Parallel Lives: Rallying for Causes—Centuries Apart

My love for the Classics, especially Latin began in ninth grade, with my first Latin class. I just loved everything about the language—from the declensions to the subjunctive to the four purpose clauses. So, as I thought about the themes for 2017-2018, I looked through the ancient Greek and Roman topics I had covered in past issues, and then—who knows how and why—I remembered Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. I had referenced that work so many times, both in school and since starting the magazine, but never done much else with it. True, it was a fascinating read and also interesting from the perspective of the personalities Plutarch had chosen to profile. Yet, how could I turn it into a theme for DIG? The answer definitely did not come right away. In fact, I worked on confirming the other eight themes for the year, leaving one slot open, just in case. If it didn’t work, I would find another topic.


Finally, as decision-time came for me to submit my final list of themes for 2017-2018, I looked again at Plutarch.  There had to be a way—now I was determined to find it. Another review of Plutarch’s work, and some ideas/thoughts began to pop up in my mind.  I would chose personalities from among those Plutarch had highlighted and parallel them with modern-day American personalities. And, I need to include women—ancient women. Plutarch had not done them—all his people were men.


My ideas and thoughts began to overtake my ability to keep them straight; there were so many ways I could handle the topic. “Calm down,” I told myself. “Let’s take this a little more slowly.” Ok, now, I had it—but I do not want to ruin the suspense for you, so here’s just an overview:


I am focusing the first section on orators, people who moved others to actions just with words.  I have five people: two that Plutarch paralleled, an ancient woman that I added, and then two orators—an American man and a woman—who lived in more recent times. The second section focuses on people who, for the most part, put their country above their own interests. Here, too, I included two of Plutarch’s choices, an ancient woman I choose, and two modern-day American people who did the same. For the third section, I focused on traitors, people who turned against the country they once had supported with great conviction. Again, I selected two of Plutarch’s people, an ancient woman of my choosing, and two modern American personalities who had done the same.


The ideas kept coming—how about DIG paralleling lives past and present.  Oh, I liked that idea. And, I had the world from which to choose! That was the difficult part, narrowing down the possibilities. Got it: two woman who had helped and then followed their husbands’ or families’ roles and excelled on their own; two patrons of the arts; and two philosophers whose teachings continue to be influential today.


What a great issue this would be—Plutarch would be proud!


But, I still had the Let’s Go Digging section to go. What could I do to complement Plutarch? I needed to sit back and think for a minute. An excavation site would not work here—but wait, a manuscript. That was it, I would focus the section on writing and paper, the materials the ancients used to write, which survived, which did not, and what happens to paper documents found on excavations. I needed a bit more—got it—I would include a piece on libraries in ancient times. And for artifacts—that was easy: the oldest-known example of a dated printed book.


Oh, I am going to love working on this issue, I thought. And, now that I have it almost ready for the designer, I can say that I definitely have! Hope you all will as well!


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Meet Eleanor of Aquitaine

Every year, as I draft my theme list, I feel that overwhelming feeling of so much to learn and so much to experience—and that what I know is so very little. I think that is probably one of the greatest thrills of being the editor of DIG, the broadening everyday of “my horizons.”


Who Was Eleanor of Aquitaine? 


This year in my research, one woman really caught my attention—Eleanor of Aquitaine, the queen consort of both Louis VII of France and Henry II of England, and mother of King Richard I (the Lion-Heart) and John of England. I knew who she was, but little else. As I read more, I marveled at the character strength this woman must have possessed. She was the most powerful woman in 12th century Europe. She stood her ground in a world dominated by men and by war. She seemed to fear nothing. She also was constantly prepared to fight for what she believed was right and should be done. Eleanor —her life, her influence, her accomplishments, and her role in world politics at the time—was one of the first themes to be checked as a “yes” for 2016.


Then came the worry part: Would there be enough material on Eleanor to do an entire issue?


Well, I needn’t have worried. Soon, I had too many topics and needed to pare them down. But there was one I had to add—a family tree. Eleanor’s was just too involved to leave to words. We needed visuals—for our readers and, for that matter, for me! I also decided I wanted to include more than just biographical information. I wanted the time period—about 1,000 years ago—to come alive. I went searching again—and I found it: Guedelon. It’s amazing! It’s there, in France, that they are building a medieval castle, one that would look very familiar to Eleanor, using medieval tools and techniques.



Archeologists are using the same materials and technology used in Eleanor’s time to build Guedelon.

How to include archaeology in the issue—that was a difficult question!


There was nothing I could find that was specific to Eleanor. For a while, I was flummoxed! I took the dog for a walk and just kept thinking and thinking. I reviewed Eleanor’s life in my mind, and the image of her traveling here and there kept popping into my mind. That was it—Eleanor had had to use boats on many of her trips. Why not look at what we know about ships at the time. I emailed Andrew Roberts at Wessex Archaeology in England. I had worked with him before, and he had said he would enjoy collaborating again. We then Skyped and talked about articles on what maritime archaeologists do, what shipwrecks from that time period can tell us, and just what cogs, a very common vessel at the time, were. Andrew then enlisted the aid of his wife, who also works in the field, and soon we had the topics for a fantastic section on ships of the time, their recovery today, and what we can learn from them.


We had the issue —and I really felt Eleanor would approve and be proud of her role in it!


Rosalie Baker is the editor of Dig Into History. Come back every month to learn about the thought process that went into the creation of each month’s issue.

Digging Up the Dirt on Roman Africa

Rome! The Roman Empire! Yes, I wanted to include both in the 2015-2016 theme list, but how to do it was my question. I needed a theme that touched areas I had not in earlier issues. I also wanted a theme that helped readers understand just how Rome expanded—not just that it did expand. A little more thought, and I began to shape an idea—Rome in Africa. That was it – that was a theme that had “lots of legs,” to use a trite phrase.

But wait, I thought. “Rome in Africa” was not a good title for an issue. First, most readers would immediately think Egypt, and only Egypt. I needed a phrase that would be more encompassing, that would tell all that Rome was in more than Egypt. Roman Africa—that was it and Egypt would not be the entry point, Carthage would. I knew the other most familiar historical tidbit about Rome in Africa was Hannibal’s near conquest of Rome. I also knew that the focus of that struggle was on the war elephants and how they were said to have crossed the Alps into Italy. But how many of DIG’s readers would know that Hannibal lost not on Roman land but on his own land in Africa. Now there was my angle, my way to begin the tale of Rome’s entry into Africa.

Yet, I did not want this issue to be just about war and destruction, but more about what Rome did once it controlled Africa. With that thought in mind, the outline for the issue came into focus. We would start with the Punic Wars, then go west to Numidia and introduce a wily ruler named Jugurtha. Not many photos of him, not really much about him. But the ancients did detail his personality and his interaction with some of Rome’s masterful politicians. A play, here, would be good—and illustrated. Then, we needed something about how Rome made North Africa a province. And that would be it for war and conquest.

But there was so much more to tell—the market for a valuable spice known as silphium, the profitable olive tree with its bountiful produce, products shipped throughout the Mediterranean, an author whose tales are still read today. There were also cities whose architectural masterpieces still amaze builders and visitors today. Soon, my problem was not one of finding topics to include, but of cutting and trimming to fit as much as possible in the issue and still make it exciting, engaging, and not overwhelming.

I decided to focus on the baths at Leptis Magna and the amphitheater at El Djem. Even what remains today is majestic. But, as has happened throughout history, nothing lasts forever. As Rome fought for its life against invading Vandals, Roman Africa suffered from neglect. But others were there to fill the void—there was another story: how Roman Africa became a center for the new religion Christianity.

But, what about Egypt? I had forgotten Rome’s most important possession in Africa in my attempt to broaden my audience’s perception of Rome in Africa. Cleopatra was certainly one possibility, but I had focused an entire issue on her already. Then, there were the pharaohs, but I had focused on several as well. So, more research was needed, and as I poked around looking for an interesting site, one that was Egyptian, but also connected to Rome, I hit upon an ancient city named Antinoupolis. It definitely had been a thriving place, it was in Egypt, and it had Roman connections. Actually, it had been founded by a Roman emperor. I emailed a couple of Egyptologists, who had written for DIG in the past and asked about Antinoupolis. They put me in touch with the director. I emailed him, and he immediately said yes—he would do the Let’s Go Digging section on Antinoupolis. I just had to come up with themes for the articles and word counts. What fun I had researching past, present, and future about the area. And I knew that DIG’s readers would find the same thrill as I did, learning about a site that was being excavated right now, that offered a wealth of new information, and that still held many secrets.

That was it – I had my Roman Africa issue and what a great trip I had had putting all together!