The Debacle at Tanagra

A few years after Cimon was ostracized, the Athenians faced a minor war at Tanagra. Tanagra was a minor city barely outside Attica. The Spartans had sent an army there and, obviously, the Athenians couldn't afford to have a Spartan force sitting alongside their border like that. The Athenians assembled their army and marched off to beat up the Spartans.

The two armies duly assembled in their lines outside Tanagra, and faced each other, ready to commence the battle, when who should show up but Cimon.

Now Cimon was ostracized, which meant exiled from Attica for 10 years on pain of death. But Tanagra was outside Attica, so Cimon had every right to turn up for the battle. Cimon stepped into the Athenian line, intending to fight as a common soldier.

Suddenly Pericles had a problem. Cimon was the arch-enemy of Pericles in politics, and Cimon was a great soldier. If Cimon displayed outstanding valour in the coming fight, the fickle Athenians might invite him back.

Pericles demanded Cimon go away.

Cimon pointed out he had every right to be there. Cimon also had an underlying motive: Cimon's ostracism had been for excessive friendliness with Sparta. If Cimon, in full view of his fellow Athenians, slaughtered a few Spartans it would give the lie to the indictments against him.

Pericles knew this perfectly well. He insisted that Cimon go away.

Cimon refused.

Things got a teensy bit violent, which is liable to happen when everyone involved in an argument is wearing armour and carrying spears and swords.

The Spartans stood and watched in bemusement while their enemy the Athenians began hacking away at each other. The friends of Pericles were determined to drive away Cimon. The friends of Cimon were equally determined he should remain.

Cimon was eventually forced from the field, after which the officially scheduled battle could commence.

Nicolaos will, of course, find himself stuck in the middle of this debacle. It can't appear for many books down the road, but I'm really looking forward to writing this scene.


This is going to sound strange, considering how much of modern politics already comes from Athens, but there's one thing we didn't pick up which I think we should have: a fun little system called ostracism.

Ostracism was a method to toss annoying people out of the city for ten years. After that they were allowed back, but if they set foot in Attica during their period of exile, then the penalty was death.

It worked like this. There was a council of 500 citizens, called the Boule, which was an executive administration. Membership of the Boule swapped 10 times every year, so everyone eventually got a turn. Each year during the 6th of those administrations, the council would vote on whether an ostracism should be held. There was no particular victim in mind at this point. In theory, that is. I'm quite sure everyone who voted had an enemy they'd like to see go.

The vote usually failed, but if it passed, then it guaranteed someone was about to be exiled, but no one knew yet who was going.

Two months later, the entire populace then voted to select the victim. Everyone wrote down the name of the person they'd like to see go on a piece of broken pottery. Pottery shards were called ostrakons, from which we get the word ostracism. Ostrakons were the voting slips of the ancient world. You simply scratched the name of your preferred victim into the pottery shard and dropped it into one of the voting urns. As long as there were at least 6,000 votes, the "winner" was given ten days to get out of town, or die.

This might sound bad, but a lot of high profile Athenian politicians took a hit on this. Even the father of Pericles, Xanthippus, got tossed at one point. He was recalled early though, because luckily for him the Persians invaded and the Athenians needed him back. Possibly the most remarkable thing about Pericles is that he managed to avoid being ostracized, unlike many of his friends and enemies.

A zillion of these ostrakons have been discovered because, when your voting slips are solid ceramic, the only thing they're good for after use is landfill. Here are some from Wikimedia:

The top word is Pericles. The bottom is a variant spelling of Xanthippus: Tsan(th)ippo. This is a vote to ostracize Pericles son of Xanthippus. But he survived.

This is Aristeides son of Lysimachus. He lost this vote. There's a famous story about his ostracism. Aristeides was known as the most honest and fair man in Athens. Rare qualities in Athenian politics. Everyone called him Aristeides the Just. When the ostracism was held, Aristeides came across an illiterate farmer who'd come to town to cast his vote. The poor farmer couldn't write, so Aristeides offered to help and asked who he wanted to nominate. The farmer, not recognising to whom he spoke, said he wanted to ostracize Aristeides son of Lysimachus. Taken aback, Aristeides asked the farmer, what had Aristeides ever done to him? The farmer replied, "Nothing. But I'm sick of all this talk of Aristeides the Just this, and Aristeides the Just that." So Aristeides meekly wrote his own name and dropped it into the urn. Ten days later, he left town.

Kimon son of Miltiades. Miltiades was the General who led the Athenians at Marathon, and his son Kimon likewise was a great military man. Kimon was also a super-conservative and the arch-enemy of Pericles. It was Pericles who engineered Kimon into being exiled. Kimon had blocked the democracy, and the moment he was out the city gates, Pericles' friend Ephialtes introduced the democratic reforms. A few days after that, Ephialtes was murdered. and The Pericles Commission begins. This vote was cast within a few days of the opening scene of my first book!

Such is life

I would be remiss if I did not point you to Kari Lynn Dell's blog post called A Friend In Need....

Kari is my agent-sister and a very fine writer. She also has a sense of humour.

The famous ancestor of Socrates

Socrates claimed descent from Daedalus. That's the same Daedalus who built the Labyrinth for King Minos, in which was kept the bull called the Minotaur. It's also the Daedalus who invented wings, and whose son Icarus experienced the world's first aviation accident due to pilot error.

The claim comes via Plato in his book Euthyphro. Plato often put his own words in the mouth of Socrates, but this sort of detail reads like it came from the real man. The odds are good that the real Socrates did claim to his friends to be descended of the great inventor.

This might sound weird, but it is typically Greek. Important Greeks regularly claimed descent from a great figure out of myth. Who you picked for your ancestor said something about you. The family of Alexander the Great for example claimed descent from Heracles. Alexander himself went one better and decided Zeus was his own father. So when Socrates claims the clever Daedalus, he is actually saying that the attribute he wants most to emphasize about himself is his own intelligence. It might even have been a family tradition.

As is well known, Daedalus decided to skip town when things went pear-shaped for his boss King Minos. Daedalus flew off into the sunset, to land in Athens, where he remarried and had kids. Daedalus therefore died an Athenian. In Athens, Daedalus is credited with having invented sculpture.

Now the father of Socrates (and Nicolaos) was Sophroniscus. By popular tradition Sophroniscus was a “polisher of stone”, which is code for a sculptor in marble. In the books I’ve accepted the tradition as true in the absence of anything better, though there’s a fair chance it’s apocryphal; the family trade isn’t mentioned anywhere until the following century. Since it was normal for a man to claim as his ancestor someone related to his own trade, it would be very reasonable for Sophroniscus to have told Socrates (and Nicolaos) that Daedalus was their forbear.

This isn't a spoiler, I haven't used this little factoid anywhere in the books, but since I never knowingly break history, it must by definition be part of the Nicoverse.

Michael Ventris and Linear B

Michael Ventris was a linguistic genius. At a young age he could speak English, French, German and Polish. But no one guessed what he was destined to achieve.

One day, some time in the 1930s when he was a boy, Michael's school class went to see an exhibit of Minoan artefacts. Minoan civilization on Crete had been uncovered by Sir Arthur Evans. By sheer coincidence. Sir Arthur himself happened to be at the exhibit that day. He came across the school excursion and took the group behind the scenes to show them the writing of Minoan times. There were two scripts, called Linear A and Linear B. Linear B was obviously evolved from Linear A, and seemed to denote a different language, but no one knew how to read either.

In what proved to be the leading question of the century, as Sir Arthur showed the boys the enigmatic scripts, young Michael said to Sir Arthur, "Did you say the tablets have not as yet been deciphered sir?"

Sir Arthur tried hard but he never did decode the scripts. Nor did he ever learn their secret, because he died before the young boy he'd met by chance went on to break Linear B. Sir Arthur was however still alive when stacks of Linear B tablets were discovered at Pylos on the mainland of Greece, which surprised him. Mycenaean civilization was taking off at this time, and Crete had begun its slow decline. So what was a Cretan language doing outside Crete?

Michael Ventris was obsessed by Linear B from that day on. By the age of 18, he'd written a paper in which he attempted to prove Linear B was related to Etruscan, another ancient language which no one could read. Ventris become an architect by trade, but his real vocation was the attack on Linear B.

Here's a hint if you're ever called on to decode an utterly unknown ancient script: count the symbols. If there are hundreds, you're looking at a hieroglyphic script. If there are more than 40 to 70, you're probably looking at a syllabic script, where each symbol denotes a single sound, usually as consonant-vowel pairs. If there are 30 or less symbols you're looking at an alphabet, like in English. Combinations are common too. Our letters are an alphabet, but our digits 0 to 9 are hieroglyphs.
Linear B had enough symbols that it was almost certainly a syllabic script. So Ventris, by this time a young man, created sheet after sheet of tables like this, which I've taken from the BBC:

Since every symbol was a consonant-vowel pair, down the left are consonants, and across the top are vowels. Which is really quite clever because every symbol should have its own cell, but symbols will share common consonants and vowels. Now all Ventris had to do was work out what were the consonants, what were the vowels and which symbol went where, all based on a script for which no one had any idea what anything said. What could be simpler?

Ventris spent years fiddling with this.

Another scholar named Alice Kober was also attacking Linear B. Ventris and Kober did try to work together for a short while, but apparently she was rather hard to get on with and they went their separate ways. Kober made two important discoveries: she proved that the endings of some Linear B words changed in a regular pattern, which suggested the language was inflected, and more importantly, she noticed that there were some words which appeared on tablets found in Crete but never on tablets from the mainland.

That last observation proved the trick. As soon as he heard it, Ventris made the inspired guess that the words which only appeared in Cretan tablets were place names. He threw those words at his clever sound charts, then shifted consonants and vowels back and forth until he had a few place names he could recognize. Ventris had been sure Linear B would turn out to be Etruscan. What fell out, to his utter shock, was extremely early, ultra-archaic Greek.

Now that he had some sound values that he knew for sure were right, and a pretty good idea that he was looking at Greek, Ventris was able to decipher sufficient other words that he could make sense of some Linear B texts.

On 1st July, 1952, Ventris announced on the BBC that he could read Linear B. A classics professor at Cambridge called Chadwick happened to be listening. He instantly called Ventris and offered to help with the remaining work. Chadwick was the perfect ally. Not only was he a classics expert, but he'd spent WW2 working as a code breaker for the Royal Navy. Ventris and Chadwick published Documents in Mycenaean Greek. Not the catchiest title ever, but an incredible book (and highly readable btw). Michael Ventris had done something which no one before in history had ever done: he'd decoded an ancient script without any idea what any of it said.

In a single stroke, Greek had become the world's second oldest living language, after Chinese. The discovery also totally rewrote the prehistory of Europe. Up until that time, it was thought that the first Greeks were the people who invaded centuries later, and brought down Mycenae. Linear B proved the Greeks had arrived in waves, and the first wave had brought down Minoan civilization and founded Mycenae. In the process Greek had subsumed the original Cretan language of Linear A, and the Linear A symbols had been (poorly) adapted to cope with the new tongue.

Weirdly, the later Greeks had no idea their language had once been written down. When what we know of as the Greek alphabet came by about 600 years later, they thought it was the first time.

To this day no one knows how to read Linear A. Ventris died in a car accident three years after his great achievement. He was only 33. If he'd lived, he might have gone on to break Linear A, or Etruscan, but now we'll never know. But at least we have Linear B to read, and if Sir Arthur Evans hadn't run into the school group and Ventris at the exhibition, it might never have happened.

The world's first recorded book launch

So with my own debut rapidly approaching, this would be a good moment to mention the world's first recorded book launch.

It happened at the Olympics, and the author was none other than Herodotus, who in addition to founding both history and anthropology, seems also to have invented book marketing.

This from the later writer Lucian, who said of Herodotus:
There is one thing--the use he made of his writings, and the speed with which he attained the respect of all Greece; from that you, or I, or any one else, might take a hint....The great Olympic Games were at hand...Herodotus appeared in the hall of the Temple of Zeus, bent not on sight-seeing, but on bidding for an Olympic victory of his own; he recited his Histories, and bewitched his hearers.

He was straightway known to all, better far than the Olympic winners. There was no man who had not heard his name; they had listened to him at Olympia, or they were told of him by those who had been there; he had only to appear, and fingers were pointing at him: 'There is the great Herodotus, who wrote the Persian War in Ionic, and celebrated our victories.'
After that one event, to read your book at the Temple of Zeus during the Olympics became the ancient world's equivalent of being on Oprah.

Starred review in PW for Pericles Commission

Publishers Weekly is a trade journal that reviews books, among other vital functions. This morning PW's reviews included The Pericles Commission. The star leading the title is meaningful.

The Pericles Commission

Gary Corby, Minotaur, $24.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-312-59902-7

Those who like their historicals with a touch of humor will welcome Australian author Corby's promising debut, set in fifth-century B.C.E. Greece. When the arrow-pierced body of Ephialtes, the main force behind democratic reform in Athens, literally falls at the feet of Nicolaos, a sculptor's son expected to follow in his father's footsteps, fate hands Nicolaos another career. Ephialtes's politician friend, Pericles, who appears on the scene moments after the murder, is impressed enough by Nicolaos's preliminary conclusions to hire him to solve the crime. Members of the Areopagus, the city's ruling council, had the most to lose from Ephialtes's policies, but the neophyte detective finds that not even his exalted employer is above suspicion. The bodies pile up as the investigation continues, leading to a dramatic climax in which Nicolaos's survival hinges on his cracking the mystery. Corby displays a real gift for pacing and plotting. (Oct.)

Coming as it does after the Library Journal review, I'm on a high!

Book launch party at "M" is for Mystery!

The Pericles Commission will be launched at "M" is for Mystery on October 12!

If by chance you happen to be near San Mateo, which is in the Bay Area, I hope you'll come along.

I'm reliably informed that I will do a reading. Watching me try to do this should constitute the major entertainment of the evening.

All right...the truth is, I have quite a bit of public speaking experience, and I've done speeches to up to about a thousand people, which is considerably more than I expect at the store, so in theory this should be a breeze. I guess I better practise reading my own book.

I do hope if you're in the Bay Area that you'll come along. I really, really want to meet as many of my blog friends as I can on this trip.

A big thank you to "M" is for Mystery for hosting me!

Lexi Revellian releases Remix

Regular blog reader Lexi Revellian has this week self-published her book Remix on Smashwords.
Caz Tallis is living her dream, restoring rocking horses in her London workshop. A chance encounter with the shabby but charismatic Joe and his dog (called Dog) leads her into investigating a missing rock star and a murder that happened three years ago. Which, as her best friend James points out, is rather like poking a furnace with a short stick…
Lexi really does restore rocking horses, so there's a guarantee of authenticity there. I can't speak to what happens with Joe.

Good luck, Lexi!

Damonides of Oe: the inventor of the pork barrel

As I write, Australia is in the clutches of a national election, so I thought this would be a good time to write about pork barreling.

The pork barrel appears to have been first used by none other than Pericles.

Pericles' greatest political rival was a man called Cimon. Cimon was an enormously wealthy arch-conservative who was convinced this democracy thing was a big mistake, and that governance of the city should be left in the hands of the better aristocrats. That wouldn't have been a challenge to Pericles, except that Cimon was extremely generous to his fellow citizens, funded major public works from his own pocket, and was even responsible for building the Academy, which later became the school of Plato. To top it off, Cimon's dad was Miltiades, the man who led the Athenians at the battle of Marathon, and Cimon himself was a war hero. Cimon was very, very popular with the people.

Pericles desperately had to do something to counter Cimon, as a me-too gesture.

This from The Athenian Constitution, by Aristotle, from the excellent Penguin edition:
Pericles was the first man to provide payment for jury service, as a political measure to counter the generosity of Cimon. Cimon was as rich as a tyrant: he performed the public liturgies lavishly; and he maintained many of his fellow-demesmen, for any man of Laciadae who wished could go to him each day and obtain his basic needs, and all his land was unfenced, so that anyone who wished could enjoy the fruit.

Pericles' property was insufficient for this kind of service. He was therefore advised by Damonides of Oe (who seems to have been the originator of most of Pericles' measures, and for that reason was subsequently ostracized) that since he was less well supplied with private property he should give the people their own property; and so he devised payment for jurors.
It looks like Damonides of Oe gets the gong for the world's first known spin doctor.

Like most intellectuals of the day, Aristotle was no egalitarian democrat. He then had this to say:
Some people allege that it was as a result of this that the courts deteriorated, since it was always the ordinary people rather than the better sort who were eager to be picked for jury service.

My first ever review!

Here is a milestone moment. The first ever review of my first book, The Pericles Commission. This appears in the August edition of the Library Journal.

Nicolaos is minding his own business in ancient Athens when a body falls from the Areopagus above. Pericles, a rising politician, arrives moments later, and together they identify the corpse as that of Ephialtes, leader of the democratic movement and Pericles's friend. After a brief conversation, Pericles determines that Nicolaos is a man of keen insight and commissions him to investigate the highly volatile murder. Corby uses the early chapters to explain for the modern reader everything from Athenian politics and the place of women to monetary matters and clothing. Once the story gets rolling, though, it moves along at a good clip, even borrowing some tropes from the noir subgenre-a beating for the hero, a femme fatale, and plenty of shifty characters. As he explains in his author's note, Corby draws the murder and many of his characters from historical documents, lending that much more believability to the story.

VERDICT This series opener will appeal to historical mystery fans and readers who enjoy Lindsey Davis and Kelli Stanley.

-Eric Norton, McMillan Memorial Lib., Wisconsin Rapids