Gary in Greece, on Tripod Road

Book research has its advantages when you're the author of The Athenian Mysteries.  I and my family have been in Greece, and it's been a fun and very hectic time.  Here's the view from our hotel room. That's the Acropolis.  It was dusk when we arrived and the first thing we did was take a picture.

So now in the posts to come I will deliver some photos, descriptions, and random thoughts.  Let me begin with Tripod Road.

When I told my literary agent that we were in Athens she replied, "Walking in the steps of Nico and Diotima!"

I replied, "It's funny you should say that, because the hotel we're staying at is on Tripod Road."

In the books, my hero Nicolaos and the lovely Diotima have to walk up and down Tripod Road almost every day.  It's the main road from their house to the agora.

Tripod Road was lined with victory tripods, put up by the winners of the choral contests at the arts festival called the Great Dionysia.  Pericles himself had a victory tripod on Tripod Road, because he funded a winning play.

These days Tripod Road is called Nikodimou Street, but we know it was the original Tripod Road, because there's a single surviving tripod.  It's called the Lysikrates Monument, erected by a very happy fellow named Lysikrates to celebrate a victory at the Great Dionysia some time around 334BC, and it's known to have been built on the west side of Tripod Road.  Here it is, and it's about 100 meters down the road from where we're staying. 

Yes, I know it doesn't look remarkably like a tripod.  The victory monuments became very ornate over time.

So this means every time we walk down the road for the inevitable evening dessert of waffle and chocolate sauce, we are in fact walking in the footsteps of Nico and Diotima.

Classical Greek music

Music is a Greek word and comes directly from the nine Muses, daughters of Zeus who inspired men in the arts.  Mousike techne was the technique of music.  The particular Muse who inspired music was named Euterpe, a name that will be familiar to readers of my books since it's also the name of my heroine Diotima's mother.  

As it happens, we have some surviving notated ancient music.  Which means we can play it.

The ancient Greeks created a tuning system that was the direct ancestor of our major scale.  Their idea was to use a sequence of perfect fifths that wrap around at the octave boundary.  This idea was so successful that we still use it today, slightly modified.

If you check the sequence of major scale notes in our modern tuning system, you'll find that the sequence of root -> fifth -> second -> sixth -> third -> seventh -> fourth is indeed a sequence of fifths (7 semitones each jump), except for the fourth, which is only a 6 semitone jump so that the gap from fourth to the octave would be a perfect fifth and thus complete the cycle.  This was squeezing the ancient system onto a modern instrument with twelve equally spaced pitches, but it works well enough.

So the Greeks invented the white keys on the piano, but they had no idea that the black keys existed. The old tuning system is called Pythagorean, because the first person to write about it was Pythagoras. That's the same Pythagoras who did the theorem about triangle sides that you learned at school. Pythagoras's book is lost, but we know bits of it because Plato, Aristotle and a few others quoted Pythagoras in their own books.

Thus the major scale is at least 2,600 years old (and is probably much older). 

There's also a surviving gravestone on which was written a short piece of ancient music. It's called the Song of Seikilos.  That's it to the left.

The first section is a standard inscription.  It says something like:  I am a gravestone. Seikilos placed me here, an everlasting monument of deathless remembrance.

 Then the next section is a song!  This is hugely important because it's the oldest known complete song for which there is no doubt whatsoever what the notes are.  The lyrics are the engraved words (of course).  But just above the letters you'll see funny, smaller symbols.  That's the music notation.  The position of the symbol above the word shows when to play the note as you sing.  Since it has the lyrics and the melody, this is a lead sheet, in modern parlance.

This gravestone dates to zero AD, give or take a hundred years.  There are fragments of music that are very much older, but none complete, and everything older than the Song of Seikilos requires some educated guess work to reconstruct it.

The lyrics say this:

While you live, shine,
Have no grief at all.
Life exists only for a short while,
And time demands its toll.
There have been lots of renditions of the song.  Here's an instrumental only version that I suspect is very close to what you would have heard if you'd met Seikilos.  This is played by researcher Michael Levy, who built a period instrument.

Honey of Trebizond

I wouldn't recommend putting this on your morning toast, but here is how to make honey of Trebizond.
  1. Plant an entire field of deadly poisonous plants.  
  2. Introduce a bee nest.
  3. Let the bees collect the pollen.
  4. Collect the honeycomb.
The honeycomb and the honey will be toxic.  This really works.  How do we know that?  Because it happened in real life.

Back in ancient times, toward the end of the Roman Republic, the great General Pompey led an army into Asia Minor where he faced the rather competent local ruler Mithridates.  One of his detachments passed through Trebizond, or at least, they tried to.  The locals knew that the honey thereabouts was poisonous, due to the large number of toxic rhododendrons in the area.  But the Romans didn't know that.  They ate the honeycomb and became ill.  The locals immediately attacked and slaughtered the Romans.

Here's what it says in Strabo's Geography (from the Perseus version):
The Heptacomitae [those are the locals] cut down three maniples of Pompey's army when they were passing through the mountainous country; for they mixed bowls of the crazing honey which is yielded by the tree-twigs, and placed them in the roads, and then, when the soldiers drank the mixture and lost their senses, they attacked them and easily disposed of them.

Alas, if only they had paid attention to the classics.  Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the famous mercenary captain Xenophon had written about his men falling ill after eating honeycomb in the same area.

Here's what Xenophon had to say:
Now for the most part there was nothing here which they really found strange; but the swarms of bees in the neighbourhood were numerous, and the soldiers who ate of the honey all went off their heads, and suffered from vomiting and diarrhoea, and not one of them could stand up, but those who had eaten a little were like people exceedingly drunk, while those who had eaten a great deal seemed like crazy, or even, in some cases, dying men. So they lay there in great numbers as though the army had suffered a defeat, and great despondency prevailed. On the next day, however, no one had died, and at approximately the same hour as they had eaten the honey they began to come to their senses; and on the third or fourth day they got up, as if from a drugging.

The catharsis of Delos

In classical times, it was illegal to die on the sacred isle of Delos.  It was also illegal to give birth there.

Delos was the birthplace of two gods: Apollo and Artemis.  That made the tiny island incredibly holy.

There had been a sacred sanctuary on Delos since Minoan times.  There had also been a village of priests and priestesses who served the temples.  The priestly village was on the coast right next to the sanctuary, which was natural enough.  That made it a short walk to work.

But then some time around 540BC, something interesting happened.  The Athenians, who supported Delos with gifts and supplies, took it into their heads to remove all the dead people from around the sanctuary.  Nobody knows exactly why they decided to do this, but it's too weird to have been anything other than an oracle received, either from Delphi or maybe from Delos itself.

Either way, the Athenians turned up at Delos en masse.  They dug up every body in the village cemetery and relocated the corpses to a new cemetery on the other side of the island.  (This must have been fun.)

Then they dismantled the village and relocated it to the other side of the island too.

This was a catharsis.   We use catharsis for plays and books, but the original meaning was ritual purification. 

From that moment on, it seems, it was illegal to die or be born on Delos.  Fortunately the much larger island of Mykonos was not far off, so if you felt one event or the other coming on, then you could be ferried off the island.  For emergencies there was an even smaller islet called Rhenia, so close by you could almost wade there. 

You're probably wondering what the penalty was for dying, and so am I.  Presumably things couldn't get much worse for you anyway.  Alas we'll never know.

But we're not done yet.  In 426BC, the Athenians decided their ancestors of a hundred years ago hadn't done a good enough job.  They returned to Delos, dug up the bodies from the new cemetery, and carried them off the island completely. 

At that point there was not a single corpse left on the island (except for the two Hyperborean women), and this odd game of move-the-bodies ended.  Delos remained ritually pure until after the death of Alexander, when people became less fussed about such things, and a thriving community moved in.

The Hyperborean Problem

Hyperborea will be known to you if you're a Conan the Barbarian fan.  What is less well known is that this fantasy land might have existed for real.

Hyperborea in Greek means "beyond Boreas".  Boreas was the name of the cold north wind that blew across central Europe.  So Hyperborea is a land far to the north, beyond the cold. (Which is how it ended up being stolen for Conan).

At first glance Hyperborea has about as much reality as Atlantis.  There isn't a shred of archaeological evidence for any such place. 

The difficulty is that, unlike Atlantis, a lot of very credible men talk about Hyperborea as if it exists.  Herodotus says that Hesiod wrote about the Hyperboreans.  Unfortunately that piece of Hesiod has been lost, but Hesiod was Europe's first non-fiction author.  If Hesiod wrote about them, then he thought they existed, rightly or wrongly.

There's also an archaic poem that talks about Hyperboreans, that probably wasn't written by Homer but which is the same sort of time period.

Herodotus himself provides the best evidence, with a short tale that is quite bizarre.  Apparently the Hyperboreans decided to send gifts to the sacred isle of Delos, the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis and possibly the most holy sanctuary in all of Greece. 

Their gifts were carried by two young women, who were sent on the long journey with five male warriors to protect them.  The young women died while on Delos.  It's not clear what killed them, but disease rather than violence is kind of assumed since the women were greatly honoured.  Herodotus states point blank that their tomb is on the left as you enter the temple of Artemis at Delos, and that teenage boys and girls sacrifice to them. 

Now this is a very precise detail!  There might not be two Hyperborean women in that tomb, but the Greeks think there are.  If you ever visit Delos, by the way, you'll be able to go to exactly where the tomb was, because the ruins of the Artemis temple are well known.  Just walk to the entrance and look left.  Sadly there's nothing there now, but you'll also be standing on a spot where Herodotus himself certainly stood.

Herodotus states that when the Hyperboreans realized that their emissaries might not return, they decided to continue to send gifts every year, but to pass them on from one people to the next.  To protect their gifts the Hyperboreans wrapped their gifts in sheathes of wheat.  Then they gave the gifts to their neighbours, with a request to hand them on to the next people to the south.

The Hyperborean Gift thus turned into an international game of pass-the-parcel.  The gift was handed along until it reached Delos.  Multiple authors speculated about the paths the gift took, in an attempt to work out where exactly was this Hyperborea.  The ancient people themselves were none too sure.

But what is undeniable is that the gifts were arriving from somewhere!  Herodotus states, very clearly, that the Hyperborean Gift was still turning up on Delos right up to his present day.

This is a detail impossible to ignore.  Herodotus first "published" his work at the Olympics of 440BC.  There were obviously people from Delos present.  If the gift was not turning up as described, they surely would have put up their hands and pointed out that he was wrong.  It doesn't absolutely prove that Hyperborea existed.  But if not, then someone was playing a strange game (which might be the case).

I think the general consensus among sane people is that the whole thing is a myth.  Personally I have trouble getting past the apparent fact that the gift was arriving in classical times.  Yet Herodotus himself seems doubtful.  I speculate that a quite different and probably well-known tribe was sending the gift and being mislabeled Hyperborean.  But either way, there's a puzzle there for someone to solve!

A fun TED-ED animation about tragedy

Thanks to Monty on twitter for pointing this out!  It goes rather well with Death Ex Machina, and talks about three of my characters.

Book stand as art

This looked so nice, I couldn't resist ripping it off my editor's facebook stream. It's the Soho Press book stand at a recent conference, and it looks like a work of art. This is the creation of Rudy Martinez, Abby Koski, and Meredith Barnes. Well done, ladies and gent.

A lovely review of Death Ex Machina

The American Library Association has a magazine and a web site where they post reviews of books.

This review of Death Ex Machina just came online, and it is rather nice for the book's author to read!

Corby is adept at delineating ancient Greece without sounding professorial. Having Nicolaos as a first-person narrator helps; he’s the ideal tour guide to the theater and the city around it. The characters are a mix of fictional and actual, with the latter including Pericles, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and the child Socrates, who drives everyone crazy with his questions. 

This works on every level.

Death ex Machina Happy Release Day to me!

If murder mysteries set in the ancient world are your thing, then the good news is Death Ex Machina went on the shelves today.

I'm very pleased with this one.  It's the first adventure for Nico and Diotima as a married couple.  For a running series that's a big transition!  How will they cope with the marital state?

The murder is decidedly theatrical, as you can tell from the cover.  Since our heroes are living right at the birth of theatre, there are plenty of big names to make an appearance.

Plus I'm always fond of a good pun, and Death ex Machina was too good to pass up.

I hope you enjoy it.

What do bunnies have to do with Easter?

Happy Easter to you all!

I thought I'd talk about that very important subject: what do bunnies have to do with Easter?

Actually, bunnies have everything to do with Easter.  Bunnies are very fertile little creatures, as we all know, and Easter began life as a Germanic fertility celebration.

The first mention of pagan Easter was in a book written in 703AD by the famous English mediaeval monk The Venerable Bede.  Bede mentions that in Eostre's Month the people celebrated with feasts in honour of the Goddess Eostre.

Eostre was a Germanic goddess, (definitely not classical), possibly also known as Ostara.  It's slightly odd that she doesn't get a mention anywhere else other than Bede, but it's not a huge problem.  Early Germans weren't exactly literate, early Christians weren't exactly fond of pagans (and in any case were very busy expropriating their festivals), and the fact that Easter got taken over complete with original symbolism demonstrates the existence of the original festival.

It didn't take long for Eostre / Ostara to morph into Easter.  Eggs are also a fertility symbol (obviously).  Somewhere along the line the two got mixed together and the Easter Bunny ended up dealing out eggs.

And so here we are, painting eggs and eating chocolate bunnies.  There are worse fates for a goddess.

Death Ex Machina: Publisher's Weekly starred review!

I woke this morning to find congratulations emails in my inbox, because this lovely review has just appeared in Publishers Weekly.  Here it is:

In Australian author Corby’s superior fifth whodunit set in ancient Greece (after 2014’s The Marathon Conspiracy), the city of Athens is preparing to host the Great Dionysia, “the largest and most important arts festival in the world.” 

But the success of the event is in doubt after a series of accidents on the set of Sophocles’s play Sisyphus. The cast members believe this is the work of a ghost. Pericles, the city’s most powerful man, asks Nicolaos, his inquiry agent, to get rid of the ghost. 

Unfortunately, not long after Nico arranges for an exorcism ritual, one of the actors is murdered, suspended from the machine designed to hold the character of Thanatos, the god of death, in midair during the performance. 

Under pressure to find the killer quickly as the festival start date looms, Nico resorts to a clever and amusing ploy to buy more time. 

Corby again manages to effortlessly integrate laugh-out-loud humor into a fairly clued puzzle.

The Silk Road, and the earliest silk out of China

The Silk Road officially opened some time around 200BC, when ambassadors from China turned up in Bactria and Parthia.  They were looking for allies in a war, but they returned to China with tales of strange lands further to the West.  Shortly after that Chinese merchant caravans started arriving in Persia, and the most fascinating trade route in history was well and truly in business.

Two things made the Silk Road possible.  The first was the highway system that the Persians built.  I've previously written about the King's Messengers.  They could get a message from one end of the Empire to the other in an incredible three days.  The main east-west arterial was called the Royal Road, but it wasn't long before it turned into the Middle East section of the Silk Road.  The other building block was that the Han Dynasty took over in China.  The Han assigned troops to keep the roads safe, so that traders had a chance to cross the steppes without being hit by nomad bandits.

By far the biggest trading item was the Chinese wonder-material, an astounding item called silk.  Persians, Greeks, and later on, Romans, were willing to spend very large amounts of gold to get silk.  (Or more accurately, the wives were willing to spend very large amounts of their husbands' money.)

My heroine Diotima acquires some silk in The Ionia Sanction, which she later uses to make a dress.  I made a comment at the time that this made her the first woman in Europe to wear a silk dress.  But my stories are set in the fifth century BC, and the Silk Road didn't open until the second century.   Can Diotima possibly get silk 300 years before the Silk Road exists?

Yes she can.  There was informal trading before the famous road opened.  The reason we know this is rather interesting.

Wherever you find silk in an ancient site, you know for sure there's been contact with China, one way or another.  Because China was the only source of silk.

The earliest known silk outside China occurs in the grave goods of four people in Uzbekistan (Bactria, as it was back then).  The date on those graves is an incredible 1200BC.  That's a minimum, they might be a few hundred years older.

Now Uzbekistan is not far from China, but it's definitely not a silk-producing region, so the silk only got there by trade.  Whoever got that silk to Bactria was a serious adventurer, but it's certain someone did it.  From about 500BC onwards, once the silk makes it to Bactria it can get onto the Persian road system.

The next appearance of silk comes in 1070 BC.  In 1993, a team reported that they had found traces of silk in the hair of an Egyptian mummy.  That's an Egyptian mummy, with silk in 1070BC!

I personally rate the abilities of ancient people highly, but even I found this hard to believe.  I traced the claim.  It appears in correspondence to the science journal Nature.  It's correspondence, not a refereed paper, but as far as I know the claim was never refuted, but nor was the test confirmed.  Nevertheless that makes the idea highly credible.  That's good enough if you're a writer of historical fiction.

So it seems possible if not likely that Chinese goods were trickling into Persia and Egypt starting five hundred years before the time of Nico and Diotima.

The Marathon Conspiracy on sale for $1.99

The Marathon Conspiracy ebook version is on sale at both Barnes & Noble and Amazon for a mere $1.99.

Believe it or not, I didn't know this was happening until people mentioned it on twitter.  It's part of a promotion of detective stories, that ends on 23 March 2015.

Hurry now while stocks last!

A Corinthian helmet with a skull inside, found at Marathon

This picture has been doing the rounds on twitter.  It was pointed out to me by the excellent Loretta Ross (who as it happens is a debut author!), taken from the twitter account of @History-Pics.

The skull at bottom was found inside the helmet!  It was found on the plain of Marathon, where as you surely know was once fought a famous battle.   The helmet and skull therefore is usually described as being from the Battle of Marathon.

So are we looking at one of the heroes of Marathon?  Well, probably not.  But maybe.  Since my book The Marathon Conspiracy recounts the battle at once point, I thought I'd go through the pros and cons of this rather remarkable find:

First off, it's genuine.  This is a for-real Corinthian helmet that dates to the time of Marathon, plus or minus a few decades.  We are absolutely looking at a classical Greek warrior.

The Corinthian style was very popular so it's no problem that it was found at a place where only Athenians fought.

This helmet and skull is old news.  It was discovered in the 1800s by inquisitive amateurs.  They claimed they found it at Marathon.  By modern standards the provenance is horribly broken.  By the standards of Victorian England there's no problem; they're probably telling the truth.

After the battle the Athenians counted their dead.  There were 192 fallen heroes.  They were buried under a mound at the southern end of the battlefield.  The dead were cremated, a little unusually for the time but not outrageously so.  This skull was found elsewhere on the battlefield.  The only way this could be an Athenian from the famous battle would be if the Athenians somehow managed to miss one of the dead.  Since they also buried the Persian dead (their bones were found underneath a vineyard to the north of the battlefield) and since the site was revisited several times over the following days, it seems hard to believe they missed one of their own.

The Athenian casualty list was made public at the time (and parts have been recovered).  If a casualty wasn't on the list, but never came home, someone was bound to say, "Where's Uncle Bob?"  Bob would have been found for sure, because the men who fell at Marathon were treated like Trojan Heroes.

Here's a big problem: in those days, armour was always recovered before a burial.  This was expensive stuff.   It would typically go to the warrior's heir, or be snaffled by someone from the other side.  It might seem a little creepy to go into battle wearing armour that someone had died in, but that's how they did it.

So for those reasons it's far from obvious that this guy fought at Marathon.  He might have died on the plain any time from a few decades before to a few decades after.  He probably wasn't murdered (though that thought crossed my mind) because the helmet is still there.  Any criminal would have taken it.

So the skull in the helmet remains a mystery!

A quiz about Sacred Games

Someone on GoodReads created a quiz about my book Sacred Games.  Incredibly, I managed to get a question wrong about my own book.

I scored 9/10!  See if you can beat me.

Here's the quiz.

Death Ex Machina, and a giveaway!

A theatrical murder sends classical Athens into uproar!

This is the fifth adventure for Nico and Diotima.  I'm afraid life isn't getting any easier for the only private agent in ancient Athens, but at least he has a chance to get into show biz.

In bookstores on May 19, 2015

My astoundingly excellent publisher Soho Press is doing a giveaway on GoodReads.  Click here to enter the giveaway!

Are things getting worse?

With the depressing news of yet another atrocity, this time against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, I thought I'd take a moment to ask whether the world is becoming a worse place, at least in terms of mass murder.  Note this is different to serial murder.  A serial killer kills one person, then waits a long time before killing another.  Mass murder is killing many in a short space of time.

I think it is getting worse.  The solo mass murderer, or death delivered by a handful of deranged people, is a modern phenomenon.

I can't recall from the ancient world, or even the mediaeval, or the Renaissance, or even in Elizabethan times, a single instance of mass murder being conducted by one man acting on his own.

The reason is easy to see.  In the time of my hero Nicolaos, the most powerful individual weapon available was a bronze sword.  A nutter could kill at most a few people in the street before being taken down.

And a mass murderer would be taken down quickly.  In a world without a police force, citizens were naturally inclined to intervene when they saw a crime being committed.  Surviving court cases from classical Athens that involve violence in public always mention passers-by running into the action.   Not something you see much these days.

But a modern mass murderer can do a whole lot better than a bronze sword.  The growth in power of lethal force that can be carried by a single individual is incredibly important.

The same nutter today would have a couple of automatic weapons, hundreds of rounds of ammo, a pouch of grenades, and maybe a few bombs to plant. He could kill hundreds.

Then there's the unfortunate fact that there are more people inclined to mass murder.

The population today is 7 billion.   In Nico’s time it was roughly 200 million. The percentage of the population inclined to mass murder is small and probably hasn't changed, but population growth means there are thirty-five times more dangerous maniacs walking the planet today than in the ancient world.

Never mind that there are also thirty-five times more good guys.  Good guys don't commit crimes, good news never moves, and bad news spreads like wild fire.

When you add that many potential mass murderers to the extra lethal technology they can carry, it doesn't look good.

Sacred Games for $1.99 on Nook

Barnes & Noble has price-matched the Amazon offer for Sacred Games.  So if you're a Nook reader then don't feel left out!

You can get Sacred Games for $1.99 here.

Sacred Games for $1.99 on Kindle

Sacred Games is a kindle monthly deal this month.  That means if you're a kindle reader then you can buy it for the grand total of $1.99.

If political shenanigans and a sports murder at the ancient Olympics are your thing then this is the book for you.

"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."

—Publishers Weekly, starred review