Some “Deleted Scenes” from Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World

They say good writing is good rewriting. They also say to kill your darlings. Both are good pieces of advice. The process of writing involves a lot of false starts, changes, and reworkings. Sometimes it means having to let go of something you worked hard on, that you like, but that just doesn’t serve the needs of your project.

In writing my book Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World, I had to kill a lot of darlings. A lot of text just got deleted and rewritten, but sometimes I had to cut out things I liked and was happy with, but that just didn’t belong in the book as written or that I had found better ways to express. In those cases, rather than delete the the text entirely, I cut and pasted it into a separate file to save just in case I decided to put it back in future revisions, or maybe to some day develop into its own project. That file ended up being longer than any of the actual chapters in the book.

In the spirit of DVDs with deleted scenes from movies, I present to you a few choice bits that didn’t make it into Barbarians, but that I still think are worthwhile on their own.

On the significance of the Greco-Persian Wars in later Greek culture:

The Athenian playwright Aeschylus was a giant of classical literature. He was the first author to put multiple characters on the stage at once, thus introducing conflict and inventing Greek drama as we know it. He won the Athenian dramatic competition thirteen times and was praised for his compositions by both contemporaries and later generations. But when he died his epitaph celebrated only one achievement: he fought at Marathon. Such was the importance of the wars against Persia in the later history of Greece.

On the connections between Persia and Macedonia:

Alexander trod the path that had been laid down by Cyrus the Younger generations before. He had grown up in a Macedonian court that hosted Greek intellectuals and Persian exiles. The similarities between Cyrus and Alexander’s campaigns are hardly accidental. Both were efforts from the edge of the Persian world to capture the center. Alexander may have started his campaign farther away from that center than Cyrus did, but the ties of politics, diplomacy, and personal relationships that connected Macedonia to Persia were just as strong as those to ran through Anatolia and Greece.

On the shifting definitions of Greekness:

In other words, although both ideas always had some currency, in earlier times it was more common to argue that Greeks were Greeks because they were descended from Greeks, while by the later fourth century it was more common to argue that Greeks were Greeks because they acted like Greeks.

On the political ramifications of culture in the Hellenistic world:

Behind all of these complicated relationships was a fundamental political fact: Macedonian kings now ruled most of the territory of the old Persian empire. These kings and their supporters in the ruling class had chosen to identify themselves with Greek culture. In the past, some Greeks had exercised power over non-Greek populations—particularly in major colonial cities like Syracuse and Massilia—but never on this scale. Now vast new populations had to come to terms with the linking of political power and Greek culture. Their responses ranged from resistance to collaboration to indifference. The Greeks in these kingdoms also had to come to terms with new ways of being Greek.

None of these cultural innovations could erase the boundaries of status and privilege that the Greco-Macedonian ruling class had erected between itself and the peoples over whom it ruled. As in many more recent colonial contexts, the rigid enforcement of cultural lines may itself have given impetus to the reinvention of the cultures of both the rulers and the ruled. When being “Greek” was the key to social and political advancement, it is no surprise that some people looked for novel ways of being Greek while others strove to reassert the value of not being Greek.

All of these selections got cut for good reasons, but it’s a pleasure to be able to share them with you now.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

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Fantasy Religions: Novel Religions

The religions that exist in our world can be broadly divided into two categories: traditional religions, which developed gradually in their own native societies and have no clear beginning point, and novel religions, which began at a fixed point in time. Many of the great world religions of the modern day, like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, are novel religions, while some traditional religions, like Shinto, still thrive. Some religions, like Hinduism and Judaism, have features of both. In earlier posts, we’ve discussed what sort of things you may want to keep in mind in your worldbuilding for stories or games to make your imaginary religions feel more authentically traditional. Today we’ll take a look at what makes a novel religion feel alive.

There have been many novel religions in world history. A few have gathered large followings and become major forces in the world. Many have faded away after a few generations. Some have done well for a long time, even for centuries, before finally disappearing. There is no single thing that every novel religion has in common, but looking at history, we can see definite patterns as to what makes a new religious movement thrive, even if only for a time. It takes more than a charismatic leader with a new idea, although that is where most of them start.

Connection to the past

New ways of life can be hard to adopt, but they are easier if they connect to things people already know. Christianity and Islam both drew on Jewish traditions, as Buddhism did with the same ancient Indian traditions that informed Hinduism. The ancient Mediterranean cult of Isis based itself on ancient Egyptian religion. Similarly, Zoroastrianism drew on ancient Iranian religious ideas. New movements within existing religions that do not split off on their own also often share the features of novel religions, like the Protestant denominations within Christianity or the Shia branch of Islam. The degree to which new religious movements identify themselves as new or as reforms to or revivals of older traditions can vary widely.

Texts and beliefs

Not every religion, novel or traditional, has sacred texts, but many novel religions do. Such texts help to define how the new movement differs from what has come before and what its followers are expected to do or believe in order to be counted as part of the group. Depending on the religion, these texts may be openly available to anyone who wants to read them, or access to them may be limited only to those who have joined the movement. Novel religions are also more likely to focus on belief, unlike traditional religions which tend to focus on practices and rituals.

Hope in times of trouble

The success of any new religion depends largely on its ability to attract new followers in sufficient numbers to keep the movement going. Most people most of the time aren’t really “in the market” for a new religion, but there are certain times in history when large numbers of people are ready to embrace something new. It tends to happen in times of suffering and uncertainty, among people who have been displaced from their homes and familiar ways of life. The Bacchanal cult of the second century BCE appealed to Italian peasants who had been driven from the countryside into the cities by economic desperation. Haitian Vodou and related religions came out of the traumas of enslaved West Africans in the Caribbean and the Americas. Christianity and Islam both, in different periods and different ways, emerged among the victims of Roman imperialism. Novel religions often offer purpose, identity, and community to people who have lost the things that gave them those comforts before.

Difficult (but not too difficult)

A novel religion often thrives when it demands practices of its followers that are difficult, but not excessively difficult, to carry out. Muslims are expected to pray five times a day. Buddhists engage in meditation of many different kinds. Followers of Isis were expected to furnish a feast for their fellow worshipers upon joining. These kinds of practices, which require time, focus, and effort, but are not overly demanding, help foster a sense of community by creating shared experiences. At the same time, religions which demand overly difficult practices tend to see their followings dwindle. Converts to Mithraism went through initiations involving withstanding heat, cold, and pain (although probably not bathing in bull’s blood, as sometimes alleged). The rigors of these initiations, as well as the fact that it seems to have been open only to men, may have limited the cult’s appeal and kept it from gaining a critical mass of followers.

Outward from the middle

Novel religions tend to begin neither at the top nor at the bottom of the social scale but somewhere in the middle. Simply put, the rich and powerful have little to gain from upending the order of things, while the poor and powerless don’t have the time to ponder on the mysteries of the universe. New religious movements tend to begin among people who, if not always “middle class” by a modern definition, are somewhere on the middling ranks of the social and economic hierarchy. How they spread from there differs. Some religions grow by promising the hope of a better life to the poor, as Christianity did, while others, such as Confucianism, grow by appealing to a discontented elite.

Food

Food, for many of us, is a vital part of our sense of identity and community—think of your favorite family recipes or the special holiday dishes that remind you of heritage and home. Many novel religions present new ways of eating as part of the creation of a new communal identity. One of the central rituals of Christianity involves consuming (literally or metaphorically, depending on one’s theology) the body and blood of the founding figure. Muslims are enjoined to fast during daylight hours during Ramadan and to avoid certain food and drink, including pork and alcohol, altogether. Manichaeism taught that adherents had a duty to spread light in the world and combat darkness by eating certain foods and avoiding others. Eating together, or eating in similar ways to other followers elsewhere, helps to maintain the bonds that hold the adherents of a new religion together.

Thoughts for writers

As an example of how these features of novel religions can inform worldbuilding, here is a short description of an imaginary movement in an imaginary world.

The borderlands of Jash have been ravaged by decades of war between the Jashite cities and the invading armies of the Akluni Empire. As refugees from the rugged hills and scrublands of northern Jash stream into the cities of the lush Jash River valley, they find misery, poverty, and violence. Many of the refugees, looking for the solace of the familiar, have filled the neglected temples of Uzuli, the moon goddess favored by borderland shepherds but little regarded by the city folk.

Among the merchants and farmers of the Jash cities, tensions have been growing as no city seems capable of leading a coordinated response to the Akluni threat. Factions have formed within the cities, some arguing for peace with Aklun, others for resistance to the death; some for throwing the refugees out to fend for themselves, others for redistributing farmland to provide for the hungry. Encounters between members of these factions in the streets and market often lead to harangues, arguments, even fistfights.

Lately, a woman calling herself the Moon Daughter has been gathering crowds in the side streets of the city of Busa, giving stirring speeches promising a return of peace and prosperity. She comes from one of the lesser merchant families of Busa, but no longer speaks to them after beginning her work in the streets. She reports visions from Uzuli that call for all the people of Jash to be as one, to return to the simpler ways of the country, and to withstand the assault of Aklun not by arms but with the patience of Uzuli, who does not fear the waning because she knows that the full moon will come again.

The Moon Daughter’s early followers came from among other merchants families, whose fortunes have fallen under the pressure of war, but she increasingly draws crowds of hinterland refugees. Some of her followers have begun writing down her speeches and publishing them as pamphlets. “Eat of the bitter terebinth and the prickly pear” she says, “in memory of our home that is lost. Then drink of the honeyed wine that promises peace and harmony forever in the turning of the moon.” Her followers gather for common meals, eating and drinking as she commands, but also sharing what food they have with those who have none.

Building in some of the common features of novel religions helps the Moon Daughter’s movement feel fuller and more grounded in the world. It also offers interesting storytelling hooks. What happens if Busa is conquered by Aklun and the Moon Daughter and her followers have to flee elsewhere? What if the priestesses of Uzuli challenge the Moon Daughter for false prophecy? What if the Moon Daughter’s movement becomes so popular its followers take control of Busa, and then have to negotiate with the other Jashite cities who haven’t joined the movement? What if the Akluni Empire collapses and the refugees return home bringing the Moon Daughter’s words and ideas with them, but leaving the life of the city far behind? There are lots of directions you could take a story or a game from this beginning.

Other entries in Fantasy Religions:

Image: Manichaean diagram of the universe via Wikimedia (China; 1279-1368 CE; paint and gold on silk)

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.

Bread and Cheese

A sturdy adventurer in a fantasy novel pauses to take a break from their journey to the Land of Quest Completion. They open their knapsack looking for something to eat and what do they find? Bread and cheese.

Always bread and cheese.

It’s a well enough known trope to make an easy, low-hanging joke. It’s the sort of thing you expect in fantasy media whose worldbuilding can be charitably described as “medieval Europe but with magic and dragons and also I’ve never actually read a book on medieval Europe.”

But bread and cheese is not a joke. It is, in fact, a very good and sensible choice for an adventurer to pack for a long and difficult journey.

The human body needs nourishment. For long term health, there are a lot of things you need: a proper balance of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and so on. Doing without any of these essentials for prolonged periods means risking malnutrition, disease, and other serious health problems. For getting through several days or weeks of hard physical work, like traveling in rough terrain or fighting monsters, though, three things are crucial: water, calories, and protein.

An average adult human requires a minimum of about 2 liters of water, 3,000 calories, and 70 grams of protein each day in order to remain fit for physically demanding labor. More is better, but these will get you through if you don’t keep it up for too long. These are the requirements a meal must meet to be suitable for basic adventuring rations.

Water can be found in most parts of the world where people live. It may not be available in large quantities and it may not be safe or pleasant to drink straight from the source, but chances are your standard adventurer can find enough to survive on in most terrains. That leaves calories and protein.

There are lots of different ways of getting both. Your adventurer might eat meat, fish, eggs, milk, beans, vegetables, mushrooms, fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, insects, or plenty of other things. When a variety of food options is available, people like to indulge themselves (as we moderns and our waistlines know all too well). But not all these food items travel well. Fresh vegetables and fruit will wilt and rot. Meat and fish go bad and may attract dangerous animals. Eggs won’t hold up well to being jostled around in a traveler’s knapsack. Some of these products can be dried, salted, pickled, or otherwise preserved to last longer, but processing adds to cost. Depending on growing seasons and local farming practices, these foods may not be available when your adventurer needs them.

Hence the advantages of bread and cheese. In agricultural regions, staple crops like grain are almost always available. Unprocessed grain, if kept dry and safe from vermin, can be kept for a long time. Bread kept similarly dry and safe may become unappealing and tough to chew, but will preserve its nutritional value even after many days of jostling around in a hero’s handy haversack. Cheese can be made wherever there are milk-giving animals (often reared on marginal or fallow land in agrarian communities), and will last a long time without deterioration if well taken care of. In farming societies throughout large parts of the world, bread and cheese are both readily available, inexpensive, and easy to make portable.

Bread provides a good dose of calories and protein; cheese even more. Combined, they provide the complete set of amino acids that the body needs. (It turns out that combining different protein sources is nowhere near as complicated as conventional wisdom says it is. As long as you have a variety of different foods in your diet and you’re not trying to subsist on on a single non-animal source of calories, you’re pretty much covered. Still, for an adventurer braving the wilderness without a lot of variety easily available, it doesn’t hurt to make sure you’ve got everything your body needs in one meal.)

Bread and cheese. Don’t leave on an adventure without it.

Thoughts for writers

Bread and cheese make good sense for adventurers’ traveling rations in a lot of settings, but that doesn’t mean that if you’re writing an adventure you should just fall back on bread and cheese for all your heroes’ dietary needs.

Food is a fundamental part of life. As such, it is an indispensable element in worldbuilding. People eat the things they eat for good reasons, and societies are often structured, in very basic ways, around the production and distribution of foodstuffs. The availability of a single plant can have far-reaching effects on the culture that grows it. The consequences for worldbuilding don’t end with the food itself but carry on into how it is produced and consumed. Descriptions of food in fantasy literature often feature just as local color, but food can in fact inform major parts of your worldbuilding.

Bread and cheese may seem like an overused cliché, but it has been used so much for a reason. It is an entirely sensible and realistic choice of provisions for travelers in the hinterlands of any fantasy world that broadly resembles the living conditions across most of the premodern world. Don’t be afraid to fall back on bread and cheese if it is the right choice for your story, as long as you are choosing it for a reason and not just because it’s what fantasy adventurers always eat.

Image: Bread and cheese wheel, photograph by Andrew Malone via Flickr

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.

Top Five Posts for 2018

Well, that was 2018! Here are our posts from the year that have gotten the most attention:

  1. Call for Help: Where is Miss Sherlock? Eppu’s post about a new mystery series that transposes the characters of Holmes and Watson to modern-day Japan and makes them both young women for good measure. Unfortunately, we’re still not sure where or how we can watch it, but it’s nice that so many other people are also excited by the idea.
  2. Arisia: A Point of No Return for Us Our statement in support of Crystal Huff and against the repeated failure of the Boston-based Arisia convention to effectively address problems of sexual harassment and stalking not just at the con but by members of the con staff itself.
  3. Quotes: Finland is Weird. Finland is Different All together now, Finland fans! A gratifyingly bewildered quote from Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Ironclads.
  4. “At Least It Made You Feel Something” Erik’s rant against creators who justify storytelling choices that aggravate fans by patting themselves on the back for making us feel something.
  5. Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World Preview A preview of Erik’s book, published in September, about the concept of the barbarian and the realities of cross-cultural interactions in the ancient Mediterranean.

Some of our old posts remain perennial favorites, too. Here are the overall top five Co-Geeking posts that people viewed in 2018:

  1. Do-It-Yourself Fantasy Place Name Generator Erik’s name-generating technique from back in 2015 still gets a lot of attention. Apparently a lot of you out there are making up names for things!
  2. Sean Bean on the LotR Joke in The Martian Eppu’s 2015 post on Finland’s Yle News interview with the delightful Sean Bean on the Lord of the Rings joke in The Martian. Such a treat, and still well worth watching today.
  3. Hogwarts Dueling Club Tablecloth Transformed into Wall Hanging Eppu’s post about a home-made version of the moon-phase dueling cloth from Harry Potter, posted in 2016.
  4. Custom is King Erik’s translation of a favorite passage from Herodotus’ Histories, posted in 2017.
  5. Call for Help: Where is Miss Sherlock? Eppu’s post from this year

Thanks for hanging out with us this year. We hope you’ll join us again in 2019.

Messing with numbers is messy.

History for Writers Compendium: 2018

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 2018:

Thinking historically and mythically

Daily life

Crossing cultures

Women in the ancient world

Conflict and resolution

Race in Antiquity

Join us in 2019 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.

Self-Help Law

“Self-help law” may sound like a book you would pick up to figure out how to make a will or file a lawsuit on your own, but it’s actually an important concept in history. Many societies in history have operated under a self-help legal system, especially small societies without developed governments, but even large, complex societies like the Roman Empire have operated under self-help law.

Most of us today live in legal systems that have mechanisms for enforcing legal judgments. If you take someone to court and win a judgment against them, you can rely on the police and courts to ensure that the judgment is fulfilled. Self-help legal systems don’t have those mechanisms. In a self-help system, you may take someone to court (or before a council of elders, or to a family tribunal, or whatever the system is) to get a judgment on who is legally in the right and what you are entitled to, but once the judgment is given it is up to you to carry it out. If the court decides that your neighbor owes you three bars of silver for cutting down your hedge, no one is going to come along and make them pay up. You have to go and get the silver from them yourself.

That may not sound like much of a legal system—if it all comes down to you having to barge into your neighbor’s house and grab their cash, it looks a lot like might making right. The difference, though, is that a self-help system requires you to get a legal judgment first. Once your neighbor cuts down your hedge, you can’t just bust in their door and take the silver. You have to present your case before a court (or council, or whatever the equivalent legal body is). You have to submit your grievance against your neighbor to someone who has the authority to represent the values of the community and judge how badly your neighbor has transgressed them. If you bust in and take the silver before going to court, that’s theft, and your neighbor has a case against you; if you do it after getting a judgment from the court, then you are executing justice and they have no case.

Self-help law accomplishes certain things that are useful in maintaining an orderly society. For one thing, it interrupts the cycle of vengeance by making people slow down, not act in the heat of anger but give wiser heads a chance to prevail. It offers a check on personal vendettas by submitting individual grievances to a neutral party. At the same time, though, it avoids burdening society with any kind of formal law enforcement, which could be a disruptive presence, especially in small-scale societies where disorder and crime are not everyday problems.

Self-help law also has its limitations. The obvious one is that some people are in a much better position to enforce their rights than others are. The rich and powerful have always been better able to wield the power of the law against the poor and humble, but under self-help law the weak often have very little real recourse against the strong. Another problem with self-help law is the tendency to escalate conflicts. Even with the intervention of a neutral party’s judgment, it’s hard for people to set aside their feelings of personal grievance. When your neighbor has cut down your hedge, even if you are legally entitled to go into their house and take three bars of sliver, it may be hard to resist urge to kick their dog and knock over their shelves while you do it, which just gives your neighbor a new legal claim against you. Self-help law may be described as a state of suspended violence, which carries within it the implicit threat of real violence breaking out.

A system of legal self-help also has broader social consequences. To be able to effectively carry out judgments (or resist people carrying out judgments against you), it’s useful to have a large network of friends and family you can rely on to stand up for you. Naturally, they’ll expect you to stand up for them in return. The bonds of friendship and family are more than sentimental in such a society; they can make the difference between living safe in your home and having your property under attack by your neighbors. They can also, on the other hand, drag you into conflicts that you had no part in beginning. As the old joke goes: “A friend will help you move; a good friend will help you move a body.” In a world of legal self-help, you might say: “A good friend will help you shove in your neighbor’s door and get the three silver bars that hedge-cutting menace owes you.”

Thoughts for writers

There is a lot of potential for drama in a self-help legal system. Modern law enforcement can sometimes create its own problems, but it also—by design—interrupts a lot of conflicts that would otherwise play out between individuals, families, and communities, sometimes violently. When you can’t just call the police on your annoying neighbors, interpersonal relationships evolve differently than we are used to today. A lot of stories from the past—the Mahabharata, the Iliad, Romeo and Juliet, etc.—have at their core the tensions that arise from the suspended violence and mutual obligations of a self-help society.

It is also important for us to understand that these tensions are real and have consequences. The conflicts that break out between feuding families or rival princes are not the result of overinflated egos but the consequence of living in a world where there is no one to guarantee your rights other than yourself and the friends and family you can count on to back you up.

Image: Balance scales, photograph by Mbiama 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.

A Male Protagonist Protags; A Female Protagonist Has Things Happen to Her

An article from August 2018 produced thinky-thoughts!

Oren Ashkenazi lists “Eight Absurdities We Force on Female Characters”. Among them is this gem:

“[S]torytellers also have to constantly remind the audience how hot their female characters are, right? At least that seems to be the case, based on how often authors emphasize their female leads’ looks. Of course, this dual need makes writing women much harder, since readers don’t typically appreciate their stories being interrupted with reminders about a character’s sexy bod.”

Because Men Are Strong, Women Are Pretty, right?!? Gah!

Instead of an exhausted and exasperated rant, here’s my contribution to join the Smurfette Principle, Dainty Combat, et al.

A male protagonist gets to protag; a female protagonist has things happen to her.

The male protagonist is at the center of the story. He gets to make key decisions, call the shots, lead teams (successfully), and propel the plot forward.

In contrast, a female protagonist reacts to what’s happening around and/or to her. In addition, all too often women’s story arcs are marked as of less importance or condemned outright. (Or branded as a “women’s genre”, often with a sneer, like romance.)

One of the first that I remember noticing on screen is J.J. Abrams’s Fringe. Anna Torv’s protagonist character Olivia Dunham, an FBI agent, started out by actively investigating potential paranormal phenomena, but in later seasons she was pushed aside in favor of the father-son drama and relationship wrangling between characters played by Joshua Jackson and (always excellent) John Noble. Egad—as if we don’t have enough!

And just the latest I’ve had the misfortune to see is the tv series Extant. Despite its gorgeous visuals, high production values, and Halle Berry as the lead, the writing keeps her guessing, defending herself against gaslighting, physically running, flailing, and emoting. Two episodes from the end I was done; I didn’t want to finish that crap.

(To be fair, I’ve also come across stories that dreadfully misrepresent men. As one example, I’ve had my fill—to the fracking brim!—of stories of damaged middle-aged alcoholics who are just trying to hang on.)

This post has been edited for clarity.

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

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.

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.

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.