Photograph by AKG/Album
Photograph by AKG/Album
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Who's the mom behind a 'great' person?

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

Even before Alexander was great, he had a mother who pushed him—and who didn't sweetly abide by societal norms.

While many old-school historians have focused on the world-conquering Greek emperor, modern researchers are studying Olympias (pictured), the formidable, world-changing matriarch who was the wife of Philip II, king of Macedonia, and mother of Alexander the Great. A student of Aristotle, Alexander is celebrated for his vast military might. He also benefited from the support and counsel of his mother as he navigated his way to the throne at age 20 after the murder of his father.

The first woman to actively participate in the politics of the Greek peninsula, Olympias was murderous and vengeful, like the men in her life. But instead of being celebrated as a courageous warrior who still participated in battles after Alexander died at age 32, Olympias has been criticized for not being quiet and passive.

The long-neglected Olympias may illustrate a millennia-old truism: Sometimes a “great” mom is behind a “great” person.

Today in a minute

Lock him up: Eighty-five years ago, an aviation industry lawyer dodged Senate investigators and dared them to jail him. William MacCracken Jr. was locked up, but only after a challenge that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Washington Post reports.

We asked, you responded: Readers reacted several ways to our story on Saturday’s Pearl Harbor anniversary, and we loved this memory from six decades ago from then-sailor Leon Shiver. As his Navy launch approached the Hawaiian waters where the USS Arizona sank in the Japanese attack, Shiver wrote, “We stopped the engine, coasted by, at attention, saluting as we coasted by, starting the engine after passing by.”

Where did the world begin? For the Arhuaco people, the answer is a depression at nearly 12,000 feet near Colombia’s Caribbean coast that they call the Mother. Living amid mountaintops that rise to 19,000 feet, the Arhuaco see the ice is melting, imperiling the flowing waters that have nurtured the people and their enviable ecosystem for centuries. The Arhuaco want to tell the world of the danger, National Geographic reports.

Cranberries, explained: Cancer fears, later proved premature, kept the red fruit off America’s Thanksgiving plates in 1959. Since then, production has kept growing, with a fifth of the berries and related products sold in November. The United States is the world’s leader in cranberries, with half of them harvested in Wisconsin and another third in Massachusetts.

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Date night: For more than 9,000 years, people have been eating dates, more than 3,000 varieties. Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia (the site of this tree) are the world’s biggest producers. Photographer Tasneem Alsultan notes that in the Quran, a heavenly messenger said the nutrient-rich fruit was a gift to Maryam, the mother of Jesus, to ease her labor pains.

Related: The sticky history of a sweet fruit

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Overheard at Nat Geo

Social media, in 79 A.D.: Long before Yelp, Pompeii residents would indulge in online reviews, by scratching messages on the plaster walls of the doomed Roman city. Some of these messages have been preserved by the ash that covered the city after nearby Mount Vesuvius’s fateful eruption. Only now are some being discovered, says Nat Geo's Peter Gwin, host of our podcast, Overheard. “You've got, you know, bad wine reviews. You've got a guy saying that this is a good latrine,” Gwin says. The graffiti helps us “envision the ancient city full of life and full of people who are sharing their thoughts and often communicating with each other,” says Rebecca Benefiel, a Latin literature professor at Washington & Lee. To hear other behind-the-scenes stories from Nat Geo, subscribe to the podcast here.

The big takeaway

The power of memory over forgetting: Nearly 70 years ago, Milan Kundera’s prospects were curtailed when he was expelled from Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party. His books were banned, his citizenship revoked after he fled to France in the 1970s. But he wrote world-famous novels—The Joke, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being—about humanity and love struggling to survive authoritarians who seek to control and circumscribe. Now, after 40 years, the Czech government is apologetic— and has given the 90-year-old writer back his citizenship. It is a fitting coda for the perennial Nobel candidate, who once wrote: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

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One last glimpse

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Before Kanye, a king: The premiere last month of Kanye West’s gospel-filled opera, Nebuchadnezzar, prompted me to learn more about the Babylonian king who consolidated an empire more than 2,600 years ago. While West’s opera got mixed reviews, Nebuchadrezzar (our style on his spelling) brought Babylon to new heights (pictured above: a snarling lion, now in the Louvre, that once lined Babylon’s main avenue). The king’s exploits have endured, partly because of his capture of Judah and exile of Jerusalem’s Hebrews to Babylon, where they immortalized him in sacred texts. The Jewish faith flowered in the greatest city of the ancient world, and many Jews chose to stay when the exile ended.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and its photos have been selected by Eslah Attar. Have an idea, a link, or a tip on Babylonian royalty? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading.