The Great Garos, Garum, Worcestershire Debate

I made the mistake of claiming on twitter to know everything there was to know about Ancient Greek fish sauce. I guess that's why I'm a twit. So by popular demand (that's you, Mr Cameron) here is my short article on garos, garum, and Worcestershire sauce.

As with many things, first came the Greeks. They had a salty fish sauce called garos (γαροσ). Since there was a fish called garos, or garon, in Greek, it's a fair bet the sauce was made mostly from that. I've been unable to discover what fish garos actually was. Not to worry, I can fudge it in my stories (but don't let Janet know that...I'll tell her I'm using the Greek word for authentic atmosphere).

The earliest references of which I'm aware are some lines in Aeschylus (fragments of the lost play Proteus) and Sophocles (fragments of the lost play Triptolemos), both of which refer to garos as stinking. Not a great advertisement, but the sauce was obviously popular enough that writers were referring to it and expecting everyone to understand. Since they were writing at the same time Nicolaos and Diotima are solving murders, I know I'm on solid ground using the sauce.

The stink is understandable. Although later Roman garum was made from carefully chosen gourmet fish, the original Greek version was made from leftover entrails.

Gary's theory, for what it's worth, is this: over-population was chronic in classical Greece, and children, especially small girls who were last in the feeding line, regularly went to bed hungry. Nothing that was even remotely edible was ever wasted. So when fishwives gutted the morning catch, they would have discarded the entrails into the large vats where some extra seawater would have been added, and the whole goopy mess allowed to ferment in the sun over weeks or months into garos. If this theory is correct then garos-the-fish is going to be whatever the main catch was.

When the Romans picked up the sauce from the Greeks, the ingredients and the name changed slightly. Garum isn't Latin. It's latinized Greek. Garum was made from whole fish, not only the offal. The Romans got very precious about the whole thing and would debate which species made the best sauce. Martial even talks about making it from, "mackerel still breathing its last." Later on, humble garum split into a range of gourmet sauces, each with their own names. Liquamen appears to be the original garum, and there was also allec, muria, and a pile of others. I haven't chased down any of these because by then, my characters are all shades in Hades.

Under Roman law it was illegal to make garum at home, the stench was that bad, so they had garum factories by the coast. The Greeks had no such rule, but practicality indicates garos would not have been made in Athens anyway, but Piraeus, the port town down the road, where the fisherman brought in their catch and the fishwives processed the fish. The garos would have been transported up to Athens in amphorae and sold in the Agora.

Jonathon raised the fascinating point that Worcestershire sauce is said to be a descendant of garum. Wikipedia disagrees, saying Worcestershire is derived from India. I'd normally be more inclined to believe Jonathon, given my record of finding errors in Wikipedia, but a large number of sites report the origin of Worcestershire as an attempt to reproduce an Indian sauce that went horribly wrong, and when two years later the failed experiment was sampled before discarding, there was Worcestershire sauce.

There is no chance that Worcestershire sauce tastes like garos, because the Greeks are known to have disliked anchovies. Also Worcestershire includes (apparently) molasses, chilies and sugar, none of which the Greeks had.

Anachronistic Phrases

Anachronisms are things placed out of kilter with respect to time. It’s unlikely many Roman chariot racers wore a wristwatch, to pick a famous example. It is (relatively) easy to avoid anachronistic objects like wristwatches.

A more insidious problem is anachronistic phrases: set piece sayings heard every day in modern life and embedded in our DNA, but which you could not possibly hear from a story character.

The knowledge that I will be flayed alive by my readers if they find one causes me to be cautious about the stock phrases that come so easily to the fingertips. Since I am writing in Classical Greece, you shouldn’t expect to hear too much Shakespeare from my characters. No problem, you think? All I have to do is avoid phrases like, "To be, or not to be," and, "Friends, Romans, countrymen?" Think again. The number of routine, daily phrases originating with Shakespeare is mindboggling.

There can be no method in my madness. I can't play fast and loose with my characters, stand on ceremony or make a virtue of necessity. My hero may be a tower of strength, but I daren't say so, or I'll be in a pickle. My victims may be dead as a doornail as the result of foul play, but it's a forgone conclusion I'll be a laughing stock if any of these phrases slip past me into a book.

I am not allowed to use a single one of them, neither those, nor many more. It's enough to make a writer wish the ms would vanish into thin air so he could wash his hands of the whole thing and say good riddance to the problem.

Alright, wash his hands is biblical, but don't get me started on that one, because those common phrases are forbidden too.

Ironically, I can't even say it's all Greek to me.

The subtlety of this goes beyond your wildest nightmares. Here’s my favorite example. I love this example, it really takes the cake.

There it is: that takes the cake!

No, it’s not Shakespeare. It’s Aristophanes. He invented the phrase for his play The Knights, which he wrote in 424B.C. to satirize the Athenian politician Cleon. My stories begin in 460B.C. Out by 44 years. As Maxwell Smart would say, missed by that much! ...damn, I can’t use that one either.

So simple even a child can read it.

Scroll down this page and on the left you will see a new thingy that rates the reader level required for your blog. My blog evaluates as...elementary school.

OMG, am I really that simple?

Of course there's no telling how accurate this toy is, so to test it, I tried some other sites to get a comparison. genius genius elementary school

That last is Thomas The Tank Engine's official site.

It's not much of a test, but it's more or less in line with what you'd expect, so maybe I'm a simpleton after all.

Borders Australia...what were you thinking?

Borders Australia continued on its path to self-destruction today by issuing a Christmas catalogue in which selected popular books are listed at about 10% more than RRP.

The justification as reported in the papers is that Borders stores are nicer with comfy chairs, and they need to recoup the cost. Alright, I can see the cost of the comfy chairs, but what's to stop an intelligent reader, which would be most of them, reading the books in the comfy chairs and then walking away to buy the book elsewhere for less? (Ahhh, free market, you are a beautiful thing). Or else since Borders has a price matching policy, take the book to the Borders checkout, and simply point to the RRP on the back.

This does little to help their finances and does a great deal to deliver bad PR. It already has. The papers are reporting the Borders' price gouge, which will send plenty of people to other stores rather than take the risk of accidentally buying a book with a toxic price. The people who will be most annoyed are the ones who find out later they paid extra. Bet they won't be going back.

The solution to the comfy chair costs...most Borders have a built-in coffee shop. Raise the cost of the coffee and cake. People will pay ridiculous amounts of money for caffeine without blinking, and the ones in the chairs are probably the ones who want the coffee.

I'm such a failure

My daughter just asked me to spell diahroia diahhroea diarrhoia diarrhoea. I couldn't do it, and here I am writing.

My degree's in pure mathematics, and I can't add either. Come to think of it, I play guitar but can't recognize intervals. Am I seeing a trend here?

I dun it, Guv. But what was it?

If you heard I'd been arrested by the police, what crime would you imagine I'd committed?

Please answer in comments!

Goodreads: The Praise Singer by Mary Renault

I joined Goodreads a few days ago. It's a social networking site guessed it...people who like reading books.

Writing reviews is not my thing, but Goodreads encourages it as you add books to your reading list, so as an experiment I did this review. The system automatically generates the HTML to put the review in your own blog, so here 'tis.

The Praise Singer The Praise Singer by Mary Renault

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mary Renault's series of Greek novels are an amazing rendition of the Greek world, and of them all I think The Praise Singer is possibly the best. Simple and direct, with vivid detail, it tells the life story of the poet Simonides.

Simonides lived at a time of great upheaval: the period when the great tyrants of Hellas were falling, and Athens began her first important steps to democracy. Simonides' long life meant he was there for the Persian Wars, and he is credited by some with the famous epitaph over the graves of the fallen at Thermopylae, though interestingly Renault has it otherwise in her version.

If I have any criticism to make of her books, it is that they concentrate heavily on the people, so that someone who isn't familiar with Greek history might not fully appreciate the important events unfolding about the characters. But you can't have everything, and she certainly delivers on what she promises. Read this book for a good look at life in ancient Greece, seen through the eyes of a great poet, as written by a great writer.

View all my reviews.

The Archimedes Palimpsest is now on Google Books!

Back in 1229 A.D., someone, probably in Jerusalem, probably a monk, wanted to write a prayer book. He had no clean sheets of parchment, so he did what people used to do in those days: he looked for some existing parchment, intending to scrape it clean and re-use it.

As this fellow searched about for pre-loved parchment, his hand fell upon the last remaining copy of Archimedes' treatise called The Method of Mechanical Theorems. It wasn't a religious text so obviously no one would want it; he erased it. He picked up the only remaining copy of On Floating Bodies written in the original Greek. He erased that too. He erased sections of the Stomachion which have not survived anywhere else. He tossed in four other books by Archimedes which at least have survived elsewhere in other versions. For good measure he threw in ten pages of oratory from Hyperides, whose words appear nowhere else, the 4th century legal eagle who was the defender of Phryne the Hetaera, the man who made legal history in a way described in another of my articles.

This monk is lucky we don't know his name, because he may hold the record for the greatest single-handed destruction of knowledge ever. The burning of the Library of Alexandria would obviously have destroyed far more, but it took lots of men to do that. It was this fellow's bad luck to pick up one unique text after another.

Our monk erased all these unique books, and wrote over them a bunch of prayers of no particular interest whatsoever. The resulting palimpset passed from place to place until, 723 years later in 1906, the underlying text, barely visible through the overlying ink and mostly illegible, was recognized for what it was. Scholars took some photos, as best they could in 1906, and're not going to believe this, it reads like a thriller...the Archimedes Palimpsest went missing, probably stolen.

As far as anyone knew, that was the end of the story, the lost works of Archimedes lost once more.

Cut to 1998. Christies Auction House is selling a palimpsest that has been in a private collection since the 1930s. Upon inspection it turns out to be...the Archimedes Palimpsest.

Modern digital imaging technology was applied to the parchment before anyone else had a chance to lift it, and the Archimedes Palimpsest appears for the first time on Google Books. How cool is that?

This book is seriously out of copyright, so everyone is free to download it and at least gaze at ancient texts that went missing for centuries.

The most amazing thing for me about what's been discovered is that, in The Method of Mechanical Theorems, Archimedes describes a mathematical technique which is the next best thing to calculus! Now calculus was worked out independently by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the 17th century, and its development opened up new ways to analyze the world and vastly sped up scientific discovery. It seems Archimedes got there first, but we didn't know it until now. How smart would a guy have to be to make such a discovery 1,600 years before the next person to work it out? And how much more advanced might the world be today if that monk had published Archimedes instead of wiping him out?

My Fave Books I Reckon You Should Read Too

Moonrat and Josephine have both published their lists of books you should read. Here’s mine. These lists are always highly subjective, so I’m not going to pretend it’s anything other than my own faves. I’m afraid the variation in quality and literary pretension gyrates wildly from ultra-highbrow to stuff an editor would be worried to find in her slush.
  1. The complete plays of Aristophanes. Don’t panic, it’s not all this highbrow. But actually Aristophanes is lowbrow…very lowbrow…and still hilarious to this day. If you don’t believe me, start by reading Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens go on a sex-strike until the men stop making war.

  2. Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny. The best of his work. If you like this, read the first series of Amber stories too, starting with Nine Princes In Amber.

  3. Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein. Some might not appreciate his point of view, but the writing is smooth, effortless, brilliant.

  4. The English Assassin – Michael Moorcock. The first in the Jerry Cornelius series of stories. Deeply experimental, which normally would make me run away screaming, but these books really work. Also try his stories of Oswald Bastable.

  5. The Void Captain’s Tale – Norman Spinrad. Highly creative use of language, merging English, French and German (mostly) into a future Sprach.

  6. All the Greek stories of Mary Renault. Simply the best Greek historical novels of all time (except, of course, for my own forthcoming series…). She does have a thing about gay guys though.

  7. Master And Commander – Patrick O’Brien. And all the other Aubrey-Maturin novels too. Since there are 20 of these they should take 20 places, but I’m going to list only one and expect you to read the others anyway.

  8. Hamlet, MacBeth, Twelfth Night – William Shakespeare. The guy couldn’t even spell his own name consistently, but he did write rather good plays. Don’t read them; instead, travel to Stratford and watch them played by the Royal Shakespearean Company. That’s the right way to appreciate Shakespeare.

  9. The complete Sherlock Holmes stories – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, every one of them. It’s necessary for the good of your soul.

  10. A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. The first three of the Earthsea novels by Ursula K. LeGuin. Much better than Rowling’s stories, which are in the same vein. Long after she wrote these three, LeGuin returned to Earthsea to write some politically correct extensions that can be safely ignored. Stick with the first three.

  11. Green Eggs And Ham – Dr Seuss. And everything else he did too, but Green Eggs and Ham is my fave.

  12. Dune – Frank Herbert. Only read this first book in the series! After this, it’s all downhill.

  13. The Gordianus the Finder stories of Steven Saylor. Tales of an honest, sensitive, new age guy, who finds himself mired in the vicious politics of late Republican Rome.

  14. The SPQR stories of John Maddox Roberts. Tales of an aristocratic young trouble-maker, enjoying every moment of the vicious politics of late Republican Rome. It’s a wonder Decius Metellus and Gordianus never met.

  15. The Marcus Didius Falco stories of Lindsey Davis. Tales of the most hard done by gumshoe in Imperial Rome.

  16. The Flanders Panel – Arturo Perez-Reverte. Also The Dumas Club.

  17. The Flashman Papers, edited by George MacDonald Fraser. Brigadier-General Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE…a hero for our times.

  18. The Histories – Herodotus. Step into an unbelievable world, all the more amazing because it’s true.

  19. History Of The Peloponnesian War – Thucydides. The best book ever written on power politics. Beats any thriller I know of.

  20. The Richard Sharpe stories of Bernard Cornwell. Watch in awe as Sharpe and Harper cut swathes through 30,000 French per battle.

  21. The Adam Dalgleish stories of PD James. I can’t for the life of me work out why all her characters don’t just kill themselves in various orgies of self-indulgent depression, but by God she writes well.

  22. The Roderick Alleyn stories of Ngaio Marsh. Forget Christie and Allingham; for my money Ngaio Marsh’s Alleyn is the best of the Golden Age detectives. Start with the second in the series, Enter A Murderer. Alleyn is very shaky in the first book, but by the second he has a solid voice and Marsh has him under control.

  23. The Epic of Gilgamesh. An epic poem from bronze age Mesopotamia, it’s one of the oldest stories known; it might be the oldest surviving narrative in the world, certainly much older than both Homer and the Bible. It tells the story of Gilgamesh, King of Ur, and his quest for immortality (plus lots of sex and violence). The Epic of Gilgamesh has the original version of the biblical Flood story, a variant of Eden, a serpent who steals the tree of life, and other features that clearly show at least some of the Bible’s early books are retellings of Mesopotamian myths. But before you get to all these pre-biblical references, in the first sections of the epic you have to read piles of erotica and adventure. Bummer.

  24. The Cthulhu Mythos stories of HP Lovecraft. I find Lovecraft’s stories hard to read these days because of their extreme style, but you can’t go to your grave without having read them, especially not if you’re likely to be buried anywhere near Arkham, in which case your corpse may be eaten, reanimated, or parts re-used by some insane scholar who’s glimpsed the darkness behind reality.

  25. The Crying Of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon. Gravity's Rainbow is his really famous book, but I think The Crying Of Lot 49 is more fun. I love the conspiracy to subvert the US Postal Service.

  26. Doctor Mirabilis - James Blish. How do you write a for-real genius as a believable character? Blish shows us how with his fictionalized bio of mediaeval scientist Roger Bacon.

  27. Tik Tok - John Sladek. When nice robots go bad.


Uh oh...I'm about to express an opinion.

NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel starting 1st November and finishing by 30th November.

50,000 words divided by 30 days = 1,666 words a day, and that's just for the first draft! I don't know how it works in your world, but in mine, the ms doesn't even begin to look like a readable book until revision number 7 or so. Is anyone up for 10,000 words a day? No, I thought not.

The best you could hope for from NaNoWriMo is a rough first draft. Even the NaNoWriMo web site agrees quality prose is not the objective. The objective is sheer volume.

I just don't get this. Doesn't the world already have enough unfinished first drafts?

A number of people whose opinion I respect a great deal, a number of serious publishing professionals even, who know more about writing than I ever will, think NaNoWriMo is a great idea. Obviously they're right and and I'm wrong, but I still don't get it.

The logic goes that people who otherwise don't have the time or the self-motivation to write a book will do it in November, because NaNoWriMo delivers seering embarrassment to anyone who misses their publicly avowed target.

Alright, I get that.

But what happens on 1st December? Does the writing stop dead because the whipping stopped? Does the urgent need to buy Christmas presents make the writer put the ms away for just a few days?

You bet it does.

Worst of all, my guess is an awful lot of those unfinished drafts are not going to be recoverable with revision even if someone takes the time, because the plotting has been rushed and bad habits have probably been reinforced.

I'm going to delve into self-help guidance...something for which I am entirely unsuited. Here is Gary's Guide To Finishing The Damned Book, and you don't need NaNoWriMo to do it; this system works every month of the year.

Step 1: Write a thousand words a day. Every day. Without fail. No excuses.

You are not permitted to go to bed until you do. This probably means you're going to be up very late, but that's your problem for not being efficient. You can write any rubbish you like to make your wordcount, but eventually you're going to get sick of writing The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dog and write something useful instead.

I can't emphasize enough how important it is to hit your daily target.

Step 2: Repeat Step 1 until you've finished the draft.

If you want to stop and change bits on the way that's fine. See step 3 for the rules for revision.

Step 3: Same target applies for revision. A thousand words a day.

You think this is too easy a target? You poor fool! A thousand words of revision takes longer than writing them fresh. At least, it does if you're me. Note that revising a thousand words is not the same as reading them.

The good news is, as revisions iterate, they go faster because scenes stabilize and are locked in.

Step 4: Repeat Step 3 until you are certifiably insane and/or sell the book.

That's it! This is the system I use, and it has caused me to finish three novels. One rotten, one with some good bits, and one that's actually quite good. I should be writing number four instead of doing this blog, but that merely means I'll be up until later to make my target.