Polisher Of Stone

Edward, one of my readers, has asked a question. Wow, my blog is going up in the world! I'm terribly grateful. The paraphrased question is:

Gary Corby, first off love your website ;). (You can see at once Edward is a man of fine taste - Gary). A polisher of stone, or a stone mason/sculptor, I was wondering do you have more information. "Polisher of stone" was it a name given to many or only the select few?
Edward's referring here to the description on my web site of the father of Socrates being a "polisher of stone," and by extension Socrates too.

"Polisher of stone" in Greek meant not so much a stone mason as a sculptor in stone, and marble in particular.

Though it is common belief, it is only by tradition that Sophroniscus, the father of Socrates, was a "polisher of stone." (The Classical Greek term is lithoxoos).

The first documented mention I know of the idea is more than a hundred years after Socrates' death. There is no real evidence contemporary with Socrates himself; neither Plato nor Xenophon mention the profession of either Sophroniscus or Socrates.

I have Sophroniscus as a sculptor in my novels because it suits me, and if I didn't I would have to explain it away for all those people who take the story as true.

Plato does in one of his books have Socrates claiming Daedalus as his ancestor. The way Plato puts it reads to me like Socrates was passing on a family tradition which he accepted as true.

Daedalus is famous as the mythical genius artisan who worked for King Minos of Crete, who helped Theseus when he came to slay the Minotaur, and who invented wings which his son Icarus used to fly too close to the sun, thus creating the world's first airflight disaster. Daedalus is said to have returned to Athens with Theseus, and Socrates claiming him as an ancestor is fair evidence that Socrates comes from the artisan class.

This in itself is odd because it seems certain Sophroniscus had friends in common with Pericles and his father Xanthippus, which you would not expect if the family were artisans. Artisans were middle class; anyone hanging out with Pericles' family would be seriously upper class.

"Polisher of stone" was not necessarily a compliment! At the time of my detective hero Nicolaos, and his irritating younger brother Socrates, the latest fashion in sculpting was not marble, but bronze. People these days think of marble when they imagine Greek sculpture, but that's because some marble work has survived and almost all the bronzework was destroyed long ago. Anyone still working in marble around 460 B.C. was either a traditionalist (which is how I've portrayed Sophroniscus) or else didn't have the greater technical skill required to work in trendy bronze.

So in summary, "polisher of stone" was the Greek term for a marble sculptor, and tradition says Socrates' family was in that business, though no one really knows.

Siege Engines

Okay, I'm a guy. Even though nothing could convince me to fight a war anywhere, any time, I'm still fascinated by military stuff. I might even claim some small competence in military history.

So when in our travels we came across some operational siege engines, it was real cool.

This is a trebuchet in resting position:


The vertical beam is the catapault arm. There's a weight, barely visible, at the bottom. The two wheels to the right are used to raise the weight and lower the arm, preparing the trebuchet to shoot.


This is me, in dark top and blue jeans, plus five other guys turning the wheels. You see the weight is going up and the arm down. It's easy to turn at first, but becomes harder as the weight goes up.

The white ball at my feet is a plastic shot.

Now here is the trebuchet being fired. Keep in mind the size and weight when you see it flinging about. A shot could easily fly over a kilometer. As you might imagine, accuracy is not a strong point, but if your target is an entire city then it's kind of hard to miss.

Here's a ballista, a combination massive crossbow and catapault:



The crossbow part is the high, horizontal beam and ropes coming from it. The "bowstring" loops around the catapault arm, which you see resting at a vertical angle. You wind back the arm, then let go. The catapault is pulled forward, hits the "bow", and whatever's in the cup of the catapault goes flying.

Here's the ballista as seen from the receiving end. Imagine waking up to find a hundred of these parked outside your castle, all pointing in the general direction of you. That probably means it's going to be a bad day at the office. If men are assembling trebuchets being the ballistas, it's probably going to be a very bad day.

Ballista Long Distance

This is a battering ram. The roofing is to protect your people from arrows, boiling oil, etc, thus improving your army's occupational health and safety rating. The heavy beam under the roof is hung to swing backwards and forwards, making it easy to knock on the door.

Battering Ram

These siege engines look exactly like the ones in Age Of Empires. Who says video games disconnect people from reality?

Google Reader Overload Redux

431 unread articles in Google Reader and rising. I don't have time to read them while I'm traveling, but watching the number rise is fascinating.

What does it say about me that, if Iwere at home, that value would be zero?

Some Greek Pottery

For anyone who's read the book (admittedly a small integer at the moment) and wants to know what some of the crockery I mention actually looks like...

These are some of my photos from the Musee Lapidaire in Avignon. The picture quality is not good due to glass cabinets and reflections therein; hopefully I'll have better by the time I'm finished in the Louvre and British Museum.

A reconstructed funerary jar.

Take one corpse, roast over a burning pyre until thoroughly overdone. Douse flames with ritual wine. (This must all be done after dusk so as not to offend the Sun God Apollo with the sight of a dead man).

Scoop up ashes with a hand trowel and pour into this jar.

Set up jar in nearby cemetary. The cemetary just outside the Dipylon Gates to the NW of Athens would be traditional.

Return to visit regularly leaving offerings for the dead. This was a prime duty of all children.

The pigtails in the background btw belong to my younger daughter Megan, who was so very patient while Daddy obsessed about old pots.

A very cool cup.

I expect this would have been a symposium (dinner party) cup.

It's about a hundred years or more after the period I'm writing, maybe about the time of Alexander, hence the more complex decoration with the white coloring. In Nicolaos' time, the latest trendy stuff was all red-figure.

Just to prove I can't hold a camera straight, here is a krater. They were used to mix wine at symposia, which were fun dinner parties, not boring academic waffling.

Only a barbarian would drink wine neat. Greeks always mixed wine with water, which would be the duty of slave boys.

The symposiarch, the guy in charge of festivities, would decide the ratio. 3 water for 1 wine meant a pleasant evening of refined philosophical discussion. 2 for 1 was party time. 1 for 1 meant the flute girls could expect extra pay for extra duties.

This is a hydria, as the name implies used for storing water, or sometimes oil.

You'd find lots of these in every kitchen and bar.

Would a crime writer make a good criminal?

If a crime writer turned to, well, crime, would he or she be any good at it?

There are plenty of fictional accounts in which a famous author executes a plot so devious that only a writer or someone with a deranged mind...errr, that is, only a writer could have thought of it. More often than not, some surprise unravels the plan, but the assumption is always that the writer could have got away with it if not for the unfortunate accident.

I can't off-hand think of any real life examples. The best I can manage is that Conan Doyle did at one point try his hand as an amateur detective in an attempt to clear a man he felt wrongly accused, and there are the much made of missing days of Christie.

But neither of these were committing a crime (Christie was probably having a good weep somewhere).

I confess I've considered how I'd go about a number of different crimes, the obvious and most interesting one of course being murder. I'll save my murder plan for another day and another blog (or unless I need to use it, whichever comes first...) and stick to the point that all my mentally filed criminal plans are rather tricky, just as you'd expect. Which is rather unfortunate, really, because the most successful murders are simple, direct, and scary. Drive by shootings, common beatings, a shooting in the woods and bury the body; it's all so dreary, uninteresting, and effective. The simple methods work because there are fewer "moving parts" to go wrong. Tricky = Likely To Fail.

The sad probable truth is, a successful crime depends at least as much on steady nerve and the execution as it does on the quality of the plan, and the average writer would probably do a poor job on execution. Staring at a screen all day, typing, and daydreaming, are not good practise for the daring and devious acts a writer's plan would demand.

Of course, there is the final, ominous possibility. Perhaps crime writers are so good at crime that not a single one of the numerous writer-criminals has ever been caught. Agents and editors should keep that in mind the next time they annoy one.

Google Reader Overload

I use Google Reader to keep track of the blogs I like to read. Actually there are even more I like but there has to be a limit.

So, I don't open Google Reader for almost two weeks, and what happens? 277 unread blog posts.

Wow, do I read that much? Do I actually remember it all, or even take note? I usually skip posts that don't excite me (of course I read all of yours), but still, that's a pile of information.

Then there are the links that I follow, find something interesting, with more links, and wind up in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike, trying to remember how I came to be reading about saussage making, or the mating habits of the lesser spotted African gerbil, when I started with a blog about someone's book.

The Rhythm Method

Rhythm matters a great deal in writing. You just have to have it. If you can't find the rhythm in your work, then you're probably in trouble.

Now different languages favor different rhythms in speech and writing -- I speak barely enough German to know that -- and there're pronounced differences in the natural styles of writers.

Does this mean some writers have styles that naturally fit certain languages? Maybe there are people out there who can't write in English to save their lives, but who would have been fine in Swahili, if only they knew the language?

Or are there writers who can be improved by translation? I'm thinking of Perez-Reverte on that one. I don't know a word of Spanish, so I can't speak for the original, but the translations of books like The Flanders Panel are brilliant. (If you haven't heard of him, rush out now and get The Flanders Panel, The Dumas Club, and The Dancing Master).

Where's Waldo?

I'm travelling about Europe with my family, which is why my blogging frequency is now approaching zero.

Looking about local bookstores in Germany and Switzerland, it struck me what a disaster it must be for a good writer to be born into a place where few people use the language. A fairly large number of books in the local Buchhandlerung are translations from English language works. Considering how little money there seems to be for English language writers, even given the huge English language reading public, the income of a German or, OMG, Czech or Turkish author must be miniscule. How do these people cope?