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Usually when I read books in ancient-like settings (settings that are either in real ancient civilizations on Earth, or fantasy settings similar to those), there are relatable characters who employ modern humanitarian ethics such as caring about the welfare of criminals or war prisoners from a different state, or wanting equal treatment for people of different sexes and ethnicities.

However, when I read historical accounts of just about any civilization prior to the 18th century, I get the impression that ethics like these were virtually nonexistent. People had circles of empathy, but the idea of, say, caring about people in different states, especially war prisoners, wasn't even really considered. Even for people in their own states, most people didn't balk at the idea of impaling someone in a public square for trivial crimes like stealing or speaking out against their monarch. Slavery was practiced in just about every civilization that had the means to do so, prior to the 19th century. Sexual assault of the worst kind was seldom considered an offense against the woman, but at worst, it was considered an offense against the man who "owns" the woman (the husband, or father if the woman is unmarried). There are plenty more examples of values that would make our modern stomachs turn, but were considered perfectly acceptable, and even commendable.

I'm not a historian. The bulk of my understanding of ethics in ancient civilizations comes from reading small articles and popular books (The Better Angels of our Nature is what gave me the most recent impression of historical ethics). So maybe I'm wrong about this. But I generally get the impression that, in ancient-like settings in fiction, characters (usually protagonists) are given ethics that are far too modern to reflect even the best people in actual ancient civilizations.

Suppose I want to write fiction in an ancient-like setting. While I'm not going for totally unambiguous heroes and villains, I do want to have characters for whom the reader will have varying levels of sympathy. I want the readers to be able to follow some characters and hope they succeed. However, I also want people's ethics to generally reflect real historical civilizations that were as close as possible to the fictional setting in which I'm writing. So I want even the most sympathetic characters to be perfectly fine with certain contemporary values that we would generally consider abhorrent. For example, if the setting was similar to the Roman Empire, main characters should be okay with crucifying people in public squares for stealing, owning slaves and pitting them in deadly combat for entertainment, slaughtering regular citizens in a foreign town during a war/raid and letting your soldiers enjoy their "spoils", etc. But the "good" characters would still generally care about their fellow (free, usually male and property-owning) Roman citizens, have codes of conduct for things like honoring a deal or contract, have integrity and stay true to their word, express humility when warranted, love and make sacrifices for their family, etc.

I'm skeptical that even I could possibly sympathize with any character in an ancient-like setting with ethics that realistically portray that setting. Would the readers respect varying levels of moral values that would normally differentiate people between "good" and "bad" in those settings, if, by our modern standards, basically everyone is a monster? Is it possible to do this without alienating most of my readers? Or am I forced to suspend some disbelief and impose unrealistically modern ethics to people in ancient-like settings just to make the story compelling enough to follow?

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    Hi Bridgeburners -- I made some minor edits to your question to make it sound less like it's soliciting opinions, and also to clarify and highlight your main queries. Please feel free to revert if these don't respect your intentions. – Chris Sunami Dec 11 '18 at 21:02
  • Related: writing.stackexchange.com/q/35582/14704 – Galastel Dec 11 '18 at 22:47
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    I think your premise is wrong. Most of the historical material you read is about the elite ruling class, who are just as ruthless and immoral today as they've always been. What's different about modern times is that we have surviving and well-circulated accounts from people who have more in common with the vast majority of the population. – R.. Dec 12 '18 at 0:58
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    This is just a small piece of the question's scope but, one of the biggest problems for me is not that there may be different ethical and moral standards in different places and times (of course they are, though it's not really as you describe) but that writers take the cheap way out and ignore groups that would be marginalized in that society. For example, it's common for writers to write only about men because "women weren't considered important then." Or to ignore anyone who isn't white because "only white people had power then." Don't do that! – Cyn Dec 12 '18 at 1:10
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    In the show Ancient Discoveries one commentator said something to the effect that we only think we are more intelligent than the ancients because we live in an era of technology and they didn’t. We are the same genetic stock, no more intelligent than they were. The point of the series was that most modern inventions were rediscoveries of something long thought lost. Why didn’t they use cranes to build cathedrals? Evidence suggests that they did. – Rasdashan Dec 12 '18 at 13:23
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There is no problem at all with writing morally ambiguous characters, and it's surprisingly easy for readers to sympathise with them. Let us look at some examples:

First, a modern example: A Song of Ice and Fire by G.R.R. Martin. There was a character in the first book of the series, who had all those honourable values, in particular he was averse to lying, as well as to killing children even when they might threaten the throne's stability. As a result of those lovely values, the character got killed, and the kingdom got dragged into a protracted (unresolved as of 5th book) civil war. Since then, characters who actually manage to make things better tend to be more Machiavellian.

Second, let us look at works written in earlier periods - works that reflect the kind of different morality you talk about. Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers: d'Artagnan was a traitor, Athos attempted murder, the plot with the diamond studs was treason. Not to mention the whole duelling things, such a glorified aspect of their culture - how would you look at it now, if two guys fought and one guy killed the other over a perceived offence ("I didn't like they way he looked at me")?
Or, let us go further back, to, for example the Cantar de Mio Cid a Spanish epic poem about the glorified hero El Cid. El Cid gets unjustly exiled. First order of business - let's rob some Jews.
Or, going even further back, we don't seem to have trouble sympathising with Achilles, do we? Even though the Iliad starts from an argument over possession of a concubine?


Now that we've established that the thing can be done, let us look at how it can be done.

First, and this is quite important, ancient morality is not entirely Blue and Orange Morality (tv tropes link), completely incomprehensible to us. Courage, honour, friendship, protecting someone - those are things we can sympathise with. The difference lies in which one takes precedence, how values relate to each other. Going back to the Three Musketeers example, the queen's distress in regards to the diamond studs is considered more important than the fact that the queen's illicit affair is dragging the kingdom into a war, and could potentially create a succession crisis (if there's any reason to suspect an heir's legitimacy).

Second, values don't exist in a vacuum. Values exist because there's a system in which they make sense, or at least made sense in the past (values change slowly). Let's take duels for example: if you've got to sign an agreement, only there's no legal system to enforce that agreement, you need to have much more trust that the person you're signing the agreement with will not break it, right? In essence, that's what honour means - can I trust you. If honour is so valuable, of course you are going to protect it.

Third, you are quite right - there were circles of empathy, (there still are, only we don't like admitting it nowadays,) and people could be quite horrid to those outside those circles. But here's something: unnecessary cruelty has always been frowned upon. Meaning, you don't beat your slave if he's done nothing wrong. And if you're not cruel to your slaves, you actually provide them with food, shelter, clothing, then that's the way things are in your society, you're not going to be judged for that. Similarly, if punishment is deserved, for example if you have a traitor in your midst, readers would usually accept the particular punishment as part of the setting, no matter how cruel it would be considered nowadays. Readers are not stupid, they understand things used to be different.


So, to sum up, no, you certainly don't need to shove modern morality where it doesn't belong. To make a character sympathetic even though their morals don't quite match ours, show also the values we can and will sympathise with. Show the system - that is, show us what is the norm for the setting you're writing about. Show the character as being a decent enough person within their society. (Not extraordinarily good - that stinks of Mary Sue. Just decent enough.)

The one thing you'd want to avoid is sadism. If your character enjoys inflicting suffering on others, that's crossing a line. Has always been. Do that, and you will lose the readers' sympathy.

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    One trick is to have a friend or somebody else in the society remark on the goodness of the MC; e.g. "You're slaves eat better than I do!" ... "Ay, and they work harder, too!" -- Another is to make your MC a member of the underclass, that accepts their position in society; e.g. a woman trying to get something done. Readers can sympathize, the vast majority of us work for people above us without resenting their higher status (if they are not sadists), that is just the way things are. And a lower status is a great story obstacle, we love an unlikely hero prevailing against odds. – Amadeus Dec 11 '18 at 22:56
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    One interesting thing I saw recently (in fiction, don't worry) was modern-style ethics born out of pure pragmatism. For example, they paid their slaves a living wage and let them "buy" their freedom for a pittance, treated them like people, fed them well, didn't overwork them, (subtly pointed out how much worse the other people's slaves had it) and the slaves actually felt loyal towards their master and were more productive. It was... strange, and uncomfortable, but a unique experience. – Nic Hartley Dec 12 '18 at 0:21
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    @NicHartley More uncomfortable when you realize every slave owner treats their slaves pretty badly anyway and the promises of freedom and slandering of other slave owners are just lies to make them work harder. Too obviously useful to not have been real at some point. – JollyJoker Dec 12 '18 at 9:46
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    So, no, you certainly don't need to shove modern morality where it doesn't belong. Heck, you don't even really need modern morality in a main character in a modern setting. The book I'm listening to right now has a decidedly "chaotic evil" character as an MC. He slaughtered an entire village and raised them as zombies to increase his empire. But he did it because his actions earlier ruined their livelihoods, but if he raised them as undead, they'd never age, never need to eat, and never need to sleep. He'd do anything to protect his growing undead nation. Why not join willingly? – Draco18s Dec 12 '18 at 14:51
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I think it's mostly a modern delusion that ethics today are dramatically different than they were in the past.

Yes, ancient Persia routinely tortured political prisoners. So do modern China and North Korea and many Arab countries.

Modern Americans pride themselves on equal rights for women. Yet the US has never had a female president, while many ancient countries had a queen.

Ancient Rome was brutal to prisoners of war and conquered people. And many ancient Romans agonized over this. A major message of the Iliad, the classic Greek book about the Trojan War, is that the Greeks questioned their own behavior in that war.

I saw some statistics from a Christian organization a few years back claiming that more people were killed for being Christians in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined. The Holocaust killed more people for being Jews than in any other comparable period of time in the past. I don't think it was more than all past history combined, but it was murder on a massive scale.

The largest mass killings in history include the massacre of real and imagined political opponents by Stalin and Mao, and the massacre of unborn babies in America in the 20th century.

Etc.

And of course, when you judge the moral standards of a society, how do you decide whether Society A or Society B has the better moral standards? To say, "Our society has better moral standards than this other society, which we determined by evaluating each against the standards of our society" ... well, duh. On this controversial question, A says one thing and B says another, and we conclude that A is right because we asked A and they said that they were right.

For example, many 21st century Americans say that modern America is superior to America of 100 years ago because we have greater tolerance of homosexuality. Ancient Greeks would agree. But 20th century Americans would say that they are superior because they fight against this practice that they believe to be immoral and self-destructive. One could say the same thing about other issues where the consensus has changed.

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    While modern countries behave in similar ways to a lot of ancient civilizations, there are still countries today that have moral standards that were never carried by any civilization prior to the 18th century (e.g. abolition of slavery). While the 20th century hemoclysms had the highest absolute death tolls, that's only because of population size. When considering death tolls as a proportion of global population, the death toll of WW2 was smaller than events like the Mongol conquest or An Lushan revolt. The notion that the 20th century was the deadliest is highly debatable. – Bridgeburners Dec 11 '18 at 21:41
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    Hmm, how can your argument NOT involve one civilization being "more right" than another. Unless we start with the premise that, for example, slavery is bad, you cannot conclude that countries where there is no slavery are better than ones where there is slavery. – Jay Dec 11 '18 at 22:23
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    the massacre of unborn babies in America in the 20th century Which is ironically a case of judging modern values by the standards of outdated religious dogma, because modern medicine is clear in fact that "foetus" does not equal "baby", and modern societal values have followed that evidence. – Graham Dec 12 '18 at 13:03
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    @Graham Actually it seem like ancient peoples largely did not think of an unborn baby as a person either. For example the old Jewish laws that are laid out in the Bible explicitly state that an unborn baby is legally equivalent to one of its mother's limbs. – EldritchWarlord Dec 12 '18 at 16:13
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    I'm not sure what you mean by your comment "modern medicine is clear that foetus does not equal baby". Modern medicine has shown that an unborn child is much more like a born person than was imagined in the past, that the unborn has arms and legs and lungs and kidneys from very early in development, that brain waves and heartbeat begin often before the mother even knows she's pregnant, and that the unborn has identifiably human DNA from conception. But that's often on a side trail. The question here isn't what specific moral positions are right or wrong, but how we deal with disagreements. – Jay Dec 12 '18 at 19:37
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The first thing to remember is that realism is just a style. If historical accuracy is hurting your story, let it go. Even historical fiction isn't "history." In particular, it can be enough to hint at alien value systems without wallowing in them --enough to give the flavor of the times, but not enough to make the whole thing distasteful. To be blunt, you don't want it to seem like you, the author, share or celebrate the values of your characters.

Next, context is everything. If your character is at least noticeably better than everyone around them, that can make a difference. Claudius, in I Claudius, isn't the best or nicest person, but he seems positively heroic in comparison with the murderous, incestuous, avaricious brood of vipers around him. Nor is this entirely ahistorical. Even slaveholding societies have their abolitionists, and patriarchies have their equal rights activists. There are always people who question the values and assumptions of their own times.

Finally, moral progress isn't entirely linear. Ancient Egypt, for example, was notably more progressive than a lot of more recent societies around issues of race and gender. And there are other values we've lost on the way to developing new ones. If you balance the worse-than values with some better-than ones, that might help as well.

  • Can you think of examples of what you consider to be commendable values that have been lost in modern societies, that were held in ancient societies? – Bridgeburners Dec 11 '18 at 21:44
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    Well, even within my lifetime, a lot of interpersonal values of care, concern and interdependence have been eroded by modern technology. At a more macro level, Ancient Greece, Rome and China all believed in a number of noble virtues and values that we've let fall by the wayside. And most traditional societies were conservationist, in contrast to the more recent societies' unsustainable consumerism. – Chris Sunami Dec 11 '18 at 22:01
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    @Bridgeburners Homosexuality was not just "tolerated" but actively sought and celebrated in many ancient cultures; see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_homosexuality for details on numerous cultures. It is primarily the rise of Abrahamic religions responsible for the bigotry, disgust and hate crimes against homosexuals. – Amadeus Dec 11 '18 at 22:03
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    @Bridgeburners, a big one would be the change in hospitality: historically, taking proper care of one's guests was a huge deal, with the host expected to defend them to the death if needed. – Mark Dec 11 '18 at 23:14
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Society today is simply much more adept at covering up our moral deficits.

Slavery is not just defined by the word. Tens of millions of people today are trapped as indentured labourers and sex workers. Human trafficking is still a thing. Even forced marriages in many parts of the world count as a form of slavery.

As for public executions, beatings, and the likes, I'll just say that it's still a problem today. Mostly because people don't turn up to watch a person die. They watch or take part to see justice done for themselves or to sate deep-seated fears stoked by fear mongers.

There are more parallels to draw on from today -- vigilante mobs, extremists, honour killings -- but that would be irrelevant here.

So in answer to your question, humans at their core haven't changed over the years. It's the system and what's considered acceptable that has changed. As long as you make sure that the story and its characters are well-written, the readers can and will take anything and everything you throw at them.

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    I beg to differ. You're making an empirical claim here, and you're empirically wrong. Homicide rates worldwide are at the lowest they have ever been, by orders of magnitude. This includes all countries, even the most violent ones. There is still slavery being practiced, but it's all clandestine and underground. The majority of societies reject it. That is a massive difference. You can even see opinion polls of human rights change dramatically over the last few decades. Just because "bad things are still happening" doesn't, in any way, mean humans are as bad as they have always been. – Bridgeburners Dec 12 '18 at 13:10
  • @Bridgeburners I tend to agree with you both - things are better today than they have ever been, but is this a result of a change in human nature or is it a result of environment and culture? Homicide rates are lower than they have ever been, true, but the capacity for people to kill each other has not gone away - conversely, selfless acts of charity may be more common today, but examples of charity can be found throughout history despite being suppressed by cultures and attitudes of the time. So I suspect TheBlackHole may be correct when he says that "humans at their core haven't changed". – Jimmery Dec 12 '18 at 13:51
  • @Bridgeburners The point made by Jimmery is what I was trying to convey. I don't dispute that society is much better today, but as we can see in pockets around the globe, even in civilized countries, the capacity for violence and human oppression is as strong as always. Of course, that doesn't mean that humans are bad. Merely that we have to work harder to watch ourselves and not trust in the "innate" goodness of people. Being good, moral, and kind is hard work and it's important we remember that. – TheBlackHole Dec 12 '18 at 14:14
  • @Jimmery You're right, fundamental human nature probably didn't change much at the genetic level. (This isn't known for sure; the mechanism of evolutionary change at a dramatic rate in the face of dramatic environmental pressures is possible, but there's simply no strong evidence that our lower inclination for violence has any genetic component.) However, it's still true that humans, on average, have dramatically different moral values today than in the past, regardless of the mechanism that made this happen. This point does not require genetics. – Bridgeburners Dec 12 '18 at 14:53
  • @Bridgeburners I guess it depends on what we define as "morals" - the teachings of most major religions, including moral codes such as "don't kill each other" and "don't steal" are just as relevant today as they were back in their day. I was having a discussion recently, where it was posited that morality originates from the empathy that is inherent in human beings. If that is true, I would argue that the majority of the strongest morals have not changed at all throughout time. – Jimmery Dec 12 '18 at 15:07
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What makes a reader care about a character is empathy, and empathy is generally built on commonalities your readers might see between themselves and the characters.

Coarse, "clumsy" empathy may be "she's a woman and I'm a woman", or "he's [insert ethnic group] and I'm [repeat ethnic group]".

Broader relatability might be based on things common across time, and universal to the human condition.  Romance is a major theme in literature because everyone can relate to a longing for companionship and affection. In addition to romantic themes, many of the same hopes and fears plague most people.  Will you make a difference in the world?  Will people remember you?  Can you find enough food to eat, and make a living in the future? Will the big forces of change or war or political divisions leave your home and family intact, and let you get on withyour life?  Will you be forced to compromise what you believe in order to protect the things and people you care about?

Most people, now and in the past, mostly want to be able to live their lives, and we should all be able to relate to that, even if we disagree with those others in regards to fundamental moral principles.  And truly great writers can show how much sympathy can be had even for people from very foreign cultures or times.

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It works well when done well. I have a copy of The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff and fondly recall it.

It is set in Britain during the Roman occupation. The protagonist is a slave descended of one of the Northern Tribes and his life is very difficult. He is the doppelgänger for a blinded prince, who due to his acquired disability is unacceptable to his people.

The slave learns the ways of these people, as does the reader. The protagonist learns that leaders always serve their people and, in time of crisis, must give their lives gladly that their people might prosper. The false king becomes a true king and dies for a people he hadn’t really known before.

The ethics of those characters fit the culture they are in. I suspect that Sutcliff spent more time researching the chosen period than she did writing the novel.

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