History’s awkward endings Pt.1: King Croesus of Lydia

Head of Croesus on a vase in the Louvre, Paris (France)
Head of Croesus on a vase in the Louvre, Paris (France)

History often serves as a sort of mirror of the past, showcasing what our species is capable of and offering perspective on present-day events. Plenty of lessons can be learned from it. Plenty of how-not-to-do-its. The big picture can teach us about development, trends, bla bla bla you know the story. But history is also rife with ridiculous stories that are just too good not to tell, despite their often questionable nature and, perhaps, little direct present-day relevance. So who am I to deny these stories their turn in the limelight?

Through the course of my studies I’ve naturally built up a bit of an arsenal of these kinds of stories, and I thought it would be nice to do a (themed) series incorporating some of them. So, enter History’s awkward endings, in which each post will tell a different tale. Yes, the ‘endings’ part is deliberately vague, to give myself some more options. All ye with weak stomachs or a too highly attuned sense of vicarious shame, turn away before it’s too late

Our first target of ridicule is weirdly wonderful, war-mongering king Croesus of Lydia.

Imagine living in the kingdom of Lydia, which spanned roughly the western half of present-day Turkey, in the fifth century BC. Your Greek neighbours across the Aegean Sea are all busy forming city-states and trying to one-up their rivals by inventing even cooler ways to rule their cities. Sparta’s holding fast to her “What’s better than one king? – Two kings!” thing, while Athens is under expert tyrant management by the Pisistratids and still has some way to go before coming up with all that democracy nonsense. Closer to home, on your own side of the pond, there are some little Greek colonies that can easily be scared into submission by a capable king. Lydia’s capital, Sardis, has a river running through it that supposedly carries gold dust, in part explaining the kingdom’s wealth, and King Croesus’ reputation for being filthy rich. Croesus is not only rich; he is also stupidly confident and ambitious, and of course wants to ensure he will go down in history. And he will.

Now, our main and almost only written source on Croesus is Herodotus, the ‘father of history’. He wrote the Histories, an account of the Persian Wars (you know, the ones during which the whole ‘300’/’This. Is. SPARTA!’ thing took place) and the prelude to it, with a vast amount of background given about the Persian Empire, too. He was a bearded (albeit originally non-mainland-) Greek with a passion for recording even the most obscure titbit of information he had gathered on his travels. Herodotus had the admirable goal of trying to be as historically accurate as possible; and, to be fair, he does a decent job at this, casting his often critical eye on a huge variety of matters. For instance, he’ll strive to give both versions if he has heard two conflicting stories on a certain matter and can’t figure out which one’s correct. However, he sometimes records utter nonsense as well: despite his claims to the contrary, camels do not actually have four thigh-bones and four knee-joints. (Hdt. III.103). Herodotus wrote his Histories about a full century later than when Croesus did all of his sallying forth and conquering and such; something definitely worth remembering. He also likes a good story (including his own book, of course), so literary motives might distort matters a bit further here and there. All in all, I think it’s fair to take the stories he tells about Croesus with a bit of a pinch of salt

According to Herodotus, Croesus succeeded to the throne at the age of thirty-five, predictably after the death of his father (shit – that’s how kingdoms work?). Almost instantly he began indulging in his new favourite pastime of non-mainland Greek bashing, which he started by invading the Ephesians and then worked his way through the rest. Expanded kingdom: check. Wealth: check. Happiness? Croesus thought so, but there’s an interesting passage to be found in the Histories which tells of his meeting with Solon the Athenian that sheds some light on this point.

Yes, THE Solon, the one who’s remembered for his laws and reforms. After having given his city a helping hand, Solon seems to have gone on some sort of Grand Tour, and happened to stop by Sardis, too. Croesus, holding Solon in high regard, asks him who he considers to be the happiest among men, obviously expecting Solon to flatter him and say Croesus’ name. Solon will have none of that, however, and proceeds to list a few men who for example became wealthy, fathered sons and saw them grow up and have kids of their own, and died a glorious death in battle. A.k.a., they met a good end, too. When Croesus asks why he isn’t included in this in his opinion none too impressive list, Solon replies that he can’t name him yet, until his life has been brought to a fair ending, while having held on to all of his wealth. (Hdt. I.30-32).

His conquering needs not satisfied yet, Croesus decides he wants to become even richer (which, if he can hang onto it, would make for a great ending) and devises taking his megalomania into the neighbouring hulk that is the Persian Empire. In the meantime, by the way, his son dies, arguably as a result of his own paranoia; not a good sign. A pitt-stop at the renowned Delphic Oracle, situated in the most beautiful place on earth (Delphi, in Greece; seriously, go visit it if you have the chance) was meant to give him piece of mind regarding this not entirely risk-free enterprise. Luckily the oracle tells him that if he marches against the Persians, he will destroy a great empire. (Hdt. I.53). Score!

Now of course one can imagine that oracles, as some sort of precursors to modern-day horoscopes (shudder), could boost their success rate considerably by being ever so slightly ambiguous. I’m sure you can see it coming. Croesus, of course, didn’t, and learned his lesson the hard way. By pissing off Persia’s king, Cyrus, who with the epithet ‘the Great’ already appeared to have the symbolical upper hand over Croesus, Croesus secured the fate of his own kingdom. Cyrus bulldozed over the ant that was his now former neighbour, sacked Sardis, annexed his kingdom and took his gold. It is unsure where and how exactly Croesus died. Herodotus claims Cyrus released Croesus from the great pyre they had intended to roast him on and was then made an advisor (Hdt. I.87-88), but this seems like a bit of a stretch. Either way, I think we can safely assume Croesus never made it onto Solon’s shortlist of happy men. The king who lost his kingdom; a sort of ancient version of scoring an own goal – and we all know how much of a disaster that is!

Our ancestry: Homo Naledi, Homo Superman?

Facial reconstruction of Homo Naledi. Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic.

This past week, articles began to pop up all over the internet regarding the find of a new species of human ancestor, imaginatively named Homo Naledi after the South African cave where the remains were found. Those of you who know me will know that finds like these make me as giddy as a kid in a candy store. So, be warned. Proceed at your own caution. There are actual dragons ahead.

Why is this find so interesting? What sort of impact could it have on our understanding of hominin (the group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species, and our immediate ancestors) evolution?

The Homo Naledi find has proper boat-rocking potential. In true Indiana Jones fashion, the site was discovered by cavers, who knew there might be bones in caves and were looking for previously untrodden passages. After working their way through a passage called the Superman’s Crawl (because most people can only fit through the narrow gap by extending one arm above their heads and the other pressed against their bodies, like Superman in flight), and crossing the rocky ridge known as the Dragon’s Back, they found a fissure in the floor leading into a vertical chute. In what I’m sure you realise by now is a highly inaccessible place that won’t win any wheelchair-friendly awards, they uncovered a chamber from which the bones of at least fifteen (!) excellently preserved specimens would be excavated. This is a huge amount. Usually, finds are restricted to the odd skeletal part here and there. Before going into more detail about this new species, a bit more context about our broader human lineage might be useful.

Now, there’s an interesting gap in the fossil record of our genus, Homo, that this find might play into. As one scientist put it, current Homo finds that are dated between 3 and 2 million years ago can all be contained in one shoe box, while leaving space for the shoes. On the far end of this gap, we find what is commonly considered to be a very early direct ancestor of ours, the Australopithecines. The well-known specimen “Lucy”, dated to 3.2 million years ago, belongs to the species Australopithecus Afarensis. They walked upright on two legs, but were a lot smaller than us and had considerably smaller brains (than most of us). They were more apish than human, so to say. Our own genus, Homo, possibly emerged around 2.8 million years ago, but becomes recognisably represented in the fossil record around 2 million years ago with Homo Habilis and Homo Erectus. These were larger-brained handymen who used stone tools and, as we know for sure with regard to Homo Erectus, harnessed fire and became Masterchefs.

So how does Homo Naledi fit into this story? The bones they uncovered were mildly confusing, to say the least, and have a bit of a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde vibe to them. On the one hand, the fossils sported characteristics that had surprisingly modern human features, but at the same time some parts were quite primitively apish. The top half – shoulders, torso, and flared hips – reminds us more of our very early Australopithecine ancestors, whereas the bottom half with its long legs and humanlike feet appears very much human. The skull and teeth show an interesting mix of the two; the braincase was less than half the size of ours, but it was quite modern, and more similar to Homo Erectus than Homo Habilis is.

Thus – you’ve guessed it – Homo Naledi might be placed somewhere in between Australopithecus and Homo Erectus, at perhaps around 2 to 2.5 million years ago, in which case it would fill in some of the blanks of the shoe-box era. This is by far the most likely scenario. The problem is that so far they haven’t managed to date the find, because apparently bottom-of-a-cave mixed sediment presents a bit of a problem. So we can’t shout it from any rooftops just yet. Also, if it somehow turns out to be much older, it might contest the idea that Australopithecus is our direct ancestor. In that case it might also be connected to the recent discovery that has pushed back the date of the earliest known stone tools to an astonishing 3.3 million years old (so, before any thus far known species of Homo were around). And if it happens to be a lot younger, it places a small-brained Homo alongside a lot of advanced Homo bigheads.

However interesting this is, I’m even more intrigued by another feature of the find. At least fifteen skeletons, found in a Mission Impossible worthy remote part of a cave, preserved without any tools or animal bones to suggest that they might have lived there. How on earth did they get there? There were no tooth marks on the bones to suggest predatory gnawing and dragging into lairs, and no rubble or stones to indicate the bones had been washed there by a river or a flood. Also, the way the bones were distributed points to intervals between the deposition of the specimens. According to Lee Berger, the paleoanthropologist who led the excavation, the only likely explanation seems to be, to quote Boromir, that ‘This is no mine. It’s a tomb!’ Deliberate burial or disposal of bodies. Far, far earlier than our current earliest evidence of burials. Only Homo Sapiens and perhaps Neanderthals are thus far associated with this sort of ritualisation of death. Moreover, because the chamber is so hard to reach and very, very dark indeed, torches or lit fires must have been necessary. This is very advanced behaviour for a creature with such a small brain.

Of course, there could have been a different entrance to the chamber all those long years ago. In that case, perhaps fire wasn’t a definitive requirement at all. And even though the sediments scream out against the bones having washed in, I think it might perhaps be too big of a leap to pin this deposition of bodies in the category of ‘ritualised’ burials. Perhaps the Naledi simply found a convenient chasm nearby their living place to chuck their dead into, so they weren’t staring at them all the time while they rotted.

But, whichever way you spin it, this new species sure throws us a curveball and makes us rethink some of our previous assumptions. Oh yeah, and the find’s location in South Africa, rather than East Africa where most other human fossils are found, might end up changing our perspective about our origin story, too. Not a bad score for one find. I for one eagerly await the day they finally manage to date these remains.

(Further reading: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/150910-human-evolution-change/)

Prohibition party!


“Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.”

― W.C. Fields

As a Dutch person it seems almost impossible to grow up without encountering, often from an improbably young age, the phenomenon of tourists asking you where the nearest coffee shop is. Cue surprised stares and open mouths when you proceed to shrug and apologise for your ignorance, while they hastily move on and continue their search. The Netherlands have long since been entrenched in the imaginations of many a foreigner as a sort of magical Alice in Wonderland-land. Legal drugs! Party! Woo! And, as their trips progress, some increasingly funky-looking windmills.

A lot of these thrill-seekers are unaware that drugs are in fact not legal at all in this country. Certain kinds – the ‘soft’ kinds such as cannabis and certain mushrooms – are merely tolerated under certain circumstances. For instance, as long as you are a Dutch resident, are of age, and are carrying a maximum of 5 grams of cannabis, you won’t be prosecuted. Yes, you read that correctly: tourists miss the boat. From January 1, 2013 onward, coffee shops are not allowed to sell to people without Dutch residency. Luckily for tourists, though, most shops don’t check all too rigorously.

The idea behind this degree of toleration is that the government can keep more of an eye on things this way, rather than forcing it underground and losing all control over it. At least, it does to us sober Dutchies. It’s also good to note that the country that epitomises Freedom with a capital F is now slowly but surely, state by state, converting to our wisdom. This is a very far cry from the historical example I mean to pull up here. A lot has changed in some eighty years.

I’ve always been enthralled by the contrasts and contradictions that arose during the Prohibition Era in the United States. It shows us how the American people reacted to the complete ban on the sale, production, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages that was in place from 1920 to 1933. But wait. Wasn’t this the same period in time usually referred to as the Roaring Twenties? Reckless spending, wild jazz, booty-shaking dancing, partying, and outrageous flapper girls… and a general ban on alcohol. Quite a bold move on the government’s side, I’d say. If only the people who shoved the so-called Volstead Act down people’s throats had had the ability to listen to the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, some seventy odd years in the future, they would have known that ‘Life, uh, finds a way.’

The Volstead Act was a reaction to the perception that society had begun to run rife with alcoholics, gamblers, druggees and violence. The advocates of this act, well, advocated it as a cure for society’s problems, as it was to promote health and public morals. Now, anyone who has seen the successful HBO series Boardwalk Empire (with a fantastic Steve Buscemi, by the way), or anyone who can successfully add one and one, may have the notion to place some footnotes by the intended results of the Act. On the surface, some success was achieved. During the 1920s overall registered (!) alcohol consumption declined by around fifty percent, and it took American society until the 1940s to climb back up to their pre-Prohibition levels of alcohol consumption, so at least some temporary effects are indeed noticeable. Some US inhabitants were at least healthier and perhaps adhered to the odd moral here and there. On the other hand, of course, there is a reason why this era is known as the Roaring Twenties, and why Prohibition is usually regarded as a failed exercise.

Imagine hidden, underground parts of warehouses filled with huge home-made kettles or – on a smaller scale – bathtubs, where things resembling alcoholic beverages were produced by shaggy men in long coats. A significant amount of people had lost their income when alcohol was banned because, hey, no need to produce and distribute it any longer. These people somehow had to make a living (guess how!). A lot of previously alcohol-consuming but law-abiding people also felt the law was unjust, and were thus more than willing to break it. The result was an entire black market for the stuff. Or, for some sort of stuff; quality could vary immensely, to the point where some of the home-brewed stuff should not be consumed by anyone valuing their lives. Speakeasies – bars where alcohol was sold illegally – popped up all over the place. Organised crime received a huge boost. Mafia groups (think Al Capone!) flourished and added bootlegging to their repertoire. And the government hardly stood a chance. Prohibition was notoriously weakly enforced; the magnitude of the task completely overwhelmed law enforcers, who simply didn’t have enough tools available to them in order to deal with the situation. For those who had the energy to make an effort, the law could be bypassed fairly easily.

So, life indeed found a way. And now the whole thing was way further removed from the government’s hands than it had been previously. Moreover, when the stock market collapsed on October 24, 1929, it became apparent that state governments could really have used the tax revenue the sale of alcohol had brought in prior to Prohibition. Roosevelt, who was elected in 1932, saw reason and finally had Prohibition repealed in 1933. Of course, this Prohibition business concerned a completely different time, context, and even substance than the whole Dutch drug story told above. Still, I think it’s a good measure of human nature; when people feel they’re being treated unreasonably – in this case in the case of a complete alcohol ban – they won’t just stay put. And these days cannabis is widely considered to be a very mild drug that can hardly be called worse than alcohol for morals and general behaviour, so it follows similar lines.

In the end, I figure you just can’t stop the dinosaurs. All together now, one last time: Life, uh, finds a way.