Research Ramblings: Ancient Elis, Part 2

When I took the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment, it listed among my top five strengths something called Input. For a long time, I thought it was a mistake; people with Input tend to be collectors, but when it comes to stuff, I’m a tosser. Once I started writing novels, however, I discovered I’m actually an avid hoarder – of facts. I’m always collecting random pieces of information that I hang onto “just in case,” and my “Research Ramblings” highlight some of these bits I’ve discovered along the way.

As mentioned in Ancient Elis, Part 1, my characters were moving to a new town, and I was able to find details about said town in an ancient source. Specifically Book 2 of Pausanias’ Description of Greece. However, even with this information the work of world building continued for two main reasons:

1. Pausanias wrote his work in the second century A.D., a few hundred years after the era of my story. As ancient as ancient history is, there are different levels of ancient. So customs current to Pausanias might not have existed in the early fourth century B.C. The same goes for buildings and other landmarks.

2. The Description of Greece is entirely in text. In other words, no maps, and generally no mundane details like structure dimensions. Here’s an excerpt:

One of the noteworthy things in Elis is an old gymnasium. In this gymnasium the athletes are wont to go through the training through which they must pass before going to Olympia. High plane-trees grow between the tracks inside a wall…The track for the competing runners, called by the natives the Sacred Track, is separate from that on which the runners and pentathletes practise…There is another enclosed gymnasium, but smaller, adjoining the larger one and called Square because of its shape. Here the athletes practise wrestling, and here, when they have no more wrestling to do, they are matched in contests with the softer gloves.

This is nice in that I have knowledge of at least two gymnasiums and the activities that took place in them. The bad news is that, even knowing that these gyms were in close proximity, I don’t know what part of town they were located or how big they were. There is truth to the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and things would be a lot easier if the Description of Greece came with sketches of the gyms and town layout.

Fortunately, archaeology is on my side. I mentioned in Part 1 about some photos of the Elean dig. Greece is popular with archaeologists, and while Elis’ following isn’t as large as Athens’ or Olympia’s, it does have a dig and museum. And thanks to the Internet, I  found this archeological website with details on the ancient city, including:

The theatre, a striking monument with a characteristic earthen cavea and a well-preserved stage building, occupied the north end of the agora. It enjoyed views of the river, which, in antiquity, ran very close by, along the city’s north limits. A bridge crossed the river near that point and a strong embankment protected the city against floods. The Bouleuterion and the city’s two gymnasiums were most probably located near the theatre, on a terrace by the riverbank.

Well, isn’t that lovely? Problem solved! At least where these gyms are concerned. And now I’ve got a better picture of my new setting.

But there will be gaps which neither ancient texts nor archaeology can fill, and once I’ve exhausted my sources, those are the places I give my imagination permission to take off (within reason, of course). And that, I suppose, is one of the benefits of writing historical fiction. 🙂

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One response to “Research Ramblings: Ancient Elis, Part 2

  1. I have always been in awe of historical fiction writers. I don’t have nearly enough patience or a keen enough eye to do history justice, even though I love so many aspects of it.

    Thanks for working so diligently to bring history to life for a new generation.

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