Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Princess Who Became a General

Today, I feel old.

Maybe it’s because my back and joints are hurting more than usual and Aleve just isn’t cutting it.  But I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis since I was 29, so I don’t usually associate the pain with age.

Maybe it’s a function of the post-holiday blahs.  The tree is empty, the fridge is full of left-overs, and days are short while nights are long.

Or maybe it’s because my son is leaving home in less than two weeks.  He starts college at UNL this spring and is moving into the dorms.  That’s exciting, and he’ll be back in the summer—but soon, my nest will be empty part-time.

Yet I think the real reason I feel old today owes to the first news to hit me in the face when I woke up this morning.

Carrie Fisher is dead.

Remember that line Han Solo delivered in the garbage compactor?  “I have a bad feeling about this.”  That was my reaction when news broke of her heart attack.  2016 has been an especially shitty year for pop-icons, from David Bowie to Alan Rickman to Prince.  My thought was, “2016, you can’t have HER.”  Then news came she was improving.  The Christmas-day death of George Michaels, whose music—along with Prince’s—I danced to in college and grad school made me hope he’d be the last one 2016 claimed.  According to family reports, Carrie Fisher was stable.  Princess Leia would live to fight another day.

Except she didn’t.  The damn 2016 garbage compactor got her.

I admired Carrie Fisher a lot: her honesty, her courage, her wit, her talent.  I read Postcards from the Edge not long after it came out and thought, “Wow, unlike a lot of celeb authors, this woman can actually write.”  But I didn’t actively follow her career.

The author, 13th birthday, Sept. 23, 1977
Also, in the eternal “Star Trek vs. Star Wars?” comparisons, I always wind up on the Trek side.  Make no mistake, I loved Star Wars and saved my allowance to watch it four times in the theatre when it first came out in 1977, plus I managed to sneak in a tape recorder to tape the dialogue.  (This was well before VCRs.)  Yet watching Star Wars four times wasn’t really a lot, even for a 12-year-old with limited allowance.  Of more importance were the elaborate recreations of portions of the film that I did that summer with two male friends, one of whom had a film camera and visions of making movies himself one day.  The recreations required costumes, including a white dress and attempts to get my hair into double buns that were never quite BIG enough.

But my chest was big enough.  With a pre-teen’s delicious, slightly scandalized attention to detail, I’d noticed that Leia didn’t seem to be wearing a bra under her virginally white princess dress.  I’d matured on the early side, so if I didn’t have enough hair, I did have enough breast.  I decided that if Princess Leia could go braless, so I could I.  My mother disagreed.  Even if most of her attitudes were advanced for a woman born in 1924—she’d marched for ERA—letting her almost-teen daughter out of the house without a bra was not something she could condone.  So I wore my bra out of the house…then took it off for the filming of our amateur effort.  I might not have Princess Leia hair but I had Princess Leia boobs.

That Fisher wasn’t wearing a bra* might seem like a funny thing to remember about the first movie—but not really.  Princess Leia represented a fundamental seismic shift in the portrayal of women onscreen, so it seems perfectly in line that she went braless.

As mentioned above, I’m really more of a Star Trek fan than Star Wars, and I was cast as the lone female character in childhood make-believe games long before our pre-teen attempts to refilm parts of Star Wars.  In fact, as a young girl playing with the boys down the block, Star Trek was our go-to.  Bobby was Captain Kirk, Kevin was Mr. Spock, and I, of course, was Lt. Uhura.  I didn’t get to do much because Uhura didn’t either.  Nichelle Nichols broke a lot of barriers with her role, but 1960s Uhura wasn’t Uhura of the reboot.  Back then, it was, “Hailing frequencies open captain.”  Or getting captured by Klingons or Romulans so the boys could rescue me.

Occasionally, I complained about this, and might get “upgraded” to Chekov or Sulu (not McCoy, he was too old).  But mostly I was Uhura, and also—as noted—I didn’t do much unless I needed to be rescued because that’s what happened to women in the TV shows we grew up on, although in Star Trek that honor was typically reserved for the pretty, blond, (white) love-interests of Kirk.  It’s of note that we (children) just transferred that role to Uhura without much thought for the racial divide.  For our youthful disconcern we can thank Roddenberry when he insisted a black woman could sit on the bridge.  To us, that she was a woman mattered more than that she was black.  That’s a good thing.

But it’s also worth noting that the boys found it easier for a white girl to play a black woman than for a white girl to play a white (or even Asian) man.  That’s not so good a thing.  The gender divide became more significant than the racial divide.  (And I don’t think it an accident this country elected a black man as president before a white woman.)

The advent of Princess Leia, however, changed the dynamics yet again.  Even if Lucas&Co did put her in that stupid gold bikini.

So let me clarify that if I wasn’t necessarily a Star Wars fan over Star Trek, I was a huge fan of Princess Leia.

1979-80, Drum Major

When I first saw Leia grab Luke’s blaster to defend herself?  I wanted to stand up and cheer.  Instead, I think I sat in my seat in the theatre with my mouth open.  Then she told Luke, “Into the shoot, flyboy!” and Chewy, “Get this big, walking carpet out of my way.”  And that scolding she gave both Han and Luke?  “I don’t know who you are, or where you come from, but I’m grateful.  But from now on, you do as I tell you.”

See?  I can still recite her lines (without looking) all these years later because I recited them to myself so MANY damn times then.

So yes, I loved Star Wars (if not as much as Star Trek).  But Princess Leia became a HERO for my 12-year-old self.  She was competent.  And the sassy I wasn’t (and never would be).  She was also (apparently) smart, like Meg from A Wrinkle in Time.  The era in which I grew up warned girls: “Let the boys win,” and “Don’t be smarter than the boys; they won’t want to date you.”  Unfortunately, that’s still true.  Smart girls might be sexy now, but not if they’re smarter than the boys.  That, however, is the topic of another post.

What I want to focus on is just how different Leia was, as an icon for girls my age.  Yes, there were other powerful, strong, smart women—not least the Meg I mentioned above from Madeline L’Engle’s work.  Female SF/F authors from L’Engle to LeGuin had been blazing trails for women well before Star Wars hit theaters.  But such female icons weren’t found in mainstream film and books—never mind an international blockbuster.  It didn’t hurt that Princess Leia was able to do all this and still be considered attractive.  Yes, the stupid gold bikini helped, but long before Return of the Jedi, teen boys and young men saw Carrie Fisher in her white dress and hair buns and blaster and saucy remarks, and they fell in love.  They also watched her tame cocky Han Solo, who followed her lead (at least sometimes).  So it became more acceptable for a woman to be in charge.  Young boys who grew up on Princess Leia never questioned that a woman couldn’t handle a blaster or run a rebellion.

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia kicked down the damn door.  Nichelle Nichols cracked it, but Fisher blew it down.  After Leia, it became increasingly acceptable to see women onscreen take their fate into their own hands.  She made possible Ripley from Alien, Sarah Conner from Terminator, and Xena, the Warrior Princess.  A space princess with a blaster had gone before one with a sword and chakram.  The Grrl-Power Genie was out of the bottle and she wasn’t going back in.

So today I feel old, but also oddly buoyed.  I was witness to a revolution.  I got to see Princess Leia explode onto the screen at an extremely formative time for me.  Princess Leia gave my 12-year-old self a wholly new idea not only of a woman as a hero, but of what “princess” might mean outside Disney.

I won’t say I am who I am—a university professor—due to Princess Leia.  Waaaay too many streams fed that river.  But Princess Leia was part of it because a young girl on the cusp of womanhood saw another young woman grab a blaster from her “rescuer” and rescue herself (and him, too).  So I never went to college for an “MRS.” degree.  I went to school for my degree, and I pursued my career.  Yes, I got married and had a kid, because being one’s own person doesn’t mean one has to do it alone.  But when, many years later, I got a divorce, I still had my career, and eventually, I bought the house I wanted with a mortgage in my name alone.  So just as Princess Leia went on to become General Organa (without Han Solo), I went on to become a tenured professor, grad chair, and to start our Ancient Mediterranean Studies Program as its director.  If I’ve not published as much as I’d like, family reasons (divorce and raising a kid not least) got in the way.

But I think Princess Jeanne did okay on her way to Dr. Reames.

The Author in 2016.
Now Princess Leia has returned to the Force, at least in any physical embodiment beyond film already in the can.  Those of us who had our eyes opened when she grabbed that blaster will have to go on without her.  It’s our turn to be a model for the girls (and boys) who come after us.

Are we there yet?  Hell no.  We just elected a president who bragged about grabbing pussy without consent, and that didn't, apparently, disqualify him for a significant voting block.  Only about 63% of women report sexual assault and notably fewer of those cases ever see the perp convicted.  Women still make only 80 cents on average for every man's dollar.  We're a looooong way from there yet.

But young princesses do turn into generals, and young or old, we’re bad-asses who can save ourselves—and you, too.

Peace, Carrie Fisher.

(*For the record, it turns out she actually had gaffer tape on her breasts, but I didn’t know that then.)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Ancient Greek Olympics

Ancient Greek Olympics
(As Rio approaches, the following questions were submitted to me by Charlie Reed of UNO Media Relations.  I decided to post my replies here, as well, for other interested parties.)

1)  What are the origins of the Olympics in Greece and why were they created?

Greek athletic competitions began as “Funeral Games” for early kings and other nobles, such as Patroklos in Homer’s Iliad.  It was a way to honor the dead by offering one’s “best” (aretē).  Gradually, these “games” became associated with particular sanctuaries instead of funerals, and occurred more regularly.

Unlike the modern Games, which are secular, ancient Games were always a religious event dedicated to a particular god and his/her associates.  For instance, at the Olympics, Zeus was chiefly honored, but so was his wife, Hera.  Like us, they had opening and closing ceremonies, but theirs were parades and sacrifices honoring the god to whom that particular set of Games was dedicated, not showboat entertainment extravaganzas.  Yet the mood was festive rather than somber, and although only men and boys competed (and only men and boys were allowed in the stadium), whole families traveled to enjoy the fair-like atmosphere. One could find showmen, singers, gymnasts, actors, drink- and food-sellers, pastry- and fish-cooks, prostitutes, and thieves. 

The modern term “Game” is misleading, suggesting a diversion, amusement, or pastime.  That certainly described the overall festival, but not the athletics themselves.  The word for these festivals in Greek—agonēs—means contests.  There was nothing recreational about them.  The Greeks were extremely competitive and athletes at the Panhellenic festivals were professionals.

The Olympic Agonēs themselves began as a local festival at the Sanctuary for Zeus at Olympia in the NW Peloponnesian city-state (polis) of Elis.  The first contest in 776 BCE had only one event on one day as part of the larger festival: the stadē race, or running one length of the stadium: about 600 feet.  (Ancient Greek footrace tracks were straight; oval racetracks were for horses.)  This was the sole event for the first 13 Olympics.  By the 14th, a second event—wrestling—was added.

More and more events (Pentathalon, Race in Armor, the Pankration, etc.) joined until the final form of the program was reached in 520 BCE, held across five days.  All were single-competitor events.  No team sports.  While the Greeks did play ball games, including something like field hockey and another remarkably close to rugby, the Agonēs were about individual fame and glory (timē).  One winner, and only one.  What about a tie?  The two had to compete again until a single winner was named.

Long before 520, however, the festival had become “Panhellenic” (all-the-Greeks). There were, in fact, four big Panhellenic athletic competitions, called “the Circuit,” of which the Olympics was the most prestigious.  Second to the Olympics came the Pythian Games held at Delphi, sacred to Apollo.  Then the Nemean and Isthmian Games, sacred to Zeus/Herakles and Poseidon, respectively.  The Olympian and Pythian Agonēs were held every four years, the other two, every two years.  They were staggered, not concurrent, so athletes typically competed in all of them in rotation.

In addition, other regions and city-states had their own Agonēs.  Athens held the Pananthenaia, which included Games that honored Athena.  “Minor” competitions occurred yearly, but special Pananthenaic Games occurred every fourth year.  Macedonia (in north Greece where modern Thessaloniki is located) also held Olympic Games at Dion, another city sacred to Zeus.  The Macedonian Olympics were on a different schedule from the Peloponnesian Olympics.  Serious athletes tried to hit all these various Agonēs.

2)  At what point did other countries become involved, and why? 

All competitors had to be Greek (and free, no slaves except for jockeys), yet ancient Greece, unlike modern Greece, was a geographical region united by language, religion, and culture.  Within that, city-states had their own governments, laws, traditions, and coinage—so Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, Elis, Argos, Eretria, etc., were independent (and sometimes warring) nations.  Some of these city-states governed areas no bigger than Douglas County, Nebraska (metropolitan Omaha), although others were larger—relatively.  Attika, where Athens was located, was among the largest, yet only about the size of Rhode Island.

These city-states would send athletes who competed to honor their cities, and themselves.  As Greeks moved out of the mainland to colonize the coastal areas of Asia Minor, the Black Sea, south Italy, Sicily, and northern Africa, Greeks from these colony cities also came to compete.

By the late 300s BCE after Alexander the Great, they began admitting Macedonian competitors, although earlier, only Macedonian kings were allowed to compete, as regular Macedonians weren’t considered Greek.  Later yet, Romans were also admitted, yet all competitors were still required to be free.

3)  Why did the original Olympic Games get eliminated and what was the reason for them coming back?

The ancient Olympics were celebrated regularly down to AD 261.  They came to an end during a period of Roman Imperial history called the “Barracks Emperors,” which involved a lot of civil war and unrest.  After that, they were celebrated more sporadically until terminated in AD 393 by the Emperor Theodosius because they were “pagan.”  He was a Christian, and in that year, he banned all pagan cult, not just the Olympics.

They were restarted in 1896, in Athens, as diplomacy via sport, although the first modern Olympics had only 14 countries and 241 athletes.  All modern Olympic parades are led by the Greek delegation, as a matter of respect.  The modern Olympic flame is kept in Olympia, and sets out from the ruins of the ancient Temple of Zeus.

While sacred fire was certainly a part of the ancient Olympics as it was a religious event and fire was crucial to sacrifice, there was no comparable relay of a torch around Greece.  The Olympic Flame never left Olympia.

1896 trivia: the Marathon—never an ancient event—was run along the course of the first supposed “marathon,” from the beach of Marathon in Attika into the brand new Olympic Stadium in the heart of Athens, near the ancient akropolis.  It was won by a Greek: Spiridon Louise; another Greek, Kharilaos Vasilakos, took second place.  The Greeks were overjoyed.

The irony?  No Greek athlete has won a medal in that event since.  In addition, the original “marathon” was a legend of the First Persian War; it didn’t actually happen.

4)  How are the modern Olympics different from the original games? How are they similar?

As noted above, the original Agonēs were religious in nature.  A second major difference, also noted above, was recognizing only one winner: second and third place didn’t count.

Third, it wasn’t just athletics.  Although the ancient Olympics had only athletic events, other Agonēs such as the second-most prestigious, the Pythian Games at Delphi, included competitions in music, poetry, dancing, and even painting.  If done to honor Apollo (patron of both arts and athletics), it was also because, to the Greeks, all of life was agonίa—an arena for competition.  So they competed in a wide variety of ways.

Ancient athletes at the Big Four were all men.  Likewise, the spectators were men; women (especially married women) were not only barred from competing, but even from entering the stadium.  If they did, they might be executed.  At Olympia, only one woman was allowed: the Chief Priestess of Hera, as Hera was Zeus’s wife, and her priestess was her representative.

Ancient athletes competed naked.  The Greeks believed the human body was a work of art and should be honored.  Nakedness was normal for all exercise, not just the Games.  This nakedness was another reason women were not admitted as spectators.  In 396, when a Rhodian athlete’s mother, Kallipateiras, snuck into the stadium dressed as his trainer in order to see him compete, it resulted in a change of rules so that both athletes and trainers had to appear naked henceforth.

Women, however, did attend the Agonēs festivals, if not the stadium events.  In fact, a little before the Olympics themselves, Games were held at Olympia for women and girls, dedicated to Hera.  Somewhat predictably, Sparta dominated, although Sparta did not dominate the men’s events the same way.  The reason?  Only ancient Sparta encouraged girls and women to exercise and train.  “Feminism” wasn’t the reason; exercise was key to making Spartan women superior baby-making machines.

Much like modern athletes, ancient athletes hired specialty trainers and dieticians, and began training at a young age.  Most Games had both boys’ and men’s events.  Then as now, trainers who produced winners were in high demand and charged accordingly.  Whole families might dominate a sport.  The mother of the boxer mentioned above was the daughter and niece of winning boxers, her brothers won, her nephews won, as well as her son.  These connections were why her “impiety” at violating the all-male rule was overlooked and she wasn’t executed.  In fact, we know about the story because Pausanias (an ancient travel writer) described their statues (including hers) in the main city on the island of Rhodes.

Ancient athletes were not amateurs; that’s a myth.  They competed in all four main (Panhellenic) Games, as well as other Games (such as the Pananthenaia).  It was their job, and if the Big Four—called stephanitic or “crown” games—offered only a ribbon and crown, made of various types of branches (olive for the Olympics, laurel for the Pythian), other Agonēs did offer prizes, including expensive bronze objects or fancy painted pottery filled with fine olive oil or wine.

Plus ancient athletes who won were honored extensively by their hometowns with perks such as free theatre seats, lifetime dinners at state expense, or even freedom from taxes.  Victors might have their trainers paid for by the state (ancient “corporate sponsorship”), and were highly sought as models for sculptors.  Those beautiful Greek statues are often of a real person, even if we don’t know who.  Famous poets such as Pindar wrote victory songs for the banquet on the night of their victory—the ancient version of standing on the platform to hear a national anthem.  Sometimes cities, especially in Thessaly, helped fund horses for chariot and jockey races in order to showcase their superior horse-breeding.

Money was all over the ancient Games, just like the modern.

Then as now, ancient victors also commanded huge fan followings—a point ancient intellectuals complained about, even intellectuals who were athletes themselves, such as Plato, a wrestler.  The names of ancient athletes might be better known than generals and statesmen.

For instance, today we call athletes “jocks,” but in ancient Greece, they were a “Milo” after a famous pankratist [wrestler] who won 32 titles across various Agonēs.  “Meat-eater” was also a name for an athlete, as regularly eating meat (aside from fish) was sporadic.  (It was expensive.)  Athletes, however, often had diets high in meat.  In fact, that same Milo was famous for entering the stadium carrying his “dinner” on his shoulders—a small calf!

The most famous athlete, however, wasn’t Milo, but Theoganes of Thasos, an ancient Jim Thorpe.  Active in the early 400s, around the time of the Persian Wars, he won all the Big Four, competing in multiple events of both strength (wrestling) and speed (racing), and was said to have amassed 1300 crowns total (across all Games, not just the Big Four).  A local legend in Thasos named Herakles (Hercules) as his real father, and a bronze statue of him in the main city on the island was said to have healing powers.

5)  Anything else about the Olympics you wanted to add?

Ancient Greeks used the Olympic schedule to mark “common” time, as otherwise, there was no calendar shared by all the different city-states.  For instance, the year we call 344 BCE was the year of the 109th Olympiad, 343 was the second year of the 109th Olympiad, 342 was the third year, and 341 was the fourth.  Then 340 became the year of the 110th Olympiad.  And so forth.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

What Is Civilization?

(The following post was written at the request of SFF author Kate Elliott as a guest-blog for her own website.)

What is Civilization?

To decide what a civilization might look like, first, we must decide what “civilization” means.

Too often such a fundamental question gets skipped over, as if we already know the answer.

But we don’t.

This confusion owes partly to the fact “civilization” has both a popular and an academic definition.  How we use the term in casual conversation—“That wasn’t very civilized”—isn’t how anthropologists and historians employ it.  Not to mention even anthropologists and historians can’t fully agree on a definition, as ideas about civilization have evolved over the past hundred-plus years or so.  We’ve learned more about the rise of civilization in various places around the globe, which includes new discoveries that challenge previous assumptions.

Some might think history a very static discipline, never changing…after all, it’s history, right?  How can the past change?

Yet history is fluid because—if the past may not change—what we know about it does.  New discoveries pop up, new questions are asked, and new perspectives reorient our research.

To quantify “civilization,” then, is tricky.  At times, I’d like to throw out the term altogether because it drags along so much horrific historical baggage.  Nonetheless, we’re stuck with it, so historians and anthropologists/sociologists look for the best (most generic) way to define it.

A civilization coalesces when a complex culture reaches such a level of development that specialization of work is created, and social hierarchy emerges.  As part of this, civilizations may (often do) exert control over neighboring territories in order to access needed resources.

This is nicely broad—but some civilizations defy even such generic parameters.  Take the Hohokum Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest.  These cultures focused inward, not outward, and as such, did not practice regional dominance.  The why has been debated, but whatever the cause, some would say they don’t qualify as a “civilization.”  Yet anyone who’s actually seen Pueblo Benito (et al.) might find it astonishing not to label such an advanced and diverse society as a civilization.
So it’s important, I think, to allow a certain amount of flexibility in our definitions.  We should never underestimate the importance of geography on human historical development.  Ergo, we should not be surprised to find great diversity in human civilization, just as we have vast diversity in global environments.

Let’s pick apart, then, the basics of “civilization.”

First, why settlements, then civilizations developed is a point of contention.  V. Gordon Childe once theorized that full agriculture was necessary for permanent settlements.  As the world warmed and environments became increasingly hostile, or at least difficult (Holocene period), humans needed to know where their next meal was coming from.  Abandoning hunting-gathering lifestyles, they began to farm, first using horticulture, then full-fledged agriculture.  These farmers stayed put, settlements grew in size, and eventually, in select river-valley areas, the first cities emerged.  The path to civilization thus seemed set and logical…

…until discoveries such as the temple at Göbekli Tepe and the Natufian civilization of the Levant and Syria threw a spanner in the works.

At Göbekli Tepe, a temple was built around the same time as or even before farming developed in the Ancient Near East.  (The earliest structures date c. 12,000-11,500 BCE.)  More curiously, the temple wasn’t part of any settlement or city.  It’s just…there.  Çatalhöyük is (sorta) next door, but it developed later than the earliest structures at Göbekli Tepe, and lacks ritual centers.  Did it emerge as a sort of Neolithic suburbia for those who worshiped at Göbekli Tepe?  Perhaps the two are related; perhaps they’re not.  We don’t have enough evidence to say.  But certainly the temple calls into question Childe’s idea that farming was invented, settlements followed, and then public projects such as temples and palaces were constructed as settlements grew.

The earliest known temple in the world, with very fine carvings and precise astronomical layout (it’s not “primitive” by any stretch), was constructed in the middle of nowhere and associated with no town.  It seems to be a site of pilgrimage.

So did agriculture birth cities and religion, or did religion birth agriculture?

Likewise, the Natufians in the same basic region maintained a hunting-gathering lifestyle even while settling down in places such Damascus or Jerico (the oldest continually inhabited site in the world).  Farming came later.

So did agriculture birth settlement, or did settlement birth agriculture?

The answer owes to the peculiarities of each unique environment.

In short, there’s not ONE answer.  Chicken, egg, chicken-god—they all came first, at least somewhere.  It’s not that Childe was wrong, but that his theory was too constrictive.  The real story is BIGGER.

When it comes to history, we lock ourselves on a collision course with error when we insist on a single cause or single outcome.  Human beings do things for a lot of reasons—sometimes even mutually contradictory reasons—and it behooves us to remember that.

Back to “civilization.”

The two most consistent elements seem to be 1) specialization of work, and 2) stratification of society.  If everything else might look different, these two things lie at the heart of the definition of a civilization.

Specialization of work requires the ability to produce food in enough abundance to feed even those members of a society who are not directly involved in food acquisition.  That means food SURPLUS and food STORAGE.  These are very basic requirements, and don’t seem to change, whatever else a civilization may look like.  Such a society must then find a means to redistribute the food surplus to those involved in tasks other than food production.  That generally means taxation in some form.  (Death and taxes….)

Yet taxes need not equate to the suppression of the masses under the heel of a privileged elite.  Again, we must allow for nuance.  Most of these early elites lacked the means to enforce any crippling inequality.  (That came later, with armies.)  Still, social hierarchy did emerge.

With specialization of work, human nature seems inclined to create a value system related to that work.  Which jobs matter more?  The farmer growing the barley/wheat/millet/maize, or the priest who convinces the gods to bring annual floods or rain that allow those fields to produce?  Most early societies favored the priest over the farmer, because gods were more powerful than human beings.  Ergo, in the majority of early civilizations, priests (not warlords) occupied the top echelon.

But not in all (exceptions, exceptions).  And even in those where priests did dominate initially, rule transitioned from priests, to priest-kings, to warrior kings, or tribal chieftains establishing dynasties of rule-by-clan.  Occasionally kings became gods (Pharaoh), or the Son of Heaven (the Zhou).  And sometimes civilizations defied all of these to develop oligarchic councils where rule was shared among elite families.

Human societies develop according to the needs of their environment and historical situation.   At the root of it, we’re practical survivalists.  We’re also glorious in our sheer variety.

Yet this is also why we cannot define “civilization” by specifics, nor isolate a single trajectory that leads to it.  Too many possible rivers feed that ocean.

Finally, we should address the tendency for civilizations to exercise dominance over neighbors.  As mentioned above, such dominance should not, I think, be integral to defining a group as a civilization.  Yet dominance, or attempts at it (more or less successful), is a characteristic of most civilizations.

Sometimes that dominance was expressed militarily, by putting neighbors under vassalage and demanding tribute.  But sometimes dominance was expressed via economics.

We think of the latter less often when we talk about control/influence, yet the earliest (known) large city—Uruk in Sumer (Mesopotamia)—dominated the Euphrates and Tigris by trade.  Uruk exported Sumerian culture along with trade goods, carried by merchants on river boats.  It resulted in what we call the First Urbanization.  And no armies strong-armed anybody.  Military dominance had to wait for Sargon of Akkad.

Likewise in the Americas, for a variety of reasons, wars were fought for captives—not land control.  The major cultures of Mesoamerica, such Teotihuacan and the Maya, or of North America, such as Cahokia on the Mississippi, dominated their neighbors via trade.  They, too, exported their culture with goods, just as Uruk had long before them.

We could even say modern US dominance is fueled as much by the American economy as by the military industrial complex.  McDonalds, Apple, and Coca-Cola rule the world more effectively than the Marines.  (Don’t tell the Marines that.)

In fact, throughout history, trade creates more effective bonds between civilization centers and their client kingdoms than military suppression.  The latter is built on fear and intimidation (which only goes so far), while the former is built on desire (to acquire).  In short, trade is positive, war is negative.  Or as my mother used to say, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

Cultures work the same way.

So when thinking about cultural construction in alternate worlds, history can be one’s friend, as long as we recognize the wide variety that history has to offer.

Programmatic History (that which seeks a single model, explanation, or driving force) is positivist and simplistic, and breaks apart on the cliffs of our vast human variety.  As a historian, I am continually amazed by human ingenuity and creativity.  When facing obstacles of environment or situation, we excel at finding a way around, over, or under it.  Humanity doesn’t listen to “No” well.  I think that’s a virtue more often than it’s a fault.

And it leads to a lot of shapes that “civilization” might take around the globe throughout history.