Ben Hur: A Few Thoughts


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Yesterday, thanks to generous donations via Paypal, I went to see the new Ben Hur (2016, dir. Timur Bekmambetov, based on the novel by Lew Wallace). I’ll get around to writing a longer post soon, but today I’m just going to post a few random thoughts that aren’t enough for an individual post.


Warning: Spoilers ahead! If you intend to see the movie, you may want to do so before reading this. But if you’re like most people and don’t intend to see it, read on!

  1. It’s not a good movie. At 2 1/2 hours, it still manages to be too short. The backstory between Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala Severus (Toby Kibbell) needs more time than it’s given. The performances are unexceptional; Morgan Freeman delivers his lines as if he’s narrating March of the Jewish Resistance Fighters. 
  2. Apparently 1st century Jewish men dress like 21st century fashion models. In one scene, Ben-Hur appears to be wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt that he just bought from Abercrombie. It’s such a jarring look that I honest-to-God thought that somehow the film had veered into meta-theater by shooting the scene in contemporary clothing. Note to the costume designer: the only Middle Eastern people who wore pants in this period were Persian women.


    See what I mean?

  3. The film continues the Hollywood tradition of having trouble with Roman names. Messala Severus has no praenomen (no private ‘first’ name) for his adoptive family to use; they all just call him Messala. It’s no wonder he never feels like he’s really part of the family; they’re calling him by his last name. But I suppose we can forgive it, since the characters’ names were lifted from a 19th century novel.
  4. The film also continues the Hollywood tradition of depicting Rome as an evil, oppressive empire that the world would be better off without. The characters spend so much time complaining about how horrible the Romans are, I wanted to shout “but what about the aqueducts?” (Given that the theater was virtually empty, I could have done so with impunity.)
  5. I’ve already commented a little about the naval combat scene. And the full scene holds up pretty well. It does a fairly good job of capturing the realities of trireme combat from the rower’s point of view, and it’s quite an effective scene: claustrophobic, chaotic, and frightening. As I pointed out before, however, by 33 AD, there was no naval combat in the Mediterranean, because the Romans ruled the whole Mediterranean basin. The ‘Greek rebels’ the Romans are fighting in this film never existed, and are invented entirely to provide an action scene in a film that really only gets three of them, as well as to provide a way for Ben-Hur to escape captivity.
  6. Since I’ve complained before about films whitewashing, I feel obligated to say that this film did things better. The performers who play Judah Ben-Hur’s household are actually mostly Jewish or at least Middle Eastern, even if Jack Huston is British. Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is played by a Italian-Portuguese Brazilian actor though. Has Hollywood ever cast a Jewish actor to play Jesus?
  7. Freeman’s Ilderim has literally no motive whatsoever. He decides to bet Pontius Pilate a massive sum of money to allow Ben-Hur to race Messala even though Messala is an undefeated champion and Ben-Hur has never been in a chariot race before, and he agrees to cover all bets on the races because the climactic chariot race won’t happen unless he does, but he never explains why he’s doing this, except for a throw-away line that he used to hate the Romans for killing his son, but he’s over that now.

And thank you to those who donated to my Paypal account so I could go see this! If you want me tackling more first-run films, donating is a good way to make sure I do.

Want to Know More? 

The movie isn’t available on Amazon yet, since it’s still in the theaters, but the 1959 Charleton Heston version of Ben Hur is

Or think about reading the original novel, which was the best-selling novel of the 19th century.

An Open Letter to Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson


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Dear Senator Johnson,

In a recent interview, you complained about what you called the “higher education cartel” and called for abandoning the diploma process in favor of a certification process. You cited your past experience volunteering in the Catholic educational system in Oshkosh (the high school system, I assume). And then you said

One of the examples I always used ― if you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas. 

I’ve been teaching in the University of Wisconsin system for about two decades, so I guess I’m part of that ‘higher education cartel’, but I think I know a few things about teaching, so let me explain why simply showing documentaries is a poor substitute for having a fully-trained scholar teaching students about history.

Your teaching model relies on a faulty notion of what history is. You assume that history is the study of the facts of the past. In a model like that, the goal of education is to have students memorize those facts so they will ‘know history’. This assumes that the past is just a set of knowable facts, a record of ‘what happened’.

The problem with this model is that historians don’t really study ‘what happened’, because we can’t. Until someone invents a time machine that allows us to travel back in time and directly observe events as they happen, historians are dependent for our knowledge of the past on the written records left behind by those who were involved in the events.

To use your example from the American Civil War, one of the important moments in the Civil War was President Lincoln’s famous Second Inaugural Address. We possess the text of the speech, so we know what Lincoln said, more or less, but no one alive today was present and there are no recordings of it, so we can’t be 100% sure that he actually said these exact words; perhaps he added something to the speech, or changed some of his words as he delivered it. We can’t know how he said the words, where he paused for effect or which words he gave particular emphasis. The comments that others made about the speech, for example in news stories or private correspondence, might get us a little closer to Lincoln’s delivery, but ultimately, we can’t study the event itself; we can only study the text of the speech as it has come down to us.

That means that historians don’t study ‘what happened’. Instead, we study the written record of what happened, the various surviving documents that can tell us about the events. To be sure, we make use of knowledge from archaeology, numismatics, anthropology, and so on, but what history is as an academic field is specifically the study of the written documents of the past. Historians don’t study the facts of the past; we assemble them from the written record as best we can, and two historians working on the same issue might assemble the facts in very different ways. For example, an historian who is interested in presidential politics might assemble the facts of the Second Inaugural Address in a different way than an historian interested in the history of American slavery would. By asking different questions or putting it alongside different documents, two different scholars could find two very different meanings in the same speech.History isn’t the study of ‘what happened’, it’s the study of how we interpret the documents that tell us what happened.

The problem with written documents is that they have a lot of limitations. Some authors write about things they know little about, while other authors actively lie. Some authors are trying to cover up or justify their own actions. Some authors’ understanding of events is sharply limited by their access to the event, or by the way their culture influences how they think about the event. Some authors are writing years later and may have forgotten things. So historians need to learn to read very carefully, looking for the clues to help us evaluate how reliable the document is, what it might be omitting or getting wrong, and what it can tell us about the intentions of the author who wrote it.


An Example

These skills are far more complex than they might sound. Freshmen college students have a strong tendency to read uncritically, because very few students enter college with highly-developed reading and thinking skills, and it’s my job to help them acquire the basics of those skills. 

For example, I teach Early Western Civilization quite frequently, and when I get to the early Middle Ages, I have my students read the Life of St. Balthild, a 7th century Frankish saint. By this point in the course they’ve already read a little bit about early Christian saints, and had a discussion about the rising importance of virginity as a feminine virtue in Western society. Balthild had quite an eventful life; she started out as a noblewoman, but was taken as a slave and sold to a government official named Erchinoald. According to the author of her Life,

[Balthild] gained such a reputation that when the wife of Erchinoald died, he wished to marry Balthild, that faultless virgin. When she heard of this, she fled from his sight. When he called her into his chamber, she hid herself in a corner and covered herself with bundles of rags so no one might find her. Because she was humble, she attempted to flee from the honor that was to be hers. She had hoped not to get married but to have Jesus alone for her spouse.

Divine providence intervened, and Erchinoald found a different wife. Thus it happened that Balthild, with God’s approval, escaped marriage with this prince, but eventually came to be espoused to Clovis, son of the former king Dagobert. By virtue of her humility, she was thus raised to a higher rank. She was wed to the king by divine dispensation, and honored in this station. She brought forth royal children. These events are known to all, for now her royal progeny rule the realm.

So after being Erchinoald’s slave and would-be wife, Balthild somehow wound up marrying the son of the Frankish king and eventually became queen herself. After her husband died, she ruled the kingdom on behalf of her young son for a while, until she joined the monastic house at Chelles and became a nun. After her death, the other nuns began to claim that she was saint, and the Life was written as part of an effort to establish her in popular imagination as a saint.

But when you read those two paragraphs I quoted, did you notice how the text contradicts itself? If not, go back and re-read it and see if you can find the contradiction. Don’t feel too bad if you miss it; my students never spot it until I point it out.

In the first paragraph, the author claims that Balthild wanted to be a virgin her whole life. In that, she fits into a standard model of female sanctity in that period, which champions virginity as superior to all other possible sexual and social statuses; according to this model, being a virgin is morally superior to being a wife or a widow. And, according to the author, God supports Balthild’s desire to be a permanent virgin by intervening and causing Erchinoald to get interested in some other woman. So Balthild is such a devout Christian that God gives her a small miracle to protect her virginity.

But not two sentences later, God arranges for Balthild to get married to Prince Clovis. Suddenly the text forgets Balthild’s desire for permanent virginity and never mentions it again. God and Balthild apparently change their minds when a prince comes along. So the author of the text makes one claim about Balthild as a way to demonstrate her sanctity, and then drops that claim when the known facts of her life prove inconsistent with that claim. It’s a clever piece of authorial sleight-of-hand; like I said my students never spot it until I point it out. And this isn’t the only time the text does this. The author repeatedly makes claims for Balthild’s intentions and then has to explain away behavior that contradicts those claims. Supposedly as queen, Balthild had a deep desire to become a nun, but then the author has to explain why she stayed on as queen after her husband died; supposedly her subjects loved her so much they refused to let her step down. Then the author has to explain why her subjects suddenly changed their mind and let her become a nun.

Once I get them to see the contradictions, I’m able to have a conversation with the students about what’s going on. That leads us to looking at what the author’s purpose in writing the Life is, namely that the author (possibly one of Balthild’s fellow nuns at Chelles) wants to persuade people to consider Balthild a saint, so she employs a series of standard motifs about female saints (the desire for permanent virginity, the threat to the saint’s virginity, the miracle that protects it, and so on). And she does this despite the fact that Balthild’s life stands in direct contradiction to those motifs; Balthild’s son became king, so she obviously wasn’t a virgin. And that leads into questions of why the nuns decided to promote Balthild as a saint if she wasn’t a good fit for traditional ideas about female saints, which brings up the fact that Chelles stands to benefit in a variety of ways from having a saint buried there. And all of this is just one of the many documents I use in this class.

I use the Life of St. Balthild precisely because it’s a perfect example of why critical reading skills are important to develop. But it’s not an easy lesson. The students are so accustomed to trusting what they read that they struggle to make the simple leap to the idea that the author isn’t being completely honest. Exploring this one document takes at least 20 minutes of class time, often a good deal longer. The better students carry that lesson into the rest of the documents they read, but many of the students seem to forget it the next time we look at a document, so I have to bring the issue up again to help them become more skeptical readers.

It takes a long time for students to acquire critical reading skills and the closely related critical thinking and critical writing skills. When my freshmen leave my Early Western Civilization class, most of them have started to develop those skills, but they are nowhere near finished. The ones who continue on by taking further history classes (and other classes in the Humanities) will graduate college with those skills highly developed. But it doesn’t happen in the course of a single class. It can’t. These are complex skills and they take years to develop, just like cooking, playing basketball, or engineering. They require constant practice, practice that history classes are designed to require.

And they’re not skills students can acquire through watching a documentary, any more than you could become a great basketball player by watching a documentary on the sport. Ken Burn’s documentary on the Civil War is a wonderful piece of work, and certainly has a place in the classroom. It’s engaging, does a good job of holding the viewer’s attention, and helps convey the idea that history happens to real human beings. But it cannot teach students how to read documents, even though it quotes many documents. It cannot ask them why the author of a letter expressed his or her sentiments in a particular way and then lead a discussion that explores students’ answers to that question. It cannot help students explore what the document doesn’t say and why it might be omitting certain facts or ideas. It cannot get students thinking about how the author’s race or gender or wealth might have shaped what the document says. These are things that are necessary for students to develop those critical skills, and they are things that can only be taught in a classroom with a highly-trained scholar leading the way.

No documentary could teach the Life of St. Balthild the way I teach it, because part of my teaching process is putting a puzzle in front of the students (why does the Life contradict itself?) and then letting them fumble with the possibilities until they start to figure it out. A crucial part of the educational process is letting them wrestle with that puzzle for a while, because it forces them to identify possible answers and then work through them to see whether they make sense or not. They learn more by having to work it out for themselves than if I simply tell them the answer, because simply giving them the answer doesn’t help them develop their critical reading and thinking skills very much.

Why does any of this matter? Why do we need people with highly developed critical reading and writing and thinking skills? I’ve already discussed in a different post the wide range of things that a history student can do with a history degree, but let me talk for a moment about where those skills come in handy. You’re a businessman; I’m sure at some point you must have received a business proposal that looked too good to be true. It’s the critical reading and thinking skills that helped you figure where the proposal wasn’t being honest. I’m sure in your time in politics you’ve learned that politicians often distort or fragment the truth when they give speeches; it’s those same critical thinking and reading skills that help you find the flaws in the arguments you’re being presented with. Or perhaps those aren’t skills you’re good at. Maybe you need to take a few history classes to brush up on them. I mean the kind of history class taught by a professional historian, not the kind taught by someone who just plays a documentary for students and calls it teaching.


Heartless: Vampires, Witchcraft, and Teen Romance in Denmark


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I recently ran across the shortlived Danish tv Heartless (Danish with English subtitles) on Netflix. It was only 8 episodes and I’d read some interesting things about it, so I gave it a try. It’s not a great show, but it has an interesting take on vampirism and part of the show is set in 17th century Denmark, so I figured I’d fire off a quick post about it.


Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) and Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) are teenage homeless twins living in Copenhagen, dealing with a dark secret. To survive, they need to steal people’s life energy through kisses. If they take too much, the victim bursts into flames and dies. Sebastian is guilt-ridden over this while Sofie shrugs her shoulders and is resigned to her existence. But Sebastian convinces her that they need to find out why they are the way they are, and their investigations eventually reveal that their mother, shortly after dropping them off at an orphanage, went to Ottmannsgaard Academy, an elite private school (the school prides itself on the quality of its fencing instruction) where she evidently vanished. So they manage to enroll and begin seeking clues. Cue all the usual teen drama angst that one expects at that age: social competition, teen romance, existential angst, and vampiric murder.


Sofie getting what she needs

It turns out that Ottmannsgaard has its own dark history, stemming back to Denmark in the 1670s, when the local nobleman, the weak-willed Count Ottman (Lior Cohen) gets his peasant mistress Ane Sørensdatter (Shelly Jacquline Levy) pregnant. His pregnant wife, understandably pissed about her husband’s wandering eye, evidently leans on the local Lutheran minister to accuse Ane of being a witch (like you do). The count tries to get Ane to flee the area, but she refuses because she’s young, in love, and fated to die for the plot to happen, and so instead she gets arrested, tortured, and sentenced to burn at the stake, even though she’s carrying his child.

The execution succeeds, but triggers a curse that follows the children of both the Countess and Ane (who must have been a witch, because her unborn baby somehow survives her mother being burned to death. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is). There’s a twist of sorts here that I won’t give away, although it’s not a huge one (so don’t get your hopes up).


Jessen as Sebastian

Eight episode of that doesn’t give me a whole lot to comment on. But the show at least gets the witchcraft details in the right ballpark. There were no executions of witches in the 1670s, but there was one in the 1680s (the Rugard Trials), in which Jørgen Arenfeldt, a local nobleman, used his authority as the lord of the manor to imprison, try, and execute a half-dozen women as witches. One of the unfortunate women was named Anne Sorensdatter. In doing this, Arenfeldt violated the law by torturing the women and by prosecuting women who lived outside his jurisdiction. The last execution for witchcraft in Denmark happened in 1693.

So the trial and execution of Ane Sørensdatter could actually have happened in loosely the fashion the series depicts. Like the Rugard women, Ane is subjected to is, I think, supposed to be ducking. As usually happens with this practice, the show misunderstands ducking as a form of torture intended to elicit a confession when in fact it was an effort to obtain objective evidence of witchcraft. But Ane’s ducking is more like just being held underwater rather than being put in a classic ducking stool, so maybe it’s simply supposed to be torture. Torturing witches was illegal in Denmark in this period, but the show doesn’t touch on that, so I think we’re just supposed to understand that early modern authorities were gullible sadists and we’ve moved beyond that.

It’s nice to see a show in which historical research (albeit conducted at the high school level) is actually an important component of the series. Throughout the show, Sebastian is constantly seeking clues to the past, speaking with his history teaching, asking to write his term paper on witchcraft trials, reading old books, and so on. So in a way, the show offers a nice example of the way a historical researcher chases events through the evidence to unravel the mysteries of the past. It’s rather convenient that at key moments he runs into people who just happen to have saved boxes of old stuff for more than a decade and those boxes always have a clue he needs, but hey, it’s a teen drama so I think we can forgive that wild coincidence.

Sofie’s character is handled particularly nicely. As the show goes on, she develops an attraction to the headmaster’s daughter Emilie (Julie Christiansen) who gradually reciprocates her feelings. When the headmaster discovers this, he’s uncomfortable with the relationship, not because of the lesbianism but because he’s suspicious of Sofie’s motives and nature. There’s a very nice scene in which he tells Emilie that he doesn’t care that she might be attracted to women, but that he doesn’t want her involved with Sofie. The show’s treatment of two young lesbians is really refreshing because their lesbianism isn’t in any way the problem in the relationship.


Sofie and Emilie

Heartless is not a great show, either in its treatment of its historical themes or the quality of its teen drama. It nearly got cancelled after 5 episodes, and the network apparently decided to film three more episodes simply as a way to give the story a conclusion. It’s filled with lots of wordless brooding of the kind Scandinavians are so good at depicting but which can get sort of tedious for American viewers. But it captures some of the complexities of teenage sexuality and identity quite well, in which the problems of vampiric existence become an interesting metaphor for the transition to adulthood, and the show doesn’t try to stretch out its central mystery further than the story can support. So if you’re in the mood for a novel approach to vampirism or just want to see lots of Scandinavian teens yearning for what they can’t have, give it a look.


Want to Know More?

Heartless is available through Amazon.

I can’t offer you anything on witchcraft in Denmark, but if you want to know more about witch trials and related matters, a good introduction to the Early Modern Witch Hunts is Joseph Klaits’ Servants of Satan.

Ben Hur: The Trailer


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The remake of Ben Hur (2016, dir. Timur Bekmambetov) is opening this weekend, and I haven’t said anything about it on this blog yet. Let’s take a look at the trailer.


The first part of the trailer features a naval battle, and judging from what we see in the trailer, it looks like the film gets the basic facts right. Ancient Mediterranean naval combat relied on galleys that could sail for transport but were rowed during combat. The basic tactic used first by the Greeks and later by the Carthaginians and Romans was to row their ship as fast as possible into the side of the enemy ship and punch a hole in the hull using the bronze prow, which acted as a battering ram. If successful, the enemy ship would start to take on water and sink.

(An alternate tactic was to maneuver alongside the opposing ship and smash through its oars, leaving it crippled and vulnerable to a subsequent direct hit or being boarded by marines.)


A modern reconstruction of a Greek trireme

As a result, speed and maneuverability were the critical traits for Graeco-Roman ships. That’s why the emphasized rowers rather than sails. Large numbers of rowers working in unison could propel the ship faster and more reliably than the wind. But at some point making the ship wider to accommodate more rowers would have made the ship slower in the water. Instead, the Greeks pioneered a technique of stacking decks of rowers one above the other, with the oars being slightly off-set so they wouldn’t get tangled. At first these galleys were biremes (having two decks of rowers), and then triremes (with three decks). The Romans eventually embraced the quinquereme. Scholars argue about exactly how the oars were arranged on a ship like this, but the most common theory was that a quinquereme was not a ship with five banks of oars, but rather a type of trireme with three banks of oars, two of which were manned two to an oar with one bank manned by a single rower. Thus these were ‘five rower’ ships, not ‘five-oar’ ships.


A diagram of how the oars were placed

Rowing a complex ship like this took a great deal of practice, because all the oars had to be moved at the same time; otherwise they would foul each other. The need for complete coordination is the reason that these ships employed a drummer, to help the rowers keep the proper rhythm. A quiquereme is thought to have required 300 rowers, and the Romans found the easiest way to ensure the crews of their ships was to use slave rowers. So criminals could be sentenced to serve as rowers, which is what happens to Ben Hur in the novel and the film.

And that’s exactly what we see in the film (although I suspect the detail of the man tied to the prow of the ship is just made up). So props to Bekmanbetov for getting the tactical details right. (300: 2, I’m looking at you. You were supposed to be using exactly this system, although with free citizen rowers.)

However, there’s a problem. I’m unclear when this version of Ben Hur is set, but the novel and the 1959 version are set in 28 AD and the years just after, since Ben Hur’s life is synchronous with the life of Jesus. However, after 31 BC, the Romans ruled the entire Mediterranean basin, and from that point on down to the late 4th century AD, the only major naval battle in the Mediterranean was during the civil war between Constantine and Licinius in 324 AD. In the late 20s or 30s AD, the Empire was firmly under the control of Tiberius, so there was no one to fight. The Romans continued to maintain galleys throughout the Imperial period, but there simply weren’t any naval battles happening. So I have no idea who Ben Hur’s ship is going up against.

Still, at least it looks like the battle is plausible.

Once I’ve had a chance to see the film in the theater, I’ll have more to say about it.

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The Milwaukee Riots


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I live in Milwaukee, and over the past day or so, I’ve gotten calls and text messages from friends and relatives elsewhere wanting to know what’s happening in Milwaukee. The riot that broke out on the night of Saturday, August 13th has made headlines around the planet.

This blog isn’t about politics. But I’m a scholar, and at the moment, my professional research is focused on student violence at the University of Oxford in the Middle Ages, so I tend to notice things about riots these days. And while I’m a medievalist and not a scholar of contemporary America, I think I have something to add to the discussion about the riots in my home city. So I hope you can forgive me for digressing from my normal topic of historical movies for a post. As a scholar, I feel I have a duty to offer the perspective my research provides on contemporary events.

Urban riots seem shocking to modern Americans. At least up until the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in August of 2014, there was little discussion of them in the media, and you might be forgiven for thinking they rarely happen in the US. In reality, however the United States experiences at least a half-dozen riots every single year, because college students riot with almost predictable regularity in this country. Let me demonstrate with a survey of just the past two years.

In March of 2014, several hundred students at the University of Arizona mourned the loss of a NCAA tournament game by throwing fire crackers and beer bottles at police.

In April of 2014, students at Iowa State University  rioted during the university’s annual Veishea celebrations. Students flipped at least three cars, pulled down three lamp poles and a number of street signs, and threw things at police. One man was knocked unconscious when he was hit with a light pole. Rioting is something of a tradition during Veishea; previous riots happened in 1988, 1992, 1994, 2004, and 2012 (when a student fell to his death). In 1997, a student was murdered during Veishea.

The same month, University of Connecticut students celebrated a basketball victory by lighting fireworks, flipping cars, smashing the windows of businesses and at least one academic hall, and pulling down a street light. The defeated University of Kentucky students rioted in Lexington, KY, lighting at least 38 fires, including 19 couches, 18 trash cans and a vacant house. Similar riots happened in Lexington in 2012 and 2013. The 2012 riot involved a reported 10,000 students and at least one shooting.

Also in April of 2014, about 200 students at Colorado State University shouted and threw objects at police after a party spiraled out of control. No injuries or property damage was reported.

Also that same month, a crowd estimated to be about 15,000 UC-Santa Barbara students (and others) tore down at least 6 traffic signs, lit small fires, attacked a car, and threw things at the police. Several dozen people, including 6 officers, were injured. This was to celebrate the university’s Deltopia Spring Break event.


A flipped car at the Deltopia Riot

(Photo: AP Photo/The Boston Globe, Jeremy Fox)

In October of 2014, University of New Hampshire students rioted during Keane’s annual Pumpkin Festival. Students set fires, tore down street signs, tried to flip a car, and threw rocks, pumpkins, skateboards, and bottles at the police. At least 30 people were injured.


The same month, about 5,000 students at West Virginia University caused an estimated $15,000 worth of property damage by starting fires and pulling down street signs and threw things at police and firefighters. WVU students are famous for doing this after athletic victories. In the past 15 years, athletic events have provoked 1,799 street fires and 633 dumpster fires. In 2012, they lit cars and light poles on fire.

On Nov 1st, a series of Halloween parties in Berkeley, CA got out of hand. An estimated 3-5,000 students rioted. At least three people were assaulted, a car was vandalized, and someone drove a car into a lamp post.


A smashed windshield at the Berkeley Riot

(Photo: Atreyue Ryken)

In April of 2015, our student friends in Lexington, KY rioted again after losing an NCAA game. They lit lawn furniture on fire and threw things at riot police.

In May of 2015, an argument at a formal night event at Plymouth State University turned into a riot of about 300 people when students began throwing things at police who arrived to break up an argument.

In January of 2015, students at Ohio State University rioted to celebrate a football victory. A  crowd of around 8,000 started a dozen small fires, lit several dumpter fires, forced their way into the stadium after the game, and tore down a goal post.


A street fire during the Ohio State Riot


On May 24th of this year, a crowd of 200 to 250 students at Colby College, ME used furniture to make a bonfire in the street and started a dumpster fire the night before commencement. When firefighters and police arrived, the students brawled with them and threw bottles. Burning furniture and similar items is apparently something of a tradition at Colby at graduation.

This list leaves out riots that developed out of political protests of various sorts. If I had included those, the list would have been much longer. And I could easily have gone back further than 2014. When I was a graduate student at UW-Madison in the 1990s, the annual Halloween party often reached near-riot levels, with windows on State St being smashed and cars tipped. My husband has told me about the annual St. Patrick’s Day riots at UW-Oshkosh; that a decades long tradition was only ended when the university changed its Spring Break to coincide with St Patrick’s Day. Ohio State has a tradition of arson accompanying games against rival Michigan; in 2002, a single game triggered 10 dumpster fires. And as I’ve noted, some of the riots on this list are part of a tradition of rioting going back years.


The Milwaukee Riots 

Now let’s talk about the Milwaukee riots. Let me say that I have no first-hand knowledge of these events; my knowledge comes entirely from the local news media and a few discussions on Facebook. So I am reporting the facts as best I know them, but some of the details may be wrong, because the reporting on the events is still developing.
The Milwaukee riot started on August 13th, when police officers pulled over a car in the Sherman Park neighborhood. Sylville Smith, a black man who was reportedly carrying a gun, fled the car on foot, but apparently was cornered in a back yard by a pursuing police officer (who is black), who fired two shots into the man and killed him. The incident was reportedly caught on the officer’s body camera, but the footage has not yet been released. A crowd of about 100 black protesters gathered later that day, and the protest escalated into violence. Several cars were set on fire, a gas station was looted and set on fire, three other businesses were set on fire, and at least one other business was looted. Objects were thrown at police officers, shots were fired, and at least four officers were injured.

On the 14th, a peaceful protest occurred at the police station, and a large group turned out to help clean up the damage from the previous night. That night, there was more violence, with rocks being thrown at police and shots being fired; four more officers were wounded, as well as a young man. Governor Scott Walker activated the National Guard on Sunday night but it was not actually deployed. Here is a summary from Wikipedia, which links to numerous news stories on the riots.


(Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


Comparing the Riots

What does this have to do with student rioting? On the surface, nothing. So far as has been reported, the Milwaukee protesters were not university students. The cause of the riot was something far more serious than student athletics. At least two businesses were looted and shots were fired, neither of which seems to have occurred during any of the riots I’ve noted above. The student riots tend to be one-day but often semi-annual events, whereas the Milwaukee riots happened two nights running.

But the scale of the Milwaukee riots is far smaller than the student riots I’ve mentioned. The crowd was 100 or so people, whereas the smallest of the student riots was 200-300 people, and the Santa Barbara riot was an estimated 15,000 people. These student riots tend to be much larger in scale than the rioting we see around various police killings of black men.

While the looting of businesses does not typically happen during student riots, buildings certainly get vandalized, fires are lit, city property destroyed, and police officers are assaulted. Most of these riots triggered dozens of arrests.

Now here’s the key point of my post. You’ve probably never heard about most of these student riots. They get local news coverage, but most of them don’t make the national news. The only one that I recall seeing a major news outlet cover was the Ohio State riot. So the media treats student riots as minor affairs, even when they involve thousands of people, multiple fires, cars and other property being destroyed, and police officers being injured. The impression this gives is that when white, middle-class college students riot over trivial things like football games or Halloween parties, it’s nothing serious. It’s just students being students. A little student violence is nothing to get worked up about, even if it perhaps results in the death of a student (as in Iowa), flipped or torched cars (many of these riots) or arson (most of these cases). In fact, news organizations are sometimes reluctant to call these events riots; sometimes the word riot is put in quotation marks, suggesting that these aren’t really riots, no matter what they look like.

But when a comparatively small group of black people violently protest a very serious issue, the killing of a motorist, it’s treated as world-level news. The governor thinks seriously about calling out the National Guard. The national news media suggests that the whole city is in flames (as I said, I’ve gotten worried messages from friends and relatives who were concerned for my safety).

Milwaukee-area police have killed at least four black men in the past two years. In April of 2014, a police officer shot the unarmed, mentally ill Dontre Hamilton 14 times during an altercation in a public park, killing him. In July of 2015, police in suburban Wauwatosa fatally shot a mentally-ill black man who was brandishing a sword. In June of 2016, Wauwatosa police fatally shot Jay Anderson, who was sleeping in a car in a parkway at 3am; he reportedly had a gun. And now this weekend, Sylville Smith. Regardless of whether any of these shootings were justifiable or not, many black Milwaukeeans are concerned about police violence toward their community, and the tendency of police officers to kill black men during traffic stops and for minor crimes like selling cigarettes is obviously an issue of serious concern nationally. And yet somehow it is the black riots over police violence that are seen as unacceptable, and not the student riots.

As a scholar, it’s hard for me to escape the conclusion that there is something seriously out of balance in the way people respond to these two very different sorts of riots. When white people riot over small issues, it’s barely news, no matter how large the crowd of rioters may be. When black people riot over a genuine issue of human lives, it’s treated as an alarming offense. Middle class white people apparently possess some unnamed right to engage in rioting that black people don’t possess.

That is not in any way to defend or justify this weekend’s violence. The destruction of businesses and the injuring of police officers and ordinary citizens is a serious matter, and those who committed crimes should be prosecuted. Nor is this to deny that some of the student rioters were prosecuted for crimes and suspended or expelled; typically these riots seem to produce one or two expulsions. My point is entirely about how we as people and the media as a body respond to these events in drastically different ways.

Because right now, the media seems to be suggesting that the lives of black citizens are less important than university students’ right to be upset about a football game.

Next time, I promise I’ll get back to posting about something far less important.


Correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly identify the Veishae riots as occurring at the University of Iowa; in fact they occurred at Iowa State University. My apologies for the error.

Mohenjo Daro: Back to the Bronze Age


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My local shopping mall multiplex mostly runs the usual big-budget action films and rom-coms, but one of its 18 theaters is dedicated to Bollywood films. So when I noticed that it was running a movie about Mohenjo-Daro, one of the cities of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, I decided I had to go and see it. Mohenjo Daro (2016, dir. Ashotush Gowariker, Hindi with English subtitles) is set in 2016 BC in a civilization that most people have never even heard of.


Spoiler Alert: If you’re interested in seeing this film, you should stop reading after my summary of the Indus Valley Civilization, because I discuss major plot points, including the resolution of the plot.


The Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley was home to one of the first four great civilizations of the Old World. It emerged around 3300BC, so it was slightly younger than Sumeria and Egypt, but slightly older than China. At its peak, from about 2600 to 1900 BC, it may have had as many as 5 million inhabitants, making it much larger than those other three civilizations, and more than 1000 cities and town are known to have belonged to it. Although it possessed a written language, scholars have not yet been able to translate it, and consequently it is known purely through archeology.


The Indus Valley Civilization

As the name implies, the IVC developed along the banks of the Indus and Sarasvati Rivers, in what is today Pakistan. The cities of the IVC show considerable urban planning efforts, including a regular street grid, warehouses for goods, and most impressively of all, a sophisticated system of hydraulic engineering that provided running water, efficient sewers, public baths, and the world’s first flush toilets.

All of that suggests a complex urban government, but the nature of that government has largely eluded scholars so far. There is no evidence for temples, so it does not appear to have been a theocracy, nor is there evidence for palaces or large homes, which suggests that the cities did not have powerful monarchies or wealthy elites who monopolized the wealth. But there was considerable standardization of units of measure, such as weights and building bricks, across the IVC, suggesting that there was large-scale co-ordination of efforts. So scholars are divided as to whether there was a single over-arching government, a network of monarchies or religious leaders in individual cities, or some more egalitarian system we cannot currently work out.


Statue of a so-called ‘Priest-King’

The IVC is thought to have been the first culture to produce cotton, and may have been the first to domesticate chickens. There is evidence for fairly sophisticated dentistry. And they clearly traded with Mesopotamia and Egypt. They had a complex writing system of between 400 and 600 symbols, which were used on seals and pottery, but what these symbols mean or what function they played is unknown.


Seal with symbols and a ‘unicorn’

The IVC began to go into decline around 1800 BC, for reasons that are unclear. The best theory seems to be connected to climate change. This theory holds that changes in the climate caused the monsoon that brings so much water to India to shift southward toward India proper. That would have caused the decline in the amount of water reaching the Saravati and Indus rivers. The Saravati also seems to have shifted its route, causes its water to drain into the Ganges watershed rather than the Indus. Accompanying these hydraulic changes may have been increasing salination to the soil, thus hurting the IVC’s ability to grow crops. There is also some evidence that violence may have been a factor. And archaeology suggests that Mohenjo-Daro, one of the IVC’s two best-excavated cities, may have been destroyed in a flood. And one theory holds that the IVC population migrated eastward to the Ganges and helped lay the foundations for later Hindu culture.


The ‘Dancing Girl’ statue


Mohenjo Daro

Ashotush Gowariker was serious about trying to recreate some sense of what Mohenjo-Daro might have looked like. He consulted a half-dozen experts to get a sense of how the community’s architecture looked like, and one scene takes places around what archeologists have called The Great Bath. His city has an upper and lower city, which roughly corresponds to the citadel that rose over the main city. There are only hints of what IVC clothing looked like, so Gowariker admits they simply made it up, but they tried to reflect surviving artifacts where possible; one character is dressed exactly as the statue of the ‘Priest-King’ is, and the Dancing Girl statue appears in one shot.


The Great Bath at Mohenjo-Daro

Unfortunately, given that we cannot read the IVC script, the plot was made up wholesale (and to Gowariker’s credit, a prologue text admits as much). The plot turns on Sarman (Hrithik Roshan) a small-town indigo farmer who is drawn to Mohenjo-Daro by a strange dream involving a unicorn, which is the symbol of Sindha, the goddess of the local river. He meets Chaani (Pooja Hegde), the Chosen One of Sindha, and this being a Bollywood film, immediately falls in love with her and starts trying to win her hand.

But Chaani is engaged to marry Moonja (Arunoday Singh), the villainous son of Maham (Kabir Bedi), the ruler of Mohenjo-Daro. The city is governed by a Senate, made up of representatives of all the major occupations (farming, mining, merchants, weavers, etc). Maham is the chief of the Senate, something like an elected president. That’s not a totally implausible idea for a society that lacked the usual foundations for ancient government. Maham has dammed the Sindha river so that he can mine gold from the river bed, and he is using the gold to buy copper weapons from Sumeria and hire thugs to help impose his rule on the city by force, as part of a plot to destroy Harappa, the city that exiled him twenty years ago.


Sarman (Hrithik) courting Channi (Hegde)

All of this brings him into conflict with Sarman, who thinks that Maham’s taxation is immoral, so he starts to foment rebellion, while still finding time to sing and dance (this is Bollywood, after all) and romance the Chosen One. Eventually, he realizes that the arrival of the monsoon is going to cause the dam to burst, and so in addition to leading a revolution, he has to persuade everyone to flee the city and migrate to the Ganges river. This last sequence, in which the city is destroyed by a torrential flood, is really the high point of the film, and feels a great deal like a classic Cecil B. DeMille epic.

So while the film’s story is entirely fictitious, at least Gowariker made some effort to incorporate what is known about the IVC. The film has a tendency to project later Hindu practice back onto the IVC; both cultures revere rivers and cremate their dead, for example. And at the end of the film, Sarman leads his people to what he declares to be the Ganga (Ganges) river, explicitly positioning the Indus Valley Civilization as one of the foundations of Indian culture. But Hollywood is constantly projecting its values onto the past, so it’s hardly surprising that Bollywood does exactly the same.


Old vs New

What I find most interesting about Mohenjo Daro is the way it dramatizes, probably unintentionally, the clash between a traditional agricultural society and an increasingly sophisticated urban society that is embracing new technologies and long-range trade. Given that the IVC was probably in the middle of that transition, it is not impossible that some version of that tension existed at the time.


An artist’s idea of what Mohenjo-Daro might have looked like

Sarman represents a traditional pre-urban farming culture that is barely out of the Stone Age. Throughout the film, he favors wooden tools, rocks, and his bare hands, only briefly making use of copper or bronze weapons when he has no choice; late in the film his followers use spears tipped with sharpened stones. On some level, he is xenophobic. All his enemies are in some fashion foreign to Mohenjo-Daro; when he discovers that Maham is buying copper weapons from the Sumerians, his solution is to attack the Sumerian caravan and force them to stop trading with Mohenjo-Daro. And after living in Mohenjo-Daro, he discovers a secret about his past that intersects with Mohenjo-Daro’s past, so he is literally a representative of the past returned to the city to restore the way things used to be (at least until the flood wipes out the whole city and he is forced to lead the people to a new place).

In contrast, Maham and Moonja represent new technologies and practices. Maham used the new idea of trading gold to acquire the new technology of copper weapons, and he, Moonja, and his cronies all use metal weapons, often in a  way that makes them explicitly villainous. He is a merchant, and wants to make Mohenjo-Daro powerful by trading with distant cultures like Sumeria, Mecca, and Bukhara, but his new practices are explicitly corrupt and abusive. Early in the film, Sarman and Moonja come into conflict because Moonja refuses to offer what Sarman deems a fair price for goods, so Moonja is comfortable with inflation and Sarman is not. Maham uses the new technology of damming to divert the river. Ultimately, the river (or perhaps the goddess Sindha) rejects this new practice, destroying both Maham and the city, while Moonja is killed with his own metal dagger.


You can tell Maham is a villain just from his hat

So the film seems to be appealing to a conservative, anti-modern sentiment, showing how the old ways are both morally better and more reliable, whereas new things are bad, corrupt, and unreliable.

Unfortunately, the film resorts to the tired cliché of the Woman as the Prize. Chaani would be right at home in most American films from the 1950s. Although the film asserts through a prophecy that Mohenjo-Daro’s survival rests on Chaani’s decisions, in fact at no point does she actually make a decision and she has no agency whatsoever. Instead, when Moonja decides to kill her because Sarman has found a way to break their engagement, she is simply helpless until Sarman runs to her rescue, and thereafter she is simply his reward for overcoming all the hardships of the film. Bollywood cinema is quite conservative this way, so it’s not surprising, but it is rather boring and predictable.

Still, it’s a reasonably fun story in a setting you’ve never seen before, and at least on the level of the sets and art direction, it offers at least an approximation of what the Indus Valley Civilization might have been like. And the dance numbers are decent. Check it out.

Want to Know More?

The movie isn’t available on video yet.

If you want to know more about the Indus Valley Civilization, you might look at Gregory Possehl’s The Indus Civilization.

Penny Dreadful: A Few Last Thoughts


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For the past couple of posts, I’ve been covering Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. There were a couple of other small points that I couldn’t really develop into full posts, so I thought I’d just put them together in one quick post.


  1. Penny Dreadful riffs on Victorian science-fiction, occult, and horror stories. At least it does in theory. It’s got Frankenstein and his monster, Mina Harker from Dracula, Dorian Gray, and Josh Hartnett’s Wolfman. But as I’ve already pointed out, Frankenstein isn’t a Victorian character; he’s from the Regency period a full two decades prior to the Victorian era. And the Wolfman isn’t a particularly Victorian character either. Although there were a handful of short stories published about lycanthropes in the 19th century, the major Wolfman stories are 20th century. The earliest novel on this theme (that I know of, at least) is 1933’s The Werewolf of ParisThe character in this novel, set in the 1870s, is not a wolfman, but a classic werewolf (he turns totally into a wolf, rather than a wolf/human hybrid). But the novel helped inspire the 1935 horror film, The Werewolf of London, whose protagonist, played by Harry Hill, is the first Wolfman. Werewolf established two of the key tropes of such films, namely that lycanthropy is spread by bites and that transformation into a werewolf is governed by the moon. That in turn helped inspire 1941’s The Wolf Manwith Lon Chaney Jr. as the unfortunate title character. Maybe if we average out the Regency era Frankenstein with the Depression era Wolf Man, we get the late Victorian era. (Incidentally, Josh Hartnett’s character is eventually revealed to be named Ethan Lawrence Talbot, Lawrence Talbot being Lon Chaney Jr’s character in The Wolf Man.)
  2. Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) watches her witch mentor Joan Clayton (Patti Lupone) burned to death sometime in the 1880s. In reality, the last person executed in the British Isles for witchcraft was the elderly Scottish woman Janet Horne, who was sentenced to detain Scotland, along with her daughter, in 1727. Her daughter managed to escape custody, but Janet was smeared with pitch, paraded through town, and burned alive. Laws decreeing the death penalty for witches were repealed a few years later, so the idea that a group of angry townspeople would burn Joan to death in the 1880s is pretty far-fetched.
  3. Simon Russell Beale’s flamboyant homosexual Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle was one of the great charms of season 2. But he has a rather 20th century sense of self. In the last episode he refers to himself as a ‘queen’, using what so far as I know is a term that only emerged in the 1950s.He also describes himself as belonging to a ‘tribe’, but I’m not sure that a 19th century gay man would have thought of himself in those terms. If the show had been more interested in an historically accurate portrayal of homosexuality, it should have had Lyle using polari, a wide-spread British slang system used by homosexual men (among others) in the 19th and 20th century. Polari was a complex mixture of Italian, Romani, London English, rhyming slang, back slang, sailor slang, and thieves’ cant that was employed by gay men to covertly signal their homosexuality to other men and have discrete conversations about sexual activity. For example, “Vada the dolly dish, shame about her naff riah” means “Look at the attractive man, shame about his bad hair.” Although some words (like ‘naff’ in the above example) have become common British slang, polari sadly began to die out as homosexuality won a wider social acceptance in the late 20th century. If you’re interested in polari, check out this short film in which two men have a conversation in it.  (Ignore the number 4–I can’t get the auto-numbering to turn off)

Correction: In an earlier version of this post, I incorrectly wrote that Claude Rains played the Wolf Man in the 1941 movie. While Rains was in the film, it was of course Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role. 

Penny Dreadful: Vanessa’s Tarot Deck


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My past few posts have dug into Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. In this (fairly brief post) I’m going to discuss the Tarot cards Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) uses periodically. In the second season, it’s revealed that she got the cards from her witch mentor Joan Clayton (Patti Lupone), a witch who lived from at least the 17th century down to the 1880s. Exactly where and when Joan acquired it is never explained, but it seems like it should be fairly old, given that everything else in her house seems to be. So perhaps it’s something she acquired in the 17th or 18th century.


Vanessa’s Tarot deck is purple with white line drawings, and rather pretty, albeit rather sparse on details.


Vanessa’s Tarot Deck

But historically, Tarot cards looked nothing like this, and to judge from the art style, it’s obviously a deck that originated no earlier than the 1990s.In fact, they were designed for the show by Irish graphic artist Anais Chareyre. So while the deck is aesthetically quite nice, it’s wildly anachronistic. They might as well have given Vanessa a Lexus to drive around Victorian London in.

So What Did Tarot Cards Look Like? 

Playing cards arrived in Europe from Mamluk Egypt (probably) in the late 14th century. The earliest surviving decks were created in the 1430s and 40s for the dukes of Milan, and are consequently known as the Visconti-Sforza decks. These decks are thought to be the first to use the non-suit ‘trump’ cards, now usually called the Major Arcana, which feature allegorical images of various sorts. They featured the symbols of the minor suits arranged in geometric patterns and the court and trump cards as figures against dark backgrounds. But no complete set of these cards exist today–the deck as it is currently known is cobbled together from more than a dozen partially-surviving decks.These cards were all hand-painted, because the printing press had not yet been invented.


Visconti-Sforza Tarot cards

The first great age of Tarot cards, however, was the 18th century. The so-called Tarot of Marseilles was probably the most widely-used deck in the period, and its structure closely resembles the modern Tarot deck: 4 suits of Wands, Swords, Cups, and Coins; 4 court cards for each suit, with cards for King, Queen, Knight, and Valet; 21 numbered trump cards that close to the modern ones (some of the names are different, and Death has no name); and an unnumbered Fool. The trumps are individual figures against a blank background.


The show doesn’t give us much to go on, but my guess is that this is the Tarot deck that Joan Clayton would have used. It appears to have originated in the late 1400s, and is documented in France in 1499. The use of playing cards for divinatory purposes goes back to the mid-16th century, but the idea that specific cards had set meanings seems to be an 18th century notion.

There were a wide range of Tarot decks in circulation in the 19th century, but generally speaking, they looked a lot like the Tarot of Marseilles artistically. Some decks began leaving out the non-suit trump cards, because they were an awkward fit for use in card games.

By the late 19th century, Tarot decks were gravitating more toward the style of modern playing cards (and are often called ‘playing tarot’ cards. The Tarot Nouveau was popular in the period of the show, although Vanessa wouldn’t have used that deck, because the Major Arcana (the unique cards like the Moon or the Devil) were stripped out because they weren’t used in tarot games of the period.


Tarot Nouveau

However, Tarot cards didn’t really circulate in England prior to the 1870s. That’s when English occultists took note of the French tradition of Tarot cards for divinatory purposes. So in realty, a 17th century English witch like Joan Clayton probably wouldn’t have had a Tarot deck at all, unless she had spent time in France. Nor were Tarot cards part of English folk magic. The people who were responsible for the rising interest in Tarot cards were occultists like Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and Eliphas Levi, all of whom were interested in a loftier notion of educated magic that they claimed stretched back to ancient Egypt.

The deck most people are familiar with today, in which each card has a specific scene on it, is called the Rider-Waite Deck, because it was designed by English occultist Alfred Waite and drawn to his instructions by Pamela Colman Smith. It first appeared in 1910, so Vanessa couldn’t have used that deck. And once this deck had been issued, other occultists began producing their own deck in the 1920s and 30, and the genre has proliferated ever since.


Rider-Waite cards


Want to Know More?

The Penny Dreadful Tarot is available on Amazon. To judge from the comments, the card-stock is poor, and the imagery on the cards bears no relationship to the traditional readings of the cards, so this is probably a deck better-intended for its artistry than serious use. If you want to get a deck of Tarot cards for doing readings, I would suggest the traditional Rider-Waite deck. There’s a reason it’s became the classic deck; its rich symbolism allows for a lot of different readings.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword: The Trailer

The first trailer for Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has dropped. Charlie Hunnam is playing Arthur.

Take a look.

It’s pretty clear that the film has approximately 0 interest in anything to do with history or the literary King Arthur. Just a few points worth making:

The primary location seems to be some sort of late medieval castle-cum-Roman fort located on a high cliff. No such location ever existed, although some 11th century castles did incorporate surviving Roman walls.

The armor is totally crack-addled.

The Sword in the Stone is a 21st century fantasy version of a high medieval-style sword, perhaps 12th or 13th century, apparently circulating in 6th century Britain. It has faux-Norse runes on it, which makes no sense in a pre-Viking Age Britain.

Arthur is wearing an early 21st century hairstyle.

Arthur was “raised on the streets”, an impressive accomplishment in 6th century Britain, since there were no cities in Britain at the time.

There are giant elephants wandering around. That’s nonsense. Everyone knows giant elephants died out in the Roman era.



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