Tags: history


Food for thought

The other day I read two articles from two entirely different sources that interacted in an interesting way. Both include aspects that I'm interested in reading and thinking more about.

The first was on Ian Morris' 2010 Big History book, Why the West Rules—for Now: The Shape of History.

The second was about how social scientists are discovering that culture determines perception and cognition: We Aren’t the World.

The latter may seem a bit of a no-brainer to anyone trained in the humanities who thinks about it directly, but nevertheless there is an extent to which we often assume that people of different cultural backgrounds share certain cognitive traits with us without necessarily establishing whether it's true.

Given that my own work involves an examination of how a past culture perceived and understood a certain physical, political and social space, this is a pretty relevant question.


I posted the trailer of Agora when I heard about it last year, wondering whether the movie itself would be excellent or dire, but because of an extremely limited American release at a time when I was in New Zealand anyway, I missed it in theatres. This evening a couple of professors showed it to their respective ancient history classes, and I tagged along to see it.

Well, it was well worth watching.

Agora is a powerful movie about the evils of fanaticism. As with all historical dramas, it takes some liberties with the story (the film's wikipedia page addresses a few of the more relevant historical questions), however, in Agora, most of the historical twisting is done to tie the selected main actors to the historical events.

The main inaccuracy, and one which reflects on the approach of the filmmakers is the treatment of Synesius, the bishop of Cyrene in the film (but more accurately, Synesius of Cyrene, bishop of Ptolemais), who seems to have died before Hypatia, with whom he corresponded.

The negative reviews which make up Rotten Tomatoes's 55% rating mostly concern a lack of drama. I find history dramatic enough even before it gets sexed up for the silver screen, so I'm not surprised that I didn't notice. My own proclivities aside, it's certainly no Alexander.

And of course, because it's based on history and not an American movie, it doesn't have a happy ending.

The Hummus Contention

After a frustrating first half to the semester, I've finally had a week of pleasing productivity, especially the last couple of days. I've been reading Maurice Sartre's The Middle East Under Rome (2005), a translation and abridgment of D'Alexandre à Zénobie : Histoire du Levant antique, IVe siècle avant Jésus-Christ - IIIe siècle après Jésus-Christ.

The first couple of chapters are an quick refresher on the first chapters of my MA thesis. Not because they cover the same material exactly, but they are intertwined around the same events, so a mention by Sartre of say, Tigranes at Ptolemais, reminds me of the arguments I made in my work related to that event. It's been fun.

I've also been reading about classical era nomads on the borders of ancient Syria and Arabia. This kind of region: Secrets of the Harra. Thinking about the practicalities of writing about a topic based in an area of the world which would be problematic at best to visit is a daunting prospect.

Shallow notes on deep gaming topics

For the LARPers among you: Finnish Larp theorist jiituomas links to an online version of his his MittelPunkt 2010 paper A Brief Introduction to Larp as an Art Form.

Elsewhere, Deeper in the Game has a brief but thought provoking piece about representations of race in RPGs: The validity of stories. There are a lot of links worth pursuing in DitG's blogroll if the topic is of interest.

The Play of States

Today I've been reading about the little-known Roman province of Noricum. Géza Alföldy's narrative runs as follows. In the last centuries BCE a Celtic kingdom centred on the hilltop oppidum of Magdalensberg developed, came into contact with Roman culture through mercantile interactions and, despite having a pro-Roman state policy, was brought into the empire by force by Augustus in 15 BCE. Ancient sources show considerable doubt and disagreement over the circumstances of its annexation, but it seems that there was only patchy and relatively weak military resistance to the invasion. The annexation was probably brought about from Augustus' desire to establish a line of direct Roman control along the Rhine-Danube frontier.

It seems to me that political formations in this area have a lot in common with general theories of state formation that can be seen in other areas of the ancient world. Just as Assyrian pressure on the Medians, Persia pressure on Greece then Macedon and Etruscan pressure on Latium all can be seen as forcing organisation in the smaller culture, so the presence of the aggressive Roman state in Cisalpine Gaul may have prompted the Norici to form a more unitary state and the presence of Rome on the Danube may have been a catalyst for the formation of the Marcomannic state.

(Image: The Helenenberg/Magdalensberg Youth, a Hellenistic bronze of a Celtic diety dedicated to Mars by three freedmen and a slave of two Roman merchant houses in the 1st century BCE. Found by a farmer at Magdalensberg (then Helenenberg) in 1502.)

The Second Book and the Academic Cursus Honorem

One of the interesting differences between my postgrad career in NZ and here in LA is the idea of "The Book". Tenure is like the holy grail in that it is the overwhelming goal of everyone who doesn't have it, but not like it in that it is achievable. In order to get tenure at a decent US university, one must have published The Book. This is usually a reworking of The Dissertation (and this is the easiest approach). Of course, before that, one must attain a tenure-track position, that is, a professorial position which will result (usually after 5-6 years) in the holder being nominated for tenure by their department. At the interview for this position, having answered all the usual question about one's dissertation, a common question will be about The Second Book. This is all probably before or while The First Book is being shopped around for an editor and publisher. It all makes sense which you think about it really, but when you just spell it all out it sounds like some sort of Python-esque dig at bureaucracy.

At any rate, the point of this excursus on the cursus is a preface. I presented on Xenophon yesterday and I think I may have a topic for the Second Book. It's somewhat ridiculous that my circumstances are such that I'm not really sure on what the First Book will be, and in explaining my proposed dissertation topic, I still have to preface the discussion by admitting that I haven't read much about it in specific yet (recently, really).

I did print out a bibliography today, however. Progress!

It's not all texts and nostalgia

My recent posts about roleplaying, in part inspired by my planned surgical strike on Orccon on Saturday, have been indicative of much of my non-professional thoughts over the semester so far. However, my weekly gaming fix has been DBA (the little, but older, brother of DBM). Tonight we played three games in as many hours, the first a epic struggle between Arabo-Arameans from Emesa and the Seleucids in which a unit of my Emesan light horse snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. The second saw the same Arabo-Aramean army humourously annihilated by Marian legionaries. In the last, the same Marian legions were overrun by a horde of Galatian warriors. I am a big fan of quick and satisfying games in all genres, particularly in one so notorious for unfinished games and systems which produce nigh on unfinishable games as wargaming. I'm hoping to get some convention play in NZ when I return in July.