History for Writers Compendium: 2020

History for Writers explores 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 what we’ve been talking about in 2020:

Thinking historically

Thinking mythically

Imagining other places

Living other lives

Writing other worlds

People in the past

Join us in 2021 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.

The Functions of Law

Those of us who know the legal system primarily through procedural dramas tend to think of the law as being mostly concerned with punishing criminals (well, that and giving ace lawyers a chance to stage dramatic courtroom antics), but law has many other functions in society. While many of these are still visible in modern times, in many pre-modern cultures, law was focused on a different function or set of functions than we are used to. If you are writing a story set in the past or in an imagined world and you want to include some dramatic courtroom antics of your own, you may want to think about how law fits into the society you are creating differently from how it fits into ours. Here are some functions of law to think about as you go:

Resolving disputes

This is one we still see a lot in modern legal systems. A lot of law is civil, not criminal, that is it is about settling conflicts between private individuals or groups rather than about the state enforcing standards of acceptable behavior. One of the distinguishing features of modern states is that many conflicts between individuals that earlier legal systems treated under civil law have been brought under criminal law. In pre-modern societies, with less developed state systems, many misdeeds that we consider crimes were left to individuals to dispute through civil law, such as trespass, theft, even murder.

Reinforcing power structures

No society has yet managed to create a legal system that actually treats the rich and powerful equally with the poor and powerless, but the notion this is even an ideal worth striving for is rather modern. In pre-modern cultures, legal systems often served to explicitly reinforce social disparities. Rules about who could bring suit against whom, whose testimony was considered valid, and what punishments could be meted out for a given infraction could be dictated by the status of the individuals in question. The progress and results of a court case functioned as public reminders about who had power and who did not.

Testing community opinion

In pre-modern societies, especially ones that operate on a small scale, relationships often matter more than institutions (more on this topic here and here). As such, when people have problems to resolve, it can be important to gauge and even try to influence the wider community’s opinion. Legal proceedings can be a way of seeing how your neighbors feel about your issues and trying to get them on your side.

Venting anger

People who feel they have been wronged often feel angry about it. Without a way of publicly venting that anger, those feelings can fester and poison relationships within a community. The law can provide a venue for people to express their anger and feel heard. Even if they don’t get the substantive result they want, the psychological relief of letting those feelings out can do a lot to restore calm among neighbors and relations.

Constraining violence

People who feel wronged and have no other recourse may decide to redress the injuries they have suffered by force. This violence can spiral out of control as families, villages, and factions get wrapped up in reprisals. There are few real cases in history of violent feuds going on for generations (unlike in fiction, where they are all too common), but even short-term flare ups of violence can be hugely disruptive to smaller societies. The law offers an alternative way of settling disputes that sets limits on who can legitimately use violence, when, where, and for what purpose.

Most legal systems combine some or all of the aspects listed here, but the balance among them tells us a lot about how any given society works. If you’re including some kind of legal tradition in your worldbulding, its a useful exercise to think about which of these functions are more important in it, and how it achieves them. Because not every fantasy court case needs to play like an episode of Law & Order!

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

Hospitality Tokens

Ancient societies had a problem that we still find familiar today: how do you know that someone is who they say they are? Within small-scale societies (as discussed here) it’s easy enough; when everyone in your village knows you, or knows someone who knows you, it’s not hard to prove who you are. The difficulty comes when you leave your home community and travel far away.

Guest-friendship (which I wrote about here) was one important way of overcoming the challenges of traveling far from home in a time when it was risky to do so. Guest-friends had an established relationship in which each friend promised to help and support the other. Having a guest-friend in a distant place provided some security for when you were far from home.

But even guest-friends might find it difficult to prove their identity to one another. This sort of relationship existed between people whose communities might be widely separated and who might see each other only very rarely. If someone turned up at your door claiming to be a guest-friend who hadn’t visited in twenty years, how could you be sure that they were really who they said they were and not some thief or imposter trying to bluff their way into your house and hospitality? Since guest-friend relationships were often hereditary, the problem could be even more acute: how could you trust that the person who turned up on your doorstep was actually the grandson of your grandfather’s guest-friend and thus someone to whom you still owed a duty of hospitality?

The solution to this problem came with tesserae hospitales, or hospitality tokens. Typically made of bronze, these tokens were a matched pair, sometimes with holes drilled through them, each one inscribed with the name, ancestry, and origins of one of the pair of guest-friends. By putting the two pieces together, one could verify that they matched. A person carrying such a token could present it for verification by comparison with its other half and thus prove that they had a right to claim hospitality in a particular house.

Here’s an example of one such token, made in Spain, probably in the second or first century BCE. This one is in the shape of a pig and has a few holes drilled through it. The text, written in the local Celtiberian language, gives the identity of the man who first carried it: “Lubos, of the Aliso family, son of Aualos, from Contrebia Belaisca.”

Tesseara hospitalis in the shape of a pig, photograph by Carlosblh via Wikimedia (found Uxama, currently Museo Numantino de Soria; 2nd-1st c. BCE; bronze)

 

Of course, few problems have perfect solutions. Hospitality tokens could, in theory, be lost, stolen, damaged, or copied, but as a way of verifying identity they worked well enough to be used for many centuries in the ancient Mediterranean. Numerous examples have turned up in the archaeological record, and some matching pairs have been found from contexts as widely separated as North Africa and northern Italy.

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

Top Five Posts for 2019

That’s 2019 done and dusted. Here are this year’s posts that got the most views:

  1. Behind the Name: Erebor Erik’s post about the possible linguistic roots behind Erebor, the Lonely Mountain of the Dwarves in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
  2. Spring 2019: Tolkien Exhibition at The Morgan in NYC Eppu’s post on the exhibit in early 2019 including letters, photographs, and other documents related to Tolkien’s life and work.
  3. Disney Princess Cosplayers Wearing Mandalorian Armor Eppu’s post sharing some creative cosplay blending Disney princesses with Star Wars bounty hunters.
  4. An Example of the Infinite Possibilities of Writing Systems: Mandombe Eppu’s post on a writing system inspired by the look of bricks in a wall.
  5. The Graceful Curves of the Vogelherd Horse Eppu’s post sharing an image of a beautiful prehistoric carving of a horse.

Some of our old posts remain perennial favorites, too. Here are the overall top five Co-Geeking posts that people viewed in 2019:

  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 still making up names for things!
  2. Custom is King Erik’s translation of a favorite passage from Herodotus’ Histories, posted in 2017.
  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. 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.
  5. Greek Myth, Etruscan Tomb Erik’s post from 2017 about the multicultural connections of a wall painting from ancient Etruria.

Thanks, all, for coming by this year. We hope you’ll drop in again in 2020.

Messing with numbers is messy.

History for Writers Compendium: 2019

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 2019:

Ethnicity and identity

Food

Warfare

Social structures

Spooky things

Fun with history

Join us in 2020 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.

On the Finicky, Fussbudgety Facts of Faction Fighting in WoW

Writing on the patch 8.2.5 story for the World of Warcraft Battle for Azeroth expansion, Robert “Bobby” Davis blogging at Kaylriene puts into words what I’ve long thought: while I understand the need for a company to put the best positive spin into talking about their own products, Blizzard really needs to stop deluding themselves about the quality of their storytelling. Here’s Kaylriene on the topic:

“Saurfang says what I’ve thought about the writing of this story the whole time – the faction conflict is stupid and outdated, because Blizzard tries to pretend there is a depth and nuance to it that doesn’t exist in their writing. The Horde are villains, outright – every time this cycle comes about, the Horde does something awful and atrocious that pushes the world into conflict, the Horde leaders who suddenly have conscience about it reject the action and rebel, we storm up to Orgrimmar to depose whomever the despot is today, and then we move on until the next time it happens. He makes clear in-lore precisely what I’ve felt about the faction conflict the whole time – it was set dressing that no longer serves a meaningful purpose.” [emphasis added]

I’m not inclined to be generous to a story that repeats the same gimmick ad nauseam. Granted, you don’t need to look farther than our own human history—and not very far at that—to find nigh-endless faction conflict. But this is supposed to be fantasy, a genre that can have anything happen.

It’s been years since I logged back to WoW for the story—these days I play for completely different reasons than following the plot du jour. Not being a PvPer the faction conflict never was a big draw to begin with, but it used to have at least somewhat interesting turns.

Now, I also understand the difficulty of a rotating team trying to keep up with past writing, storylines, character arcs, details, all of it. There is, however, a lot to be said for storytelling, continuity, and proactive quality control, especially in case of a billion(!)-dollar tech company, lest you end up looking rather like an incompetent fool.

Flickr Robert WoWScrnShot_091106_234735

Image: World of Warcraft screencap by Robert on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Classifying Warfare: Predatory and Hierarchical

In his history of Western weapons and warfare, Of Arms and Men (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), Robert O’Connell proposes an interesting model for examining the military systems of different cultures by analogy to the animal world. Animals use violence for different purposes and in different ways. Some violence is predatory, as when a wolf hunts a deer or an owl snatches a mouse out of a field. The point of the violence is to kill and consume prey. These animals’ methods and weapons (fangs, claws, beaks) are practical and efficient. They are meant to get the job of killing done as quickly and effectively as possible. Some prey animals have evolved similarly efficient weapons (hooves, horns, teeth) for self-defense. Other times, violence is hierarchical, as when deer lock antlers or dogs tussle with each other to establish an order of dominance within a pack. In these cases, the way that animals fight each other tends to be limited, almost ritualized, in a way that focuses more on display and intimidation than actual wounding—when deer are defending themselves from predators, they can kick and bite with wounding force, but when competing for dominance they lock antlers and shove in a way that minimizes the chance of one deer seriously harming another. The same model can be used as a way of thinking about warfare in human societies.

Some cultures’ ways of making war are like predatory animals’. Their weapons are simple and brutally efficient. Their goal is to kill and destroy, not just to force their opponents into submission. They do not recognize rules of war or limits on where, when, how, or against whom violence can legitimately be used. A classic example is the Roman legion. A legionary’s primary weapon was the gladius, a short sword used for thrusting and slashing at an enemy’s lower torso. The wounds left by a gladius were gory and horrible; the sight of bodies mutilated by Roman blades was enough to demoralize some warriors. Contemporary observers describe Roman soldiers going into a bestial frenzy on the battlefield and slaughtering everything in their path, not just enemy fighters but civilians, children, even animals.

Other cultures fight more like animals competing for dominance within a herd. Their warfare is contained within rules dictating what violence is acceptable and what is not. Battles often begin only after showy demonstrations of power and attempts to negotiate some peaceful resolution. The act of battle itself is brief and bounded by rituals; the goal is not to annihilate the enemy but to compel them to submit and recognize the superiority of the winning side. Ancient Greek hoplite warfare fits this model. Hoplites fought in brief campaigns between city-states, often decided in a single battle on a field which had been mutually agreed to by the two sides. Casualties in a hoplite battle were generally low; victory came when one side broke ranks and fled the field, not with the elimination of one army by the other. The violence of hoplite fighting was real, but it was strictly limited by rules of engagement and commonly understood principles of honor.

Whether a society leans toward predatory or hierarchical violence often depends on who their enemies are. Among people who share culture, history, and traditions, violence tends to be hierarchical. When communicating with the other side is easy and the belligerents in a war already agree on certain principles and ideals, it is easier to agree on limits and rules about war and to be confident that your opponents will abide by their promises. When fighting people with whom you don’t share culture and history, it is harder to rely on commonly agreed rules of war or to trust that the other side will stick to their agreements. Hoplite warfare developed among Greek city-states who were repeatedly fighting their close neighbors, and legionary warfare developed in an expansionist empire venturing further and further into unknown territory, but we can see similar patterns play out in other historical settings as well.

During the eighteenth century, wars among European states were often carried out in hierarchical ways. A British commander facing French troops and not feeling confident of victory could trust that if he surrendered instead of chancing a battle, he and his troops would not be slaughtered but would be treated according to certain basic rules and eventually ransomed back or released at the end of hostilities. Conditions for prisoners of war could certainly be horrendous—especially for the rank and file—but surrender was an acceptable, even honorable, option when there was no reasonable chance of victory. Since the best way to win a battle is to not have to fight it in the first place, convincing enemy troops to give up became as tactically important as fighting them in the first place. Hence the development of flashy, colorful uniforms and elaborate drill performances. The goal was to make one’s own troops look as impressive as possible in order to intimidate the enemy into giving up without a fight.

Meanwhile, in European colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia, European settlers faced off against native peoples whose languages, cultures, and traditions they did not share. Neither side could trust that the other would honor agreements or abide by even basic rules on the treatment of prisoners or civilians. Colonial warfare tended to be brutal and predatory. There was no point to trying to intimidate the enemy or force them to come to terms; the only goal of warfare was to kill as efficiently as possible. In England’s North American colonies, settlers developed a style of warfare for fighting against the indigenous people which diverged very far from the elaborate rituals of European warfare at the time. In the early battles of the American Revolution, the orderly performance of the British redcoat drill came up against the guerrilla tactics of American minutemen trained in the harsh school of frontier raiding and counter-raiding.

Hierarchical warfare, seen from outside the culture that practices it, can seem ineffective or even silly, war reduced to symbols and shadowplays, but hierarchical warfare is serious. It has real casualties, sometimes even carnage on a terrible scale. The point of the displays of power, the rules and rituals, is to preserve one’s own fighting force for the moment when it can make a decisive difference. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was one large struggle for hierarchical dominance, but it had real and devastating consequences for people throughout the world.

Societies that practice predatory warfare, encountering hierarchical-war cultures for the first time, often have an advantage, at least at first. The army not limited by rules of engagement and focused on killing rather than putting on an impressive display can be devastatingly effective against an unprepared opponent. At the same time, predatory warfare can also be self-defeating. The force that does not respect common rules of war can have a hard time concluding truces and treaties and may find itself dragged into wars it does not want to fight because no one trusts them enough to make peace with them.

Thoughts for writers

This way of classifying how societies fight can be useful for defining the terms of conflict in your stories. When you have powers that share a lot of culture and history fighting one another, like a world based on medieval European kingdoms or the states of ancient India, it makes sense to build in rituals, displays of power, and rules of war that are generally recognized. Of course, just because rules of war exist doesn’t mean that everyone follows them, but breaking those rules has consequences, not just for how your enemies treat you but for how your allies or potential allies think about you, too. Therein lies plenty of potential for interesting conflict and character development.

On the other hand, when two or more very different cultures run up against one another, such as in the borderlands between different cultures or at the edge of an expanding empire, warfare is likely to take on a more predatory nature. The absence of agreed-upon rules of war or rituals for establishing dominance without fighting will lead to more violence and brutality. Again, even within a predatory context, there can be opportunities for displays of power taking the place of fighting or the emergence of rough-and-ready rules of engagement. These sorts of developments would be important in-world events for characters engage in, too.

Image: “Battle of Bunker Hill” via Wikimedia (1909; paint on canvas; by E. Percy Moran)

History for Writers 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 Very Short Introduction to Intertextuality

Intertextuality—besides being an excellent Scrabble word—is a useful tool for thinking about literature and storytelling.

Intertextuality is when one literary work refers to or places itself in the context of another work. While different thinkers have used the term in different ways, it is often used to refer to cases in which the meaning of the later work is shaped by or depends upon knowledge of the first.

To make things a little more concrete, take the example of Arthurian legend. The early literary versions of King Arthur’s tales come from several different authors across several centuries, each of whom took certain basic ideas about a legendary king and his family and followers, and added in new characters, told new stories, or shifted the tales to new settings. Each of these literary works was engaged in intertextuality, drawing on a set of characters, stories, and ideas that their audience already knew while adding something new and different to the mix.

Or, to take it a step further, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is intertextual with the whole lot. The movie features such staple characters of Arthurian legend as King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Sir Gawain, and references to Camelot and the Holy Grail. Even though Monty Python’s take on the Arthurian legendarium goes in a very different direction than the traditional tales, it explicitly places itself in relationship to them. You don’t exactly have to know Arthurian legend in order to appreciate Holy Grail, but many of the jokes are built around subverting or parodying standard parts of the mythology.

By contrast, although Star Wars also makes use of Arthurian ideas—a farm boy who discovers his secret destiny, a magical sword, a wise mentor who disappears partway through the story—it is not intertextual with Arthurian legend in the same way that Holy Grail is. Star Wars does not have characters named Arthur or Lancelot. There is no planet Camelot. Even though Star Wars invokes some Arthurian themes, it does not use them to reproduce or comment on the Arthurian legends themselves: Luke does not become king, assemble a round table of Jedi knights, or go in search of a mystical cup.

We live in a great age of intertextuality, an age of cinematic universes, boundless fan fiction, and knowing parodies. It’s a useful idea to have at hand for thinking and talking about the stories in the world around us.

Images: Still from Monty Python and the Holy Grail via IMDb. Still from Star Wars IV: A New Hope via IMDb.

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.

Deleted Scenes: Greeks and Romans

In the spirit of deleted scenes from movies, here are a few more snippets from Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World that didn’t make it to the final draft. Today’s selections concern the relationship between Greek culture and Roman culture, and the formation of the cultural fusion we know as Greco-Roman.

On the Etruscans as early mediators between Greece and Rome:

The fact that Greek culture first came to the Romans second-hand through the Etruscans explains some oddities in things like the spelling of names. It is easier to see how the name of the Greek hero Heracles became Hercules in Roman mouths, for instance, when we know that in between he was the the Etruscans’ Herkle. In the same way, Greek Persephone became Etruscan Persipnei, who in turn became Roman Proserpina.

 

On the dynamics of power and culture:

While Rome’s military supremacy only grew over time, the power to confer cultural legitimacy within the larger Mediterranean political and diplomatic sphere remained for a long time the property of the Greeks. The narrative that power lay in Rome but culture in Greece could be tuned to either side’s advantage: it flattered Roman vanity while giving Greeks a claim to special status under Roman rule.

 

On the similarities between Greece and Rome:

Greek and Roman cultures were compatible in many ways. Both were grounded in the geography of the Mediterranean, tied to its networks of trade and travel, and dependent on the “Mediterranean triad” of wheat, olives, and grapes. The climate and the demands of agriculture imposed regular annual rhythms that structured much of economic and social life. Both were, at least in their formative centuries, city-state societies whose politics revolved around balancing the ambitions of the rich and powerful against agitation from the less well-off. In their early years, their military power depended on unpaid citizen armies. Their economies depended on large slave populations. These fundamental similarities helped bridge the many differences between the two cultures.

 

On the uses of Greco-Roman culture:

There was no denying the imbalance of power between Greeks and Romans. Greco-Roman culture was not a collaboration of equal partners but a common ground on which relations of political power and cultural authority could be negotiated.

All of these passages got cut for various reasons—because the sections they were in got reworked, because I found a better way to express the same idea, or just for space, but it is nice to bring them out into the light again.

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

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.