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Hooray for Hellenistics!
Lately I've been spending quite a bit of time hanging around the Hellenistic era. For those who don't know, the Hellenistic era is that period beginning with the birth of Alexander the Great (or his death, depending which historian you consult) and finishing with the death of Cleopatra VI of Egypt. (Who is the only Cleopatra that most people have heard of.)

It's interesting how even those who are reasonably well up on the Greeks of the Athenian era or the Rome of Scipio Africanus have little idea of who Antiochus III was, or what happened in the Syrian Wars. Among non-history buffs, the average citizen has little idea that the Greeks once ruled Bactria (an area on the south-west of Afghan border) or that Iran was once part of the Seleucid Greek-ruled empire.

Yet the more I get into this Cinderella of ancient eras, the more fascinating I find it. There's huge battles, complex multi-level politics and obscure kingdoms and city-states. And elephants, and pirates, mercenary armies and beautiful princesses. Really, if you like your history gung-ho and over-the-top, you can't go wrong with the Hellenistics.

The only problem is that there is something of a barrier to entry for the newcomer. Just jumping in produces more bewilderment than fascination. It takes a while before you sort out your Ecbatana from your Attalus, but once the various dynasties and diverse geography have been roughly sorted out, you can relax and enjoy a very fun ride.
Rei boni
'It would have been so great to live in ancient Rome', history enthusiasts sometimes tell me. To which I reassuringly reply 'No, it wouldn't.' The reason is that, as denizens of the 21st century we take for granted a level of existence that even the most decadent of Roman emperors would have considered pampered.

The late, great Sir Terry Pratchett had one of his characters remark that the three greatest things in life were 'hot water, good dentistry and soft toilet paper' - things you only notice when they aren't there. How long would you spend in ancient Rome before you missed taking a hot shower?

It takes an advanced civilization to use as complex and precious a material as paper for the trivial task of wiping backsides. As a potential immigrant to ancient Rome, you would have to get used to using a sponge on a stick - and not your personal sponge either. It appears there was one per communal latrine, kept in a bucket of water, rather like the sponge on a stick found in petrol stations for cleaning car windscreens today.

True, dentistry in Rome was better than you would find anywhere but in the modern era. It might take a while before you get used to brushing your teeth with urine, but console yourself that the ammonia in the urine works like modern tooth-whitening strips. The Romans were also pretty good at removing decayed teeth, and had opium as a pain-killer. Furthermore, a society without sugar and tobacco has far fewer decayed teeth to start with. However, gum disease could kill you, and the only treatment for a bad tooth was removal.

On a personal note, I've spent the past few years living with a degenerative hip disease. This being 2017, I started the year by going to Vancouver and having the damaged hip replaced with a sturdy titanium prosthetic. Come spring I plan on leaping around the mountains like a young gazelle. No ancient Roman, millionaire or emperor had the same benefit.
Well, bread
As the winter approached I spent a lot of time loafing around the house. This is because the workmen doing the embankment outside were in a hurry to finish (temperatures of -20c and howling blizzards have that effect). In their rush they left no access to our house but a climb up the rockery to the road higher up the mountainside. This was accomplished by my considerably more able-bodied wife in expeditions to get milk and fresh vegetables.

Since bread is bulky and hard to stuff into a rucksack, I started baking it at home. Now, even with a new embankment out front, this has become a minor hobby. The joy of bread-making is that the yeast does nearly all the work. The job takes around three hours, but most of this is letting the yeast do its thing - preparing ingredients and kneading them together is all the human element has to do, and that takes a few minutes.

Of course, once I had mastered the basic loaf the next challenge was to make sourdough for the type of bread which survived 2000 years in an oven in Pompeii, baked more comprehensively than intended by Vesuvius. I even contrived a marking of my own, since Roman loaves had a manufacturer's stamp so that sub-standard products could easily be traced to source.

Another interesting fact I discovered along the way is that the Romans never made yeast separately. Instead this magic ingredient was preserved from loaf to loaf by setting aside a part of each batch of dough and then adding this to the next. This bit of dough is called in English 'leaven' (a past participle of 'leave' - 'drive/driven', 'leave/leaven'). So now I know why bread baked without yeast is called 'unleavened bread'.
The last blog of 2016 - already!
As we roll toward the end of the year the pace is picking up. All the previous year's projects are heading for their deadlines at a breakneck pace and there's 2017 to be planned out before it is upon us. And that's even before the Xmas frenzy. So at the moment it's all about getting ahead of the game. I've two books that will be coming out in the spring - 'Sparta - Rise of a Warrior Nation', and 'Greece' for the 'Lost Empires' series with Reaktion Books. (Yup, there was a Greek empire. Alexander made it, and it lasted until the Romans and Parthians flattened it between them. One can argue - and I do so argue - that it resurfaced again as the Byzantine empire, and ... but anyway, you can read all about it in the spring!)

So on the one hand there's pictures, and indices and bibliographies needed to finish some projects, and onthe other wrangling over contracts for next year's work. Both of the projects I'm committed to I'm really looking forward to doing - hopefully though, there will also be time to squeeze out the next Panderius novel before the end of 2017. I'm already fiddling with plot ideas and sketching out timelines.

Then, Xmas is not far away - as the snow piling up outside the window reminds me (1.5 meters has fallen so far this year, and it's just getting started.) So it's time to prepare and freeze blocks of shortbread pastry for mince pies and biscuits, order prezzies, and send off a flock of cards to various editors, fellow authors, collaborators and others I've had the pleasure of working with over the year. A card I can't send, but would love to, is one each to the many readers who have purchased my books over the past year. My most sincere thanks and the happiest of Saturnalias to you all!
Room for the imagination
About a week ago, I found myself sharing personal space with a somewhat agitated black bear. A few seconds beforehand that bear had been in the neighbours' yard, with a substantial wooden fence between us. When the neighbours' dog disturbed the bear, I discovered that the secure-looking fence actually slows down a bear in a hurry by around a quarter of a second. Something to remember for the future, not least to ensure that I actually have a future.

The bear kept right on going, fortunately, but this brush with the wild reminded me that for most peoples before the modern era such close encounters were pretty much routine. Even within a few miles of ancient Rome there was enough wildlife for hunters to regularly bring their catch to markets within the city, and travellers pretty much expected to encounter wildlife on the road.

Places like classical Greece were almost 80% uninhabited, meaning that the peoples of the land saw themselves as islands of humanity surrounded by wilderness. In those forest fastnesses were centaurs, satyrs and other beasts which we inhabitants of crowded modern landscapes know as fantastical.

Yet where I live, the Canadian boreal forest stretches around and over the mountains, untouched for hundreds of miles in every direction. There are far more bears living locally than humans. Sasquatch (that hairy semi-human also known as 'Bigfoot') is regularly reported by hunters, just as those roaming the deep forests of antiquity probably glimpsed the occasional centaur.

This isolation was brought home to me one night when flying into a rural town hereabouts. The lights below were a thumbnail-sized patch of gold in an otherwise totally unlit sea of inky black. Whole communities of Sasquatchi could have been out there in those miles and miles of dark forest, and possibly fauns, satyrs and centaurs too.

That's the joy of a wilderness. You just don't know.

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