Custom is King

We often think of multiculturalism as a particularly modern virtue, but the ancient Greek historian Herodotus gave a pretty good argument for respecting other peoples’ cultures more than two millennia ago.

Here’s the story he tells:

When Darius was king [of Persia], he summoned the Greeks who were at his court and asked them how much money it would take to get them to eat the bodies of their deceased fathers. They replied that nothing would make them do so. Darius then summoned some Indians, called Kallatiai, whose custom it is to eat their dead parents, and asked them—in the presence of the Greeks, who had an interpreter to explain the Kallatiai’s words—how much money it would take to convince them to cremate their deceased fathers [as was the Greek custom]. The Kallatiai exclaimed that he should not even mention such an abomination. Custom dictates such things, and it seems to me that [the poet] Pindar got it quite right when he said that custom is king.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.38

Herodotus does not tell this story at random but to illustrate a point. Cambyses, a different Persian king, had mocked the Egyptians for worshiping a white bull, and Herodotus felt that Cambyses had been very wrong, even insane, to do so. This story about Darius’ cultural investigations was meant to drive the point home: everyone believes in their own way of doing things, and it is wrong to dismiss or disparage other peoples’ culture, even if you don’t share it or even understand it. We can respect other people’s culture just as we expect them to respect ours. No culture is right or wrong.

So, for those of you keeping score, that’s a Greek author standing up for Egyptian traditions against the scorn of a Persian king and citing another Persian king’s discussions with Greeks and Indians to do it. Herodotus’ defense of multiculturalism is itself multicultural.

Image: Relief sculpture of Darius via Wikimedia (Persepolis; sixth century BCE; stone)

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

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No Time for Conditioner When You’ve Got Rebels to Fight

The Greek military writer Polyaenus recounts this story about the Parthian princess Rhodogune:160901Shirin

Rhodogune was bathing and beginning to wash her hair. A messenger came to report that a subject nation was in revolt. Without washing out her hair but just tying it up as it was, she mounted her horse, led out the army, and swore an oath that she would not wash her hair until she had put down the rebellion, and indeed, after long fighting, she triumphed. After her victory, she bathed and washed out her hair.

– Polyaenus, Stratgems 8.27

So, the next time you’re having a bad hair day or just can’t be bothered to do anything but tie it back, you can tell the world you’ve got rebels to fight and the hair can wait.

Image: Shirin bathing (not Rhodogune, sorry) via Wikimedia (c 1480; ink on parchment)

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In a World Without Alfalfa…

151019Shapur… Marcus Licinius Crassus would have been the first emperor of Rome instead of Julius Caesar.

Stick with me here.

Alfalfa is a plant in the pea family that resembles clover. It originally comes from south central Asia and was cultivated in the northern parts of the Iranian plateau as animal fodder. Compared with other fodder plants, alfalfa is very high in protein, so it is mostly fed to cattle. It can be given in small amounts to most horse breeds, but in large amounts it causes bloating as horses cannot use the excess protein.

The exception is Nisaean horses, a breed of horse that was developed in northern Persia and bred to feed on alfalfa. These horses were able to absorb the extra protein of alfalfa into their bones, giving them denser, stronger bones than other horses. These dense bones enabled the Nisaean horses to make sudden turns while galloping at high speed that would have broken other horses’ legs and to carry heavier weights than other horses of the ancient world could manage.

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I Want an Iwan

Well, no I don’t actually want one. I don’t have room for one to begin with, and I don’t live in the right climate anyway. That doesn’t change the fact that iwans are cool. Literally.

An iwan is a large room with a vaulted ceiling that has walls on three sides and the fourth side open to the air. They were built in the heat of Mesopotamia to create large shady spaces that were still open to light and air. The earliest iwans are thought to have been constructed under the Parthian empire in the first or second centuries CE. One of the earliest examples to survive into modern times was at Ctesiphon on the Tigris River, built by the Sasanian empire in the sixth century CE. Unfortunately, the building fell into poor repair over time and was destroyed by wars in the twentieth century, but in these old photographs you can still see enormous vaulted space.

 

Photograph of a Sasanian iwan at Ctesiphon, photograph 1864, Wonders of the Past vol. 2
Sasanian iwan, from Wonders of the Past vol. 2 via Wikimedia (photograph 1864). Note the people standing on top of the roof vault for a sense of scale.
Photograph of the same iwan from half a century later showing ongoing decay, currently San Diego Air and Space Museum
Photograph of the same iwan from half a century later showing ongoing decay via Wikimedia (photograph currently San Diego Air and Space Museum)

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Labor

150810oxcartThe majority of the stuff that needs to get done in an agrarian society is basic manual labor: primarily farm work, but also things like construction, building and road maintenance, mining, carrying, housework, etc. Any functioning pre-industrial society needs lots of workers to do all that work, but there are many different kinds of workers, some of which are not so familiar to us today. Some of these kinds of workers had it much better than others.

Here’s a list of possibilities, by no means exhaustive, arranged roughly in order from worst to best conditions.

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