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The Ancient Middle

February 12, 2012 4 comments

The events in my novel, False Light, take place long ago in Western Greece and the Central Mediterranean. Things were not the same back then.

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Our story begins twenty years after the fall of Troy, so long ago that most of the Mediterranean Sea was still a vast mystery. In that time, the exciting tales Homer spun out for us in the Iliad and the Odyssey were not myth but the stuff of daily life. There was no ‘Middle Sea’, as the Romans would call it more than a thousand years later, only a Great Sea that had no end, stretching on forever into the West.

 

The people of False Light  lived when Aegypta was the world’s invincible super-power and had been since time began. For our characters, the ‘middle’ of things was somewhere toward that impossibly huge river delta, perhaps at an imaginary spot between the islands we call Crete and Cyprus.

Back then, Italy was not Italy, but a barbarous wilderness in the Far West where belief in magic held sway while Gods were few and terrible, a place often populated by vicious cannibals eager to draw dark power from the spirits of their ritually sacrificed enemies. Even the first thought of a place called Rome was four hundred years in the future.

Primeval forests grew and thick topsoil lay where, today, three millennia of wood fires, shipbuilding and sheep have given much of the Mediterranean region its barren, rocky slopes and scrub pines.

Back then, Greeks called themselves Achaeans. Over the previous few hundred years, they’d taken the mainland of southern Greece and learned civilization’s value from a powerful people called the Islanders, who also—inadvertently—taught them the secrets of the sea. So, of course, the Achaeans took the Islanders’ empire as well. Then, they took more. Finally, the allied kingdoms of Achaea invaded and conquered The Island itself, Crete. Today, we call those defeated, ancient islanders Minoans.

The Achaeans were a strong, proud and vital people. They looked down on the old, effete empires that had come before and from whom they’d wrested glory and their own place in the sun. Now, Achaea is a full and rising member in the brotherhood of civilized powers. And Pylos in the western Peloponnese is first in honor among all Achaean kingdoms.

With the capture of Wilios—Homer’s Troy—and its countless treasures, Achaeans rule all of the Great Sea worth having. Nine Achaean kingdoms spread across southern Greece, the Aegean islands and Crete. Three more control much of what we know as the coast of western Turkey. And, the new Achaean Kingdom of Wilios has opened a great door to another vast sea with more riches waiting to be taken.

 

To the north and west of Achaea, twenty or so scattered Achaean Princedoms dot the wild, barbarian coasts and occupy some choice inland sites. One of those sites will become Olympia, where games to honor the Gods go on for a thousand years. By chance—or the will of the Gods—those games will begin right around the time that a tiny settlement on a single hill near a bend in an Italian river names its first king. This insignificant village calls itself Rome.

Greatest of the Achaean Princedoms is Thapsos on the east coast of modern Sicily. Beyond Thapsos is wilderness. There’s nothing there except more barbarians, those pillars that Hercules will tell of in a few hundred years and then the end of the world.

For Achaeans, salt water is both enemy and friend. There are no maps or charts and the open sea will kill even a hundred-oared galley as fast as a starving lion rips the throat from a newborn lamb. Sailors who want to live never stray much beyond sight of land. But, thousands of them follow those rocky coasts and make the dangerous crossings that allow Achaea to be a great empire rather than just a scattering of kingdoms.

In the Far West, is one other place of note, the mysterious, vile Spider Island of Sardu, a land of looming, black stone castles built in strange, circular patterns, where everyone’s hand is raised against his neighbor. For Sards, war and treachery have been the warp and weft of life since the Gods overthrew the Titans. For a century now, Sard Warfathers have supplied tens of thousands of men as mercenaries to civilized kingdoms around the Great Sea. The strongest of the black castle keeps also send vast quantities of copper and bronze on Pylosian ships to feed foundries and workshops in the civilized world. And they grow rich.

Thanks to its fertile land and secure position, Pylos became the first powerful Achaean kingdom. And, it’s still the richest because of those metals flowing in from Sardu. Pylos is first in honor among the Achaeans because its king and heroes led Achaea to finally defeat Wilios after 200 years and four great wars, though Achaea’s King of kings now rules in Mycenae to the east.

The vigorous Achaeans have made themselves great in the world, and their future is bright. Or so they think.

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The map sums up who is where as the story begins in 1,202 BC, twenty
years after the Trojan War and near the end of the Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean.

Before the Dawn

July 20, 2011 1 comment

Stone Age doesn’t always mean ancient, and the ‘Noble Savage’ wasn’t.

Some years ago, I was in a special area on the Big Island of Hawaii. There, 200 years ago, the Hawaiians had carved small dish-like indentations in the lava rock where they put umbilical cords from infants. These were offerings to the gods that ensured good fortune for the new born.

Hawaiian Petroglyph and Umbilical Depressions on the Big Island

Hawaiians back then had no metal, no wheel, no written language, no flocks, no beasts of burden, no lots-of-things needed to advance. They were a true Stone Age culture in every sense. This wasn’t their fault of course, but it was true. Only 200 years ago.

Later that evening, my bride and I were walking toward the current active lava flow pouring into the sea (video). We chanced to meet a pleasant couple from England and struck up a conversation, soon learning that we all loved ancient things but had a very different definition of the word. They were waxing rhapsodic about the ‘Ancient’ Hawaiians and their lost ‘wisdom’. To us, Ancient ends somwhere around the Trojan War (c. 1200 BC), while Athenians, Spartans and Romans lived in Classical times.

I asked our new companions how things that happened only 200 years ago could be ancient. They looked confused for a moment, then turned to the ‘wisdom’ that the modern world had lost from a time when life was simpler and we treated each other better. At that point, the path split for our different planned destinations and we amiably parted company to explore the glowing flows of molten rock.

Part of the 'Volcano Coast' on the Big Island Made by Recent Lava Flows. Steam from the Current Flow Rises Beyond the Point

As you may know, Anthropology and Archaeology have long since shown that Rosseau’s notion of the Noble Savage living in peace and at one with nature is a pure fantasy. Pre-agrarian life was more nasty, more brutal and shorter than any mode of living since. Yet many people who couldn’t survive a day in the wilderness still cling to this profound fallacy.

A few years ago, in his superb book, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, Nicholas Wade showed via genetic research what things were really like before history began. If you have any interest in the subject and can read only one book on it, this is that book. It’s fascinating to read, based on hard science and sound logic, and it’s concise (only 320 pages).

I admire and respect stone age peoples for their grit and perseverance, not for their supposed superior wisdom and idyllic peacefulness. Ignorant animism and belief in the Rules of Magic (see posts here, here and here) are not wisdom. And a 30% male death rate is not the result of peace.

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 For those with a much deeper interest in the anthropological rather than genetic side of pre-history, I recommend The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer as the ‘if you can only read one’ book. It’s not nearly such smooth going as Before the Dawn, but it is exhaustive and fascinating.

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