The rosy-fingered dawn.

Here's your trivia question for the day.

The rosy-fingered dawn.

Does this beautiful phrase appear in Shakespeare or Homer? If Shakespeare, in which play? If Homer, is it from the Iliad or the Odyssey, or both?

The answer's at the end of this post.

I'm planning to open every chapter of my second book with a quote from the Iliad, for reasons that will be vaguely discernible when you read it. One of my twitter friends, the very clever Deb Vlock, offered "the rosy fingered dawn," as one of the quotes (I've had a number of excellent suggestions from friends!).

The question was, was it valid? Opinions varied. I thought it was from the Odyssey. But after searching the Perseus database of ancient texts I can now report...

...the rosy fingered dawn appears in both the Odyssey and the Iliad. The phrase does not appear in Shakespeare, but it sounds very Shakespearean, doesn't it? I don't know if that's because literary geniuses tend to sound alike, or because the translators were so steeped in Shakespeare it came out that way. Here's the phrase in context:

Now when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared, Nestor left his couch and took his seat on the benches of white and polished marble that stood in front of his house. [Odyssey]

But when the sun set and darkness came on, they lay down to rest by the stern cables of the ship, and as soon as early rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, then they set sail for the wide camp of the Achaeans. [Iliad]

So Deb got it right. I should never have doubted her. Homer often re-uses good phrases across both books. The wine dark sea is another famous phrase the recurs.

While I have your attention, I did these searches using the Perseus Digital Library, easily the best online source of ancient texts anywhere on this planet. Or any other planet, for that matter. The interface is, ummm, a trifle archaic for these googly days, but I highly recommend it for anyone who needs accurate, checked, versions of ancient texts, in both the original and translation.

On The Origin Of Apples

By popular demand, which is to say Julie Butcher-Feydnich, here is the origin of apples. I had to research apples when, in my second book, I foolishly decided to have my hero Nicolaos pick one up from a stall in the agora in Ephesus in 460BC. I was dead sure apples were there then, but this is the sort of detail that can trip you up, so I stopped writing for a "quick" ten minutes to confirm I was okay. A couple of hours later, I was still poking around. There is an amazing amount of misinformation out there on what you'd think would be a straightforward subject.

Let me ease the mounting tension at once by saying genetic analysis shows the origin of our domesticated eating apples is Central Asia, the main line appearing to come from Malus sieversii. There's obviously been a lot of species splits and cross-breeding too, because within the area between Asia Minor and Western China there are at least 25 known native species.

My first research stop was Wikipedia, that source of all that is inaccurate and untested. Alright, I'm sure my opinion of Wikipedia will one day rebound to hit me like a pie in the face, probably after I make an error more egregious than anything they've done, but I doubt this article will be it, because on origins Wikipedia says, "Alexander the Great is credited with finding dwarfed apples in Asia Minor in 300BCE; those he brought back to Macedonia might have been the progenitors of dwarfing rootstocks." Which would be remarkable because Alexander never returned to Macedonia after he set foot in Asia Minor. It's possible he may have sent back a sample to his buddy Aristotle, along with piles of other samples Alexander sent his old teacher, but somehow I doubt Aristotle decided this would be the perfect moment to give up his fruitless life of academia and turn to farming. (Fruitless life...did you get it?)

Here is how wildly divergent are the web statements on apples: Wikipedia states (I believe correctly for a change) that, "The apple tree was perhaps the earliest tree to be cultivated..." yet references another site which says, "Though some historians are in dispute over exactly who first cultivated the wild apple, many believe it was the Romans who discovered they could cultivate these wild apples into fleshy, sweet, and juicy fruits," despite the certain fact that people were eating apples many hundreds of years before Rome was founded, and the Persians were growing apples to eat in their paradises before 500BC.

So with that much confusion floating about I had to go digging for some reliable sources, and got a surprising result.

The earliest documented reference I could find, and I caution you I haven't been able to verify this, is a Chinese book circa 5,000BC (!!!) called The Precious Book of Enrichment that discusses apple growing and grafting. Rather puts paid to the Roman claim, doesn't it? But frankly, I'm not going to believe it until I've seen the book; it doesn't appear to be online and my online library searches produced nothing. This may be apocryphal.

The earliest totally solid references are all Hittite. So we're talking 1800BC - 1200BC. The university of Chicago's dictionary of Hittite contains a word for apple. Since you ask, it's warawaras. The Hittite Etymological Dictionary quotes a passage that said, "an apple tree stands over a well and it keeps bleeding [sap, I presume - Gary]; the sun-goddess of Arinna saw it and covered it over with her resplendant robe." Hittite law set a penalty of 3 shekels for allowing a fire to destroy an apple orchard. It seems beyond doubt, we have cultivated apples in Hittite times, though they're probably still contained to Asia and Asia Minor.

The summary is: origin in Central Asia, possibly cultivated as early as 5,000BC in China, definitely cultivated by time of Hittite Empire.

Now, when did they appear in Greece?

Apples figured in Greek mythology from an early stage. Gaia was said to have given Zeus and Hera the gift of an apple tree that produced golden apples as a wedding gift. I suspect this is why, when an Athenian girl was married, she was driven in a chariot from her father's home to her new husband's, and as she was carried she ate either a quince or an apple. Since this was the custom well before my story date, I'm on solid ground with the apples in the stall. Phew! That was a lot of work for one line. Nevertheless, apples were probably the less common choice, because when Xenophon returned from his Persian adventures in the 390s B.C., he was so impressed by the apples in the Persian paradises that he created his own.

Heracles' 11th labor was to steal the Golden Apples of Hesperides. (In the myths, the apples are always described as golden, never red or green. Why?)

Homer mentions an apple orchard in the Odyssey. Without wishing to get into the date Homer game, that puts apple cultivation in Greece by 700BC.

Most interestingly, an apple helped start the Trojan War. When a wedding was being held on Mount Olympus, the Gods deliberately didn't invite Eris, the Goddess of Discord. So Eris tossed a golden apple into the party, on which she had written kallisti, to the fairest. This instantly caused a fight between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. For no obvious reason, Paris of Troy was chosen to adjudicate. The bribery began at once (Greek politics, you know...). Aphrodite won the bidding war when she offered Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, and the rest was history.

So for those of you who dislike fruit, now you can point out that apples must be bad for you because people started a war over one.

Who will pick up your dead dog in Aberdeen, Scotland? Not me.

We're talking epic fail here.

According to my site stats, somebody googled who will pick up my dead dog aberdeen scotland, and was sent to me.

Yes, of course, that makes perfect sense.

To start with, whoever you are, I'm about as far from your dead dog as it is possible to get and still be on the same planet. I intend to maintain that separation.

Secondly, I like to think that while the poor creature was alive, you had some feeling for him or her. Can't you manage a decent burial yourself? This is your pet we're talking about! He/she probably loved you.

I'm guessing Google sent the query my way because I once did a post on
Disposing of the body: a guide for world travellers, to which my friend Bill Kirton contributed, and he does live in Aberdeen, Scotland. However, I've never noticed a tendency in Bill to collect dead dogs, so you're still out of luck, whoever you are. Bill's hero, DCI Jack Carston, works just outside Aberdeen and will not be amused to hear of this.

Of course, now that I've written about it, probably everyone else in Aberdeen wanting to dispose of their dead dog will be sent to me.


Roast a writer, an agent, or a publisher!

Book Roast is the brainchild of the excellent Chris Eldin, and she's turned on the oven and set the grill for the 2009 season.

Book Roast serves up a variety of authors and books, lightly grilled and seasoned with humor. First dishes will be one hot publisher, two terrific agents, and six fabulous authors.

It's a great chance for readers to hop on and find out what writing and publishing is really like.

The launch line-up is:

Monday, Jan 12: Mystery Publisher
Tuesday, Jan 13: Eric Stone (my agent-sibling!)
Wednesday, Jan 14: Agent Lucienne Diver
Thursday, Jan 15: Barrie Summy
Saturday, Jan 17: Elysabeth Eldering

Monday, Jan 19: Mystery Publisher
Tuesday, Jan 20: Traci E Hall
Wednesday, Jan 21: Maggie Stiefvater
Thursday, Jan 22: Agent Nathan Bransford
Friday, Jan 23: Jennifer Macaire

The smouldering remains of interviewees past and present can be found at

I'll see you there!


Salaminia was the Air Force One of the ancient world.

Salaminia was a trireme in the Athenian Navy, easily the most powerful fleet in the world throughout the golden age of Greece. There were about 300 ships in the fleet at its peek, but Salaminia and her sister ship Paralos were special. They were fitted with only the best equipment, crewed only by Athenian citizens who volunteered for the job, and used for delicate diplomatic missions, when getting the ambassador where he needed to go quickly was of the greatest importance.

Each year too, Salaminia and Paralos carried gifts to the Sanctuary of Apollo on the isle of Delos, one of the holiest places in all Hellas. Any sacred duties requiring a ship, Salaminia and Paralos got the job.

Triremes carried almost as many crew as a modern destroyer - about two thirds the modern complement - though with quite different job allocations since not many modern warships need to be rowed.

Triremes were rigged with square sails, but you only read of the sails being used to boost the efforts of the rowers, and sails were never used in battle, when manouverability was all. I'll do a post on naval tactics some other time; how they fought the ships is fascinating.

The trireme needed about 170 men to row it, sitting in (surprise!) three rows. The top row of oarsmen, called the thranites, could get air and light. The zygios sat cramped on benches below the heads of the men above them, and squashed at the bottom, the thalamios had to pull oars jammed against the hull and with two layers of stinking men above them. Even in ancient times there were jokes about the men at the bottom being farted on, or worse.

Contrary to the picture most people have, they were free men on every trireme, meaning hired hands and mercenaries as well as citizens, but never slaves. More than that, on Salaminia and Paralos they were exclusively citizens of Athens, since those two had sacred religious duties. The rowers were presumably poor – surely the only reason a man would volunteer for this duty – but they had every right a citizen had.

Slaves were not used for a very good reason. Think about what would happen if slaves were in a position to take control of the most powerful fleet in the world.

In addition to the 170 engines, there was a singer and an aulos player to keep the time. There was not a drummer, again contrary to popular image. The aulos was a wind instrument like a recorder but with two pipes in a V.

The captain was called the Trierarch, and he was useless. The Trierarch was generally the wealthy Athenian who'd paid for the ship to be built and maintained. With a total lack of taxation, the way things got paid for was sort of interesting, but I'll save that for another post. The short description is, the guy who donated the ship to the state got to call himself captain.

The man who was really in charge was the helmsman. There was also a foredeck officer called the proreus in charge of looking where they were going, because the helmsman at the back of a 40m (130ft) ship couldn't necessarily see anything close. A rowing chief on each side kept the rowers in check and, I suspect, headed off fights.

The Greeks thought of their ships as female, like we do. Salaminia means the Girl From Salamis. I've always assumed the ship was named in honor of Athen's greatest victory at sea, over the Persians in the straits of Salamis, but I've never seen it stated anywhere - it's merely my assumption. If someone could tell me the correct etymology I'd appreciate it.

There is one single trireme left in the world, though sadly no longer sailing the seas. Olympias is a fully commissioned ship in the modern Greek Navy. The pictures in this post are all of her, downloaded from the Greek Navy's website.

The Classical Athenian Calendar

Since we're starting a new year, this would be a good time to talk about the classical Greek calendar, or rather, the classical Athenian calendar, because every city ran its own version and the only one we really know anything about is the Athenian.

Mental health warning: this is long, complex, and confusing! Do not proceed if you value your sanity.

Let's start with year numbering.

There wasn't any. In Athens each year was named in honor of the city Mayor-cum-CEO who held office that year, called the Eponymous Archon, meaning archon who names [the year]. Eponymous is a word in English to this day, btw, and its meaning hasn't changed much in 2,500 years. So my first book, The Pericles Commission, opens in the Year of Conon, which we call 461BC.

Named years have caused historians to put a lot of effort into working out the correct and complete archon list. Without it, you can't work out what happened when. It's all very well for X to happen in the Year of Fred and Y to happen in the year of Jane, but which came first?

It gets worse, because every city named their years after their own officials, and no one ever kept a list of corresponding years between cities. The cities also kept different months, as we're about to see, and began their years on different days.

So unless two events happened within shouting distance of each other, no one could ever know which happened first. This is reflected in the words of Thucydides, Herodotus et al., who frequently use terms like, "X happened at about the same time as Y." They're not being deliberately vague; they genuinely have no idea which happened first or how much time separated. They can easily be out by many months. In fact, to compare two distant events, the smallest safe unit of resolution is probably the season.

Greek months are lunar. Every Greek month starts with the sighting of the next new moon. In fact, they called the first day of each month noumenia which means (surprise!) new moon. Every noumenia was considered a particularly holy day. Officials went out of their way to never schedule anything for a noumenia. So if you ever catch my characters attending an official function on a noumenia you can validly beat me up. I did, in fact, in my short story The Pasion Contract have a contract killing arranged for noumenia, but I figure that's acceptable since hired thugs probably aren't all that pious.

There are 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3 seconds in an astronomical lunar month. So Greek months were either 29 or 30 days long. Since the new month was defined as starting on the sight of the new moon, there was never much doubt when a new month began.

The definition of "day" was a bit odd. For the Greeks, the old day ended and the new one began at dusk. This makes perfect sense for people working to a lunar calendar. Their day begins with the moon telling them what day of the month it is. But it creates a terminology problem for me. Nicolaos could say at midday, "I'll meet you early tomorrow," and mean that night, leaving you the reader totally confused. I solved this problem by completely ignoring it and sticking to modern convention.

The Athenian months in order were:


No, I can never remember them either (and can barely pronounce them!) but the exotic names are great for atmosphere. I can say things like, "He died on the noumenia of Hekatombion," as if it made sense.

Every city had a different set of names for their months. Just to make it more fun, they started their years at different times too. All the Hellene cities fell (broadly) into two very ancient tribal lineages: the Dorians and the Ionians. I have a feeling, which I've never been able to confirm, that it was mostly Dorian cities which started their year at winter solstice, and mostly Ionian starting at summer. But don't quote me on that. The Athenians, as good Ionians, began theirs on the first new moon after the summer solstice, putting them as out of synch with the modern calendar as you can get.

The lunar month does not divide evenly into 365.2423 days. (Nor does any other sensible number, for that matter. When God created the universe, he really screwed up on this point big time.)

The Greeks tried to fit a lunar calendar into a solar year, so that the months had a fighting chance of being consistent with the seasons. Such calendars are called lunisolar.

Twelve lunar months fall short of a solar year by about 11 days. The Athenians handled this by inventing an extra month every two years. And not just inventing, but duplicating the previous month. It is said, but I've never seen the proof, that the month they usually duplicated was Poseidon, so every second year there'd be Poseidon I followed by Poseidon II. Or not, if they decided to duplicate a different month instead. The guy who got to decide was the Eponymous Archon.

This still didn't fix the problem completely since twice 11 does not equal 29. Not to worry...the archons invented extra days at random to pad things out. This was a useful trick for buying extra rehearsal time before important festivals if people weren't ready. I'm not kidding...this actually happened! Once, the calendar was frozen for 4 days before a Great Dionysia.

Since the noumenia of Hekatombion is the first new moon after the summer solstice, it acts like a reboot for the calendar. No matter how screwed up the calendar had become, there was always a clean reboot in the future.

They couldn't even manage to number the days in a month consecutively. Every month was broken into three sections: moon waxing, full, and waning. After noumenia, the next day was called 2nd Waxing, then 3rd Waxing, and so on to 10th Waxing. Then the system changes to 11th, 12th, 13th...19th, and then earlier 10th! 10 doesn't normally come after 19, but that's how it worked! The earlier is very important because the following day was later 10th. Yes, they had two 10ths in a row: earlier and later. After later 10th it counted down: 9th Waning, 8th Waning, ..., 2nd Waning, and ending with hena kai nea, meaning old and new. On a 29 day month 2nd Waning was dropped.

If you're getting the impression the Greek calendar was insanely chaotic, you're right. A modern astronomer confronted with the Greek calendar would probably be driven to self-harm, or more sensibly, Greco-harm.

The only thing common across every calendar in every city was...the Olympics. They happened every 4 years at a more or less consistent time, fixed by the leaders of the city of Elis, who were always the hosts. That's why some ancient authors might refer to an event as happening in the year of the 74th Olympiad, or whatever. It's their attempt to make dating sensible across all of Hellas, but that's the closest they ever got to unity.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to all the strange people who read this blog! Your presence is very much appreciated, and so are your often brilliant comments.

The ancient Greeks didn't celebrate New Year, and even if they did, their year started halfway through
our calendar year. So I've nothing to add except to wish you everything you desire for 2009, and offer you this Reuters image of New Year celebrations at the Parthenon.

Which reminds me, I should write something about calendars some time...