Alternate Colors

I am fortunate in my online experience. Not only am I generally identified as a white man, but I have a curated existence and small footprint. I am nevertheless exhausted just as a spectator to the maelstrom. This week the storm again struck the corner of the internet inhabited by ancient history.

Here’s what happened: Dr. Sarah Bond, a professor at the University of Iowa and probably the public historian of the ancient world with the greatest breadth of subjects, published a piece for hyperallergic titled “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color.” In the article, Bond introduces the readers to the issue of polychromy—the idea that the naked marble of the surviving statues was once garishly painted (not to mention literally dressed and armed). She then transitions to how the naked marble came to represent the classical ideal and explores how this standard allows modern prejudices concerning race to be channeled onto the ancient world.

(Not for nothing, but I am reminded of the Carbon Leaf song “The War Was In Color” about remembering wars from black and white pictures.)

Bond’s article is an excellent introduction to this issue and there was some excited conversation on ancient Twitter about the legacy of the controversial Black Athena and a variety of other issues. I was absolutely delighted to see the article (for reasons I will get into below), and driving discussion of this sort is exactly what it should do. Nobody challenged its fundamental assumptions because the ancient Mediterranean was a variegated quilt of cultures and peoples. How these colors were created and looked may be disputed—I once heard a scholar suggest that the fabled Spartan crimson was actually bright pink based on modern efforts to recreate ancient pigment—but the existence of colors is not.

Outside this conversation there were death threats.

People are so committed to their preconceptions that they would rather threaten the life of an academic in an effort to bully and silence her rather than face fundamental truths. But I am not here to “defend” Bond or to chide the bullies, even leaving alone the willful misreadings of her piece. I planned to write this post before reading about the backlash.

One issue with teaching history is that it runs the risk of presenting the past either as something teleological in an endless progressive march to the present or something static. Since there are political agendas that want ancient Greece to be the self-referential origin for western civilization, it is particular susceptible to these caricatures. And yet, even in antiquity, the definitions of “Europe” and “Greece” were constantly in flux. Ionia, the subject of my dissertation, for instance, consisted of communities that were Greek, but were not in Europe. Ancient orators such as Isocrates tended to gloss issues like this when giving speeches, but the seeming dissonance has cast a long shadow, with historians of colossal stature like Rostovtzeff describing them as “fragments of the western world on the fringe of the eastern.” In point of fact, much of Greek “civilization” developed in communication with the Near East and Egypt.

Similarly, scholars have tied themselves in knots trying to explain Alexander the Great’s behavior in terms of race. At issue were his decisions (personally, and with regard to his men) about marriage and whether marrying Greek men with eastern women, either in a simple east-west binary or in a more complicated and totally anachronistic distinction between Indo-European and Semitic populations.

In both examples, the history of these academic debates was driven by or responding to racially-motivated agendas. As Bond makes clear in her article, not all of the scholars were racist but, intentionally or not, their scholarship worked in tandem to support these agendas. The end result is that the statues became marble-white and Greece became singularly European.

Ancient Greece, ranging far beyond the modern national borders, was deeply enmeshed in the ancient Mediterranean and would have had many different shades, not lease because of the historical movement of people and ideas. The variations became even more pronounced after Alexander’s conquests when there were people who were culturally Greek as far east as central Asia. Redefining Greece is nothing new and was, in fact, a fairly standard feature of diplomacy in the ancient world, including one instance when the Judean kingdom claimed kinship with Sparta. The result was successive layers of definitions that bore only a loose connection to history. These were, and are, political agendas.

To come full circle, then, I want to echo Bond’s core point: the ancient world was awash in color, most of which was not white. Art history is not my wheelhouse, but many of the same forces are at work in scholarship on other issues. Greece was not European adjacent to, but separate from, the Mediterranean. Greece was Mediterranean and shaped by continuous movement of people and ideas in trickles and waves, with all of the colors that go along with that.

Odessa – Charles King

Situated on the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea, the site of Odessa was a backwater Turkish fort overlooking a small fishing village. During the reign of Catherine the Great of Russia (1762-1796) the fort fell to Russian forces and Jose Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, a Neapolitan man born to a Spanish father and Italian mother, then in Catherine’s service, saw potential for the site to become Russia’s southern port. With the empress’ blessing, de Ribas laid out the new city along a European pattern.

Despite problems with sanitation and clean water (the city is not set on a river), outbreaks of plague from Ottoman ships, and intermittent crises over Ottoman control of the Bosporus, Odessa flourished. Hard by three major rivers agricultural goods from the Russian interior converged on the city, while liberal trade policies made it an attractive destination for merchants, its mild climate and European accouterments made it attractive to ex-patriots, and Russian reticence to move south led to economic privileges to Jews that were not common elsewhere in the empire. Odesssa’s newness made it exceptional compared to other cities, with fewer regulations and a wilder population that fostered creativity and crime, particularly in the years before the revolution.

According to Charles King, the popular conception of Odessa (such that one exists) is a fiction made from nostalgia and propaganda that is perpetually being redrawn. After 1918, for instance, Odessa came to be regarded as one of the original cities for the Russian revolution, but this reputation was the product of the movie Battleship Potemkin that valorized a mutiny aboard an imperial naval vessel of that name. Likewise, Odessa changed fundamentally when it was occupied by Romanian forces during World War 2, both because a limited number of episodes added it to the list of Soviet hero cities resisting occupation and because the occupation irreversibly changed the demographics of the city. The Jewish population of Odessa was gone.

There is obviously a good deal more to Odessa than the briefest sketch laid out above, and King wanders into the realm of biography to flesh out the picture of the literary and political luminaries, as well as a number of the criminals, that left their mark on Odessa or had Odessa leave its mark on them. There were time that my attention flagged—I picked Odessa out of the library stacks for no other reason than that members of my family lived there before coming to the United States, though none of them rose to the level of inclusion—but that is going to happen. From a historical perspective, King’s greatest feat and perhaps the most fascinating part of Odessa the city is the extent to which the character of a community is constructed through both stories and monuments. To give one notable example, Odessa’s most famous monument is the Potemkin Steps, a set of staircases that connect the harbor to the city atop which sits a statue of Richelieu, a French expat and early governor of the city. One might assume that the steps were named for Grigory Potemkin, whose military campaign captured the town for Russia or at least for the Battleship Potemkin mutineers, but, in fact, it was neither. Naturally, the steps were named for the movie Battleship Potemkin. King brings this type of layered memorializations to the front of his narrative time and again, building the cultural legacy of Odessa into the series of political and economic decisions that shaped the population that inhabited this comparatively young city.

ΔΔΔ

I also recently finished reading Stefan Zweig’s Confusion, a psychological novel that I found simultaneously insightful and problematic, and the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, The Broken Kingdoms. Next up is going to be something non-fiction, either Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade or Chuck Klostermann’s What if we’re wrong.

Did Alexander the Great suffer from CTE?

The following are some thoughts on this article, which, in short, suggests that the personality changes over the course of Alexander the Great’s reign could have been caused by Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) perhaps caused by his shorter than average height. In other words, to quote Jake Nabel, Alexander the Great “often got bonked on the head.”

The thrust of the article is as follows: Alexander the Great was short and was therefore closer to his opponents and was struck in the head by at least glancing blows in the sources with some regularity. As has been a topic of concern in the arena of football, repeated head trauma can lead to CTE, which manifests with symptoms such as altered personality, uncommon susceptibility to alcohol, blackouts, extreme emotional swings, paranoia, and violence. All of these symptoms are attributed to Alexander and CTE provides an explanation that accounts for the greatest number of symptoms, ergo Alexander had CTE.

Some of the points made in the article are provocative and worth consideration. The focus on CTE could be poo-pooed as a flash-in-the-pan contemporary concern brought on by modern athletics, but ought to be taken into account in how we think about ancient warfare. Our medical data from antiquity is, effectively, non-existent, but human physiology hasn’t changed that much.

That said, I am skeptical of the larger argument.

First, I think that Alexander’s shortness, while a generally accepted fact, is a bit of a red-herring, not only because he was frequently fighting from horseback, but also because I wonder whether the difference in height would have made a significant difference over, say, his recklessness. Then, is it necessary to single out Alexander from the other Macedonians whose bodily harm receive less attention?

Second, the author implies that Alexander’s men also became more violent as Alexander’s head trauma grew worse. The implication is that they were following Alexander’s orders, but I am mistrustful of such a direct causal relationship, particularly because the author (following the model of the ancient sources) chooses to focus directly on Alexander’s erratic behavior. This is not a problem unique to this article, but is endemic in the thinking about Alexander the Great’s campaigns.

Third, the author too readily accepts the ancient sources at face-value, something which has been called into question, particularly on the issue of wounds (see particularly: Riginos, JHS, 1994). I happen to believe that Alexander the Great was wounded fairly regularly and sometimes severely, but hinging an argument on the specifics of the wounds is problematic, to say the least. This approach sees the symptoms and then goes looking for the wounds to support the thesis, without questioning whether those wounds might not have actually existed.

Fourth, and building from the issues of sources, all of which were composed or written hundreds of years after Alexander died, the article in question seemed to me to downplay any political, social, or literary explanation for the changes in Alexander’s behavior. On the one hand, this is the rhetoric of a journal article, but, on the other, it ignores how a Roman philosophical context shaped the accounts of Alexander murdering Cleitus just as much as it ignores the strains placed on the court by Alexander’s appointing Persian nobility to important positions, thereby challenging the supremacy of the Macedonian elite.

The author concludes by invoking the unsolved mystery that is Alexander’s death and suggesting that Alexander’s greatness should be read in terms of disability because of how long he functioned with a deteriorating brain. (I assume this differs from the alcoholism thesis because the latter is self-inflicted.) Such post-facto, blind diagnoses are deeply problematic, good for a headline, but light on substance.

Like many theories about the ancient world, the idea that Alexander suffered from CTE or a comparable type of trauma cannot be discounted because there is not enough evidence one way or another. The author is certainly correct that a surface-value reading of the evidence does supply evidence for CTE, and I like this explanation better than an anachronistic attribution of “alcoholism.” And yet, it is also necessary to pull back to see where this fits within the larger context rather than looking to isolate CTE as a universal explanation for the changes in Alexander’s behavior.

A catalogue of Greek breads

“Tryphon of Alexandria, in the book on the nature of plants sets out a typology of loaves (if I remember them): the leavened loaf, the unleavened, the loaf made of the finest wheat flour, the one made of groats, the loaf made of leftover flour (this, he says, is better for digestion than the one from spotless flour of wheat), the loaf from rye (or spelt), from single-grain wheat, and from millet. The loaf made of groats, he says, are from wheat, because there are no barley groats.”

Τρύφων ὁ Ἀλεχανδρεὺς ἐν τοῖς φυτικοῖς ἐπιγραφομένοις ἄρτων ἐκτίθεται γένη, εἴ τι κάγὠ μέμνημαι, ζυμίτην, ἄζυμον, σεμιδαλίτην, χονδρίτην, συγκομιστόν τοῦτον δ᾽ εἶναἰ φησι καὶ διαχωρητικώτερον τοῦ καθαροῦ τὸν ἐξ ὀλυρῶν, τὸν ἐκ τιφῶν, τὸν ἐκ μελινῶν. γίνεται μέν, φησίν, ὀ χονδρίτης ἐκ τῶν ζειῶν, ἐκ γὰρ κριθῆς χόνδρον μὴ γίνεσθαι.

“And according to its roasting there is a loaf called ipnites.”

παρὰ δὲ τὰς ὀπτήσεις ὀνομάζεσθαι ἰπνίτην… oven baked bread.

ἐσχαρίτης…escharites, baked over a fire, reputedly served warm with a sweet sauce.

ἀταβυρίτην… tabyrites, loaf of some sort (distinction unclear).

ἀχαίνας… achainas, large loaves baked by women for religious festivals.

“And in the festival called the Megalartia, it is the name give by those who carry loaves: ‘Munch on achainas plump with fat!'”

καὶ ἑορτὴ καλεῖται Μεγαλάρτια ἐπιλεγόντων τῶν φερόντων: ἀχαίνην στέατος ἔμπλεων τράγον.

κριβανίτην… cribanites, pan loaves likely baked in covered earthen vessels mentioned by Aristophanes with reference to their whiteness.

ἐγκρυφίαν… encryphias, secret loaves baked in ashes?

δίπυνον… dipyrus, twice baked loaves.

λάγανον… laganon, light cake, not particularly nutritious (wholesome), perhaps being made with suet (see below).

ἀπανθρακίς…apanthracis, cake baked over coals that is even less nutritious than laganon.

ἡμιάρτιον…hemiartion, half loaf.

πλακίτης…placite or flat loaf.

τυρῶντος ἄρτος…cheese loaf given to children.

δάρατον…daratos, unleavened bread called Cilician by a comic poet.

ἀγελαῖος…agelai, common loaves, without other specification.

αὐτόπυρος…autopyrus, loaves made from wheat meal.

ὀρίνδης…orindes, bread made from rice.

κὀλλαβος…collabos, a sort of individual roll made with milk and new wheat.

μηκονίδων (or μακωνίδων)…maconidos, topped with poppy seeds.

κρυσόκολλος…chrysocollos, bread made of honey and flax, with a name implying a golden color.

κολλύρα…collyra, and likely old-timey bread of uncertain makeup.

ὀβελίας…obelias (pennyloaf), named either after its cost (an obol) or because it is baked on spits, perhaps in ashes.

ἐτνίτης or λεκιθίτης…etnites or lekithites, two names for a kind of roll.

ναστός…nastos, a large, white, leavened loaf.

Ἡρακλεών…heracleon, a kind of flat (possibly cheese?) cake.

θρόνος…thronos, a type of loaf served to old men with mean, so perhaps a high status.

ἀποπυρίας…apopurias, a loaf baked or toasted on ashes, sometimes leavened.

ἀρτοπτίκινος…a bread baked in a different type best made with hard leaven.

Καππαδόκιος…”Cappadocian” bread, a tender loaf made with milk, oil and salt.

βωλητίνος…boletinos, a bread shaped like a mushroom where the kneading trough is covered in poppies and baked on top of groats.

στρεπτίκιος…strepticias, a bread made with a little milk, pepper, and sometimes oil. when suet is used in place of oil, it makes a bread called artolaganon.

This list is taken from Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistae, 3.75-9, and is the first of what will likely be multiple posts about Greek bread.

Thucydides on Public Outcry

Lately I have been thinking about about “The Four Hundred,” an oligarchic coup in Athens in the year 411 BCE when the Assembly voted away their rights. Here is how Thucydides describes the scene:

“Thus by the actions of these (intelligent) men even unnatural deeds of such enormity came to pass; to have their freedom curtailed nearly a century after the tyrants were cast down was bitter for the Athenian demos, not only having not been ruled, but for half that time being accustomed to ruling over others. Since no one spoke in opposition, the assembly ratified the proposal and was dissolved.”

ὥστε ἀπ᾽ἀνδρῶν πολλῶν καὶ ξυνετῶν πραχθὲν τὸ ἔργον οὐκ ἀπεικότως καίπερ μέγα ὂν προυχώρησεν, χαλεπὸν γὰρ ἦν τὸν Ἀθηναίον δῆμον ἐπ᾽ ἔτει ἑκατοστῷ μάλιστα ἐπειδὴ οἱ τύραννοι κατελύθησαν ἐλευθερίας παῦσαι, καὶ οὐ μόνον μὴ ὑπήκοον ὄντα, ἀλλὰ καὶ ὑπὲρ ἥμισυ τοῦ χρόνου τούτου αὐτὸν ἄλλων ἄρχειν εἰωυόντα. ἐπειδὴ δὲ ἡ ἐκκλησία οὐδενὸς ἀντειπόντος, ἀλλὰ κυρώσασα ταῦτα διελύθη…

Thuc. 8.68-9

“…and the rest of the citizens did not resist, but kept quiet.”

…καὶ οἱ ἄλλοι πολῖται οὐδὲν ἐνεωτέριζον, ἀλλ᾽ ἡσύχαζον.

Thuc. 8.70

Did the assembly passively and silently vote away their liberty with nary a dissenting voice? I have my doubts. Thucydides emphasizes bloody revolution and counter-revolution on Samos in a nearby passage, not to mention elsewhere in his work, so he was clearly aware of what could happen in these situations. The episode is crafted to emphasize the gravity of the situation after the fiasco in Sicily and the privileges that the Athenians were giving up, with nods to the uncanny ability of the conspirators. All the while, the Athenians were still at war with Sparta.

This passivity did not last, and the democracy was restored after a brief civil war. I am nevertheless intrigued by how Thucydides describes recalcitrant, argumentative, and litigious people passively handing over their freedoms.

2017 has been a year of protests, but what this actually looks like varies by news outlet. How one views the world depends a great deal on which version of events is being consumed. Then there ongoing processes of the legislative bodies acquiescing to handing power to another branch of government. What will this year look like in ten years, let alone several thousand? Will the reports focus on the protests or the legislature? Will the reports be sanitized to quash even the possibility of dissent in the model of 1984? Or could these protests be signs of a crisis to restore the democratic system after the start of a silent coup that dates back more than fifteen years?

Thucydides offer no answers, but, then, history is often best used to think with rather than looked to for a solution.

Alexander, Ephesus, and Plutarch

One category of the legends about Alexander the Great were the omens surrounding his birth. The most calamitous of these was that on the very day the future conqueror was born, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus went up in flames, supposedly the victim of arson. Despite a mundane explanation, the connection to Alexander caused this story to take on a life of its own, and people soon began to say that the reason that the goddess was not home to protect her temple was that she was busy watching over Alexander’s birth.

(Despite Plutarch’s implication that Artemis was there to watch over the newborn, one of her duties was to protect women during childbirth. Our male correspondents say nothing about whether Olympias’ labor when birthing Alexander was particularly difficult, but one wonders.)

According to Plutarch, the magi (sic) in Ephesus rent their clothes, convinced that this was an omen of one destined to conquer Asia was born. More likely, the lamentations were caused by panic at seeing the temple go up in flames and I suspect Plutarch’s mention of “magi” here isn’t connected to actual Persians though there were indubitably those, but rather that he using the term to refer generally to the sacred staff at the sanctuary where at least one of the priests bore the Persian title Megabyxus. Framing the episode this way pushes the vision of Ephesus as Asian and has a way of further magnifying Alexander’s importance.

From Arrian we hear that Alexander exploited the story linking the conflagration with his birth by offering to pay for repairs. The offer was not spurious and would demonstrate his wealth, magnanimity, and piety while binding Ephesus to him. Why the Ephesians rejected the donation is a matter of some debate, but, needless to say, served as fodder for even more fanciful stories.

Here’s the catch: Plutarch, our main source for the story about Artemis and Alexander’s birth, never mentions Alexander’s offer to pay for the repairs at the temple. The absence of any given episode in Plutarch’s life of Alexander is not itself notable. Early on in the work, perhaps by way of preemptive explanation, Plutarch makes a point of saying that he will focus on small events and gestures that have moral value. Nor is it necessarily surprising when an ancient author doesn’t follow up on a topic, but it is somewhat curious for Plutarch to establish the connection between Alexander and Ephesus only to gloss over the period when Alexander was actually there.

I don’t want to speculate as to Plutarch’s purpose in leaving out any mention of Alexander in Ephesus, though there are certainly plausible rhetorical explanations. What interests me in this instance is that the only source among the surviving accounts to mention Ephesus in conjunction with the birth is Plutarch and the only one to mention what he did there is Arrian. Aside from giving me a historiographical headache at the moment, this ought to be a reminder just how constructed are our histories of Alexander’s reign, particularly when it comes to imputing his motivations.

Tweets from #CAMWS17 : Storify

I created a storify collection of tweets and retweets I posted during the annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South this past weekend in Kitchener, Ontario. For some reason WordPress doesn’t want to embed the reader in a post and I have a little too much left to do today to figure out how to fix it, so here is a like to the collection. There may be a longer post in the works because I have a lot of thoughts, but, for reasons, I am putting that off until later in the week, at least.

Isocrates, on corrupt politicians

“For a long time now we have been corrupted by men who have no other ability than to cheat, men who are so disdainful of the mass of ordinary people that whenever they want to incite hostilities against anyone, these men who take money to speak,* they dare to say that we need to imitate our ancestors, not allow those looking on to mock us, and deny the sea to those who are unwilling to pay us their contributions.”

*Probably that they accepted bribes.

διεφθάμεθα γὰρ πολὺν ἤδη χρόνον ὑπ᾽ἀνθρώπων οὐδὲν ἀλλ᾽ἢ φενακίζειν δυναμἐνων, οἳ τοσοῦντον τοῦ πλήθους καταπεφρονήκασιν ὥσθ᾽, ὁπόταν βουληθῶσι πόλεμον πρός τινας ἐξενεγκεῖν, αύτοὶ χρήματα λαμβάνοντες λέγειν τολμῶσιν ὡς χρὴ τοὺς προγόνους μιμεῖσθαι, καὶ μὴ περιορᾶν ἡμᾶς αὐτοὺς καταγελωμένους μηδὲ τὴν θάλατταν πλέοντας τοὺς μὴ τὰς συντάξεις ἐθέλοντας ἡμῖν ὑποτελεῖν.

Isocrates, 8.36

The Greek world was particularly unstable in the 350s BCE and Athens had long since lost most of its dominant position in the Aegean. In this decade, Isocrates, already the Grand Old Man of the Athenian political scene, published his On the Peace, which is dedicated to the virtues of peace. He goes on to ask these politicians what, exactly, they mean by emulating their ancestors and suggesting several possibilities, including the battle of Marathon, which was nearly as long ago in his time as is the American Civil War is to this time. Isocrates then attacks the hypocrisy of these politicians who simultaneously heap praise upon their ancestors and act in the opposite manner.

Isocrates should not be mistaken for a bleeding heart in On The Peace. He can be high-minded in his values, but the overriding concern in this speech is the preservation of Athens and the Athenian democracy. Toward that end, he is unflinching in his opposition of politicians who put their private interests ahead of the state.

“We may restore the polis and make it better, first by appointing as advisors the sort of men for common affairs as those we would wish for our private ones, that we may stop considering sycophants* as public councilors and the men who are good and true** to be of the oligarchic faction, recognizing that no man belongs by nature to one of these, but for each they wish to establish the type of government that will accord them honor.”***

* Here, in the root sense of the word as prosecutors who took up court cases in the hopes of currying favor or receiving money.
** A loaded Greek phrase that probably holds both the meaning of the people in the aristocratic strata of society and “good people”.
*** Honor here is somewhat ambiguous, but probably best encapsulates advancing their political power and, with it, opportunities for economic enhancement.

ἔστι δ᾽ἐξ ὧν ἂν ἐπανορθώσαιμεν τὰ τῆς πόλεως καὶ βελτίω ποιήσαιμεν, πρῶτον μὲν ἢν συμβούλους ποιώμεθα τοιούτους περὶ τῶν κοινῶν, οἵους περ ἂν περὶ τῶν ἰδίων ἡμῖν εἶναι βουληθεῖμεν, καὶ παυσὠμεθα δημοτικοὺς μὲν εἶναι νομίζοντες τοὺς συκοφάντας, ὀλιγαρχικοὺς δὲ τοὺς καλοὺς κἀγαθοὺς τῶν ἀνδρῶν, γνόντες ὅτι φύσει μὲν οὐδεὶς οὐδέτερον τοὐτων ἐστίν, ἐν ᾗ δ᾽ἂν ἕκαστοι τιμῶνται, ταύτην βούλονται καθεστάναι τὴν πολιτείαν.

Isocrates, 8.133

The World of Ice and Fire – George R.R. Martin, et al

Note: this is the first of two or three book write ups that are part of a backlog that developed because of a) dissertation revisions, b) a leaving town for a conference, and c) grading. I finished this book more than two weeks ago and hope to be able to write more frequently going forward.

One of the things I have always loved about fantasy and science fiction novels is the world building. It was for this reason that I dismiss the (perfectly valid) criticism that a series like the Wheel of Time became too unwieldy and has too many point of view characters to maintain a riveting story. These extra characters that might unbalance the plot a little bit also allow you to explore the world in more depth even while often playing out a take on a familiar apocalyptic story arc.

Full disclosure: I also own and like the flawed The World of the Wheel of Time, which tried many of the same things as The World of Ice and Fire, but, ultimately fell a little bit short. One might also offer the same critique in comparing the world building of the two series.

The World of Ice and Fire is an illustrated, encyclopedic history of the world in which the The Song of Ice and Fire is set, running from the dawn of time up nearly to the most recent books (it is dedicated to King Tommen). It is at once lush and full of detail and maddeningly and clearly incomplete. On the one hand, it explicitly avoids recounting stories told in narrative form elsewhere on the grounds that those histories have already been told; on the other, it is written in the form of a history, meaning that it often alludes to controversies and theories, judging them for which is most accurate, and avoiding mention of subjects that might be touchy for the patron of the work, with no mention of rival kings or Tommen’s parentage. Moreover, it is suggested that this work was in the making for a number of years since the dedication to King Tommen is over one or more names that has been blotted out. Then there is the issue of information unknown even to the Maesters of the Citadel, whether because the necessary documents are lost, the history is unrecorded, or information about a distant land, has just never made its way to Westeros.

Having started in middle school, I have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire at this point for more than half my life. As a fan, I really, really liked this book. The World of Ice and Fire strikes a fantastic balance between offering new information about the world and its deep history, while not devolving into a pure reference book. A few minor quibbles on issues of consistency (for which I can make a case for intentionality) aside, the artwork is also gorgeous, giving new vibrancy. One might have wanted more information about, say, the relationship between Houses Stark and Bolton, but the author of this history makes it clear that that is not the history he is telling. Instead, it is a history of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and their place in the wider world. The detailed history of the North (or the Vale or the Reach or Dorne) is simply not relevant to that project.

I also found The World of Ice and Fire a fascinating read as a historian. The purported historian often offers digressions on topics that might be of interest (e.g. the origins of the Hightower at Oldtown), and engages in debates about over the veracity of myths and mentions the previous research that the work is based on. These fictional histories lend credibility to this work and offer anther layer of depth to the world building. Now: this is a particular vision of history. There is some small focus on the general characteristics of “peoples” (in a crude ethnic sort of sense), but movers of events are the great men and women of the past. This is, after all, a history of the Seven Kingdoms written for the king(s).

In sum, I really like The World of Ice and Fire and highly recommend it for anyone who likes the series.*

*I can’t speak for anyone whose interest in in the TV show.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I have a backlog of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley. I am currently reading Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night.

Wicked River: the Mississippi when it last ran wild, Lee Sandlin

I was in Minneapolis for a funeral last weekend and, as a result, was visiting with extended family. One of my cousins lives a matter of blocks from one of my favorite bookstores, Magers and Quinn, so we usually end up talking books. Not for the first time, she passed a number of books off to me. The first of these I picked up is Wicked River, a history of the Mississippi river before the Civil War.

Sandlin takes the reader along with the navigators up and down the river, into the swirling currents, and among the personalities that fought, swindled, and cavorted in the region. His inspiration, in a way, seems to be the stories of Mark Twain even though he notes early on that those stories were already conjuring up a bygone world. In this sense, it is more appropriate to start with what changed. In Sandlin’s account (and I do not think there is reason to doubt it), the infrastructure of the Mississippi River changed in the years after the Civil War when the first railroad bridge crossed the river allowing trains to almost completely replace steamboats. At the same time, US military engineers undertook a massive project to smooth out the rough edges of the river and demographic changes tamed the rough population.

Wicked River is an easy, indulgent read that eagerly regales its audience with the tall tales and local legends from the Mississippi River valley. Most of the stories, Sandlin concludes, are fictions that emerged out of a kernel of truth. Wicked River is well pretty well researched and draws from both contemporary accounts and geographic surveys, but Sandlin employs the same casual, comfy tone whether describing the winter snowmelt or legends about piratical gangs, which becomes only slightly more regimented at the end when those characters lived on only in memory.

I can’t vouch for the value of Wicked River as a historical study, not because I think Sandlin is wrong in his narrative but because I don’t know the historiography on the topic and there is only a loose thesis. But this judgement should not detract from a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging read about a bygone time.

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Next up, I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House.