Bring me the head of St. Vitalis

I wouldn't normally write a blog post about another blog post.  After all, you can find these things for yourself.  But I can't help mentioning the latest offering on the always excellent History Blog.

It seems the patron saint of genital diseases was recently auctioned.  Or rather his head was, the rest of his body is elsewhere, and given what he was patron of, some parts further south don't bear thinking about anyway.

The gentleman in question is St Vitalis of Assisi. I'm going to assume he's no relation to Francis.

Who knew there was a patron saint for the clap?

Aristarchus: a bright lad

Some time in the third century BC, a fellow by the name of Aristarchus of Samos wrote a book in which he said the earth moved around the sun. The book's lost. We know about it because Archimedes quoted it with approval in a book of his own called The Sand Reckoner.
Aristarchus of Samos brought out a book in which the universe is many times greater than that now so called. His hypothesis is that the fixed stars and the sun remain unmoved, that the earth revolves about the sun in the circumference of a circle, the sun lying in the middle of the orbit, and that the sphere of the fixed stars, situated about the same center as the sun, is so great that the circle in which he supposes the earth to revolve bears such a proportion to the distance of the fixed stars as the center of the sphere bears to its surface.
That beats Copernicus by about 1,700 years.  It's when you read things like this that you realize how much was lost when the classical world collapsed.

Archimedes clearly bought into the theory. He wrote The Sand Reckoner to work out how many grains of sand it would take to fill up the universe, assuming Aristarchus was right. The numbers were so huge that to do it, Archimedes had to invent a whole new number system. The number of he got, in modern notation, was 8 x 1063 grains of sand, which is amazingly close to modern estimates for the number of known particles (though obviously we now know about massive amounts of vacuum too).

Archimedes finishes:
I conceive that these things will appear incredible to the great majority of people who have not studied mathematics, but that to those who are conversant therewith and have given thought to the question of the distances and sizes of the earth, the sun and moon and the whole universe, the proof will carry conviction. And it was for this reason that I thought the subject would not be inappropriate for your consideration.

Tall poppy syndrome

I heartily agree with the remark that no man who has unsparingly thrown himself into politics, trusting in the loyalty of the democracy, has ever met with a happy death.
You can count me +1 on that. The quote comes from Pausanias, in reference to Demosthenes. Demosthenes had a negative experience when he advised the Athenians to fight Philip of Macedon and his son, a lad by the name of Alexander, and after Alexander died one of his successors called Antipater. After the Athenians had been totally crushed by Antipater, they decided to hand over their leaders for retribution, in the hope Antipater wouldn't raze Athens to the ground and enslave the entire population (no idle concern...Thebes was previously destroyed by Alexander for much the same behaviour). Demosthenes took poison to avoid an inevitable ugly death.

But Demosthenes wasn't the only Athenian leader to suffer. Ancient Athens had a long history of ultimately destroying their best men.

Miltiades, who led them to victory at Marathon, was a year later unjustly convicted of taking bribes from the Persians. He would have been sentenced to death, but in consideration of him winning the most important battle in human history, the sentence was commuted to a fine of a "mere" 50 talents, which he couldn't pay, so he died of war wounds while languishing in prison. His son Cimon was still required to pay the fine. The prosecutor was Xanthippus, the father of Pericles.

Cimon himself proved a fine military commander and an outstanding benefactor of Athens (he built the Academy out of his own pocket). So naturally he was ostracized. The prosecutor was Pericles, son of Xanthippus. (You might be spotting a trend here...) Cimon too died of war wounds while in exile.

In an interesting example of karma at work, Pericles himself when an old man was prosecuted and fined 50 talents. The charge was theft from the public purse, but his real crime was leading the Athenians into a war against Sparta, which didn't work out as planned. Like Miltiades and Cimon, he was almost certainly innocent. He died shortly after of the Great Plague.

Socrates, as is well known, was pretty much judicially murdered. So too was Pericles, the son of Pericles and Aspasia, along with other generals, after they won a sea battle, but didn't win it well enough for the liking of the populace.

Themistocles, the strategic genius who led Athens and all of Greece to victory against Persia in the face of almost impossible odds, was the only one to be brought down and survive. He was ostracized because people feared he was so powerful he might make himself tyrant of Athens, and while he was in exile he was convicted in absentia of treason on trumped up charges on the basis of falsified evidence supplied by Sparta. Themistocles broke the trend though on unhappy deaths. He was smart enough to run while the running was good. He went straight to the court of the Great King of Persia, where he was honored and made a minor satrap and lived in sumptuous luxury. He was quoted as toasting a dinner with the words, "I would have been undone, had I not been undone."

How to be remembered forever: some career advice

Here's a little game to play.  Get out a sheet of paper (or open Word, or whatever), and down the side, number lines 1 to 17.

Now on each line, list 3 or 4 people from that century.  So for line number 1, list 3 people who lived anywhere within 100AD to 199AD.  (Yes, I know the 100s are the 2nd century; I'm avoiding ordinals to eliminate confusion)  For line 15, list anyone who lived during the 1500s, & etc.  Do this for all 17 lines.

I did this.  Here are my observations.  If you want to give it a try, stop reading and play the game now!

Some centuries are really hard!  Some are fairly easy.  I deliberately started at 1 because the century 0-99 is way too easy.  Anyone with even a slight knowledge of the Bible or the Roman Empire can whip off lots of names.  It gets trickier from 100AD onwards.  I stopped at 1799 because likewise, the period 1800 to the present is too recent to be a challenge.

I found with the tricky centuries that once I got one famous person located, I could pick off others.  So for example I happen to know Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas day, 800AD.  That instantly gave me the Sultan Haroun al-Rashid, who I know was his contemporary, and Roland his knight, of Song of Roland fame, and Carca, who withstood a siege from Charlemagne and gave her name to Carcasonne.

Have a look at your list.  I'd be willing to bet almost every name you wrote falls into one of these groups:

Is a national leader.
Is an artist.
Is a scientist.
Is a religious figure.
Is a military commander.

That's it!  If you're a chartered accountant, you're fresh out of luck in the fame stakes.  And for all but the popular centuries, such as the Renaissance, it's a struggle to recall more then a few names.

This makes me wonder who a thousand years from now will be remembered from the 20th century.  You might think lots and lots, because so much happened; but much happens in every century, and this little exercise shows the number of people destined for immortality is probably not more than a handful.

 Here are my own suggestions for 20th century immortality.  I've cut ruthlessly, keeping in mind the lesson of trying to name people from a thousand years ago.

Einstein.  The quintessential scientist.
Hitler.  An evil man, but he put his stamp on the century like no other political leader.
Lennon & McCartney. Easily the greatest artists, or if you don't like greatest, then best known.

Who do you think will be remembered from last century?

Why you shouldn't trust information on web sites (including this one)

I've previously ranted about the disaster that is Wikipedia for anything more complex than pop culture. Disaster if you want correct information, that is. It's terrific if you'll be happy with something that merely sounds right.

Today I'd like to point out something from an entirely different site. I noticed this as I was doing some book research for the fourth in my series. I won't embarrass the site by naming it. I'll merely repeat the embarrassing bit.

Our subject is a short biography of Callias, who if you've read The Pericles Commission you'll know appears as a character. He was the richest man in Athens and their chief diplomat. Here's what the rather authoritative-looking web site says:
Callias was a diplomat and a notable member of one of the wealthiest families of ancient Athens, as well as an Athenian leader.
He was a general of the Peloponnesian War. There was a Callias who was a strategos (General), but it was a different Callias. It was a relatively common name. The wealthy diplomat was Callias son of Hipponicus. The military leader was Callias son of Calliades.
He distinguished himself at the battle of Marathon (490 B.C.)
Very true! (Note the date in parentheses)
In his old age Callias was one of the ambassadors sent to Sparta with Callistratus to negotiate a peace treaty in 371 BC.
In his old age indeed. He must have been at least 137 years old by this date, considering he fought at Marathon. The Callias here is the grandson of the one they started with. I mentioned in a previous post that the Greeks almost always named the firstborn son after the paternal grandfather. That's a trap for new players, for anyone writing about ancient Greece.

One short bio has confused three different men. What's probably happened here is whoever wrote this wrong bio did a Google search across "Callias" and "Athens" and just assumed it was the same Callias every time. Then they repeated it all as fact for hapless schoolchildren to copy and paste into their essays. I hope the teachers catch it.

My advice for anyone researching ancient Greeks:
  1. When you find a reference, always ask yourself, "Is this the guy I want? Could it be his grandson? Could it be his grandfather?"

  2. Always check the "son of" value! It's like a surname.

Pictures of drunk Greeks!

I'm a bad influence on people.

The excellent and previously innocent ancient history author Vicky Alvear Shecter, inspired by my last post, has collected some lovely pictures of drunk, vomiting Greeks on ancient pottery.

So in the last week we've had slavery from Geoff. Pederasty from me. And excessive partying from Vicky. I shudder to think what next. Between us we've pretty much proven that the ancients could hang out like any modern Hollywood star.

How gay was my Greece?

There are certain hot button subjects when it comes to ancient Greece, ones in which I have no choice but to form a definite opinion. One of these is gay sex. If I want to write detailed stories set in their world, I can hardly dance around the subject!

So how gay were these guys? It's hard to read any modern book or paper on the subject without the sound of ideological axes grinding noisily in the background. So I thought I'd throw in my own dose of what I perceive to be reality, based on what evidence I think relevant.

First up, it's clear that the classical Greeks (the ones I care about, 5th century BC) didn't give a damn what personal plumbing got applied where. As long as people were getting sex with someone, life was good. The archaic Greeks might have felt differently (6th century BC and before). For example, the classical Greeks took it for granted that Achilles and Patroclus in Homer's Iliad were lovers. But in Homer you'll not find a single word to say it.

So classical Greeks had no problems with homosexuality. But how prevalent was it?

The single biggest social driver of the time was overpopulation. It was so hard to feed the growing population that many cities regularly selected citizens to leave and found new cities elsewhere, which is one of the reasons the Greeks moved into Ionia (Western Turkey), and Southern Italy. Well, overpopulation doesn't say a lot of gay sex to me.

In Athens, a man who wasn't married by 30 was a social outcast. Everyone was expected to continue their line. This must have been tough on the guys who were inherently gay. I guess they just had to lie back and think of Athens. But then they were certainly free to play with their friends in their spare time.

This demand is a paradox when put alongside the population problem, but it's no more illogical than today, where overpopulation has strained our resources to the limit, yet individual countries still encourage their people to have more kids.

In Sparta, it was illegal not to be married by 30. But Sparta, in this as in all things, was the exception. The Spartans struggled to keep their population up due to the high mortality rate in battle.

Pericles and Callias were known to have been not only straight, but outrageously monogamous. Pericles was besotted with Aspasia, Callias with his wife Elpinice. By modern standards they were probably perfect husbands.

There are no examples I can think of off-hand of gay men living together without women. There are lots of examples of men who were almost certainly bi-sexual.

A surprising number of pottery pieces that survive, particularly those used at parties, such as kraters for mixing wine, were painted with scenes that show men and women frolicking together. Some of these are extremely pornographic! So much so that some modern museum displays probably should have an adult rating. It's clear that many symposia (dinner parties) were heterosexual orgies.

A smaller amount of pottery porn shows men together. In fact, though I haven't counted, I suspect the incidence of gay pottery porn is about the same as pottery showing men throwing up from drinking too much. (I'm not kidding...vomiting was considered a fit subject for decoration; the Getty Villa has some particularly good examples. I guess the Greeks thought it was funny.)

Gay pottery porn almost always shows an older man with a younger man, or even a boy. These relationships were so standard that there were specific terms for how it worked. The older man was called the erastes and the younger the eromenos. It wasn't merely sexual, a lot of it seems to have been mentoring, and some fathers even encouraged their sons to form such a bond. In a world where men could die suddenly in battle or from disease, it made a lot of sense for a father to know there was someone else who'd look out for his son. An erastes was sort of like a godfather with benefits. The relationships were rarely permanent; when the young man grew older he'd go on and marry as per normal.

There's a book from Plato in which Socrates says he never has sex with any of the cute looking young men who follow him around. What strikes me is not Socrates' attitude, but that the men he's talking with take it for granted that a male teacher would have sex with his male students. I expect this was the social norm. I speculate it would have been thought similar to the erastes/eromenos system and therefore perfectly respectable.

Considering all the current debate about gays in the military, I find it rather amusing that the most successful military leader the world has ever seen was as camp as a row of pink army tents. Alexander the Great was unquestionably gay. He married two women: Stateira the daughter of the Great King to legitimize his hold on Persia, and then Roxane in a surprise move. Most paintings show Roxane as quite voluptuous, but I'd be willing to bet she was somewhat more androgynous. The great loves of his life appear to have been his boyhood friend Hephaistion, and the Persian boy, Bagoas.

There is virtually no information on lesbians. The best source is the brilliant archaic poet Sappho, who on the fragments of her work that survive probably did have romantic interests with her students, though even that's not certain. Just as there's no telling what the men got up to at symposia, there's no knowing what the ladies got up to when they visited each others' homes. The term lesbian comes from the isle of Lesbos, because that's where Sappho lived, but it's an entirely modern term.

The play Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, is not only hilarious (well worth seeing if you get a chance), but it's also to my mind telling evidence. The time is the peak of the war between the Athens and Sparta, and a lady of Athens by the name of Lysistrata has had enough of it. She calls on her fellow women to barricade themselves on the Acropolis and refuse to have sex with the men until they make peace. This is the play that invented the sex strike!

Lysistrata assumes that Athens will collapse in chaos within 3 days if the men can't get at the women. Aristophanes expected the audience to find this credible. Clearly there'd be no issue if lots of men were mostly playing together.

So although there was zero prejudice against gays, and relationships that today we would describe as pederasty might even have been encouraged, the ratio of straight to gay sex was probably the same as it is today.

The Chum

My brilliant literary agent is the somewhat well known Janet Reid. Honestly, I had no idea at the time that I was signing with one of the world's most famous literary agents.

Janet likes to refer to herself as The Shark -- it's a reflection on the general reputation of literary agents -- which has inevitably led to her authors referring to themselves as The Chum. I don't know how it works with other agencies, but quite a few of The Chum like to keep in touch, mostly over twitter, because writing 6,000 inane but incredibly witty tweets is so much easier know...working.

Two of The Chum have recently released books, and they both got starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, which is a big thing because PW is so influential. The first is Steve Ulfelder, whose day job is building race cars, plus he's a for-real P.I., all of which is just too cool. I met Steve for the first time at last year's Bouchercon, which is a fan conference. Not only do we have the same agent, we have the same publisher. Clearly we're in psychic tune. Purgatory Chasm stars car mechanic and detective Conway Sax, and it's going on shelves even as I write this.

The other is Bill Cameron, whose fourth book is County Line. I'm intensely jealous of Bill's ability to write brilliant one line synopses. He just whips them off while I struggle for days to do half as well. His hero is the rather oddly named Skin Kadash. His books are noir with a dash of subtle humour and a fine sense of the ridiuclous (I'm thinking particularly of Lost Dog, in which the missing canine of the title is a child's toy!).

Spaced out

Some time ago I wrote about advanced searching with Word, and also, advanced use of replace. Here's another one: a quick way to remove extra spaces. If you're like me, you occasionally put three spaces after a full stop (that's a period for US readers), or simply hit the space bar twice in the middle of a sentence. You can go blind searching by eye for extra white space on the screen, so save your eyesight and let the computer do it for you.

Run the Find/Replace dialog in Word. That's cntrl-f on the keyboard or Edit --> Find on the menu bar.

The string you're searching for is this:


I've inverted the the colours and made it large so you can see there are two spaces at the end of the search string. You must include those two spaces in the search, or this won't work. Make sure you click the More button and then check the Use wildcards checkbox. Here's a screenshot:

If you don't care about the technicalities, you can stop reading now and just use the search as I described. Otherwise, here's how it works.

The two spaces at the end of the string will match any two spaces in your manuscript.

The problem is we want to catch two spaces in the middle of sentences, but two spaces is always correct when a sentence ends and a new one begins. We have to exclude the start of sentences; that's what the gobbledygook does.

Everything inside the square brackets [ ... ] will match a single character. The exclamation mark ! right at the start means match any one character except those that follow. A sentence could end in a full-stop (that's the \.), an exclamation mark (that's the \!), or a question mark (\?). We have to deal with the situation where a sentence ends with dialogue, in which case the final character is a speech mark (\"). We also don't care if the spaces trail the end of a paragraph (that's the ^l). The backslash character \ before the punctuation in each case is merely an instruction to Word to treat the following character as a literal, because each of those characters has a special meaning when wildcards are turned on. The \ escapes the special meaning. The ^l is a special symbol that denotes the end of a paragraph (actually, any manual line break).

So three spaces will be caught anywhere. Two spaces will be ignored if they're preceded by standard end-of-sentence punctuation. Two spaces preceded any other character will be caught, because the square brackets will match anything except the end of a sentence.