Monday, 31 August 2015

Meanwhile, in Judea...

And while the Greco-Persian Wars were going on, what's that sound we're not hearing? That's the sound of the Jews not rising up and revolting against their Persian overlords. Why not? After nigh-constant warring the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians (and in coming centuries, their Greek rulers as well), you'd think they'd be all over it. But instead the Hebrews laid down tamely under a Persian satrap and purred like cats in a lake of cream.

Pictured: Israel and Persia

Why? Well, for two reasons that I can see. One, after seventy years in Babylon, plenty of Jewish captives couldn't think of an awful lot of reasons to return to a Jerusalem they had never even seen and their grandparents had never shut up about, so they elected to stay in Babylon instead. Although remaining devout Jews, these Exiles rose to high positions in the imperial bureaucracy, and some even managed high positions at court (see: Esther). That meant there were plenty of sympathetic ears for Jewish grievances.

Apparently she was a white girl from New Orleans

And two – and this is the biggie – Israel was a nation completely defined by its state religion, and the Persians took great care to be religiously tolerant. In fact, more than that, Cyrus the Great established a habit of making offerings to the gods of whatever people he had conquered this week, partly because he didn't need any more enemies (especially supernatural ones), and partly because it was just good statesmanship. I know nobody likes thinking about Iraq these days, but ten years ago we had a perfect demonstration of this sort of thing in Basra, which was kept very quiet thanks to some smart management by the British army. Compare and contrast Najaf and Karbala, left to the tender mercies of U.S. troops on a mission of cultural assimilation, which went off like a double-bunger on Cracker Night. So of course, the first thing the Americans did was complain the British were a bunch of Arab-loving weaklings.
Some Basra residents complain that Britain, whose troops occupy Basra, is turning a blind eye while the religious establishment usurps the running of the city through intimidation and threats against secular residents. Explaining why the British are loath to intervene, Maj. David King, a British spokesman, says: “We are not here to dictate our way of life,” but merely “to provide a basic foundation to get Iraqis back on their feet.” 
America, watch and learn: this is how you run an empire, as the British well knew and so did the Persians. When 537 came around, Cyrus sent the Exiles home and one of his underlings even provided 1,000 darics to rebuild what became the Second Temple, which was consecrated in 516 on the express permission of Darius the Great. Many of the original golden vessels of the first temple, which had been plundered by the Babylonians, were likewise restored on the orders of Cyrus (see: Ezra).

Israel was no longer an independent kingdom, but they were free to gank animals in the Temple, and that was what really mattered. With their cosy relationship with the Persians blossoming, their influence on Persian religion was enormous, changing everything in their cosmology from... oh wait, sorry, I got that backwards. How embarrassing.

It was the Persians that had a profound effect on Judaism.

As I've mentioned, the Persians were followers of the prophet Zoroaster, who intriguingly may have been a contemporary of (though completely unconnected to) Moses. His Persian followers introduced such minor revisions as...

"Cosmic Dualism." Any good Christian today is at pains to point out that Satan is not the "god of evil," a being equal-but-opposite to God, but in Zoroastrianism that's almost exactly how it works. Ahura Mazda, the supreme, ethereal god of wisdom, harmony, order and general all-round goodness, is opposed by a chaotic counterpart called Ahriman, who is, in effect, God of Evil.

Yep, the very idea that the universe is locked in an epic battle between Good And Evil owes everything to Zoroaster, so without him we wouldn't have Star Wars. This separation of Good and Evil had a profound effect on how the Jews viewed YHWH. Before, he was more or less a tribal protector, a Jewish version of Marduk, a source of both light and dark as likely to hand out a dollop of plague as a good harvest. After, he was seen more as a Jewish version of Mazda, dishing out only blessings. This meant there was a lot of leftover evil that needed a driver, so the job ended up falling to Ha-Satan, the Accuser – Satan, who graduated from the supporting cast to become a powerful figure in his own right. You can see glimpses of the old view in the book of Job, a strong contender for the oldest story we have, where Job mutters weird lines like, "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" and Satan behaves more like God's prosecuting attorney.

The Afterlife. Before, the Jews believed the dead – all the dead – went to a dreary Hades-like realm called Sheol, "the grave" (Ecclesiastes will seem less like an exercise in clinical depression if you keep this in mind). Under the influence of the Zoroastrians, the idea of a moralised afterlife with heavenly rewards for the good and eternal punishment for the wicked began to gain traction. The sheep were supposedly separated from the goats by means of crossing a bridge, which would be wider or narrower depending on how much good you'd done in life (so, Cracked concluded, "if you wind up in Zoroastrian heaven, avoid the tightrope walkers").

One of the sects of Jesus's day, the Sadducees, refused to believe in the afterlife, mainly because they were hardcore conservatives who stuck by the Torah and firmly rejected all this Persian claptrap (also because they were nobles and temple elites, not grubby commoners. As John Dolan said, "Nihilism’s one great weakness was that it had always been an elite cult, not considered transmissible to the masses... Nirvana was too cold a doctrine for peasants who equated fecundity with happiness").

Their Pharisaic rivals however – and Jesus – took this Persian stuff and ran with it. When on the cross Jesus told the two thieves, "Today you will be in Paradise with me," his word was the Persian pairi daeza, a walled or enclosed garden. It's a word that's trickled down to English through Greek, Latin and French, and one of the few definite Persian loanwords in the Bible – necessary because the Jews didn't have any such word of their own. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that would've been most familiar to the people of Jesus's day, it's also the word used for the Garden of Eden. Jesus's choice of words probably weren't an accident.

Other innovations include apocalyptic literature – the genre of the book of Daniel itself, incidentally – angels & demons and, depending on who you believe, maybe even monotheism itself. That's a fairly unsubstantiated claim, banished to the lunatic fringe of George Tsoukalos types, but it's something to keep in mind when poring over some of the older books of the Bible. Sometimes the editor's pen was a bit rough and bits of the older text get through.

I can already imagine some of my friends arcing up about this, as if my revealing where these ideas came from is the same as saying they're not true. Well, all I can say to that is that what's true is way, way above my paygrade... but Jesus certainly believed it, which ought to be enough for believers, while still containing enough objective truth enough to placate atheists. Personally I just think some people had an encounter with the divine, and like the blind men debating the nature of an elephant, were left fumbling for ways to get the message across, so they borrowed local cultural ideas of what a god is. Like El, the early version of YHWH worshipped by the Patriarchs, who was virtually indistinguishable from any other Canaanite tribal gods: was El the last and complete revelation of YHWH? No, but he was a lie they could understand. Was the YHWH of Moses the last and complete revelation of God's nature? No, but he was a lie the Israelites could understand. Is Paradise really the "walled garden" of a Persian king? No, but it's a lie we can understand. Was Jesus the absolute last and complete revelation of God's nature?

...We shall see. I can tell you, however, that there is a miracle here. A real one. The Jewish people captured by Nebuchadnezzar spent 70 years in Babylon, died of old age, and then their grandchildren and great-grandchildren returned to Jerusalem – all without losing their cultural identity as a people apart, a nation through whom all others would be blessed. Maybe someone knows something I don't and can correct me, but as far as I know, that's unique in all of human history. Conquered people don't keep their previous cultural identity, especially in the ancient Near East where military victory was granted by patron gods. Except this once.

Miracle. And it would be needed again soon, when the next beast of Daniel's vision came on the prowl.

What Really Happened At Thermopylae?

Three posts about the Persians, because they lasted just over two centuries, and because it gives me a chance to tell you about the Greco-Persian Wars, which were full of badassery and awesome. At the same time it'll give some insight into the Persian way of doing things, which will tie back into my exploration of Daniel in a later post. So let's get cracking.

Ionian Revolt
It began in the year 494 BCE. Darius the Great, King of Persia, was looking to expand into Europe and led armies across the Bosphorus and even across the Danube, where he fought a little war with the Skythians, which would have ended in disaster if not for his Ionian Greek contingent from the coast of modern Turkey, who held the Danube bridgehead.

Both Darius and the Ionians drew the wrong conclusions from this little escapade: Darius came to believe he could rely completely on the loyalty of his Ionian friends; the Ionians concluded that Darius was weak and the time was right to rebel. The city of Miletus, the richest and most brilliant of the Ionian cities with sixty colonies of its own, sent emissaries to Greece asking for help in overthrowing their Persian overlords. The Spartans, cautious as ever, refused; the Athenians, impulsive as ever, sent 20 ships complete with marines.

At first the Ionian revolt was a success, the Greeks marching inland and burning Sardis, the capital of Croesus that was now the seat of the local satrap. But retribution followed. A Greek fleet of 353 ships was destroyed by a Persian fleet of over 600 (maybe – Herodotus often exaggerates) in the Battle of Lade in 494; Miletus was captured and razed, and the inhabitants carried off to the mouth of the Tigris 1,600km away to be slaves. When the Athenian poet Phrynichus dramatised the event in The Capture of Miletus, the Athenians wept so bitterly he was fined 1,000 drachmas for depressing them.

Knowing the Athenians had been cheerleaders to the Ionian Revolt, Darius got busy planning a punitive expedition into Greece itself. A massive army was sent to invade from the north along the Aegean coast, supported by a grand armada under his son-in-law Mardonius, which sailed parallel to the army. One thing they don't tell you in the movies is that as Mardonius passed through Ionia on the way to mainland Greece, he used his army to depose the Greek tyrants and install democratic governments instead (yes, really. It was probably just a way of damping down the flame of rebellion, but nevertheless...). With the invasion going well, Darius then sent ambassadors to all the other cities of Greece demanding symbolic offerings of ge kai hydor Earth and Water. Having seen the size of his army, most of them gave it – all, says Herodotus, except Athens and Sparta. The Athenians allegedly put the ambassadors on trial and executed them by throwing them into a pit, suggesting they dig out their own earth; the Spartans threw theirs down a well, suggesting they collect their own water. I'm not sure why we're supposed to cheer for people who murder ambassadors visiting under a flag of truce, but there you are.

Unfortunately, before the Persians could avenge this insult, their fleet was wrecked by a storm while rounding the Mount Athos peninsula. This was a major bummer because that vast army needed the fleet for supplies. To give you an idea how good ships are for ferrying in cargo, consider that before the advent of railways in America, it cost as much to move a tonne of goods 50km inland as it had to move it across the entire Atlantic. Donkeys and camels were never going to match that kind of load-bearing capacity, and horses weren't used for transport in those days (in fact, they were part of the cargo on board the ships. Nobody in that era had horseshoes and it would've done them no good if their cavalry went to the trouble of riding all the way to Greece only to arrive with lame mounts). So the army abort and fall back to billets elsewhere.

Displeased, Darius removed Mardonius from command and sent another, smaller army from Kilikia by ship, under the generals Datis and Artaphernes. They landed on the coast of Attika, in the bay of Marathon, where there was a road leading all the way to the polis of Athens itself.

Athens had an ace to play, however: a colourful character by the name of Miltiades. His uncle of the same name had made himself king of a barbarian tribe living on what we now call the Gallipoli peninsula, but the advent of the Persians had put the nephew out of a job. He'd found refuge in Athens, where he became an archon, one of the city's ten elected generals and statesmen; it was he who prevailed on the polemarch Callimarchus to use his casting vote  to take Athens to war.

With that vote, Miltiades was effectively in charge of the Athenian military, and took a force of Athenian hoplites (including Callimarchus) up to Marathon and blocked all exits from the plain. A Mexican standoff ensued, but after five days the Persians got bored and decided to sail elsewhere, and started loading their cavalry (their best soldiers) back onto the ships. Seeing his chance, Miltiades attacked, the Athenians weighting their wings and advancing at the quick-step "a little over a mile," according to Herodotus, and cannoned into the milling Persian infantry. The Persians were enveloped and slaughtered: Herodotus claims 6,400 Persian dead for just 192 Athenians.

The Persians who had survived were then transported by fleet around Cape Sunium, to approach Athens from the Saronic Gulf. Seeing this, the Athenians about-faced and ran 33km back towards Athens to oppose them. When they arrived the Persians found the Athenians holding such commanding ground that it was impossible to attempt a landing, so they gave up and sailed home. A messenger subsequently ran all the way back to Athens to gasp, "We have been victorious!" – then fell dead from exhaustion. The slain were buried in a huge mound which still marks the site of the battle, and its veterans were held in high honour for the rest of their lives. But Callimachus had been killed, and without his restraint Miltiades went too far towards trying to reclaim his home at Gallipoli; he ended up dying in prison while awaiting prosecution by the Athenians.

Not a man to give up easily, Darius planned another, even bigger army to invade Greece again, but before he could get it done the Egyptians revolted, requiring his attention there. Darius died in 486 while organising the Egyptian campaign, and the task of punishing Greece passed to his son Xerxes. The matter was not forgotten: every night, a slave stood by Xerxes's side at dinner and whispered, "Master, remember the Athenians."

So by 480, ten years after his father's expedition, Xerxes had an expedition of his own ready. This host deliberately included warriors from every corner of the Empire, because war wasn't just a way of conquering territory for the Great King. It was, as jerk-off middle-management types would say, a "team-building exercise." Guys under 25 are dangerous, especially when they don't have wives, jobs or children to tie them down. Too much free time gives them ideas; organising them into an army where your company commanders can beat the cheek out of them and put their natural bloodlust to work in a place far, far away from the heartland is just good management. Even better, a lot of them will be killed, and those who survive will return to their villages quietly traumatised and full of stories about what a fine fellow the Great King is, and how those people from Somewhere-stan our tribe's been fighting for the last thousand years aren't so bad either. See? Team-building!

Herodotus says Xerxes assembled 1,207 ships and 2.5 million men: that would've been way, way beyond the logistics of the time, and today the accepted figure is about 200,000 soldiers and 700 ships. This still easily left Athens outnumbered ten to one. In fact, his army was so vast he decided to bridge the Hellespont rather than ferry them across in ships. To this end he lined up scores of ships and laid a road down upon them, whereupon a storm arose and demolished the bridge. At this, Herodotus says, Xerxes was, "...full of wrath and straightaway gave orders that the Hellespont should receive 300 lashes, and that a pair of fetters should be cast into it."  This mightn't have been the bout of childishness it sounds like: among his multinational host were many thousands of tribesmen who knew nothing of the enlightened Zoroastrian religion the Great King ascribed to, so to restore morale it was necessary to demonstrate that even the winds and waves were subject to the will of Xerxes. This time the wind and waves obeyed, and the bridges were completed: 314 ships in one, 360 in the second, spanning some 2.2km, with screens were erected on either side so that horses wouldn't take fright. The Persian army crossed into Europe in April, 480 BCE.

It's at this point Bold King Leonidas enters the story. The real Leonidas was almost exactly nothing like Gerard Butler: for one thing, he was already 60 years old, having been born some time in the 540s BCE – much more Badass Grandpa than Young, Hot and Shirtless. For another, he had a home life worthy of Jerry Springer. His father had been King Anaxandridas, whose wife was also his niece, and barren for so long the ephors had tried to convince Anaxandridas to divorce her and breed sons with someone else. But it seems Anaxandridas was fond of his first niece, because although he recognised the ephors' concerns, he wouldn't divorce her. Eventually they came to a compromise whereby he married his second while keeping his first, Big Love style.

This second wife immediately bore a healthy son, Kleomenes, and all seemed well and good – until, in a twist to make Hagar giggle, the first wife also gave birth to a son, this one named Doreius – then later had another, our Leonidas. Normally princes were the only Spartan boys exempt from a brutal childhood in the agoge, but Leonidas was so far from the throne he became one of the few to go through it. When Anaxandridas died in 520, Kleomenes succeeded him as Agiad king, offending Doreius so badly he quit Sparta forever and eventually died trying to rebuild his fortunes in Sicily. Then Kleomenes went stark raving mad, so the kingship passed to Leonidas, the boy who'd started out as Plan C. Just to be on the safe side, Leonidas legitimised his rule with a marriage to Kleomenes's daughter Gorgo – so like his father, Leonidas married his niece. Yeah, that hot sex scene from the movie? Incest.

Anyway, the timing of Xerxes's invasion coincided with the Karneia, and the Greeks considered warfare at this time sacrilegious, so they hatched a plan to delay the Persians. Leonidas and his personal guard of three-hundred hippeis (the usual very young men replaced with older veterans who had sons to replace them) formed a virtual suicide squad and marched north, gathering volunteers as they went. Leonidas's last words to Gorgo were, "Marry a good man and bear fine children," because Spartans were romantic like that.

The original plan was to fight at the Vale of Tempe on the northern border of Thessaly. King Alexander of Macedonia, however, warned that this narrow pass was easily flanked by several of the others, and that Xerxes's army was astoundingly large and could easily attack from the rear while still engaging at the front. They retreated instead to the Gates of Fire – Thermopylae – the strategic bottleneck where Greek lives could be sold most dearly.

Joining the Spartans were volunteers from several other Greek cities, including 400 of my boys the Thebans, making a total of 7,000 or so Greeks holding the narrow pass. The Spercheios River has been silting up the bay for the last 2,500 years, so unlike the modern Thermopylae it was then a narrow pass less than 16 metres wide, with a steep mountain on one side and the beach on the other. Xerxes waited four days for all his forces to get into camp, and in the meantime sent spies to observe the Greeks. He burst out laughing when the report came in that the Spartans were passing the time doing gymnastic exercises and combing their long hair, but one of his advisors corrected the impression, telling him that the Spartans, "when they are about to hazard their lives, adorn their heads with care," and warned him he was about to face the attack dogs of Greece, the "finest kingdom and town in Greece, with the bravest men."

Thermopylae today: in 480 the coast lay more or less where the road does now.

On the fifth day after arriving Xerxes sent emissaries demanding the Spartans surrender their weapons. We all know what they said to that: Molon labe (Μολὼν Λαβέ), i.e. "Come and get them" – the original "come at me bro," and still the official motto of the Greek 1st Army Corps. Xerxes decided he'd had enough, and attacked. And got nowhere. Before the day was out he'd "leaped three times from his throne in agony for his army": pressing forward against this densely packed phalanx, the lightly-armoured Persian soldiers died like flies and made zero headway. Determined to break the Greeks, Xerxes committed his elites, the Immortals, so named because men in other regiments had been preselected as BCRs (battle casualty replacements). Against other forces they must've been a brilliant piece of psychological warfare - you throw everything you have against the 10,000 Immortals, manage to kill a good number of them, and the next day there's 10,000 of them again? Despite that, there was nothing particularly special about them – they had the same felt hat, same armour of fishlike scales, same wicker shield, and same short spear and bow as any other Persian soldier. So they died like flies too.

After three days the traitor Ephialtes revealed to Xerxes the Anopoea, the path by which the Greek flank could be turned. Leonidas saw he could retreat to a hopeless position further south or die where he stood: an easy choice for a Spartan. Leonidas sent most of the allies home, but his 300-strong bodyguard (along with 1,100 Boeotians, whose homelands would be first to suffer the tender mercies of Xerxes's army if Thermopylae fell) continued their delaying action until they were forced back to a small hillock. Wrote Herodotus: "They defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; til the barbarians... overwhelmed and buried the remnant left beneath showers of missile weapons." Leonidas, 300 Spartans and a thousand Boeotians died to the last man, an object lesson in Spartan military ideals.

The other half of the engagement, which rarely gets mentioned, was the naval Battle of Artemisium. A fleet of 271 Athenian ships had sailed to the northern tip of the island of Euboea, which sat like a gargantuan barrier reef off the Greek coast, and held the narrow channel between the island and the mainland against the 700-odd Phoenician warships of the Persian fleet. Like Thermopylae, the Persians could make no use of their overwhelming numbers and suffered colossal losses. Like Thermopylae, they could've sailed all the way around Euboea to take the Athenians from the rear, but for the third time summer storms came to the aid of the Greeks. The fleet was far too large to find safety in any of the local harbours, so in rough weather many had to ride it out: as a result many were wrecked. The squadron tasked with rounding Euboea was destroyed without completing its mission. But when news of the Greek defeat at Thermopylae filtered through the Athenians broke off the engagement: the strategy needed both ends to hold to do any good.

Victory at Thermopylae meant all Boeotia fell to Xerxes, and Attika was next. The people of Athens were withdrawn to the islands of Aegina, Salamis and Troezen for safety, and the city abandoned to Xerxes, who burned it to the ground. His revenge for the Ionian Revolt was now complete, but that was no longer what this was about: Xerxes was here to conquer Greece. Knowing this, the Spartans and their Peloponnese cousins prepared to build a wall across the Corinthian Isthmus and hold it to the last man; the Athenians, however, were now led by a man worthy of Miltiades, a certain Themistokles. He'd been something of a rake in his youth, and turned to politics as his natural dishonesty was placed at the service of the state: "I shall enter politics and persuade my way to the top," he said in his 20s, and later added: "I cannot tune a harp, but I know how to take a modest city in hand and raise it to greatness." Accordingly he became an archon at the age of just 30.  It had been Themistokles who suggested building the famous Long Walls that connected the city of Athens to the port of Piraeus; after the attack at Marathon, he was able to persuade the Assembly to finish it. When a rich silver vein had been found in the southern part of Attika, he also managed to persuade the Assembly to spend it on upgrading the navy, which grew to a full 200 triremes.

The conquest could not be completed as long as this fleet survived, so Themistokles argued for a sea battle fought in the cramped straights of Salamis. The rest of the Greeks, half-panicked and ready to disperse and defend their own cities, said hell no, they wanted the fleet moved to the western end of he Saronic Gulf, just offshore of the Corinthian Isthmus where the army was waiting. In the ensuing argument Themistokles won the admiration of the Spartans when one raised his staff to wallop him: "Strike," said Themistocles calmly, "but hear me."

They heard him. Themistokles sent his slave Sikinnus (pedagogue to his children) to the Persians with the message he was on their side, and by the way the Greek fleet was in a panic and planning to make their escape from Salamis before it was too late. Xerxes promptly dispatched his own fleet to block all exits from the straights, thus trapping the Greeks in a battle right where Themistokles wanted to fight it. The wind picked up, just as Themistokles had hoped, and it had a greater effect on the high-riding Phoenician ships of the Persians, who fell into disarray. Themistokles attacked and sent 200 of them to the bottom, then pursued and picked off stragglers as they retreated. For the Persians it had been a colossal rout, the waters were chocked with the wreckage of smashed ships and dead men, and the coast was piled with corpses.

(It was in this battle that we met Artemisia, the Greek princess who ruled Halicarnassus and was played by Eva Green and her boobs in 300: Rise of an Empire. She'd brought five ships of her own to the party, and watching from the shore, Xerxes saw some of the best fighting had been done by Artemisia, prompting him to lament: "My men have become women, and my women men." Despite that, she seemed to regard loyalty to either side as strictly optional. When pursued by an Athenian vessel, she deliberately rammed one and sank one of her own galleys; thinking she'd changed sides, the Athenians broke off and went after someone else.)

With his fleet out of action, Xerxes now had no way to defend the pontoon bridge he'd built across the Hellespont, and fearing the Athenians would destroy it he hot-footed it back to Persia. The remaining fleet was shadowed by the Greeks, still with some caution as even after such losses they were badly outnumbered. Xerxes's general Mardonius, a capable man who'd finally worked his way back into the Great King's favour, volunteered to stay behind and finish the job with the hard core of the Persian army, about 100,000 men; the rest went home with Xerxes. Wintering in Boeotia and Thessaly, Athens was free for its people to return for the winter.

With the Spartans still refusing to send an army out of the Peloponnese and the Persians refusing to send an army into it, 479 seemed like it would be a year of  stalemate. Mardonius went through Alexander of Macedonia to offer a peace deal, but the Athenians made sure there were Spartans in the room to hear them refuse it. Athens was thus evacuated again, and Mardonius marched back south and re-occupied it. Mardonius repeated his peace offer to the refugees on Salamis, who now, along with the cities of Megara and Plataea sent messengers to the Spartans asking would they please get off the fucking couch already, or so help us Zeus we're going to sign this treaty. Finally goaded into action, the Spartans gathered an 80,000-strong army from among the Peloponnese, put Leonidas's nephew and successor Pausanias in command, and marched north to meet the Persians.

They found them near the Boeotian city of Plataea. The ending of 300 portrays it as another Hollywood zerg rush, but the real battle actually opened with the exact opposite manouevre – a retreat. Both Pausanias and Mardonius were wise commanders who tried to tempt the other into attacking his well-prepared position. Both were playing a waiting game, but neither could afford to wait forever. Camping on the foothills of Mount Kithaeron so they couldn't be ridden down by Mardonius's huge cavalry arm, Pausanias nevertheless saw off an attack by the Persian cavalry under Masistius, who unusually wore a breastplate of gold scales under his scarlet coat (when they couldn't bring him down with body blows, the Greeks guessed his secret and struck at his face). The fighting was bloody, so Pausanias moved to another position further down onto the plain, still with a cluster of small hills protecting him from frontal cavalry attack. But this meant there was no water to be had, and all of it had to be brought up by porters. Still Mardonius did not attack, although he went out of his way to make life hell for Greek forage parties: Mardonius was calculating that time and hardship would see the Greeks start bickering among themselves and fracture the alliance against him.

This was not a futile hope: Pausanias waited ten days, but after that he could wait no more, and by night he tried moving back to a position nearer his old one, where water would be available and foraging easier. In the confusing and demoralising night march, which must've seemed a retreat to the soldiers themselves, the units of he Greek forces became separated and lost contact.

The following morning, when he beheld the Greek disorganisation, Mardonius thought his strategy had come to fruition and the Persians surged forward. But he'd misjudged their mood completely: the Greeks were still in good spirits and, when the Persians came out of their camp, they about-faced and charged. The Spartan main body, although separated from the rest of the Greek army, was able to meet an infantry attack on ground that impeded the use of Persian cavalry. This was the moment for which Pausanias had worked so hard and risked so much: in savage fighting Mardonius himself was killed, the Persian infantry was routed and their camp sacked. Here they were joined by other Greeks who had just defeated some Boeotian collaborators; no mercy was given to the few defenders in the camp, and almost none got away. A huge amount of Persian treasure, with which  Mardonius had intended to buy provisions for his army, fell into Greek hands. The Battle of Plataea was won, and with it the Persian invasion of Greece was over.

The fighting went on – a Greek expedition dispatched to aid the Egyptians in their own revolt met with disaster, for example – but by 449 it was possible to sign a treaty by which Persia recognised the independence of Greece.

So in the wars with the Greeks we see the full glory and the fatal flaws of the Persian Empire. Their armies, though numerous, weren't especially good, and fought as disorganised mobs that relied on sheer weight of numbers to get the job done – not a foolish strategy when you're sitting on 44% of the world's population, but counterproductive in the cramped confines of Greece. Their leaders were formidable organisers and logistical masters - just imagine what it took to summon the warriors of a hundred nations and get them pointed in the same direction! - but they weren't especially good generals, and were stuck with the standard problems of alll absolutist monarchs: they relied on the Great King and his delegates (chosen by nepotism not merit) to make the right decisions 100% of the time. Despite that, a Great King was not a god-king, and every decision Darius and Xerxes made was made in the understanding that they'd one day have to answer for them. And as we've already seen, their bureaucracy was on a level unseen in the ancient world before – many think the Romans learned how to run an empire from them. I think it's fair to say that for all their territorial gluttony, they were better at peace than war. And that's about the highest compliment I can pay any society.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Meet the Persians

After my post on the Neo-Babylonians a friend asked me why I don't consider the events of Daniel as things that actually happened when I'd just spent a whole blog providing circumstantial evidence that they did. I have to admit that's a fair question: I kinda gave the wrong impression with the "not things that actually happened" line. It would be more accurate to say I believe things like that were probably happening on a daily basis. The Neo-Babylonian Empire lasted only 87 years, from 626 to 539 BCE – about as long as the Soviet Union – and had six kings, from the rebel Nabopolassar to the weirdo Nabonidus, but that's plenty of time for these kings to issue idolatrous decrees that the Jewish captives just couldn't comply with, and correspondingly plentiful opportunities to keep the lions fed. I'm even sure some of the Israelites stood firm rather than nodding furiously and saying, "Yeah, me and Marduk, we're tight!"

But here's the thing – how would we know any of this happened unless someone took the time to tell us? Stories like those in Daniel probably did happen, and plenty worse besides, and then were promptly forgotten. But someone wrote out an apocalypse and called it Daniel. Why? What point were they trying to make? And who were they trying to make that point to? Them's the real questions here; whether it all really happened isn't really relevant, nor, to my mind, particularly interesting.

Anyway, I'm going to keep going down through the four empires of Daniel, just because I enjoy it. Whether the four beasts of Daniel Ch.7 are the same four kingdoms as the four segments of the statue is a question for better minds than mine: I've read a convincing argument that the sections of the statue actually represent Neo-Babylonian kings, but whatever. The four beasts at least are much less subtle. The "lion with the wings of an eagle," for example, isn't hard to interpret: it's a cherub.

It's less obvious to me why the Persians are represented by a bear. It's true the Syrian bear roamed the wilds of the Fertile Crescent from ancient times right up until World War I, menacing travellers and farmers alike (which makes more sense when you realise back then the whole area was thickly forested; the last of the tall pines outside Petra were cut down by Ottoman soldiers during the First World War). The typical justifications for using the bear to represent the Persians strike me as post hoc i.e. they start already knowing that the bear is the Persian Empire and then looking for similarities (great strength, clumsiness, etc). But when I thought about the country symbolised by a bear in our modern, Western minds – Russia – it started to make more sense. The stereotype of a Russian guy is someone big, strong, burly and fairly clumsy, more often than not because they're drunk out of their skull: it seems Jewish rabbis had a similar image of the people of Persia themselves, "who eat and drink like the bear, are fat like the bear, are hairy like the bear, and are restless like the bear."

So I guess that makes sense then. In the early sixth century, the Persians occupied territory around Susa, just east of what we now call the Persian Gulf. At the time they were subject to a Mede king with the fantastic name of Astyages, who ruled another huge empire that stretched from the Lydian frontier in Turkey, wrapped around the Fertile Crescent, and stretched down through most of modern Iran. The Persians theoretically owed loyalty to this Astyages, but you can't keep a dynamic go-getter down: a Persian king history calls Cyrus the Great rebelled against his Mede overlords in 553 and fought them until 550, when he captured their capital Ecbatana. He'd effectively conquered the Median Empire from within. To ease the transition he married Astyages' daughter, and the realm became a sort of Medo-Persian coalition, though the ruling family was Persian and the Persians were the dominant partner, hence the bear being raised up on one side.

So why the three ribs in its mouth? Well, once he was fully in charge, Cyrus turned his attention to conquering the kingdom of Lydia. Lydia's interesting because we never hear anything about it, but it was semi-Greek in culture, and under King Gyges had become quite large by local standards, taking up roughly half of Asia Minor. Croesus, last of the Lydian kings, made himself proverbially rich by exploiting his country's gold deposits, becoming the first state to use standardised gold coins as currency, and also becoming very popular with the Greeks for his lavish temple gifts.

When Cyrus and his army came a-calling, Croesus consulted the Oracle at Delphi, who with typical ambiguity promised he would "destroy a great empire." Pleased with this report, Croesus opted for battle and was quickly and completely destroyed, his capital at Sardis sacked and burned. The "great empire" he was destined to destroy had turned out to be his own. Afterwards Croesus lamented: "No one is so foolish as to prefer to peace war, in which, instead of sons burying their fathers, fathers bury their sons. But the gods willed it so."

With Lydia now under the heel, Cyrus left the conquest of the Aegean coast to be completed by his general (and brother-in-law) Harpagus, while Cyrus himself returned east to capture Babylon, an event was recorded in sanitised form in Chapter 5 of Daniel, aka. The Writing on the Wall.
That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.
Belshazzar was in charge because their last Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus, had absented himself from Babylon. Instead he was squatting in a place called Tema, northern Arabia, where he'd been for the last ten years. Why? We have no idea. Tema was a trade outpost and there was plenty of money to be made for the king who held it, and Nabonidus also had a devotion to the moon-goddess Sin that didn't sit well with the city of Marduk, but really your guess is as good as mine. For whatever reason, he left the actual job of being king to his son Belshazzar, and only returned when Cyrus came looking for trouble.

Cyrus captured Babylon easily, that much we know; what's still a headscratcher is exactly how. The city was surrounded by walls so vast a four-horse chariot could turn on top of them; no army in the world at that time had the technology to besiege them, and starving the population wasn't likely to work because there was some acreage of farmland and the river itself within the walls. Cyrus's own proclamations say the people opened the gates and welcomed him with open arms, and even the Nabonidus Chronicle, the most reliable (though not informative) ancient document we have on the subject, says the people laid green twigs before him as he entered (which should also sound vaguely familiar). Herodotus denies this and says Cyrus defeated the Babylonians in the Battle of Opis, then took the city after a hard siege. Complicating the picture is a building inscription in Babylon itself that suggests Nabonidus sent an army up the Euphrates to meet Cyrus before he could make it too far south, then got the shock of his life when a smaller force came up the Tigris and captured Babylon – and Nabonidus himself – with their guard down.

Either way, the text in Daniel clearly depicts the end coming like a thief in the night, arriving suddenly and catching Belshazzar by surprise. So why does the text say the city fell to Darius the Mede and not Cyrus the Great? Again there are theories, but the one I like best is that it's a simple transcription error: in Hebrew "Darius" translates as DRYWS (דריוש) and "Cyrus" as KWRS (כורש); one lapse in concentration and you've copied it wrong. This hypothesis is seemingly supported by early copies of the Septuagint, where the names are reversed in Daniel 11:1 (others say they really meant Astyages, or that Darius was a sort of dynastic name and Cyrus's wife and mother were both Medes, so Darius the Mede it was).

So Babylon was now subject to the Great King, who was very popular with the exiled Jews, not least because he was the one at last let them go home (in Isaiah 45:1 he is even referred to as a messiah, an anointed one, the only non-Jew ever to receive the honour). He subsequently divided his empire into provinces under the rule of governors or "satraps," a Persian word we have inherited in its Greek form... then met his death in an obscure war against some northern tribes. His son Cambyses, despite some evidence of mental instability, went on to add Egypt to the empire and a third rib to the bear's trophies – Lydia, Babylon (meaning the whole of Mesopotamia, the Phoenician trade cities, Syria and Israel), and now Egypt. The Great King, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World, now ruled a land that stretched from the Indus to the Hellespont, home to Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Jews, Phoenicians, Ionians, Persians and Medes. It covered 5 million square kilometres and had a population of 50 million, 44% of all the people in the world at that time (a record that still stands). Earth had never before seen its like.

After an interlude where a usurper took the throne, rule passed to Darius I, also called Darius the Great, another scion of Cyrus's family. He was a good ruler who consolidated what his predecessors had won, supporting his national economy with fixed yearly taxes, making Aramaic the official language, building a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea, and building a network of roads for his armies – although the trade industry of course took full advantage. One of them, the Royal Road, ran all the way from Susa to Sardis, a distance of 2,400km, and one of the most important positions in Darius's court was their supervisor, a position called the King's Eye.

But the bear had not yet had its fill of flesh. When a pretext arose that gave Darius a chance to add Greece to his empire, he jumped at it. And so began the Persian Wars.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Where Does It End?

It's been very nearly four years since I posted this, on another blog, in another time:
1994: Ayrton Senna & Roland Ratzenberger (Formula 1)
1995: Greg Hansford (ATCC)
1996: Scott Brayton (IRL) & Jeff Krosnoff (CART)
1997: Sebastian Enjolras (Le Mans)
1999: Greg Moore & Gonzalo Rodriguez (CART)
2000: Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. & Tony Roper (NASCAR)
2001: Dale Earnhardt Sr. (NASCAR)
2003: Tony Renna (IRL) & Mark Lovell (rally)
2006: Paul Dana (IRL), Mark Porter (V8 Supercars) & Peter Brock (sportscar)
2008: Ashley Cooper (V8 Supercars)
2009: Henry Surtees (Formula 2)
2011: Dan Wheldon (IndyCar) & Marco Simoncelli (MotoGP).

The only shocking thing, when you think about it, is that this still shocks us.

When I heard the news, almost my first thought was, "This is 2011. Surely we've seen the last of this?" But as the list shows, motorsport's post-Senna safety era has existed largely within our minds.

Motor racing is still dangerous. How dare we forget that.
For some reason, maybe it was subconscious, you'll notice I put a full stop after Marco Simoncelli as if the matter was closed. More fool me. If you'd told me then this was just beginning, I wouldn't've believed you. But it just keeps going. Since 2011 we can extend the list thus:

2012: Osamu Nakajima (Super GT)
2013: Allan Simonsen (Le Mans)
2014: Jules Bianchi (Formula 1)
2015: Justin Wilson (IndyCar)

And that's just the big, international series; I've deliberately left out names like Kevin Ward Jr, the kid Tony Stewart ran over in a sprintcar race in 2013, because that was only a minor event (which doesn't make him any less dead). If you want to see the full list you're welcome, but it's pretty grim reading. The Ascaris are on there, father and son; so is Jules Bianchi, now heartbreakingly listed right above his great-uncle Lucien, who hit a telegraph pole at Le Mans in 1969; there's also the fiery Frenchman Jean Behra, Indianapolis legend Tony Bettenhausen, NASCAR star Neil Bonnett (who won the first race at the newly-opened Thunderdome in 1988), Possum Bourne (the rally maestro who did such amazing things in our Aussie dust), and of course Peter Brock, who wasn't blessed with enough self-doubt to know it was time to quit for good - all without even getting to the letter C.

I think it's getting to me, all the more because I'm up to the mid-80s in my local touring car writing, which means at some point in the near future I'm going to have to broach the subject of Mike Burgmann (another B), who died on Conrod Straight in the early laps of the '86 James Hardie 1000. A gust of wind lifted the car and dropped it off the track, and he ran into a tyre barrier so hard it pushed the engine into the cockpit. Footage from the day shows the front guards of his VK crumpled like beer cans, right up to the firewall. I personally catch the barest gust from the reaper's wings on this one, because his co-driver that day was to be Mal Rose, the man who frightened the bejeezus out of me on the Thunderdome a couple of years back.

I dunno. I just dunno. I don't have any answers, or even coherent questions really, just a feeling that something's gone terribly wrong with the sport I love. Even Formula 1's luck is broken, that paragon of intensive (and expensive) safety preparation, Jules Bianchi becoming the first driver death since the god-of-F1 Ayrton Senna (I know Bianchi didn't die at the track, but officially neither did Senna. The only difference between them really is the amount of time they spent in hospital).

I was at Spa last year, you know, and got footage of a Marussia coming through Pouhon in the wet Saturday qualifying sessions: it got a back tyre on the slippery kerb and had a big wobble, which the driver caught and powered away like it was nothing. It might've been Bianchi; my camerawork is too blurry to be sure.

On race day my hand was steadier.

And now Justin Wilson as well, because of a freak of coincidence with a piece of flying debris.

That's not a component you can say, "Oh, we better tether it to the car, then," because it's already supposed to be tethered to the car (you'll notice the wheels stayed on like they're designed to). A fraction of a percent more or less throttle, on any given lap, and Wilson's head wouldn't've been trying to occupy the same space as that nosecone at that moment. A miniscule difference in the crash physics, and that nosecone would've ended up somewhere else completely - sliding along the track maybe, or flying over the fence. But instead the twain did meet, and Justin is gone, and there's no lesson or a way of convincing ourselves that we can make sure it never happens again. Maybe that's what makes it so hard to take. No mantra but the passive, hopeless one I posited back in 2011 that still bears repeating.

Motor racing is dangerous. How dare we forget that.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Living in the Past

That little bit in my last post about the Persians of 300 being the "chest and arms of silver" of Nebuchadnezzar's dream got me thinking. We don't think of 300 and the Bible as belonging in the same bucket, but we should, partly because it's deeply embedded in the neo-con fantasy life, and partly because for a brief moment it's the greatest gift you can give a historian – the same story told from a different perspective. Darius and Xerxes, the evil kings of 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire, ruled an empire that shows up in the Bible: the histories of Xenophon and Thucydides and the apocalypse of Daniel are actually the same story.

So I did a little digging, and found some interesting stuff. Nebuchadnezzar II, the dream-haver from Daniel Ch.2, was the most famous king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which kicked off when his father rebelled against the Assyrians (a people who are up there with the British as the cruellest imperial overlords of all time) and Babylon became a independent city for the first time in centuries. More recently he got a ship named after him in The Matrix, though that's the only connection with the greenest movies ever made: the "neo" in "Neo-Babylonian" doesn't refer to The One, it just means "new" – which, in its own way, leads you to the most important detail you need to know about the Neo-Babylonians.

Which is... they were living in the past. Big time. They were so intensely conscious of their splendid history that they pursued an arch-traditionalist policy that ended up becoming the final flowering of oldschool Mesopotamian culture, an echo of a time 1,500 years earlier. They changed the official language from Aramaic to Akkadian; they altered their cuneiform writing style so that it looked more ancient; they revived the practice of appointing a royal daughter to serve as priestess of the moon god Sin; they built massive temples, even more massive ziggurats and, if Herodotus is to be believed, the Hanging Gardens as well. They did everything they could to wind the clock back 1,500 years so they could indulge in a little LARPing about a time before the Assyrians came and ruined everything.

None of this is as ridiculous as it sounds, because we've seen a similar thing almost within our own lifetimes: Mussolini. He never made any bones about his ultimate goal of restoring the Roman Empire, a regime that had last been front page news about, hmm, where'd I leave my calculator... about 1,500 years earlier. Imagine a Mussolini with the ability to match his ambitions: imagine him rebuilding the Imperial Palace in white marble, holding gladiator matches in the Colosseum, forcing his beloved Alfa Romeo racecars to turn laps of the Circus Maximus and changing the official language to Latin. Now take that idea, adjust for culture and turn it up to eleven: that's the Neo-Babylonians.

They took it so far that when artworks from the good ol' days were dug up, they were treated with almost religious awe. Here's where it gets intriguing: at one point they found an "image" of Sargon the Great. We don't know whether this "image" was a free-standing statue or just a wall carving, because they used the same word for both, but it doesn't matter: it was of Sargon the Great. Who was Sargon the Great? An Akkadian king who was ancient even to the ancients, the once-ruler of Babylon who created the first multi-ethnic empire in world history.

Also, handsome.

Having found an image of this ancient patriarch, this figure of legend, do you know what the Neo-Babylonians did? They placed it in a temple, made offerings and worshipped it. Gosh, why does that sound so familiar?
King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. He then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up. So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it. Then the herald loudly proclaimed, "Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. (Daniel 3:1-4)
The Bible makes it sound like the king was just in a weird mood and issued a random decree; with a little history, it becomes the story of a people longing for a return to their own glorious past so much that it became a religious obsession – one the Jewish captives couldn't help but see as heinous idolatry. I don't see the stories of Daniel as something that actually happened, but it's still intriguing to know things like this really were happening in that part of the world at the time of the story. It's also amusing to see how it all turns out: the verse above is of course the start of the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace, and Jim Macdonald already wrote a blog comparing the evolution of the Bible to fanfic. So how does the story progress? With Rack, Shack and Benny like, totally not taking part in all the icky statue-worship and being saved by a deus ex machina like the Mary Sues that they are.

It's comforting to know that, for better or worse, people never change.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Is Gorgo Ma-Ma?

Queen Gorgo of Sparta...

...and Ma-ma, gang-leader of Peach Trees.

One a heroine, one a villain. Both leaders of men. Both played by Lena Headey. Both inhabiting universes of slow-motion ultraviolence.

And both the same person.

Reincarnation's a tricky business. Officially Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jewish reincarnation fans will tell you souls have no gender, no ethnicity and no memories of their past, but this is the movies, and casting the same actor carries certain implications (see Cloud Atlas). There's also nothing that says souls have to reincarnate immediately after their death. They only return to Earth when their soul teachers believe they've learned all they can from the spirit realm, so it could be centuries or even millennia before a soul surfaces again.

Such as the vast ocean of time between Thermopylae (480 BCE) and grimdark future of 2099.

Ma-ma clearly has a chip on her shoulder, so it could be she's carrying emotional baggage from her time as Gorgo. I wouldn't hold it against her. She was raped and betrayed by Theron, after all, and even though she had the satisfaction of sticking a sword through his guts, it still cost the life of her beloved Leonidas. I wouldn't be surprised if the trauma from such events lasted beyond a single lifetime.

You sit tight. Or run. Makes no difference you're still mine.

Left to simmer, pain and humiliation like that could do things to a person. The sense of violation, the penchant for lashing out, it all has to come out some time, and what happens in her next life? She ends up a prostitute, forced to endure congress with any number of men she despises, including her pimp. This does not end well.

"Word is, she feminised the guy with her teeth..."

Gorgo at least had her son Pleistarchus to comfort her, but even that didn't turn out right. After Leonidas's death the Agiad kingship of Sparta was passed to his nephew Pausanias, who, instead of acting as regent as he should, passed the kingship to his own son (and so on down the line to Kleombrotus, as I've outlined before). That little boy in 300 never got to be king.

To a woman of a royal household, that kind of disappointment would stick. Her son was too weak-willed to reclaim the kingship that was rightfully his. In turn, Ma-ma found herself having to work with her Clan Techie, another despised weakling who brings out her dormant maternal side, and pays the price.

Those aren't the eyes he was born with.
This is where it starts to get thematically interesting. In both movies her troubles start when she has someone thrown to their death. Sure, in neither case does she do the dirty work herself, but she's still responsible. In 300 Leonidas stops to check with her before kicking the Persian messenger down the well: she nods regretfully, as if it were an unpleasant duty, and he goes on to create the greatest meme of 2007.

You're already hearing it.
But she could've stopped it, and she should've. 300 is, by the director's own admission, pure Spartan propaganda, and the Persians weren't the evil empire he made them out to be. For one thing, Xerxes followed the Zoroastrian religion and would've seen a claim to god-kingship as the height of blasphemy (and possibly madness). The Archaemenid Persians were a surprisingly progressive lot, building roads, running a postal service and enforcing religious tolerance (they were also the people that let the Jewish exiles go home, making them the "silver breast and arms" of Nebuchadnezzar's dream-statue).

You could talk to them, in other words. A moment to consider a more diplomatic response, and bold king Leonidas and 298 other Spartans might well still be alive.

This personality flaw, a predisposition to trigger-happiness, has emerged front and centre by the time we get to Dredd. It's a plot point, even: her overreaction to Kay's capture in that iconic minigun scene is what clues the judges in that he might be more than he seems. And she repeats the mistakes of her past, making trouble for herself when she has some local thugs thrown to their deaths. "Skin 'em. Throw them off the balcony," she says, not even deigning to watch. She's seen it all before.

According to The Splat Calculator, a fall from the top of Peach Trees would last 14 seconds. Under the influence of Slo-Mo, that would seem like 24 minutes.

Like 300, this triggers a response from those in power, but this time the outcome is different. The central space of Peach Trees creates a space very similar to the well in Sparta – and like the well, she resides at the top. This time the bottom is not a dark space where her victims vanish and are forgotten: this time the bodies are found. There is gossip and unrest. Her nemesis arrives to investigate, then focuses on her and ascends from the bottom of Peach Trees, floor by floor, making his way inexorably to the top. To her.

My High-Ex, Incendiaries and Hot Shots will blot out the sun.

Delivered in the visual language of film, the metaphor couldn't be clearer if the Persian messenger himself had climbed back out of that well, Sadako-style. As if to confirm his role, Dredd even warns her "This is not a negotiation." He is the anti-messenger: karma cannot be outrun. The time has come to atone for her sins with a 24-minute plunge of her own.

She did not enjoy this. It was not over quickly.

GorgMa failed to deal with her past in this incarnation, but that's okay, because according to the rules she gets three lives to patch things up. The bad news is, if after three chances a soul still hasn't managed to put anything right, they are considered beyond redemption and are not reincarnated again. And from what I've heard of her latest incarnation...

...she's only got one chance left.

Thursday, 6 August 2015


I have a new book beside my bed these days: Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book on "the Fates of Human Societies" – or to boil it down to his chosen microcosm, why Pizarro captured Atahuallpa and not the other way around. I'm only nine chapters in, but it's impressive stuff, one of those changes-everything kind of books that are a must for any historian. But never mind the massive changes across millennia; on a teeny, tiny level, it's also made me how far one person can come in a decade.

Let me show you what I mean: what do you think of this weed right here? (Not the Snoop Dogg, far-out-just-something-for-my-asthma-man, don't-you-ever-knock? kind of weed, I mean an actual weed like you'd pull out of your garden.)

Meh, so what right? Just a grass pod. Reef it out of the azaleas, throw it in the bin, job done yeah? Ah, not so much grasshopper. You're not likely to find this growing in your flower bed unless you live in Mesoamerica, but no matter where you live in the modern world, given you're wealthy enough to be reading this on the internet, you've probably eaten actual, literal tons of this stuff (or tonnes, doesn't really matter – first one, then the other as they say) over your lifespan. It's called teosinte, "the grain of the gods," but like Alois Hitler it's better known for its famous offspring: maize. It's wild corn.

It's debated how many centuries or millennia it took to get from teosinte to primitive maize; god only knows how many more to arrive at today.

Amazing or what? It's so different from the stuff they grow in Iowa that until recently we didn't even know they were the same plant. 19th Century botanists went mad trying to find corn's lost ancestor. It wasn't until we discovered DNA and genetic analysis that we were able to track down the culprit. And man, the ancients were either bored, patient or just really hard up, because nothing about teosinte screams "major food source." What you're looking at with the modern crop is 10,000 years of selective breeding, exactly the same process that turns wolves into dogs, but applied to a plant.
Understandably, the primary goal of teosinte domestication was to improve the ear and its kernals. A teosinte ear is only [50 to 75mm] long with five to 12 kernals — compare that to corn's [300mm] ear that boasts 500 or more kernals! Teosinte kernals are also encased in a hard coating, allowing them to survive the digestive tracks of birds and grazing mammals for better dispersal in the wild. But, for humans, the tooth-cracking coating was undesirable so it was selectively reduced... and reduced... and reduced... until all that remains is the annoying bit of paper-thin, translucent tissue that sometimes sticks between the teeth when one munches on the cob.
That article also says corn went through a severe population bottleneck, the signature of rapid domestication – to the point that all the corn in the world today might be descended from just 3,500 teosinte plants. Along the way it lost a lot of its genetic diversity, even the ability to breed without human interference – but at the same time, we're harvesting a billion tonnes of it a year, so like Dakota Johnson submission is doing it good. In the last 13,000 years, no survival strategy has won harder than "be useful to humans."

And yes, the same applies to bananas.
So next time some wild-eyed stepford smiler gets in your face with talk about "miracles of nature" and "how perfectly the Earth was made for us"... laugh. Laugh at them the way I wish I had. And you tell them you absolutely believe in Intelligent Design.

Just not by any sort of god.