Reader Questions: L-l-l-lightning round!

Today we’ll be answering some questions that I ignominiously begged for received over on G+.

Reader Paul of The Scatterbrained Gamer asks:


OK, um … sadly, I get the impression that most of the fun things you hear about speakeasies are probably not true — the tables flipping over and so on. Or at least they were not that common.

What’s interesting to me about speakeasies is that they’re this very direct encounter that many people have with criminality, with breaking the law. And it was a law that was, at least in many places, routinely flouted. If you read contemporary discussions of it, they’re pretty funny. Here’s Ring Lardner on the subject:

It seems like about the biggest difference between now and 7 or 8 yrs. ago in big cities at lease is that in them days most cities had a law that you must close your saloon at 11 o’clock or 12 o’clock or 1 o’clock. Now days according to the law, they ain’t no saloons so they can and do stay open as long as they feel like.

Which may strike a telling parallel to contemporary debates about legalisation of what-have-you; you tell me.

However, there are some odd people who join in the fight for or against the right to get your drank on. Here is shameless scandal-monger Herbert Asbury in his lesser-known oeuvre Gangs of Chicago:

Interspersed among the marchers were many elaborate floats, graphically condemning vice of every description. … Another, equipped by the Norwegian churches of Chicago, was occupied by twelve young men in armor, and a thirteenth in pink tights, representing the god Thor. About his neck hung a placard saying: “The Great God Thor with his hammer. The Norwegians will help smite the saloons.”

Thor, do you like speakeasies?


Reader Adam asks:

Cultural appropriation of Roman deities once the Romans settled in Britain?

Boundaries between “religions” were pretty permeable back in the day. The Romans, in particular, liked to decide that local deities were the same as the ones they worshipped back home. This makes sense if you think of the Roman religion as already having tons of distinct little local cults, each with its own sacred sites, traditional festivals and so on. So when they arrived in Britain, the Romans blended their religion with the religion of the locals easily enough.

Consider if you will Sulis Minerva.


The Roman name for Bath is Aquae Sulis, and Sulis seems to have been the local deity of the springs. When the Romans turned up, they identified Sulis with Minerva, and everything went great from there.

But not every local deity prospered in the same way as Sulis Minerva. Many of them are known from a very small number of inscriptions or artefacts. Here is one from Nettleton:


(“To the god Apollo Cunomaglus, Corotica son of Iutus, willingly and deservedly fulfills his vow.”)

This is the only source we have, as far as I know, for Cunomaglus (“hound lord”). Some have suggested that he was some kind of hunting deity, which is not crazily inconsistent with Apollo, but we’re really just speculating.

So there are lots of combinations of British and Roman deities, and this is pretty standard practice for the Romans. It’s only when the Romans encounter a culture that is dead set against assimilating (Judaism, for instance) that things start to go a bit awkward.

Paul asks once again:

Powers behind the throne — from evil viziers to royal stewards.


Powers behind the throne are a weird facet of certain monarchies. I teach a fair amount of Tudor history, and it’s something you see a lot in the reign of Henry VIII, with people squabbling over access to the king and targeting the various “powers behind the throne” like Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. And it’s very odd, because it’s … it’s neither the case that the monarch is a helpless puppet nor that the favourite/minister is merely a royal servant. Once Cromwell gets taken out, he’s not replaced by someone else so much as he’s just replaced with nobody, and government gets very confusing.


In another way, the “evil vizier” is a very convenient fiction in a monarchy. If you’re opposed to the crown’s policies, you can blame them on “evil counsellors” and not have to confront the fact that the king is a dickhead. And if you’re the king and people are very unhappy with you, you can blame it on being misled by your ministers, throw them off the proverbial balcony and escape with your skin. In my mind, I associate this with the Byzantine Empire?

I have more questions to answer, but I will save them for another day!


Reader Questions: L-l-l-lightning round!