A few years ago, I read Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus. I’d heard that Thomas Jefferson admired Cyrus as a leader and wanted to find out why. Before long, I came across this bit of advice Cyrus’ father gave him about resupplying his troops during wartime.
Where might you better look to find the means of obtaining supplies than to the one who has an army? Now you are marching out from here with a force of infantry . . . and you will have for cavalry to support you the Median horse, the best cavalry troops in the world. What nation, then, of those around do you suppose will refuse to serve you, both from the wish to do your side a favour, and for fear of suffering harm?
In other words, “If you need supplies, just take them. And if people give you trouble, well, you’ve got an army, don’t you?” Essentially, he would supply the troops using the same methods organized crime uses to shake down local businesses. The rest of Cyrus’ life and reign is about as enlightened as his resupply methods. Apparently what made him such a shining example of a benevolent ruler for both Xenophon and Jefferson was that he actually tried to govern the lands he conquered rather than simply raping and pillaging.
Last month we talked about how to write plausible characters who lived in a world with rigid class distinctions. But a class system isn’t the only way past cultures go off the rails by modern standards. How do you write about characters who lived in places and times that accepted and even glorified conquest as a normal part of politics? Or that viewed marriage as a matter of political and economic dealmaking that had nothing to do with love? Or that were comfortable with slavery – with the right to beat, rape, or kill people who belonged to you? Or that considered bear baiting or a good hanging to be quality entertainment?
In last month’s comments section, a reader brought up the question of how to make characters in historical novels sympathetic when they were part of cultures that modern readers now find either ridiculous or abhorrent. The example she gave was of a young woman in the Ming dynasty whose abusive father had arranged for her to marry a man she didn’t love. In the culture at the time, not obeying her father would have been unthinkable – it would have violated everything she’d been raised to believe about her duty as a daughter and as a woman. But if she gave in to her father’s wishes rather than following her heart, she’d lose the sympathy of modern readers. How do you handle a situation like that? [Read more…]