It is your destiny young [insert name here]
A young man with no knowledge of his true origins tends plants at the edge of the desert. Then a chance incident makes him realise that his origins are more noble and more perilous than he realized. Eventually he must realize his destiny, challenge an evil ruler and change the fate of humanity.
Many people reading this will assume that the events described here happened to a certain Mr L. Skywalker, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. And they did in the 1977 movie “Star Wars”. They also happened to a certain Sargon of Akkadia some time around 2360 BC.
'My mother was a high priestess who kept her pregnancy secret. She kept my birth secret also and put me in a basket of rushes, and cast it into the river. The river carried me to Akki the drawer of water , who raised me as his son.'
So remarks Sargon in a neo-Assyrian text discovered in Mesopotamia. What happened next was described in detail on the next column – literally – but that column has not survived. However, as related above, we already know the story. That's because it exists not just in the Sargon legend, but also in the legend of Cyrus the Great, King Arthur, and Romulus and Remus. Those familiar with the Bible might also note certain similarities with the story of Moses.
As with all legends, there's an underlying truth. Being of noble birth in an unstable kingdom was risky, and being a royal heir was downright unhealthy. Young Mithridates of Pontus, for example actually fled the palace and spent years on the run before returning home as an adult to facehis scheming mother.
Of course, not all of us are set up for a life of madcap adventure, breath-taking risk and derring-do. I wonder how many people quietly decommissioned that droid, or (or whatever), slipped the sword back into the stone, and quietly tip-toed away.
Not feeling very superior
Like water, human behaviour tends to follow the path of least resistance. That is, humans have enough to cope with in life without making it unnecessarily harder for themselves. Also over time, societies evolve customs which exchange short-term work for long-term gain. Last month, as forest fires backlit the mountains around my home, I had reason to ponder that in more detail.
You see, the native American peoples who lived hereabouts were pretty good at forest management. They knew that regular wildfires were a part of the natural cycle, and if scrub built up, it was better to burn it off than risk a later devastating fire. They also built forest clearings that acted as firebreaks and encouraged wildlife diversity for better hunting.
Then along came the Europeans with a zero-tolerance policy for fires, so that over a century the wilderness became one huge tinder-box. Now, a slightly wiser forest management allows fires, but it will take decades before we have put everything back as we found it. All because no-one listened to the people who had been managing the forest for millennia. Because they were savages, you see.
Those studying ancient culture tend to make the same mistake. Anything that the ancients did 'wrong' is assumed to be because they were backward types who knew no better. The truth is that there was probably a good reason for it, and we would do better working out the economic, spiritual or social reasons behind the practice. We might also profitably consider why – as with 'modern' forest management – our modern solutions might not work in an ancient environment. The people of the classical world were neither stupid or unsophisticated. If they did something, it was probably for a reason.
If only it was all Greek to me
So, after a quiet after-breakfast coffee on the patio, I fire up the computer. The plan is to spend a quiet morning translating Antiphon so that I can use the material in a chapter that I'll be working on in the afternoon.
First though, there's the morning emails to get through. Let's see. The bank wants to know why the credit cards they sent me a fortnight ago have not been activated. Well, because they came with seven pages of densely-typed legalese labelled 'Important changes to your Terms and Conditions'. Last time they pulled that stunt, somewhere on page 6 para iii subsection c, they tried to sneak in a raft of extra charges, so I have to carefully read the damn thing, and I don't have time.
Now there's good news from my accountant. She's finally got me officially registered as a 'beneficent alien entity' (or something similar) in the US. This means that I must now complete form 3705B (ii), Tax Harmonization Schedule which she can send to the UK and I'll eventually pay less tax down the line.
But first, the webmaster of my site reminds me that the CA certificate of my HTTPS rating needs validation or a MiMO attack is a very real possibility. Finally there's form i2PAB-X from the postal service which I need to complete so they can investigate why recent online orders have not been arriving. There's also something marked 'Urgent' from the city council that I'm just going to ignore.
That's a pretty standard haul for a weekday morning. It explains why, if I get through the paperwork to Antiphon before lunchtime, I'll get there as a gibbering wreck.
Look, if I could cope with the modern world, I wouldn't be an ancient historian.
The Athenians, oh, those Athenians
The 'halo effect' is the human tendency to believe that because a person is good at one thing, then they must be good at all the rest. That's why we let ourselves be lectured about human rights and the environment by people whose only qualification is that they are famous actors. It's why top sportsmen and women sell everything from cars to personal hygiene products. We feel we know them and can trust them.
The same thing happens in ancient history. We know that the Athenians of the classical era wrote epic plays and poetry, we know that their philosophy laid the foundations of western thought. We 'know' the Athenians. So they were the good guys, yes? Not so. The Athenians were nasty, even by the low standards of the time. They were the kind of people who could twist the trust of naive allies to turn them into subject peoples. (And when the allies tried to back out of the 'alliance' the Athenians flattened their cities.)
The Athenians were also in the habit of mugging smaller cities which had done them no wrong. They would then loot the city, kill the menfolk, and enslave the women and children to work in horrible conditions in the silver mines which were the foundation of the city's wealth. One politician remarked, while unsuccessfully trying to persuade his fellow citizens to massacre (instead of enslaving) every man, woman and child in a 'rebel' city, 'Gentlemen, act as if you have an empire or chuck it all in and take up good works instead.'
The Athenians were many things. Ambitious and enterprising, talented artists and architects, brilliant thinkers and far-reaching strategists. They were very good at very many things. But they were not good.
Eat like a Gaul
One of the joys of my job is that I get to read a variety of articles on offbeat topics. Earlier this month it was about Isca grains imported into Roman Britain. In a follow-up on one of the notes, I came across the comment that the dietary intake of the average ancient Gaul was 70% grain. (With vegetables and dairy making up most of the rest.)
The implication was that this was a Bad Thing, because Gauls did not get enough variety in their diet. Compare this with someone today – let's call him Joe Modern. Joe starts his day with a bowl of cornflakes followed by toast. His mid-morning coffee is accompanied by a cookie, and for lunch he has a cream cheese bagel. Then he stops at the supermarket and picks up a pasta fettucini for dinner, with a slice of chocolate cake to follow. Yum. Yet what Joe Modern has just chomped through is wheat,wheat, wheat and wheat with a bit of dairy and even less veg.
It has been noted that of the tens of thousands of edible foodstuffs out there, most of the time the average westerner eats around twenty. We don't recognize the lack of variety in our diet, because – for example – wheat comes in so many forms. It is probably because of my interest in ancient diet that I've started doing more and more at home. An ancient Gaul would recognize my usual fortnightly shop. It's 10kg of flour, with dairy and fresh vegetables. (And apples in season. British Columbia does the finest apples on the planet.)
The flour becomes bread, of course. But also spaghetti, lasagne, pizza base, focaccia, pie crust, bagels, noodles, buns, tortillas, cookies, perogies and submarine rolls. I'm experimenting with croissants, but my wife assures me that they have a a short way to go. (It's around six paces from the oven to the bin, which is indeed short.) Thing is, I spend a lot of my time pondering. Currently for example, I am working with Aristophanes and need an easy way to count iambs to see when he has moved to tetrameter in his verse. While I am thinking it over, I might as well pound dough.
Baking takes time, but mostly the yeasty-beasties do the work while I'm back at the computer. Where I am involved, I find it great to let my subconscious chew on classical things while I work on stuff my body can chew on later. Oh, and I find that I don't at all miss silicone dioxide or guar gum, or any of the 35 other most common preservatives modern manufacturing likes to put in my food.