The Athenian navy versus the US navy

The Athenian Navy was the most powerful the world had yet seen. But how powerful is that? Here are some totally spurious comparisons with the most powerful naval force in the world today, the United States Navy.

Let's start with ships of the line.

Themistocles convinced the Athenians to build 200 triremes. By the peak of their empire they probably had close to 300 triremes.

The United States Navy today has 287 commissioned ships according to their own web site.

So the two fleets were almost exactly the same size.

Of course, you might argue the USN has aircraft carriers (11) and nuclear attack submarines (54), which were distinctly lacking in the Athenian fleet. But keep in mind both fleets are the absolute state of the art for their times.

You can be quite sure Themistocles, who clearly belonged to the peace-through-superior-firepower school of international diplomacy, would have had the Athenians building aircraft carriers if only he'd known about them.

In fact a trireme is the equivalent of a modern destroyer. The trireme was a floating battering ram, the first ship in history designed purely to sink other ships, and the fastest thing on the seas. They even had roughly the same crew size: 200 on a trireme versus 280 for a destroyer.

If you think of the Athenian fleet as being like 300 modern destroyers, you're not far wrong. That's a force strong enough to wipe out almost any navy afloat today.

But wait! We're still not making a fair comparison. America is much larger than Athens.

The population of Classical Athens was about 200,000. The population of the United States is slightly more than 300,000,000. Yet they put the same number of ships on the water. Clearly America can afford to invest much less per person and still get a bigger bang. Let's equalize the naval investment per capita.

Adjusting so there are the same number of ships per head of population, the USN is reduced from 287 to one fifth of a destroyer. My money's on the triremes, even if we don't adjust for 2,500 years of technological advance.

Let's try it the other way. If the US made the same per capita naval investment the Athenians did, they would have not 287 ships, but 430,000. No, I didn't type too many zeroes. Even if you count each carrier as worth a thousand destroyers there's still no comparison. Granted it's impossible to compare across such time with any accuracy, but it seems clear there's no nation today making anything like the naval investment Athens did.

The same outrageous ratios apply when you compare the Athenians to their neighbours. The next largest fleet at the time was Corinth, and they had all of 40 triremes. 40 against 300.

The Athenian fleet was huge.

Songs of antiquity

I think this deserves a new post. The comments on forthcoming titles has devolved (elevated?) into some punny song titles. I want to particularly point out:

Like A Rolling Stone. Duet sung by Bob Dylan and Sisyphus. Courtesy of Loretta.

Get Bacchae (to Where You Once Belonged). Courtesy of Peter Rozovsky. I note in passing this song includes a mention of a Loretta.

You Can Call Me Alcestis. Sung as a duet by Paul Simon and Peter Rozovsky.

My own inadequate contribution are these lyrics, to the tune of Rust Never Sleeps:

Hey, hey,
My, my,
Prometheus will never die,
It's better in Hades,
Than chained to a rock,
With your liver exposed,
To a ravenous flock.

To which Peter adds:

Liver And Let Die.

Any others?

The Phantom of the Great Dionysia

The Phantom of the Great Dionysia is up on Robert's blog. Enjoy!

The Great Dionysia was the major arts festival in Athens, held in the theatre on the south side of the Acropolis. Most of the great Greek plays were written specifically for the Great Dionysia.

Forthcoming titles

I am proud to announce these future titles, which were brainstormed over twitter between the clever Robert Greaves and myself. I take full responsibility for the offensive bits.

Orpheus vs The Undead. Having screwed up getting his wife Eurydice out of Hades, Orpheus finds himself attacked by hordes of Undead, led by his somewhat annoyed wife.

The Seven Against Thebes Meet The Seven Samurai. The two bands of warriors, having completed their respective noble missions, meet halfway to determine which of them are the better Real Men. Contains graphic violence and really good sex scenes.

Zeus and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A confused student in Plato's Academy contemplates the meaning of life, and wonders whatever happened to that rather bright fellow student, Aristotle.

Fear and Loathing in Ephesus. Two guys, one of them a sophist, both high on burned cannabis seeds, pilot a boat to Ephesus. They may or may not get there.

The Phantom of the Great Dionysia. A distressed psyche is haunting the public theatre of Athens. Or is it a hidden, deformed man? We won't know the truth until it bonks Aspasia.


This came up in a conversation in which I argued that the zombies improved Pride & Prejudice. Jane Austen is possibly the greatest writer in the English language ever. Which means P&P is really good chicklit. But it's still chicklit. From the male POV, adding the zombies fixed the only serious defect in her work. Gary ducks for cover and runs away.

Dana and Sophie nominated for Edgars

The Edgar nominations are out, and two of our friends are in the running!

Sophie Littlefield is nominated for best first novel by an American author. Here's the list:

The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano (Grand Central Publishing)
Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley (Simon & Schuster - Touchstone)
The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf (MIRA Books)
A Bad Day for Sorry by Sophie Littlefield (Minotaur Books Thomas Dunne Books)
Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (HarperCollins)
In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff (Minotaur Books)


Dana Cameron is nominated for best short story!

"Last Fair Deal Gone Down" Crossroad Blues by Ace Atkins (Busted Flush Press)
"Femme Sole" Boston Noir by Dana Cameron (Akashic Books)
"Digby, Attorney at Law" Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine by Jim
Fusilli (Dell Magazines)
"Animal Rescue" Boston Noir by Dennis Lehane (Akashic Books
"Amapola" Phoenix Noir by Luis Alberto Urrea (Akashic Books)


The last time I mentioned Dana, I was telling you she won the Macavity for a different short story, The Night Things Changed, and before that she won an Agatha too. This should be a hint to rush out and read every short story she's written.

Good luck to both of you in the Edgars!





The ages of Greece

I want to clear up all the different terms used for Greek historical periods, because I use them from time to time. Some are so vague as to be almost useless, some are quite precise, and unfortunately they're often used interchangably.

Ancient Greece is a vague term meaning almost any time from the stone age to the fall of the Roman Empire. People tend to misuse it as a synonym for the combined Archaic + Classical periods. I'm a serial offender. Sorry.

Now for the rest in chronological order:

Minoan Civilization is pre-Greek but is usually lumped in, because Greek cultural memory begins with the Minoans. Think Palace of Knossos, Minos, Labyrinth, Minotaur (my publisher!) and interesting dresses for the ladies. Women's fashion declined sadly when Minoan civilization fell. The Minoans lived in the Bronze Age to about 1500BC (your mileage may vary on these dates).

Mykenaean Civilisation is the beginning of the Greeks. The transition from Minoan to Mykenaean culture looks almost seamless from our distance. Mykenai, Argos, Thebes and Athens are all well-established cities. (They were before too, but now they're serious cities.) The Minoans and Mykenaeans were really quite advanced peoples. It also appears to have been a relatively peaceful time with lots of trade. About 1600BC to 1200BC.

The Dark Ages. No, not the Dark Ages we know, but one which came long before. There's been more than one period when civilization fell. A tribe of Greeks called the Dorians invaded from the north and messed things up big time. All learning and civilization was lost. The next 400 years were awful to live in, but this is also the Age of Heroes.

Homer's stories take place in the Dark Ages. Homer himself probably lived during the transition from the Dark Ages to the Archaic Period.

Archaic Period. The Greeks and their neighbours drag themselves out of the Dark Ages. They rebuild civilization, recover what was lost and go on to add much more. The invention of writing and money, massive advances in realistic art and architecture. The birth of philosophy. The Constitution of Solon begins the drive to democracy. In terms of cultural advance it was very much like the Renaissance. 800BC to 480BC. At last the dates become solid. The Archaic Period ends precisely on the Persian Wars. Nicolaos was born in 480BC.

Periclean Athens. Athens puts the culture pedal to the floor and you can't see them for the dust. Everything the Archaic Period was building towards explodes into 50 glorious years. Also called The Golden Age. Western civilization is founded. Somehow, at least 12 world-class geniuses were born at the same time into a place the size of a small modern town plus surrounds. When people say Ancient Greece, it's usually Periclean Athens they're thinking of. Periclean Athens is really just a subset of and the beginning of the Classical Period.

Classical Period. Stretches from the Persian Wars to the amazing victories of Alexander. Athens blunders around after the death of Pericles in 429BC and eventually loses its empire, but Athens' position as the School of Greece goes on. This is very much the time of Plato and Aristotle. Toward the end, a military genius called Philip of Macedon does the seemingly impossible by uniting the Greek city states. Philip would be remembered today as the greatest commander Greece ever produced, if he hadn't produced a son called Alexander.

Alexandrian Age. Like Pericles, he defined his time. He took over from Philip in 336BC and proceeded to conquer the entire known world. In 13 years.

Hellenistic Period. Begins with the death of Alexander in 323BC, and ends with the death of Hypatia in 415AD. These 738 years cover almost the entire period of Roman world rule. It's called Hellenistic because Greek learning and culture dominated even though Greece was reduced to a backwater. The Library of Alexandria was built early in the Hellenistic period. Hypatia lived at the peak of ancient learning. After her death, human knowledge begins to slip away. No one will equal her learning until the Renaissance is well underway, 1000 years later. The Ages of Greece are over.

So my stories are all set firmly inside the Golden Age. Nico's birth date has been carefully arranged so we can see all the excitement.

Gary spends the day with the ladies of Pens Fatales

I'm guest blogging today at Pens Fatales! In which I reveal the existence of Mysteria, the Muse of Mystery Writing.

The Pens are eight ladies who write great books. I met a third of the team at Bouchercon, where they promptly declared themselves my new fashion consultants. I'm in capable hands. The Pens set a high benchmark for coolness themselves.

A writing exercise

There are many interesting writing exercises. Here's one:

Describe a character purely by describing a room they've been in. How much information about the person can you transmit?

Gosh, and to think I knew him before he was famous

In huge news, my agent-sibling Patrick Lee has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list in position #29 with his debut thriller The Breach. He'll be going up from there. Promise.

Purely to point out my prescience, I'll mention I wrote the following about Patrick in October last year, before The Breach was even released:
Patrick Lee. You're going to be reading The Breach. It's scary how good it is. Patrick and I talked a little about his next story. He's such a quiet, unassuming guy, but he comes up with plots I couldn't have thought of in a million years. The moment I heard it I was fascinated. You will be too.
Yay for Patrick!

The Twa Corbies

Now for something completely different. It's all about me, or rather, my surname.

Corby means raven in mediaeval Scottish and English dialects. Ravens are scavengers (yep, that sounds about right). In fact there is a mediaeval poem/song called The Twa Corbies. There are lots of versions; here's one in modern English:

As I was walking all alone,
I heard two corbies make a moan,
The one unto the other said,
Where shall we go this day to dine?

Behind that old earthen dyke,
I see there lies a new-slain knight,
And none do know that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and his lady fair.

His hound is to the hunting gone,
His hawk to fetch the wild fowl home,
His lady's taken another mate,
So we can eat our dinner sweet.

You'll sit upon his neck bones,
While I pluck out his eyes of blue,
With his locks of golden hair,
We'll patch our nest when it grows bare.

Many a one for him is grieving,
But none shall know where he is gone,
Over his bones when they are bare,
The wind will blow forever more.

Which proves we Corbies have had a morbid interest in dead bodies for centuries.

Gorgo, Queen of Sparta

Gorgo was the daughter of one Spartan King, wife to another, and mother to a third. But what she was really famous for was her deep wisdom, which she used to advise the kings of Sparta, beginning at the tender age of 8.

Her father was King Cleomenes. Cleomenes was once visited by a dodgy foreigner called Aristagoras, who proposed Sparta join in a very dubious project. After Cleomenes refused, this is what happened:
Aristagoras followed Cleomenes with an olive branch in his hand, like a suppliant, and besought Cleomenes to listen and send away his only child, Gorgo, a little girl of 8 or 9, who happened to be standing by her father's side. Cleomenes told Aristogoras to say what he wished and not to mind the child.

Aristagoras began with an offer of 10 talents, to be paid to Cleomenes if he consented. Cleomenes shook his head, and Aristagoras gradually increased his offer. When he went as high as 50 talents, the little girl exclaimed, "Father, you had better go away, or the stranger will corrupt you." Cleomenes appreciated his daughter's warning.
The proposal the 8 year old Gorgo had just advised her father against was a Spartan invasion of Persia. High politics indeed, and Gorgo was listening in, and learning, from a very young age.

There seems to be a tradition by the way of Spartan Kings playing with their kids while conducting affairs of state. For remorseless killers they were pretty good family men.

Gorgo was the only child of Cleomenes. Because of this, when he died (in very odd circumstances, but I'll leave that for another post), Gorgo was in the extremely unusual position of being the female heir to a Spartan throne. She inherited because she was already married, to a chap called Leonidas. Leonidas became King.

Yes, that Leonidas, the one who would later lead the 300 at Thermopylae. Leonidas was in fact Gorgo's father's half-brother, making this obviously a dynastic marriage, yet by all accounts it was also a very happy one. Gorgo became a one-woman brains trust backing the Spartan leadership, and Leonidas became the second king in a row to take her advice.

There was living in Susa at the time Xerxes decided to attack Greece, an exiled Spartan called Demaratus. Demaratus wanted to send a warning to the Spartans, but knew any message sent by him would be read (no doubt by the Eyes and Ears of the King). So Demaratus scraped all the wax off a wax tablet (which is what people back then used to send letters) and scratched his warning into the backing board of the tablet. Then he reapplied the wax and sent an apparently blank tablet to Sparta.

The Spartans were totally confused when a blank tablet arrived from Persia, sent by a man they'd exiled. No one had any idea what it meant, until they took it to Queen Gorgo, who by this time had a thorough reputation for being the smartest person in Sparta.

Gorgo looked at it, deduced there was a message beneath the wax, and had it scraped off, and thus the Greeks had warning of the coming war and time to mobilise. The Spartans sent word to Athens, where Themistocles had spent the last 10 years preparing for this moment, and his plan went into action. (It's certain that Themistocles and Gorgo met and spoke after the war, and that must have been one fascinating conversation.)

Gorgo knew perfectly well, when Leonidas led the mission to Thermopylae, that her husband wouldn't be coming back. She famously asked him what she should do, and he replied, "Marry well and bear children, and live a good life."

It's not known if she followed the advice, but she'd already borne Leonidas a son, Pleistarchus, who assumed the kingship when he came of age. With Leonidas and Gorgo for parents it must have been a tough act to follow, but he did a reasonable job.

Gorgo totally bought into the Spartan ethic. She was once asked by an (obviously frustrated) woman from Attica why the Spartan women were the only ones who could rule men. Gorgo replied, "Because we are the only ones who give birth to real men."

Gorgo is one of the very few women mentioned by name in the Greek histories, and one of even fewer to have had direct influence in politics. The only woman to compare with her in the Classical age is Aspasia, who followed in the next generation.

The Eyes and Ears of the King

In these days when the US Intelligence services are receiving more scrutiny than they probably enjoy, I thought it might be interesting to look at how such things were handled in the Persian Empire.

The Persians had an intelligence service called The Eyes And Ears Of The King, which is a far more interesting and poetic name than the bland monikers you get these days. It sounds like some romantic, made-up thing, but I promise the Eyes and Ears of the King was a for-real organization, and not one you would want to mess with.

The Persian social structure was very hierarchical. At the top was the Great King. Directly below him were the Satraps, chosen almost always from Persian nobility. Each Satrap ruled a Satrapy, being a province, of which there were many. Each Satrap in turn had many officers in his province.

Everyone lived within the social heirarchy, obeying the next guy up the line, except for the Eyes and Ears. If you were a member of this elite organization, then your job was to keep an eye on how the Empire was ticking over, and report directly to the Great King, bypassing the entire system. Most important of all, the local Satrap had no power over you.

You kept an eye on how the local Satrap managed the army and put down rebellions.

You watched how tribute was collected from client states to make sure it all made its way to the King's coffers. (Satraps who enriched themselves were liable to rebel.)

If the taxation didn't add up, you investigated to find out who was diddling the accounts.

If a Satrap broke the law, you reported it to the Great King.

Any evil-doing going unchecked, you investigated, then let the Great King know.

The Eyes and Ears of the King was, in essence, the Persian FBI.

Xenophon tells us that in an emergency, an Eyes and Ears man had the power to command an army to move against a Satrap. I.e. to directly exercise the power of the Great King if he deemed it necessary for the safety of the state.

The Eyes and Ears were probably recruited from the most competent of the minor nobility, and surely were selected for their utmost loyalty. There are plenty of instances of Satraps moving against their King, but not a single record of an Eyes and Ears man turning rotten. To which it must be added, not a great deal was written about them in any case; they probably preferred to stay out of view.

I don't know of any Eyes and Ears man having an unfortunate accident while in a Satrapy, though you'd have to guess a lot of Satraps would have been quite happy to see the local agent drop dead. It's a fair bet that if it happened, the Great King would have an army on that Satrap's doorstep quick smart.

The Persians also used spies outside their empire. Herodotus says Darius sent a Phoenician spy ship to scout Greece before he invaded. On the ship were 15 Persian men of distinction. Some of those will have been young but highly competent military officers from noble families - their equivalent of today's special forces - and probably some of them were Eyes and Ears men, whose job was to notice things.

What do you think of book trailers?

Have you ever bought a book because of its trailer? Do you even look at book trailers?

Obviously I have an ulterior motive for asking. My (malleable) position is they might be fun to make, but I question whether they sell anything, and the time might better be spent working on the next book, or a short story.

Any thoughts?

Persian Names

The Greeks believed all Persian names ended in -s (yes, I was prompted to write this by the recent talk of apostrophes). Herodotus wrote:
There is another peculiarity, which the Persians themselves have never noticed, but which has not escaped my observation. Persian names, which are expressive of some bodily or mental excellence, all end with the same letter: the letter which is called San by the Dorians, and Sigma by the Ionians. Anyone who examines will find that the Persian names, one and all without exception, end with this letter.
The reason the Persians never noticed this peculiarity is because in their own language it's not true. Greek and Old Persian is wildly different, and whenever the Greeks tried to say a Persian name they mangled it with an s sound at the end. Because all our histories were written by Greeks, we know all these great Persian men by their mangled but not their real names.


Greek Mangled Name







Persian Right Name
Cyrus







Kurush
Cambyses







Kambujiya
Hystaspes







Vishtaspa
Darius







Darayavaush
Xerxes







Khshayarsha
Artaxerxes







Artakhsha├ža


My Persian spelling is sort of phonetic in a catch-as-catch-can sort of way, since my Persian is non-existent, and the names were originally written in Old Persian Cuneiform, a script which, funnily enough, doesn't render in html. However there is, believe it or not, a unicode rendition.

Many Greeks could speak Persian, especially those in Asia Minor (what is now the west coast of Turkey). The name mangling suggests most of them spoke it with an atrocious accent, though certainly much of the problem lies in the Greek alphabet not matching Persian sounds.

HP Ink Policy Considered Evil

I noticed this graph on Hedgewytch's Tumbling and traced it back to its apparent origin, 3 years ago, on gizmodo.

I don't know if the numbers are correct, but the relative costs look about right to me, especially the cost of HP ink.

Notice that human blood is cheaper than HP ink. Frankly, I'm not surprised.

We have two HP printers. One is a Laserjet 5MP which we've owned for 12 years and has never failed us. It takes large toner cartridges which can be bought relatively cheaply and last a year, even if I'm printing novels. If this printer ever breaks, I think my life will be ruined.

The second is a Photosmart 3110. The price gouging on the tiny ink cartridges for HP's recent printers is astonishing and HP, needless to say, go out of their way to make sure cheaper third party replacements won't work. To add insult to injury, the printer keeps track of how long each cartridge has been in and refuses to print if a cartridge exceeds an arbitrary age.

The weird thing is, the value for money of the HP products has actually gone backwards. How did that happen?

To s, or not to s, that is the question

Happy New Year!

This year I want to concentrate in the blog on the Big Issues, the issues that grab you by the balls (if you're male) and kick you in the guts (unisex) with their desperate relevance to our lives. So let's begin with possessive apostrophes.

If you think this isn't important, then clearly you don't write Greek or Egyptian historicals. The Greeks had a love of names ending in -s. Nicolaos, Socrates, Pericles, Sophroniscus, Callias, Themistocles...at least half the names I need.

I was taught in school that a proper noun ending in -s has a possessive with only the apostrophe and no following s. So:

Pericles' scroll

Which is exactly what I have done throughout two novels, and when half your characters have names ending in -s, that's an awful lot of trailing apostrophes.

So far so good, except the style elsewhere appears to be quite different. To pick a random example:

Thutmosis's slingshot

Stephen King, in his essay On Writing, says the 's goes on the end of every proper noun no matter what.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which I have never read, apparently straddles the barbed wire fence by saying King got it right but that my convention is an acceptable alternative.

My OED gives clear examples my way, such as Apostles' Creed, but any search of printed books produces examples always using 's. So at this point I'm wondering if it's a UK vs US difference, except a net search finds plenty of Americans as confused as I now am.

It might help knowing English belongs to the Germanic family of languages, and -es is the most common of several possessive endings in German. Our possessive is precisely the German neuter version, but with the e of -es excised and the apostrophe showing where it used to be. Would it make sense in German to end only with the e? No. By that logic, King is right and it should always be 's. Except English parted ways with German some time ago.

One thing's for sure. If Stephen King is right, then my copyeditor at St Martin's is having a nervous breakdown.