In his Jurguthine War the Roman historian Sallust detours from his main narrative to discuss the rivalry between Carthage and Cyrene (an ancient Greek colony near modern day Libya). In one instance the two powers thought of a novel way to settle the problem between their civilizations without the continuance of war.* Sallust relates,
Since the affairs of the people of Lepcis have brought us to this region, it seems fitting to relate the noble and memorable act of two Carthaginians; the place calls the event to mind. At the time when the Carthaginians ruled in the greater part of Africa, the people of Cyrene were also strong and prosperous. Between that city and Carthage lay a sandy plain of monotonous aspect. There was neither river nor hill to mark the frontiers, a circumstance which involved the two peoples in bitter and lasting strife.
After many armies and fleets had been beaten and put to flight on both sides, and the long struggle had somewhat wearied them both, they began to fear that presently a third party might attack victors and vanquished in their weak state. They therefore called a truce and agreed that on a given day envoys should set out from each city and that the place where they met should be regarded as the common frontier of the two peoples. Accordingly, two brothers were sent from Carthage, called Philaeni, and these made haste to complete their journey. Those from Cyrene went more deliberately. Whether this was due to sloth or chance I cannot say, but in those lands a storm often causes no less delay than on the sea; for when the wind rises on those level and barren plains, it sweeps up the sand from the ground and drives it with such violence as to fill the mouth and eyes. Thus one is halted because one cannot see. Now when the men of Cyrene realized that they were somewhat belated and feared punishment for their failure when they returned, they accused the Carthaginians of having left home ahead of time and refused to abide by the agreement; in fact they were willing to do anything rather than go home defeated. But when the Carthaginians demanded other terms, provided they were fair, the Greeks gave them the choice, either of being buried alive in the place which they claimed as the boundary of their country, or of allowing the Greeks on the same condition to advance as far as they wished. The Philaeni accepted the terms and gave up their lives for their country; so they were buried alive. The Carthaginians consecrated altars on that spot to the Philaeni brothers, and other honours were established for them at home. I now return to my subject . . .
The matter-of-fact method in which Sallust relates this story should give us pause. He obviously accepted this line of thinking — these were “fair” terms. This was justice, this was life in the ancient pagan world. The Philaeni brothers had no other choice. The above passage brings to mind a more famous section of Sallust from his introduction:
I have often heard that Quintus Maximus, Publius Scipio, and other eminent men of our country, were in the habit of declaring that their hearts were set mightily aflame for the pursuit of virtue whenever they gazed upon the masks of their ancestors. Of course they did not mean to imply that the wax or the effigy had any such power over them, but rather that it is the memory of great deeds that kindles in the breasts of noble men this flame that cannot be quelled until they by their own prowess have equalled the fame and glory of their forefathers.
One can’t help but chuckle a bit at the comment that “of course” the masks did not have “any such power over them.” They simply dedicated their entire lives to everything the masks represented.
The western world will likely to continue to experience something of a pagan revival, and elsewhere I commented that bringing out into the open what lies subtly buried in our unconscious has something to recommend it. But we should have no illusions. Evidence abounds that if we revive paganism we will build for ourselves cattle-shoots from which we have no escape. We will exchange the freedom we claim to hold dear for chains.
Indeed, Chesterton spoke rightly when he declared that whereas Christianity has elements of anguish and pain at the periphery, joy occupies the core. Pagan religions, however, have joyous elements in them only at the periphery, but at their center stands defeat and despair. Any surface familiarity with the ancient world bears this out. Hector must fight Achilles and lose, just as Troy must face destruction. Not even Zeus himself can stop it. Oedipus cannot avoid his fate, though he take every counter-measure possible. Even the “realist” historian Thucydides sees events in cyclical form — what happened before will happen again. For the Norse as well, in the end the good guys lose. It is this magnificent sense of the tragic that gives such tales their grandeur and power, but who wants to get inside such stories?
As the excerpts from Sallust indicates, shame seems to bind the ancients more than anything else. The Philaeni brothers accepted a brutal death rather than accept what must have been a worse fate awaiting them back home — the shame of failure. Republican Romans took their obsession with reputation and drove their civilization straight over a cliff in the 2nd century B.C. The ancients had no escape from shame because ultimately paganism puts all the focus on the self. Judas, for example, could only see his sin, but Peter runs to the empty tomb — he had bigger and better things on his mind than his Friday morning betrayal. Peter had an “out” from his past. As Paul writes in Ephesians 4, “When [Jesus] ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men” (emphasis mine). Neither ones society nor ones past should be denied or destroyed. Both are part of God’s creation and God’s plan. But both can be transcended and transformed, and with this hope we approach something akin to true freedom.
*The story reminds me of the “Oath of the Horatii” narrated by Livy. Whether or not that lends credence to the historicity of Sallust’s tale I suppose depends on what one thinks of Livy’s narrative.