Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Historical References

In this week's blog post, we thought it'd be fun to go over the various historical inspirations and references used when building Hellenica's world. Of course, given that the Greeks are riding trains and fighting battles in steam-powered mechs, we weren’t overly concerned with historical accuracy. However, we wanted to have a good handle on the myriad interesting cultures, people, and events of the period. This gives us a wealth of narrative material to draw from and helps us keep an internal consistency to the world.

It might seem silly to use historical books in the age of the all-knowing wikipedia. But we found that while books can't compete with the online encyclopedia's raw breadth of knowledge, they can provide context and narrative you might completely miss just jumping between wikipedia articles.

Case in point is the awesome Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece, which served as my main jumping-off point into researching Greek history. It takes a novel approach for a history book in that its chapters are divided not by time periods, but by concepts. As a result the reader isn't as bludgeoned with dates and can really become immersed in each chapter’s topic. The chapter breakdown also makes it a handy reference and brainstorming book, and if we need ideas for a given aspect of our setting we can just read the relevant chapter. Additionally, this book features a 6-page “who’s who” list of ancient Greeks which we combed diligently to help fill out the supporting characters in our setting.

My next main reference book, A History of Greece by J.B. Bury, is an entirely different animal. It’s essentially a mammoth timeline, exhaustively documenting Greek history up to and including Alexander the Great over the course of 800 pages. It’s a much less accessible work, but a great reference if we want to know all the minutiae surrounding a specific event. It also has one of the best maps of ancient Greece we’ve found.

The next two books are similar in that they both center on the relatively narrow time period of our setting, Athen’s Golden Age and its decline, albeit with different focuses. Where Great Cities of the Ancient World (specifically, the “Violet-Crowned Athens” chapter) concentrates mainly on the politics of the period, Lords of the Sea focuses on the naval developments and battles which influenced the course of Athenian history. The temporal scope of these books and narrative nature made them good tools for getting the feel of Greece (particularly Athens) in the time of our setting. They also were the source of some excellent quotes.

Here’s Great Cities delineating JRPG-ready world cultures for us:
“The city-states diverge widely in their cultures. The Spartans went in for austere militarism, the Corinthians for trade and luxury, the Thebans for rustic stolidity, and the Athenians for intellect.”

And I’ll end the post with two longish quotes about the Athenians of this period.

Lords of the Sea, describing an Athenian general:
All those gifts of mind and spirit that set Athenians apart shone at their brightest in Phormio: optimism, energy, inventiveness, and daring; a determination to seize every chance and defy all odds; and the iron will to continue the fight even when all seemed lost--even when the enemy had already begun to celebrate their victory.

And what the Spartans were told about the Athenian industriousness:
And you have never considered what manner of men are these Athenians with whom you will have to fight, and how utterly unlike yourselves. They are revolutionary, equally quick in the conception and in the execution of every new plan; while you are conservative-careful only to keep what you have, originating nothing, and not acting even when action is most necessary. They are bold beyond their strength, they run risks which prudence would condemn; and in the midst of misfortune they are full of hope. Whereas it is your nature though strong, to act feebly; when your plans are most prudent, to distrust them; and when calamities come upon you, to think that you will never be delivered from them.
They are impetuous, and you are dilatory, they are always abroad, and you are always at home. For they hope to gain something by leaving their homes; but you are afraid that any new enterprise may imperil what you have already. When conquerors, they pursue their victory to the utmost; when defeated, they fall back the least. Their bodies they devote to their country as though they belonged to other men; their true self is their mind, which is most truly their own when employed in her service. When they do not carry out an intention which they have formed, they seem to have sustained a personal bereavement; when an enterprise succeeds, they have gained a mere installment of what is to come, but if they fail, they at once conceive new hopes and so fill up the void. With them, to hope is to have, for they lose not a moment in the execution of an idea.
This is the life-long task, full of danger and toil, which they are always imposing upon themselves. None enjoy their good things less, because they are always seeking for more. To do their duty is their only holiday, and they deem the quiet of inaction to be as disagreeable as the most tiresome business. If a man should say of them, that they were born neither to have peace themselves nor to allow peace to other men, he would simply speak the truth.

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