February 19, 2003

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

I last read this book two years ago, and I read it last weekend on yet another trip to Monterey. I found myself, once again, enthralled.

I also found myself wishing that I had assigned it--or something similar to it--to my students. And then I thought that my reading lists are too long already, and that adding another two to three hours onto their weekly readings would not please them...

I wrote the piece below two years ago...

H.N. Turteltaub (2001), Over the Wine-Dark Sea: A Sea Adventure of the Ancient World (New York: Forge: 0312876602).

I picked this book up from the Barnes and Noble front table on my way down to Monterey for vacation. I had been looking for something light. Instead, I found myself engaged in the book for perhaps four times as many hours as I would usually spend on a book this length. I was entranced because the subject was interesting, because the writing did not get in the way of the story, and because I found myself greatly admiring the project--the historical, educational project--that the author is engaged in.

H.N. Turteltaub is also Harry Turtledove, the author of a large number of heroic fantasy novels and an even larger number of "alternate history" novels. But in this book Turteltaub attempts a very different project. _Over the Wine-Dark Sea_ tells the story of the voyage of a 40-oared merchant galley, the Aphrodite, with its captain, quartermaster, and crew, from Rhodes to Naples and back in the summer of 310 B.C.

The plot does not fit the requirements of unity and cohesion that we have grown to expect from a novel--the idea that if we are told that there is a gun hanging on the wall in chapter 1, it should be fired before the end of the book. Instead, the plot is much more beads-on-a-string: negotiating with suppliers, negotiating with customers, navigating through the Aegean Sea, getting caught in storms, evading pirates, attending drinking parties, and so forth. The focus of the book is not on the development of a character, or on some decisive event in an individual's or a civilization's history, but on the threads and character of daily life in the late fourth-century B.C. Mediterranean. History-with-a-capital-H appears--we are told of the maneuverings of Alexander the Great's generals as they kill Alexander's children and carve up his empire into pieces for themselves, we see Agathokles Tyrant of Syracuse fight the Carthaginians, and we watch the Romans enter the stage of history--but history-with-a-capital H is pure background.

Instead, the focus is on merchant captain Menedemos as he flees outraged husbands, sells peacocks, and exhorts his crew to row faster; and on his quartermaster-cousin Sostratos as he reckons up profit-and-loss in his head and tries to curb the more dangerous enthusiasms of his risk-loving captain.

Does Turteltaub succeed in his project? I would say "Yes, definitely." A book like Courtesans and Fishcakes will tell you more facts about life in the fourth century B.C. Aegean. But Over the Wine-Dark Sea fits them into a pattern--the pattern of a merchant voyage--so that they make sense as the components of a thriving, expanding culture. All in all, I was impressed.

I did, however, have three significant complaints about the book:

First, the book gives little sense the grinding poverty of the working classes in the Hellenistic Mediterranean. During this age the population of the--for the time well-settled and technologically advanced--Greek ekumene was growing at about 2.7% per twenty-year generation. In a civilization that lacked the restraints on fertility imposed by the European nuclear family marriage pattern or the Chinese lineage system, and in which girls were routinely married off at fifteen, such a low rate of population growth tells us horrible things about the disease and nutrition environment in which the bulk of the population lived. In a pre-industrial population in which people are not at the edge of malnutrition, like the colonial United States, populations double every twenty years. Even the population of southern slaves doubled every twenty years. The population is growing so slowly because the people of the Hellenistic Mediterranean, most of them, are at the edge of malnutrition: too little fat and calories for many women to ovulate regularly, too little protein to grow tall, too little nutrition to successfully overcome many diseases.

There are a few hints of what is going on. One young women comments offhand that a peahen is given almost as much food as a slave. She is back in her father's house at 18 because her husband has died of disease. But these are only hints. Instead, the focus is on the ship and what it carries, upper-class consumption patterns and upper-class consumption goods: papyrus, navigation, silk, high-quality wine, and preparations for an extensive feast for which the centerpiece is to be a dogfish. The slaves didn't eat dogfish.

Second, it is hard to get a sense of exactly what the Aphrodite is carrying. We know that it is carrying 125 amphorae of Arousian wine from Khios, yes. But exactly how large is an amphora? Does it take up two cubic feet in the cargo area? How big is the cargo area? How much silk, perfume, and so forth is the ship carrying? And how big are each of the 800 sacks of grain that the ship takes to Syracuse? We are told occasional numbers--costs, sale prices, quantities--but not enough to get a sense for ourselves of how the business is going. (Although we do see Menedemos and Sostratos get happier and happier as the voyage proceeds.)

Third, if I read this voyage correctly, it is an extraordinarily profitable one. Everything goes right. Menedemos runs extraordinary risks in pursuit of extraordinary profits, and wins. And so the reaction of Menedemos's and Sostratos's family when they get back to Rhodes is alarmingly and inhumanly restrained.

First, let's set up some equivalences. In the silver money of the Aegean 100 drakhmai make a mina, 60 minae make a talent. 1 drakhma is a working-class wage for a ten-hour day--call it the equivalent (in labor time) of $50. (Of course, it is *not* the equivalent of $50 today in purchasing power: if we think of a drakhma as a $50 bill, then a pound of grain costs about $10 (compared to $0.30 today at Safeway); a bottle of highest-quality Arousian wine costs $80 (where it is made in Khios) or $250 (when it is sold in Italy) (compared to $20 today at Beverages and More); the two books Sostratos owns (Herodotos's Histories and Thoukydides's Peloponnesian War) probably cost him $5000 each (makes the $8.95 Penguin Classics editions look like a real bargain, yes?). Whether the real labor-time price gap is tenfold, thirtyfold, or five-hundredfold, from our perspective even the rich of the pre-industrial past were appallingly poor in everything except the numbers of their slaves.)

Menedemos and Sostratos ship 125 amphorae of wine from Khios to Italy, buy it at a price of $800 per (ten-bottle?) amphora, sell it at an average price of somewhere around $2500 per amphora, and so reap a gross margin of $212,500 on this part of their cargo. If this wine is 1/5 of their normal cargo, and if the gross margin is the same on the rest of their cargo, then the boat has a gross margin of $1,000,000 from the purchase in Greece and sale in Italy of its normal cargo. From this, we have to subtract the galley's operating costs, the biggest of which is the expense of the rowers: 40 rowers at 1.5 drakhmai a day for a 200-day sailing season gives us $600,000 in direct labor costs.

The $400,000 operating profit remaining seems a reasonable amount for a normal successful voyage. It has to cover the costs of winter maintenance, interest on capital, and allowance for risk of loss of the entire ship and its cargo to pirates or storms. A ship is a valuable and expensive piece of capital equipment itself, worth less (perhaps a third?) but not astronomically less than its cargo, and its loss would be expensive. The possible total loss of the cargo to storms or pirates is an even greater risk.

However, on this voyage Menedemos and Sostratos have a number of extra items that they carry, all of which are astonishingly profitable. They earn $10,000 carrying mercenaries from Greece to Italy. They bring the first peacocks to Italy, which they sell for a gross margin of $260,000. They fill their ship with grain and run past the Carthaginian blockade to resupply besieged Syracuse. How much grain can their 60 foot long, 10 foot wide boat carry? How deep is its cargo hold? If they can carry 36000 lbs of grain, then--if they did collect four times the going rate of $10 a lb for it--they earned $1,440,000 from the Syracusan treasury for that part of the voyage.

The total operating profit, after labor costs but before wear-and-tear on the ship, insurance, et cetera? It looks to me like about 8 talents--$2,500,000. That is enough to (I think) buy ten ships the size of the Aphrodite. That is a fivefold return on invested capital over a six-month voyage. For a couple of 25 year olds on one of their first few voyages in charge of one of the family's ships, that is an amazing profit. The grumpy family members should have been more appeased. The non-grumpy family members should have been boasting of the voyage as one of the mercantile coups of the century. (Nevertheless, it is important to remember that even rich Hellenistic Rhodian merchants were, by our standards, very poor. Menedemos's room at his father's house is "sparsely furnished: a bedstead with a wool-stuffed mattress, a chamber pot under it, a chair beside it, and two cypresswood chests, a smaller atop a larger. The larger one held Sostratos's tunics and mantles. The smaller held his books," both of them, the _Histories_ and the _Peloponnesian War_.) The reaction of the family to their return seems too psychologically restrained to make sense to me.

But these three objections of mine are relatively picky ones. Taken as a whole, the core of the book is its descriptions, and its descriptions--of material life, of culture and attitudes, and of economic transactions--are very thick, and very nice. I found the book entrancing.

Is there a market for this kind of book? I may be overpessimistic, but I doubt it. The treatment of women is historically accurate: brutally sexist. There are no smart-and-sassy princesses-in-disguise who break through gender roles to happiness: there is only a widowed sister confined to the women's quarters who is at 18 old and spoiled goods on the marriage market, a slave-prostitute who plots to become a courtesan and dreams that Sostratos will buy her and rescue her, and worse. The plot is, by its nature, episodic. It does not conform to the expectations that we bring to a standard novel.

Thus the book's principal attraction is to those whose main concern is that they know that the past is another country, and they want to learn how they did things differently then. I fear that this audience is much smaller than the audiences for fantasy or romance or alternate history.

And that is too bad.

Posted by DeLong at February 19, 2003 07:46 PM | TrackBack

I'm the editor on this series, and I'm very glad you liked the first volume. Like you, I admire what Turtledove is up to here, and I certainly think anyone interested in economics and the history of everyday life would find these books a terrific read. The second book in the series, The Gryphon's Skull, is now out in hardcover.

I also recommend "Turteltaub's" earlier historical novel, Justinian, about the lesser-known Byzantine emperor of that name, a book that pulls off the impressive feat of making it interesting to read 400 pages told from the point of view of an utter bastard. The past is indeed a foreign country, and Turteltaub takes us there with no apologies.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on February 19, 2003 08:36 PM

The comment about the low standard of living in
the Meditteranean is well made.

My favorite anecdote about this comes from a 16th C Spanish naval commander via Braudel (it's in Med - I'd dig up the reference except it's 1AM) ... 'The famine having ended in Andalusia, we are now getting insufficient volunteers for the galleys'.

Ian Whitchurch

Posted by: Ian Whitchurch on February 20, 2003 06:01 AM

In re size of audience, and marketibility of such a book, now that I know that the next book is out, my project for the day is to find it and buy it.

Harry, in either his Turtledove or Turteltaub incarnations, is one of my favortite authors, and is right on top of my 'grab-from-shelf-and-buy' list.

BTW, Patrick, is there going to be a successor to his Sumerian book, Between the Two Rivers?

Posted by: John Casey on February 20, 2003 06:34 AM

John, nothing's planned that I know of, but I would never rule such a thing out.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on February 20, 2003 07:23 AM

I've stopped reading Turtledove's alternate universe stories, but I may well read this "Turteltaub" novel. A historical novel that can really communicate a distant way of life is a rare and wonderful thing. Revising the past and playing with the alternatives it might have offered gets... well, it gets old. I'm increasingly dissatisfied with SF that looks backwards.

His last few books have not been compelling enough to be constantly waiting for the sequels, and he completely screwed up the one detail in his "Great War" novels that involves something I would know and few other people would. (It is highly unlikely that anyone with a Scottish name has ever lived in Rosenfeld, Manitoba and the religious community that founded the town and has lived there ever since were very nearly the last people on Earth likely to become terrorists. In 1914, you'd have been hard pressed to find a native English speaker in that area.) While messing up one quite obscure thing is hardly grounds for not reading books as detailed as his, it gets to be irritating after it's repeated in every new edition.

Still, I gotta give full points to a scholar of Byzantine history who manages to curry it into a career as an SF writer, and I did really like Agent of Byzantium.

Posted by: Scott Martens on February 20, 2003 07:39 AM

Hmmm. It takes some gumption to take on an economic historian in his own field, but I'll bite anyway. Brad, are you sure about the reasons you cite for low population growth in the ancient world? The standard explanation for such low growth is the very high infant mortality rate resulting from lack of knowledge about microbiology and the resulting absence of immunization and water treatment, whereas your assertion that malnutrition in the ancient world was so extensive that women had trouble ovulating regularly seems a little extreme to me.

Also, the North American colonies are not a valid comparison unless the population data you use has filtered out the effects of large positive net migration to the colonies, including the slave trade, which was legal up to 1808.

In terms of nutritional availability in the Hellenistic world, there was wheat available from the Near East while the Aegean coastal areas, not good for intensive farming, were good grazing area. i.e., I don't see how a huge shortage of carbohydrates, fats and proteins could come into the picture except as a result of massively unequal distribution, and to underfeed your slaves to the point that they have trouble surviving and reproducing themselves does not seem rational in a long-term perspective. What I've read is that the usual Mediterranean diet in the ancient world may have suffered from a relative shortage of Vitamin C, but again this sounds like it would have affected infants more than adults.

Granted, I am not saying that adults did not die off from disease--the plagues which interrupted the Peloponnesian war are a clear counterexample. But I do think it doubtful that better nutrition could have reduced the epidemiological component of death rates in the ancient world for both infants and adults. This is also confirmed by the relative shortage of 1789/1917 episodes in ancient history--one would have thought that chronic near-famine conditions would have led to highly insecure regimes, but both the Roman empire and the Persian/Egyptian monarchies were fairly stable institutions even as they were subject to constant usurpation.

But in any case, I am a rank amateur at economic history and if you have data or counterarguments which invalidate these points, I'd love to see them.

Posted by: andres on February 20, 2003 09:58 AM

>> The standard explanation for such low growth is the very high infant mortality rate resulting from lack of knowledge about microbiology and the resulting absence of immunization and water treatment<<

It's clearly a "both... and..." thing. But put pre-industrial populations in places with abundant natural resources, and populations double every generation. Consider the New England pioneers: cemeteries littered with dead infants (and wives), and yet extremely rapid rates of natural increase...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on February 20, 2003 11:13 AM

Grump, grump, grump.

Patrick, for what value of the phrase 'out in hardcover' is your statement true? B&N has no record of The Gryphon's Skull, nor does Amazon.

Surely you didn't mean 'cleared off my desk and in the production process, thank god', did you?

Posted by: John Casey on February 20, 2003 11:18 AM

Thank you very much for your kind words about OVER THE WINE-DARK SEA, Mr. de Long. I do appreciate them, believe me. I think one factor in the Greeks' slow population growth was their systematic female infanticide; a househould that reared more than one daughter was extradorinary. The one exception to this rule was Ptolemaic Egypt, the most concentratedly fertile area in the ancient world, and the one best able to support a large populace.

The Greeks were extremely clever. Technologicallly sophisticated for their time, though, goes only so far. They lacked all sorts of things even the medieval West took for granted: the stirrup, the horsecollar, the modlboard plow, water wheels. They worked iron, but they weren't very good at it: there's an iron coreselet in the tomb believed to be that of Philip II of Macedon. It would not have been placed there had it not been something very much out of the ordinary.

Mr. Martens, it appears you have indeed caught me in a mistake. I don't like to make them--which, as my patient editor will attest, is something of an understatement--but it does happen now and again. If that ruined your enjoyment of my work, all I can say is that I'm sorry. But it comes with the territory of being a writer, and happens to the best of them.

I mean that literally. In THE LAST OF THE WINE, Mary Renault has the Athenians using galley slaves who had to be chained to a trireme's lower bank of oars. That simply isn't so; Greek rowers were freemen--not rich freemen, but freemen. I was startled when I noticed that, and more startled that so fine and so magisterial an author as Renault had made a mistake I could spot. But it didn't ruin my admiration of her work, which knows no bounds. She's human, that's all. So are we all.

Mr. Casey, THE GRYPHON'S SKULL is indeed available at amazon.com. You do have to look under Turteltaub, though, not Turtledove.

Posted by: Harry Turtledove on February 20, 2003 12:27 PM

I don't usually comment on multiple postings but it seems H.T.'s beside himself. Perhaps it's that old multiple personality disorder thing.

Just bought the Palm Reader edition of "Wine-Dark Sea" and am really looking foward to it. Save trees, read ebooks.

Posted by: contract3d on February 20, 2003 02:03 PM

Accidental multiple postings are an inevitable artifact of internet latency. If Brad has a spare moment, he can use MT to trim the two redundant ones.

I just checked, and I had no problem finding The Gryphon's Skull on Amazon. I didn't even search on the author name, just the title; it was the first thing that popped up.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on February 20, 2003 03:02 PM

"In THE LAST OF THE WINE, Mary Renault has the Athenians using galley slaves who had to be chained to a trireme's lower bank of oars. That simply isn't so; Greek rowers were freemen--not rich freemen, but freemen."

Related distraction, IIRC, the Roman galleys in the First Punic War were also crewed by citizens.

I wonder what the social peculiarities of Athens and mid-period Republican Rome were that meant that, unlike any other culture that used galleys (through to Louis XIV's France, don't forget) they didn't have to rely on compulsion to force people to do what, after all, is perhaps one of the most unpleasant labours ever invented?

I liked the book, BTW.

Posted by: Richard Johnston on February 20, 2003 03:23 PM

Apologies for the multiple-personality disorder in my post(s). My browser told me the site wasn't responding, and so I'd try again. And again. Oh, well. Only once this time, no matter what the browser claims.

Posted by: harry turtledove on February 20, 2003 03:30 PM

>>Patrick, for what value of the phrase 'out in hardcover' is your statement true? B&N has no record of The Gryphon's Skull, nor does Amazon. Surely you didn't mean 'cleared off my desk and in the production process, thank god', did you?<<

Barnes and Noble in Walnut Creek had four copies... and now has three... and $25.95 that used to be mine.

But they're filed under "fiction," not "science fiction and fantasy"

Posted by: Brad DeLong on February 20, 2003 04:40 PM

>>I wonder what the social peculiarities of Athens and mid-period Republican Rome were that meant that, unlike any other culture that used galleys (through to Louis XIV's France, don't forget) they didn't have to rely on compulsion to force people to do what, after all, is perhaps one of the most unpleasant labours ever invented?<<
My understanding was that (despite Ben Hur) sailors on ancient ships (including rowers) were almost always freemen. It was only after the middle ages that the galley slave became common. Sailing an ancient rowed ship was not a slave job, because the slave jobs were *worse*. This may relate to the fact that ships were very capital intensive per crewman for the time. In addition, a slave-manned ship is ripe for mutiny. The rest of this understanding is that we think of galley slaves as the typical way to man these ships, only because it was the most recent approach (and then became memorialized in stories). After all, I don't think many Viking ships were crewed by slaves.
But I may be mistaken, so don't cite me.

Posted by: Tom on February 20, 2003 05:50 PM

The book sounds fascinating -- I've always been surprised that the Greek world, all refined brutality, philosophy and war within a tiny slice of the Mediterranean, has been shortchanged outside the Academy. I'll have to drop by Barnes and Noble tomorrow so I can have something to read at the hotel over the weekend...

Richard, I wouldn't care to speak for Rome, but in Greece (Athens in particular), rowing was an honorable, if arduous, occupation for the lower-class thetes. This was especially important in times of war, when only the wealthier citizens could afford the arms and armor necessary to be hoplites. Since citizenship and occupation were so closely bound in Athens, it's at least arguable that what was slavery in other cultures was a privilege in Athens, and any attempts to conscript slaves for rowers would have met with political resistance -- the lower classes would have seen one of their roads to citizenship blocked off.

N.B., If I recall correctly, amphorae held seven to ten gallons, so that would be around 35 to 50 750ML bottles of wine per jug.

Posted by: Watchful Babbler on February 20, 2003 09:55 PM

There is another reason that rowing was a freeman's job in the ancient world and a slave's job in medieval times. The work was more highly skilled in ancient times. Most oars were pulled by one man then--only the largest warships of the Hellenistic world had three or four men on them. Each rower had to know what he was doing, lest he foul his companions. A change in rowing technology led to multiman sweeps on medieval galleys, where one skilled rower could serve as the focus of the efforts for several others who did not need to be so skilled. At that point, involuntary labor at the oars became practical.

Posted by: Harry Turtledove on February 21, 2003 02:54 AM

What a nice discussion! I should obviously read this book.... :)

I wonder what the social peculiarities of Athens and mid-period Republican Rome were that meant that, unlike any other culture that used galleys... they didn't have to rely on compulsion to force people to do what, after all, is perhaps one of the most unpleasant labours ever invented?

This is just a guess on Richard and Tom's comments, but maybe it had something to do with Rome not being a seafaring power before the First Punic War? Livy claims they had twenty warships by 311 BC, but Polybius writing much earlier tells us Rome didn't really develop any naval capabilities until 261 when it built 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes as part of a massive naval development program.

So perhaps this anomaly has something to do either with Roman citizens not being fully exposed to the unpleasant sensation of rowing into a headwind, or the nascent state of the Roman navy at the time.

Do we know if they were still using galleys crewed by citizens by the First Illyrian War and later?

Posted by: david on February 21, 2003 03:00 AM

Interesting comments. Thanks very much for correcting my historical misunderstanding...

Posted by: Richard Johnston on February 21, 2003 04:03 AM

Outstanding discussion.

I thought this article might add something to the discussion:


In addition to suggesting that Alexander died of Typhoid Fever, Dr. Eugene N. Borza. Ph.D., professor emeritus of ancient history who taught for 31 years at Penn State University makes this claim:

"Accounts of [Alexander's] death were not consistent with poisoning, although Dr. Borza says that has been a popular belief. “It was an ancient conspiracy theory. People have often suspected a conspiracy when a famous young person dies unexpectedly.” Dr. Borza says ancient Greeks who didn’t succumb to disease as a child or a battlefield wound often lived into their 70’s, because of a healthy diet and constant physical activity."

Though disease, especially malaria, was rampant, I've often been surprised by how many of the famous greeks lived to a ripe old age . . . . . . of course, perhaps its just that the ripe old greeks came to be famous rather than anything else, hemlock not withstanding.

Posted by: Anarchus on February 21, 2003 06:38 AM

Even after the Punic Wars were won, Rome let its naval power rot (more or less literally) so that by the late Republic the Pirates were such a scourge that they had to give Pompey a special comission to clean them up. Spartacus likewise, IIRC, tried to pay the Pirates to ferry him and his away, but it is believed that Crassus bribed them not to show.

What Rome had was bloody minded persistence. When they did naval warfare they just kept building fleets one after another until they won.

Posted by: Ian Welsh on February 21, 2003 08:21 AM

Who was it that said (paraphrasing) that the outstanding feature of the Roman war machine was not that they went out and committed violence, but the annual nature (i.e. that every year they went out and committted violence) made it pathological?

Posted by: Richard Johnston on February 21, 2003 10:08 AM

OMG! I am a huge Turtledove/taub fan, and here we have the man himself participating.

Harry: We are not worthy! We are not worthy!

Brad, since you enjoyed Wine-Dark Sea, I would recommend Household Gods. It's a collaboration between HT and Judith Tarr, about a modern American woman transported (as a gift from her Roman household gods; it's hard to explain) back in time to the Roman empire. She's dropped into the persona of an ordinary woman in an ordinary city near the border of the Empire sometime around the second century A.D. I'm not qualified to judge the historical accuracy, but as a plausible depiction of life in the past, it is absolutely mesmerizing. The plot is quite lively, and the setting is depicted vividly; the neighbor's jar of urine steals its scenes (I'm not kidding).

Posted by: Jay on February 22, 2003 09:56 PM
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