Would you *actually* survive in ancient Rome?

I very briefly mentioned this topic a while back, in my blog about the 10,000BC reality TV show. However, since I keep seeing this kind of thing everywhere, I felt it was time to be explicit about how these quizzes should be set out.

In their current form, these BuzzFeed-style games are a way to generate some quick and easy content which satisfies the basic curiosity of their audience, without providing much in the way of hard-hitting home truths. It’s something to post on Facebook and say ‘Look, I could survive as an ancient Greek! Could you?’ Great, but could you? As much as I love seeing portrayals of ancient Greek culture, I suspect that if I were time-transported into ancient Athens, I’d probably end up a slave within my first week.

ben-hur

I’d like to see a new, and far more brutal approach to these quizzes. Don’t undersell how hard it is to live in any given era. Sure, some of the challenges may be easy to overcome with your modern knowledge, but fewer than you think, and there will be far more difficulties to replace them.

Here’s my rundown of the kind of questions that should be featured in this type of quiz:

  • Are you male or female? This undoubtedly has an impact on whether you survive. Human selection tends to favour men, natural selection tends to favour women. The exact mix differs slightly from culture to culture.
  • How old are you? Massively important. Children and the elderly tend to lower life expectancies. This is increasingly true if you’re just going to get transported back in time with no family to support you.
  • How fluent are you in the lingo? If you can’t speak the language you’re going to really struggle to make yourself understood.
  • Good at making friends? You’re going to need them.
  • The entrepreneurial type? On top of the need to make friends, you’ll need a quick income. That ‘Atlantis’ stuff just isn’t going to happen.
  • How good are you in a brawl? I’m not saying you’ll end up in one, I’m just saying that as someone who is already on the fringes of society, you’ll need to defend yourself.
  • What about if we give the other guys a weapon? Oh yeah, if the people in charge are using any kind of armed thugs to maintain control, you’ll need to be able to handle that.
  • Can you lie through your teeth? Even if you can speak the language, you’ll need a plausible explanation for how you know things. For every yokel who believes you are sent from heaven, there will be a cynic who thinks you’re there to take advantage.
  • How much have you actually studied this era of history? I get that you will want to take advantage of your knowledge of history to put yourself in a position of power (all paradoxes aside) but do you actually remember any events where your knowledge would be helpful?
  • How much of a fussy eater are you? Your gluten-free diet is going out the window. And, frankly, you’ll be lucky to get the choice to be vegetarian.
  • If you plan on taking advantage of a technology, do you know how it works? Anyone who saw my reality TV blog will know where I’m going with this. For just one example, we live in a digital age, and most of us have no idea how computers work, so we’re already at a disadvantage.

Vikings Longboat

I have deliberately weighted this quiz against the reader. Surviving in any age is a challenge, so being transported to a different one would be a massive struggle. ‘Would you survive…’ quizzes should be more rigorous, so that the achievement feels more worthwhile. Only then can you honestly educate your audience about the reality of living in that time period. And then it will *really* be something to post to Facebook.

More dope shoes!

Last time I posted a picture of some Greek-inspired shoes, you guys went nuts. Well, who am I to deny the demands of the crowd? Here are Mercury’s/Hermes’ trainers!

 

Slavery Reparations: Paying For The Past

This week UK Prime Minister David Cameron went on a trip to Jamaica, and didn’t apologise for slavery. He couldn’t apologise because that might open the path for legal action by any country that has a claim to reparations. The UK has been on the recieving end of historic claims for a while; give the Falklands back to Argentina; forgive criminalised homosexuals like Turing and Wilde; give the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

We’re not the only ones. When the EU was attempting to claw back its loans to Greece, the understandably upset Greece demanded unpaid war reparations from Germany. In almost every case, the answer is the same; the nation of the present cannot be responsible for the actions of the nation of the past.

In many cases, this is because the UK cannot afford to set a precedent. If it starts giving things back, making amends, then more claimants will come a-knocking. The power dynamic is also a relevant point. Greece is never going to persuade Germany to just give money back, and the same is true of Jamaica and the UK. For all that we’re no longer the same empire that benefited from slavery, we are definitely in a position to ignore demands like this.

But there’s also the problem of just how much time has passed. There’s no way to wind back the clock on history. Jamaican culture has been irrevocably changed by slavery. If reparations were made, then the native Caribs would be justified in demanding that all those of African descent went back to Africa. And that is plainly ridiculous.

Yes, our antecedents were well out of order. But there are better ways to repay the situation. Possibly not by building a prison and shipping their criminals back them, but still…

Swords in films, what’s the deal?

highlander swords

Can’t live with ’em, can’t hack your way through a mob of peasants without them. What? That’s not how the saying goes? Well, someone should tell Hollywood. The film industry fell in love with swords from the very beginning, and has never really gotten over it. And that’s a shame, because history says that swords really weren’t as important as we have been led to believe.

So, some background. I was inspired to write this post after that one article I wrote for History Behind Game of Thrones, wherein I pointed out just how much the Ancient Greeks loved spears. So much, in fact, that Hollywood went as far as to include spear-based combat scenes in their major Greek films. This is a rarity because the film industry has swords as its default weapon.

Ross Wittenham 300

Swords are, by their very nature, weapons of the wealthy. Contrast with other military tools, such as the bows, spears, or axes, swords are really only meant for warfare. Where an axe can be used for carpentry, and a spear can be used for hunting. Furthermore, a sword uses comparatively more metal, is therefore more expensive, and requires more skill and training to use correctly. With what other weapon do you have to worry about edge-alignment when you’re trying to kill a guy? For Hollywood’s purposes, it is the ideal tool for a noble hero. Ever noticed that bad guys use swords less often than heroes?

Sauron swinging his mace photo LOTRSauron2.gif

However, the counterpoint to this argument is that swords don’t win battles. One of my favourite stories about the superiority of one weapon over another is the Battle of Flodden, where Scots pikemen were defeated by English Billmen. That’s right, they were weilding billhooks. What’s a billhook, you say? It’s a long pole with an axe shaped like a hook at the top. People won battles with bizarre crap like that, not swords. A sword takes a lot of time to learn how to use properly, and is expensive to mass-produce. Other weapons are far cheaper to produce, far easier to learn to use, and pretty much as killy when deployed en-masse.

But there’s more to it than that. If there’s one person who did more than anyone else to bring sword fighting to Hollywood, it’s Bob Anderson. The former Olympic fencer worked on so many major franchises that his filmography reads like a who’s who of swordfighting flicks. To wit: Highlander, Princess Bride, Zorro, Star Wars, James Bond (both official and unofficial), Lord of the Rings (and the Hobbit), Pirates of the Caribbean… I could keep going.

Bob Anderson portrait

However, while all this is impressive, it does also mean that one particular style of combat has dominated the film industry (and influenced other media as a result) for several decades. Fencers are perhaps the only professional-standard swordsmen around, which means that the style of sword-fighting that prevails is the style learned by fencers. For obvious reasons, this wasn’t the style that was prevalent for most of the period that the sword was in use.

But I think what I keep going back to is the fact that there are some truly bizarre weapons throughout history, and these deserve more time on our screens. Perhaps surprisingly, this is an area where the games industry is taking the lead. When your game runs out of ridiculously-oversized swords to give the hero, it’s time to break open the armouries and see what else is in there.

Making memes of unorthodox gods

This was the week that I stumbled across teashoesandhair.tumblr.com. It’s a great blog and that I would recommend to any classical scholar. The reason I came across it was because Anwen posted a very funny series of screenshots detailing what might happen if Zeus got an iPhone.

This all got me thinking, Zeus has been a figure of fun in the circles I move in. Possibly because, if you look at it objectively, Zeus was a complete slut. And plenty of people are looking at it objectively. Just take Happle Tea for example:

But there is an inherent problem here. Zeus, and many others that are gaining meme status, comes from an unorthodox religion. His identity is not concrete, and his mythology comes from myriad sources. In fact, the very fact that Zeus is such a slut is because everyone wanted to believe that their local goddess hooked up with the king of the gods. When these myths convalesced into a single identity, it was that of a guy who had it off with EVERYONE.

The issue is that, for a meme to work, everyone must instantly understand what it refers to. Memes are regularly used as an analogy to explain real-life situations, so the analogy must be relatively concrete. This stands in direct opposition to their unorthodox roots. These guys do not have sacred texts. Their identity has not been handed down to us in a single book. It is made up of a myriad of stories. As such, their identity is flexible. You want a Female Thor? That happens in at least one story, she’s all yours!

Female Thor

And yet, these myths cannot be distorted out of character too much, or your hero loses their defining attributes, and therefore what makes them memeable. This is exactly what happened with Odin in Marvel’s Thor. To be fair, Thor did at least start out as the boozey brawler we know and love:

But there is a lot of doubt in Marvel’s Thor. Something that may not have featured as heavily in the mythology of the character.

I get it; you don’t want an invulnerable character. The Superman-only-hurt-by-kryptonite dynamic gets boring pretty quickly. The mythology itself is fun, but a man with demons of his own is more interesting.

I guess my point is, if you want reliable memes, unorthodox gods are pretty niche.

Men and Gods: Why Greek Myths Rock!

This week I have been thinking about the Greeks a lot. Not all that tosh about democracy. Because, as we know, Greek democracy was propped up by a massive slave underclass, was exclusive to male citizens, and took a lot of commitment. No, I’ve been looking at Greek myths. Because frankly, they’re awesome!

I’ve also written a guest blog about ancient Greece for History Behind Game of Thrones, so let’s give that a quick plug, too.

But the main reason I wanted to cover this subject, is to contrast some of the ways that films deal with the subject of Greek myths, the gods and demigods they portray. Specifically, I have been watching Troy (2004), Clash of the Titans (2010), and Immortals (2011). None are overly faithful to the source material, but they stick to the gods you love, the heroes you know, and the plot arcs you expect.

immortals Luke EvansOf the three, the surprise highlight was Immortals. I had low expectations for a film where Mickey Rourke is the bad guy, but it was visually amazing. Take note, Hollywood! The colour palette was carefully prepared, the CGI was relatively low key (compared to Clash’s giant scorpions at least), and the use of effects like speed ramping were tastefully applied.

Still, nothing is as awesome as Liam Neeson commanding ‘Release the Kraken!’

Clash is much more of a romp, bold, colourful, and unashamed. This is impressive, because it has a lot to be ashamed of. This was a film with Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson, and it made both of them seem old and hackneyed. Compared to Troy’s Peter O’Toole, or Immortals’ John Hurt, they’re decidedly wooden.

And Troy? I loved Troy. It set the bar for modern swords and sandals films, but it might honestly be the worst of the bunch. The duel between Hector and Achilles is one of the best I’ve ever seen, but in a lot of other places, the film missed the ball completely.

Troy Hector Achilles duelGiven that the story of Troy is one of the most famous stories ever, the film’s decision to focus on the key plot points as much as the character moments is perhaps the wrong way to go. Time spent with Helen and Paris is, frankly, wasted in my eyes. Both lack any real depth.

I have previously both defended and condemned focus on historical accuracy but knowing that the Trojan War was in the middle of the Bronze Age also affects my verdict. I know that armies would not have been uniformed units, but more akin to heavily armoured lords, with less-well equipped retainers behind them. I could go on, but perhaps I’m being too picky?

Bottom line? Less is definitely more. For example, Immortals’ depiction of the minotaur as a man in a bull helmet was a simple, inspired choice that grounded the conflict, without reducing the threat level. Less armour, fewer men in the armies, fewer characters for me to remember. If you can’t make them utterly unique, interesting individuals, cut them out altogether. Some films do this better than others.

A Quiet Word With: Web Comic @happletea Creator Scott Maynard

If you haven’t heard of it, Happle Tea is one of the best web comics around. It is the work of artist Scott Maynard, and I thought it was high time we had a word with him. Here it is for your viewing pleasure:

Muses

History Mine: Why does history particularly appeal to you as a subject? Is it something that lends itself to web comics?

Scott Maynard: I think it can lend itself very well to web comics. History and, particularly, mythology, may not be the best way to attract notice on the internet but they are pretty timeless topics. Where topics like pop culture and video games may be more exciting or seem more relevant in the moment, history is at the heart of everything we do today. Writers and artists draw a ton of inspiration from the past and it’s said that there are no truly new stories. Being familiar with history and mythology opens your eyes to a secret world of amazing content that is both entertaining and enlightening and I think for those reasons, these topics can make for excellent comics.

Thoth

HM: How do you research each strip?

SM: I utilize a ton of reference materials! I have books on a lot of different mythological topics, I’ve read through a lot of the major works on the subject, and I’m always reading more! It can be a little bit difficult to recall everything I’ve read, seeing as I read very widely but somewhat shallowly on particular regions, but it’s easy to grab a book and refresh my memory. My favorite reference book is The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. It doesn’t work so great as a primary source when writing the blog post articles, but it’s great for quickly refreshing my memory or browsing through for comic topics!

HM: I notice that a few particular eras (Vikings, Ancient Egypt) tend to crop up quite a lot. What attracts you to these periods?

SM: Norse, Egyptian, Greek, and Biblical mythologies are definitely the big four for me, the main draw being that they’re very accessible to a lot of people, especially in the “Western World”. Though folks may not have read the source materials, they usually at least have some passing knowledge of the topics through school, pop culture, friends/family, and church. Norse, Greek, and Egyptian mythologies are particularly great because (like I mentioned above) they are the source for a lot of our stories today and thus they still have a lot of relevance. It’s surprising to think that we could have so much in common with people from so long ago, but that’s what makes these topics so intriguing.

Viking Court

HM: Where do you take inspiration from?

SM: The Muses, obviously! haha But seriously, I’m inspired by all sorts of things. My inspiration for sharing mythology is to show where so much of culture today springs from, to make the historical relevant again by trying to show, clearly, the connections between the people of the past and ourselves today. By understanding the past, we can better know the present. Making comics has always been about relating to people, sharing ideas, and trying to entertain and brighten peoples’ days while also hopefully educating them a bit as well. It’s also been a process of education for myself, both artistically and on the subject of mythology. I think that life is about growth and making comics and writing blog posts is also about growing with my readers.

HM: In what ways is history relevant in the modern age?

SM: There are oh so many ways! History, in general, defines the present, thus understanding where things were helps us to clarify where they are today. This can be examined in a geographical, political, or cultural context. For instance, without some knowledge of the history of the Middle East, the conflicts and struggles of modern day Israel would seem absolutely bizarre to us today. Though most of ancient mythology may not be of particular importance to modern political issues, it does give us some insight into the cultural history of world and give us a little bit of understanding of our fellow inhabitants of the earth.

New Testament

HM: You include a detailed explanation with every strip. How did this come about? Are you worried that it’s too much of an in-joke?

SM: Initially, the blog post started as a simple way to interact with readers, but it ended up growing into a major facet of operating the site. I often make comics about the popular view of particular mythological topics, not necessarily about the way the topic is presented in source materials. Having the blog post allows me to clarify what source materials might say VS what people today might believe. It also allows me to expand on topics covered in strips when I do use source materials for a joke. I try not to make comics on subjects that are too arcane, so I don’t usually feel like people need to read the blog post in order to get the comic’s joke. In general, it’s a tool I try to use to inform people about the strip’s topic and expand on it.

The Talk

HM: Do you have favourite historical characters?

SM: I absolutely love Zeus, I think that’s become pretty apparent to my readers. He’s such a widely known figure and, in particular, his sexual appetite has been a major source of humor. I could do strips about Zeus every day! Aside from him, I love Thor, Buddha, Jesus, Sun Wukong, and Seth.

HM: Why the humungous zips?

SM: Haha! I started doing that as a way to push the character design of Lil K a bit more. I thought it would be funny and a defining feature if he had a gigantic zipper, but all it ended up doing was hampering the character acting! Unfortunately, the zipper has not made an appearance in some time. It was sent to a farm upstate where it could roam free in the fields.

Lil K

If you haven’t checked it out yet, now is definitely the time to go and have a read of Happle Tea. The comic also has a linked Patreon account, so if you’ve really enjoyed it, why not say so with warm, incorporeal cash? Finally, don’t forget to check out some of the interviews we’ve conducted with other insanely creative people.

Four historical outfit ideas

Hallowe’en is a little over a week away, and for those of you who would like to reference their passion for historical costumes, I thought it would be interesting to throw some ideas out there, for you to use as you see fit. I, myself, will be going to the Egyptology Live Friday event at the Ashmolean as an unspecified early archaeologist. If you can get there, I totally recommend you go too. It’s free, and awesome fun. I wanted to be Carter or Petrie, but I just can’t grow the beard in time *sheds a single tear*.

I won’t be doing any ‘sexy’ female costumes, because as far as I can tell, you just cut stuff off the standard version. Also, as I understand it, the definition of a sexy has changed significantly over the centuries. Bring back ruffs, I say. They could be hot.

First up, Cave Person. For this, go all Macklemore and get yourself a second-hand fur coat. cut the sleeves off, and use them to hide your footwear. Lash it all together with a few old belts; BAM, you are ready to fight dinosaurs… or something.

One Million Years BC poster

Next on the list, Mummy. This is a strong choice for anyone on a budget, or who didn’t prepare anything earlier. Just head into the toilet, put one end of the loo roll between your ankles swivel on the spot. Yes, you could go higher budget and buy gauze bandages, but if you’re going to do that, you’ll just look like someone with no imagination. And considering you’re already looking on a blog for ideas, frankly, you could do better.

Then, the Classical Greek. Purists may prefer a toga, but a historically-accurate toga takes a metric shit-load of material, and is confusing as hell. To do this you will need a sheet, two safety pins, and a belt. Try to avoid fitted sheets, but if you get one, cut the elastic out and straighten out the corners. Fold it in half, put safety  pins roughly where your shoulders will be, then step into it from the open side. The belt will hold everything in place. I have rocked this look myself in my uni days.

Chiton
Myself, as Helen of Troy, with friends.

Word to the wise, it’s October/November, and frankly this outfit offers no protection against the weather. Even with shorts and a vest underneath, this was still DAMN COLD. Take extra scarfs, or a coat, or something. Or just don’t go with this outfit.

Roman / other armoured individual. The crucial part of this costume is metallic duct tape. N00bs will go for tin foil, but this is a mistake. Foil will not stand up to an evening’s wear and tear. Either layer it up by taping it to a top you already own, or fix the tape back-to-back. When you finish, it will just look like a metallic top, so you’ll wanna embellish with additional decorations, heraldry, etc. Consider taking your collander along and decorating the hell out of it ’til it looks like a Roman Gallea. Job’s a good’un.

This outfit will also work for knights and their ilk. Needless to say, taping an entire outfit up can get a bit tiring, so you can mix things up with a colourful tabard. Girls! I fully support the idea of an armoured woman. If anyone asks, you’re Joan of Arc. None of this videogame armoured underwear.

And as far as I’m concerned, costumes get a lot more fabricy from here onwards. If you have any other ideas, or you actually try one of these out, please leave pictures in the comments section below. If you want more ideas about historical outfits (tasteful and tasteless) check out our clothing articles.