History Repeating Itself

Helpful illustrative anecdotes for my Western Civ. lecture on Classical Greece:

• Every time you run a marathon, you are commemorating the legendary run of the messenger Pheidippides, who hightailed it from the site of the Battle of Marathon back to Athens, proclaimed the victory (“Nike!”), and promptly fell down dead. Hopefully you won’t fall down dead, and hopefully your Nikes will help you get the victory.

• The Battle of Thermopylae might have been a defeat for the Greeks, but it was an inspiring defeat. The 300 Spartans at the battle killed far more than 300 Persians, and they never retreated, dying to a man. Thus it became a rallying cry for the rest of the war, like the Alamo was during the Texas Revolution.

• Since no one knew if the Persians would attack again, Athens set up the Delian League, a defensive alliance where an attack on one was an attack on all. This is similar to how the United States set up NATO during the Cold War. We were telling the Soviets, “don’t even think of moving against West Berlin, because if you do you’ll be at war with Norway, Iceland, Greece… and the United States.” That NATO is still with us is a testament to the power of bureaucratic inertia.

(But none of my students knows about the Cold War. I might as well be talking about the Triple Alliance of 1882. Most of them guess that NATO stands for “North American Trade Organization.”)

• The trouble is that Athens started treating the Delian League as its plaything. They moved the treasury from Delos to Athens itself… and started spending money on other things than building triremes – like the Parthenon! This is the dirty little secret about that archetypical symbol of Classical Athens – it was built with embezzled money from the Delian League. This is probably a function of Athens being a democracy. Then, as now, what is the best way to get reelected? Spend money! Jobs for the lads! Where will the money come from? Wherever you can find it. This is what happed with Social Security. On paper, SS has trillions of dollars. In reality, SS revenues go directly into the general fund, where it is spent on more electorally pressing needs.

• The Hellenistic Age was Greek in all ways except the one that mattered – it was not based around the polis. Thus the Greek customs of political engagement, free speech, or outspoken speculation were vastly attenuated. Monarchs were not prepared to tolerate people making suggestions about how to run their kingdoms. This is reflected in drama. In Classical Athens, Old Comedy often took the form of biting satire – like a good Saturday Night Live skit. Hellenistic New Comedy concerned itself with love triangles and separated at birth stories. In other words, it was more like Seinfeld or Three’s Company – fun, but not really political.

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