Call of Chicago: 13 True Ways The Hellenistic Era Is Fantastic

“We have digressed on these matters, not out of a desire to criticize Herodotus, but to show that wondrous tales tend to prevail over truthful tales.”

— Diodorus Siculus (c. 60 BCE), anticipating John Ford by 2,000 years

Not that we normally have any truck with wondrous tales here in this here column, no sirree. But the exigencies of running a 13th Age campaign set in the Hellenistic era (323-30 BCE) and more specifically in 273 BCE, mean that a wondrous tale will do us nicely. Or perhaps thirteen wondrous tales, starting with seven wonders.

‘Nuff said.

Seven Wonders, No Waiting

The poet and travel writer Antipater of Sidon first (c. 180 BCE) described and listed the Seven Wonders (a pun on themata, or “marvels,” and thaumata, or “magics”), but even he only got around to it forty years after the seventh one fell down. All seven Wonders only co-existed for about fifty years, from the completion of the Lighthouse at Pharos, in 282 BCE, to the destruction of the Colossus of Rhodes in the earthquake of 226 BCE, but that’s plenty of time for fighting giant apes on top of the Pyramids or a demi-lich in the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.

Gigantic Warships

The rival monarchs built plenty of Imperial Destroyers for their various clashes of titans on the wine-dark sea. Demetrios I of Macedon (r. 294-288 BCE) had a 16-bank ship with 2,000 crew, which the Romans found hidden in a harbor in Macedonia 80 years after he died. Ptolemy Philopator, Macedonian pharaoh of Egypt (r. 244-205 BCE), built a twin-hulled warship with 40 banks of oars, seven rams, and room for 2,750 marines. It was 80 feet high and 420 feet long, with a crew of over 4,000 sailors and rowers.

Archimedes

Archimedes (c. 290-212 BCE) designed a catapult for one of those super-ships that threw a 120-lb. stone 200 yards. He also designed a giant claw that picked up ships and smacked them around, and a giant mirror that burned ships at sea. (He did so.) Who doesn’t want a super-genius who invents calculus and ship-killers in their game? Other mad Hellenistic weapon designers include Philo of Byzantion (c. 280-220 BCE) who built a chain-driven repeating crossbow, and Kteisibios of Alexandria (285-222 BCE), who built a compressed-air cannon.

The City-Killer

Hey remember Demetrios I? He built a 13-story tall siege tower called the Helepolis (“City-Killer”) for the Siege of Rhodes in 305 BCE. Loaded with 16 catapults (including one that hurled a 180-lb. projectile) and weighing 160 tons, it was only brought down by the ingenious work of Rhodes’ engineer Diognetos, who cunningly flooded its path so that it mired itself in mud. But how did he find out its path? Perhaps your player characters got the plans, one rogue in particular …

The First Superhero Crossover

Gardner Fox and Stan Lee got nothin’ on Apollonios of Rhodes (c. 300-230 BCE) who came up with the idea of teaming up all, or most, of the great Greek heroes in his blockbuster poem Argonautika. (Theseus was trapped in Hades, and I guess Perseus was with another studio.) Imagine playing the team of heroes who look back on the Argonauts as their Justice Society — or, if you’d rather, imagine unfreezing Jason from an iceberg in Thule and having him lead a new team of avenging heroes.

Sea Monsters

Antipater of Sidon also mentions a fifty-foot sea monster that washed up on the beach, possibly near Athens, to be found by the fisherman Hermonax. He calls it a skolopendra, which at the time probably meant a creature that could vomit up its own bowels to void a fish-hook, but now means a giant centipede. Fifty-foot giant sea centipedes, anyone?

A Star-Finding Super-Computer

In either 205 BCE or 100 BCE or another year entirely, a ship went down off the coast of the island of Antikythera. On board was a magnificently intricate and weird device, all clockwork gears and counter-weights, escapements and cams, which probably existed to predict eclipses and planetary patterns but maybe it didn’t. People are still arguing about just what the “Antikythera mechanism” was and whether there were more of them so it might as well be the brain of a warforged or the spell-store of a math wizard like Archimedes or just a wonderful 13th Age-style magic artifact. Maybe it was a really intense escalation die.

Weird Sky Cult

Alexarchos (350-290 BCE) believed that he was the incarnation of the Sun and wore its power like a helmet, and he invented his own crazy version of Greek and sent letters to rhetoricians demanding that they use it instead of regular Greek. Unfortunately, they couldn’t just ignore him, because he was the brother of King Cassander I of Macedon (r. 305-297 BCE) who may have poisoned Alexander the Great so don’t get him mad. So Alexarchos was urged to found a “City of Heaven,” Ouranopolis, on the slopes of Mount Athos, and everyone tried to forget about him and his cult compound in between weirdly spelled letters.

Pirate Women

The Illyrians, unlike the Greeks, didn’t have any hangups about women warriors. (One of Alexander the Great’s half-sisters was Cynane, a fighting cavalry princess of the Dardanians.) And their favorite way of war was piracy, because their fast, light ships named libyrnae (after the Liburnian tribe of Illyrians) were capable of taking on even heavy quinquiremes and winning, and because it pays better. It paid so well that the Romans got into a scuffle with Queen Teuta of the Ardiei tribe (r. 231-227 BCE) who defended the rights of all her subjects to loot anyone they liked, including Roman ambassadors, which did not in fairness end well for her. But light fighter ships crewed by pirate women vs. immense behemoths full of armored Zeus-troopers — tell me this isn’t a fantasy tale from a long time ago and far, far away.

Voodoo Dolls

The Graeco-Egyptian Magical Papyri, as modern scholars call them, begin accumulating in the 2nd century BCE in Alexandria, and boy do they have everything: demons, invocations to the gods, love potions, summonings, stage magic, possibly a prismatic spray of some kind, and oh yeah voodoo dolls. Lots and lots of magic incorporated into figurines that received baths in various eerie ingredients or were made from unlovely substances, then associated with something of the target’s and buried — in swamps, graveyards, caves … pretty much everywhere in the Hellenistic world there’s a tiny evil cursed doll waiting for you.

A Gate To Hades

Near the city of Hierapolis (modern Pamukkale, Turkey), founded in 190 BCE, a hole in the ground held not a hobbit but a gateway to Hades. Called the Ploutonion, its exhalations of deadly gases killed everyone who went in except the priests of Cybele and, one hopes, the priests of Plouton (the Greek name for Hades when they didn’t want to tempt him to kill them with deadly gases). Pilgrims would toss birds or other animals into the cavern as sacrifices or get high off the fumes and hope for a dream-vision from the dark god, a practice called incubatio. Other gates to the Underworld existed around the Hellenistic Mediterranean, but this one was the newest and therefore the neatest.

War Elephants

Who doesn’t love war elephants? Despite their very iffy performance in actual battles, they were the M1 Abrams of the ancient world: tough, fast, immense, and terrifying to people without fireball spells. They wore armor and spikes on their feet and tusks, and threw foes around with their trunks. Seleucus I Nicator (r. 321-281 BCE) thought they were vital enough military resources that he traded his eastern provinces to Chandragupta Maurya for 500 elephants, and he was no slouch. For more elephantine inspiration, see the Oliphaunt in Lord of the Rings, or 1 Maccabees 6.

Snake-Legged Giants

For no reason anyone can tell, in 334 BCE the Greeks suddenly started depicting giants as having snakes for legs, rather than human limbs. These anguipede giants may have come from Persian or Scythian myth, and they show up in Etruscan art as early as 500 BCE. But the Greeks, up until the beginning of the Hellenistic era, staunchly refused to hear, write, or depict anything of the sort — and the mainland Greeks kept up the tradition of human-legged giants even as anguipedes took over temple after temple in Asia (especially the Gigantomachia frieze at Pergamon, 190 BCE), Italy, and Africa into Roman times. Hunting down a new gigantic Icon seems like a great adventure … and if the “snakes” are actually tentacles, well, I know another game that can tackle gigantic hybrids of man, octopus, and dragon. But let’s try 13th Age first, shall we?

2 Responses to “Call of Chicago: 13 True Ways The Hellenistic Era Is Fantastic”

  1. Johann Tor says:

    The greek equivalent of the smorgasbord is “mezeklikia”.

  2. Antonio Eleuteri says:

    Wonderful inspiration, Mr. Hite!

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