history


I just read Lady Murasaki’s diary, a procedure that fortunately did not require breaking into the Tsuchimikado Palace and burglarizing her room, which would have greatly put her out, but reading Richard Bowring’s Penguin Classics version.

Murasaki_Shikibu_by_Hiroshige

Picture of Murasaki by Hiroshige, 1880

Murasaki Shikibu 紫式部 is an icon of Japanese literature, and indeed world literature, as she’s the author of the world’s first novel, 源氏物語 (Genji Monogatari / The Tale of Genji). Now you know who to blame for all those annoying Genjis in Overwatch. Her novel was recognized as a classic within a century and has remained popular ever since, and naturally it’s been turned into illustrated scrolls, manga, anime, and live-action films.

For all this fame, it’s surprising that we don’t even know her real name. Partly this is due to Heian court etiquette, in which names were avoided as much as possible. Shikibu refers to the Ministry of Ceremonial, which her father briefly ran. Murasaki means ‘purple’ and is a nickname, borrowed from one of the women in her own novel. It’s a native Japanese word, borrowing the kanji from ‘purple’. Shikibu is however a direct borrowing of *shiəkbhǒ ‘style-section’, pronounced shìbù in modern Mandarin.

She was a member of the Fujiwara clan which dominated the capital, Heian 平安 (the earlier name for Kyōto). Its leader, Michinaga no Fujiwara, had arranged for his daughter Shōshi to marry the Emperor, and he appointed Murasaki as a lady-in-waiting to her.  When the diary opens, in 1008, Shōshi was 21 and Murasaki around 34. She was already known for her ongoing writing of Genji, and for knowing Chinese, very unusual for a woman of the time; Michinaga’s choice was undoubtedly made to help build a salon for his daughter. (Murasaki was married but her husband died young. She had a daughter, who isn’t mentioned in the diary, though she must have been about 9— it’s not clear where she was living.)

The diary is short— the introduction is almost as long— and mostly concerned with the events surrounding the birth of Shōshi’s first son. There are long descriptions of the many court ceremonials, with careful attention paid to the subtle signals of Heian court life: where people were seated, what clothes they wore, how close they came to the ideal of being lively without being rowdy or boring. (Don’t picture the kimono with wide obi of our times; rather, women wore multiple kimono tied with a cord.)

There’s a constant theme of melancholy:

But then for some strange reason— if only my appetites were more mundane, I might find more joy in life, regain a little youth, and face it all with equanimity— seeing and hearing these marvelous, auspicious events only served to strengthen my yearnings. I felt downcast, vexed that nothing was turning out as I had hoped and that my misery simply seemed to increase.

Toward the end she offers some portraits of the women she know. Most are carefully positive, but one stands out for its negativity:

Sei Shōnagon, for instance, was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters, but if you examined them carefully, they left a great deal to be desired. Those who think of themselves as being superior to everyone else in this way will inevitably suffer and come to a bad end, and people who have become so precious that they go out of their way to try and be sensitive in the most unpromising situations, trying to capture every moment of interest, however slight, are bound to look ridiculous and superficial.

This passage is of particular interest because Sei Shōnagon is another prominent Heian female writer, author of the Pillow Book (枕草子 Makura no Sōshi, not a novel but more a book of anecdotes, poems, and essays). Murasaki herself mentions learning Chinese faster and better than her brother, but she mostly hides her learning— though she casually mentions things like a minister in a ceremonial reciting the beginning lines of Sīmǎ Qián’s Records. (Which itself is a telling detail: the ceremonial in question is the baby prince’s first bathing: nothing to do with Chinese history. It’s like reading from Herodotus, in Greek, at a christening.)

The details of court life differ, but the basic humanity comes through. Well, of course, you think— how hard is it to write about small human interactions and one’s own feelings? But we’re used to a thousand year of novels, personal essays, and journalism. A lot of early literature is epics, chronicles, manuals, poetry, or religious stuff, genres where people are normally very serious and aloof. One can only wish that we had anything as quotidian and candid as the diary from, say, Babylonia.

What was Heian court life like? From Murasaki’s account, very crowded. She describes a number of ceremonies that were jam-packed with dozens of nobles. In daily life, she was almost constantly surrounded by other court women and servants. She could retire to her room, but it was small, walls didn’t go up to the ceiling, and people would be bustling about at all hours.

A point of pride for both men and women was being able to quickly improvise verse. She mentions one event where, bored, she was leaving with another woman, when Michinaga himself caught them. He demanded a poem for the new prince, and she answered,

How on this fiftieth day can we possibly count
The countless years of our prince’s reign!

“Oh! Splendid!” he said, reciting it twice to himself; then he gave a very quick reply:

Had I as many years as the crane, then might I count
How many thousand years his eternal reign would be.

Elsewhere she admits that she sometimes (though not on this occasion) prepared poems in advance in case she was asked to improvise one.

Another time, Murasaki is away from court and misses her friend Lady Dainagon. She sends her a poem by letter, and receives back:

Awakening to find no friend to brush away the frost
The mandarin duck longs for her mate at night.

The translator explains that mandarin ducks were believed to make inseparable pair-bonds and were a metaphor for lovers— but then goes on to insist that the poem should be taken as “a conventional exchange between close friends— nothing more.” This is an odd comment!  It’s presumably offered so that we won’t suspect a lesbian affair. But how can a British professor a thousand years later, however learned, know all about the sexuality of Heian courtiers?

Elsewhere Murasaki mentions that she and another lady-in-waiting used to remove the panel between their rooms, making a larger room. Michinaga notices and makes a “tasteless remark” that it would be awkward if one of them had a lover the other didn’t know. But she answers it anyway, in her diary: there would be no problem, because they were “very close.”

From her own account, Murasaki is very attentive to female beauty— though you could say it was part of her job. Then there’s this incident:

I looked in at Lady Saishō’s door, only to find her asleep. She lay with her head pillowed on a writing box, her face all but hidden by a series of robes— dark red lined with green, purple lined with dark red…. The shape of her forehead was enchanting and so delicate. She looked just like one of those princesses you find depicted in illustrations. I pulled back the sleeves that covered her face.

“You remind me of a fairy-tale princess!” I said.

She looked up with a start. “You are dreadful!” she said, propping herself up. “Waking people up like that without a thought!”

That’s a degree of closeness one can describe as pretty darn close. And if it did get closer than friendship, what record would one expect to find after all these years?

The female perspective here reminds me of the Míng novel Golden Lotus. That was an elite but not royal family, and Chinese, and written a few centuries later, but the cultural milieu and the concentration on minor events of daily life are similar. I’m also reminded of the French elite of the 17th century, a time when you might not be expected to improvise a poem on the spot, but where the rich and the erudite mingled and shared their values.

I haven’t read The Tale of Genji itself, though it’s on my list. From reviews, it seems to be extremely lusty— it’s almost entirely devoted to Genji’s many loves. This contrasts with the retiring persona Murasaki presents in her diary— there is not a single hint of any amorous intrigue on her part. The nature of the novel at least explains a passage in the diary, when Michinaga gives her this poem:

She is known for her tartness
So I am sure that no one seeing her
Could pass without a taste.

The continuation— it’s unclear if it’s his or Murasaki’s:

She is a fruit that no one has yet tasted—
Who then can smack his lips and talk of tartness?

From the diary, this is a rather rude imposition. But then, the reserved persona of the diary might have been a conscious presentation, a necessary counterbalance to a rather racy novel.

 

 

I’ve been reading about Egypt… I had been trying to keep it out of my book, but it moved itself in, much as Egypt kept moving into Canaan.  The last book I read was the Book of the Dead, translated by Ramses Seleem. In particular, it’s a translation of the Papyrus of Hunefer, one of the shorter versions of the BotD, from around 1300 BCE.

hunefer

That’s Hunefer above, in fact: he got the deluxe illustrated Book for his tomb, with his name in all the spells and pictures of himself and his wife Nasha. (She doesn’t appear in the illo above; the other folks are all gods. To the left Hunefer’s heart is being measured by Anubis against a representation of maat, truth or virtue. Thoth is recording the results. Fortunately, he passes the test, and is ushered into the presence of Osiris, flanked by Isis and Nephthys.)

I’m afraid I can’t recommend Seleem’s version.  The main problem is that he seems to be a believer…. yes, in ancient Egyptian religion. I’m not quite convinced you can be such a thing, but the thing is, he has all of the convert’s convictions that a) he knows things hidden from the experts, and b) whatever he believes is identical to what was believed 3300 years ago.  But religions, like languages, change, and entering into the mindset of people long dead is extremely tricky. Saying you have special insight because you actually believe this stuff only makes it trickier.

To start with, there’s some linguistic BS. For instance, he mentions the Egyptian word for the wrapped body, krst. He then claims that this is “the root of the Latin word corpus” as well as the word Christ. Which is… non-mainstream.  Both words are Indo-European and not even related to each other. (Christ is a nominalization formed from χρῑ́ω ‘rub, anoint’; an actual cognate of this word turns out to be ghee.)  From some quick Googling, this krst nonsense does seem to be widespread, but that just means that cranks have been copying it, one book to another, for a hundred years. A chance similarity just never stops doing its mischief.

Just as bad: he thinks that language derives from lingua (‘tongue’) + age, thus, “the speech of ages.”  Argh!  In fact it’s from French langue (which is from lingua) plus the common nominalizer –age, which isn’t the same as the noun âge.

Well, non-linguists may mess up etymologies. Moving on… he informs us that the Egyptians were not actually polytheists– the words neter ‘god’ and netrit ‘goddess’ should really be ‘law or principle’, masculine and feminine: he suggests yin and yang as equivalents.

Now, I’m no expert– ask me after a few more books– but my suspicions are aroused, because this is how people from polytheistic religions talk when the most privileged religions are monotheistic. You see it in Hinduism and also in ancient Rome: scholars very gravely announce that the gods are illusions and cover an even more ancient monotheism, or even a trinity. (I’m aware, by the way, that the process is very far along in Hinduism.  But that doesn’t mean that such interpretations were what (say) Vedic religion was “really about.”)

One, there’s nothing wrong with multiple gods! You don’t have to give in to Yahweh-envy. And two– if ancient Egypt was monotheistic, it makes it a good deal harder to understand why Akhenaten’s reforms were ultimately resisted.

All of this could be ignored if we can trust his translation. But then he explains that his translations are “symbolic.” E.g., one line from Hunefer literally reads

I am pure in my great double nests, in the city of Sutnny, in the day where the people gave offerings to the great principle in it.

He says that this should instead be translated

I achieved purification of my body and soul in the time of my youth, when other people were busy with the dazzling illusion of life.

I would like a second opinion on this.

If all the Egytologists agree, great. That is, if “double nests” is a way of saying “body and soul”, that’s fine. I’m more wary of “the dazzling illusion of life”, which certainly can’t be explained by anything in the literal translation.

The problem with such interpretive translations is that the translator trusts their own explanations far more than he trusts the actual sacred text. Even if the interpretation is good, it’s theirs more than the writers… and really, it’s a rare interpretation that exceeds the original. Read a commentary on the Dao De Jing, then read a minimalist translation, and see which you get more out of. Or read the parables of Jesus, then some pastor’s book about them. (There’s nothing wrong with writing commentaries… but even as a believer, you should recognize that sages’ words are one thing, disciples commentaries are another. Not a few sages have said just that!)

I much prefer Wendy Doniger’s approach with the Rig Veda. Where the text is maddeningly obscure, she lets it be so. She explains a good deal of it, but separates text and interpretation, and doesn’t over-supply the latter. Yes, it can leave the reader feeling that they don’t understand everything. That’s a plus. It’s no favor to give the reader the illusion of understanding a very old and difficult text.

The other problem with the “symbolic translation”: it bleaches out almost all meaning and interest from the text. Saleem’s version of Egyptian religion turns out to be, well, pretty much like most religious writing. Here’s a random sample from his commentaries:

These three pillars (awakening, purification, and activation) form the earthly triangle. When this has been activated, the heavenly triangle comes into operation. This include the process of rejuvenation. When the body is working correctly, the internal and external energy can be fully utilized. The body then starts to create new skin and tissues in all its organs and muscles, which take about 15 years. 

So… some nice words come together and are given a metaphorical name. There are special disciplines for the elect which allow a fuller life. It’s the message of every religion and completely devoid of any interesting specifics.

By the way, I don’t at all reject spiritual points of view or disciplines. I just find writings about them to be nearly meaningless. I’ve known a few people I consider to be near saintly. The thing is– they talked like any other religious person; it wasn’t their gift. Their quality was in what they did, not what they said. This is undoubtedly why so many religions are based on personal, one-on-one discipleship.

Anyway, I don’t feel I can use much of the book. It does contain a lot of information on Egyptian mythology, and it’s beautifully illustrated.

 

 

I just finished this; it’s by Clive Ponting, and it was published in 2007. Immediate reaction: Human beings suck. I really wish there was a better species to belong to.

ponting

You may get an idea of its depressiveness from the fact that just one chapter is devoted to global warming. Yeah, that might destroy our civilization, but we were already headed that way. Also, if you think the culprit is manufacturing, or oil, or capitalism, think again. The problem goes way back, at least to the beginnings of agriculture.

And that may be letting the hunter-gatherers off the hook too easily. Humans are not only frighteningly efficient hunters, they’re death for other large animals. When humans reached the Americas, they quickly eliminated 75% of all large animal species.

As for agriculture, the main problems are these:

  • Soil erosion. Exposing the soil means that much of it is blown or washed away. This in turn silts up the rivers and causes flooding. The process is particularly deadly in the tropics, because rain forests have very poor soil— after a few crops are grown the land turned into baked clay, good for almost nothing.
  • Salinization. Irrigation in poor soils creates waterlogging and brings up salt, which impedes crops. Sumerian culture basically destroyed itself this way: by 1700 BCE crop yields were 1/3 of what they were when civilization began. (Sumer itself never fully recovered— political power moved north to Babylonia.)
  • The extension of agriculture to more and more marginal terrain.
  • Deforestation. Forests are cut down for building and for fuel. Over six thousand years, almost all of China and all of northern India have been converted into cropland. The current appearance of Mediterranean countries— semi-desert with occasional stands of olive trees— is man-made; forests once covered most of the land.
  • Poor diet. Most peasants survive almost entirely on grain and beans. Hunter-gatherers are far healthier. Plus, living with animals we get all their diseases.
  • These days, the unsustainable and polluting high usage of fertilizers and antibiotics.

Basically, Malthus was right: any increase in productivity is soon eaten up (literally) by increased population. 90% of human beings lived in starvation-level misery well into the 1800s. And that’s before you consider epidemics, war, or slavery.

There’s just one civilization that had a sustainable model, due to its geography: Egypt. The flood of the Nile brought a new coating of soil every year, so salinization wasn’t a problem. The valley is surrounded by desert, so there was no forest to cut down and no temptation to use marginal land. Egypt basically farmed the same way from 4000 BCE till the 19th century. It’s in trouble today, largely because of the Aswan Dam. The dam stops the silting process, so the Nile delta is shrinking, salinization is now a problem, and soil fertility must be supplemented by chemicals. Irrigation has spread schistosomiasis and fresh water is scarce.

Then there’s overhunting and overfishing. The chapter on fishing is particularly depressing. Humans just cannot seem to figure out that fish stocks are finite, even as they exhaust one after another. The fishing industry naturally resists any form of regulation, but again: we don’t just use fish species, we use them up. Once the fish are gone, you don’t have a fishing industry any more.

If you have an early-industrial conworld (as I do), some observations from Bernardino Ramazzini, an Italian doctor. He noted a number of industry-specific diseases in 1700:

  • potters got trembling and paralysis from lead poisoning
  • glass-makers got ulcerated lungs from antimony and borax
  • gilders and hatters got mercury poisoning (thus the Mad Hatter)
  • coal miners got lung diseases
  • cotton mills also produced lung problems, due to lint in the air; people who worked with wood had similar problems due to wood dust
  • coal and oil products caused cancer

Next— colonialism. Here at last the Europeans get to be the clear villains. I’ll just tell one story, which was new to me. In Kenya, whites stole all the good land. But they needed cheap labor for their plantations, so they couldn’t just let the natives continue to use traditional methods on what land remained to them. They instituted a poll tax and a hut tax, paid in cash, to force the Africans to work for them. When this didn’t produce enough labor, they raised the taxes, appropriated more land, and put import duties to raise the cost of living. This “worked” in the sense that the plantations got their labor. It also killed off nearly half the population.

The kicker: this happened, not in the 1720s, but in the 1920s. This is part of why stupid articles about how the American revolution preserved slavery drive me up the wall. The British were evil to the people they ruled… and not much better to their own descendants. (Not to get into too much of a digression: the British were able to outlaw slavery in their own colonies only because they’d lost the biggest slave-owning population, in British North America. And they supported the Confederacy in our civil war. They sold warships and blockade-running ships to the CSA— for which they had to pay the US reparations afterwards. No, they weren’t more benign than any other unelected overlords. And no, monarchy is not cuddly.)

The USSR did its fair share of devastation. They purposely drained the Aral Sea, which was supposed to provide good cropland but instead created a salty desert. Attempts to use Kazakh steppe as cropland was a disaster, resulting in losing 50% of the cropland in Kazakhstan. Collectivization killed millions of peasants and reduced food consumption even in the cities. Most industrial sludge was dumped untreated into rivers… several times rivers caught on fire. A nuclear accident in  Siberia released radiation equivalent to 3000 Hiroshima-sized bombs, and made Lake Karachai the most radioactive place on earth: you’ll get a lethal dose if you just stand on the shore for 30 minutes.

Another big mistake? Cars. Cars use 20% of world steel production, 35% of zinc, 50% of lead, 60% of rubber, 1/3 of oil. Car accidents kill a million people a year worldwide. In car-based Los Angeles, 2/3 of the center city is devoted to roads, garages, freeways, and parking areas. Yet street traffic is actually slower in modern cities than it was in 1900.

As for global warming… not much of this is news by now, but prospects are bad. Temperatures are up 0.85° C on average, and rising 0.2° C per decade. But it’s not uniform: the change in temperate areas is about 150% of that, and even higher at the poles. The goal of limiting warming to 2° C is optimistic. Worrying signs:

  • Polar ice is already starting to melt. That could raise the sea level significantly and, by removing all that reflective white ice, accelerate warming.
  • As the tundra melts, huge amounts of methane are released. And methane is a far more powerful warming agent than carbon dioxide.
  • Ironically, reducing industrial pollution could accelerate warming, by removing dust from the air.
  • The oceans absorb CO2… but there’s a strong possibility (based on examining climate change from millions of years ago) that this doesn’t continue indefinitely.

Predictions are tricky, but if these processes take off, warming by 2100 may be more in the range of 10° C. (That’s 18° F in case you’re rusty on Celsius. And recall, it’s higher in temperate latitudes. So Chicago’s average summer day of 85° F might be 112° instead.) And note, if we haven’t done anything, temperatures continue rising.

I’m naturally an optimist, but it’s hard to maintain that reading this book. At least let me emphasize that all this is a crisis of humanity’s own making. If we keep going as we’re going— well, we get ecological collapse with massive population die-off. But like Scrooge’s ghosts, the message is that we could pick another path. But it will require a hell of a lot of painful change, rethinking our civilization from the ground up. And at precisely the moment we need to make changes, we’re ruled by reactionaries who want to accelerate the collapse.

So, any other species need recruits? Gnolls? Half-orcs maybe?

 

 

 

 

You may be wondering, or if not you should: what’s my next book?

It’s books. But the next one should be my Quechua reference grammar.

cusco-market

Based on some quick quizzes on Twitter and the ZBB, it seemed that people are more interested in a reference grammar than a textbook. Which is good, because I more or less have one! I wrote the grammar (and a dictionary) for my own use when I was studying Quechua in the 1990s.

It needs quite a bit of work yet, partly to make the text as good as possible, and partly because I need to go over some of the source materials in much more detail. But, that work is underway now.

If you’ve been following the blog, you’ve probably seen that I’m also doing research on the Middle East. Now, in theory this should be no harder than distilling all of India or China into a book. But, well, it isn’t. China is largely the story of one people and language. India is much more miscellaneous, but it’s mostly one civilization, whatever exactly that means. I could cover everything from Sumer to Khomeini in one volume, but it would mean compressing each bit into near unrecognizability.

So, my current idea is two books. One will cover the Ancient Middle East— concentrating on Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Persia, more or less up to Alexander. (That is, I don’t expect to cover Egypt or Anatolia in detail.) That’s certainly doable. After all, histories of Mesopotamia alone have to cover a lot of this material, because its empires were all over the Levant, and were eventually conquered by Persia. And most of the area was occupied by Semitic speakers, and shared a good deal of culture and cosmology. The obvious languages to cover would be Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew.

There are a couple of really interesting puzzles to cover:

  • How did agriculture get started, and more importantly, why? People seemed happier without it.
  • How did one unimportant subgroup of Semites, of the same language and culture as the entire Levant, come up with a fervent monotheism?

Naturally, the latter question could take over the whole book, but I don’t intend to let it. I just read a history of ancient Israel, and though it’s interesting, what I crave is precisely the larger context. The Bible, and thus most historians, present Israel as somehow totally distinct from their neighbors. But they weren’t, at all; they basically spoke the same language, and indeed if you read a little closer they actually had enormous trouble keeping separate from those neighbors. And then there’s the tantalizing Persian connection— they interacted closely with the other monotheistic religion in the area. More on that later.

Book Two would cover the same area from about 600 to the present. That’s mostly the Islamic era, but also includes the very interesting 600s, when the age-old war between the Byzantines and Persians heated up, well, more than it ever had. The languages covered would be Persian and probably Arabic.

Clever people may note that there’s a gap of nearly a millennium in between. That’s intentional. I expect to cover the Persian part of the story, but what’s missing is the Greeks and Romans, and early Christianity. That’s nowhere near as new to most of my readers, I think; and covering them would require a different base area anyway.

Now, that’s plenty to do, but one day recently I woke up with my head full of Xurno. That is, I was thinking about the plot for Diary of the Prose Wars, my unfinished Almean novel. I read over the material I had. I think it’s in worse shape than I remembered, but that’s fine. The real problem was the plot, and I worked on that a bit. (For what it’s worth, it does focus the mind a bit when one’s own country is going to pot. “Oh, that’s how awful authoritarian regimes are formed.”) This won’t be a high priority, but apparently my subconscious was working on it, and I look forward to seeing it do some more.

 

I just finished this book by James C. Scott, and it’s amazing. It’s one of those books that’ll unwind your mind and rethread your head. I’m tempted to rewrite the early history of Almea, and you may want to do the same with your worlds. Oh, hey, is it clear that the post title is the book title? It’s called Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

hamurabi

Actually a bad guy

Everything you know is wrong

At some point, maybe in sixth grade, you probably read some histories that suggested, more or less:

  • humanity progressed from foraging, to pastoralism, to agriculture, the last being true civilization
  • each of these steps was an advance in freedom and prosperity
  • nomads and foragers did not understand agriculture, otherwise they would have immediately adopted it
  • agriculture was necessary for large permanent settlements
  • since agriculture developed, the world has been dominated by large agricultural states

All of these statements are wrong. A truer set of statements would be:

  • People prefer foraging or pastoralism, but can be coerced into agriculture
  • Agriculture (and to a lesser extent pastoralism) is a step backwards in freedom and prosperity
  • Nomads and foragers understand how crops work and sometimes plant them, but prefer not to be tied down to a much more tedious and unhealthy lifestyle
  • Large permanent settlements preceded agriculture by a few thousand years
  • For most of history, the bulk of humanity has lived outside the effective control of states

There’s a simple reason the state dominates history, as opposed to humanity: because that’s what generated stone cities and writing that survived. It takes a lot more work to uncover what happened before states appeared, or in areas where the towns were built from perishable materials. Quite a lot of that work has been done in Mesopotamia, which is the focus of the book. (On the other hand, there’s a huge amount that we’ll just never know.)

Our secret weapon: Fire

A nice trendy argument is when the Anthropocene began: the geological era dominated by humans. Was it when we noticed global warming, or when the industrial revolution began? Scott makes a case that it began 400,000 years ago, when hominins mastered fire. Fire greatly changed our diet, and our own bodies and brains, because it allowed us to cook both meat and vegetables, unlocking a great deal more nutrients. Our huge brains are the product of fire: the other great apes can’t support equally sized brains with their diet of raw food. Fire has shortened our guts, which are about a third as long as those of chimps’, because we don’t need as much digestion. We can eat a wider range of things; that, and the warmth of fires, allowed us to greatly expand our habitat.

What’s less realized is that we also used fire to transform the landscape. Sometimes this was accidental; sometimes a purposeful hunting/foraging technique. Fire could be used to chase prey into a killing zone. More subtly, it encourages certain crops which we happen to find useful, and animals that grazed on those crops. Just about every landscape we consider “natural” has already been modified, thousands of years ago, by humanity, largely through fire.

A little fact which underlies the scale of this change: when Europeans reached the New World, their diseases killed off perhaps a majority of the natives– who for centuries had been using fire to clear the forest. The forests sprang back, incidentally absorbing so much CO2 that global climate cooled, from roughly 1500 to 1850.

Next there’s an extended discussion of what happened in lower Mesopotamia and when. The first oddity is that it looks like there were permanent settlements by 6500 BCE, about 1500 years before solid evidence for agrarian villages. The second is that it took another 2000 years before states developed. (Mesopotamia was not the pioneer in sedentism; there was year-long settlement at various sites around 10,000 BCE.)

What sort of area could support sedentism before agriculture? Not the arid desert that much of this region is today… but at that time it wasn’t desert, it was wetlands, if not actually under the sea: almost half of the current land from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf was then part of the gulf.  Ancient Ur was on the coast. The land was about 10 meters below the current level; the difference is due to 10,000 years of sediment from the Tigris and Euphrates.

It was very rich in resources, especially as it was a mixture of coastal and river environments. Frequent changes of the watercourse allowed planting on rich, naturally cleared silt without irrigation. Animals and birds abounded, and migratory gazelles and asses came through, and could be corralled into narrow areas for hunting. If an area is sufficiently rich, you don’t need cultivated fields to support villages.  (Another such area is the pre-Columbian Pacific Northwest.)

Agriculture isn’t an either-or proposition. The same people could hunt, forage, take care of animals. The same plants that were later cultivated grew wild, and foragers had long had the equipment to harvest it and prepare the seeds for cooking. The sort of opportunistic sowing just described (right after a flood) took little extra effort.

This ecological zone survived to modern times, but farther south, and the lifestyle did too, among the Marsh Arabs. Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the 1990s, displacing half a million people and turning the marshes to desert. The dikes were breached after the US invasion; the marshes are partially restored but few of the people have moved back.

Why plant?

The big question is: if things were so good, why did Mesopotamia move to agriculture at all?

Ester Boserup posited that the change must be out of desperation, e.g. overcrowding, the loss of large game, climate change. For Mesopotamia, there doesn’t seem to be evidence for any of these. Scott can’t suggest anything better, so really we don’t know why the changeover happened.

Of course, once it has happened, it has a certain inertia. You can support a much higher population with agriculture– which means that though individuals can and do retreat from the lifestyle, entire populations can’t.

Co-evolution in the village

There’s a section on what Scott calls “late Neolithic multi-species resettlement camps”… that is, farming villages. The jargon is meant to underline that a bunch of co-evolution was going on, as crops, weeds, domestic animals, uninvited vermin, and people all adapted to living together.

A lot of this was driven by the humans, of course. In general we want crops with increased fruit or grain size, no toxins, no hard cases or spiky protrusions, and which are easy to harvest– e.g., heads that don’t shatter. For animals we want docility, increased fertility, tolerance for cramped conditions and a monotonous diet, and comfort around humans. We also get some unintended consequences: less genetic diversity and robustness; and among the animals, neoteny, reduced sexual dimorphism, and a certain stupidity. (This even affected our vermin: rats and mice who live among us, for instance, are smaller than their wild counterparts.) Many of our crops and domestic animals couldn’t survive without us.

Something that affected all the species was disease. Cramped and unsanitary conditions spread diseases not only within but between species. (Measles comes from sheep or goats; smallpox from camels; influenza from waterfowl.) And epidemics were one of the failure modes of this lifestyle: they could wipe out a settlement, a kingdom, or an army.

More subtly, living in villages affected us too. Evolution did not stop with the Cro-Magnons; we’ve become adapted not only to cooking but to grains and to large quantities of alcohol (historically healthier than the nearby water). In the West, we’re adapted to drinking milk in adulthood. We have some resistance to all those new diseases. Arguably we too are domesticated animals, subject to some of the same changes, including smaller size, duller teeth, neoteny, less sexual dimorphism, and tolerance for crowding and stress.

The bad guy enters

Cue the Imperial March, because now our villain enters: The State. States appear in Mesopotamia around 3100 BC, and everything goes to hell.

In brief: with the state, you get all the drudgery of agriculture, plus coercion and oppression. Someone evidently noticed that if 90% of the people were farmers, a quarter or half their produce could be taken from them, supporting an elite: kings, nobles, priests, soldiers, merchants, craftsmen. (To be precise: if left alone, the people wouldn’t produce this surplus; the state coerces them to produce more than they otherwise would.)

It’s a bad bargain for the farmer… which is why, to the extent of their power, the authorities kept them from leaving. And that’s if they were free to begin with: there was extensive use of slaves, and one of the main purposes of war was not to conquer territory, but to grab captives.

Scott’s particular insight is that states worldwide, up to at least 1800 CE, were based on grain, and that this was no accident. (For the purposes of this discussion that includes rice and maize.) Grain is a tax collector’s dream: it ripens all at the same time, so you can go right in and take a large part of the harvest. (To ensure this uniformity, states often mandated that fields be planted at a particular time.) Grain can be stored for years, and it’s one of the highest nutrient-per-weight foods, so it can be transported long distances.

Can you have a state based on tubers or manioc instead? Not nearly as easily. Tubers don’t have to be harvested all at once; indeed, the best place to store them is in the ground, till they’re needed. If the tax man wants a share, he has to go and dig them up, and if he does, he has a wagonload that’s heavy, easily spoiled, and barely worth transporting.

All the major empires, Scott asserts, are based on grain– and their effective area of control, as opposed to the lines they or we draw on maps, is the limit of grain cultivation. Beyond that are two major populations.

The misfits

One is the non-grain-growers: people who don’t fit, or don’t want to fit, into the tax man’s grain system. Scott has written another book, The Art of Not Being Governed, about the huge region that never quite fit into the East Asian states: southwestern China, northern Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma, and Assam. These are largely mountainous areas where it was hard to grow grain, and where the people grew other things, as well as raising animals, and if necessary melted away when the administrators and armies attempted to enforce control.

The other exception is the pastoralists, as well as mixed groups (like the ancient Germans and the Jurchens) who farmed or herded as circumstances warranted. Though his picture of states is grim, he presents the nomads as far healthier, happier, and more egalitarian.

One reason, it must be said, is that the nomads noticed that the surplus of the peasants could be skimmed off as easily by themselves as by their own elites. So the peasants endured not only the depradations of the taxman, but that of the horselord.

States naturally fought back, but it’s not easy to defeat nomads, who after all have no cities to loot, and can easily melt away into the steppes. But cooperation was often preferable to war. Nearer nomads could be bribed to fight farther ones, or be co-opted as cavalry.

Most of our sources come from states, and we should be skeptical when states claim that non-grain areas or nomads acknowledge their suzerainty. That was a way of saving face; the reality was often that effective control over either was impossible, and huge sums were spent to keep the nomads happy.

Collapse

The whole structure of states was precarious. States could collapse due to defeat in war, or ecological change, or epidemics, or by peasant revolts, or by the increasing toll of deforestation and salinization. In early Mesopotamia, states were particularly prone to collapse– as Scott puts it, the interregna outnumbered the regna. One historian, Robert Adams, notes that the Third Dynasty of Ur was unusual in lasting a hundred years. Mesopotamia as a whole seems to have collapsed from 1800 BCE to 700 BCE; during this period urban settlements had 1/4 the area they’d had previously. The Greeks famously collapsed around 1100 BCE, losing their cities and literacy for hundreds of years.

Such times are called dark ages, but given the general misery under state control, they may well have been a relatively pleasant breathing space for the people. They were certainly more egalitarian, and cultural output was probably not less; it simply switched from written to oral modes. (The Iliad and the Odyssey are products of Greece’s dark age.)

If you put all this together, and try to look at humanity as a whole before 1500, it may well be that the majority of humans were outside state control, and all the better for it.

Lessons

If there’s a takeaway for your understanding of history, or for your conworld, I’d suggest something like this:

  • The fluidity of people about foraging/herding/agriculture. It’s not a progression, and the same population, or individuals, might engage in all three.
  • How long it takes between sedentism and states. (I’m sure I didn’t leave enough time in Arcél…)
  • The importance of grain. Think hard about starting a state outside river valleys suitable for grain production.
  • The frequency of collapse in the first millennia.
  • The fact that states are bad news for much of the population.

These are not ironclad rules, especially in fantasy. It’s not that all cities were hellholes. (Just one detail: Chinese cities were probably healthier than European ones, simply because the manure was a valuable substance and removed from the city.)

There were also mitigations Scott doesn’t mention, such as debt jubilees. (See David Graeber… I think that’s the first time I’ve cited him as being more cheerful than another book.)

Some grains of salt

As ever, I have a few cavils. One is that Scott can be annoyingly low on details. You won’t get any explanations of how Sumerian city-states differed from the Assyrian or Babylonian empires. He gives population estimates without explaining where they came from or how reliable they are. He admits that slavery and war pre-existed states, which surely undercuts his major villain, but he provides no way to estimate how much.

More seriously, I’m not sure that his ideas apply so well to Africa, or the Americas, or India.

  • There were kingdoms in Africa, for instance, but so far as I know agriculture never depended mostly on grain, as it did in Egypt or Mesopotamia or China.
  • He mentions the Inka and Maya, but on his own admission maize is not as easy for the tax collector as wheat– it can be left in the field to dry.
  • As for India, at one point Scott says that only two large empires appeared in its history, the Guptas and the Mughals– a statement of colossal ignorance.

I’m inclined to think his ideas apply well enough to temperate areas, but he should have left tropical areas to another study.

Finally, I think he over-paints the picture of the state as tyranny and “barbarism” as pleasant and egalitarian. You could be captured and sold into slavery by nomads, or as a nomad. Or you could be forced to serve in the khan’s wars. And the state/nomad balance didn’t always favor the latter: e.g. Rome was not really bothered by the Germans until the 200s.

And the lot of peasants varied– e.g. it seems to have always been better to be a colonist, when your numbers were few and therefore you had to be treated fairly well. I’m inclined to think it’d be better to be a Chinese peasant in the 1C than the 18C, because game and trees were still available.  For that matter, you’d really want to be born in the beginning rather than the end of a dynasty: taxes were lower, the state was more organized, and bandits were held in check.

(Also, wasn’t 19C Ireland a potato state? Scott doesn’t even mention it.)

Taat’s the title of a new book by Josephine Quinn. Her hot take is that the Phoenicians never existed– that is, that they were not really a nation, an ethnic group, or a civilization as we understand these terms.

tinnit

The Carthaginian goddess Tinnit

I don’t think she proves her case, but she does show that it’s complicated. First, it’s quite true that the Phoenicians were never “a nation”. They were usually divided into city-states, and from about -600 the Levantine cities were ruled by one empire after another.

(The major cities were Sidon and Tyre, which are both in modern Lebanon. The first was natively Ṣīdūn, today Ṣaydā; the second was Ṣūr— we owe the T to the Greeks. Carthage was Qart-ḥadašt ‘new city’.)

But you can have a people without a nation. The Greeks and the Romans certainly thought of the Phoenicians as a people, mostly a competing people. They spoke a common language, they were gifted in commerce, and they were said to be very religious, and also duplicitous. Greek φοῖνιξ refers to a Phoenician, to the characteristic and expensive dye (Tyrian purple) they sold, and to the date palm. Later it was applied to the mythical bird. (Before reading Quinn’s book I had never made the connection between Phoenicia and phoenix.) The Romans adapted φοῖνιξ as poenus, at a time when they didn’t bother to mark Greek aspiration. This gave the adjective pūnicus, the source of Punic.

We also have the viewpoint of the Israelites. A modern reader of the Bible may be tempted to see Israel’s neighbors– the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Philistines, the Edomites, and the Phoenicians– as entirely unlike them. In fact most of them belonged to the same linguistic group, Northwest Semitic, and were (according to Quinn) mutually intelligible. If you look at what the Bible actually describes, the Canaanite gods and goddesses were broadly worshipped in Israel, to the distress of the prophets; it wasn’t until after the Exile that the Jews emerged as uniformly monotheistic. Several Israelite kings married Phoenician princesses.

From a Middle Eastern point of view, then, the Phoenicians were simply the coastal, seafaring part of the general Canaanite population. Aramaic is another member of the family, basically derived from the dialect of Damascus; it became the lingua franca of the entire Levant and Mesopotamia until the Arab conquest.

What did the Phoenicians call themselves? Probably they didn’t. Reviewing hundreds of years of inscriptions, Quinn finds that they mostly identified with their cities (i.e. Tyre, Sidon, Carthage, etc.). There doesn’t seem to be a Phoenician word for Phoenician. There are a tiny number of references to KN’N (Canaan).

In architecture and sculpture, the Phoenicians didn’t seem to have a style of their own; they freely borrowed from Egyptian, Greek, and Persian styles.

They were not united by religion. There were a number of Canaanite gods, and it seems that each city picked a different small number to worship. There are two entirely separate cults associated with Carthage.

  • One was associated with Baal Hammon and Tinnit; their worshippers erected temples which focused on sacrifice of animals and occasionally infants. This cult seems to be limited to two sites in Africa (including Carthage), plus Malta, Motya in Sicily, and six sites in Sardinia.
  • An entirely different cult was centered on the god Melqart (‘king of the city’), who was particularly favored in Tyre. Melqart was worshipped in Carthage, Cadiz, Utica, and a few other cities. The Greeks identified him with Herakles; they routinely did this with foreign gods, but the Carthaginians seemed to agree: they borrowed Herakles’ lion poncho for representations of Melqart.

The strongest argument against Quinn’s thesis (to her credit, she brings this up herself) is that starting in -410, Carthage minted coins that featured a date palm.  This seems to be an acceptance of the Greek term φοῖνιξ as a marker of “Phoenicity”, issued just at the time Carthage was assuming greater control over the western Mediterranean.  (It was never exactly an empire in the Roman sense; its territories were more allies than subjects.) Tyre itself minted coins with a palm tree about two centuries later.

Carthage always remembered its relationship with its founding city Tyre, and was said to send tithes there regularly. At the same time, Quinn points to a particular moment of diplomacy where a Tyrian was treated as a foreigner. These facts aren’t hard to reconcile, if you think of the relationship between the US and Britain, or Brazil and Portugal. You can feel that there’s a special relationship while also being conscious of the differences.

You could settle all this by looking at Phoenician literature… only there’s almost none to consult, just a bunch of short inscriptions. Perhaps, unlike the Greeks and Israelites but like the Persians, they simply didn’t have much to say. But more likely we’ve just lost it all. Carthage is said to have had a library, which the Romans donated to local kings, keeping only a treatise on agriculture. If you get hold of a time machine, I urge you to get to Carthage before its conquest and record the contents.

The Phoenicians have a long tail in history. The tophet cult only increased after the Roman conquest: there’s something like 75 sites in the eastern Maghreb with tophets dated to the -2C through the 2C. Punic continued to be spoken in the region until the time of St Augustine (fl. 400). And quite a few nations have seen themselves in the Phoenicians, including the British, the Irish, and the Lebanese.

Oh! I think I forgot to say how the book is. I enjoyed it a lot, and learned a lot; don’t take my statement that she doesn’t quite prove her thesis as a complaint. She assembles all the evidence she can and is willing to look at it in new ways, and I think that’s the proper way to handle history.

If you wait long enough to read one of the classics, maybe it’ll be conveniently forgotten. Or maybe you’ll just pick it up anyway. I just finished Vol. 1 of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the hot bestseller of 1781. This volume covers the period from AD 180 to 395, in 956 closely printed pages.

emperor-julian

Julian. Not accidental that he’s depicted in philosopher’s robes

Should you read a history written 237 years ago? Well, sure, if you want to. Gibbon is old-school history, which means it’s all about the Great Men and the far more numerous Not Great Men. But he’s quite readable, he relies closely on primary sources, and it’s pretty hard to make this swath of history dull. Not only were the emperors a motley crew of heroes, tyrants, and perverts (sometimes all of the above), but the topic of disaster never loses its allure.

I can’t say how much Gibbon has held up as history– he’s probably pretty good at what he does, which is retelling the major wars and events of each reign. Look at a more modern history, like this one from Adrian Goldsworthy, for more of a social and administrative overview.

What does Gibbon think went wrong? Well, he’s big on the influence at the top: there were too many timid, tyrannical, or cruel buffoons in charge. And he’s big on the morale of a society– he thinks Republican Rome was a lovely combination of martial vigor, civic virtue, law, and manliness. (One of his worst epithets is “effeminate”.) Yet these are probably only old-fashioned ways of saying what Goldsworthy pointed out: the empire was fatally weakened by internal strife and an out-of-control army long before the barbarians took over.

Gibbon is, by the way, horribly and casually racist. He can’t resist calling the Persians effeminate (and prone to luxury and tyranny), the Jews anti-social and narrow, the Africans ineffectual and stupid, the steppe nomads as ugly and lazy. (They’re lazy because they don’t grow crops, you see. Adam Smith made the same mistake, not realizing that some regions just can’t support agricultural states.) Yet by his own account the Romans were despotic, often faithless and cruel, and not “manly” at all. The racism is completely gratuitous– he’s perfectly capable of soberly describing the respectable Persian religion and recognizing the virtues of their armies.

He’s also completely in favor of empire, Roman or British; manly nations should just spread out over the globe as far as they can, though again, by his own showing, no one has ever made these huge empires last too long without falling apart.

He also has a rather parochial kind of aristophilia, in that he naturally prefers and argues for whatever most resembles the British kingdom of his own day. He doesn’t like democracy or too much power in the hands of the people; he doesn’t much like absolute monarchy; it’s evident that he expects and wishes the Roman Senate would act like the British aristocrats of his day: rule the country in a more or less benign way, consult with each other, support a congenial ruler though holding the ultimate upper hand, and serving as the officers of both military and civil administration. I doubt the Republic was really what he imagined it was, and the imperial-era Senate certainly wasn’t. He clearly understands both why the Emperors needed to be generals, and why the Roman state was ultimately weakened because of military rule.

For much of the last 200 years, the book has had a slight tincture of scandal, because of his treatment of Christianity. I’d had the vague impression, in fact, that he was an atheist. Not at all; in fact he goes out of his way to talk about the Deity and Providence and how all the heretics were wrong; there’s really nothing here that a Christian could really object to. What earlier generations hated, of course, was that Gibbon wrote as a historian and not as a partisan. He downplays the persecution of Christianity (really, most emperors ignored it; only Diocletian really cracked down on it, and for a relatively brief period); he is not impressed with the Christians’ doctrinal squabbles or fearsome counter-prosecution of pagans; and he’s quite sympathetic to Roman religion. (Though he really hates Nordic religion.) He criticizes the luxury and venality of the 4C bishops, and is just a bit sarcastic about the miracles of the ecclesiastical sources. (He points out that if the sun really darkened during the Crucifixion, it’s rather surprising that Roman naturalists never mentioned it.)

An unexpected hero of the book, in fact, is the emperor Julian, who reigned just from 361-3, and received the title “the Apostate” because he reversed his uncle Constantine’s imperial embrace of Christianity and attempted to restore paganism. His apostasy is more excusable when you learn that the people who taught him were the same people who murdered most of his family. He had a natural leaning toward philosophy and loved hanging around with Neo-Platonist teachers; but he turned out to have an aptitude for war and statecraft as well. He turned back some Germanic invasions, reluctantly was acclaimed emperor by his troops, was personally abstemious and workaholic, and won the East by accident, when the emperor Constantius died. He advanced into Persia with some remarkable victories, inspiring his soldiers and dashing about the battlefield like a second Alexander… and then took a Persian javelin in his liver. Oops! The Romans kind of fell apart, extricating themselves from Persia only at the price of a significant loss of territory.

An alternative history where Julian lived longer would be interesting. It was probably too late for paganism– but the fact that most of his army flip-flopped from Christian to pagan and then back again, as his career waxed and suddenly ended, shows that the religious struggle was far more chancy than later events made it look.

Gibbon goes on, perhaps too much, about the politics of the intra-Christian squabbles, but doesn’t really bother to explain the theological problems. He simply assumes that the later-orthodox position is obviously right. This does a disservice to his own story, since in this period Arianism was actually dominant, and he can’t really explain why. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that if it weren’t for a few historical accidents, one of the “heretic” sects would be orthodoxy and the other would be obviously wrong.

Another curious topic: the extension of Roman citizenship. The Greek attitude toward citizenship was like Trump’s: make it as hard to get as possible. The Romans extended citizenship first to their Italian allies, then to more and more subjects, and finally (in 212) to all non-slaves within the Empire. Gibbon more or less disapproves of this: he’s all about the manliness, and obviously the city of Rome had lost its martial abilities and then its pre-eminence, well before the barbarians started causing trouble. But (say) Colin McEvedy thinks that this was one of Rome’s great strengths. The city itself could afford to decline because more and more people were willing to fight and die for the Roman name and civilization. (To the end, the Greek “Byzantine Empire” called itself and its people Romans.) If it had kept citizenship as a prize for itself, its empire would be as short-lived as those of Athens or Macedonia.

I’m not sure if I’ll go on to Volume 2… in many ways Vol. 1 tells you all you need to know. It ends just as the Germans are invading and the Huns aren’t far behind; the actual fall of the Western Empire in the next 80 years is just anticlimax.

A little linguistic note: you have to watch out for a few words that have changed meaning in 237 years. E.g. of one Gothic leader Gibbon says “the love of rapine and the hatred of Rome seconded, or even prevented, the eloquence of his ambassadors.” This could easily be taken as the opposite of what he means. We’d say that these things endorsed or preceded his diplomacy.

(Perhaps you’re wondering if a Rome Construction Kit is in the future? That would be fun, not least because I’d love to improve my Latin. And ooh, the world needs a history that puts all the macrons back on the Latin names. But no, this is just side reading for now.  Maybe later…)

 

 

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