HUMAN REALITIES BEHIND THE RELICS
As an historical fiction writer, I want to understand what the society I am depicting (in my case ancient Athens in mid-5th century BC) was really like, not just for accuracy but because it affects the attitudes and behaviour of my characters, maybe even what characters I create.
We have a fairly clear idea from written sources, for instance, of what the Athenian family was like. These tell us that married women stayed in the home in the women’s quarters, running the household, raising the children, overseeing the slaves, while the husband kept to his own rooms, was out all day when not away at war (a frequent occurrence), dined out often with friends, and visited his wife’s bed only enough to procreate a few kids, preferably male. No real family life at all.
Yet several carvings on tombs show just that – happy domestic scenes with husband and wife sitting together, children nearby, baby being dandled by husband. How does that fit in? If one set of evidence contradicts the other, which way do we go?
The received wisdom is that women didn’t go out or, when they did, they were heavily veiled and accompanied by watchful and protective slaves. Yet here is an image of a coy young woman with no veil being greeted politely by a young man. On that count, on what occasion could this have happened? And there is a carving showing a woman who has bought a rooster in the market taking it home in what appears to be a cab (a two-wheeled chariot) sitting on the cabby’s knee as he holds the reins. Could she be a slave? Well, just maybe.
There again is a clean-shaven man with a woman looking very like a married couple going shopping together – he is carrying the basket and they look as though they may be having a row. How does that fit in? Her calves are exposed too. Maybe they are from a lower class? But then, almost by definition, such people would be more numerous than the upper class. So why don’t we regard that as the norm?
And all those women dancing with men at parties or religious festivals, are they all slaves or prostitutes? Some of them look extremely well dressed but none of them are wearing veils.
So who do we believe? The word of the few upper class male writers whose work has survived, possibly describing the world as they would like it to be, or the artists and sculptors portraying life as it was actually lived? More important – which makes for the more interesting fiction? Perhaps these people weren’t quite as different from us as the historians make out. Or maybe there was an inner struggle going on in some individuals between the social rules and their natural human inclinations. Now there’s something I can make use of!
As a writer, I look at fragments of evidence and ask myself what they imply for ordinary people. That painting of a merchant ship on a piece of a vase (the only such representation we have), that would probably carry passengers as well as cargo. On a voyage across the Aegean or to the Black Sea coast, those passengers could get mighty thirsty in the summer sun, even if they found a harbour every night. So where would they get water? A photo of a giant earthenware amphora-shaped vessel gave me the answer. It had handles all over it implying, to me, that it was intended to hang in a leather or rope harness on a ship, so that any liquid inside wouldn’t be spilled by the tossing and swaying of the ship. Yet it would be possible to lower a dipper into it to remove water for drinking. Deduction from human necessity. That water-holding vessel actually went on to become the murder weapon in Death Comes by Amphora (the photo had shown the cracks where it had been stuck together again). Fragments have their uses.
I’m sure other writers have similar experiences, so I’d appreciate any comments or anecdotes.
My thanks to Sarah for inviting me to guest here today.
Roger Hudson is the author of Death Comes by Amphora, of which more on www.rogerhudson.me.uk