Vicki Leon in the LA Times

The excellent Vicki Leon, who pops in to comment on this blog from time to time, and who wrote Working IX to V, and The Joy of Sexus, today has an opinion piece on the assassination of JFK published in the LA Times.

It's very much worth reading.

Vicki also has a previous piece in the LA Times.  She suggested that killers who do it for the notoriety would be less inclined if there was a perpetual ban on publicizing their crimes or their names.  She uses as her example what happened to the guy who burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in 356BC.  (It's the same temple that my heroine Diotima works at in The Ionia Sanction, and it was indeed destroyed by arson).

To find out what they did to him, here is Vicki's article.

I thought as much

I know funny error messages on web sites are common, but this one confirms something I've long suspected.  This from one of GOOGLE's own services:

500 Internal Server Error
Sorry, something went wrong.

A team of highly trained monkeys has been dispatched to deal with this situation.
If you see them, show them this information: ...

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad

Your quiz for today:  who said "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad"?

Was it Shakespeare?  Was it Homer?


If you googled for the answer, you probably think Euripides.  This is a classic example of something being repeated on the internet so much that people think it must be true.  The answer isn't Euripides.

In its usual wording as above, it comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  But he was rephrasing a saying that goes back more than 2,500 years.  The earliest use I know of is the play Antigone, where Sophocles quotes a version, which I've stolen from the Perseus translation:
For with wisdom did someone once reveal the maxim, now famous,
that evil at one time or another seems good,
to him whose mind a god leads to ruin.
Sophocles then adds:
But for the briefest moment such a man fares free of destruction.
Which is a variant of, "Well it seemed like a good idea at the time!"

And as the text makes clear, by the time of classical Athens it was already considered an old saying.  The origin must go back into prehistory.  Which is rather cool really for such a subtle idea.

Death of the China Bots

Something changed on the net a few weeks ago that I think is rather interesting.  If you run a web site you might have noticed the same.  The Chinese bots suddenly disappeared from my blog.

Web site stats for a long time now have been flooded with obvious robots, all running out of China, flooding every web site with hits.  I presume they're looking for anywhere they can put spam.   Or a more sinister interpretation would be they're probing for weaknesses to break in.  Since the Chinese government runs one of the most repressive firewalls in the world I can only assume it's being done with government approval.

Then a few weeks ago, suddenly, overnight, the number of hits from Chinese bots fell to almost zero.  It might have been a random glitch, except it stayed at almost zero for days that turned into weeks.  Now I'm seeing the bot numbers slowly creep up again.  But they're still less than 10% of what they used to be.

I can only suggest one of these possibilities:
  1. All of China has decided I am boring.  This is quite possible.
  2. The Chinese government has decided to block their online criminals.  This is incredibly unlikely.
  3. Western nations have quietly decided to block the packets of Chinese spammers and cyber criminals.  Since this would require western governments to make a  sensible decision about the net it is virtually impossible.
  4. Google has quietly blocked the Chinese spammers from their servers.  This is quite likely.  A lot of those bots are used to artificially click ad links to make money for the web sites.  What you do is create a zillion web sites with ad and buy links to major stores.  Then for a few thousand dollars you rent from a cyber criminal a botnet to click your links tens of millions of times and thus make a few hundred thousand dollars in revenue.   Which is ripping off Google's customers.  So it makes sense that Google might have decided to block the bots.  
I'd be interested to know what's happening.

The Polemarch lives in the Epilyceum

The Polemarch was one of three senior archons who ran classical Athens.  The job title means war leader, but by the time of my stories his job had changed to being mayor of all the resident aliens in the city, of which there were many.  The resident aliens were a big part of the economy.

Like all archon jobs, people got elected Polemarch for a year, and having done the job once you could never be elected to it again.  Also, if you won the election, you moved home.

The Polemarch had an official residence, called the Epilyceum.  (I'm using the latin form of the name here.  The exact transliteration is Epilykaion.)

Aristotle says that the Polemarch's official residence used to be called the Polemarcheum, but the name changed after one man who held the job, a fellow named Epilycos, totally renovated the place out of his own pocket.  Which was rather clever of him because now he'll be remembered forever.  Though I imagine his real motive was along the lines of his wife saying, "I'm not living in that horrible, drafty, run-down place until you fix it up!"

Some modern historians reject Aristotle on the grounds that epilyceum in Greek means "outside the Lyceum".  Since there happened to be a place called the Lyceum, they take it to mean the Polemarch's residence was next door.

It sounds reasonable, but the problem is they're guessing from a distance of 2,600 years, while Aristotle was passing on what was probably common belief a hundred or so years after the fact.  They can't argue that the name is odd.  There was a comedian called Epilycos, so an archon by that name is perfectly possible.

So now you can say to people at parties that the Polemarch lived in the Epilyceum.

What is the oldest name still in use?

Here's a question for you:  what is the oldest name still used by people today?

I had this fun conversation with Aven and Amalia on twitter yesterday, and we weren't able to come to a decisive answer.  Aven cleverly suggested Eve.  Amalia thought maybe Krishna.  My idea was Inana, who appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Some rules:

It has to be a name either written down or provably used by a real person of ancient times.

To be counted as still in use it has to be a name chosen by parents or in some sense natural (i.e. not one deliberately adopted in later life).

The floor is open for suggestions!

The Archimedes Palimpsest: a correction

Some time ago I wrote about the Archimedes Palimpsest.  It's an incredibly ancient book written by Archimedes, that was thought to be totally lost for two thousand years.  Then a copy of it was found underneath a bunch of Christian writings.  A mediaeval monk had re-used the parchment, you see.

Researchers used some very clever imaging systems to recover the original text, at which point they not only discovered a lost ancient book, but they also discovered that Archimedes had been well on the way to discovering calculus, one thousand eight hundred years(!) before Newton and Leibniz got it.

Two days ago a correction appeared in the comments of that post I wrote.  I'd said that the monk who covered over the text was unknown.   Someone named Roger Easton, a newcomer to the blog, wrote to say that the name of the monk was indeed known, and that he's credited with (inadvertently) saving the book.  

I get random comments on older posts all the time, so I didn't give it a lot of thought.

Then the next day it suddenly hit me...the name of the imaging guru who recovered the Archimedes Palimpsest was none other than... Professor Roger Easton.

I think we can take this comment as coming ex cathedra.  Here's what Professor Easton had to say:
The comment that we do not know the name of the monk who erased the original Archimedes text is incorrect -- it is Ioannes Myronas, as discovered in 2006 when the manuscript was imaged using X-ray fluorescence. Dr. William Noel, Director of the Archimedes Palimpsest project, has said that he believes that Myronas may be credited with SAVING the writings rather than destroying them, since he provided a camouflage that actually preserved them.

The (fictional) distribution of death

Here's a fun idea.  My publisher Soho has put a map on their web site showing the location each of their authors uses in their books.  The map's on the front page of their crime imprint.  It doesn't locate the author, it locates the books.

So it's effectively a scene of the crime map!

What's interesting is the distribution of death across the globe.  There are some clear inferences:

If you're worried about being slaughtered by a Soho author, you should avoid traveling to Europe.  The whole place is just a hotbed of crosses on the map.

China and East Asia in general is another good place to avoid.

You'll be perfectly safe in Russia.  Also most African states, the Ukraine, New Zealand and Mongolia.

There's no point trying to hide in the South Pacific.  Someone died in the Solomon Islands.

Australia has a surprisingly high murder rate for the population.  (Don't blame me!  I contributed to the European body count.)

America has a remarkably low murder rate.  The Euro-to-US ratio is the complete opposite of reality.  I wonder why?

The Marathon Conspiracy: cover reveal!

The Marathon Conspiracy is number 4 of the Athenian Mysteries, and here's the cover!

It's another beautiful artwork from professional artist Stefano Vitale.  During the course of the series Stefano has moved to Venice from the US.  So we have an Australian author, a US publisher and an Italian artist.

You might have noticed the bear.  The bear and the skull that Nico holds are part of the story, needless to say.  The stoa in the background is the Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron.  It is famous, amongst other things, for being one of the world's first school for girls.

Incredibly, we're actually organized for this book.  The release details are already up on the major stores.  Release date is early May 2014.

Death by theremin in Midsomer County

I'm a big fan of Midsomer Murders, a TV series made by the BBC ITV (thanks Robert for the correction).  Midsomer Murders is full of quirky characters doing the most bizarre things in some of the most picturesque English villages you'll ever see.   Think seriously unhinged Agatha Christie and you've got the right idea.

It also has some distinctive theme music.

What I didn't realize until today is that the theme music is played on a theremin.

What is a theremin, I hear you scream?  It was the world's first electronic musical instrument, invented by a Russian physicist in the 1920s.  It consists of two aerials at right angles to each other.  Put your hand close to one aerial and it raises the pitch.  Putting your hand close to the other raises the volume.  Moving your hands inside the two electromagnetic fields creates music.

So here is Celia Sheen, Britain's foremost classical thereminist, who is in fact the musician you hear in every Midsomer Murder.  I know it looks like she's waving her hands in mid-air, but she really is playing the theremin.

Cool dudes of statuary

I wouldn't normally place anyone's advertising on this blog, but I can't resist this lot.  Traid is a UK clothing charity that recycles old clothes.  They recently issued some advertising in which French artist Leo Caillard placed recycled clothing on some even older statues.  This is the result:

I've left the pictures at original size because that's how they look best.  I realize they won't fit neatly on everyone's screen.  If you click on each picture your browser will probably give you a good full image.

The last guy looks like someone I used to work with.

I would love for the artist to get together with the people who did the colours of ancient Greece.

The Gods of P.I.E.

I've previously written about the Proto-Indo-European family of languages.  Pretty much all the European languages, plus Sanskrit in India, plus a lot of languages across the Middle East, are all descended from an incredibly ancient language, called Proto-Indo-European, usually shortened to PIE.  There are people who've reconstructed PIE by comparing all the descendant languages and looking to see what they have in common.

The first PIE speakers originated somewhere north of the Black Sea (probably), some time about 4,000 BC, and then spread all over Europe, the Middle East and India.  They carried their language with them, and everywhere they went, PIE supplanted whatever languages were already there.  There's something about Proto-Indo-European that makes it particularly well suited to human brains.

Greek is a PIE language.  The Linear B tablets of Minoan and Mycenaean civilization are extremely early, archaic Greek, thus making Greek the earliest known PIE language for which there's a decent written record.

The PIE speakers also carried their religion with them.  The religion has proven chancier to reconstruct because names and deity relationships have changed more easily than the language.  Even so, some common elements have been found that surely must spring from the original religion.

If you know Greek, Roman, Norse or early Indian gods and goddesses then you already know the basic structure.

Father Sky is the easy one.  Zeus pater in Greek, Deus pater in Latin, which contracts to Iu-pater = Jupiter, Dyaus pitar in Sanskrit, who appears in earlyVedas but is later supplanted.  If you're wondering how Zeus/Deus/Dyaus managed to turn into Odin in the Norse version, so is everyone else.  I wasn't kidding when I said the deity names changed more than any other part of the PIE language.  And in fact Father Sky is the name that's changed least.  The other gods and goddesses have to be reconstructed by their relationships or domains.

An Earth Mother.  Like father (pater), mother (mater) in various forms is also incredibly ancient.  No surprises there.  The Greek version is Demeter.

Sun God.  Usually drives the sun around on a chariot.  Which is interesting because chariots came late in PIE time.  There must have been an earlier system.

A God of Thunder.  Thor and friends.

The Divine Twins.  Castor and Pollux.  Gemini.  Closely associated with horses, especially in Greek and Roman vase paintings.  In Vedic religion they're the Ashvins, divine twin horsemen.  The PIE speakers definitely rode horses; equus, iquo, ippos, hippos and its variants are an original, very early PIE word.

And some standard themes common across the PIE speaking world.

The Tree of the World.   The world is held up by a giant cosmic tree.  (No, it's not turtles all the way down).  Sometimes the tree is threatened.

A Battle Against a Snake.  Amazingly common theme across the PIE regions.

An Underworld guarded by a dog.  Cerberus and friends.

Conspicuous by their absence are the other divine twins: Apollo and Artemis, also Poseidon, Hades, Persephone, Dionysos, Hecate and Aphrodite.  Which isn't to say they weren't very early, but there's nothing to suggest they arrived with the Proto-Indo-European speakers.  They were probably already in place.

The Fates, Moirae, Norns or whatever you want to call them are an interesting case because, although they're a common theme across a wide region, there's no obvious connection to the rest of the pantheon. It's almost like there was a second mythology spread by the same people.

There's obviously a lot of mixing and matching involved, with a lot of linguistic analysis and the assumption that coincidences don't happen.  The earliest known good documentation about this are the Vedas in  Sanskrit and the Theogeny, written by Hesiod at about the same time as Homer was writing the Iliad.  But the Vedas are a pure religious text and Hesiod, Europe's first non-fiction author was writing about 3,300 years after his ancestral PIE speakers exploded across three continents.

The richest athlete ever

The football trading season has just ended, leaving a lot of traded players with paychecks that are grossly obscene, far in excess by several orders of magnitude for what is reasonable for any game.  (I'm talking about real football here...the thing with the round ball that you kick...)   In England alone they spent 630 million pounds on football players.  That comes to something just short of one billion dollars.

So are these guys the richest athletes ever?  Actually, no.

The richest athlete of all time is a Roman chariot racer, one Gaius Appuleius Diocles.

Diocles was an illiterate Spanish lad who, it turned out, was really, really good at driving chariots.  He joined the White Faction at age 18.  Romans devoutly supported one of four teams: the Reds, Whites, Blues and Greens.  Fans regularly rioted over which team was best.  Diocles didn't care.  He raced for the Whites for some years, then moved to the Greens, and ended his career with the Reds.  In that time he had 1,462 victories from 4,257 starts.  But that doesn't tell the full story, because most of his races were against other top-of-the-line racers.  His standard was to race four horse teams, but he was also one of the first to race a seven horse chariot without a yoke (the mind boggles).

Then as now, crazed sports fans loved statistics, all of which they engraved on his memorial.  Diocles seems to have worked out what all modern racers know: that the start matters a lot.  In 815 of his victories he led from the start.  It was clearly his strategy to make sure he led at the first turn.  In another 502 he won at the last moment in a neck-and neck race.  In only 67 did he come from the back to win.  When he didn't win, he came second 861 times and third 576 times.

His total winnings, listed on his monument that was erected by his admiring fans, amounted to 35,863,120 sesterces.  Someone once tried to convert that to modern currency by comparing it with army pay Roman vs modern.  It comes to about 15 billion dollars, overwhelmingly the richest athlete ever.

Ancient Greek Duels: Achilles vs Penthesilia

Duels have a huge and long tradition.  A while ago I wrote about the most unusual duel in history, which occurred in Paris in 1808.

Classical Greeks didn't have duels.  Or if they did, it didn't make the histories in any significant way.  I can't think of any, off-hand. Classical Greeks were much more into plotting and backstabbing.

The Iliad on the other hand is chockablock full of duels.  After the fall of Minoan civilization the whole region went into a Dark Age.  (Not the Dark Age we know, but an earlier one.)  Duels were all the rage in that period, which also happens to be when Homer's stories come from.

The typical arrangement was that armies would line up, and then various champions would take on each other in individual combat before the general slaughter began.  There's every reason to believe this was what happened in real life, but the majority of duels we know about occurred before the walls of Troy. The most famous is when Achilles slew Hector.

The most interesting I think occurred when Penthesilia fought Achilles.

Penthesilia was the daughter of Ares the God of War and Otrere the Queen of the Amazons.  With that genetic heritage, a wise person would avoid annoying her.

Penthesilia accidentally killed her own sister in a hunting accident.  In a fit of remorse, probably seeking honorable death, she presented herself to King Priam of Troy, who at that moment was sorely troubled.  His son Hector had just died.

Penthesilia took the field, representing Troy.  She slaughtered a whole pile of Greeks before coming up against Ajax.  The fight against Ajax ended in a draw.  Ajax went back to camp and told Achilles about the woman who was mowing down Greeks.

Achilles entered the fray and, inevitably, there was a duel.

This didn't end so well for Penthesilia.  Achilles struck her in the chest and she fell.

A later writer named Propertius adds that after he killed her, Achilles raised Penthesilia's helmet to look upon her face, and instantly fell in love with her.  Which was a trifle awkward since she was dead.

Though they didn't duel themselves, the classical Greeks were very keen on the Homeric combats, and interestingly, there are a lot of vase paintings showing Penthesilia vs Achilles.  For some reason she doesn't seem to get the same airplay in modern retellings.

The 50 Book Pledge

I thought I'd put in a plug for a lovely initiative called the 50 Book Pledge.  The idea is simple: read 50 books in the year and record them on your book page.

I know there are quite a few systems like this around.  Thanks very much to Sharlene for bringing this one to my attention.

If anyone's got a favourite similar reader pledge site that they want to mention, do please pop it in the comments.

Elmore Leonard's Rules of Writing: an historical perspective

It seems to be the season for losing great writers. I'm sorry to say Elmore Leonard has passed away. His most popular work was a book-turned-film by the name of Get Shorty, though crime readers know him for 40+ other fine books.

But Leonard's probably best known for his ten rules of writing. They've been copied across the internet about a trillion times, so let me add to the total. Here they are, from a master of crime writing:

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 

words of prose.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

I know of some writers who follow these rules with religious zeal. Elmore Leonard himself noted that for every rule, there was a good writer who could break it with no problems. Leonard's rules describe his own rather sparse style very well, so it might be more accurate to say that if you want to be a super-successful writer of contemporary American crime fiction then here are some rules to live by.

I don't think Elmore Leonard's rules work quite as well for historical mysteries, and I'm not quite of the same style. So I thought I'd comment on which I think work and which are modifiable.

1. Never open a book with weather.

I'm totally with him on this one. Always open with action. Always! The weather can wait, unless it's raining frogs. I would definitely mention if it was raining frogs. Or bodies.

2. Avoid prologues.

Another big yes. Either the prologue's necessary, or it isn't. If it isn't, it should be cut. If it is, then you've just begun your book with an entire chapter of back story and exposition.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

I disagree with this. There's another important rule to always use the strongest, most descriptive verbs. A verb can work very hard for you when you pick the right one. Rather than go across the room, a character can walk, run, lope, crawl, stagger etc.

The logic for "said" is that any other verb distracts attention from the dialogue, which is true. But sometimes, if you're selective, it can add meaning. I'm happy for my characters to growl, mutter, shout and whisper. Because I write in first person, the choice of tag can tell us in a single word what Nico thinks of some other character's statement.
"How come I'm the one left holding the baby?" Socrates whined.
Or a non-said tag can tell us about Nico's hidden motives. My favourite for this is whenever Socrates upstages Nico with some brilliant deduction, Nico adds:

Socrates makes brilliant deduction.
"I was just about to say the same thing," I lied.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.

Yes, I tend to agree. But that's because I dislike Rule 3, hence I use more colourful tags. Rules 3+4 taken together creates more blandness than I like in dialogue. Leonard himself was not a dialogue sort of guy, whereas I use lots.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

My name is Gary and I have a dependency issue with exclamation points. Three per book is way too low, but there is indeed a rather low limit to these things. Where characters get excited, a nicely placed ! can avoid having to use the word "shout" too much. (Which would in turn break rule 3...I'm not scoring well here...)

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

The latter would be a terrible anachronism in my books. The former is an adverb, and a better choice of verb can help you avoid it.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Deliberately mis-spelled words to simulate a patois are a pain to read and a pest to type. So yes, avoid.

But this one's a tough problem for historical authors. I "translate" the speech of my characters from ancient languages such as Greek and Persian into modern English. Ancient people spoke with different accents, depending on where they came from and their social class, just like modern people, and somehow I have to reflect that in a way that's recognizable. The only alternative is for everyone from the fishwives to the statesmen to all sound like they went to Oxford, a subject on which I've previously written.

So generally I try to find speech patterns for various classes and locations that don't require mispelling and aren't too evocative of any particular modern population. (It clearly won't do for example for any of my characters to sound like a Frenchman.)

Yet you want a certain degree of consistency within a character group. My thugs and dockside low-lives do tend to sound Australian, since they'll say "mate", but otherwise they don't carry the nasal accent and even they are usually grammatically correct.

Yet you can't win on this. I noticed one reader review for Sacred Games in which the reader who otherwise liked the book was disappointed that a couple of dumb fighters had been given a southern drawl. Which came as news to me. I had to go back to my own book to work out who they meant. The reader had simply heard a different accent to the one I'd heard. So on this point, the historical author is pretty much doomed. Sigh.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Generally yes.

Though in classical historicals you need to take a brief moment to describe the clothing, because it's wildly different to modern wear. I did have such fun with Nico trying to put on a pair of trousers in The Ionia Sanction.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

And here's the big difference. People read historicals because they want to be in a different time and place. It has to be described! Though generally the best descriptions involve lots of verbs and not so many adjectives, so that the reader gets a feeling of a living, moving classical world, like us but different.

Best to avoid blocks of descriptive text though, but rather edge descriptions into the action. This is also a very common method in science fiction.  (In passing, SF and historical mysteries have a great deal of technique in common.)

The classical travel writer Pausanias by the way clearly had never heard of Leonard's rules, because he describes every building he sees right down to length, width and height measurements and even the colour of the curtains (I'm not kidding). I wish I could send Pausanias a thank you card.

10. Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

The best advice of all.

Amelia Peabody's biographer, Barbara Mertz, enters the Field of Rushes

If you like historical mysteries then you probably already know about Amelia Peabody, the late Victorian sleuth.  Peabody's colourful and somewhat forceful personality was matched only by that of her husband Emerson ("the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other era").

As you might guess, Peabody and Emerson did all their best work in Egypt.  They solved crimes while digging at famous archaeological sites, and helping out their less experienced colleagues, such as young Howard Carter.  Many of the crimes that Peabody solved were linked to ancient Egyptian myths or folk stories, thus creating the novel situation of an historical mystery inside an historical mystery.

Peabody's private journal fell into the hands of Barbara Mertz, herself an Egyptologist, who writing under the name Elizabeth Peters has given us a fictionalized account of Peabody's career.

It is with sadness that I learn today that Barbara Mertz has died at age 85.  She also wrote reams of other stuff, including a short series about an art history sleuth named Vicky Bliss whose boyfriend is an international thief, which I thought every bit as good as the Peabody stories.  Alas, there shall be no more.

Gary is interviewed at Kittling Books

The very nice Cathy Cole interviewed me a few weeks ago for Kittling Books, and the result is now up for the interested reader, wherein I discuss, amongst other things, the dreadful crimes of Horace the Bear.

Cathy discovered my existence in an odd way.  She had a review copy of Sacred Games.  Decided not to read it because she was over ancient Greece.  Then decided for no obvious reason to read it anyway.  Then she contacted me, and I very happily have yet another online friend.

So thanks Cathy for deciding to read the book!

The Battle of Marathon

There are two astonishing ratios about the Battle of Marathon.

There were almost exactly 11,000 Greeks: that's 1,000 men from each of the tribes of Athens, and 1,000 men from nearby Plataea.

The Persians used 600 boats to ferry in troops. The actual number of troops is unknown, but for that number of transport craft it comes to between 30,000 and 100,000 Persians, including a few thousand cavalry.

So the first ratio is that the Greeks were outnumbered somewhere between 3:1 to 9:1, depending what assumptions you want to make about Persian transports.

The next ratio is known with great precision:

203 Greek dead.
6,400 Persian dead.

That's 32 Persian dead for every Greek who fell.

Which isn't bad going when you're not just outnumbered, but also you're the attacking side.

The casualty numbers are known because the Greeks set up a memorial that listed all their fallen.  The Persian numbers are known because before the battle the Greeks had promised to the Gods to sacrifice a goat for every enemy they killed.  They counted the Persian dead carefully and then discovered they'd killed so many enemies that they couldn't find enough goats.  They paid off their debt to the Gods on a yearly instalment plan that took thirteen years to complete.

Despite its vast importance, there's very little agreement about what actually happened.  Modern historians can’t even agree on which direction the opposing lines faced, let alone details like whether the Persian cavalry took the field.

One theory goes that the Persians were aligned with their backs to the sea, and the Greeks attacked from inland.  Like so:

I just can't credit this.  As you can see the plain of Marathon forms a rectangle that runs lengthways along the coast, ringed by mountains to landward.  The Greeks would have to be insane to place their grossly outnumbered troops where they could be easily outflanked by the numerically superior Persians.  Also this alignment puts their left flank in easy reach of the Persian cavalry.

I'm pretty sure if you gave this problem to any modern military commander, he would instantly place his outnumbered Greeks so that they had to span the shortest possible line. Which would be like this:

Right.  From The Battle of Marathon by Peter Krentz
This map comes from the excellent The Battle of Marathon by Peter Krentz. My copy's sitting by my left elbow as I write this.

You'll notice there's solid land in the top right of one map and a small bay in the other. Most maps put a marsh there. In fact the Greek coastline changes constantly and all three options have been on that spot at one time or another. Nobody really knows what was there when the battle was fought.

The Greeks made the decision to take the fight to the enemy.  Each soldier lightened his battle load as much as possible the night before and then they marched out at first light.

The next big point of contention is that Herodotus states, very clearly, that the Greeks marched to within 8 stadia of the enemy, and then they ran in the rest of the way under a hail of arrows.

At the ancient Olympics there was an event in which the competitors ran two lengths of the stadium — two stadia — in soldier’s kit.  The men of Marathon ran four times that distance, knowing that at the end they would have to fight for their lives against an enemy many times more numerous.

A lot of modern historians discount that story out of hand, on the grounds that heavy infantry can't run almost a mile and then fight.

The problem is, that the ancient sources are absolutely unanimous that that's what happened.  Every written source, every sculptural relief , gives the same picture.  And Herodotus, who is often vague on numbers, is absolutely precise on this one.  Herodotus also goes out of his way to make the point that everyone dropped as much load as they could, even shedding armour so they could move fast.

Why did they have to run?  I think the reason was the Persian cavalry, who could have torn the Greeks apart. Herodotus says the cavalry was there, but once the battle begins he never mentions them.  I think the reason is that the Greek plan was to engage the enemy line before the enemy cavalry had time to deploy. With the mountains on one side and the sea on the other, it meant that once the infantry engaged the mounted troops were bottled up behind their own line.

The fact is that modern elite troops could make that run.  The counter-argument is that the citizen militia of Athens weren't professional soldiers.  Which is true.  But what is also true is that we're talking about the most successful citizen army in all history, and those guys in the line knew with utter certainty that they wouldn't live to midday if they didn't cross the field in time.

It's official: our Stephanie is a published author

Back in September 2009, a lady named Stephanie Thornton made her first comment on this humble blog.  She became a regular reader and commenter.  She was interested in history and historical fiction, you see.  Probably you are too!

Since then, those of us who know a good writer when we see one have been following Stephanie's adventures.  Because Stephanie was writing a novel.  Like many of us.  She wrote, and then she revised, and revised, and revised, and revised, and revised...I could go on for some time here...  

And then she signed with an agent.

And then she revised some more.  But I always thought she'd make it.

Penguin's New American Library agreed.

And so on bookstore shelves this week we have The Secret History, the story of Theodora, who rose from desperate poverty to become Empress of the Byzantine Empire, by none other than our Stephanie Thornton.

The Push-Me-Pull-You Conundrum

I've faced some tough questions in my time, but none tougher than this one from my younger daughter...

How does a Push-Me-Pull-You go to the toilet?


After GoodReads sold out to Amazon, in more ways than one, I cast about for alternative book sites and came across an interesting one, still in beta at the time, called   One of the things I like about it is it has more of an international flavour, which is not surprising because the people who created it are in fact all Polish!  Despite which, they're very much centered on English language books and link through to B&N, Amazon, and Powell's.

Creating an account not only creates a GoodReads-like bookshelf and follower system, but also creates your own blog under their domain, that's accessible by the whole world.  So if you want a free blog that's book-oriented, then it's sort of a natural.  I don't use it that way because I have my own very lovely blog, but I can see where someone might find that useful.

Proxenos: a job both ancient and modern

It's not every day you get email from a US Consul.  But such was the case a week ago when I received a lovely email from Mr Mark Mohr.  Mr Mohr's a retired US diplomat and a mystery reader.  And very glad I am that he emailed, because he mentioned something interesting to do with The Ionia Sanction.

In The Ionia Sanction there's a character named Thorion.  Thorion has a special job: he's a proxenos.

Proxenos was one of the most interesting official jobs a man could have in Classical Greece.  The pro means for, the xenos means foreigner.  Hence proxenos means someone who acted on behalf of foreigners.

The system worked like this:  cities didn't have a diplomatic service back then, so what they did was find men among the other cities who were well-disposed toward them, and then ask those foreign men to act on their behalf.

Thorion is a citizen of Athens, and always has been.  But he married a woman from Ephesus and he has intricate trade connections to Ephesus.  Thorion therefore acts as the proxenos for Ephesus in Athens.  He officially represents them.

If someone from Ephesus is in Athens and in trouble, he can go to Thorion for help.  If a merchant in Ephesus wants to trade in Athens, he could ask Thorion for advice and introductions to Athenian traders.  If Athens was considering passing some trade law that would disadvantage Ephesus, then Thorion -- even though he was a citizen of Athens -- might reasonably stand up to argue against it, and his fellow citizens would expect him to do just that.

The proxenoi appear to have been at least as effective as the consulates of modern times.  With the hundreds of Greek city-states, and their intricate political and trade alliances, the proxenoi must have formed a complex and fascinating network of men.

I thought the proxenoi were no more, replaced by modern consuls.  But to my delight, I was wrong.  Mark mentioned:
"Actually, there is such a system in modern diplomacy; they are known as honorary consuls. For example, when I was [US Consul] in Brisbane, a prominent Greek-Australian attorney was the honorary consul for Greece. At the time I was in Brisbane, only eight consuls were citizens of the sending country, whereas more than twenty honorary consuls, all Australian citizens, represented foreign interests. So apparently the Greek gift of the proxenoi system continues into present times."
Not only do the proxenoi still exist, but they're in my own country.  And one of them is proxenos for Greece!

The NSA Line Eater

With all the excitement at the moment about the NSA watching your internet traffic, I can't resist adding a bit of folklore from the early days of the internet.

Back in the good old days before web pages, the standard system of community chatter were newsgroups.  In fact newsgroups still exist.  The newsgroup for mystery novels for example is rec.arts.mystery.

There was a bug in the original newsgroup system, so that sometimes one or two lines from a posting might randomly disappear.

This instantly gave rise to the belief that a creature lived inside the internet, and that it survived by eating random lines of text.  The creature was dubbed the Line Eater.  People even added what was called Line Eater Food into their posts to make sure the creature had enough to eat.

I first became aware of the Line Eater in the mid-eighties (I'm showing my age here); the Line Eater lived for a few more years, until it was finally extinguished when someone found the bug.  I'm stretching my memory, but I think it was that if a line was exactly 80 characters long and began with whitespace then the newsgroup software overwrote the buffer and simply dropped that line.

RIP the Line Eater.

The Line Eater inspired another theory: that the NSA was reading all the  posts in every single newsgroup, and that the missing lines were the proof.  This became known as the NSA Line Eater and was much more sinister.  The anarchy-oriented denizens of the internet began adding what they called NSA Food  to the signatures of all their posts.  They added words like KGB, bomb, assassin, and, of course, NSA, all designed to tweak the interest of the eavesdroppers.  This was all very silly, but since the early netizens were uni students, that's par for the course.

Except that as it turned out, the NSA really was reading all the posts.  It was part of a massive traffic analysis system called ECHELON.  Traffic analysis means keeping an eye on who's talking to whom without necessarily reading the messages.  ECHELON was a Cold War construct run by the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if this Prism thingy turns out to be merely a subset of Echelon, which has been running for at least fifty years.

Casting Sacred Games

Third in Marshal's book blogs is My Book, The Movie, in which authors have a go at casting actors for their characters (without the inconvenience of needing the actors to agree...).

It's surprising how difficult this can be!  Each time I have a go at it, I come up with a different answer.  It's not so much that the characters have changed, but that perception of the actors changes over even a few years.  Though looking back on it, I find I've cast Russell Crowe for Pythax in The Pericles Commission, and then used him for King Pleistarchus in Sacred Games.

For Diotima I had Rachel Weisz in The Pericles Commission, my wife Helen as Diotima in The Ionia Sanction, and now with Sacred Games I think I might have hit on the perfect Diotima.  I'm rather pleased with my idea for Nico too.

Writers Read

The second of Marshal Zeringue's book blogs is Writers Read, where he asks various writers what they're currently reading.  I confess I have fun reading the answers of other writers, since it amounts to recommendations from people who should, in theory, know something about books.

I've answered this question for him three times now, and looking back on my past answers, I'm struck by how totally inconsistent I am.  But I do appear to move in themes.

Right now, I seem to be having a retro period.

The Page 69 Test

In what's become something of a tradition, I've written an entry for Sacred Games at the Page 69 Test.

The idea is for an author to discuss page 69 of his book.  Is it representative?  How does it progress the story?   What, when you get down to it, is really the point of page 69?  Is it merely some halfway point between 68 and a better life on 70?

If you want to see what happens on my page 69, and why it matters (I hope), then click on through!

The Page 69 Test and two other book sites are run by Marshal  Zeringue, someone who cares very much about reading and goes out of his way to encourage the habit.  Thanks Marshal!

The Strange Case of the Unlaconic Laconians

Spartans didn't call themselves Spartans.  Their own name for their nation was Lacedaemon.  (Or Lakedaimon, spelling being variant in these matters.)  A Spartan was a Lacedaemonian.  There were also the short forms Laconia and Laconian.  That's why Spartan shields had the letter lambda (Λ) painted on them.

I prefer to write Spartan rather than Lacedaemonian in my books, and I'm pretty sure you prefer to read Spartan.  But there's an interesting consequence of them being Laconian.

The Laconians had a reputaion for being men of few words.  That's the origin of our word laconic.  When we call someone laconic today, we're saying that they're as short-spoken as a Spartan.

The most famous laconic statement of all occurred at the Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held for 3 days against an army of 100,000.  (No, I'm not exaggerating the Persian side.)  The Spartans were warned that the enemy was so numerous that their arrows would blot out the sun, to which one soldier named Dienekes replied this was good, because, "Then we will fight in the shade."

A similar situation arose when Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander) sent a message to Sparta suggesting they submit to him, because, "If I win a war against you, I will enslave you all."  Sparta sent back a single word reply:  If  

Philip decided to give Sparta a miss.

The Spartan characters who appear in Sacred Games are not laconic.  There are several reasons for this, first being that a book in which half the characters speak in mono-syllables is not exactly a positive.

The second reason is that laconic Laconians must be the exception if they wanted to run any form of society, and then there's the natural variation of personality.  Not all Italians gesticulate when they speak!

Surviving examples of laconic speech aren't everyday speech; they're all pithy statements designed to hammer home a point.    And that, I suspect, is the origin of the laconic Laconian: when they wanted to make a point clearly known, it was just a cultural thing that they did it with a short, powerful statement.

I very much doubt they were as dour as the laconic reputation suggests for this reason too:  that among the Greeks they were known as "crickets" as a nickname, because the Spartans were always ready for a song and a community dance.  That doesn't say laconic to me.


Something odd happened last night.  As of a few hours ago, 350,000 different people have visited this web site.

That's 350K as measured by unique internet address.  My regular readers probably use several different addresses, but since we've crossed by a thousand or so it probably comes out in the wash.

I never guessed when I started that it would get so much attention.  I thought a few history nerds might drop in from time to time.  Who are you, and what are you doing here?  I offer these observations, based on the stats:

Not many of you comment.  Thanks so much to the lovely people who do leave a word or two.  There've been some absolutely stunning conversations that leave me amazed at your cleverness and knowledge.   In fact, when it comes to brainpower, you guys are scary.

A lot of you are doing homework.  (Hi kids!)  How do I know that?  From the search expressions that bring you here.  Speaking of which...

I am #1 on Google for the search term "ancient Greek toilet".  Says it all, really.

A surprising number of you want to know how to use autocorrect in Word.  Even more of you want to convert all your letters to uppercase.

The most popular posts overall are the ones about bizarre ways to die.  Though the people who visit those via search engines usually just read them and go.  Maybe it was something I said.

About 8,000 of you are in China, which is rather odd considering there's no Chinese edition.  Either that, or I've sold 8,000 English edition books in China that I'm not aware of.  Or maybe they have the world's largest ancient history class.  I suppose we must hope for the last.

Only a handful of you are Greek!

I'm still puzzling over why so much of the comment spam that I have to eliminate points to divorce lawyers in America.  Is there something about ancient history that causes divorce?

In Praise of Timodemus: translating classical Greek

Today is release day for Sacred Games!  Which means I will studiously avoid reading the early reviews -- for that way lies obsessive compulsive behaviour -- and instead will write about an ultra-nerdy subject related to the book.

Do you need to know classical Greek to write murder mysteries set in classical Greece?  No.  But sometimes it helps.  Sacred Games is unique in that it's the only book to date in which I've used a quote that I translated myself.

I discovered early on in the series that the translations by classics professors are so vastly better than my own slow and feeble efforts that there was no point in trying.  I was much better off reading the translations from Penguin Classics, Loeb Library, and the online Perseus Digital Library.  The Penguin versions are the most literary, Loeb the most accurate, and Perseus the most literal.

This works brilliantly, since usually I only need information.  The experts translate the history and I get on with turning it into stories.

I ran into trouble with Sacred Games because one of the main characters is a lad named Timodemus, a for-real Olympic athlete of classical Athens who as it happens had a poem written about him by the famous praise singer Pindar.  The first stanza of that poem was so directly relevant to my murder that I wanted to include it up front.

Here's the original (from the Perseus edition):


 ὅθεν περ καὶ Ὁμηρίδαι
ῥαπτῶν ἐπέων τὰ πόλλ᾽ ἀοιδοὶ
ἄρχονται, Διὸς ἐκ προοιμίου: καὶ ὅδ᾽ ἀνὴρ 
 καταβολὰν ἱερῶν ἀγώνων νικαφορίας δέδεκται πρῶτον Νεμεαίου
ἐν πολυυμνήτῳ Διὸς ἄλσει.

Don't panic.  Here is the translation from Perseus:

For Timodemus of Acharnae Pancratium

Just as the Homeridae, the singers of woven verses,
most often begin with Zeus as their prelude, 
so this man has received a first down-payment of victory in the Sacred Games
by winning in the grove of Nemean Zeus, which is celebrated in many hymns. 

Praise songs were written to be sung, but this doesn't exactly trip from the tongue.  The Loeb and Penguin versions were much better, but I felt bad about using their work.  Besides, in a moment of hubris (a fine Greek word) I decided I could do a better job.

Herewith is my own version, as it appears at the front of Sacred Games:

In Praise of Timodemus

So as the bards begin their verse
With hymns to the Olympian Zeus,
So has this hero laid the claim
To conquest in the Sacred Games.

Homeridae is classical code for someone who follows Homer (a poet).  I replaced it with bard.  Pindar never used six words where sixty-six could be squeezed in.  He wasn't paid by the word, but you'd never guess it.  I removed the "singers of woven voices" and "Nemean Zeus, celebrated in many hymns".  (In passing, Pindar's Greek reminds me a lot of the flowery English of late 1700s and early 1800s.)   The bit about "received a first down-payment" is very literal (καταβολὰν really means payment!) but lacks a certain poetry.  "Laid the claim" works a trifle better.  The literal title is "Timodemus of Acharnae, Pankratist"  but in English we'd say "In Praise of..."   My version rhymes, which as everyone knows poetry should.

So if you don't count changing almost all the words and completely altering the meter, I pretty much left it alone.  I hope Pindar's psyche will forgive me.

Erasure Poem, by Kitty

This idea is too cool.  Over at a certain sharkly agent's web site, a reader named Kitty posted in comments a poem based on The Pericles Commission.

I was astounded (and flattered).  Here, with her permission, is The Pericles Commission, the Erasure Poem version, by Kitty:

A dead man at my feet 
lay facedown in the dirt 
shot through the heart. 
The body was warm to my touch 
his wound, slippery and wet 
I heard the footsteps of someone coming 
perhaps the killer 
I stepped backward to take cover

How did she create this?  Here's the first page of The Pericles Commission, with a few erasures:

The shark that gave evidence

Back in 1935 in Sydney, Australia, a captured shark was put on display at the beach-side aquarium at a place called Coogee.  This got a lot of attention because sharks are fascinating, and this one was a tiger shark, which is dangerous, aggressive, and rarely taken alive.

People queued to see the shark, and so it was that the shark, eight days later, before a crowd of women and children, suddenly vomited up a human arm.

Needless to say this caused some excitement.

It was assumed the arm belonged to some unlucky swimmer.  Then the forensics people examined it.  They declared that the arm had unquestionably been severed by a sharp implement such as a cleaver before the shark had swallowed it.  This shark had just coughed up evidence of a murder.

Further evidence showed that the body, or at least this arm, had been eaten by a smaller shark.  The smaller shark had almost immediately been eaten by the larger shark, and the larger shark had then been taken alive by a fisherman and put in the aquarium.

You've got to feel sorry for the murderer at this point.  How unlucky can you get?  I really feel quite strongly that the killer had done everything right to hide his crime and if there was any justice in this world he'd have got away with it.

Incredibly, despite having been in the digestive juices of two sharks, the arm still showed a clear tattoo of two boxers, and police were able to get fingerprints.  (I leave to your imagination what fun it must be to collect fingerprints from an arm that's been inside two sharks.)

The arm belonged to one Jim Smith, a small-time crook who, funnily enough, hadn't been seen recently.

It turned out that Jim Smith in addition to being a crook was also a police informer, so he had no shortage of enemies.  The police followed procedure and quickly fixed on two men: a Patrick Brady, another dodgy character with whom Smith was last seen alive, and a Reginald Holmes.  Holmes owned a boat building business -- which must have been very convenient for feeding any unwanted evidence to sharks -- but moreover Holmes was strongly believed to use speedboats built by his company to smuggle drugs into the country from passing cargo ships.  The victim Smith had once worked for Holmes, probably driving those drug-laden speedboats, but the two had since become enemies due to a failed insurance scam.

Police questioned Brady and Holmes but couldn't get quite enough evidence.  Then Holmes drove one of his speedboats into the middle of Sydney Harbour, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head.

Except he missed.  Holmes fell out of the boat and would have drowned if his arm (ironically) hadn't been caught up in a rope.  He climbed back on board, by which time the water police were chasing him because the pistol shot had attracted their attention.  They got him after a four hour chase.

Back on land, Holmes now agreed to testify against Brady.  Which might have gone well enough, except that on the morning of the inquest, Holmes's body was found slumped over in his car with three gunshot wounds.

Meanwhile, Brady's lawyer argued that without the body, Jim Smith might still be alive, though with an arm missing.  This gets points for imagination if nothing else.

Without sufficient evidence, and with Holmes dead, Brady went free.  If this were a novel then the detective would have formed a close emotional bond with the shark and the two of them would have solved the crime at the last moment, but sadly I must report that the murder remains technically unsolved to this day.

Gary speaks at Holroyd Library

If you happen to be in Sydney, Australia, I'll be speaking at Holroyd Library at 10.30am on Friday 7th June.

Here's the link to the event page:

If you're coming, please press the register button so they know how many to expect.  There'll be a book club there for sure, and they'd love to see you too; I promise it's one of the happiest, most welcoming libraries in the land.

Thanks very much to Librarian Extraordinaire Charina for the invite.  I spoke there last year and it was lots of fun, due almost entirely to the lively audience and their terrific comments.  So if you can make it, I'd love to see you!

Working titles

I guess this might interest a few of the writer-types among us.  When you sell a book, the title on the front of your ms isn't necessarily the title that will appear when it pops out as a real printed book.  That's why they call them working titles.

The original working title for The Pericles Commission was The Ephialtes Affair.  At the time, you see, I was thinking in terms of an Agatha Christie title scheme.  The Mysterious Affair At Styles... The Ephialtes Affair.

Then I sold the book.  Or rather, my brilliant agent sold the book.

After the editors had finished recoiling in horror, it was clear the title would have to change.  To start with, Ephialtes is an incredibly awkward name for a title.  Secondly, affair has another meaning.  Was this book about a love affair with a Greek shipping magnate?

This is the point where an author needs to be more in love with the idea of a successful book, than in love with his own words.  Luckily for me, I'm entirely devoid of sentimentality.  The only problem was to come up with a new naming scheme.

It was me who came up with The Pericles Commission, but it could have been any one of the five of us who were thinking about a new title.  Consensus came when we realized this wasn't a Christie-like series; it was more like Robert Ludlum.   So I moved from an Agatha Christie naming scheme to a Robert Ludlum naming scheme.

Having learned the lesson with book 1, you'd think I'd get the title for book 2 right, wouldn't you?  I did, sort of.  The working title was The Magnesia Sanction.

All was well until the editor pointed out that in America, the only use of the word magnesia was in milk of magnesia, which is used to treat bowel complaints.  Perhaps that was an association we would wish to avoid.  

The Magnesia Sanction became The Ionia Sanction.   The city of Magnesia was in the province of Ionia, so it was an easy fix.  If anything it sounds better.

Which brings us to Sacred Games.  It's the first time my working title has survived!

Reading Order

I had an email from a wonderful reader named Sandra, who very sensibly asked what's the right order to read the books of the series?

That was when I realized that silly Gary has never written it down, so here for the record is the book sequence:

The Pericles Commission

The Ionia Sanction

Sacred Games

The next book in line has working title The Marathon Conspiracy.  Working titles don't always stick, so stay tuned on that.

Each book is written to stand on its own, so technically it doesn't really matter in what order you pick them up.  I know for sure some readers have come to the series starting with book 2 or 3, and then gone to Pericles Commission.

Of course if a character appears in a later book, then you know they survived any earlier books!  Beyond that unavoidable information, I'm careful to omit spoilers on who did it from earlier adventures.

Sacred Games: Gary has books!

A box of these arrived the other day:

Which means we're all printed and ready to go!  Official release date is May 21.

Meanwhile, the fourth book is with my brilliant editor, and I'm 20,000 words into the fifth.

A Cherry History

Cherries have been around since forever.  Cherry stones regularly appear at neolithic sites across Europe and the Middle East.  Back in those days of course they were all wild cherries.

The earliest mention of cultivating cherries comes from classical Greece.  It's in a book called Enquiry Into Plants by a chap named Theophrastus.  Theophrastus was a student of Aristotle (who was in turn taught by Plato, whose teacher was Socrates, who was taught by Diotima.)  This puts him about a hundred years after the time of Nico and Diotima.

It's clear from his text that cherry orchards have been around for some time.  The dating on the first cherry orchard can be bookended because cherries don't get a mention in Hesiod's book Works and Days.  Hesiod is more or less the same date as Homer, and Works and Days is like the archaic Greek version of The Dummy's Guide to Farming.  Cultivated cherries probably are a late archaic or a classical creation.


Sabazios sounds like a name that should belong to a composer of classical music, but he is in fact an ancient Phrygian god. The cult of Sabazios made it into Athens some time in the mid-400s BC.    Which we know for sure because by the end of the 400s Aristophanes had written a play (now lost) in which Sabazios is ejected from the city.

The odd thing is that although the Athenians were extremely tolerant of other religions, they disliked this particular cult.   The orator Demosthenes once attacked a political enemy by claiming he partook in rites to Sabazios.  The clear implication was that anyone who worshiped Sabazios was a disreputable crackpot.

Demosthenes also says the rites involved frenzied dancing while holding snakes and chanting, "Euoi saboi!  Euoi saboi!"

The -zios part of Sabazios is cognate with the Greek Zeus and the Latin Deus. Despite which, the Greeks associated Sabazios with Dionysos.  Herodotus refers to the Phrygians worshipping Dionysos in contexts where he clearly means Sabazios.

The most viable explanation is that in Phrygia, Sabazios was a god of the harvest and of barley in particular, thus probably with beer making.   Aristophanes in one of his comedies refers to "the sleep of Sabazios" to mean guardsmen who've drifted off after drinking.  While in Athens, Dionysos was the god of the harvest and of wine. 

There are problems with this though. Archaic images of what's believed to be Sabazios show him on horseback and carrying a staff, which isn't particularly agricultural.  Even well into Roman times, the rites of Sabazios continued to involve orgiastic dancing while holding live snakes. While this sounds like fun, the snakes are not even remotely agricultural.

Finally, every shrine to Sabazios had its own Hand. The Hand was always a sculpture, shown upright, in a pose of benediction that might look familiar to modern church goers. Here are some hands of Sabazios:


These are from the British Museum, Harvard, and the Walters Museum.  The Hand of Sabazios usually holds something, an acorn or a snake or sometimes even a small figure.

The teenager's guide to WW1

My teenage daughter's current assignment in her history class is to write a war correspondent report from the trenches of Gallipoli during WW1.  While I wouldn't normally stick into this blog anything that was both family and school, I can't resist her first draft;  I herewith give you a teenager's take on WW1:


We’re here in this stupid &#^#%@ bay and all about to die L except everyone’s trying to be all honourable and we’re just like meh. 

The Turks aren’t very good at aiming coz we’re all still alive.

I miss my teddy bear, and my nice warm bed.  Trenches are like SO unfashionable.

Day to day fighting includes the same routine as everywhere else: Aim, fire, shoot, duck.  Repeat.

If this telegram is sent you in error please do NOT (repeat NOT) serve it with broccoli.  It should instead be lightly stewed for best results add sugar.  Thankyou.

Love from

Falshywalshy Official War Idiot Correspondent who volunteered for this (that was dumb o.o)

PS.  Someone just died next to me.  I suspect oxygen suffocation from laughter.

Your story begins on page 100: a cool critique letter by Robert Heinlein

This might interest the writers among us.  The Mote in God's Eye is a very famous SF novel written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle back in 1973.  They sent the manuscript to Robert Heinlein to check over.  Heinlein's regarded by many as the greatest SF author ever, and at that time he was at the height of his powers.

Heinlein was so fascinated by The Mote in God's Eye that he spent five days  reading and critiquing the ms, then he sent back a 17 page letter that clinically pointed out Niven and Pournelle's copious errors.

Quite by accident I discovered Heinlein's critique is online at The Virginia Edition. Virginia was the name of Heinlein's wife and this appears to be a site publishing Heinlein's complete works.  In any case the link goes to a PDF sampler that includes the critique.  Open the PDF, scroll down to page 15 and start reading.

What struck me is that Heinlein's critique reads much like the best sort of responses that you find within critic groups these days.  The difference being that this one's written by one of last century's most successful authors.

There are phrases in there that will resonate with most authors, and will definitely resonate with my literary agent.  Phrases such as, "Your story begins on page 100."  Heinlein lays into Niven and Pournelle for their poor English (two ultra-respected authors, mind you!).  He was a former naval officer and he dissects their naval etiquette in detail.  But mostly it's the way he thinks in terms of what makes a book work that I find instructive.  Plus these words of sage advice: "Cut, cut, cut."

I'd suggest reading the book first.  It's long but will reward you.  Then read the critique. You can actually see where Heinlein's advice changed the novel.

The book went on to become a bestseller.

Bunnies, eggs and Easter

It seems to have become a tradition that every year at this chocolatey time I talk about what Easter bunnies and Easter eggs have to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The answer is, nothing at all!   The word Easter comes from a Germanic pagan fertility Goddess called Eostre, if you speak Old English, or Ostara, if you speak Old High German. It just so happens that the month we call April, the people who spoke Old English called Eostre's Month.

The first mention in history of the original Easter festival comes from no less than the Venerable Bede, a brilliant monk who lived in England in the 600s AD. Bede was a major player in the hot subject of his day: how to calculate when the death and rebirth of Jesus should be celebrated. He wrote a book about it called De Ratione Temporum which means On Calculating Time.

Bede's calculation landed the Christian event in Eostre's Month (April!). Bede commented in the same book, in an almost offhand way, that Eostre's Month traditionally saw the locals hold festivals in honour of the pagan goddess Eostre.

Bunnies are particularly good at doing the fertility thing, and eggs have the obvious meaning.  Bunnies and eggs therefore are the symbols of the German fertility goddess.  This all got mixed up with the Christian event and since no one in their right minds turns down chocolate, I don't think they'll be separating any time soon.

I went looking for a decent translation of Bede's original comment and the best I could find was from, who in turn got it from a translation by Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press 1988, pp.53-54.
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated "Paschal month", and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.  Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.  

Happy Eostre / Ostara / Easter !

Military reconstructionists

I've previously said that for book research I prefer to trust original ancient sources over modern ones, but there's one field where I would never dare to question the modern experts, and that's the people who are into military re-enactment.  I don't think there's anyone more into getting details right than these guys.

You've probably heard of the Society for Creative Anachronism.  SCA is more mediaeval than ancient, though it does have its ancient enthusiasts.  SCA covers all the aspects of past times, but anyone who's ever been to a SCA festival could tell you it's the skirmish combats that get the crowds.

There are similar re-enactment groups who're more ancient oriented, though the organisations don't seem to be as closely knit so if you're interested you'd need to google around for what's in your area.  Most of them are into Roman army reconstruction but there are some Greek Hoplite groups too.

A good place to start would be Ancient Warfare Magazine.  I'm pretty sure most of the people who write or read it are into doing re-enactments.  (No, I don't do this myself, but it's fun to watch.)

Despite its name, the Roman Army Talk forum has a substantial Greek section.  These guys are awesome for minute details about how people used to slaughter each other.   If you want the pros and cons of holding your spear overhand vs underhand, then this is the place to be.  Their knowledge of military history would  rival that of any Oxford don.

I don't need this sort of information very often, because Nico's not into regular army life.  When he gets into a fight, it's invariably a street brawl in some grotty back alley, or else a tavern brawl (I had such fun writing the barroom fight in Ionia Sanction).

But when I do need soldierly detail, the re-enactors have the advantage that they've actually tried out in real life the stuff that's mentioned in original sources.  They bring a certain practicality to the subject that makes it easier to sort out from the original sources what's likely true and what might be false.

The Brazen Bull

Here's another exotic way to die horribly.  (If you're wondering why I so often return to this've come to the web site of a murder mystery author.)

The scene is Acragas, a city in Sicily. The time is about a hundred years before Nico and Diotima, so we're talking 6th century BC.   Back then Sicily was Greek and Acragas was ruled by a tyrant named Phalaris, who was renowned for his cruelty.  

In fact, the reputation of Phalaris was so well-known that an Athenian by the name of Perillos came to the tyrant with a suggestion.  Why not, he said, build a bull out of hollowed bronze?  The tyrant's enemies could be shut inside and then a fire set underneath the brazen beast's body so that the tyrant's enemies roasted to death.  

Phalaris thought roasted enemy was a terrific idea.  He commanded Perillos to build the brazen bull.  The statue had a door in the side for easy access.  Pipes were installed inside that ran to a horn in the bull's mouth, so that the victim's screams would emerge as a bull's roar.  

Quite why Perillos came to the tyrant with the idea in the first place is unknown, but presumably he was either in it for the money or else was a fellow-traveling sadist.  Either way, legend has it that when the bull was ready for its first run, that Phalaris the Tyrant ordered Perillos be the first victim.  This is so neatly according to the usual narrative that it's probably an invention.

The brazen bull, however appears to have been a for-real instrument of torture.  No less than Pindar mentions it in a praise song, a hundred years after the event.  (This is the same Pindar who appears in Sacred Games, which is what brought the whole story to my attention.)  Pindar had this to say:
The kindly excellence of Croesus does not perish, but Phalaris, with his pitiless mind, who burned his victims in a bronze bull, is surrounded on all sides by a hateful reputation.
Pindar takes it for granted that everyone knows the story of the brazen bull.  Phalaris clearly had a public relations problem.

Cicero and Diodorus get into the act a few hundred years later.  Between them they say that the brazen bull was eventually captured by the Carthaginians who took if back to Carthage.  Since the Carthaginians most certainly did practice human sacrifice, there's a fair chance the brazen bull saw continued use.  It was later returned to its home by Scipio after he conquered Carthage, after which the brazen bull somewhat thankfully disappears from history.

Publishers Weekly starred review for Sacred Games

"Corby integrates the political intrigue of the day with fair-play plotting and welcome doses of humor.  Fans of Steven Saylor's Gordianus novels will be enthralled."

This review of Sacred Games appeared in today's issue of Publisher's Weekly.  The review was starred (which is a cherry on top) and placed in its own box (which is extra whipped cream).  Reviews are always a précis followed by a verdict, and let me tell you, it's the verdict that an author's eyes always lock onto in the first micrososend.

Here's the entire thing:
The Olympic Games of 460 BCE form the backdrop for Australian author Corby's third mystery featuring Athenian investigator Nicolaos (after 2011's The Ionia Sanction), his best thus far.
Before they even begin, Nico's oldest friend, Timodemus, a martial arts champion, is goaded into a public fight by his fiercest rival, a Spartan named Arakos.  That confrontation makes Timodemus the prime suspect after Arakos is found battered to death.
Desperate to save his friend from summary execution, Nico manages to convince "the ten Judges of the Games" to give him several days to find the truth.  Doing so could avert a war between Athens and Sparta.
Partnered with a Spartan, Markos, to avert bias in his findings, and aided by his feisty fiancée, Diotima, Nico has an especially twisted path to tread to reach an answer in time. 
Corby integrates the political intrigue of the day with fair-play plotting and welcome doses of humor.  Fans of Steven Saylor's Gordianus novels will be enthralled.

Free copies of Sacred Games for US readers!

The lovely people at Soho Press are giving away 40, yes forty, copies of Sacred Games.

To enter, you need to go to the giveaway page on GoodReads by clicking on this link.  Then follow the bouncing ball.

These copies are all ARCs. Which means Advance Reader Copies. Which means they were printed before copyedits.  Which means you get to see the Genuine Typos™ that were in the manuscript when I submitted it.  (In fact, it's remarkably clean.).

Offer closes 5th March!

Drug addiction in ancient Greece

For no obvious reason, this occurred to me today: that there's no real mention of drug addiction in the classical world.

It's not because of ancient drug laws, because there weren't any.  Nor is it necessarily due to lack of drugs, although the choice was a lot more limited.  Herodotus mentions that the Scythians used to throw hemp seeds on the hot stones of their steam baths.  But nowhere does anyone mention Scythians becoming so addicted to their baths that they refused to leave them.

Alcohol was in plentiful supply, to put it mildly.  In fact wine was probably safer to drink than the water.  There were many drunken parties every week.  But you're hard pressed to read of anyone being described as a drunkard until you get to Roman times.

The men of Alexander's army are described as frequently and copiously drunk, but this didn't stop them from conquering the entire known world.  They performed very well indeed and don't seem to have craved drink so much as consumed it whenever it was available.  Alexander did, in a drunken rage, kill one of his friends, but notice that even while blind drunk he was functioning quite well.

Men like Alcibiades were famed for their dissolute lifestyles, but no one suggested for a moment that their bad habits impaired their function.  Quite the opposite in fact; men marveled that Alcibiades could live as he did and not only still stand up, but also be a great leader.

Painkiller abuse was possible.  Hemlock is a powerful painkiller if you don't mind teetering on the brink of death.  (Sort of like a lot of modern drugs, really.)   The number of people reported for hemlock abuse is, as far I know, zero.

Ditto for poppy juice, which is much closer to modern drugs.  They knew how to make it, and there's speculation it may have played a part with some oracles, yet I can't think of an instance where anyone wrote, "So-and-so was addicted to the juice of the poppy."

Why the lack of junkies?  It might be because junkies don't tend to make it into history books.  Yet there are other periods when such people did.  It might be because natural selection eliminated addictive personalities very quickly in the ancient world.  My own theory, formed after at least ten minutes of deep thought, is that the ancient Greeks were simply so into looking after themselves physically, and worshiped good physical condition to such an extent, that anyone who deliberately neglected their own health was simply lower than low.  I can't imagine a classical Greek forgiving anyone for substance abuse.  The society pressure to not do it was just that much greater.

(Of course, now that I've mentioned it, someone will probably come up with a hundred famous classical junkies...)