Codex Lochianus

A gallimaufry of musings on history, gaming, and speculative fiction

Questions about the quaestiones

Work on a new family of stories has sent me on a hunt for information about Roman criminal courts in the first century of the Principate. More specifically, I’ve been investigating the relationship between the old standing jury courts (quaestiones perpetuae) and newer tribunals such as the court of the Prefect of the City (praefectus urbi).

The standing jury courts were established during the Republic to try specific crimes (e.g., treason, bribery). They could be quite large–in the later Republic, a jury court might have over 50 jurors, including senators, equestrians, and Tribunes of the Treasury.1 The jury courts survived the transition to the Principate, though from Augustus’ reign onward most jurors came from outside the senatorial order.2 As time went on, the jury courts had to compete with other tribunals. The Senate itself heard cases of treason and extortion by provincial magistrates,3 and the Prefect of the City adjudicated criminal cases from Rome. It’s not clear when the City Prefect first acquired judicial duties, though Richard A. Bauman argues it might have been the reign of Nero.4

For a time, the jury courts co-existed alongside the court of the City Prefect. It seems there was a certain tension in this arrangement, as this passage from Tacitus shows:

Valerius Pontius suffered the same degradation [sc., exile] for having indicted the defendants before the praetor [i.e., bringing the case before a jury court] to save them from being prosecuted in the court of the City Prefect, purposing meanwhile to defeat justice on some legal pretext and subsequently by collusion.5

It’s a shame Tacitus doesn’t offer a more detailed explanation for why Pontius was so keen to maneuver cases into the jury courts, but he may have hoped their chronic congestion would allow the defendants to evade justice.6 Also, John Crook argues in passing that the jury courts were open to ‘gerrymandering,’ but he doesn’t provide any evidence in support of this contention.7 Presumably, he means that an unscrupulous litigant (or someone acting on their behalf) could have manipulated the selection of jurors to ensure a desirable verdict, but it would be interesting to see what evidence we actually have of this practice.

My new protagonist will likely come into contact with the Roman courts from time to time, so I need to nail down the relationship between the traditional jury courts and the court of the City Prefect. If you know of any books or articles that might help me in my quest, please let me know!

Brill’s typographical disaster

I recently started reading an electronic copy of László Török’s Between Two Worlds: The Frontier Region between Ancient Nubia and Egypt, 3700 BC – 500 AD, and I was shocked at how shoddy it was. Letters and punctuation were missing on almost every page, and the letter f was frequently replaced with an ß! See, for example, this excerpt from page 179:

A signi cant process of change seems to have started in the second half of the Nineteenth Dynasty period. Merenptah s (1213 1203) rst viceroy, Mesui, was probably buried at Aniba (see above), discontinuing (at least for one generation) the traditional Theban burial of the viceroys.

 

The book wasn’t published by CreateSpace or Publish America. It was the work of Brill, a 300-year-old Dutch publisher that specializes in academic texts. I’m usually rather fond of Brill. A lot of their titles are available in digital form through Brill E-Books, and since UW-Madison subscribes to this service, I can access them for free.

I’m hopeful that the problems with Between Two Worlds are an aberration since I’ve downloaded other Brill e-books, and they’ve been fine. Still, a cockup of this magnitude is a huge embarrassment for such a prestigious publisher, and I hope they’ll fix it at some point.

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Interview with the developers of Torment: Tides of Numenera

Many of you know that Planescape: Torment is one of my all-time favorite video games (you can read my paean to the game here). Naturally, I’m thrilled that InXile is working on a spiritual successor to Planescape called Torment: Tides of Numenera. I recently had a chance to talk to the developers to learn more about the game, and you can read my interview over at Urban Gaming Elite.

 

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Archaeology Magazine Gets Confused

I felt a little rush of joy this evening when the following headline appeared in my Twitter feed: “A book of ancient Egyptian spells has been translated.” Naturally, I clicked through, but I was swiftly disappointed. A glance at the article revealed that the book in question has nothing to do with ancient Egypt. It’s actually about a Coptic spellbook from 700 or 800 AD!

Calling a Coptic manuscript ‘ancient Egyptian’ is like calling Dante’s Divine Comedy a work of ancient Roman literature. It’s a lazy attempt at shorthand that ultimately obfuscates rather than enlightens since Coptic civilization had little in common with its pharaonic predecessor.

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An Introduction to Ghost Stories

Several years ago, The Physicist and I wandered into our local game store and left with a little game called Ghost Stories. Although we lost horribly the first few times we played, we were hooked. Ghost Stories can be a bitch to win, but it’s also a lot of fun. The premise of the game is game is that a group of Taoist monks (the players) are fighting to save a village from the depredations of the malevolent Wu-Feng and his legion of ghosts. Since a new ghost typically appears each turn, players face an uphill battle to keep the enemy at bay. Thankfully, you’re not completely alone. You can seek aid from the villagers, but a helping hand can have consequences…

I wrote a handy introduction to Ghost Stories for Urban Gaming Elite’s ‘Unplugged’ section. Why don’t you mosey on over to UGE and check it out?

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Elevator Pitch Olympics

Last week, I wrote an article for Xconomy.com about the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium’s Elevator Pitch Olympics. Eighteen entrepreneurs gave ninety-second presentations to a panel of judges, who then rated the entrepreneurs’ performance on a scale of one to five.

The winner, Tyrre Burks of Team Interval, hopes to create a digital platform that will serve as a universal health record for student athletes. He faced stiff competition, though. Steve Visuri of FloraSeq, wants to create a stool bank to facilitate fecal transplants, while Ben West of Concinnity is trying to make it easier for doctors to file reports for the Physician Quality Reporting System (the process is so byzantine that many doctors have opted out of it entirely; according to West, 800,000 physicians miss out on approximately $4 billion annually).

I thought it was interesting that many of the entrepreneurs were reluctant to brag about their credentials, even when it would have helped their pitches. One gentleman wants to develop a drug to treat canine diabetes and then use the profits to fund research in human diabetes. He gave a decent pitch, but he neglected one tiny detail: he’s a famous pancreatic transplant surgeon at the University of Wisconsin. At the end of the competition, the judges stressed that entrepreneurs need to overcome their Midwestern modesty if they want to be noticed by investors. :)

 

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Torment: Tides of Numenera First Glimpse

InXile has released a first glimpse video of Torment: Tides of Numenera, and it looks awesome.

Although this is an alpha version of the build and therefore subject to major change, the omens definitely look good. It has a clear Planescape: Torment vibe, though there are subtle refinements: although there’s still a lot of reading to be done, they’ve made it so that dialogue is actually voice acted. I think this is a nice compromise–it helps deepen characterization while keeping the wonderful descriptions that made Planescape: Torment such a joy to play.

The game’s story seems promising, too. Even though the video only shows the barest hints, I’m already intrigued by the Maw. Given the all-star team that’s working on the story, I think it’s safe to say that the end result will be amazing.

So far, the only bad thing about Torment: Tides of Numenera is that it probably won’t be released for another year. :(

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Wisconsin Patriot Boot Camp

Last weekend, I had the privilege of covering the Techstars Patriot Boot Camp for Xconomy.com. The boot camp aims to give veterans and military spouses the tools they need to become successful entrepreneurs. I really enjoyed hearing the entrepreneurs speak about their business ideas, and I’m glad that Techstars is helping them turn their dreams into reality. You can read my write-up of the event here.

 

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OMG! Women Love Shoes!!!!!

“4000 Year-Old Tablets Reveal Women Have Always Loved Shoes!” proclaimed a headline on the webpage of Cornell University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies. The article in question was about the Garšana Tablets, a group of 1,600 cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia that were once part of the personal archive of a Sumerian princess named Simat-Ištaran. The tablets cover the years between 2031 and 2024 BC, and they reveal that Simat-Ištaran ran the estate after the death of her husband, a general named Šu-Kabta. They provide scholars with fascinating new evidence about the place of women in Sumerian society. For example, the tablets show that women worked as laborers and even supervisors, and they received the same wages as their male colleagues.

In light of all the fascinating things revealed by the Garšana Tablets, it seems strange to emphasize Simat-Ištaran’s shoe collection. While the article itself provides a more holistic overview of the material, the headline’s appeal to a gender stereotype is still annoying. I suspect that the author was trying to come up with a hook that would draw in members of the general public, but surely something like “4000 Year-Old Tablets Reveal Surprising General Equality” would have been equally eye-catching.

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New Gig!

I have some exciting news: I will be writing for Urban Gaming Elite! As a longtime gamer, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to write about an industry that I love.

You can check out my first article here. It’s a preview of a promising RTS game called 0 A.D. If you liked Age of Empires, you’ll probably like 0 A.D. It’s being developed by a team of volunteers from all over the world, and it will be totally free to play when it finally launches. There’s no release date as of yet, but in the meantime, you can play with the alpha build. It’s definitely worth a look.

Some random thoughts that didn’t make it into my article:

  • I question the decision to use Middle Egyptian building names for the Ptolemaic faction. Admittedly, I’m not much of an expert on the Greco-Roman period because it’s boring, but my understanding is that Greek was the language of administration. And if you want to get really pedantic, you could argue that Demotic would be a better choice than Middle Egyptian since Middle Egyptian was only used in highly formal contexts by the Ptolemaic era.
  • The ships look awesome. It’s just a shame you can’t really do much with them at the moment since the AI doesn’t know how to use them yet.
  • I wish the game had more non-Mediterranean civilizations. It seems strange that the Seleucids, Ptolemies, and Macedonians each get their own faction, yet there isn’t a single faction from Eastern Asia (though India is represented by the Mauryans).
  • The game places some annoying restrictions on construction (e.g., you have to build towers a certain distance apart, and civic centers have to be placed a certain distance from resources). One of the great things about old-school RTS games like Age of Empires II is that the game lets you do whatever the hell you want. Want to build fifteen towers right next to each other? You can do that!  Want to build a dozen castles? You can do that, too! The best games are the ones that give you the freedom to do silly things instead of holding your hand or trying to nudge you toward a certain course of action.
  • The skirmish maps suffer from Diablo III Syndrome (i.e., they look really pretty, but they get old after a while since there’s insufficient randomization). I hope the game will eventually have a fully random map mode. Hand-designed maps based on real-world geography are nice, but they reduce the replay value since you eventually come to know them like the back of your hand.
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