to Your Mercenary

If you’ve played a role-playing game, whether tabletop or computer, you’ve probably seen your hero complete a quest and get rewarded with a handful of coins (be they copper, silver, gold, or something more exotic). It’s a perfectly familiar experience that makes sense from a modern point of view: do a job, get money. There’s a historical connection, though, between mercenaries (which, when you come right down to it, is what a lot of RPG characters are) and coins.

Various objects have been used for trade in cultures all around the world, from cowrie shells to cacao beans, but the earliest coins as we traditionally know them—lumps of precious metal in standardized weights stamped with symbols—were produced in the kingdom of Lydia, in the mountains of western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), in the seventh century BCE. Lydia had two good reasons for producing coins. One: they had an abundance of precious metal wealth in the form of electrum (a natural alloy of gold and silver) collected from the rivers that ran through Lydia’s mountainous land. Two: they needed soldiers.

For a period in the seventh and sixth centuries, Lydia was one of four major states that dominated the region we know today as the Middle East. The others were Egypt, Babylon, and Media. These four states competed for dominance in the region and needed to maintain strong military forces. Many of them looked to the smaller, poorer, less well organized societies on their borders as recruiting grounds for mercenary soldiers.

There are certain advantages to hiring mercenaries rather than recruiting your own people to fight your wars. Hiring mercenaries lets you put troops on the front lines quickly while keeping your own peasants in the fields producing food. The loyalty of mercenaries is not constrained by local ties or obligations. They can be tasked with dangerous or onerous tasks like digging siege tunnels or standing guard duty that might prompt unrest if you asked a levy of your own people to do them. Finally, if you send a company of mercenaries into battle and a lot of them die, you don’t have to deal with their angry families back home.

Mercenaries are not integrated into the economies in which they serve. Pre-modern societies were held together by bonds of mutual obligation established over years and generations of living and working together. Landowners had an obligation to protect the tenant farmers who worked for them, and tenant farmers in return had an obligation to work the land. Small farmers living together in a village owed one another mutual support. Crafters and other specialists such as priests, doctors, entertainers, scribes, and others who offered services for pay still did so in the context of long-standing relationships. When people like these were called upon to form an army, they fought in defense of their homes and families, but also within existing relationships of obligation and patronage. Even if there was no formal compensation for militia service, a tenant farmer or a blacksmith who went off to war could expect that some of the benefits of victory would filter down to them through these relationships.

If you want mercenaries to fight for you, though, you have to pay them. You can offer food, clothing, and other goods like that, but a person only needs so many shirts, and extra food is hard to lug around from camp to camp. You can promise them land once their service is done, but that can cause conflicts with your own people who may not want a bunch of foreigners settling nearby. Also, having a lot of experienced fighters with nothing to do hanging around your kingdom can lead to trouble—once they’ve finished fighting your wars, you generally want them to go away again. For similar reasons, you don’t want your mercenaries to feel as though they’re being cheated or paid unequally, so whatever you pay them should be something whose value is easy to measure.

So the ideal characteristics of mercenary pay are:

  • Something that doesn’t excessively burden your own people to spend.
  • Something easily portable.
  • Something whose value is not dependent on being tied into your society or economy.
  • Something whose value is easy to measure.

For the kings of Lydia, the answer was easy: lumps of precious metal in standardized weights stamped with symbols. Or, as we know them now: coins.

Lydia had plenty of electrum to spare; handing it out to mercenaries put no extra burden on the Lydian people. (Electrum, containing variable proportions of silver and gold, was hard to make coins of standard value out of, so early electrum coins were soon replaced with coins made out of pure silver or gold processed out of raw electrum.) Coins were easy to carry. Although the exact value of a given weight of metal could vary depending on local circumstances, a full year’s pay for a mercenary might amount to no more than a kilo and a half of silver or a tenth of a kilo of gold. Precious metals were in demand everywhere. Mercenaries from Greece, Thrace, or Caria could easily take their coins home and exchange them for land or goods. The symbols stamped on coins served in part to guarantee that they were minted to a standard weight, which made it easy for soldiers to confirm that they were being paid what they had been promised and that pay was distributed fairly.

The symbols on coins had another function as well. Early Lydian coins were marked with the heads of a lion and a bull. These images suggested harmony on many levels, including cosmological (the lion representing the sun, the bull the moon), ecological (lion representing the wilderness, the bull cultivated land and civilization), and social (predator and prey together as one). It was an apt symbol for a rich and powerful state recruiting the services of its poor and underdeveloped neighbors. The coins that mercenaries carried around with them were meant to remind them of their role as the hungry lions who fought for the rich Lydian bull and were rewarded for it. Not long afterward, kings began to put their own images and personal symbols on their coins, an even more pointed reminder to the mercenaries who received them of who they owed their loyalty to.

Not long after Lydians began minting coins, many other peoples began to do the same—some directly inspired by the Lydians’ example, others independently but for much the same reasons. The usefulness of these coins for facilitating trade soon also made them appealing to merchants, crafters, wandering minstrels, and lots of other people not embedded in the agricultural economy, but paying mercenary soldiers continued to be an important reason for kings and empires to mint coins for many centuries to come.

So the next time your hero returns to town after clearing out another dungeon full of monsters and gets a handful of coins as a reward, know that you are part of a very long tradition.

Image: Lydian gold Croessid, obverse, photograph by Classical Numismatics Group via Wikimedia (minted Sardis; 564-539 BCE; gold)

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 Rise of the First Cities through Genetic Research

Juan Siliezar at The Harvard Gazette writes about new genetic research into the movement and interactions of inhabitants of different areas of Western Asia and the Levant in the Bronze and Iron Ages. According to the evidence, people traveled and interacted with their neighbors before the rise of cities (and not the other way around as previously thought).

MHAAM Genetic Gradient 6500 BCE

Quoting Siliezar’s article:

“The evidence reveals that a high level of mobility led to the spread of ideas and material culture as well as intermingling of peoples in the period before the rise of cities, not the other way around, as previously thought. The findings add to our understanding of exactly how the shift to urbanism took place.

“The researchers, made up of an international team of scientists including Harvard Professor Christina Warinner, looked at DNA data from 110 skeletal remains in West Asia from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, 3,000 to 7,500 years ago. The remains came from archaeological sites in the Anatolia (present-day Turkey); the Northern Levant, which includes countries on the Mediterranean coast such as Israel and Jordan; and countries in the Southern Caucasus, which include present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan.

“Based on their analysis, the scientists describe two events, one around 8,500 years ago and the other 4,000 years ago, that point to long-term genetic mixing and gradual population movements in the region.

“’Within this geographic scope, you have a number of distinct populations, distinct ideological groups that are interacting quite a lot, and it hasn’t really been clear to what degree people are actually moving or if this is simply just a high-contact area from trade,’ said Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Sally Starling Seaver Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. ‘Rather than this period being characterized by dramatic migrations or conquest, what we see is the slow mixing of different populations, the slow mixing of ideas, and it’s percolating out of this melting pot that we see the rise of urbanism — the rise of cities.’ […]

“Historically, Western Asia, which includes today’s Middle East, is one of civilization’s most important geographical locations. Not only did it create some of humanity’s earliest cities, but its early trade routes laid the foundation for what would become the Silk Road, a route that commercially linked Asia, Africa, and Europe. […]

“The paper outlines how populations across Anatolia and the Southern Caucasus began mixing approximately 8,500 years ago. That resulted in a gradual change in genetic profile that over a millennium slowly spread across both areas and entered into what is now Northern Iraq. […]

“’What’s really interesting is that we see these populations are mixing genetically long before we see clear material culture evidence of this — so long before we see direct evidence in pottery or tools or any of these more conventional archaeological evidence artifacts,’ Warinner said. ‘That’s important because sometimes we’re limited in how we see the past. We see the past through artifacts, through the evidence people leave behind. But sometimes events are happening that don’t leave traces in conventional ways, so by using genetics, we were able to access this much earlier mixing of populations that wasn’t apparent before.’”

Interesting, especially the fact that genetic mixing predates evidence seen in artifacts. Sounds like there’s much to research in the future!

Read more at The Harvard Gazette or see the original article by Lily Agranat-Tamir et al. at Cell.

Found via File 770.

Image: The Max Planck-Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean (MHAAM) via Phys.org.

How We Lost the Library of Alexandria

There are a couple of persistent myths floating around about how the Library of Alexandria was destroyed. One says that it was burned down by Julius Caesar in the first century BCE, the other that it was destroyed by Christians in the fourth century CE. Both of these stories are wrong. That’s not what happened to the Library. The actual history is instructive, especially now.

The story begins with the foundation of the Library itself. After the death of Alexander the Great, his followers fell into a fifty-year struggle for control of his empire. When the dust settled, three major successor states founded by Alexander’s generals controlled most of the eastern Mediterranean and the old Persian Empire: the descendants of Antigonus in Macedonia, the descendants of Seleucus in Syria and Mesopotamia, and the descendants of Ptolemy in Egypt. Other, smaller, states, some of them also led by former officers of Alexander’s army, filled the edges and the gaps in between the Antigonid, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic kingdoms.

Ptolemy and his dynasty ruled from Alexandria, the new city founded at the westernmost mouth of the Nile by Alexander during his campaign. The Ptolemies and their court made up a small Greco-Macedonian elite ruling over a vast and ancient land whose people had a strong sense of cultural identity and a long history of resistance to foreign rule. The Ptolemies faced two major problems in ruling their kingdom: competing against the other successor states, and asserting control over the native population of Egypt.

A large part of the challenge in both cases came down to questions of culture. The Ptolemies needed to attract skilled administrators and mercenary soldiers to staff their bureaucracy and enforce their rule, but they were competing with all the other successor kingdoms who wanted the same people for the same reasons. One way of drawing desirable recruits to Alexandria was to demonstrate the richness and refinement of the Ptolemaic court. At the same time, maintaining order in Egypt meant reaching some degree of accommodation with members of the native elite who could keep the peasants in line. To Egyptian nobles who were proud of their own history and culture, the Ptolemies had to show that they were worthy partners who could live up to the standards of culture and sophistication Egyptians expected from their kings.

The Ptolemies’ propaganda approached these challenges in many different ways, but the Library was one important part of their cultural program. Under royal patronage, the Library amassed the largest collection of literary works in Greek assembled anywhere in the Mediterranean. In doing so, it projected the Ptolemies’ cultural sophistication in the common language of the eastern Mediterranean world. It was one of the institutions that made the city of Alexandria noteworthy and demonstrated the Ptolemaic kings’ power and wealth.

The Library of Alexandria was not created as a benevolent or altruistic center of knowledge. It was as much a part of power politics as the king’s mercenary army, and it could be as ruthless in its operations. Ships arriving in Alexandria were reportedly ransacked for any texts the Library might be lacking. The Library borrowed the official texts of winning dramas from the Athenian state archives, then kept the originals and returned cheap copies. The collection was only accessible by royal permission; it was not a place for the public.

Maintaining such a large collection required a dedicated staff of both specialist curators and laborers. Adding new texts to the collection took a lot of work to prepare the papyrus scrolls on which they were recorded and house them safely, but just maintaining the collection was a major job in itself. Papyrus scrolls are not permanent; they break down over time, even in the best conditions. Every text in the Library had to be periodically recopied as the old scrolls decayed. All of this work was funded by the Ptolemaic kings, for whom the Library was an important prop to their power.

In the mid-first century BCE, Julius Caesar fought a campaign in Alexandria against the reigning king Ptolemy XIV in support of his sister Cleopatra, who would go on to rule as the last Ptolemaic monarch. During the fighting, Caesar’s troops set fire to some of the ships in the port. The fire spread to some dockside buildings, including warehouses that held papyrus intended for the Library. The exact extent of the fire is unclear. While some ancient sources report that the Library itself suffered damage, it is clear that the most of the collection was unharmed, and the loss was largely of materials, not finished texts.

Decades later, after Cleopatra was killed and Egypt was annexed to the Roman Empire, however, the Library went into decline. The later Ptolemaic kings had been less enthusiastic in their support of the Library than the earlier kings had been, and by the first century BCE the Library was already a diminished institution. With no Ptolemaic dynasty to prop up, it no longer served a purpose. Some Roman emperors showed an interest in the Library, but most had no desire to keep supporting an institution that rivaled their own propaganda works in Rome. Without money to pay for upkeep and repairs, to pay the salaries of librarians and workers, the Library of Alexandria faded away. Support from the local elite kept some of the collection intact, some part of which remained active as a much smaller, provincial version of its former self through the third century CE.

Just how long this reduced version of the Library continued on is unclear. The third century was a time of widespread violence and unrest in the Roman world, and Alexandria had always been a rowdy city prone to riots. The growing community of Christians in Alexandria sometimes participated in these upheavals, but they were far from the only ones. In one famous incident, an attack by pagans sparked a Christian counterattack which wrecked a Neoplatonist school, but there is no record that any books were kept there. Whatever was left of the collection may well have suffered in the violence of the times, but by then the Library-with-a-capital-L was a thing of the distant past.

There is a lesson for us in the end of the Library of Alexandria, but it is not one about the brutishness of Caesar or the violence of early Christians. What doomed the Library was not some act of willful destruction but the slow decay that comes on when there is not enough money to keep basic operations going. In these days when we all find our budgets stretched tight, it is important to remember how much the cultural institutions we depend on also depend on us.

As many people have noted recently, the covid-19 pandemic isn’t the apocalypse we expected. We like to imagine that great things end in cataclysm, not in the slow grinding down of underfunded institutions. We prefer the bang to the whimper. But just like the Library of Alexandria, the establishments we rely on—be they local libraries, theater companies, independent bookstores, niche comics publishers, or anything else—will not be destroyed by invaders or violent mobs. They will wear away by inertia and neglect. Now is the time to show your support, in whatever ways you can manage, to the things that make your life brighter, richer, and fuller.

Image: A modern artist’s interpretation of the Library of Alexandria via Wikimedia (19th c.; engraving; by O. Von Corven)

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

Queen Teuta, Piracy, and War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Polybius, History 2.8.8

(My own translation)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Celebrating Hidden Youth With Rhodopis

161121bendisHidden Youth comes out today! Among the many short stories in this collection about young people from marginalized groups in history is my story, “How I Saved Athens from the Stone Monsters,” about the adventures of two flute girls, one Egyptian and one Thracian, on one strange and terrifying night in ancient Athens. I hope you’ll consider picking up the collection, not just for my story but for all the other amazing work in it.

My story was inspired in part by the Egyptian and Thracian immigrant communities we know existed in Classical Athens. There were temples in the city to both the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Thracian goddess Bendis. But Athens wasn’t the only place Egyptians and Thracians crossed paths.

A famous Thracian courtesan named Rhodopis worked in Naucratis, the Greek trading city in Egypt in the 6th century BCE. She seems to have been a larger-than-life character whom people liked to tell stories about. It was apparently widely believed in antiquity that one of the three great pyramids at Giza was built for her by her lovers. Another fanciful story about her is the closest ancient equivalent to the story of Cinderella:

They say that one day, when Rhodopis was bathing, an eagle snatched her sandal from her serving maid and carried it away to Memphis. There the king was administering justice in the open air and the eagle, flying over his head, dropped the sandal in his lap. The king, moved by the beauty of the sandal and the extraordinary nature of the event, sent all through the country to find out whose it was. She was found in Naucratis and conducted to the king, who made her his wife.

– Strabo, Geography 17.1.33

(My own translation)

While this is obviously just a bit of a fairy tale, Rhodopis was a real person. One of her lovers was Charaxus, the brother of the lyric poet Sappho. Sappho evidently didn’t think much of the relationship. A fragment of one of Sappho’s poems throws a little shade the courtesan’s way (referring to Rhodopis as Doricha—it was not unusual for courtesans to use several different names):

O, Aphrodite, may she find you too bitter for her taste,

and don’t let her go boasting:

“What a sweet thing Doricha has got herself into

this time around!”

– Sappho, fragment from Oxyrhynchus papyrus 1231.1.1.(a)

(My own translation)

Herodotus reports that the rich offering Rhodopis made at Delphi at the end of her life to celebrate her good fortune—an enormous pile of iron roasting spits—was still to be seen there in his day. (Herodotus, Histories 2.135)

Rhodopis sounds like she would have been an interesting person to hang around with, and Hidden Youth is one more reminder that interesting people were everywhere in history, not just in the places we expect.

Image: Greek statue of Bendis, photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia (Cyprus, currently Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 3rd c. BCE; limestone)

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The Judean Date Palm Lives Again

The only living Judean date palm, at Kibbutz Ketura, Israel. Photograph by Benjitheijneb
The only living Judean date palm, at Kibbutz Ketura, Israel, photograph by Benjitheijneb via Wikimedia

The Judean date palm was a plant of great economic and cultural importance in the ancient Mediterranean. It grew extensively in Judea where it provided shade for people and livestock and its fruit was used for food and medicine. By the modern period, devastation in war and a changing climate had wiped out the trees. Then in the 1960s a two-thousand-year-old seed cache turned up in excavations at the palace of Herod the Great. The seeds sat in storage for another forty years until an attempt was made to cultivate some of them. Amazingly, one of the seeds germinated and grew. In a few more years, we get to find out what ancient Judean dates tasted like. If further efforts to breed the Judean palm with some of its nearest living relatives are successful, modern Judean date palms could return to the Mediterranean.

This story is a few years old, but I only stumbled across it recently. It’s wonderful that some things we once thought lost can come back.

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!