The Roman Republic was the subject of an In Our Time episode all the way back in 2004 - we listened to it last August while there weren't any new In Our Times airing. It's a pretty broad subject for a 45 minute programme - 500 years of history plus its rise and fall - so of necessity it was painting with fairly broad brushstrokes and looking at themes and commonalities across the centuries. Tackling it were Greg Woolf (St Andrews University), Catherine Steel (University of Glasgow) and Tom Holland (historian and author). (NB: Institutions presumably out of date, it being 12 years ago.)

They started by talking about the foundational myths of the Republic as the stories they told themselves shaped how the Republic functioned. This isn't Romulus and Remus - they are a foundational myth for the city - instead the two key stories are the rape of Lucretia and Horatius on the bridge. Lucretia was raped by the son of the King of Rome, and afterwards she committed suicide whilst calling on her kin to avenge her. This sparked an uprising (led by a man called Brutus) which drove out King Tarquin. Following this the Romans declared they would have no more kings. The second legend follows on directly from this one* - Tarquin didn't take kindly to losing his kingdom like this, and enlisted the support of one of the nearby Etruscan cities. He returned to Rome at the head of an army and it seemed like the Romans were going to be forced to take their king back. However before this could happen Horatius stepped forward to stand on the bridge the army were marching over. He and two companions held off the army for long enough for the bridge to be destroyed behind them, preventing the army from reaching the city. So you have this ideal that the people will rule themselves (with no kings) and when a hero is needed a citizen will step forward to give his own life for his city.

*Well, that's the way they told the legend on the programme, when looking it up on wikipedia to check spellings of names I saw that there it's set much later in the Republic's history - the point remains the same though.

The Roman Republic was the first constitutional democracy meaning that people were voted into positions of responsibility. (Athens was a direct democracy, where everyone voted on what should be done.) The political structure was based on sharing power around in two different ways. Firstly the many powers that a king had once had were distributed between several people. Secondly any given person only held a particular office for a short term (rather than for life). The ephemerality of power and glory were a key concept for the Republic. A consul was consul for a year. A general who'd won a victory was given a triumph and treated like a god for a day. Theatres and celebratory buildings (like triumphal arches) were temporary structures. Even the permanent infrastructure buildings weren't built of stone but of more ephemeral materials. Which puts the Emperor Augustus "coming to Rome a city of brick and leaving it a city of marble" (as discussed on the In Our Time about the Augustan Age (post)) in a different light: that's not just an upgrade to the buildings, that's a change of ethos.

Clearly the Republic wasn't static over its 500 years of history - in particular the balance of power between the people and the aristocracy was constantly shifting and evolving. But it was at heart a very conservative society which looked back to a prior Golden Age. Much was written in later days in the Republic about how it had been better in the early days (before whatever the most recent crisis had been) - and this genre includes most of the surviving texts written about how the Republic was founded. Changes were often brought in by announcing that they were returns to the ways things were done in the past - whether or not this was actually true. This continues after the Republic as well - they brought up on the programme that Augustus's propaganda cast the beginning of the Empire as a restoration of the good old days of the Republic.

The end of the Republic can be thought of as it becoming a victim of its own success. Before they went out and conquered such vast lands it was possible for every key political figure to come back every year to Rome and vote for the new Consuls and so on. And when your campaigns only last a year and are nearby then the army can be based on the idea of farmer-soldier citizens. Every able-bodied land-owning male citizen was supposed to enlist - easily done when he comes back in time for harvest, but what do you do about his farm if he's on campaign for 5 years at a time? And once the land-owning requirement was abolished where do long term soldiers retire to when they're done in the army? The Senate generally prevaricated over the provision of awards and recompense to these retired soldiers - which left a gap for the generals of the armies to fill. And if your reward would come from the charismatic general you were serving under, then your loyalty would be to him first rather than to Rome or to the Senate.

The Triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus and Caesar (the first stage in the transition from Republic to Empire) can be seen as having grown out of Pompey not liking his downgrade in status when he returned to Rome. Whilst out campaigning in the East he had been treated like a king, back home in Rome he was only one amongst equals. And not a particularly important one at that - having been away he was out of the loop, politically speaking. The experts said that Caesar's motivation was probably that he saw there as being only so many "slots" for important people in any new regime and he wanted to make sure he occupied one of them.

The defining point for the end of the Republic was the crossing of the Rubicon by Caesar and his army. The Rubicon is a river between Italy and Gaul, and it marked the boundary between the provinces (where a general could be a king in all but name) and the core territories (where the general was no more important than any other aristocrat). The tradition was that you could not bring your army with you into the core - and so Caesar camps on the other side, which makes the Senate nervous. He's given the choice between dismissing his army and crossing himself, or taking his army and leaving. But Caesar knows that if he does this then he loses all the power he's worked for - and so he brings his army across the Rubicon.

I said that was the defining point of the end, but as they discussed on the programme that's only obvious with hindsight. It probably wasn't clear to the Romans that the Republic was gone forever until one Emperor inherited from another ... and perhaps not even until an Emperor was deposed and yet still the Republic was not not restored.

The last part of the Mesopotamia chapter in this book covers the Third Dynasty of Ur, which was a Sumerian empire that arose a short time after the fall of the Akkadian Empire. The book doesn't give dates for the empire - having looked at the wikipedia page I think that's because there's a high degree of uncertainty about when the dates were. Two different possibilities are 2112-2004 BCE or 2055-1940 BCE.

Orientation Dates:

  • 2181-2055 BCE - Egypt's First Intermediate Period
  • 2100-1600 BCE - the Xia dynasty of China (post)
  • 2055-1650 BCE - Egypt's Middle Kingdom

The City of Ur

The Third Dynasty of Ur rose to prominence in Mesopotamia a little while after the Akkadian Empire fell. In between the region was dominated by the Gutians, who were a mountain people and we know little about them. The ruler of Uruk eventually raised an army to drive out the Gutians, but it was Ur-Nammu from the city of Ur who founded a new empire. It's not clear how Ur-Nammu actually came to power - there's evidence he might've been a governor under the king of Uruk, or perhaps a military leader. And then he either inherited from or lead a coup against the king of Uruk and founded the only Sumerian Empire in Mesopotamia's history. The empire (often referred to as Ur III) reached as far as Syria and Elam and was divided into two parts. The core of the empire was under the king's direct rule, and the peripheral territories were independently ruled but economically controlled by the empire (i.e. paying tribute).

When Ur-Nammu died (perhaps in battle) after a reign of 17 years he was succeeded by his son Shulgi, who reigned for 48 years. One of these two rulers wrote a code of laws that still survives in fragmentary form, and is the first we know to've existed. Traditionally it's ascribed to Ur-Nammu, but the book suggests that Shulgi is more plausible given his longer reign (over an empire that already existed rather than needing to be conquered). Shulgi also reorganised the administration of the empire - under his rule the city state rulers became governors with no military power, and he stationed garrisons in particularly troublesome regions. He instituted a practice of using an army of foreign mercenaries to control the outlying territories. He was deified during his lifetime, although most of his achievements as listed in the book seem prosaic rather than godly! These included standardising tax collection, developing state archives and a state army.

Shulgi was succeeded by his son Amar-Sin, who fought many wars against the Amorites and the Hurrians. He only reigned for 10 years before dying of natural causes and being succeeded by his brother Shu-Sin. The Amorites continued to fight against the Ur III empire, and pushed them back to their heartlands. Shu-Sin actually constructed a wall between the two rivers to try and hold back the Amorites. The book doesn't say if this worked or not ... After Shu-Sin died (after a decade on the throne) he was succeeded by his son Ibbi-Sin who was to be the last of the kings of Ur III. He built walls too, round cities rather than between rivers however. Despite a fairly long reign (perhaps 20 years) he wasn't a strong king and the empire began to crumble almost immediately.

At its height the empire of the Ur III dynasty was a sophisticated and prosperous society. Taxes were collected across the empire on crops, livestock, labour and land. Any surpluses (I'm unclear if the book meant from the taxation or more generally) were redistributed fairly - not just to the temple bureaucracies but also to the poor. How much the common people actually benefited from the prosperity of the empire isn't entirely clear, nor is their precise place in society. An older theory is that they were pretty much just indentured servants, but more recent analysis is that it's more complicated. In theory it should be possible to find out a lot about the Ur III economy as thousands of texts detailing commercial transactions such as loans, leases of land and slave purchases etc have been found from this period. But the book says that no-one has done a systematic analysis of them in order to gain a complete picture (reading between the lines it sounds like the author of this particular section doesn't agree with what analysis has been done). One thing these texts demonstrate at even a cursory level of analysis is that despite this being a Sumerian Empire, Akkadian is the language of administration. The book says that Sumerian was still the language of literature and every literate citizen had to learn it, but Akkadian was the language that people actually used for their day to day lives.

Why did the Ur III empire fall? The book says that it might better to cast this as "how did it ever succeed in the first place?", but sadly doesn't answer that question but goes on to consider why it fell. The suggestion is that it was a perfect storm of adverse conditions including climate change, attacks from nomadic groups from outside the empire (for instance the Amorites) and urban restlessness, combined with a king whose administrative & leadership weren't up to the (admittedly difficult) job. Despite the broad brush strokes being unclear the details of the last king's downfall are quite well known - royal correspondence, poetry and an administrative archive from the period have all survived. Ibbi-Sin had been persuaded to appoint Ishbi-Erra as governor of some of the cities of the empire whilst Ibbi-Sin was away fighting the Elamites. Ishbi-Erra began to assume royal privileges and he eventually proclaimed himself ruler over all of southern Mesopotamia including Ur itself where Ibbi-Sin still ruled. The Ur III empire took another 14 or so years to properly fizzle out, finished off by a famine. There's surviving poetry recording the end of the empire that is similar to the later Book of Lamentations in the bible.

As well as this historical trot through the rise & fall of Ur III this section of the book also includes a couple of sections on the arts & architecture of this period. The first of these is about ziggurats which were the longest lasting temple designs in the Middle East: the earliest known date to at least the 4th Millennium BCE and they were still being built in the 6th Century BCE. They are monumental structures composed of two to seven tiers of platforms rising high into the sky. Access was via ramps, and at the topmost level there was an altar for making burnt offerings (or alternatively for cooking meals for the gods). As with Egyptian temples (and in contrast to Christian churches) these were not places for public worship, instead they were a place for the god to live. The platforms emphasised the separation from humanity on the ground and the gods in the sky, and only priests and rulers were permitted to go up to the top.

Replica Headdress & Jewellery

The last double page spread of the chapter looks at the precious metal working and jewellery of Mesopotamia from it's earliest known examples through to the end of the Ur III empire (I think, the dating isn't clear in the text). Gold and silver aren't found in Mesopotamia, but precious metal working still starts early in the 4th Millennium BCE with imported raw materials. The preferred designs were natural and geometric motifs, like leaves or spirals. Jewellery was made from gold or silver leaf and set with semi-precious stones. It was worn by both men & women, and possibly children too, as well as by statues of the gods. Jewellery might confer protection on the wearer - for instance lapis lazuli items meant you were protected by the sky god Anu. The picture above shows a replica of a headdress found by Leonard Woolley in the 1920s in the royal tombs at Ur (it's in the British Museum now). These tombs are the source of a lot of our knowledge of Sumerian jewellery, in particular the tomb of Queen Pu'abi (and all her (young, healthy) attendants who were all interred at the same time).

The fall of the Ur III empire is considered the dividing line between the Early Bronze Age and the Middle Bronze Age, and the next chapter on the book is about the power struggles between the various kingdoms of that period.

See the note about the author here.

This is the second book in internal chronological order of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series that I own, and I don't think I'm missing any intervening ones. The story is a set a long time after the events of Darkover Landfall (post) and Darkovan society has had ample time to forget their off-world origins. The culture that's grown up is pseudo-feudal in nature and heavily dependent on psychic powers to replace the technology that was impossible on this metal poor world. The aristocratic caste are the Comyn who are those with laran, their name for psychic powers. The Comyn have been breeding themselves for every more potent powers, and not just breeding but manipulating their genetics (using laran). The results have not been good in the long term and that's one of the primary themes of the book and the one the story is shaped by.

Dorilys is the Stormqueen! of the title. Her family's laran is to do with weather control and with sensing the electrical field of the planet, and Dorilys is born with a particularly potent form of it. She's the only and much coddled heir to Dom Mikhail Aldaran, in a world where a woman doesn't really inherit but her husband does. For most of the story she's on the cusp of puberty, which is the most dangerous time for a member of the Comyn - that's when their powers come into full force and this causes an illness called threshold sickness which can kill, and in fact did kill Aldaran's older children. Whilst she's the title character and the key element around which the story revolves, I don't think she counts as the protagonist - that's two men: her half-brother Donal, and Allart Hastur.

Donal isn't Aldaran's son, he shares a mother with Dorilys, but Aldaran loves him like a son. And one of the tensions in the story is that Aldaran would like Donal to inherit but it's not possible. Donal doesn't have very strong laran - he's only touched by this over-engineering of the Comyn by what it's done to his sister. Allart Hastur on the other hand is another victim of the project. He has a form of foresight, but he sees all possible paths into the future. So without great effort and self control all he sees is how everything could go wrong with a single misstep. A simple journey from one town to the next is a torture of nightmarish visions about falling off his horse, breaking bones, getting snowed in or out of somewhere etc etc etc. He's retreated to a monastery of the Christoforos (descended from the Catholic faith of some of the original colonists) where the ritual of life has a steadying influence on his thoughts. But circumstances and family duty call him out of there, and he ends up involved in the tragedy at Castle Aldaran.

One thing I like about this book is the way it's structured. Even the first time of reading it (I'm pretty sure) I knew it was a tragedy going in. And as you read it feels inexorable, inevitable, like a giant rock rolling down a path towards you. The juggernaut can't be stopped. And yet, just before the end there's a moment of peace where you suddenly believe disaster might be averted, and everything hangs in the balance for an instant before it all comes crashing down.

In contrast to Darkover Landfall I can see how Bradley is using this book to explore feminist themes and ideas. It was written in the 1970s - published in 1978 so presumably written a year or two before that. Notably this is just after Roe v. Wade (the landmark case in the US that legalised abortion), and I think there's a lot in this book that's exploring women's control over their reproductive health/ability. For instance: Dorilys and Donal's mother dies when Dorilys is born, and it later transpires that if there'd been someone better trained in laran present to ask advice from during the pregnancy she'd've known that carrying a girl child who had that laran ability to term would inevitably result in the mother's death. And the skilled laran worker would also be able to abort the fetus while it was still very very early in the pregnancy. Thus saving the mother's life. And given the tragedy that later befalls Dorilys as a direct result of her laran, then perhaps that abortion could be seen as merely hastening the inevitable for poor Dorilys. This isn't the only example - another character does abort a fetus that had early detectable poor combinations of genes, and there's also discussion of using laran to prevent conception altogether when an adult's genetics mean that no child of theirs will be born unscathed.

As well as thinking about women's control of their reproductive systems, there's a lot of discussion of love matches vs dynastic marriages vs sexual freedom that plays out in the story. Particularly from the women's perspective, but also the men's. And another theme is that patriarchy hurts everyone. Allart in particular is as much a victim of this system as any of the women - he gets more agency in how he deals with it, but he's as forced into his marriage as his wife is for instance. But in more subtle ways the other men are also victims - Damon-Raphael (Allart's brother and one of the antagonists) wouldn't come to his own tragic end if he hadn't been brought up to believe that being power-mad and paranoid was the way to play the game. (Allart is explicitly regarded as weird by his peers for not seizing any opportunity to snatch power that crosses his path.) And Aldaran's part in what plays out in Castle Aldaran stems from his desperation for a male heir. Mentions should also go to the messages that "eugenics is bad" and "power corrupts", which are shown throughout the story.

So there's actually quite a lot of meat there in this story, underneath the skin (or kinda poking through the skin, to stretch the metaphor somewhat). And much of it is still relevant today. I can't really recommend it as a book though, because my god it's rapey. Off screen in general, but there's at least one attempted rape of Dorilys, there's references to brides being drugged for their wedding nights (with aphrodisiacs), there's genetically engineered non-human "brainless" sterile concubines (who aren't quite brainless, so caught between being people and being animal and neither status makes the situation any better). And so on. You could perhaps argue that Bradley couldn't make the points she was wanting to make without writing her society that way ... but it's pretty relentless and makes for a reduction in enjoyment of the story for me. And it's only made more uncomfortable by the fact that Dorilys, who is the target of a lot of the generally rapey attitude, is a pre- or peri-pubescent girl for most of the story.

The Etruscans were one of the other cultures to live in Italy in the 1st Millenium BCE. They are often overlooked in favour of the Romans (who conquered them), but they were a power in their day and even ruled over Rome for a while early in its history. They were the subject of an In Our Time episode from 2011 which we listened to recently, and discussing Etruscan history and culture were Phil Perkins (Open University), David Ridgway (University of London) and Corinna Riva (University College London).

The Etruscan culture began around 800 BCE and lasted for the next 800 or so years. They lived north of Rome in an area roughly the same as modern Tuscany - the similarity of the words Etruscan and Tuscany is not a coincidence. Their origins are obscure, Herodotus said they came from Lydia (in modern Turkey) and there is some controversial DNA evidence that suggests a Middle Eastern origin but as described by Perkins* this is unconvincing. The study only looked at Y chromosome sequences from modern inhabitants of Tuscany, and it's not clear how (or if) they decided who was likely to've been descended from the Etruscans. Nor did their results give any indication of when this Middle Eastern origin was so it's not clear if it has any bearing on distinguishing the Etruscans from other inhabitants of Italy - after all, most of our ancestors in Europe came via the Middle East on the way out of Africa many 10s of millennia ago! The consensus from the experts on the programme was that this was all rather implausible, and it was more likely that their immediately preceding history was as inhabitants of Italy. Interestingly, however, their language is not an Indo-European language and has no modern relatives.

*Perkins didn't explain it terribly well though - I wasn't clear if he didn't understand it very well or if he just wasn't producing a coherent explanation.

There is not much surviving textual evidence from the Etruscans themselves - most of what is written down is by the Romans. There is no surviving Etruscan literature at all, and only a few inscriptions. These are in both temples and tombs and written in a modified Greek alphabet, but they just tend to name people or gods and give genealogies. Why there is no literature is an interesting question with no clear answer. It seems implausible that they didn't produce any written literature - given the time and place where they lived, and the level of sophistication, wealth and power shown by the archaeological evidence. This implies that the literature was destroyed - and one persistent theory is that there was a purge during the time of the Roman Empire (after Claudius was Emperor, I think they said) to wipe out the memory of their rival civilisation. Nobody on the programme was willing to say that this was true, but they seemed to agree that it was pretty plausible it's just there's no evidence for it one way or the other.

In contrast to the paucity of texts from the Etruscans there is a wealth of archaeological evidence. The way they phrased it on the programme was that in Tuscany it's not the Roman ruins you go to see, it's the Etruscan ones. Even by the standards of Italy this is an area rich in ancient sites. Tombs and graveyards are the main sources of information about the Etruscans - these sites include grave goods, wall paintings and some inscriptions. A few temples and city buildings have also been excavated.

Thinking of the Etruscans as a state is anachronistic. Like Greek culture of the time they were a group of independent city states which shared a common language, culture and religion. Their religion is only known from what the Romans wrote about it, but it appears to've been different in emphasis to the surrounding cultures. The origin story for their religion is someone (a mythical/mystical figure) teaching them how to interpret the omens. The worshipper doesn't pray to the gods and ask them for help or favours. Instead one's religious duty is to interpret the messages the gods are sending via signs & portents - a one way route of communication.

The 6th Century BCE was the heyday of the Etruscan culture. The hills of Tuscany have rich mineral deposits including both tin and copper. Together these metals make bronze - and so were much sought after at the time. The Etruscans could not only outfit their own people with weapons and tools, but also traded extensively around the Mediterranean. They were later called a warlike people, but the consensus on the programme was that there's no evidence of them being worse than anyone else at the time. This was, after all, a warlike period. Their artistic culture is sometimes dismissed as "copying the Greeks but getting it wrong" but the experts were unanimous in declaring this bobbins (rather more politely tho). The Etruscans had a sophisticated artistic and architectural style, which had clearly been influenced by the Greeks but was also uniquely their own. They did often employ imported Greek artists, as they were seen as the best of their day. Ridgway referred to their style as being less bland than the Classical Greek style.

The Etruscans had an influence on Roman art, culture and politics. This is not surprising, as Rome is not very far from Etruscan territory and early in its history it was "just another city state" rather than being the juggernaut of empire that it later became. Early in Roman history they were even ruled by one of the Etruscan city states. Later however the Romans conquered and assimilated the Etruscans. As pointed out above, the Etruscans weren't one cohesive unit so the Romans could conquer them a bit at a time rather than face all of them en masse. They had influence in the Roman political arena much later than one might expect, given they were conquered by Rome around the 4th Century BCE. The Emperor Augustus was supported during the civil war (preceding him becoming Emperor) by several old Etruscan families. These families were the aristocracy of the old Etruscan city states but had been assimilated into the Roman society and political elite by this point. However they were seen as a distinct and influential cultural bloc, that was necessary to get "on side" if you were making a power play. Later still Claudius was married to the daughter of one of these families (who persuaded him to write a history of the Etruscans, now sadly vanished without trace).

I knew pretty much nothing about the Etruscans before I listened to this programme, beyond the simple fact of their existence. I know the British Museum has a room displaying their culture, and this programme has made me want to have a proper look at it sometime.

On Sunday Ana Tavares co-Field Director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA) came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about her work on two 4th Dynasty towns on the Giza Plateau near the Pyramids which she's currently writing up as her PhD thesis. Her talk focussed on the town near Queen Khentkawes's monument, with some comparisons to the other town at Heit el Ghurab (also called the Lost City of the Pyramids, which is where the builders of the Pyramids lived).

Below you can see a plan of the Giza Plateau (that I found on wikipedia last year when I was writing about my visit there in November 2014). Heit el Ghurab isn't marked - but it lies southeast of Khafre & Menkaure's pyramid complexes (so the bottom right hand corner). The tomb of Queen Khentkawes is labelled towards the bottom right, and the pink L shape that comes out of the square tomb is where the town lies.

Plan of Giza Plateau made by wikipedia user MesserWoland
Plan of Giza Plateau made by MesserWoland

Tavares started her talk by showing us an old photo of the area when the inundation still happened, and explaining what she meant by her title. Liminal means border or threshold, and so a liminal zone is a transitional space. In this case the town of Khentkawes is situated between the desert and the cultivated land. It is also a space which serves both the living (the priests and their households that live there) and the dead (the cult of Khentkawes). And this means it's also a space that is both secular and sacred.

AERA started work on the site in 2005, but this wasn't the first time it had been excavated. In the early 1930s an Egyptian archaeologist called Selim Hassan excavated across the site in a single season, cleaning the monument and some of the priests' houses. In 1943 he published this work, describing the monument and one of the priests' houses (they all look very similar so he picked one as a "generic" house from the site). So why come back to a relatively recently excavated and published site? The primary reason was conservation of the site, which had become pressing for two reasons. Firstly, as you can see on the plan, there is a modern cemetery just to the south of the town which was beginning to encroach further onto the site. The Ministry of Antiquities had put a wall up around the site, but nonetheless AERA thought it would be wise to start excavating there before any further encroachment. The other reason is that in the 1930s it wasn't common practice to backfill a site when excavation was over (i.e. cover the site up with sand). This means that the mudbrick walls that Hassan had uncovered had deteriorated considerably just through exposure to the elements. Tavares showed us some pictures from the 1930s and some from their own excavations and the difference was striking. Walls that had been knee high when Hassan uncovered them were now only an inch high if that.

So the first six seasons on the site were spent painstakingly cleaning, recording and then covering up the site. This also let them generate maps of the site, which they've then digitised. These have then been overlaid onto Hassan's original plans and satellite imagery, generating a very detailed map of the whole site. As well as maps they also laser scanned the monument - which is a technique that's becoming more commonplace now, but at the time they did it it was at the cutting edge. Basically this technique uses lasers to very accurately measure all aspects of a physical space, and then these measurements are used to generate a 3D image on the computer which lets you examine the site from angles you can't achieve in person. Tavares showed us the one they've made of the monument, she had a little video she'd made a of a fly past - around the monument a couple of times then up and over the top of it for an aerial view. I thought it was a rather cool way to look at the building!

Tavares pointed out some interesting features while we watched the fly past. Like the Sphinx, Khentkawes monument is carved from the bedrock. It's actually a piece of rock that was left behind in a quarry that was used to build one of the main pyramids on the plateau. Each pyramid is primarily constructed of local stone, which was quarried in each case to the south/south-east of the pyramid in question. After the pyramid was finished this quarry area would be used for the mastaba field associated with that pyramid. Khentkawes monument was constructed from this knoll of rock, with the corners built out to be square (where they weren't already). A palace facade feature was carved into the south side of it, which would then have been covered with a limestone casing. There were then granite elements added - a chapel, a gate. This use of granite links Khentkawes's monument (and herself) with the era of Menkaure.

A big question in Old Kingdom Egyptology is "the Khentkawes problem". Some of it has been sorted out - there turn out to be two women named Khentkawes, one named here in Giza associated with the late 4th Dynasty Pharaohs, and another elsewhere. But what precisely her title means is still unclear. The title associated with her is: mut niswt bity niswt bity. "Mut" means "mother" and "niswt bity" means "King of Upper and Lower Egypt". Tavares explained that this can be interpreted in two different ways - Khentkawes might've been the mother of two kings, or she might've been the mother of a king who also ruled as a king herself. As they excavated and mapped the area around her monument the team found that the site has many features that also show up in kingly pyramid complexes - the monument with the causeway leading from it to a temple, a harbour, and a pyramid town, for instance. The team is divided on whether or not this is evidence that Khentkawes ruled as a king - Tavares seemed inclined to say that yes it does.

As well as mapping work they have been able to excavate new areas of the town - some under the buildings uncovered by Hassan, and some structures further to the east of the town. The latter included the harbour area I alluded to above. The work they have done on the site has shown three phases of building & occupation there during the 4th Dynasty. First there was a large building (which they excavated below the causeway that Hassan found). Next there were large houses laid out along a wide street. And following this the causeway was put in - it was narrower than the previous street, and it cut off some parts of the houses from the rest of the settlement. There was then a tunnel built under the causeway so that they were connected again, which implies that the causeway was put in as the result of a top-down decision rather than growing organically out of changing use by the site's inhabitants. The site was abandoned after the 4th Dynasty, but then re-occupied in the 6th Dynasty. This happened in a formal fashion rather than as a shanty town - the buildings were reconstructed and the enclosure wall was too.

The team have excavated one of the houses (House E) more thoroughly, and Tavares told us a little bit more detail of these phases of occupation. When the house was first built it looked much like all the other houses on the street - they all have the same modular design. The big street was to the south and there was a door at both the north & south ends of the house. Later when the causeway was put in (where the street had been) the north door of the house was also blocked off - which seems rather inconvenient as now access to the rear of the house meant you had to go round all the other houses. Later still there are grain silos built in the northern areas of the house. Grain silos are an indication of wealth - grain is the currency (as such) of Egypt at the time, and having a lot of it not only means you're wealthy but also that you are probably distributing rations to other people (so are high status). Interestingly the silos are in House E's space, but are only accessibly from House F. The rest of House E has amalgamated with House D on the other side.

After our break for coffee (and cake!) Tavares talked to us a bit more generally about Egyptian houses of the 4th Dynasty (using plans from Heit el Ghurab as her examples). Tavares also got us to measure out some rooms of houses in the hall with tape measures and string so that we got a feel for the sorts of sizes she was talking about. The group I was in measured out the main room of one of the smaller houses - which seemed a reasonable size until we were told that probably 6 people lived in that house! (Which was an estimate using data from a Middle Kingdom census of the town at Lahun.) Unlike the town at Khentkawes's monument the houses of Heit el Ghurab come in several different sizes. The lowest status type are actually pretty large buildings - 35m long by 5m wide. At the front end is a standard looking house, and then the rest of the space consists of a barracks like arrangement of two rows of bed platforms. This would be where the lowest status workers slept, the men who were there to build a pyramid as part of their labour obligation to the state.

The next size up were (very) small estates - each had an L-shaped main room (about 5mx2m) with a bed platform in the short arm of the L (which is the room we measured out). This was surrounded by small courtyards in which a lot of daily life would've gone on (rather than inside the house per se). The biggest houses belonged to administrators, the largest of which covered 400m2 - which is the largest Old Kingdom house that have been excavated. These larger estates didn't just have a main room for sleeping in, they also had other rooms for business and living quarters as well as a bakery and a brewery attached to the house. The main rooms were richly decorated - the team found remains of painted plaster, and also the bed platform in the largest one had the foot end of it shaped into two different style ("his'n'hers" as Tavares put it).

Tavares ended her talk by talking about Pyramid Towns more generally, where Khentkawes town fits into this, and the difficulties in getting the textual evidence for these towns to match the archaeological evidence. The term "Pyramid Town" is actually the Ancient Egyptian term - which I hadn't realised. They're referred to in texts about tax exemptions - for instance in Pepi II's reign the Pyramid Town of Menkaure's Pyramid is exempt from taxation. But the archaeological evidence clearly shows that after Menkaure's Pyramid was finished the town that the workers lived in (Heit el Ghurab) was carefully dismantled and abandoned - the valuable fabric of the town, the wood, bricks and stone, were removed for reuse. So where does the Pyramid Town in Pepi II's time come from? Tavares said it's likely to be the shanty town that grew up within the Menkaure Temple (which was excavated in 1908/9 rather than the formal sort of place one would expect from the texts.

Khentkawes's Pyramid Town also has discrepancies between the textual evidence and the archaeology, but in the opposite direction. There are no textual references to a Pyramid Town associated with her monument, but the archaeology (as we saw in this talk) demonstrates that there was a formal, planned town there. Tavares said that Khentkawes's complex is on the cusp of the changes between the 4th Dynasty and the 5th Dynasty. It really isn't the same sort of thing as either the pyramid builders town nor the shanty town that later grows up associated with Menkaure's Pyramid. Instead of having a variety of housing types for a variety of social groups, like Heit el Ghurab has, Khentkawes's town has only one type of house. Tavares suggested that it shouldn't really be called a town - it's a single purpose institution, with several priests (and presumably their households given the size of the houses) all of whom were the same rank and were there to do the same job.

This was a fascinating talk, and Tavares is a good speaker - she really brought to life what could've been some rather dry archaeology and gave us a feel for the places she was talking about as living towns.

I'll begin this blog post with a note on the author of the book: Marion Zimmer Bradley. I've been dragging my heels on moving along with my re-read of all the fiction on the shelves, and it's because Bradley was next up and a little while ago I learnt a couple of unpleasant things about her. Firstly, her second husband (Walter Breen) was convicted twice and eventually imprisoned for child sex abuse, and Bradley was aware of and aided his actions. Secondly, once discussion of Breen became current again in 2014 the daughter of Bradley and Breen came forward to say that Bradley was herself an abuser.

Immediately on reading about this I could think of at least one character and situation in her Darkover series that I would re-evaluate with this new information. And more generally - one of the things I'd liked about the Darkover books was that I thought she'd been portraying a world where just like the real one you can't always spot the monsters at first glance. Effectively, I used to think she was saying "just because someone does good things too, doesn't stop them being a monster"; and now I think she just had a different working definition of "monster". So not only has someone who was one of my favourite authors fallen off her pedestal and been revealed as a thoroughly unpleasant person; but also even before starting my re-read I'm pretty sure that the artist can't be separated from her art in this case. I decided to re-read them anyway, because they were favourites and I'd rather see what I actually think rather than make assumptions based on memories from a decade or so ago when I last read them. But having started this re-read: they're definitely coming off the shelves once I've re-read them (into a box rather than disposed of, for nostalgia for the perspective I can't read them with any more).


So, onward to the book. Darkover Landfall is the first in the internal chronology of the Darkover series, but was the 7th of them to be published (in 1972). I generally prefer to re-read series in chronological order, even if I buy the books in publication order - not that I did that in this case, I didn't start buying them till the 90s and picked them up as I saw them in shops. The basic premise of the Darkover series is that a colony ship sent out from Earth goes off course and crashlands on the planet Darkover. They have no contact with Earth for over(? around? the chronology is unclear) a thousand years during which they develop their own civilisation, which is heavily influenced by the Gaelic roots of the original colonists & crew. And on this planet psychic powers such as telepathy work - this is part innate human talent (it's a very 60s sort of series in origin), part due to interbreeding with a native species (see previous parenthetical remark), part due to the plants and geology of the planet (ditto). So you have this pseudo-feudal society with psychic technology who forget they came from anywhere but Darkover, and eventually the Terran multi-planet Empire rediscover them. The novels set after that deal in large part with culture shock and culture clash - mind-powers vs. science, the different sorts of sexism in the two societies, etc.

It's a series that hits a lot of my buttons - things I'm a sucker for in science fiction include: generation ships or lost colonies, psychic powers as a replacement for tech, culture shock and looking at our own culture through the eyes of the alien. Bradley also manages a sense of time and history - something I wrote about when I talked about Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz. The way later characters talk about past events is never quite the same as the way the book about those events told the story - things pass from current affairs, to history, to fable and you can see it happening in the books.

I think if I'd started with Darkover Landfall, I wouldn't've continued reading the series - to me any appeal it had relies on enjoying reading about the way things "really happened" as opposed to how they're later remembered. The story itself I've always found rather unsettling and odd. Once their ship crash lands on the wrong planet the crew & colonists have to come to terms with the fact that they're now stranded on this rather inhospitable world: it has a climate that is only just habitable all year round, and it is very metal poor meaning their advanced tech won't be viable for long. There's the obvious conflict between "must make the best of what we have" and "must devote all resources to getting the hell outta here", and nobody is particularly happy with the situation. And then the kireseth flowers bloom - their pollen is a potent hallucinogen that also lowers your inhibitions and enchances any latent psychic talent. Some members of the crew just have lots of happy sex, one meets a chieri (a native and reclusive intelligent species of the planet) and then has happy sex, others have sex they're not happy with (to varying degrees of unhappy ranging from "oh dear" to "oh my dear god no what have I done!!?!"). It's a very 60s/70s sort of story ...

The way I remembered this book was "it's the 'alien sex pollen makes them do it' one", which is a pretty accurate summary to be honest. But on the plus side, it was nowhere near as rape-y as I'd feared, in that all the sex we're told about is things that the participants wanted to do even if in some cases they were suppressing that desire until the kireseth bloomed. On the other hand ... just because you want to, doesn't mean you should. And in the light of the child sex abuse allegations and convictions for Bradley and her husband it's to say the least an unsettling theme for the book.

To my eyes reading it now it was atrociously sexist. Not just a little bit here and there, but woven right through the entire fabric of the novel. Which surprised me, because Bradley is often held up as a feminist SFF author and this book comes across as far from feminist. It's possible that as I wasn't even born when the book was written I'm missing the nuance that would tell me she was critiquing the sexism and not buying into it ... but if there's nuance and critique there, it's pretty well buried. It's not just stuff like Rafe MacAran thinking of women as inherently incapable of any manual labour or physical exertion, where Bradley might be making the point that he's wrong. It's also stuff like the way Judy (who has sex with the chieri) isn't believed by anyone - yes, this might be because it happens under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug; but in context it also comes across as dismissing her as a silly woman who's obviously making shit up. And it's stuff like the paean to the joys of motherhood as the one true path to fulfilment for all women and doubly necessary here because it's also the strict duty of every woman of childbearing age to pop out the sprogs now and forever more so that the colony survives. Any woman who isn't joyous at the thought of pregnancy and babies is psychologically damaged and brainwashed. And this is one of the ways in which the society of Earth is sick. Apparently. Again, this is in the mouths and minds of the characters of the novel, and perhaps Bradley was intending one to see it as ludicrous. I just don't think that comes across tho - if this was a trope she was intending to undermine, I don't think she succeeded.

It made me think, as I was reading it, of "We Who Are About to..." by Joanna Russ which was published 4 years after Darkover Landfall. I've not actually read Russ's book, but I know the plot from osmosis (and a double check on wikipedia that I had the right book in mind!). In it a spaceship crash lands on a remote planet with no rescue forthcoming. The men propose that they should all make babies and build a civilisation, but the female protagonist sees that there is no way they can survive long term and has no intention of spending the rest of her fertile life being an unwilling baby-machine to no purpose. It escalates (violently) from there. Was Darkover Landfall one of the books Russ was reacting to? There are definitely resonances between the two books (as far as I can tell having not read one of them, of course).

I was going to say more about specific scenes and so on, but I think I'm just going around in circles. I never was particularly keen on this book, but I think that's moved into active dislike now I'm a bit older and bit more critical about what I read (rather than just swallowing it whole).

Back in the summer while In Our Time wasn't airing new episodes we dug back through the archives and found a (rare) Egyptian related one that we didn't think we'd listened to before - about Akhenaten, which aired in 2009. The experts on the programme were Richard Parkinson (British Museum), Elizabeth Frood (University of Oxford) and Kate Spence (University of Cambridge). (As it's so old affiliations of the experts have probably changed.)

They started with a little bit of scene setting and overview of Akhenaten's reign, placing him in context. He was one of the Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom period. This was a particularly prosperous time in Egypt's history, Akhenaten's father Amenhotep III in particular can be considered as ruling over a Golden Age. When Akhenaten came to the throne he seemed much like a conventional Pharaoh. He initially used the more traditional name Amenhotep IV, and built and decorated traditional seeming temple architecture. But the experts pointed out that one initial sign of the differences that were to come is that his temple decoration only has scenes of himself offering to solar deities rather than to the full suite of the Egyptian pantheon. After only a few years his reign becomes more unconventional - first he starts to transition from the old state religion to a new one that only worships the Aten (the sun disc) via himself and his wife. Then he moves the capital from Thebes to a brand new city he orders built at the site we now call Amarna. The old religion is abolished, and the name of Amun (the previous chief deity) is removed from all inscriptions. When Akhenaten died in Year 17 of his reign (c.1335 BCE) there was a period of chaos which ended with the restoration of the old religion, and an attempt to remove Akhenaten's name from history.

As you can tell from that précis Akhenaten made sweeping changes to Egyptian life and culture. The way they discussed it on the programme made me think of Pol Pot in Cambodia, or Mao's Cultural Revolution in China: a top down concerted effort to erase and reset the cultural history of a nation. Most of the rest of the programme was spent discussing these changes and the impact they had on Egyptians of the time. They broke down the changes into four major areas: changes to the religion, changes to the art, changes to the language, and the movement of the political centre of the country.

Religious change had happened in Egypt before, but generally as a slow process involving different gods becoming more or less prominent over a long period of time (for instance Amun wasn't always the main state god and didn't really move into that position until the New Kingdom). Akhenaten's changes were abrupt and went far beyond just which god was most important. The large pantheon was replaced with the single god, the Aten. Gone were anthropomorphic representations of deities - the Aten was only to be shown as a sun disc with rays reaching to give life to the Pharaoh and his wife. And gone was all the accumulated mythology associated with the old gods. Even the architectural style of the temples was different - the old temples were dark enclosed places, the new ones were larger, exposed to the sunlight and more airy in feel. The changes were all designed to honour the sun as the source of everything needed for life. One of the experts (Frood, I think?) suggested that Akhenaten's new belief system might even have been more of a natural philosophy than a religion - that he was something more akin to an atheist than we generally think. There was also a general consensus amongst the experts that there was a megalomaniac flavour to his new religion - the Pharaoh was now centred in both the religion and the art. Instead of symbolic scenes of hunting or fishing one the walls nobles' tombs from this era there are scenes of the Pharaoh giving gifts to the noble in question. The cult is as much about Akhenaten as it is about the Aten.

The art of Akhenaten's reign is also a great departure from previous Egyptian art styles. Once he changes the state religion depictions of the Pharaoh become really quite weird to our eyes. He is depicted with pendulous breasts, wide hips and a strangely elongated face. At one time scholars thought that this meant Akhenaten was deformed, but nowadays the consensus is that it was just an art style not a direct representation of how he really looked. Backing this up is that Nefertiti is also depicted that way in some places. But in other ways the new art feels less alien to us than the standard Egyptian style. Akhenaten and Nefertiti are frequently depicted with their children, sharing tender family moments, rather than just in formal unrealistic poses. The linguistic changes in the Akhenaten era also follow this increased informality - even texts such as the Hymn to the Aten, which is very much in a formal context, are written with an informal style. The experts suggested that this might reflect the actual speech patterns of the time.

On the boundary stelae for the new city at Amarna Akhenaten justifies the move of his capital by referring things having been "bad" at Thebes - tho he doesn't explain what he means by bad. He also says that the site was picked because the Aten told him to build his city there. It's notable that from the river at that point there's a stretch of the cliff face that looks like a horizon hieroglyph, which may be one of the ways that the Aten indicated the right site. More pragmatically, it's in a central location between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, which is politically useful. The site hadn't been used for settlement before, and wasn't afterwards until much much closer to the modern day. One of the experts (I forget who) said that that's because it's a stupid place to put a city! It's poor in resources, and mostly desert, so didn't long outlast Akhenaten himself. This is rather good for modern archaeologists, as it gives a snapshot of Egypt at a particular brief time period and it's not been significantly disturbed or built on since.

The impact of all these changes on the elite of society was significant, and probably rather traumatic. The Egyptian culture was very conservative. Their concept of Ma'at, or order, made a religious necessity out of doing things they way they had been done before. So normally a Pharaoh would make a big deal out of how he was doing things as his father and his father's father etc had done before him. Even if what he was doing wasn't actually the same as what his father had done ... But Akhenaten was overtly bringing in something new and saying it was better than what had gone before. Not everyone would've been upset, of course, and some may well have welcomed the changes - there are definitely high ranking individuals who change their names to reflect the new beliefs, although we can't tell if this was for pragmatic reasons or religious belief. But the old certainties were gone, the festivals that measured out the year weren't happening, the familiar symbolism wasn't used any more, and the comforting idea of an afterlife forever with the gods wasn't there any more. They did talk about the lower levels of society a bit - but didn't really talk about how the loss of the festivals would affect them, which I was a bit surprised by. I'd've thought that would've been one of the areas that would have a lot of impact on your average peasant - measuring out the year by when you see the priests process with the god's shrine. They did talk about the shrines to the old gods that have been found in private houses in Akhenaten's new city - signs that the change from old to new religion wasn't complete. But they didn't talk about the idea that the household and state religions were separate things - so I'm not sure if they disagreed with this or if there just wasn't time to discuss it.

One thing they did discuss is how we know just enough about this period and it's just familiar enough in feel that people project their own desires onto the evidence we do have. For instance, Akhenaten has often been held up as the "world's first monotheist" and then turned into Moses or inspiration for Moses or something that lets the theoriser believe that "obviously" he's prefiguring Judaism or even Christianity with his new religion. The experts then danced delicately round the point that Akhenaten being an atheist or natural philosopher is also one of these situations - it's just it's the one that appeals most to modern archaeologists rather than early 20th Century ones.

This is an index and summary of the things I've talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it's before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.

Books

Fiction

"King's Dragon" Kate Elliott. Epic fantasy set in an analogue of medieval Europe, part of the Crown of Stars series. New.

Total: 1

Non-Fiction

"The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed" Stephen Bourke. Part of the Thames & Hudson Ancient Civilisations series.

Total: 1

Museums

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy - exhibition at the British Library to mark the 800th anniversary of the original issuing of Magna Carta by King John.

Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden - exhibition in The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Representations of gardens through history.

Total: 2

Papers

Radio

Aesop. In Our Time episode about both Aesop's fables and whether or not the man himself existed.

The Augustan Age. In Our Time episode about the reign of Augustus as Emperor of Rome.

Extremophiles. In Our Time episode about extremophiles and what they till us about the search for extraterrestrial life.

Frederick the Great - In Our Time episode about his life.

Total: 4

Talks

"At the Gate of the Ancestors: Saint Cults and the Politics of the Past at Abydos" Janet Richards - the 2015 Sackler Lecture, given at the British Museum.

"The Sacred Site of 'Quesna': Multi-disciplinary Investigations and Analyses in the Cemetery and Falcon Necropolis" Joanne Rowland - talk at the February meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group.

Total: 2

Tags: Admin

The Middle East book is starting to get into the realm of real dates for events, and so I'm including some reference points for what else is happening in the world c.2900BCE to c.2200BCE. For this chapter my only points of comparison are in Egypt - the earliest potentially datable Chinese dynasty were the Xia in 2100BCE so a little later on.

Orientation dates:

  • c.3150-2686 BCE - Early Dynastic Egypt, the first two dynasties.
  • 2686-2181 BCE - Old Kingdom Egypt
  • c.2560 BCE - building of the Great Pyramid at Giza

The Emergence of City States

Despite the title of this section of the chapter it is not so much about the birth of city states as a concept (that was the last bit of the chapter) but more about the growth of these and the first couple of unified empires in Mesopotamia. At first the early city states were independent of each other, and were frequently in conflict over the limited agricultural resources of the region. This Early Dynastic Period (2900-2300 BCE) is characterised by rivalries between the city states. The first to establish itself as a major centre for the surrounding region was Uruk, with Lagash and Umma developing into such after 2500 BCE. Some cities became more symbolically important - like Nippur (which was where the shrine of Enlil (a major deity) was), or Kish. In both cases being able to say you were king of the city implied that you were endorsed by their gods and so "should" have sovereignty over other cities. The first ruler over a unified Sumeria came from Umma and reigned from 2375 BCE to 2350 BCE, but Lugalzagesi's empire didn't outlive him. The first lasting empire was that of Sargon, ruler of Akkad, who proclaimed himself King of Sumer and Akkad (a title that was used for the next 200 years).

The Royal Standard of Ur (see pic below) dates from this era (c. 2600-2400 BCE) and there's a small sidebar in the book about warfare in Sumeria illustrated by the decoration on this object. Most of the soldiers would've been foot soldiers - but they did also have chariots of a sort. They were drawn by onagers (wild asses) and were heavier than later chariots, so probably actually used as mobile observation platforms than as battle weapons. At first the military leadership was separate from the city rulership, but as warfare became more important the two roles merged.

Royal Standard of Ur

Again the book is a trifle confused in its organisation as the next double page spread about the city of Uruk reiterates much of the info that the previous section of this chapter gave us (but with new pictures). The key point for this era is that Uruk's political importance decreased in the Mesopotamian Early Dynastic Period. However, the increasing importance of the legends of Uruk's foundation by Gilgamesh indicate that the city continued to have religious significance.

The city state of Lagash rose to prominence during this era. The state of Lagash had three centres: the economic one was the city of Lagash itself, Girsu was the religious and political centre and there was a further temple precinct at Nina. The people of Lagash seem to've been particularly keen on war, as evidenced by their local patron gods. One was their version of the war god Ninurta, called Ningirsu - who was also patron of irrigation (a key area of conflict with the nearby city state of Umma). And the other patron god was the war and fertility goddess Nina, who was related to Inanna/Ishtar. As well a belligerence against their neighbours this is also the first place where a revolt against the city rulers is recorded, and the king instated after the revolt is thought to've created the first law code in Mesopotamia. Sadly no dates given for this king, Urukagina, but as it's mentioned he's several hundred years pre-Sargon of Akkad he must've reigned long before 2350 BCE. Perhaps contemporary with the 4th Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu or maybe even earlier than that.

As well as the Sumerians and the Akkadians there were other cultures in and around Mesopotamia during this period. The Amorites were one of these - the name we use for them derives from the Sumerian word for westerner (amurru), and they initially lived between the Sumerians and the Cananites & Egyptians. The Sumerians regarded the Amorites as barbarians, but evidence from their cities (such as Mari or Ebla) suggests otherwise. These cities had extensive libraries and there is evidence they were hubs on the trade networks running between Mesopotamia and Old Kingdom Egypt. The Amorites may also have founded Bablyon (although Sargon of Akkad is later credited with this) - this would be after the Akkadian Empire collapsed when the Amorites were filling the local power vacuum. There were also Hatti in central Anatolia (who were not the cultural ancestors of the Hittites despite the face we use the same name for the two cultures), and the Elamites who lived to the east of Sumer.

The Akkadians lived to the north of the Sumerians, and even before the Akkadians ruled Sumer there was a lot of cultural contact. The Akkadian language is a Semitic language, so from a completely different family to the Sumerian language, but there is evidence of word borrowing between them. In particular the Akkadians picked up words for writing and gardening from the Sumerians, whereas the Sumerians picked up words for war, herding and religion from their neighbours. The most obvious cultural exchange between the two peoples was that the Akkadians learnt and used the Sumerian writing system (cuneiform). This was to continue long after the Akkadian Empire collapsed - Akkadian written in cuneiform was to be the diplomatic language for the next couple of millennia in the region. It's been suggested that in the reverse direction the Sumerians acquired elements of Akkadian theology. They began to worship some of the same gods (notably Shamash and Ishtar). The conceptualisation of the gods as capricious or malicious may also have been Akkadian in origin. As an aside the book notes that while in the Old Testament flood story God floods the world because of mankind's wickedness, in the Sumerian version of the myth the gods do it because humanity is too noisy!

Sargon of Akkad established the world's first empire c.2350 BCE, and unsurprisingly we don't have much concrete information about his rise to power. Legends about him are reminiscent of later biblical stories (for instance like the stories of King David). His conquests started with Kish (in the north of Sumeria) and then Umma, which was one of the largest Sumerian city states at the time. Despite the need to constantly put down rebellions in previously conquered city states Sargon extended his empire to the Levant and to the Taurus mountains in Turkey. The rebellions eventually lead him to change the government in the city states he conquered - he installed his sons as the new governors and his daughters as high priestesses. There is little written about Sargon in contemporary sources - he only appears in the records of Susa (the Elamite capital city). Most of our information comes from later legends and King Lists. These say that he reigned for 56 years, and it was a turbulent period as he was unable to stabilise his control of his empire and was constantly fire-fighting against rebellions. The next four rulers of the empire reigned for 86 years between them. These kings included Sargon's son (with a reign of only 9 years) and his grandson Naram-Sin who reigned for 30 years. The office of chief priestess of Sin (the Akkadian's primary god) also became hereditary and was always a daughter of the king.

The empire was never particularly stable - all the kings had to frequently wage war to enforce taxation and tribute requirements from the regions outside their core area of Babylonia, and to protect necessary trade routes. However one area of success was in the organisation of agricultural production. Competition for agricultural resources had been one of the major sources of rivalry between independent city states, and so the Akkadian empire centralised (and protected) the storage of grain and distributed it as rations throughout their empire. This meant that there were no famines for over a hundred years despite decreasing rainfall and flooding in the highlands - the continued rainfall in the lowlands enabled sufficient grain production to keep the empire fed.

After 150 years the Akkadian Empire abruptly collapsed for reasons that are unclear. Previous hypotheses have focussed on the internal turbulence of the empire - suggesting potential problems such as the cost of all the military campaigns that were necessary. The book dismisses these theories as "logical but unconvincing", in large part because these problems were the same throughout the whole of the empire's history. A more recent hypothesis is to do with climate change (which is, of course, the trendy theory for collapses of civilisation these days ...). There is evidence from sediment cores that suggests that around the time of the Akkadian Empire's collapse there was a sudden shift towards more arid conditions. This same shift is seen across a wider region than just Mesopotamia - it's a current hypothesis to explain the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt as well. Backing this up is archaeological evidence from Tell Leilan in northern Mesopotamia, where the remains of domesticated sheep & cattle from this period show signs of extreme water deprivation. Textually the climate change hypothesis is backed up by ancient sources that blame the fall of the Empire on the displeasure of the gods with Naram-Sin who attacked the city of Nippur and sacked the temple of Enlil. And so the gods cursed Akkad and "... the great agricultural tracts produced no grain. The irrigated orchards produced neither syrup nor wine. The gathered clouds did not rain... People were flailing at themselves from hunger.".

After the collapse of the Akkadian Empire the next power to rise up in the region was a Sumerian dynasty - the Third Dynasty of Ur - which formed the only Sumerian Empire. And that's what the next section of the chapter is about.

I've read Kate Elliott's "King's Dragon" before - at least twice - and both times stalled out on the series before I got to the end, either because I couldn't get the books at the library or because I hadn't quite decided whether to buy or borrow them. Last time I read it I reviewed it in this blog too (post). So when I needed to think of some books to get on my kindle to take away with me (last spring!) this series came to mind as unfinished business. I finished reading this one in July 2015, and am writing it up (from notes made at the time) in January 2016 by which point I've finished the series, so this is not going to be the post you'd've got if I'd been more diligent about writing it! :) It's also not a review as such (and if you haven't read the books my previous review gives a bit more detail about the set up and characters), and there will be spoilers ahead for the whole series even tho I'm concentrating on this book in this post.

One of the things I wrote about before, and remembered as particularly liking, is that this series starts out with a fairly familiar set of epic fantasy tropes which it then proceeds to do something more interesting with than what one might expect. Our main point of view characters are a couple of Chosen One archetypes who live in a version of medieval Europe. Alain is a farm boy of uncertain parentage, destined for the Church but yearning for adventure. Liath is on the run with her father, learning philosophy, astronomy and magic but unable to ever settle down for fear they'll be killed by those who chase them. And the world around them has kings and princes, court intrigue, wars fought on horseback with swords, and a powerful Church. It isn't, however, generic and nor are any of the characters. One of the things I appreciated about this whole series is that it felt like a real world, and like the implications of the world building had been thought through.

An example of this is the religion of this world - it's flavoured with Christianity, although with many differences the key of which is that the orthodox opinion is that God is plural and they are both male and female. The senior officials of the Church, the biscops and the skopos (Pope equivalent), are all female. Mayors of towns are female. And there's a reasonable amount of the sort of casual sexism you'd expect from the characters about how men are unsuited for such roles. But, women still have the biological vulnerabilities that they have in reality - and just because women are "in power" in some arenas doesn't turn the society into something fluffy and peace loving. Which I appreciated, because every time I see someone say something about "if women ruled the world we wouldn't have X injustice happening" I wince - women are people too, and setting us up as inherently superior to men is no more right than as inherently inferior. So it was nice to see a world where women did have power and yet the world wasn't full of magical unicorns.

I felt that family was one of the dominant themes of the book (and series). People didn't just introduce themselves by name, but also by lineage. Legitimacy or otherwise is also important - bastards don't inherit, which is one of the key factors in Sanglant's story. And even though we see the action primarily via Alain and Liath, Sanglant is one of the key characters - the book is named after him, and his relationship with his father is critical to the politics. If his father didn't love him so much, then a lot of the events throughout the series wouldn't've happened. Returning to the theme of family - Liath and Alain are both set apart by their lack of claimable family. Liath doesn't know who her parents are related to, and Alain doesn't even know who his parents are for sure. Liath's family relationships become one of the linchpins of the entire series, precisely who she is matters more to the world (both everyday and magical) than she realises at this point.

Another thing I really liked about this world was that the religion and the magic felt as solidly real as the politics. I mentioned above about the differences in the Church affecting the society around it, but I also liked that the Church is not a monolith and not stocked solely with either pious clergy or scheming fraudsters. There are differences of opinion on what the scriptures mean and on precisely what people believe in (and a heresy touched on in this book and will have repercussions throughout the series). The clergy are people - some are devout, some are not; some are in their positions because of their secular rank, some are not. And those are two separate axes. It's a complicated mess of an institution, as you'd expect for a religion that's a few centuries old.

Magic is officially regarded as evil by the church (as in our world) but it actually works (unlike our world). It's a very medieval sort of magic - alchemy rather than abracadabra. Liath is learning the theory, and she is learning from books and constructing her own memory palace in her mind where she can walk through to retrieve facts. She's also learning astronomy, mathematics and so on, which is all linked just like alchemists thought it would be in our world. It's a magical system based on knowing or intuiting the secrets and fundamental principles of the universe. It's also not without limitations & flaws. For instance, in practical terms one of the more useful pieces of magic we see is the ability to see through fire for a vision of what's happening elsewhere to someone. And it's limited by what you see (literally) when you look - if someone is passed out cold on the floor somewhere with wounds all over him, you'll probably think he's dead. So this provides a way of getting more information about far off events more quickly than you can by mundane methods, but it can also provide disinformation.

I'm glad I finally got round to getting the whole series - there's definitely re-read potential here, just looking stuff up for this post I've remembered a few things I thought were background at this point that turn out to be much more important later on.

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