The Silk Road, and the earliest silk out of China

The Silk Road officially opened some time around 200BC, when ambassadors from China turned up in Bactria and Parthia.  They were looking for allies in a war, but they returned to China with tales of strange lands further to the West.  Shortly after that Chinese merchant caravans started arriving in Persia, and the most fascinating trade route in history was well and truly in business.

Two things made the Silk Road possible.  The first was the highway system that the Persians built.  I've previously written about the King's Messengers.  They could get a message from one end of the Empire to the other in an incredible three days.  The main east-west arterial was called the Royal Road, but it wasn't long before it turned into the Middle East section of the Silk Road.  The other building block was that the Han Dynasty took over in China.  The Han assigned troops to keep the roads safe, so that traders had a chance to cross the steppes without being hit by nomad bandits.

By far the biggest trading item was the Chinese wonder-material, an astounding item called silk.  Persians, Greeks, and later on, Romans, were willing to spend very large amounts of gold to get silk.  (Or more accurately, the wives were willing to spend very large amounts of their husbands' money.)

My heroine Diotima acquires some silk in The Ionia Sanction, which she later uses to make a dress.  I made a comment at the time that this made her the first woman in Europe to wear a silk dress.  But my stories are set in the fifth century BC, and the Silk Road didn't open until the second century.   Can Diotima possibly get silk 300 years before the Silk Road exists?

Yes she can.  There was informal trading before the famous road opened.  The reason we know this is rather interesting.

Wherever you find silk in an ancient site, you know for sure there's been contact with China, one way or another.  Because China was the only source of silk.

The earliest known silk outside China occurs in the grave goods of four people in Uzbekistan (Bactria, as it was back then).  The date on those graves is an incredible 1200BC.  That's a minimum, they might be a few hundred years older.

Now Uzbekistan is not far from China, but it's definitely not a silk-producing region, so the silk only got there by trade.  Whoever got that silk to Bactria was a serious adventurer, but it's certain someone did it.  From about 500BC onwards, once the silk makes it to Bactria it can get onto the Persian road system.

The next appearance of silk comes in 1070 BC.  In 1993, a team reported that they had found traces of silk in the hair of an Egyptian mummy.  That's an Egyptian mummy, with silk in 1070BC!

I personally rate the abilities of ancient people highly, but even I found this hard to believe.  I traced the claim.  It appears in correspondence to the science journal Nature.  It's correspondence, not a refereed paper, but as far as I know the claim was never refuted, but nor was the test confirmed.  Nevertheless that makes the idea highly credible.  That's good enough if you're a writer of historical fiction.

So it seems possible if not likely that Chinese goods were trickling into Persia and Egypt starting five hundred years before the time of Nico and Diotima.

The Marathon Conspiracy on sale for $1.99

The Marathon Conspiracy ebook version is on sale at both Barnes & Noble and Amazon for a mere $1.99.

Believe it or not, I didn't know this was happening until people mentioned it on twitter.  It's part of a promotion of detective stories, that ends on 23 March 2015.

Hurry now while stocks last!


A Corinthian helmet with a skull inside, found at Marathon

This picture has been doing the rounds on twitter.  It was pointed out to me by the excellent Loretta Ross (who as it happens is a debut author!), taken from the twitter account of @History-Pics.



The skull at bottom was found inside the helmet!  It was found on the plain of Marathon, where as you surely know was once fought a famous battle.   The helmet and skull therefore is usually described as being from the Battle of Marathon.

So are we looking at one of the heroes of Marathon?  Well, probably not.  But maybe.  Since my book The Marathon Conspiracy recounts the battle at once point, I thought I'd go through the pros and cons of this rather remarkable find:

First off, it's genuine.  This is a for-real Corinthian helmet that dates to the time of Marathon, plus or minus a few decades.  We are absolutely looking at a classical Greek warrior.

The Corinthian style was very popular so it's no problem that it was found at a place where only Athenians fought.

This helmet and skull is old news.  It was discovered in the 1800s by inquisitive amateurs.  They claimed they found it at Marathon.  By modern standards the provenance is horribly broken.  By the standards of Victorian England there's no problem; they're probably telling the truth.

After the battle the Athenians counted their dead.  There were 192 fallen heroes.  They were buried under a mound at the southern end of the battlefield.  The dead were cremated, a little unusually for the time but not outrageously so.  This skull was found elsewhere on the battlefield.  The only way this could be an Athenian from the famous battle would be if the Athenians somehow managed to miss one of the dead.  Since they also buried the Persian dead (their bones were found underneath a vineyard to the north of the battlefield) and since the site was revisited several times over the following days, it seems hard to believe they missed one of their own.

The Athenian casualty list was made public at the time (and parts have been recovered).  If a casualty wasn't on the list, but never came home, someone was bound to say, "Where's Uncle Bob?"  Bob would have been found for sure, because the men who fell at Marathon were treated like Trojan Heroes.

Here's a big problem: in those days, armour was always recovered before a burial.  This was expensive stuff.   It would typically go to the warrior's heir, or be snaffled by someone from the other side.  It might seem a little creepy to go into battle wearing armour that someone had died in, but that's how they did it.

So for those reasons it's far from obvious that this guy fought at Marathon.  He might have died on the plain any time from a few decades before to a few decades after.  He probably wasn't murdered (though that thought crossed my mind) because the helmet is still there.  Any criminal would have taken it.

So the skull in the helmet remains a mystery!


A quiz about Sacred Games

Someone on GoodReads created a quiz about my book Sacred Games.  Incredibly, I managed to get a question wrong about my own book.

I scored 9/10!  See if you can beat me.

Here's the quiz.


Death Ex Machina, and a giveaway!


A theatrical murder sends classical Athens into uproar!




This is the fifth adventure for Nico and Diotima.  I'm afraid life isn't getting any easier for the only private agent in ancient Athens, but at least he has a chance to get into show biz.

In bookstores on May 19, 2015
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My astoundingly excellent publisher Soho Press is doing a giveaway on GoodReads.  Click here to enter the giveaway!


Are things getting worse?

With the depressing news of yet another atrocity, this time against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, I thought I'd take a moment to ask whether the world is becoming a worse place, at least in terms of mass murder.  Note this is different to serial murder.  A serial killer kills one person, then waits a long time before killing another.  Mass murder is killing many in a short space of time.

I think it is getting worse.  The solo mass murderer, or death delivered by a handful of deranged people, is a modern phenomenon.

I can't recall from the ancient world, or even the mediaeval, or the Renaissance, or even in Elizabethan times, a single instance of mass murder being conducted by one man acting on his own.

The reason is easy to see.  In the time of my hero Nicolaos, the most powerful individual weapon available was a bronze sword.  A nutter could kill at most a few people in the street before being taken down.

And a mass murderer would be taken down quickly.  In a world without a police force, citizens were naturally inclined to intervene when they saw a crime being committed.  Surviving court cases from classical Athens that involve violence in public always mention passers-by running into the action.   Not something you see much these days.

But a modern mass murderer can do a whole lot better than a bronze sword.  The growth in power of lethal force that can be carried by a single individual is incredibly important.

The same nutter today would have a couple of automatic weapons, hundreds of rounds of ammo, a pouch of grenades, and maybe a few bombs to plant. He could kill hundreds.

Then there's the unfortunate fact that there are more people inclined to mass murder.

The population today is 7 billion.   In Nico’s time it was roughly 200 million. The percentage of the population inclined to mass murder is small and probably hasn't changed, but population growth means there are thirty-five times more dangerous maniacs walking the planet today than in the ancient world.

Never mind that there are also thirty-five times more good guys.  Good guys don't commit crimes, good news never moves, and bad news spreads like wild fire.

When you add that many potential mass murderers to the extra lethal technology they can carry, it doesn't look good.


Sacred Games for $1.99 on Nook

Barnes & Noble has price-matched the Amazon offer for Sacred Games.  So if you're a Nook reader then don't feel left out!

You can get Sacred Games for $1.99 here.



Sacred Games for $1.99 on Kindle

Sacred Games is a kindle monthly deal this month.  That means if you're a kindle reader then you can buy it for the grand total of $1.99.



If political shenanigans and a sports murder at the ancient Olympics are your thing then this is the book for you.

"Corby integrates the political intrigue of the day with fair-play plotting and welcome doses of humor.  Fans of Steven Saylor's Gordianus novels will be enthralled."

—Publishers Weekly, starred review

The perfect Christmas gift

If you enjoy ancient murder mysteries, that is.  "This will have the wealth of historical mystery buffs jumping up and down for joy."

Here's a lovely review of The Marathon Conspiracy that appeared a few issues back in Suspense Magazine, which is well worth subscribing to.


“The Marathon Conspiracy” By Gary Corby 

Corby has most definitely brought to readers three amazing tales they will not soon forget. And now comes a fourth historical mystery set in Greece that, yet again, is so well-written you will feel as if you are truly part of the Ancient World. 


The elections are about to be held in the city of Athens and the city’s (wise) statesman, Pericles, asks his inquiry agent, Nicolaos, to look into a matter that could undermine all of the political elections. It seems that a skeleton has been found at a girls’ school located not too far from Athens. 


Nico is the super sleuth, to say the least; a sleuth who has just taken time off to wed his investigating partner, Diotima. Of course, Pericles and the case put that happy occasion on hold. Especially when the remains just happen to be those of Hippias. This was the massive traitor to the Greeks and, in the Battle of Marathon, was killed and left behind in Persia. The veterans of that battle are beyond angry. They have always claimed they were the men who thwarted the traitor, and they need to gain favor and political power, not stones to the head. And if this is not enough trouble, one of the girls who found the bones is dead, and the other has gone missing. 


Shocking surprises arrive to the Athenian world, as they wonder why and how the traitor is ‘back.’ There is no obvious reason behind the bones finding their home in Athens, and Nico and Pericles must solve the mystery as fast as possible before Athens becomes a bed of power hungry, angry, willing-to-do-anything tyrants. 


This will have the wealth of historical mystery buffs jumping up and down for joy. As with Corby’s other works, the tale is full of humor, suspense-filled plots, subplots, and characters that are unforgettable. It is no overstatement to say that Corby most definitely knows his history backwards and forwards, providing stories that are beyond exciting. 


Reviewed by Mary Lignor, Professional Librarian and Co-Owner of The Write Companion



Don't let the bedbugs bite!

In addition to deep and profound philosophy, classical Athens also scores in a slightly more prosaic subject:  the earliest documented mention of bedbugs comes from them.  It's in a play called The Clouds, written by Aristophanes.

In it, no less than Socrates is instructing a young man named Strepsiades.  Socrates asks his student what deep thoughts he is thinking.  Strespiades replies, "Whether there'll be anything left of me after the bedbugs have finished chewing."