Guest Post by Zenobia Neil
We all know that history has been written by the victors. Those who recorded history and the texts that survived determine what stories we know and what stories we don’t. Recorded history also determines who is portrayed as the hero and who as the villain. But as writers and readers of historical fiction, we get to look beyond the traditional tales of history to see new historical perspectives.
What we think we know versus what actually happened in history is problematic for every time period. Many of the cultural assumptions we’ve learned in school or seen in popular culture are actually rooted in error. For example, we imagine medieval people as not bathing, when in fact they bathed regularly until the Black Death came around; we imagine Victorians to be prudes, although tattoos and piercings were quite popular; and we imagine the ancient world, and in particular Europe, to be white.
In truth, the ancient world has always been diverse, but it is seldom portrayed that way. There’s been a lot of controversy about skin tone with respect to the ancient world. The marble statues we’ve seen as pure white were in fact originally painted in bright colors to look realistic. The paint deteriorated over time, but it was also purposefully removed by museums, literally whitewashing statues that were once vibrant. There is currently an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on polychromy, which focuses on color in ancient statues.
The idea that these ancient statues were pure white has worked unconsciously on society at large, giving people the idea that Greeks and Romans were White (a concept they did not have). This error has in turn been used by White supremacist groups to claim that Western civilization is based on a Whiteness that never existed.
Historical evidence reveals the truth, however, that the world has always been diverse and in color. The Phoenicians traded all over the Mediterranean and into Egypt and North Africa. In addition to goods such as olive oil, cedar, and wine, they traded colors. Colors like the coveted Tyrian purple, Egyptian blue, red ochre, cinnabar, and versatile saffron were incredibly important both for dying clothing and painting statues. Like the Egyptians, the Greeks, Romans, and Persians painted their statues to make them more lifelike. Even though time has faded the colors of statues from Greece and Rome, color lives on in frescoes and mosaics, where you can see a variety of skin tones and features.
As goods were widely traded, people also migrated all over the Mediterranean: to and from North Africa, Egypt, Greek city-states, and all over the known world. We often think of the ancient Greeks as one united people. But each city-state had their own patron gods, cultures, and rituals. In the case of the ancient Greeks, it’s not only that history was written by the victors, but that only what survived the ravages of time was recorded and passed on.
The result is that when we talk about Ancient Greece, we usually mean Athens. States like Sparta didn’t record their own views, so much of what we know about Sparta comes from a few outside sources, like Xenophon, Herodotus, and Thucydides. These single views are often amplified and portrayed as fact, as if one person saying or doing something applies to every other person from that nation for centuries. Look at Greek myths: many of the versions that were recorded and survived are mostly Athenian interpretations. In the popular myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens, is the hero, but to the Minoans, he was the villain.
There were up to a thousand city-states that made up ancient Greece, including locales as far away from Athens as the Ionian settlements across the sea on the coast of Anatolia. Additionally, Ancient Greece lasted from 1200-323 BCE, so when people talk about the ancient Greeks, they are generally using male Athenian citizens during the Classical Age of 500-323 BCE to represent a much longer time period. That leaves out a lot of people, especially women and slaves, whose stories were never told.
The Persians, too, were not one unified group, but many tribes and kingdoms that were united under Cyrus the Great and his predecessors, who created amazing trade routes and a postal system that inspired the US Postal Service’s motto. Through TV and movies, we’ve seen these two huge cultures—Greece and Persia—be reduced to monolithic stereotypes. We also interpret the past in our own terms and have a difficult time understanding their idea of race and even sexuality, which wasn’t seen as fixed or labeled, as we often see it now.
One of the reasons I love studying the ancient world is that there was so much diversity and cultural exchange. Alexander the Great marched on Persia as a conqueror, but his actions led the way to the Hellenistic Period (323-31 BCE), which created a fascinating mixture of Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Northeast African, and Indian culture. Though Greek culture was viewed as being exported, it actually ended up creating a synthesized new culture. The ideas that were exported came back changed. Alexander himself famously donned Persian trousers, enraging his men, who thought trousers to be feminine. By showing this acceptance of Persian culture, Alexander changed a bit himself. Just as Hellenic culture influenced Persia, Persian culture also influenced Greece.
So what does all of this mean for historical fiction? As a reader of the past, I am drawn to stories that take me to new places I haven’t seen before or novels that show a familiar place or event from a new point of view. As a lover of Greek mythology, I’ve appreciated all the new novels and translations coming out that look at familiar myths from different viewpoints. When history is told by the vanquished, we may learn that those we always thought of as the heroes were the villains. Or we may begin to see a familiar story without heroes or villains at all. Giving voice to stories that haven’t been told or have been erased from history breathes new life into historical fiction and undoes some of the damage done by popular culture and mistaken beliefs of what we “know” about a time period.
As a writer, I love delving into stories that haven’t been told before. Women from Greco-Roman mythology such as Ariadne and Psyche have always been portrayed as passive characters, but in my novels I reimagine them as strong protagonists. For me, writing about the ancient world gives me a chance to envision societies that are free of our contemporary concepts of race and sexuality. I get a chance to give voice to stories that haven’t been told before and to reimagine an ancient world in full color.
Zenobia Neil was named after an ancient warrior queen who fought against the Romans. She writes historical fiction and historical fantasy from under-represented perspectives. Her debut novel Psyche Unbound won a publishing contract. Her second novel The Jinni’s Last Wish takes place in the Imperial Ottoman Harem. Her third novel The Queen of Warriors is about a Spartan woman warrior in search of redemption in the war-torn remains of Alexander the Great’s empire. Her newest novel, Ariadne Unraveled is a Mythic Retellingof the love story between Ariadne and Dionysus, from a Minoan perspective. She lives in Los Angeles with her family. www.zenobianeil.com