In Our Time: The Estruscan Civilisation

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.

“Darkover Landfall” Marion Zimmer Bradley

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).

February 2016 in Review

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.



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

Total: 1


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

Total: 1


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



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


“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

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 5)

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.

“King’s Dragon” Kate Elliott

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.

In Our Time: The Augustan Age

The Augustan Age is the period between 27BCE and 14CE when the Emperor Augustus ruled the Roman Empire. It was discussed on In Our Time (in 2009) by Catharine Edwards (Birkbeck College, University of London), Duncan Kennedy (University of Bristol) and Mary Beard (Cambridge University). They were primarily considering the politics and arts of the Emperor Augustus’s reign and how these were linked. Politically speaking it’s the beginning of the Roman Empire and a period of peace after the instability of the civil war that marked the end of the Roman Republic. And in terms of the arts this period includes some of the names that one thinks of when one thinks of Roman literature: Virgil, Ovid, Horace.

The Emperor Augustus was called Octavian before he became Emperor and was the adopted son of Julius Caesar (so is sometimes referred to as Caesar). He was named heir in Julius Caesar’s will, but when Julius Caesar was murdered Mark Anthony tried to grab power and civil war broke out. When the dust settled Octavian didn’t restore the Republic, instead he became the Emperor Augustus and inaugurated the Roman Empire. He managed to leave the Senate a sense of dignity and respect (thus heading off the likelihood of an end like Julius Caesar’s) whilst actually retaining sole control himself. For instance he chose a role from the standard Roman Republic’s kit to hold in perpetuity (Tribune) that was actually one of the more junior roles but it was also the one that spoke first in the Senate allowing him to direct the proceedings. He also made a point of knowing all of the Senators, and Beard said that he’s supposed to’ve greeted them all by name at the beginning of each session – which, as she pointed out, must’ve come across as rather fake & tedious to the Senators who weren’t whole-heartedly buying into the cult of Augustus.

His propaganda characterised his reign as a return to the good old fashioned Roman virtues – a bit like the Tory Party narrative of “family values” in modern politics, looking back to an idealised 1950s that never was. Augustus cast the civil war and turmoil as being the result of Rome and the Roman citizens’ fall from virtue over the preceding decades. The bedrock of Roman virtue is the mythos of the farmer-general who leaves his plough to lead the armies of Rome to glory. It’s rooted in rural and agricultural life, and military values; and this is juxtaposed with the sins of decadent urban life where citizens live in luxury. Which I found quite amusing as the way we remember the Roman Empire includes quite a lot of salacious scandal about “my goodness what those Emperors and their families got up to!”. And it seems that Augustus would be horrified by this image of his Empire. He envisaged his family’s role as playing the part of “Good Old Fashioned Roman Family” as an example for everyone else to live up to. For instance his wife spun the cloth that made his clothes, just as a good Roman housewife should. He was not entirely successful in achieving the family image he intended (see below), but he did succeed in successfully re-inventing himself. Which was quite an achievement, as during the civil war Octavian had been somewhat of a young thug. There are multiple stories of his ruthlessness and cruelty, including one tale of him ripping out someone’s eyes with his bare hands! Not quite the good and virtuous first-amongst-equals farmer-general of his later propaganda.

One of the things Augustus does to return virtue to Rome is to pass new laws enforcing proper moral behaviour. Notably these included laws against adultery. This was the area in which his family fell short of the image he was hoping they’d convey. Augustus’s daughter Julia had been married off “advantageously” but clearly not to her tastes – she committed adultery in a particularly noticeable and notorious fashion. Augustus was forced to take action using his own laws, and she was exiled and some of her lovers executed. Then a decade later Julia’s daughter (also called Julia) went on to do much the same thing as her mother – with much the same consequences. So much for the Good & Virtuous first family!

Augustus poured money into the city of Rome – he is said to’ve come to Rome as a city of brick and left it a city of marble. His building projects were wide-ranging and numerous, and many of the buildings we think of as Ancient Rome come from his infrastructure overhaul. This is notably not a return to the “Good Old Days” – we listened to an In Our Time episode about the Roman Republic about three weeks after we listened to this one, and it made the point that the ephemerality of power was a key concept in the Republic. So building infrastructure out of ostentatious and permanent marble was a change of paradigm, reflecting the difference between Republic and Empire as governmental systems.

The flowering of literature and poetry during the Augustan Age is tied into Augustus’s propaganda machinery. It’s a part of the return to the old virtues and of the idea of making Rome great again. Augustus was definitely a patron of the arts – it’s not known how much he paid the writers, but there’s evidence that he did pay them, and pay them well. He also writes some of his own poetry, but there’s no evidence one way or the other about whether or not he also “collaborated” on the others’ poetry. Some of the well known works that survive to the present also have Augustan propaganda as part of their subject matter. For instance Virgil’s Aeneid has a section early on where Jupiter prophesies the future of the city Aeneas has founded (which is Rome). This details the future of Rome through to Augustus as the necessary, pivotal and inevitable Emperor, after whom Rome will rule the world forever. It situates everything Augustus did to gain power and how he is now ruling as the things that are necessary for the future glory of Rome (rather than self-serving). Augustus also traces his ancestry to Aeneas (just like medieval English kings will later link themselves to Brutus and/or King Arthur).

Horace’s poetry is also a part of the propaganda machinery (on the family values side of it) but Ovid is less obviously a part of this. His work is lighter and more comedic than the other two poets, and much more about sex than the new morality of the Augustan Age is really comfortable with. There’s also evidence that Ovid himself didn’t sit comfortably in this new morality – he was perhaps a part of the Younger Julia’s disgrace, and was exiled from Rome. He missed Rome while in exile, considering it the only place worth living – even if his work was more light-hearted than the tone of the age, he was still very emotionally invested in the new Rome that Augustus had built.

Near the beginning of the programme they mentioned the Elizabethan Age (of Elizabeth I of England) as a way of explaining the term “Augustan Age”, and once one’s mind has been drawn to it there are some coincidences in more than the terminology we use for the era. Both are periods of calm after a period of chaos and disunity, the leadership of each country is presented as benign yet is actually pretty tyrannical, both have a flowering of literature which is state-controlled propaganda as well as art. And Elizabeth I was crowned on nearly the same day as Augustus took power (only 1585 years and 1 day later…).

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 4)

Mesopotamia: The Cradle of Civilisation

The next chapter of this book deals with the wave of urbanisation in Mesopotamia starting around 6,000 years ago, and the emergence of city states. This is the rise of what we call civilisation – urban culture as opposed to village/farming culture. Obviously as with any dividing line it’s reasonably arbitrary: the Ubaid culture discussed at the end of the previous chapter (post) consists of large villages with public buildings, sometimes surrounded by smaller satellite settlements. There’s a hierarchy within the population, and indications of centralised administration of resources. This is well on the way to the same sort of city organisation that characterises the urban cultures of this chapter – it’s just not quite as well developed as it becomes after this arbitrary line in the sand.

The chapter is divided into three parts (and I’m only really writing about the first one in this blog post). Firstly it covers the early Sumerian period where true city dwelling develops and writing is invented. Next is the emergence of city states, and the first empire (the Akkadian Empire). And lastly the return to prominence of the Sumerian city of Ur after the collapse of the Akkadian Empire.

An Urban Explosion

This section of the chapter opens with a double page spread on “The Sumerian Question”, to which scholars apparently have no clear answer: where did they come from? Were they the people who had always lived in southern Mesopotamia (since there were people there), or did they migrate into the area in the 4th Millennium BCE? Or were they a combination culture of the indigenous hunters & fishers, merged with incoming farmers from the north, or from Bahrain*? There are various bits of evidence that hint at one or another of these possibilities. For instance there are indications of a pre-Sumerian culture in the area with links to the Samarrans in the north of Mesopotamia. And there are loan words from other (unknown) languages in the Sumerian vocabulary, indicating contact with some other culture. The Sumerian language is a language isolate. This means that it has no living relatives, and in fact there are no other dead languages that appear to be related to Sumerian. Other languages spoken in Mesopotamia after this period are all Semitic languages (it’s a bit hard to tell for sure what was spoken contemporaneously with Sumerian as only Sumerian was being written down at this time). The writing that the Sumerians invented long outlasted their language – cuneiform was still being used in the first centuries CE, but spoken Sumerian began to die out in the 2nd Millennium BCE. After this it lingered on as the language of religion and epic poetry but gradually became more & more obscure until dying out, entirely.

*This is not quite as out of left field as it might sound, Sumerian legends mention Dilmun (modern day Bahrain) so there’s a potential link to there.

The initial part of this urbanisation of Mesopotamia is referred to as the Uruk Period, because it was dominated by the city of Uruk which became the first city state. This era is characterised by increasing social stratification, regulated agriculture and the development of writing. The latter two of these go together as the earliest use of writing in the region was keeping track of goods – the early cities in Mesopotamia were well organised economically compared to the earlier and contemporary villages. These cities relied on domestic agriculture for food and trade for many of the other necessities of civilisation. So Sumerian trade colonies spread throughout the rest of the region. Uruk and the other Sumerian cities of this period were centred around temples and ruled by priestly officials. This structure was not spread to other surrounding cultures, which did develop cities similar to the Sumerian model except ruled by secular authorities.

Archaeological evidence at Uruk shows the development of an improved pottery wheel, wheeled vehicles, the plough and the pottery kiln. The new pottery wheels changed the material culture of the region significantly – in the Ubaid Period pottery was distinctively painted, but in the Uruk Period this was replaced by mass-produced unpainted wares. There is also archaeological evidence of an increase in the scale of slave labour – in particular of forced migrations of peoples from many different places into Sumeria. Settlement sizes and numbers increased dramatically during the Uruk Period across the whole of Mesopotamia and later in the period many of these have fortifications, indicating a rise in militarisation. An interesting unanswered question about this period is what the relations between the main cities of the region were. Were they all mostly-independent regional centres, with Uruk the largest of them with a limited central administrative role? Or was there a form of pre-imperialism whereby Uruk was in some sense ruling over the other cities? At the end of the period there was a collapse of whatever sort of organisation existed and the region fragmented into several smaller polities – so clearly there was some degree of organisation above the city level.

The structure of this chapter is a little confused as after talking about Uruk it then jumps back in time for a brief discussion of Eridu, which was the first temple town. The foundation of Eridu pre-dates Uruk by at least a thousand years and it was an important ceremonial centre during the Ubaid period. Sumerian mythology describes Eridu as having been founded before the flood (as detailed in the Epic of Gilgamesh). However despite the early founding of Eridu, Uruk became a city state first and Eridu only later. Rather frustratingly the book doesn’t clearly say what makes a city a city and a large village a large village. Perhaps it’s a “you know it when you see it” sort of thing? What the text does get across is that it’s the complexity of the society that matters – elites supported by the agricultural output of the farmland around, including priestly, political and military classes as well as artists and craftspeople. Cities could be pretty large, as well: some had populations numbering in the tens of thousands.

Temple towns developed on the rivers of the region, and water-borne trade was important in providing the resources needed to build their public buildings as well as the water itself being used to irrigate the fields. The towns and cities were dominated by temples built in the shape of artificial mountains. These ziggurats were a form of sacred architecture used in Mesopotamia for thousands of years after this. The administrative buildings of the city were associated with the temples. Urban life had existed for a few hundred years before writing was invented – which then made the bureaucracy of the cities much more efficient (as well as enabling accurate communication across large distances or times). An aside in the text here mentions that their counting system was based on base 60 and we still use it for time and angles, which I knew before but I still find a bit astonishing how that has persisted over such a long time and over such a vast cultural gulf.

Each city had at least one temple, and thus a patron god. All the Sumerian cities revered the same pantheon of deities but religious practice was focussed on the god to which the city’s shrine was dedicated. These gods included Anu (father of the gods, with a temple in Uruk), Inanna/Ishtar (queen of the gods, with a temple in Uruk too), Enki (god of wisdom & water, with a temple in Eridu), Ninurta (war god, Lagash), Sin (moon, Ur), Nabu (wisdom, Borsippa) and Shara (minor war god, Umma). Education and art in Sumer were associated with the temples. Libraries were maintained in temples by priests and scribes, and decorative arts were dedicated to the gods (and later to the rulers of cities).

Sumerian society was highly stratified, and had a very high regard for ownership of property. Writing developed, as I said, to track goods and later many of the texts we have are related to property transactions and lawsuits. I’ve just started translating very simple examples of these sorts of things in my Akkadian course (so from a bit later on in time from the Sumerian period). These give an impression of a pretty litigious society in their matter of factness about such things e.g.: “Takūm-mātum daughter of Amurrûm and her mother, Rabbatum, bought a field from Ãlikum son of Arwûm. Ãlikum son of Arwûm, Sumu-ramê and all his sons sued Takūm-mātum and the judges of the house of Shamash rejected their lawsuits.” It’s not just ownership of property that the Sumerian society was keen to control and codify – the book also mentions increasingly complicated systems for recording the passing of time and for recording boundaries, goods and services.

This section of the chapter ends with a double page spread about cuneiform writing. The book says it was the first writing system, but I believe the jury is still out on whether the Sumerians or the Egyptians got there first (and on whether or not these two systems developed wholly independently or whether one copied the other). Although cuneiform started out as pictographs over time it was simplified into clusters of wedge shapes for each sign – I think of it as looking like a drunk bird staggered across the surface (although a pretty regimented drunk bird, as the signs are generally in neat rows). I also find them hard to memorise because there’s a lot of them that are pretty similar to each other, and they all come in many forms. Complicating this writing system still further is the fact that each sign may have multiple different logographic (whole word) or syllabic meanings assigned to it. The converse is also true – there may be more than one sign for any given syllable. Although developed for Sumerian cuneiform was adapted to write several other languages, most importantly Akkadian. Akkadian took on a role in the ancient Middle East similar to that of Latin in medieval Europe. It was the language of bureaucracy, scholarship and of diplomatic correspondence, and the use of it long outlasted the culture and empire that originally spread it across the region.

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (Exhibition at British Library)

While I was in a London for a few days in July 2015 I visited the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy exhibition at the British Library, which was put on to mark the 800th anniversary of the original issue of the charter. The items displayed in the exhibition were mostly written documents (as you might expect in a library) although there were also some other things, including paintings and examples of seals. There were also several short films each of which had someone talking about a particular aspect of the charter & its legacy. The talking heads were a variety of historians, lawyers and politicians. I did like these, they added quite a bit to the exhibition, but they also broke up the flow a bit – there wasn’t always enough space for people to walk past those who were standing and watching them, so at times the galleries felt clogged up.

The first section of the exhibition put Magna Carta into its original historical context. There were some examples of charters issued by previous kings (such as one by Henry I), and some contemporary accounts of King John. One of these was written by Matthew Paris, who really didn’t much approve of John – something he wrote after John’s death included the quote: “Hell foul as it is, is made fouler still by presence of John”! In this section they also displayed some earlier drafts of the charter, made as it was being negotiated at Runnymead. And they had several examples of seals, including the one used by John to seal the Magna Carta. Almost immediately after the Magna Carta was issued John repealed it – asking the Pope to declare it invalid in a Papal Bull (which was there to see in the exhibition). When he unexpectedly died during the ensuing civil war his young son Henry came to the throne at the age of 9. He began a period of using reissuing the Magna Carta as a means of legitimising the authority of the King which continued over the next century or so.

They had a rather neat animated graphic in the exhibition which showed the various clauses being weeded out over time until only the last few more general ones remained. This covered up until the modern day, despite it’s placement at this point in the exhibition – I think because after this the exhibition moved on to looking at the legacy rather than the actual thing itself. The common theme tying together the rest of the exhibition was that “Magna Carta” came to represent more as an idea and a totem than was actually present in the original document.

After the 13th Century the importance of the Magna Carta faded – to the extent that when Shakespeare wrote his play about King John in the 16th Century he didn’t even reference the document. There was a revival of interest in it in the 17th Century which is the beginning of the modern prominence of the document. It was used to justify rebellion against a tyrant King during the run up to the Civil War and subsequently used against Parliament when they were felt to be becoming tyrants.

Magna Carta has become extremely important both in US culture and US law. The Declaration of Independence draws on the charter and uses language that directly references it. Even before that the laws of the early colonies were based on Magna Carta. It’s still important in the US legal tradition today – one of the talking head videos was explaining that it has been used as part of the legal argument against the incarceration of people in Guantanamo Bay.

During the 18th & 19th Centuries radicals within the UK continue to use Magna Carta when challenging the government, for instance the Chartists write a new revised version suitable for their times (and agenda). Magna Carta was generally not applicable in the British Empire, and one of the things that the 20th Century sees is the the newly independent ex-colony states issuing documents to grant these rights to their citizens. And there’s a tendency for grants of legal rights to be referred to as the Something Magna Carta (i.e. the Maori Magna Carta) even tho the content of the documents is very far from the content of the original Magna Carta (which is really quite specific and parochial in scope despite the later reputation). More recently it has also been invoked by Nelson Mandela and by Aung San Suu Kyi. In contrast to Shakespeare’s day the Magna Carta is now also likely to show up in popular culture. The penultimate section of the exhibition displayed several examples of this – including thoroughly anacronistic representations of King John signing the charter!

The exhibition then finished with the showpieces – two original copies of the Magna Carta. One of these was from Canterbury and had been very damaged, whereas the other one was in much better condition. Of course, it was in Latin (and abbreviated wherever possible) so even being able to see the text didn’t mean I could read it!

It was an interesting exhibition – although I think I was more interested in the beginning sections about the medieval history (and the very end) rather than the bits about the legacy. I was interested enough overall to buy the book tho! 🙂

In Our Time: Frederick the Great

I’d heard of Frederick the Great before I listened to this In Our Time programme about him – I knew he was an 18th Century ruler of Prussia, and I knew he was a flautist (having seen a painting of him playing the flute). What I wasn’t aware of before was that he was obsessed with being famous, and had quite serious Daddy issues. The experts who discussed him on the programme were Tim Blanning (University of Cambridge), Katrin Kohl (University of Oxford) and Thomas Biskup (University of Hull).

Frederick was born in 1712 and had what sounds like a rather appalling childhood. The first part, until the age of 7, when he lived in his mother’s court was the better part. It was during this time that he acquired his interest in and love of literature, philosophy and the arts. He also forged a strong bond with one of his sisters in particular – so much so that in later life he built a temple to friendship for her with a statue of her in it. But the court was full of intrigue and he and his siblings were frequently pawns in the schemes of various factions. So as well as the arts he also learnt to live his life on display and to cultivate an image that he wished to present to the rest of the world.

His later childhood and early adulthood were spent at his father’s court. Frederick Wilhelm I was a parsimonious Calvinist, a pious, frugal man who was also keenly interested in military matters. He had spent his reign building up Prussia’s military and treasury. His son shared none of his interests nor his Calvinist virtues and resented the pressure to become a chip off the old block. Frederick Sr would abuse his son both in private and in public, by beatings and by humiliating the young man. During his teenage years Frederick once attempted to escape his father’s court. He and some friends concocted a plan to escape from their military assignment and flee to Britain – the experts described this as a fiasco that failed almost before it began. Frederick and one of his friends were captured and locked up. For some time Frederick was allowed to believe he would be executed for desertion – this (obviously) did not happen, but his friend was executed. Frederick was forced to watch this execution which left him somewhat traumatised – the friend was someone Frederick was very close to, perhaps even his boyfriend.

Summing up this section the experts all agreed that a childhood such as Frederick had has the potential to be psychologically damaging – and that in Frederick’s later behaviour there is evidence that he was indeed damaged by it.

When his father died in 1740 Frederick inherited the throne of Prussia. At the time Prussia was too big to count as a minor European state, but too small to be a major power. It did, however, have a fantastic military and a large treasury – due to Frederick Wilhelm I’s frugal military obsessiveness. However the military hadn’t actually been used – and so practically the first thing Frederick did on coming to the throne was invade Silesia, in part to prove himself a mightier man than his father. It wasn’t just a response to his Daddy issues – it was also an astute political move. At the time the Hapsburg dynasty was undergoing a crisis so it was a good time to try and snap up a few territories whilst they were otherwise occupied. Silesia was near Prussia, and rich, so a good choice for Frederick. The initial campaign went very well, and this was the beginning of several military campaigns. By one point Frederick’s Prussia stood almost alone against all the other powers of Europe who had allied against him – his only ally was Britain. Despite being vastly outnumbered Prussia had the advantage that Frederick was the sole decision maker and was actually on the scene. The other countries all had different aims, which hampered co-ordination between them, and they had to send communications long distances between the commanders on the field and the decision makers at home. Although of course this advantage for Prussia could also backfire if Frederick’s decisions were unwise!

Napoleon regarded Frederick as a great strategist – I imagine he saw Frederick’s standing alone against the other European powers as mirroring his own situation. However the experts were firm in their disagreement with this assessment – one of them (I forget who) dismissed it with the words “Napoleon was wrong about a lot of things”! The consensus was that Frederick was a great warlord – charismatic and capable of leading his troops – but not a particularly good general. Frederick’s brother was a better general, and never lost a battle – however he would’ve lost Silesia in the first campaign by (sensibly, based on the situation at the time) taking the peace deal that involved handing the territory back. Frederick had the drive and desire to win at all costs, and because of his charisma the army would follow him and he lead them to greater gains.

One key success was the capture of West Prussia. The kingdom that Frederick inherited was made up of two geographically separated territories and annexing West Prussia made his country contiguous. In retrospect this was the beginning of the partition of the territories making up Poland between the surrounding countries until there was no Poland left.

Frederick was obsessed with gaining fame and status – he wanted to be remembered himself, and he also wanted Prussia to be a major player in European politics. After the successful campaign in Silesia he instructed the media to refer to him as Frederick the Great (which was a successful PR move as we still refer to him like that today). He carefully crafted other aspects of his image to gain recognition. His patronage and participation in the arts was partly driven by this. He wrote poetry in French which was rather conventional, and whilst not bad it was also not good either. He also, as I mentioned before, played the flute. But art was not just a matter of image for Frederick, it was also his spiritual core. He was not religious himself, and was scathing about religious belief. Art and music were his ways of connecting with a sense of transcendence. He wasn’t, however, particularly interested in German language literature – and the experts said his primary influence in this area was ignoring it enough for independent thinkers to flourish.

His court was renowned for its tolerance and for being a centre of learning. Of course that’s tolerance in a very 18th Century sense – in this case in particular it meant that philosophers who spoke against religion were welcome there after their own countries had hounded them out. Courtier for a while at Frederick’s court was Voltaire – one of the most famous philosophers of the age. He corresponded with Frederick for decades – he was older and something of a mentor to Frederick, including correcting his French (including his poetry). Like Frederick, Voltaire was keen to gain fame and be remembered, and the two collaborated on polishing each other’s images. Despite the long running correspondence Voltaire was only at Frederick’s court for a few years. In person the two big egos did not get along as well as they hoped. Frederick didn’t treat Voltaire with enough respect for Voltaire’s tastes. And Voltaire got mixed up in shady business dealings that embarrassed his host. After 3 years he moved on, but they kept corresponding.

Frederick was almost certainly gay. As I alluded to above his father executed a man who was perhaps his boyfriend whilst Frederick was a teenager. Frederick did marry – a match arranged by his father, and initially it was probably welcome to him. It meant that as a young adult he was able to set up his own court (as a married man) rather than continuing to live in his father’s court. However once Frederick’s father died he had no incentive to continue the charade – the two never lived together again. I don’t think they talked on the programme about what Frederick’s wife thought this (it would be a bit off-topic). She kept court in Berlin after they separated – which was the capital of Prussia, so needed a royal presence. Frederick hated the city (his Daddy issues rearing their head again) and so he had no inclination to live there himself. The experts felt reasonably sure that people at the time were aware of Frederick’s sexuality. The terms “gay” and “homosexual” didn’t exist in their modern sense, but his favourites were referred to as being “like a royal mistress” which implies awareness of his intimacy with them.

Ultimately Frederick was successful in his search for lasting fame. He has been remembered since his death in 1786 as the man who put Prussia on the map. Over the years various groups have held him up as an icon or hero – for his tolerance, for his military successes, for the arts, for the sciences, for pushing on at all costs, etc. After the Second World War (and Hitler’s appropriation of his image for the Third Reich’s propaganda) his star dimmed somewhat, but there has been a more modern resurgence of interest in him. The programme ended with the note that whilst he’s nowadays held up as a proto-Bismarck and pre-figurer of a united Germany, he regarded himself as a Prussian nationalist not a German one.

In Our Time: Extremophiles

“Extremophiles” is a bit of a parochial term – this is the name for organisms that live happily in environments that we consider extreme. Too cold, too hot, too acid, too something to support life, in our terms. Studying the lifeforms that disagree with us on what is a good place to live has started a new field of astrobiology and a new appreciation of the possibility of life existing in the wider universe. Discussing this on In Our Time were Monica Grady (Open University), Ian Crawford (Birkbeck University of London) and Nick Lane (University College London).

The study of extremophiles started with the discovery of a rich ecosystem based on extremophiles living at hydrothermal vents in the sea floor near the Galapagos Islands (an amusing coincidence that it’s these islands in particular). The discovery was made by the scientific crew of a submersible called Alvin in 1977, and was a revelation as although extremophiles were known to exist this was the first evidence that there were more than a few outlier species. Previous assumptions about the requirements for life were shaken up by this discovery. The experts emphasised that we (and organisms like us) live in the “extreme” environments when compared to the universe as a whole – we require conditions that generally don’t exist. So the discovery that life could exist in more “usual” conditions meant that it’s more plausible that life might exist somewhere other than on Earth.

The science of astrobiology was started by these discoveries – this is a multidisciplinary field, which the experts positioned as being part of a trend in modern science. The 20th Century was in many ways about increasing specialisation in the sciences, but now there is a move towards seeing the bigger picture with more collaborations between groups with different specialities. Astrobiology is not exobiology – that would be the study of alien lifeforms and we haven’t found any (yet). Instead astrobiology is the search for life elsewhere.

One of the assumptions that was overturned by the extremophiles found by Alvin was that sunlight was critical for life. Knowing that it’s possible for life to cope with no sun* opens up the possibility that life might exist on Jupiter’s moon Europa, for instance. Europa has a hot core (due to the friction generated by the various gravitational forces exerted on it) and an icy shell, with liquid in between. It also probably has hydrothermal vents. It just wouldn’t have sunlight under the shell, but that might not matter after all.

*They did mention in passing later in the programme that parts of the ecosystem at those vents makes use of the oxygen dissolved in the sea, which wouldn’t be there without sunlight (as it’s a by-product of photosynthesis, which uses the sun for energy). So the current population is evolved to handle a post-photosynthesis world. But I think the idea is that if there wasn’t any dissolved oxygen then it’d just be a different ecosystem of extremophiles rather than no ecosystem at all.

Another foundational insight for the field of astrobiology was the work of Carl Woese in the 1970s on developing a Tree of Life based on genetic data. The traditional view of the high level groupings of organisms is five kingdoms: animals, plants, fungi, protists, bacteria. But Woese’s work showed that the real high level division is into 3 kingdoms: bacteria, archaebacteria and eukaryotes. Eukaryotes include all multicellular organisms (plus some single celled ones). Archaebacteria include the extremophiles and were once thought to be just a subset of bacteria – but the genetic data shows that they are as unrelated to bacteria as we are. They also arose first – bacteria and eukaryotes diverged from them later.

Astrobiology is not the same as SETI – the latter is searching for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, but astrobiologists will be overjoyed to discover a single celled organism existing somewhere other than Earth. The experts spent a bit of time discussing the Drake Equation and how astrobiology fits within that framework. The Drake Equation is an answer (of sorts) to the question of how many extraterrestrial civilisations we might be able to communicate with. I say “of sorts” because, as Bragg pointed out on the programme, the terms of the equation started out as all unknowns. What the equation is useful for is breaking down the question into manageable chunks that can then be investigated. So one term is “how many stars have planets”, and since Drake formulated his equation it’s been found that pretty much all stars have planets – so clearly that’s not a limiting factor. The question that astrobiologists are working on is “how common is life of any sort?” – which is a couple of the terms in the Drake Equation: the average number of planets that are capable of supporting life per star that has planets and the number of these capable planets that actually develop life.

There’s still only one example of a life-bearing planet, so it’s hard to extrapolate much about the origins of life and how common an occurrence it might be. One thing that might have bearing on the problem is that life only arose once on Earth – all organisms share a common ancestor. I did wonder, although they didn’t discuss it, if we can be sure it only arose once – is it possible to disambiguate that from multiple origins only one of which survived? But even if we are sure that it was a one-off event on Earth this may not be because it’s hard to do per se. It might be that once life gets going once it uses up the raw materials that it arose from, preventing subsequent developments of life. This is an idea that goes back even to Darwin although other parts of his “small warm pond” concept of the origin of life are no longer thought plausible.

The origins of life aren’t the only thing that we only have one example of on Earth (with relevance to the Drake Equation). The jump from the simpler cells of archaebacteria and bacteria to the more complex cells of eukaryotes has only occurred once. Multicellular organisms have also only evolved once, ditto intelligence capable of building a technological civilisation. So even if it turns out that there are many planets supporting life of a sort out there in the universe, intelligence may still be very rare or even unique.

Panspermia is another hypothesis about how life got to Earth – or conversely how it may have got/will get to other places. This is the idea that life is spread through the universe via meteors etc, and so life may not’ve originated on Earth. There are several things that suggest that this is possible, even if we don’t know if it actually happened. For instance we do find bits of rocks on Earth that originated on other planets (the Manchester Museum has a small piece of the Moon and a small piece of Mars that got to Earth as meteorites). There are also micro-organisms on Earth that can live within rocks. And we know from experiments done on space missions that some micro-organisms can live through the heat of entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. At this point in the discussion Bragg mentioned Fred Hoyle had been laughed out of the scientific community for proposing something similar many decades ago. Grady pointed out that one reason this sort of theory is looked down is that all it does is shift the question up one level: What’s the origin of life on Earth? Space! What’s the origin of life in space? Dunno. The modern concept of panspermia is also not the same as Hoyle’s – which involved free-floating life seeds travelling over large distances, rather than accidental transfer between planets via meteorite. (This whole section of the discussion made me think of the start of the film Prometheus, which of course is another reason people raise their eyebrows at panspermia – all too often it comes with a side order of “and that’s how the aliens made us”.)

Finding life on other planets is made more difficult because we don’t entirely know what we’re looking for. There was a meteorite discovered in Australia that was thought might have fossil micro-organisms in it that hadn’t originated on Earth. Eventually it was decided that these weren’t the first signs of extraterrestrial life, but it was controversial for a long time. Grady noted that it was easier to figure out in that particular case because it was a rock that had landed on Earth – the task gets much more difficult when another sample means another round trip to Mars. However the only way we’re likely to find out if there’s life elsewhere is by going and looking – whether that’s with robotic explorers or human explorers.

As the Australian meteorite case shows there is a high level of proof required before astrobiologists will be willing to agree that they have found signs of life that are definitely of non-Earth origin. However the experts felt that they (as a field) are getting better at figuring out what to look for. The essential requirements for life are now thought to be water and carbon, but even with those requirements in common with Earth life extraterrestrial life might look very different. The experts emphasised how much chance is involved in evolution – even if you could re-run the history of the Earth it would look completely different despite starting with the same conditions.

This programme felt oddly mis-named – not often the case for In Our Time episodes which generally stay on topic rather well. But this wasn’t really about extremophiles, it was about the search for non-Earth life.