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Popular Historical Myths

For discussions of historical fiction. Threads that do not relate to historical fiction should be started in the Chat forum or elsewhere on the forum, depending on the topic.
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Post by gyrehead » Wed December 17th, 2008, 7:26 pm

I think that it the fuss is caused by the fact that it would suit certain cultural agendas to identify various famous historical figures as either black or white- probably not a very PC comment to make, but there you are!
Yes I can remember there was a lot of anger when the archaeological evidence was released by the Yale-Cambridge group on the strong possibility that North-of-the-Sahara pre-Roman Empire ethnic groups were more Aryan than they were African. There was a strong early eighties movement that insisted Cleopatra was black that was based on the idea to point out that Africa was a rich and strong and vibrant set of cultures and societies long before "white" colonization.

While the later is certainly irrefutable many of the proponents do not like separating Northern Africa from the rest of the continent as they see it diminishing the continent's accomplishments as a whole.

History and archaeology though tend to see Egypt and what was seen as a Gaetulian section of Africa as ethnically separate for some time and later melding much more with the various Asian groups as they expanded and immigrated. One of the best lectures I was privileged to attend at the Cairo Museum on the Hyksos and the Nubian "foreign" dynasties made what I thought was the most apt comparisons. Namely that Egypt and the Numidian regions were more like India in many regards. Isolated by geography they were ethnically a rather distinct peoples in a region (The Mediterreanan) that was very same-same. Which is why culturally there was sometimes seen as a greater remove between say Romans and Carthaginians, or Greeks or PErsians than an ethnic one. Appearance wise there was not a huge difference in skin tone. Records on the Nubians, particularly in how the Egyptians defined and viewed them though strongly suggest that they and the Greeks and later the Romans all did have strong skin tone prejudices. Going by both nineteenth and later twenty fifth dynasty records on, Egyptians clearly saw themselves more in line with the ethnic likes of the Hittities and the Babylonians and Assyrians than they did their sub-Saharan neighbors.

And looking at the reactions Romans and Greeks had towards the northern invasions, it seems equally clear that East versus West was actualy much more politics while North and South were more ethnic. Which is hardly what gets played out here. The Macedonians disdain for Persians seemed more favored status oriented and custom oriented than racial bigotry. Much more wariness and racial fears seem to arise whenever the Illyrians came storming down into the Greek Penisula and the Romans were even worse about the Cimbrii and such.

The lack of any real diatribes beyond Cleopatra not being Roman seems to indicate that her ancestry was identifable as being Greek or Aramaic in origin. We don't know who her mother was or who Auletes' mother was in terms of ethnicity but Cicero and the same patrician class that still viewed Latins as inferior certainly did. I strongly suspect that Cato would have had plenty to say if Cleopatra had black ancestry (in fact as her father is the most damning of her ancestors in her contemporary enemies' eyes, it seems that the rest of her provenance was not only known but also relatively respectable to staid Roman bigots). Simply because the purists of the time did draw distinctions at a time when marrying a Latin state native was allowed but a hurdle and even marrying a Greek was basically surrendering one's birthright. Marrying someone from Asia Minor or any the Eastern states was seen much the same as the Victorian English would have someone going "native". Heck just moving to Athens or to Bithynia was either a huge punishment or a huge social gaffe.

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Post by Kveto from Prague » Wed December 17th, 2008, 8:10 pm

[quote=""annis""]I think that it the fuss is caused by the fact that it would suit certain cultural agendas to identify various famous historical figures as either black or white- probably not a very PC comment to make, but there you are!

Meanwhile, back on the Ptolemies, does anyone remember a historical novel featuring Cleopatra's sister, Arsinoe? I keep having the nagging feeling that I've read one in the past, but can't remember a title or author.[/quote]

i think youve pretty much summed it up there, annis, pc or not. if people are shouting he/she was/wasnt white/black then they obviously have some political/cultural agenda that has little to do with facts or opinions.

the best judges were their contemporaries. if a swarthy skinned writer doesnt make mention of a persons skin colour we can assume their subject was equally swarthy. Romans certainly took note of the skin colours of pale germans and dark nubians.

considering what a hubbub the first sub-saharan african slaves caused in portugal in the 1400s, we can assume people would at least notice/mention skin tones significantly different from their own.

durham does make an interesting point in that "one drop rule" in america. ive seen a lot of black americans who are of much lighter skin tone than many of my Italian in-laws. ive never quite figured it out :-)

cant help you on the cleopatra book, tho. never really been a major area of interest to me. the caesar/cleo/antony angle always seemed overdone to me.

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Post by Ash » Wed December 17th, 2008, 11:27 pm

[quote=""keny from prague""]i think youve pretty much summed it up there, annis, pc or not. if people are shouting he/she was/wasnt white/black then they obviously have some political/cultural agenda that has little to do with facts or opinions. .[/quote]

Heck, there are people now who think Obama is not black enough....Can we say 'more important issues?'

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Post by Volgadon » Thu December 18th, 2008, 8:32 pm

I think it is interesting to know what ethnicity someone was, but I don't attach a huge amount of importance to it. BTW excellent post gyrehead.

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Post by Margaret » Fri December 19th, 2008, 2:18 am

I can relate to the desire among black Americans, with their history of slavery and second-class citizenship, to locate some outstanding historical figures who were black. Women like to read about great women rulers, war leaders, and pioneers in various fields of endeavor, because it helps us believe in ourselves. Those of us who grew up before women entered the workplace in large numbers were subtly or overtly indoctrinated to believe women were less capable and intelligent than men, and it's great to find role models who prove it false.

There were some incredible early cities in Africa, but they are poorly preserved because of the climate, and we don't know much about who lived there. Wasn't Jugurtha, the African king defeated by Sulla before he became Emperor of Rome, black? And as mentioned earlier in this thread, Hasdrubal and Hannibal might be mixed-race candidates.
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Post by annis » Fri December 19th, 2008, 6:39 am

Even earlier came the Kushite Pharaohs of Egypt. National Geographic did an article on them some time ago- quite fascinating.
"Black Pharaohs"
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/ ... per-text/1

Posted by Volgadon
BTW excellent post gyrehead.
Agreed, very interesting and knowledgeable.
Last edited by annis on Fri December 19th, 2008, 6:44 am, edited 1 time in total.


Post by Helen_Davis » Sun December 21st, 2008, 1:21 am

[quote=""annis""]In the interesting if slightly off topic category- I only recently discovered that the use of henna was banned in Spain by the Spanish Inquisition . The Edict of Granada in 1526 sought by the strictest measures to eliminate all manifestations of local culture with Moorish overtones including dress, jewellery, Arabic language, medical practices etc.
Both Christians and Moors used and grew Henna from the 9th century AD to 1567 when the Spanish Inquisition banned its use.[/quote]
The Inquisition essentially kept Spain in the Middle Ages until the 19th century.

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Post by Jack » Fri August 14th, 2009, 7:37 pm

[quote=""Alaric""]This was a popular topic on the old forum so I thought I would bring it back, especially after this news:

http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5i55z ... gD93C4O9O0

LONDON (AP) — The first excavation of Stonehenge in more than 40 years has uncovered evidence that the stone circle drew ailing pilgrims from around Europe for what they believed to be its healing properties, archaeologists said Monday.

"People were in a state of distress, if I can put it as politely as that, when they came to the Stonehenge monument," Darvill told journalists assembled at London's Society of Antiquaries.

He pointed out that experts near Stonehenge have found two skulls that showed evidence of primitive surgery, some of just a few known cases of operations in prehistoric Britain.

"Even today, that's the pretty serious end of medicine," he said. Also found near Stonehenge was the body of a man known as the Amesbury Archer, who had a damaged skull and badly hurt knee and died around the time the stones were being installed. Analysis of the Archer's bones showed he was from the Alps.

The archaeologists managed to date the construction of the stone monument to about 2,300 B.C., a couple of centuries younger than was previously thought.


So it's roughly 2,508 years old then. :) [/quote]

You mean 4,300 years old, right?

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Post by Jack » Fri August 14th, 2009, 7:50 pm

[quote=""annis""]Sorry, Volgadon, I missed your earlier comment on the subject of adonai .

Another historical myth:

That Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the world in the sixteenth century.
Problem- during this historic trip, he was killed by natives in the Philippines, therefore he only made it half-way around the world, leaving it to his second-in-command, Juan Sebastian Elcano, to complete the circumnavigation.

True: When Victoria, the expedition's one surviving ship, returned to the harbor of departure after completing the first circumnavigation of the Earth, only 18 men out of the original 237 men were on board.

Re Cleopatra's hair colour- I have seen references to Cleopatra having red or reddish hair, but I haven't actually seen ancient sources which confirm that. It would fit in with Volgadon's comments. The other possiblity is that she might have used henna, as the custom of using henna to redden the hair was already in practice at that time.[/quote]

Also true is that one of the 18 who made it was a passenger-as opposed to a sailor or soldier. Antonio Piggafetta went along for the adventure-and fortunately wrote about it. It is the most complete account we have of the voyage.

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Post by Chatterbox » Fri August 14th, 2009, 9:12 pm

Volgadon, if you can possibly get to Krak des Chevaliers, do it! It's amazing, you can instantly see exactly why it was so strategic and why it was never taken back, even by Saladin -- it was ultimately abandoned by the Templars. You can probably see for 50 miles or more in any direction.

Re Othello & Africans in London: I'm just now reading Christie Dickason's book about the daughter of James I (Elizabeth of Bohemia); her author's note mentions that Queen Elizabeth had her own blackamoor and that the queen decided to expel black africans in 1596, deciding that there were too many of them around! So Shakespeare could well have seen some, esp. living in London.

Re skin color generally, it seems that what was most striking was the difference to what was known/accepted, rather than ascribing personality traits or intelligence levels to a particular skin color, especially in those early days that were really pre-colonial. No one was going to sneer at an Ottoman ambassador because of his skin color. (Just his religion!) There is a new book by James Reston about the 1521 to 1526 wars between Charles V and Suleiman that I'm about to read, as soon as I finish Andrew Wheatcroft's book about the 17th c siege of Vienna; he seems to deal with Ottomans at the Western courts.

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