Gap Week: April 20, 2023

Real short update this week folks. Life has opted to intervene (as it does) and to do so on its own schedule (as it will) so there won’t be a blog post this week. We should be back to the normal schedule next week – I have a couple of posts in drafts (one on the recent The Great War: Western Front and another on the structure of academic ranks at US universities) so one of those should appear on schedule next week.

In the mean time, if you are still looking for content to binge, consider checking out the links on the latest Pasts Imperfect and especially if you haven’t already been listening, check out the excellent Partial Historians podcast covering the early history of Rome. I really can’t recommend the Partial Historians enough, it’s a great podcast that moves through our ancient sources at a pretty high degree of zoom, which is a great way to get a sense not just of what historians think happened, but on our sources and why we think that about them. It does that job at a really high degree of granularity, moving chapter by chapter comparing different sources for early Rome, which is both fascinating but also a great lesson in source criticism and analysis. Do check it out!

Also if you are just missing the sound of my voice – well, that’s odd, given that this is a written format – but I have been on a few podcasts lately. In particular, I talked about the Roman military system of the Middle Republic on the Hellenistic Age Podcast and I talked about The Great War: Western Front on the Three Moves Ahead podcast.

Until next week!

54 thoughts on “Gap Week: April 20, 2023

    1. It is well established that in online discussions, when you make what you think is a provocative statement it gets often little or no response, while it is the totally innocuous statements that spark the biggest shitstorms.

      1. The Balrog, of course, did not actually have wings; only shadows in the shape of wings. I don’t imagine anyone would argue with that.

    2. Cleopatra was not black. This is a known fact. According to Roman depictions she was light skinned and redheaded which makes sense for a Macedonian. She wasn’t a great beauty either, though handsome enough by the standards of her time, it was her personality and intelligence that captivated.

  1. I’d listened to the Hellenistic age podcast after seeing it on twitter, has a mix of things we’ve seen on the blog and things we haven’t, plus a few mentioned in a sentence or two but spelled out more. Worth a listen.

  2. I’ve followed your recommendation and read the newest past imperfect post, which happened to be about the identity of Cleopatra. There was some family history of the author there but very little about Cleopatra, other than insisting that she’s African. Have I missed something? Or maybe it’s not representative?

    1. It sounds pretty dreadfully ideological, indeed. The author’s primary source about Cleopatra being African, actually cited in the serie, seems to be her grandmother who didn’t finish high school. Otherwise there is a vague “there were so many question marks about various mothers of the Ptolemaic pharaohs. Very few classicists dared speak the unspeakable” and that’s it.

    2. This is one of those points where we need to remember that it is perfectly normal that scholars don’t always agree!

      I have my own thoughts on Cleopatra and so I’ll probably do a post of my own on her legacy and that documentary when it comes out (May 10, I think).

      1. Her essay on Cleopatra could just as well read “She is descended from the ancient aliens who built the pyramids”. “There are gaps in who her maternal line was and my grandmother said she the ancient aliens were matrilineal and substituted alien babies every other generation.” Same source level. This was beyond scholars don’t always agree and we should listen to the argument.

      2. Thanks for the answer (I assume it’s the response to my post). My problem with it is not that I don’t agree with what she says but rather that she doesn’t actually say anything about Cleopatra.

        I don’t care much for the exact hue of Cleopatra’s skin but I think that this was a great opportunity to discuss how Cleopatra and other Egyptians and Greco-Egyptians chose to identify themselves, and whether skin colour or other attributes played a major role.

        My problem is that there is nothing of this kind in the PI post, no attempt to look at the ancient sources or modern historical or genetic studies is made whatsoever.

        1. If I wanted to do some deep reading, I might note that what was recommended wasn’t the post itself, but the links in the post.

    3. It is literally true that Cleopatra was African and you can argue that we don’t know to what extent the Ptolemaic dynasty intermarried with Egyptian elites who pre-dated their reign. Harder to defend, I think is that the post talks about “helping people avoid the trap of applying OUR construct of race to ancient societies” while eliding the fact that the actress cast to play Cleopatra in the Netflix series under discussion traces her ancestry to Sub-Saharan Africa, not North Africa. That strikes me as analogous to casting an Indian actor to play a Chinese historical figure or vice versa on the grounds that hey, they’re both Asian countries, right?

      1. There are a lot of things we don’t know. For example, we don’t know Abraham Lincoln’s complete ancestry, but that hardly furnishes support for the allegations by his Confederate enemies that he had African ancestry.

      2. It depends what there goal with casting is.

        If it’s true color blind casting, then that’s just who they picked.

        If it’s to say she was more like her Egyptian subjects and less like the King’s Latin picture of the Roman World, that becomes trickier… because sub-Saharan African =/= Arab, and probably not pre-Arab North African.

        They could also use the actress’s darker complextion to show difference in a way that counter balances our racial caste system. Like the Broadway musical Hamilton.

        Where they could use her darker complextion a signifier of difference where that difference would have made her wealthier and more priviledged. Then also cast the other ethnic Greeks with actors and actresses of darker skin tones.

        1. Gamal Abdel Nasser used to styled himself, I think, the first Egyptian ruler of Egypt in 2500 years. I don’t know if he was correct, but part of the rhetorical force of that statement was to underscore that Egypt had had a long history of being ruled by Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Greeks, Peninsular Arabs, Kurds, Kipchaks, Circassians, Turks, Albanians, Englishmen, and more generally one group of foreigners after another, rather than by native ethnic Egyptians. Making Cleopatra look like an Egyptian kind of tends to elide that historical reality.

        2. The whole point about Cleopatra is that she *wasn’t* like her Egyptian subject. One of the running themes of Egyptian history is that they have a long history of being ruled by foreigners. That’s why Nasser liked to claim (I’m not sure if this was absolutely correct or not) that he was the first Egyptian ruler of Egypt in 2500 years. Making her look Egyptian means you lose out on that aspect of history.

      3. I really do find it incredibly grating that the US census includes Indians along with Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipinos etc. in the “Asian” box. We have literally nothing in common, unless you’re talking about the small ethnic groups in the far northeast and far north of India (and there aren’t a lot of them).

      4. We actually can know Alexandria, of which Egypt was a dependency was a racially stratefied culture with Macedonians on top, Greeks next and native Egyptians way down there. Race mixing was not very acceptable and it is certain that a partially Egyptian royal child would not accepted as an heir to the throne. There is some uncertainty about the identity of Cleo’s mother and paternal grandmother but we can be quite certain they were not Egyptian.

    4. Cleopatra was a member of a 300 year dynasty. That dynasty inbred to keep themselves unique in their conquered land, but (1) they didn’t all die of horrible deformities, and (2) last I checked it was nearly 2 millenia before consistently predictive birth control.

      So, I’m guessing that Cleopatra was both Greek and Egyptian. Identified with her Greek heritage, and quite possibly wasn’t even aware of her Egyptian (biological) heritage.

      Pretty much anyone, in a half moon, from Athens to Tripoli, would have enough connection to do it the role justice.

      1. There were plenty of ethnically Greek people around to interbreed with, outside the immediate family

        1. True, but they also practiced direct interbreeding. Sibling to sibling. Also, the more they were marrying to the larger Greek community over 300 years, the less “biologically” Greek they were.

          The biggest issue being the whole, this society didn’t have birth control thing.

          It’d be like trying to parse out the House of Windsor. Are they Greek, German, English, Spanish, Dutch, French, Norman, Dane, Norse? When really the answer is… Yes – if you care about parent-child relationship. If you care about culture, the Windsors are British, and only British.

          Jameela Jamil would have a better grasp on them then I would despite my family living in Lancaster in 1500, and hers living India in 1500.

  3. This week there was an interesting article on Paul Veyne (who I wasn’t familiar with):
    Would be very curious to hear thoughts on 3 of his views as described in this article:

    1. “In analysing the whole practice of euergetism, he pivoted away from practical explanations towards psychological ones. Public giving was a natural expression of grandeur, and the expression was an end in itself.”

    2. “With the emergence of monarchy at the end of the 1st century BCE, however, the ruling house quickly monopolised this world of public honours (and much else), especially in the city of Rome. In the hunt for new forms of self-congratulation, these aristocrats, still as competitive as ever, ‘turned inward’, as Veyne recognised, increasingly celebrating their private, domestic lives.”

    3. “Roman imperialism had little to do with strategy or statecraft, nor with economic predation or the assertion of control and the demand of obedience – the standard interpretations – but rather that it was motivated by a collective wish to create a world in which Romans might be left alone, not simply secure, but undisturbed. That is all.”

  4. I am of hope that our illustrious guest has kept in mind that promise of his, and beseeched his very learned and courteous fellow scholars to do this public the grace of sharing a few lessons on the delectable topic of the governance of the medieval urbes, if possible in different corners of the wide Earth.

    About Cleopatra’s ethnicity, due to the recent discussions around the new film some inquisitive souls had undertaken also to ask about her in that other illustrious court which is the AskHistorians subreddit, and among the many answers I found those by a u/cleopatra_philopater to be particularly illuminating, one of which I would like to call this court’s attention to.

    ‘Tis not about that queen’s actual appearance per se, but the perception of it. I was surprised to find that the black Cleopatra had such a long and mixed history in modernity’s imagination.

    1. That is an interesting piece. It explains whence Shelley Haley’s grandmother derived her belief that Cleopatra was black. Haley herself, of course, is projecting that twentieth-century black American trope onto Cleopatra, without much regard to or interest in the actual historical figure. Such a use of history by historians is common and long-standing. Haley is also, as some of the commenters note, giving little regard to the values and beliefs of contemporary Egyptians. That sort of disregard of indigenous concerns is also common behavior among the intellectuals of imperialist powers.

    2. This kind of thing always reminds me of the Egyptian 25th Dynasty, who came from Kush, aka modern Sudan. Presumably they were Black in the conventional sense of the term.

      I feel the people who want to talk about a Black pharaoh ought to talk about them.

      1. American racial taxonomy would consider them Black, yes. American racial classifications are pretty dumb, though. Africa has a great deal of genetic diversity, and the groups that America considers “Black” shouldn’t really all be thought of as comprising a single race. East and West Africans in particular are quite genetically distinct.

        Modern Egypt has actually had a couple of Nubian or part-Nubian leaders as well (so, “Black” in the American sense) including Anwar Sadat in the 1970s and then briefly Field Marshal Tantawi during the “Arab Spring” in 2011-2012.

        1. There’s also one of my favourite rulers – the ex-slave who rose to rule in Fatimid period, described as “a one-eyed black eunuch of great ugliness and surpassing charm”.

          1. That reminds me of Kaptah from Mika Waltari’s novel “The Egyptian”, though that one is set in the Amarna period…

    3. This underscores that there is a historical Cleopatra and a trope one – whose appearance and character is subject to revision as it is played with (King Arthur and Robin Hood are earlier examples – Abraham Lincoln is getting there).

      1. The objection would be that there is a lot more which is historically knowable about Cleopatra than about King Arthur or Robin Hood, both of whose very existence is subject to doubt. It’s one thing if someone wants to make a drama portraying Alexander Hamilton and all the other Founding Fathers as people of color, because everyone understands that that portrayal is a dramatization designed to make a point. But the Netflex piece, as I understand, presents itself as historically accurate. Haley doesn’t analogize her work to that of Lin Manuel Miranda or Lerner and Leowe.

        1. Maybe King John or Ned Kelly (Australian outlaw) would be better examples; historical figures who have been mythologized. Netflix may present itself as historically accurate – but it’s still Netflix. Rustichello’s reference points to a long record of re-writing Cleopatra, which neither Netflix nor their audience can escape.

          1. There’s actually a tradition (from the 8th or 9th century AD, in a work called the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, written to make sense of the rise of Islam and then revived again in the High Middle Ages to explain the rise of the Mongols) that claims, among other things, that Alexander the Great was African, on his mother’s side. (Ethiopian, specifically: many Ethiopians apparently don’t consider themselves “black”, but Americans do). As far as I can tell the author really wanted Alexander to be African in order to fulfil a biblical prophecy about “Ethiopia will reach her hands out to God”, and maybe had other theological agendas too.

            I’d much rather see a Netflix about a Black Alexander than a Black Cleopatra since that tradition / narrative is actually fairly ancient (8th century), not some 21st century thing.

          2. Saying “it’s Netflix” undercuts one of the major themes and purposes of this blog, which is that inaccurate historical dramas are harmful because many viewers take them as historical, not purely as dramas. For example, one could consider “Game of Thrones” as a story about a fantastic imaginary culture having no relation to the European Middle Ages, but people don’t take it that way (and in fact, George Martin periodically defends it as showing how things really were). So viewers come away from the series having acquired a lot of false information.

  5. I tried the first episode of Partial Historians and couldn’t get through it. It was mostly just laughing at things that weren’t funny and provided pretty much no information outside of a pretty breezey summary of some Livy. Does it get better?

    1. I started somewhere in the middle. I wouldn’t be surprised if their first few episodes were a little rough. I am going to guess that they really hit their stride after the first year’s worth of episodes, but I haven’t gone back to check,

      I also think that they have a very academic sense of humor, which I really enjoy, but I’m a modern historian, and it might be missing the inside baseball (or cricket, they’re Australian I think). Your mileage might vary. I like listening to them while I mow the lawn or shovel snow. I’m a modern historian so I feel like I’ve learned a little bit about how classical and ancient historians handle their source materials.

  6. I was wondering what you thought of The Partial Historians! I discovered them last summer and started listening to them whenever I was mowing the lawn, doing yard work, or shoveling snow. I started in the middle (410 BCE or something?) and just kept following along. I’m a historian of modern Europe so its fascinating to listen to how Ancient/Classical Historians do source criticism and analysis. I really enjoy their sense of humor.

  7. If I may ask, is there a rough timeline on you putting out a worldbuilding post for doctrine? I found your worldbuilding post on sci-fi ships to be interesting and useful, and ask about doctrine because I’m working on a science fantasy project- and while I’m not a competent military theorist, I imagine the fictional ones are. If that post is still in pre-alpha, do you have any reading recommendations on “how to develop a doctrine of doing war good in settings with sci-fi technology/magic/etc.”?

  8. The YouTube channel Overly Sarcastic Productions just released a video “Historians Playing Historical Games”, the presentation by Blue of OSP and fellow YouTuber LudoHistory at PAX East. Not too long, 48 minutes, and probably interesting if you enjoy the posts about Paradox and other computer games here.

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