Hoplites

The hoplite was the definitive soldier of ancient Greece. Hoplites are interesting not just for how they fought but for the social conditions that created them and the consequences that the hoplite style of warfare had for ancient Greek society.

A hoplite was a heavily-armored infantry soldier equipped with a large, round shield and a thrusting spear a little over two meters in length. While the shield and spear were the two crucial pieces of equipment, most hoplites also wore heavy armor including a helmet, breastplate, and greaves (armor for the shins). Altogether this armor weighed as much as 30 kilograms. Weighed down by so much equipment, hoplites were slow-moving and not adept at maneuvering. A lone hoplite was easy prey for a more mobile skirmisher or cavalry soldier. Hoplites were only effective when fighting as a group.

Hoplites fought in a tightly-packed formation called a phalanx. Their equipment was designed to be most effective in this formation: the center of the large round shield rested at the elbow, meaning that only half of a hoplite’s shield was protecting their body. The other half of the shield protected the soldier standing to their left, while they were sheltered by the shield of the soldier to their right.

The phalanx formation was designed first and foremost to offer as much protection as possible to the soldiers fighting in it. As long as the phalanx kept its order, casualties were low. When phalanges fought, they clashed head-on in a massive shoving match that was usually quickly resolved when one side lost its nerve, broke formation, and fled. Fleeing hoplites typically dropped their heavy shields to get away faster, but once one phalanx started to flee, the soldiers of the opposing phalanx were ill-equipped to give chase. The goal of a hoplite battle was to drive the enemy from the field, not kill them.

In order to fight effectively, hoplites needed several things in addition to their equipment. First of all, they needed lots of training. Maintaining the phalanx formation while advancing into the fray and clashing with opposing forces was difficult. Even more important, it required cohesion among the individual hoplites. A formation that depended on every individual in it standing firm and protecting those around them could only work when those in it felt they could trust and rely on their fellow soldiers. That kind of unit cohesion could be created in several ways. Spartans created it through a brutal indoctrination into a culture of conformity. Companies of mercenary hoplites created it through shared experience in the field. But in most Greek cities, the solidarity of hoplite warfare was intertwined with democracy.

Hoplites appear quite suddenly in Greek history around 650 BCE, so suddenly that they seem to have been a deliberate innovation rather than a gradual development out of earlier traditions. There were other dramatic changes happening in Greek society at the time. For centuries, Greek society had been dominated by aristocratic families who monopolized both control of farmland and political power, but the growth of overseas trade undermined their authority. Some ordinary people began to get rich off of trade with the larger Mediterranean world and to demand more of a say in how things were run.

In many places, aristocrats who were on the outs took advantage of popular discontent to put themselves forward as sole leaders who could keep the other aristocrats in check and represent the interests of the common people. The Greeks called these rulers tyrants, a word that did not originally have the negative connotations it carries today. These tyrants organized the people into a political force that could overwhelm the old aristocracies, and it seems likely they were also responsible for organizing them into a military force for the same purpose. The old aristocrats had relied on followings of professional warriors to compete with one another and protect their power. The hoplite phalanx was made up not of professional soldiers but farmers, crafters, merchants, and other ordinary folks who paid for their own armor and took time away from their livelihoods to train together. Their cohesion and solidarity overwhelmed the aristocrats’ paid fighters.

The tyrants, backed by their hoplite forces, enjoyed a brief ascendancy, but most soon revealed themselves as little more than ambitious opportunists who had little real commitment to making life better for their supporters. The ordinary people turned against them. The experience of solidarity in common cause that had been instilled by the hoplite style of fighting became the core of a new way of organizing society, and after ousting their tyrants most Greek cities embraced forms of government that allowed for broad citizen participation. It is significant though that Greek democracy was always centered on the hoplite phalanx. People who did not have a role in the phalanx—women, the poor, slaves, resident foreigners—rarely had any role to play in Greek democracy.

Thoughts for writers

Human societies are complex systems. Their various parts interlock and affect one another. The ways in which people fight are shaped by the societies they live in, and shape them in turn. If your story has characters fighting in a particular way, you should construct your world to reflect the origins of that fighting style and its consequences. It is possible to have a hoplite phalanx without democracy (Sparta), and it is possible to have a democracy without a hoplite phalanx (medieval Iceland), but understanding how each one supported the rise of the other in ancient Greece will help you construct fuller and more believable alternatives.

Image: Chigi Vase, reconstructed frieze via Wikimedia (7th c. BCE; painted pottery)

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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Quotes: Finland Is Weird. Finland Is Different

I first became aware of Adrian Tchaikovsky when he won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2016. I’ve been meaning to check out his writing since then. Ironclads, a limited-edition hardcover novella, finally made it to the top of my TBR pile last month.

The novella was great in several respects, but I was especially tickled by the American POV character’s descriptions of Finland and Finns. For example:

“All the middle of Nordland is the bit we’ve got problems with, basically: Sweden and Finland, say the maps. Sweden is where the fighting is, and the other place… Finland is weird. Finland is different.“

– Adrian Tchaikovsky: Ironclads

The version of U.S. in the story is fighting in Scandinavia, and, due to having laxer laws on genetic modification, Finland apparently has become home to very interesting types of special forces.

But the best, the absolutely best detail is mentioned in this section:

Quotes Tchaikovsky Ironclads

“[F]or a long time I couldn’t even work out what was on her screens. Then it started animating, frame by stilted frame, and I worked out that some parts of what I was seeing were a satellite view. The vast majority of what should have been contested Swedish soil was smeared with roiling dark clouds that obscured any sight we might have had of what the enemy was doing.

“’Seriously,’ Sturgeon hissed, ‘what is that?’

“’Is that the flies?’ Lawes asked gloomily.

“’Yeah.’ Cormoran gave us a bright look. “Gentlemen, this is a gift from the Finns. They breed these little bugs, midges, they chip ’em and ship ’em, and every so often the Nords release a batch. There are millions of the little critters each time, and they basically just block the view of our satellites – and we can’t see a thing – no one can. So every time our forces advance, we’re going in blind. Makes for all kinds of fun.’

“’They bite?’ Franken asked uneasily. We were all thinking it: mosquitoes, disease, some kind of Finnish labgrown plague that zeroed in on the stars and stripes.

“’Not yet,’ Lawes told us. ‘Jolly thought though, ain’t it?’”

– Adrian Tchaikovsky: Ironclads [original emphasis]

The militarization of mosquitoes! We already joke—as a way of dealing with an irritant that’s just a part and parcel of life—that mosquitoes are the Finnish air force. Finally, someone did it! 😀

It makes perfect sense in a world with aggressive biological research to turn a ubiquitous pest into an asset. Come to think of it, it sounds very much like the strategies that Finns used in the Winter War of 1939-1940 against Soviet forces—making native conditions work for you and against the enemy.

Of course, no one person can disapprove or approve of any characterization on behalf of their whole group. However, in My Official Opininon As a Finn, Tchaikovsky managed to balance well the view of Finland as part of Scandinavia with Finns being distinctly different from their Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish cousins. Also, he got so many little details right, like the way the Finnish language sounds, or our deep appreciation of nature.

I practically tore through the book. Kudos!

Tchaikovsky, Adrian. Ironclads. Oxford: Solaris, 2017, p. 22 and p. 29.

This post has been edited to correct a typo.

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

Visual Inspiration: Two Birds, a Snail, and a Mushroom

A few more possibilities for speculative writers and artists looking to break out of the Eurocentric worldbuilding mold, this time from among the Earth’s birds, snails, and mushrooms.

The male pink robin (Petroica rodinogaster) has a bright fuchsia chest and belly; the female looks drabber, with merely pinkish-tinged underparts. These small birds live in the cool temperate forests of southeastern Australia.

Flickr Dave Curtis Pink Robin

The many-colored fruit doves (Ptilinopus perousii) live on islands in the south-west Pacific Ocean (Fiji, the Samoan Islands, and Tonga). The male is yellow on the wings and back, red on the head and neck; the female is greener, darker on the back and greyer on the head and breast.

Flickr Tom Tarrant Many-colored Fruit Dove

The violet snail (Janthina janthina) is a small purple mollusk found floating on the surface in tropical and temperate seas worldwide.

Flickr Ian Jacobs Janthina janthina Cropped

Indigo milk cap (Lactarius indigo) is a species of generally blue or blueish mushrooms found in eastern North America, East Asia, and Central America. The milk that oozes out of a cut or broken mushroom is also indigo blue, but slowly turns green upon exposure to air. According to Wikipedia, it’s edible and sold in rural markets in China, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Wikipedia Dan Molter Lactarius indigo
Flickr Arthur T LaBar Indigo Milk Cap

Aren’t they all incredible?

Images: Pink robin by Dave Curtis on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Many-colored fruit dove by Tom Tarrant on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Violet snail cropped from photo by Ian Jacobs on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Indigo milk cap by Arthur T. LaBar on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) and by Dan Molter via Wikipedia.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Quotes: Humans as the Only Generators of Value and Purpose in the World

Author Kelly Robson describes the core conceit of her novel Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach in an interview with Ilana C. Myer:

“The habs, hives, and hells [i.e., city state -like population centers] compete for economic power, and economic power ultimately comes from populations. A free market requires free movement of population, so everyone is free to basically vote with their feet. If they don’t like the quality of life in the hab, hive, or hell they live in, they are free to move to a different one. A hab, hive, or hell with a shrinking population knows that it better change its quality of life offerings if it wants to stop hemorrhaging people.

“It’s a dynamic world that ultimately respects humans as the only generators of value and purpose in the world. I like it.”

– Kelly Robson describing her novel Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

Aah, I like it too. 🙂 Plus, voting with your feet is a natural extension of voting with your wallet.

Myer, Ilana C. “Kelly Robson on the Economics of Time Travel in Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.” Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, April 02, 2018.

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

Option for Breaking out of Eurocentric Worldbuilding Mold: Yareta Plants

Yareta or llareta (Azorella compacta) is a low evergreen that grows in the Andes mountains in Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile, and Argentina.

Flickr Miguel Vieira Yareta Ollague Volcano Lookout

Looking at the landscape where it’s found, it seems that the yareta latches onto ground or rock and grows up and out into the rounded shape over the years.

Flickr Knut-Erik Helle Yareta Bolivian Altiplano

The rounded, cotton-ball-like shape reminds me of how some mosses grow. Unlike them, though, the yareta can grow in dry conditions and nutrient-poor soil, if slowly. (According to Wikipedia, their growth rate is approximately 1.5 cm / 0.6 inches per year; however, an article in Pharmacognosy Magazine cites 1 cm in 20 years.)

Apparently the Andean people used yareta since Pre-Columbian times for the treatment of colds, pains, diabetes, asthma, bronchitis, womb complaints, gastric disorders, backache, wounds, and altitude sickness (Pharmacognosy Magazine Aug 2014).

Yareta looks like a great option for speculative writers and artists looking to break out of the Eurocentric worldbuilding mold.

Images: Yareta at Ollague Volcano lookout by Miguel Vieira via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Yareta – Bolivian Altiplano by Knut-Erik Helle via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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

Quotes: Conflict Is One Kind of Behavior

“Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin

I’d like my speculative fiction actually inventive, you know. Just like a human being is rarely reducible to one trait, yet that treatment is often used in storytelling as a shortcut, especially when it comes to characters deemed less important, like women, children, old people, or minorities of various stripes.

Which is not to say that stereotypes, caricatures, or the like don’t or cannot have a place in storytelling. However, if the majority of storytelling focuses on nothing else than characters or story elements reduced to their bare bones, it’s bound to become boring and empty.

There is so much more to our world, let alone imaginary worlds!

Found via Martha Wells on Tumblr.

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

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.

History for Writers Compendium: 2017

History for Writers explores world history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s where we’ve been in 2017:

Practicalities

Connections between cultures

Ancient wisdom for troubled times

Telling stories

Thinking historically

Past cultures

Race in Antiquity

Join us in 2018 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

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

Medieval Fantasy City Generator

Creating medieval(esque) city maps just got a lot easier: Oleg Dolya (watabou) made an automated generator to do it.

Medieval Fantasy City Generator Small

Choose size of city with the click of a button, and color scheme and line or shading types from the options. You can export the image either as png or svg. Unfortunately the ward names (temple, merchant, crafts, etc.) aren’t saved on the exported map, though.

Watabou also built a 3d-visualiser to support Medieval Fantasy City Generator called Toy Town. Although I haven’t played with that, it sounds like both should be a great help to storytellers—unless you enjoy the process with paper and pen, of course!

Found via N.K. Jemisin on Twitter.

Image: screenshot from a map created by Eppu Jensen with Medieval Fantasy City Generator by watabou

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

Writing, Reading, Living Different Cultures

I saw a Twitter thread about writing culture by author Joan He, on the face of it about her (or your) own but by extension that of others, and it has plenty of food for thought:

 

As a reader, and specifially a reader of speculative and historical fiction primarily not in my native language, I run into differences in culture a lot. And as a person in a multicultural, multilingual relationship in a strange country where I’m a cultural and linguistic minority, from time to time I find myself slammed against more deep-seated cultural assumptions.

Joan pointed out that culture is a way of thinking, or cognition, or perspective. As an example, I’d like to share two failures of cultural expectations from my personal experience.

Ratatouille Anton Ego Perspective Quote

At a con once, I wanted to get a book signed by an American author. I happened to know from their online presence that the author is an introvert. Even though we were both at a public place where introverted authors and panelists often don a more outgoing persona than they do in private, as another introvert I wanted to make sure I’d be especially considerate. However, quite without intending to I tripped over a distinctly Finnish quirk.

One of the big unspoken assumptions in the Finnish culture is that silence isn’t a negative. (Erik and I have both written about it for instance here, here, and here.) In essence, how I understand it, silence means space, and space means respect to other people.

Accordingly, at the abovementioned autograph session, when it came my turn I said my hellos, presented the author with my book, and waited silently. It wasn’t until the author asked me “Did you read it?” that I realised they expected me to say something else. And I had thought I was being courteous not to burden them with yet another dose of chitchat on a weekend full of being “on” at a busy con. I can’t remember for sure, since it was a kind of a deer in the headlights moment for me, but I think I was able to stutter my way to an exit without actually breaking into a run. In any case, not terribly smooth on my part.

I’ve also had a previously friendly person walk away from me when, in the middle of a presentation, I (I’m guessing “merely”) nodded to them to acknowledge their presence and silently continued to listen to the speaker (I’m guessing instead of starting a conversation with the friendly person). Although it’s been years, I still find that an utterly, completely, and thoroughly puzzling reaction.

Over the years, I’ve built a store of strategies and stock exchanges I can pull out if needed, but it’s been hard to try and perform—for it is essentially a performance—in a way that feels unnatural and at times even rude to me. Even after 10+ years, I still can’t bring myself to commit to it wholeheartedly. I suspect I’ll always be the odd, quiet one in Anglo-American contexts, but that’s my background and temperament.

So: yes, cultural assumptions and perspectives are difficult to convey, whether in writing or otherwise. Adding surface details to a fictional culture is easy, and it can be a fantastic tool for both creating distance from the everyday world and deepening the invented one. I love seeing glimpses of the practicalities that fictional characters deal with; I would find—and have found—stories seriously lacking without them. Never, though, should the surface glitter be where invention on the part of author ends; that is as unsatisfying as a lack of external cultural markers.

Being a truly exceptional author has, for me, come to mean not only the ability to create layered, nuanced worlds (or convey the complexities of everyday life in historical fiction). In addition, skilled authors I enjoy the most are able to avoid massive infodumps and to suggest underlying cultural values subtly, as inseparable part of narration and dialogue. And that’s a very challenging thing to do. It sometimes takes me more than one read-through to feel I’m beginning to understand a story. Then again, worthwhile things often are the most difficult ones.

Image via The Autodidactic Hacker

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.