Goths

A laff from Facebook:

I’ve always found the evolution of the word “Gothic” to be most interesting. It originally meant what the second paragraph in the graphic refers to: an eastern Germanic language spoken by a large group of people who invaded the Western Roman Empire in the fourth century, eventually carving out kingdoms for themselves in Spain and Italy (like the names of most languages, it came to describe the people who spoke it, thus the Gothic people or simply “Goths”). Renaissance humanists resurrected the name to describe the style of ecclesiastical architecture prevalent in the thirteenth century, characterized by pointed arches, flying buttresses, and rose windows. To them, of course, such architecture was just awful, given that the Romans would never have built buildings that looked like that, most importantly because such buildings lacked all sense of proportion. Even though they were quite sophisticated in their way, and quite beyond the capabilities of the actual Goths to build, the humanists denigrated them as “gothic,” a name that has stuck.

The name got a third life in the eighteenth century when it was used as an adjective to describe literature that “combines fiction and horror, death, and at times romance.” Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Ortranto (1764), originated the genre, which perhaps derived its name from Walpole’s revival of gothic architecture at Strawberry Hill, a house he had built for himself. From this Romantic, melancholic association, “gothic” then came to designate the subculture it’s identified with today, which:

began in England during the early 1980s, where it developed from the audience of gothic rock, an offshoot of the post-punk genre. The name, goth subculture, derived directly from the music genre. Seminal post-punk and gothic rock artists that helped develop and shape the subculture include Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Joy Division, and Bauhaus. The goth subculture has survived much longer than others of the same era, and has continued to diversify and spread throughout the world…

Gothic fashion is marked by conspicuously dark, antiquated and homogeneous features. It is stereotyped as eerie, mysterious, complex and exotic. A dark, sometimes morbid fashion and style of dress, typical gothic fashion includes a pale complexion with colored black hair and black period-styled clothing. Both male and female goths can wear dark eyeliner and dark fingernail polish, most especially black. Styles are often borrowed from punk fashion and − more currently − from the Victorian and Elizabethan periods. It also frequently expresses pagan, occult or other religious imagery. Gothic fashion and styling may also feature silver jewelry and piercings.

Goths!

Machiavelli

To call someone “Machiavellian” is generally not a compliment, but Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) did not recommend manipulation, two-facedness, and backstabbing on principle. He just said that the prince not shy away from them if he could gain some advantage with them. One hates to hear such advice, of course, but we live in a fallen world, and some evils are lesser than others. The primary job of any prince is to maintain his status, and thus the integrity of his state. If he fails there – if he allows foreigners to invade, or a revolution to occur, or a civil war to break out, a lot more people are going to suffer. So if he needs, for instance, to take out a potential troublemaker, he should go ahead and do that, without worrying too much about it.

Successful rulers, of course, have always acted on such principles. It’s just that Machiavelli was the first to have the temerity actually to write them down, and recommend them as appropriate behavior. Prior to this point, the speculum principis was a genre of sorts, purveying the sort of platitudes that one might read in Life’s Little Instruction Book or All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. In the Middle Ages, advice to the ruler was expected to be edifying and uplifting, full of Christian piety and the Golden Rule. So one can see how The Prince might have been really shocking when it first appeared. I would say that Machiavelli represents the other side of Alberti’s dictum that “man is the measure of all things”: man is fallen, and we need to deal with him as he actually is, not as we wish him to be. By all means cultivate your talents, and engage in personal improvement, but don’t act as though everyone else is doing the same thing.

The Onion once published an amusing news item:

Area Applebee’s A Hotbed Of Machiavellian Political Maneuvering

HARTFORD, CT–The site of a complex, ever-shifting web of alliances among servers, line cooks, hostesses, dishwashers, and managers, the Sheridan Avenue Applebee’s is a hotbed of Machiavellian political maneuvering, sources reported Monday.

“A manager here should employ the strength of a lion and the cunning of a fox,” night manager Roy Mergens said. “For example, I have curried the favor of the waitstaff by giving them 15-cent raises, simply by eliminating Jorge, the second dishwasher. This will not make me any friends in the kitchen, but it is far more important to keep the front-of-the-house staff happy.”

Added Mergens: “A successful manager is above morality, for the success of the Applebee’s franchise is the supreme objective.”

The humor here comes from juxtaposing Machiavelli’s grand political principles with the mundane operations of a suburban casual dining restaurant, but I’ve noticed that Machiavelli’s advice really is applicable to other situations than state politics. Indeed, anyone in a position of authority will find some useful advice in The Prince. I would not recommend killing anyone (however discreetly), but what about the pearls of wisdom listed below? I always like to illustrate them with “real world” examples when teaching.

It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

We all know people like this, people who never miss an opportunity to burnish their image in the eyes of others, but whose actions aren’t always in accord with said image. This is especially true of ostentatious Christians, who believe that they have God on their side, so it doesn’t really matter how they treat other people. For instance, who could have been more saintly than Mother Theresa of Calcutta? Yet Christopher Hitchens pointed out that of the millions of dollars her operation attracted, some from pretty odious sources, much of it simply disappeared, or was not directed to its ostensible purpose. It remains in bad taste to bring this up. Hitchens quotes Mark Twain: “Give a man a reputation as an early riser, and that man can sleep till noon.” So you’ll definitely want to control your image!

A prince should also show his esteem for talent, actively encouraging able subjects… [however, since] a prince cannot practise the virtue of generosity in such a way that he is noted for it, except to his cost, he should if he is prudent not mind being called a miser.

I like to illustrate this one with the behavior of a college president I once knew. He would love to come and praise his faculty to the skies, saying how wonderful they were, how they were essential to the mission of the university, etc. And his faculty would wonder, if that’s the case, then why haven’t we gotten a raise for the past five years? Why doesn’t he put his money where his mouth is? But as much as I hate to say it, his actions may have been right, as far as the health of the institution was concerned. To properly reward the faculty for doing their jobs, say by giving an extra-normal, inflation-beating raise one year, would make them grateful… for about two weeks, after which it would become the new normal, and they would be back to complaining about everything else. (There’s an expression for this phenomenon: homeostasis of complaint.) The faculty would then expect another such raise the following year, and if the president were to get into the habit of granting it, he would still have 1. an indifferent faculty (“in general, men are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous”) and 2. angry students, as he would be forced to raise tuition in order to cover this new expense. So no one would win. Machiavelli specifically warned against excessive compensation for precisely this reason – you’ll have to start robbing people in order to reward others, which leads to an unstable and politically unhealthy situation.

Everyone realizes how praiseworthy it is for a prince to honour his word and to be straightforward rather than crafty in his dealings; nonetheless contemporary experience shows that princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick people with their cunning, and who, in the end, have overcome those abiding by honest principles.

To which the only possible reply is: yes. Anyone in the rat race will instantly recognize this as great advice.

Another noteworthy consideration: that princes should delegate to others the enactment of unpopular measures and keep in their own hands the distribution of favours.

This was illustrated every year by the same college president mentioned above. Faculty would go to the State of the College address on the first morning of the academic year, and hear how wonderful everything was. In the afternoon, they would go to the Faculty Senate meeting, and hear from the VPAA about all the problems. I’m absolutely sure this was by design.

Of course, you can’t indulge in this sort of thing too much. It is better to be feared than loved, but you don’t want to be hated. Above all things, you need wisdom, prudence, and good judgment. Read The Prince for more, and best of luck in your career!

Book Review

From The American Interest:

Addicted to Addiction

A new book about early modern England reveals an eternal truth: We are all addicted to something, and maybe that’s not a bad thing, so long as we choose well.

The first addicts to stumble across the threshold of the English language, refugees from Latin, were not only drunks or gamblers. Their ranks included devout Christians and scholars. Today we argue about whether addiction is a sin or a sickness, but when the term first entered our language it could name a virtue and an accomplishment: In the 16th century “addiction” covered many forms of “service, debt, and dedication,” including the pious Christian’s zeal to obey God’s every command. Rebecca Lemon’s new study, Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England, does not merely trace an etymological development. She takes the earliest meanings of “addiction” not as a cute quirk of linguistic history, but as a challenge to our contemporary shared understandings of substance abuse, political sovereignty, religious faith, and love.

Lemon looks at a range of sources, from translations of John Calvin’s sermons to pamphlets promoting anti-drunkenness laws, but her primary focus is on plays and poetry. The first chapter looks at Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus; then we get Twelfth Night, the Henry IV and Henry V plays, and Othello; and lastly, literary portrayals of the custom of “health-drinking.” Throughout, Lemon uses other sources to explore the artistic works’ portrayals of addiction: For Faustus we get religious texts on God’s grace as the power determining whether someone is addicted to God or to vice; for Othello, with its crimes of passion, shifting legal rulings on the culpability of people who commit crimes while drunk.

Lemon begins in the 1530s, when “addiction” begins to appear in English to designate both distorted desire for wine or riches and properly exclusive, single-minded desire for Christ. In 1534 George Joye asks God to “make faste thye promises to thy servant which is addicte unto thy worshyppe.” For these Protestant writers, Catholics were “addict to their supersticyons,” whereas they should be “addict unto none but to christ,” “addicted to praiers,” to “the meaneynge of the scripture.” Lemon’s Protestant sources share a suspicion of anything too material, too embodied—fasting, kneeling—as if Catholic sacraments were the original substance abuse. Lemon quotes a translation of the Letter of St. Paul to Titus which opens, “I Paule my selfe the addict servant & obeyer, not of Moses lawe as I was once, but of God the father, and ambassador of his sonne Jesus Christ.” That Paul should be an addict is obvious to his English readers; the important question is to whom he ought addict himself.

More at the link.

Jews in Antiquity

I find it interesting that in all of the Histories of Herodotus, there is no overt mention of Jews or Judaism. Herodotus describes the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 BC), an event of great significance in Jewish history, but there is no notice that the Jews were ever in captivity there, or that Cyrus allowed them to return to Jerusalem. In all of Herodotus’s anthropological investigation of the various peoples of the world in the fifth century BC, there is no notice of the Jews at all (unless they are the “Palestinian Syrians” who supplied some ships for Xerxes’s invasion of Greece in 7:89). Come to think of it, there is no mention of the Jews in Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander (second century AD), even though Alexander (d. 323 BC) had besieged the Phoenician city of Tyre, and then headed down to Egypt to found Alexandria (and to receive word that he was divine at the oasis of Siwa).

This is strange considering how influential the Jews were later to become. Judaea was the trouble spot for the Romans. I suppose that the Jews had largely settled around Jerusalem (elevation: 750 m), while the road to Egypt passed along the coast – i.e. it was easy for people ignore the Jews in the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

Thoughts on Book 9 of the Histories of Herodotus

Sharp-eyed readers will note that I never got around to writing something about the final book of the Histories, which we read in an HON 301 course this past spring (the other posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). The end of the semester is always busy, you must understand. You’ll find some scribblings below, but I’d also like to say that I just finished off my summary of the work, which is now on its own page – see the link above. The Histories is very long, very detailed, and not always straightforward in its narrative, so last summer, in preparation for my CIC seminar at the Center for Hellenic Studies, I started summarizing each chapter as I read it, which forced me to pay attention to the contents, and which produced a document I could review if I needed to. Events got ahead of me, however, and so I couldn’t get it done until now. In Herodotean fashion, I dedicate the fruit of my labors to the service of humanity.

As for Book Nine, the main event, of course, is the battle of Plataea (479 BC), the last major episode in the Persian Wars. Following the Persian defeat at the naval battle of Salamis the previous year (detailed in Book Eight), the Persian King Xerxes hightails it back to Asia, leaving his general Mardonius in charge of the war. After wintering in Thessaly, Mardonius moves south into Attica to try to bribe the Athenians into becoming allies, but the Athenians have once again retreated to the island of Salamis for safety. In the meantime, the Spartans are building a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth to guard the Peloponnese; the Athenians are worried that the Spartans will abandon them, and suggest to the Spartans that they just might take up the Persian offer. Fortunately, the Greek alliance holds, and the Spartans, the Athenians, and other non-Medized Greeks march out to face the Persians and their allies in Boeotia, and the Battle of Plataea ensues. It is not pretty, but the Greeks are ultimately victorious, and that is the end of the Persian attempt to conquer Greece. In an edifying parallel development (which Herodotus claims happens on the same day as Plataea), the Greeks fight another battle across the Aegean Sea at Mycale, defeating the Persians there and freeing Ionia once again. 

Herodotus does not shy away from depicting how fractious the Greek alliance is. Athens and Sparta and perennially suspicious of each other, and the squabbling between the Athenians and Tegeans (at 26-27) about which of them would get the place of honor on the wing at Plataea is a marvel to behold. Herodotus gives overall credit to the Spartans for the victory, but he also illustrates that this battle is no Thermopylae – the Spartans voluntarily give up fighting directly against the Persians (the Athenians, they acknowledge, have more experience in this activity), and when they find that the cavalry attacks are too much for them, they are only too willing to retreat to “the Island,” a defensible hill between two streams (although one Spartan captain, Amompharetus, refuses to go, and a mighty quarrel ensues between him and the Spartan general Pausanias about this). Emboldened by this apparent Spartan cowardice, Xerxes orders an attack, and at this point the Spartans rise to the occasion: “In spirit and strength, the Persians were the equals of the Greeks, but they had no armor, and they were unskilled besides and no match for their enemies in cunning. They made their charges singly or in tens… and so they were destroyed” (62).

But I think that the Greek fractiousness serves a literary purpose. Herodotus is not necessarily trying to show how a plucky underdog or a lovable band of misfits can ultimately be victorious over a superior foe, although I’m sure there is some of that. Rather, he is contrasting the Greek penchant for debate with the Persian custom of obedience. When the Athenians and Tegeans argue about placement on the wing, they each present numerous reasons why they themselves should get it. The Athenians are more convincing, and the rest of the Greeks shout their approval of the Athenian position. This is how the Greeks conduct themselves – they debate their issues in public. Compare this to the Persian “debate” prior to their attack at Plataea – in a war council, Artabazus suggests that the Persians retreat to Thebes, and from there attempt to bribe the various Greeks into Medizing. Mardonius, however, fearful that the longer they wait, the stronger their opponents will get, is in favor of attacking right away, contrary to the results of the sacrifices by the prophet Hegistratus. “Against this argument of his, no one took a stand, and so his plan won out. For he and not Artabazus had the supreme power of command from Xerxes.” When Mardonius asks his commanders if any of them knows of any oracles about Persian defeat in Greece, the commanders “kept silent, some because they did not know the prophecies, some because, though they knew them, they did not think that opening their mouths was a safe thing to do” (42). Thus does their leader pull rank, and they are all obliged to follow him to destruction.

Of course, public debate is not always the best way to determine policy, especially in times of war. But the overall message, I think, is the same one that the US tried promulgating during World War II and the Cold War: totalitarian societies always look terrifying from the outside, projecting as they do this image of unity and efficiency. But it’s all an illusion, and based on fear of being sent to a concentration camp or Gulag. The US was a “nation of joiners,” in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. – that is, American “civil society” was made up of a lot of voluntary groups that people joined because they wanted to, or because there was some tangible benefit to them (e.g. professional organizations, churches, service clubs, choirs, bowling leagues, etc.). It might look like a mess from the outside, that all of society is not moving forward in lock step to some goal, but it gives people a stake in their own country, and when moved to, they will all get together and defeat their enemies. And it is certainly edifying that many of the Medized Greeks abandon their loyalty to Persia the minute they think it is safe to do so.

The utility of public debate is not the only piece of pro-Hellenic propaganda in Book Nine. In numerous places, the Persians (and their allies like the Thebans) believe that all they need to do is to use their wealth to bribe the Greeks into taking their side (e.g. in 4, 41, 87, or 120). They don’t seem to realize that, to most Greeks, there are more important things than money. This lesson is underlined when, after the battle of Plataea, Pausanias orders Mardonius’s servants to prepare a meal in the Persian manner, and his own servants to prepare a meal in the Spartan manner. The contrast cannot be more stark – the Persian meal is a model of decadent luxury, while the Spartan meal is very simple indeed – prompting Pausanias to declare that the Persian king is foolish: given that he is used to such extravagance, what good can he possibly derive from conquering the poor Greeks? (The final chapter of the book [122] further emphasizes that “from soft countries come soft men. It is not possible that from the same land stems a growth of wondrous fruit and men who are good soldiers.”) Finally, there is the elaborate story (at 108-113) about how Xerxes falls in love with the (unnamed) wife of his brother Masistes, and so he contrives to marry his own son with Masistes’s daughter Artaynte, hoping that this tie will bring him closer to his sister-in-law. Instead, he falls for Artaynte, and conducts an affair with her, his own niece. This affair is discovered by Xerxes’s wife Amestris, who places the blame for it on Masistes’s wife; Amestris thus has Masistes’s wife mutilated. As a result of this outrage, Masistes leaves for Bactria in order to raise a revolt there, but Xerxes’s troops overtake him and kill him before he gets there. Now, Herodotus certainly deals with Greek misbehavior and malfeasance throughout The Histories, but to close out his work with such a story of incest and intrigue at the Persian court is surely a deliberate attempt to impress upon the reader who the bad guys are.

One final observation. In Book Nine, there are numerous instances of “prophets,” like Hegistratus, making sacrifices – but these sacrifices are not just to propitiate some god, but to determine his or her will. I suppose this is a form of haruscipy – the examination of the entrails of an animal to see what the future holds – perhaps a replacement for augury, the practice of discerning the will of the gods by the flight patterns of birds (as Calchas does in Book One of the Iliad). So if you don’t have time to consult the Oracle at Delphi (or that of some other well-known shrine like Dodona), you can have a personal seer providing answers to immediate questions. I must say that the Greek faith in such customs is something that has always puzzled me about them, or at least serves as the strongest counter-example to the notion that they are “rational.” Of course, the Oracle isn’t stupid, and often gives ambiguous answers so that whatever happens, it’s always right. But why no one ever saw through this (at least, Herodotus gives no evidence of any skepticism either on his own part or the part of any of his subjects) is a mystery to me. I suppose we have to wait until the fourth century and the further development of Greek philosophy under Plato, Aristotle, and others, before we encounter doubt about Fate.

Color in Homer

An interesting article in Aeon magazine:

The sea was never blue

The Greek colour experience was made of movement and shimmer. Can we ever glimpse what they saw when gazing out to sea?

Homer used two adjectives to describe aspects of the colour blue: kuaneos, to denote a dark shade of blue merging into black; and glaukos, to describe a sort of ‘blue-grey’, notably used in Athena’s epithet glaukopis, her ‘grey-gleaming eyes’. He describes the sky as big, starry, or of iron or bronze (because of its solid fixity). The tints of a rough sea range from ‘whitish’ (polios) and ‘blue-grey’ (glaukos) to deep blue and almost black (kuaneosmelas). The sea in its calm expanse is said to be ‘pansy-like’ (ioeides), ‘wine-like’ (oinops), or purple (porphureos). But whether sea or sky, it is never just ‘blue’. In fact, within the entirety of ancient Greek literature you cannot find a single pure blue sea or sky.

Yellow, too, seems strangely absent from the Greek lexicon. The simple word xanthos covers the most various shades of yellow, from the shining blond hair of the gods, to amber, to the reddish blaze of fire. Chloros, since it’s related to chloe (grass), suggests the colour green but can also itself convey a vivid yellow, like honey.

The ancient Greek experience of colour does not seem to match our own. In a well-known aphorism, Friedrich Nietzsche captures the strangeness of the Greek colour vocabulary:

“How differently the Greeks must have viewed their natural world, since their eyes were blind to blue and green, and they would see instead of the former a deeper brown, and yellow instead of the latter (and for instance they also would use the same word for the colour of dark hair, that of the corn-flower, and that of the southern sea; and again, they would employ exactly the same word for the colour of the greenest plants and of the human skin, of honey and of the yellow resins: so that their greatest painters reproduced the world they lived in only in black, white, red, and yellow).”

How is this possible? Did the Greeks really see the colours of the world differently from the way we do?

Read more at the link. I was curious to discover that William Ewart Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of the UK in the nineteenth century, also wrote a book entitled Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858), in which he advanced the novel theory that “the visual organ of the ancients was still in its infancy, hence their strong sensitivity to light rather than hue, and the related inability to clearly distinguish one hue from another.”

Speaking of “wine-like,” here is Ian Johnston’s commentary on that most Homeric of epithets:

All similes are inherently ironic. For while they insist upon the similarities between two apparently different things, they also implicitly call attention to those differences. The effect of a simile depends upon an appropriate balance between these two contrasting tendencies. If the differences are too extreme (“heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together,” as Dr Johnson says of the Metaphysical poets) the comparison is too strained to work. If, on the other hand, the comparison is too familiar and obvious, the simile has become inert and trite, what we call a cliché. A successful simile retains enough difference to be fresh and enough similarity to be apt and, in the process, pulls the reader in different directions.

Consider, for example, Homer’s most famous comparison, the “wine dark sea.”  At once the metaphor suggests the rich attractiveness of the ocean, the fascination with the hidden emotional powers of nature. For the sea, like wine, benefits a man, tempts him, intoxicates him, and can overpower and kill him. On the other hand, the sea in many ways is not like wine at all. Wine is produced by human skill and has become an essential part of civilized life in homes and temples. It is an important part of those occasions where human beings celebrate among themselves. The sea, by contrast, follows its own whims and cannot be made a permanent and predictable part of anyone’s peaceful social existence. Its eternally bitter vintage arises from and works by some mysterious, ambiguous power uncontrolled by human beings. The complex paradox in this apparently simple metaphor simultaneously insists upon the similarity and the difference.

By calling attention to nature in this way, Homer’s style creates and sustains throughout the poem a constant ironic tension.

Thoughts on Book Eight of the Histories of Herodotus

Book Eight centers on the battle of Salamis. If Thermopylae, the inspiring defeat, is the better-known battle, Salamis was an actual victory, won through superior Greek tactics, in a venue where Greeks feel particularly at home: the sea. The Homeric-style ship catalogues in 8.1 and 8.43 are a nice touch, and the divine interventions are also reminiscent of Homer, such as a storm destroying the Persian fleet in 8.12 (“done by a god, that the Persian armament might be made equal to that of the Greeks and not much greater”), or the miracles at Delphi (8.37), in which arms moved themselves, and lightning struck and chunks of cliff fell on the enemy. Themistocles himself in 8.109 attributes the victories to “gods and heroes” who desired that one man should not rule both Europe and Asia.

The Olympic games are characteristically Greek and used by Herodotus to burnish the Greeks’ reputation. First, there is the passage in 8.26 when the deserters from Arcadia explain to the Persians that the Greeks compete in the games for an olive crown, to which Tigranes exclaims, “What sort of men have you led us to fight against, who contend, not for money, but purely for the sake of excelling?”, a pro-Hellenic sentiment if there ever was one. In 8.59, discussions in the Greek council of war refer to the games: Admiantus says that “those who get off the mark too soon are whipped,” to which Themistocles replies, “but those who get left behind never get crowned.” (One can imagine any number of sports metaphors expressing similar ideas today, e.g. Wayne Gretzky’s observation that “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”). Finally, Eurybates and Themistocles received actual victors wreaths from the Spartans. Thus does the Greek athletic spirit inspire a successful fighting spirit, and illustrates the superiority of the Greeks to the barbarians. (8.86: “Proper discipline and ordered ranks” vs. “no order and no… sense of purpose.”)

Herodotus does deal with some Greek cleverness that does not necessarily reflect well on their side. Artemisia may have escaped from Salamis through subterfuge (8.87), but Themistocles himself convinced the Greeks not to pursue the Persians, intending “that this act should be as a reserve to his credit with the Persians, that he might have a refuge if, one day, trouble overtook him” (8.109), which indeed came to pass.

As for his own sources, Herodotus indicates that there is slight disagreement between the Athenians and the Aeginetans about the progress of the battle of Salamis (8.84). He indicates that the Delphians told him things directly in 8.39. But he cannot bring himself, in 8.8, to name the source of the story of Scyllias of Scione, the best diver in Greece, who allegedly swam ten miles underwater: this exploit is treated with the passive voice (“it is told” and “it is said”), and Herodotus is deeply skeptical of “other stories” about him. No miracles here.

Thoughts on Book Seven of the Histories of Herodotus

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.

The main event in Book Six in the Battle of Marathon, which of course was an Athenian victory. The Spartans must have been envious that they didn’t share in the glory, and nervous that their rival city-state got all the credit.

But Sparta gets its own back in Book Seven. The main event of Book Seven, of course, is the battle of Thermopylae, during which an elite force of 300 Spartans, accompanied by Thespians (fighting voluntarily) and Thebans (fighting involuntarily), hold off the mighty Persian army at a narrow coastal pass just south of Thessaly on the Greek mainland. The narrow pass at Thermopylae negated the Persian numerical advantage, but more importantly the Spartans had greater bravery and greater fighting skill, allowing them to repel wave after wave of Persian attacks. Only when the Persians discovered a way around Thermopylae were the Spartans encircled and defeated. But even knowing this, the Spartans never retreated, and died to a man. So Thermopylae represents a defeat, but a very inspiring one. Tactically the Spartans delayed the Persian advance so that other Greeks had time to dig in, so some tangible good, and not just inspiration, did come out of it.

From Herodotus’s description, we can tell that this battle meant a great deal to the Greeks. Such details as the recitation of King Leonidas’s extensive genealogy, the Spartans combing their long hair in preparation for battle, and Pantites’ committing suicide out of shame, because he had missed the battle while he was delivering a message, all suggest that this was something special, even sacred. The epigram ascribed to Simonides:

Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie

further helps to cement the place of this battle in Greek history. (“Go tell the Spartans,” I discover, is the title of a 1978 Viet Nam war movie.) Even the witty contribution of Dieneces was deemed worthy of inclusion in The Histories: Dieneces is the Spartan who, when told that the Persian arrows were so numerous, that they blocked out the sun, replied that “If the Medes hide the sun, we shall fight them in the shade.” Herodotus claims that Dieneces made many such sayings, and if this is the case it would make him especially Spartan, for the Spartans valued the Laconic phrase – dry wit, expressed in as few words as possible. (In Book 3, Herodotus tells of the arrival of a Samian embassy to Sparta. The Samians give a long speech. The Spartans say that they have forgotten the beginning and can’t understand the end. So the Samians return with a sack, saying “the sack needs grain.” The Spartans reply that the word “sack” is redundant.)

The archetypical Laconic phrase is a reply to Xerxes’s demand that the Spartans give up their weapons. The Spartan King Leonidas replied simply with “Come and take them” (μολὼν λαβέ). Alas, this gem of a riposte does not appear in The Histories. But it does appear in Plutarch’s Moralia, and it is inscribed on the base of the statue of Leonidas that we find at Thermopylae today.

Molon_labe

Wikipedia.

This expression echoes down the ages: it has resonance in American gun culture for obvious reasons, and one sees it as a decal on cars. It’s a slightly classier way of saying “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” The Michigan State Spartans also use it in their marketing, as though to reply to the opponent’s request to give up the football.

Book Seven reminds me of our visit to Texas this past summer, when I discovered the existence of the Gonzales Flag, an artifact of the opening salvo in the Texas Revolution. In 1831, the Mexican government had given the Anglo residents of Gonzales a cannon for their defense. In 1835, however, as it became clear that Anglo loyalty was highly questionable, the Mexicans sent a force to take it back, and the Gonzalans replied with a suitable Laconic phrase, embroidered on an improvised flag. The Battle of Gonzales was the first military engagement in the Revolution, and inspiring for Texans, as the Mexicans were forced to retreat without their cannon. An even better known episode in the Battle of the Alamo, when, following a 13-day siege, the Mexicans under Santa Anna stormed the Mission San Antonio de Valero and killed all of its defenders. This defeat served precisely the same purpose as the Battle of Thermopylae 2300 years earlier – to inspire other Texans to keep fighting. (Although the number of deaths at the Alamo was about a third lower than the number of Spartans killed at Thermopylae, I was pleased to discover that the street address of the Alamo is 300 Alamo Plaza – a nice classical reference there.)

To return to Sparta: why did they act this way? The Spartan king Demaratus, exiled to the court of Xerxes, is a very useful literary device for Herodotus, who can use Demaratus to explain Spartan motivation. In 101, Demaratus presciently claims that the Spartans will fight no matter what the odds because, as he tells Xerxes:

fighting singly, they are no worse than any other people; together, they are the most gallant men on earth. For they are free – but not altogether so. They have as the despot over them Law, and they fear him much more than your men fear you. At least they do whatever he bids them do; and he bids them always the same thing: not to flee from the fight before any multitude of men whatever but to stand firm in their ranks and either conquer or die.

This contrasts utterly with the Persian custom of forcing their soldiers forward by whipping them. In a similar vein, in 135, the two Spartan hostages, Sperthias and Bulis, who volunteer to travel to the Persian capital Susa and offer themselves as compensation for the Persian herald whom the Spartans have earlier killed, meet Hydarnes, the Persian satrap of the Asian seacoast. He asks why the Spartans won’t seek the friendship of Xerxes, because the king knows how to honor good men, and suggests that the Spartans might hold an important position in a Persian administration of Greece. Their reply is that:

Your advice with relation to us comes from something less than an equality of position. You counsel us as one who has tried one condition but knows nothing of the other. You know what it is to be a slave, but you have no experience of freedom, to know whether it is sweet or not. If you had had such experience, you would bid us fight for it, not with spears only, but with axes as well.

It’s a nice detail that Sperthias and Bulis refuse to bow to Xerxes when they arrive in Susa.

So yes, Thermopylae matters, as does the Greek conception of freedom and the rule of law. More than Marathon, Salamis, or even Plataea, Thermopylae is the battle that people remember. Of course it does help that the Greeks ultimately won, validating and justifying Thermopylae, and it helps that the Spartans inflicted huge numbers of casualties prior to their own defeat. It is true that a tactical retreat is often a better option than a noble sacrifice: In IDS 305 today, we talked about the French Order of the Star, founded in 1351 and severely weakened the next year at the Battle of Mauron, when ninety members, sworn not to turn their backs on the enemy or retreat more than four steps, consequently lost their lives, to no useful purpose.

But sometimes it isn’t.

leonidas

Jacques-Louis David, Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814), via Wikipedia.