The other day I heard a presenter on TV listing all the ways that the makers of the show could be contacted, including 'old-fashioned email'. Sorry – was that 'old fashioned'? Actually, on reflection, for a younger generation this is indeed the case. I got my first email address in 1990 – probably around the time the presenter of the TV show was born. Though we never see it happening from day-to-day, we are living in an era of whirlwind technological change. That's something that makes us very different from the Romans.
Let us take a Roman from the era of Augustus – almost exactly two thousand years ago. Show him the technology of five hundred years previously and there was very little that he would not consider an everyday item in his own home. Pots were pots, and the Roman's pots were probably slightly inferior to those the Athenians were producing half a millennium previously. The Roman's clothing was cloth woven no differently to the cloth woven for Romulus when he founded the city. Communications – which have changed out of all recognition in the twentieth century – still consisted of the Roman writing on a wax tablet and sending the message off with a messenger.
Now move that Roman forward five hundred years to the end of the empire. Apart from noticing how much standards had deteriorated, that Roman would have had no trouble fitting in with the technology of that day. Things really had not changed that much.
Now try doing the same thing by imagining how a Briton from Shakespeare's day might cope with the 21st century. It's not hard to conceive of how much that Briton would struggle when you remember the struggle to teach your grandfather to use Skype. In fact a Roman from Julius Caesar's day would manage much more happily in Shakespeare's Britain 1,500 years later than someone of 150 years ago can cope in ours.
This leads to a mental disconnect. We are accustomed to the future bringing constant technological change, with all its advantages and dangers. The Romans saw time as pretty much static, with the only real changes happening in the political field. For them the world they would leave their grandchildren was the same world that they currently lived in. It gave them a sense of continuity that is simply impossible for the generations living today.
Yesterday I was in my study reading up on meteorite iron. This is fascinating stuff. Apparently several times every year lumps of iron-nickel alloy drop from space on to the Earth. These visitors from space do not last very long, because the Earth is a naturally damp place. Unless our meteorite happened to land in the middle of a desert, oxidation would turn it into a pile of rust within a decade or so. This is what happened to all the iron on Earth long before humans were around, and that's what makes it so fascinating.
In early antiquity, no-one knew how to extract iron from iron ore. The use of charcoal and bellows to create the necessary temperatures in a smelter had not yet been discovered, so the only usable iron available to humanity came from meteorites. This made iron many times more precious than gold, and much rarer than diamonds. This is why even in historical times, Roman senators used to wear rings made of iron, a reflection of the times when possession of even a tiny amount of the stuff marked the owner as a man of wealth and prestige. Tutankhamun was buried with an iron dagger beside him. (The technology existed for the precious metal to be heated and hammered into shape, since this required lower temperatures than smelting did.)
It would have amazed those prehistoric peoples to know that in later centuries iron would be so abundant that people would – for example – lay thousands of miles of it in railroad tracks, and casually abandon large rusting hulks of iron in scrapyards. Perhaps in future ages nanobots will re-sculpt carbon into diamond structures that will be more common than brick houses are today.
So preoccupied was I in reading up on all this that I apparently failed to notice that a young black bear was wandering around a few feet away on the deck outside. The bear even went and parked himself under the study window for a while. He then hoisted himself onto his back legs to contemplate the neighbours in their back yard, before going off to rummage through my garden shed for anything edible.
It's this combination of ancient history and mountain living that so enriches life at the moment. I love it.
This week I went looking for an island. Not to retire to, since I need to sell a lot more books first. Actually, I was looking for this island because it ought to have been there. When I found it, it turned out to be a peninsula, which from my point of view was just as good.
The location was ancient Chalcedon, which is sometimes called 'The City of the Blind' because the city's founders apparently overlooked the much more suitable site just over the Bosporus Strait – a site which went on to become the city of Byzantium, Constantinople and modern Istanbul. Let's assume, though, that the people who founded Chalcedon knew their stuff. Why did they pick the apparently less favourable site?
For different reasons I've recently looked at the foundation of two other ancient cities – Halicarnassus and Syracuse. Though far apart, these two places had something in common with Chalcedon. They were the first settlements on a foreign coast, far from their homeland. In each case the original settlement happened on an island just off the coast - Zephyria for Halicarnassus, Ortygia for Syracuse. On reflection, the reason was obvious – a base just off the coast allowed the settlers to get to know the locals and set up trade and diplomatic links before extending the settlement to the mainland. If things got really nasty with the natives, the island remained a fortress of last resort from which the settlers could be evacuated by sea.
Therefore, I decided, Chalcedon was settled where it was because there was an island just off the coast. So I went looking for an island just off Chalcedon. What I found was Kadikoy – a peninsula with a very narrow neck which could easily be walled off from the mainland to make a virtual island. In fact, because Ortygia is now a similar peninsula in Syracuse, I might check if Kadikoy actually was an island in the Archaic era.
Either way, it shows that the people who settled Chalcedon had good reason to act as they did. When Byzantium was settled later, it did not need an island bolt-hole off the coast – friendly Chalcedon was a few kilometers away. The Chalcedonian settlers were not 'blind' - they simply got there first.
Things you didn't know you knew
Did you know that the Greeks have a word that translates as 'sharpdull'? If that seems to you like an oxymoron, you are precisely correct. 'Oxy' is Greek meaning 'sharp' and 'moron' means 'dull'. (Which is why 'moron' was once a technical term for the slow of thought, before it became a common insult.)
As those following my Facebook posts will note, I've been coming across a lot of Greek and Latin that people speak daily without realizing that they are doing so. I was doing translations when I realized that the girl's name 'Renata' means 'reborn', and because a shingles infection usually strikes around the waist, it gets its name from 'cingulum' meaning 'belt'.
In this part of the world, a second-year student is a sophomore. That's because after a year the student is partly educated, and partly ignorant. Thus the student is wise - 'sophos', but also not wise - which brings us to our old friend 'moron'. From here we can thank academic shorthand for getting us from 'sophosmoron' to 'sophomore'.
Incidentally, the 'oxy' part of 'oxygen' also has the 'sharp' meaning, though sharp in the sense of 'acrid'. It was once believed that the gas was essential for generating acid – thus it was an 'acrid stuff generator' or 'oxy-gene'.
And now for something completely different.
My thanks to those who've been buying my most recent books, and even more thanks to those who've taken the time to review them (especially as the reviews have all be favourable). For those who have not yet taken the plunge, my publishers are offering a special e-book deal on Amazon for 'The Servant of Aphrodite'.
The promotion is from April 8-11. On Friday the book is 60% off, and the price rises day by day till Tuesday when its back to the full price. (Which is still pretty reasonable, in my opinion!)
Durandal, Harpe, Excalibur, Gan Jiang, Caladbolg, Quernbiter – you may know of these or similar legendary weapons. The interesting thing is how these mighty swords cross cultures. The above list contains swords from Greek myth (Harpe), Japanese, Celtic and Arthurian legend (Durandal, Gan Jiang and Excalibur respectively) and it is nowhere near comprehensive. Even Julius Caesar reputedly had a sword called Crocea Mors, 'the Yellow Death' which killed all who were struck with it. Quernbiter, in Nordic legend was so sharp it could cut through the stone querns used for grinding grain.
As ever with myth, it turns out there's more than a grain of truth behind the tales. I recently talked to someone who takes an interest in swordsmithery, and it was fascinating stuff. The point of a sword – and the edge, I suppose – is that it has no practical purpose other than to kill people. Since those on the receiving end tend to object to this, a sword can expect to meet resistance, be it armour or someone else's sword or shield.
So a sword has to keep a good edge even after being repeatedly banged against metal and it has to be flexible enough to spring back after impact rather than shattering or bending. Good, well-tempered steel can do this to an incredible degree. I once read of a Celtic sword dredged from deep river mud (which was anaerobic, so the sword did not rust much). The sword was bent almost into a circle by the jaws of the dredger, but when released the 2,000 year old blade sprang right back into shape.
Thing is, there is a very, very fine balance between carbon and iron in good steel. Just a smidgeon too much carbon makes a blade brittle. Too little makes it bend and stay bent. For the sword-makers of the ancient world the entire process was hit-and-miss, and that's even before we consider nickel, chromium manganese or other trace elements that complicated the mix. This is why warriors preferred ancestral swords. You never knew what a new one would do in battle.
Of course, sometimes and completely by chance, a sword-maker hit on exactly the right combination of minerals, mixed in just the right proportion for exactly the right time. The result was a sword that would shatter other swords, cut through armour and stay sharp even under trying circumstances. Such swords were highly sought after, and as we have seen, became legends in their own right.