Drinking Tea in Wartime

My grandfather fought in W.W. II for the 101st Airborne.  He took part in the invasion of Arnhem in September 1944, a campaign immortalized by the book/movie A Bridge too Far. One story he related dealt with the British love of tea.  If the British/American plan had a chance of success allied forces needed to move as fast as possible to seize several key bridgeheads across the Rhine River.  But at around 4:00, British units pulled over on the side of the road and had their tea for 15 minutes, driving their American counterparts nuts.  How anyone could justify teatime at such a time baffled them.

I suppose the British might have responded along the lines of, “If we don’t stop for tea at 4:00, then the Nazi’s have already won!”

Tensions between tradition and the exigencies of the moment have always been with us. In every instance where it arises good arguments exist on both sides that invariably go something like

  • We must change in order to survive, vs.
  • If we change the wrong things, or change too much, it won’t be “we” that survive but another sort of society entirely.

I very much enjoyed the many strengths of Basil Liddell Hart’s Scipio Africanus: Greater than Napoleon.  My one quibble with the book is his failure to tackle this dilemma as it relates to Rome in the 2nd Punic War.

But first, the book’s strengths . . .

The title indicates that Hart might indulge in a bit of hero-worship, but I have no problem with this in itself.  First of all, he lets the reader know from the outset where he stands. And, while her0-worship books have inevitable weaknesses, I very much prefer this approach to writing that equivocates to such a degree so that the author says nothing at all.

Hart’s book also reverses the common tendency to glorify the romantic loser.  We love Robert E. Lee, but Grant, well, he’s boring.  We love Napoleon and see Wellington as . . . boring.  Historians of the 2nd Punic War have devoted an overwhelming amount of attention to Hannibal.  His march through the Alps and his enormously impressive successes at Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae have inspired military minds for centuries. Sure, Rome won in the end, but for “boring” reasons like better political structure and more human resources–just as many assume Grant won not because of what he did, but because of the North’s “boring” industrialization and economy.

But surely Hannibal’s defeat had something to do with Scipio himself, especially seeing as how a variety of other Roman commanders failed spectacularly at fighting the wily Carthaginian.  To add to this, if you knock out the champ, doesn’t that mean that we have a new champion?

Liddell Hart gives us some great insights in this book.

Those familiar with Hart’s philosophy know that he constantly praised the value of what he called the “indirect approach” to war, both tactically and strategically.  Rome at first tried the direct approach with Hannibal and lost badly.  Then with Fabius they practiced what some might call “no approach” with a debatable amount of success.  Scipio struck a balance.  After assuming command he fought the Carthaginians, but not in Italy.  He took the fight to Carthage’s important base in Spain.  He fought against Carthaginian troops with Carthaginian commanders, but avoided Hannibal.

I have no great military knowledge and no experience, but Hart’s concise explanation of Scipio’s maneuvering in Spain impressed me greatly.  His “double envelopment” move at the Battle of Ilipa against a numerically superior foe was an inspired stroke:

battle-of-ilipa

But I found Scipio’s diplomatic and grand-strategical vision more impressive.  Hart admits that Hannibal had the edge over Scipio in tactics, but I feel that most overlook or excuse Hannibal’s deficiencies at accomplishing his strategy of prying allies away from Rome.  In a very short time Scipio turned the tables completely in Spain, giving Rome a foundation on which to build a Mediterranean empire.  Unlike other great commanders such as Napoleon and Alexander, and even Hannibal, Scipio never had full control of his forces or his agenda.  He accomplished more than most any other commander while navigating more difficult political terrain.  He established the basis militarily and diplomatically for Rome’s preeminence in the Mediterranean.  He deserves the praise Hart heaps on him.

However, the ‘hero-worship’ part of the book needs addressing.  Hart writes with much more balance than Theodore Dodge, who wrote about Scipio’s counterpart Hannibal.  But he makes the same kind of mistakes as Dodge by dismissing some of the political realities Rome faced because of Scipio’s success.  In sum, Hart has no appreciation for the tension between Roman tradition and Roman military success at the heart of this conflict.

Rome’s Republic had no written constitution.  It ran according to tradition.  The bedrock principles were:

  • Sharing power amongst the aristocratic class
  • Yearly rotation of offices
  • Direct appeals to the people smelled of dictatorship
  • No one stands out too much more than anyone else.  They sought more or less to divvy up honor equally.
  • You wait your turn like everyone else.  No one jumps in line ahead of anyone.

From the start of his career Scipio challenged nearly all of these principles in a dramatic way.  Hart himself admits that:

  • He ‘level-jumped’ to high office far earlier than anyone else, breaking the unofficial rules that held things together.
  • He frequently received his support directly from the people against the wishes of the aristocracy
  • He at times used religious claims to boost his appeal for office, which the people responded to over and against the scowls of the aristocracy.
  • In defeating Hannibal he raised his status far higher than any other Roman of his day.  This can’t be held against him obviously, but everyone noticed.

Of course we naturally have a distaste for aristocracy and so does Hart, who loses no opportunities to cast aspersions on Cato, Fabius, and other grumpy, jealous old men.

But . . . by any measure the Roman Republic ranks as one of the more successful governments of all-time.  While they were not close to fully democratic, they had many democratic elements, and still managed annual, peaceful transitions of power across all levels of government for (at the time of the 2nd Punic War) for 300 years.  Judged by the standards of their day, some might even label them as “progressives.”  They had a great thing going and we should not rashly blame them for wanting to protect it.

During the war itself one can easily agree with Hart and his roasting of Fabius and especially Cato the Elder. But events in the generations after the 2nd Punic War show that Scipio’s enemies may have been at least partially on to something.  Within 30 years of their victory, the Republic had major cracks.  After 75 years, the Republic began its collapse.  In time the Republic could not even pretend to contain Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar.  One could argue that Scipio in an indirect way set the stage for this.

Hart wrote a very good book, but not a great one.  I wonder what he would have thought of the British soldiers at Arnhem.  The disruption Rome suffered as a result of the 2nd Punic War had a lot more to do with Hannibal than Scipio.  And yet, Scipio played some part, albeit a small one. Was it worth it?   Could it have reasonably happened differently?  Hart doesn’t say, and leaves us to wonder.

 

 

 

 

 

The Invention of Strategy . . . Sort of

I have written at times about my dislike for the “great man” theory of historical interpretation (here extensively).  My objections to this theory, in brief, are that

  • The writer invariably sees events only through one lens, which limits their vision
  • The writer’s hero worship distorts their vision

I could not resist the Kindle deal of Theodore Dodge’s Hannibal: A History of the Art of War Among the Carthaginians and Romans Down to the Battle of Pydna, 168 B.C., with a Detailed Account of the Second Punic War.  I suspected from some reviews that Dodge would fall prey to the aforementioned hero-worship, the besetting sin of many a 19th century historian.  I happily discovered that while I took issue with some of Dodge’s emphasis and conclusions, he writes an informative and engaging account of the Punic War era.  His is a much better book than Druesel’s Bismarck biography linked above, for example.  Likely Dodge was simply a more sane and intellectually honest person than Druesel.  Or it may be that Dodge’s more practical American sensibility and his own experience in our Civil War gave him better perspective.  Whatever the reason, his book pleasantly surprised me.  He delves into some hero worship, but keeps it to acceptable levels.

Dodge first argues briefly that Hannibal, with some help from Alexander the Great, invented the art of military strategy.  This at first struck me as “hero worship” but upon reflection I mostly agree with him.  For the ancients, battle was battle in the way for us that a handshake is a handshake.  We don’t think of strategizing a handshake.  Handshakes represent our pledge, ourselves.  To strategize a handshake seems impersonal, disconnecting us from ourselves and putting up a false pretense.

For the ancients, in battle you lined up in a field and fought.  Battle tested not the intellect but the will, the discipline, and the courage of the armies.  To have it become something more than that struck many as absurd, or perhaps cheating.  Certainly some Romans viewed Hannibal this way.  Some of our generals in Vietnam felt similarly.  I recall one of them saying, “To *&^% with them!  They wouldn’t come out and fight!”  So the attitude may have a universality beyond the ancient world.

Hannibal often fought with deception, move, and counter-move.  At times he sacrificed a small portion of his men in hopes that Rome would bite on a bait-and-switch.  He always seemed to have several tools in his bag to try and get what he wanted.  I wondered with a colleague of mine how this came to be.  What context helped create Hannibal?  Major shifts like this do not happen in a vacuum.

Carthage had a great naval tradition, but little overt military tradition to speak of.  A society centered around merchants, they contracted out nearly the entirety of their infantry.  An army with dozens of different traditions is an army with no traditions.  Dodge does a solid job of explaining the jigsaw puzzle that was the Carthaginian army, which would need a charismatic and forceful leader to hold together, let alone use effectively.  Hannibal deserves much of the credit he receives.

Hannibal also spent the majority of his life away from Carthage in Spain with the army, including his formative years.  Thus, Hannibal had little connection to Carthaginian civilization (something that would hurt him later in his war with Rome).  He roamed as a “free agent” in many respects, and could be dedicated to victory while others dedicated themselves to honor or tradition.

Many of Hannibal’s admirers rightly point out that unlike Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon Hannibal faced  rather than actually had the best army in the known world.  True, Rome’s infantry distinguished itself for an almost 200 year unbroken string of victories by the time Hannibal invaded.  But for someone like Hannibal Rome offered unique opportunities.  Unlike Carthage, their army was embedded directly within their civilization of farmers.  And, like farmers, Rome’s army stuck to routine.  They could be counted on to charge at any red flag in any environment, and a patient commander with excellent command over his men might find a way to exploit this.  Certainly Hannibal did, with Cannae as the exemplar par excellence of his theatrical genius.

In the end, however, Dodge reverts to the hero-worship mentality.  The “objective” view (ok — my view) of Hannibal makes him a bit too clever by half.  The 2nd Punic War ostensibly began as a dispute over territory in Spain.  Had Hannibal stayed in Spain and waited for Rome to come to him, he would have been well supplied and could pick his spots more or less at will.  One can easily foresee a significant victory for Carthage in that scenario.  But Hannibal chose to play for much bigger and riskier stakes by invading Italy itself.  Any full treatment of the 2nd Punic War then, must be largely a biography of Hannibal.  Understanding what made him tick would make a great template for a great writer, but Dodge is not it.  Granted, Dodge never claimed to write a Hannibal biography, but I don’t see how one can ignore this side of Hannibal in writing about the war.  For example, in faithful hero-worship fashion, Dodge brushes off the many cruel acts of Hannibal and never uses them to try and gain insight into the man.  When Hannibal makes two prisoners fight each other to the death for their freedom merely as an object lesson for his men, all Dodge can say is, “This had a remarkable effect on his army.”

Essentially, Hannibal’s strategy boiled down to:

  • Crossing the Alps to invade Italy — this would surprise Rome and put him in a position to quickly ally himself with the Gauls in the north of Italy, long time enemies of Rome, then
  • March south and hope to gather more allies as he went — to do this he would need a few big battles to impress/scare the locals
  • Eventually he would have enough troops to march on Rome itself

I think Hannibal a great military commander, but we have to remember that he lost.  It’s easy to love Lee, but Grant beat him.  Napoleon is more interesting than Wellington, but Wellington had the last laugh.  So if we avoid getting carried away with the brilliant nature of some of Hannibal’s victories, we may wonder how great a grand strategist Hannibal really was.  His plan had significant flaws.

Many point out that Hannibal got very little support from Carthage itself, and then argue that had he had this support, he would have been victorious.  Dodge writes,

That Hannibal eventually failed was not from lack of intelligent policy, but because he had no aid from home. . .

and again,

The opposition of Hanno [a Carthaginian politician] wrecked all of Hannibal’s wonderful work.

and later again,

When we look at the [internal condition of Carthaginian politics], it ceases to be a matter of curiosity why so little was done to aid Hannibal.

It is a mark of faith in the “great men” school of thought that nothing can ever be really the fault of the great man.

True, Hannibal received little support from Carthage, but Hannibal should have been quite familiar with the topsy-turvy nature of his home civilization’s politics.  Besides, in crossing the Alps Hannibal adopted a strategy that would isolate him from any kind of supply line.  Finally, and most tellingly for me, even Dodge admits that Carthaginian armies had a tradition of operating independently and self-sufficiently apart from Carthage’s government.  All this Hannibal should have taken into account, and it was a serious mistake for him not to connect his strategy to his political situation.  Again, even Dodge himself writes about the Carthaginian government,

. . . it was natural that [the Carthaginian government] should prefer to hold Spain to winning in Italy.  They believed they could do the first, they doubted the other.

So Hannibal adopted a strategy (rather than hold Spain, go for the jugular in Italy) that he either knew or should have known went in direct opposition to Carthage’s political leadership.  Carthage refused to take extra risks for a general that had defied them, and this should not surprise us, nor should it have surprised Hannibal.  It seems to have surprised Dodge.

For Hannibal’s strategy to work, he would need to pry allies away from Rome.  But in cutting his army off from a supply line, he forced them to rely on foraging the countryside, alienating the very people he tried to win over.  Oil and water just don’t mix.

Besides this, I think Hannibal also showed a basic ignorance of Rome’s alliance system.  Rome wasn’t perfect.  No one is.  But in general Rome offered a good deal to those they conquered and incorporated into their Republic.  They required taxes and military service, and little else.  How could Hannibal top this?  What better offer could he make?  He could, of course, exempt them from military service, but then their “help” would not be much help at all.

I think Hannibal failed to understand the political system his enemy really operated, and by my tally that means he failed to understand politics at all.  A general who operated on Hannibal’s scale needed to, and this failure cost him everything.  Dodge writes,

Like Napoleon, Hannibal saw that a peace, to be a peace, must be conquered at the doors of the enemy’s capital.  This was his policy.  It was the proper one; but it failed because he could not control the resources of Carthage.

That Dodge writes this without attaching any blame to Hannibal speaks volumes.  Why should we praise a man who undertook a strategy that required he control Carthage’s resources when Hannibal lacked the power to control them?  And why be so sure that Napoleon was correct when he too lost, and lost badly?

Those in the romantic “Great Men” school ultimately have to explain why their heroes lost (losers are always more romantic than winners).  For R.E. Lee, it was his generals.  “If only Jackson had lived, or Ewell had taken the hill, or if Stuart were there, etc. (Lee of course only blamed himself).  Napoleon, serving as his own “Great Men” autobiographer, and perhaps the founder of the “Great Men” school, blamed fate.  For him, I think, to blame others would have meant admitting that others had real power, which perhaps he hesitated to do.  Alas, Dodge (though thankfully not Hannibal) takes refuge behind Fate as well, writing,

Hannibal . . . was hoping against hope; he recognized that the stars in their courses were fighting against him.

and,

[Alexander the Great] was a prime favorite of Fortune.  She smiled on Hannibal until after Cannae.  Thereafter no man ever faced luck so contrary.

Fate is a refuge for those who refuse to face the message Reality wishes to convey.

In the end, the traditional story of the 2nd Punic War as a war of personal revenge of Hannibal on Rome may make the most sense.   The strategy employed, the blitzkrieg nature of his execution, and his “anger” flaming out after Cannae may speak to the truth of this version.

So, I disagree with Dodge, but I enjoyed his book, and others will too.  At least he had an opinion to go with his fine writing and interesting way of presenting Rome and Hannibal’s epic confrontation.  Though Rome had the last laugh, Hannibal remains a fascinating figure.

Though see here for the possibility that Hannibal had the last, last laugh after all.

 

 

 

 

8th Grade: Rome Waves the Red Flag

Greetings,

Over the past two weeks we have looked at the conflict between Rome and Carthage, beginning in the 1st Punic War starting in 264 B.C., and continuing down to the start of the 2nd Punic War in 218 B.C.

This series of conflicts would end up determining the balance of power in the Mediterranean and the destiny of each respective civilization.  Win or lose, neither power would emerge the same.

One overarching concern I have the for the year is to show students that the various elements of civilization, be it economics, geography, or religion, are all part of a whole and have a symbiotic relationship to one another. The same holds true for the military.  We ca easily make the mistake of viewing the military as functioning independently, but it will reflect the strengths and weaknesses from its home society.

First we looked at Rome’s values.  These rural people tended to act a lot like modern farmers some of us may know — practical, persevering, plodding, disciplined in the routines of the year.  The Romans made up their army not from professionals, but through a citizen militia.  Their army fought in tribal/community groups in ways that did not allow individuals to stand out (which we looked at in our last update).  Those who held high government offices often led in the field, which could serve to bind the average soldier not just to his fellow man, but also the government itself.

Carthage was older than Rome and different in character.  They devoted their empire largely to trade, not agriculture.  Nearly all their prominent citizens were merchants.  Of course no moral difference exists between farmers and merchants, but  they live different lives.  We can imagine the majority of Carthaginians often going on the modern equivalent of business trips.  If one is not around to mind the store, you have to hire someone to do it for you.  Carthage’s military leaders came from a highly trained and well educated section of their population, but Carthage found it convenient and necessary to have the bulk of their forces be paid mercenary troops.  This did not mean that Carthage had no military power.  On the contrary they had a strong navy and a respected infantry.  But their military had little to no direct connection to the society for which they fought.  The diversity of their army could give them a great deal of flexibility, but it took a dynamic and forceful commander to hold such an army together.

These two titans did not clash for much of their history.  Rome expanded first to the northwest, away from Carthage’s sphere of influence.  But later, when Rome’s Italian empire drifted toward the south, it came close to Sicily, which Carthage relied upon for its grain.  A spark in that environment could ignite a blaze, and the First Punic War resulted (264-241 B.C.).  Rome showed incredible tenacity and adaptability by building a fleet and standing up to Carthage on Carthage’s turf — the sea.  Setbacks did not seem to bother Rome.  For example, in one 5 year stretch, Rome lost 700 ships at sea.  No matter — they made more, and kept on coming.

Rome won that conflict, though narrowly, but it was how they handled that victory that helped set the stage for an even more devastating conflict, the Second Punic War (218-202 B.C.).  They made several key mistakes, some of them tactical, and others moral:

  • After the First Punic War they offered lenient terms initially, which Carthage readily accepted.  However, they then altered the terms of the peace and made it much tougher on the Carthaginians.  Naturally the Carthaginians felt betrayed.
  • Rome’s more stringent terms may have meant that Carthage could not pay its mercenaries, who promptly revolted and spurred on a brutal civil war within Carthage.
  • While Carthage had its hands full internally, Rome took the opportunity to snatch a few of Carthage’s outlying provinces.  In class I likened this to the foolishness of slapping a heavyweight champ while he is bound and gagged.  You can get away with it, but only for so long.
  • In response, Carthage sought additional territory in Spain, far from Rome.  Once again, Rome inserted itself and insisted on limited Carthage’s sphere of influence.  Once again, Carthage agreed.  But then, just as before, Rome altered the agreement and insisted on that Carthage refrain from attacking Saguntum, a key port city on the Spain’s east coast.

At this point, Carthage felt it had all it could take.  Their army now had a daring commander at its head, Hannibal Barca, son of the great Hamilcar Barca, Carthage’s top general in the First Punic War.  Rome could technically claim that Carthage attacked them in 218 B.C., but Rome had done much in the interval to provoke that attack.  Eventually actions do have consequences.  The bull usually charges when one waves the red flag.

The Second Punic War has more drama and defining moments than the first conflict.  Again, however, I want the students to see the big picture, and connect smaller events to larger realities, and this will be the subject of our discussions this week.

Many thanks,

Dave

8th Grade: The Values of the Republic, The Practice of the Army

Greetings,

This week we continued our look at Rome by looking at the establishment of the Republic in 508 B.C., and how that related to power sharing between Patricians and Plebians.

We can see a variety of similarities between Rome’s revolution, and our own, and this comparison surely would have pleased on our own founding fathers.  But that does not necessarily mean that we should see democracy, in the technical sense of the word, in either time.    The Romans came to object to their kings for the following reasons:

1. Arbitrary and Personal Power

Ultimately, Roman kings did not have to use law as the basis of their rule.  They could, in the end, do as they pleased.  Law had the advantages of being public and stable.  Rulers could now be accountable to something outside of themselves

2. Secret Power

When kings make decisions, they often do so in secret,  perhaps with a few advisors.  Whether he took counsel or not, the reasons behind the decision would be unknown.  The Romans wanted to create a government where decisions got made in an open forum, with open debate.

3. Concentrated Power

In the pure monarchies all power flows from one source at all times.  The Romans took political power and divided it among various offices and branches.  They then made sure that they always had more than one person serving in a particular office.  Finally, each of their offices had only one year terms, and while they did not outright forbid serving multiple terms, they frowned sternly  upon it.

The best way to think about what the Romans did is to go to the technical definition of a Republic – a “Res Publica” – a “Public Thing.”  Laws, expectations, debates, all these things were out in the open for the Romans.  We should not expect to see the kind of democracy that Athens practiced here, though Rome’s republic certainly had democratic elements.  Their main priority lay in making sure that the government was “public” — open to debate, open to observation, etc.

This does not mean that the Romans established a democracy, though they did broaden the base of political power.  Still, for the most part power stayed in the hands of the Patricians, Rome’s aristocracy.  This happened not necessarily by design, but certain factors heavily contributed to it.

  • The Senate (comprised almost entirely of Patricians) had almost complete control of War and Peace.  Rome was often at war, and often won, which naturally enhanced the prestige and power of the Senate.  We have seen in our own democracy that whenever a foreign policy crisis strikes, domestic issues invariably take a back-seat.  Such was the relationship between the Assembly and the Senate in Rome.
  • As we noted last week, Rome was strongly traditional in its cultural leanings, and the Patricians had a vested interest in maintaining tradition.
  • The differences in wealth between Patricians and Plebians remained modest for most of the Republic’s history.  As we shall see in a few weeks, when this begins to change the Patricians faced more challenges to their power.
  • Finally, nothing succeeds like success.  For centuries, Rome grew and prospered under the general guidance of patricians.

The argument went deeper than this, however.  At root the question of, “What is Rome,” ran underneath the surface arguments.  For Patricians, Rome was an idea.  Rome’s ideals made Rome great, and Rome could only stay great if the people who led had dedication to those ideals.  For Plebians, Rome’s people made Rome great, and so Rome’s people deserved a greater share of power.  This tension would bubble beneath the surface for a long time, and how Rome eventually dealt with the problem would contribute to the unraveling of the Republic itself.

We also looked the basic grid plan of Roman cities, and discussed what they reflect about Rome.

Nothing shocks us here, but the methodical nature of the design reflects a few key Roman values, such as simplicity and unity.  The design pushes people toward the center, with an emphasis on togetherness.  The grid plan may also hint at the idea of equality, or at least equality under the law.

As Rome expanded they “cut and pasted” their city design into the conquered areas.  Rome valued habit, tradition, and togetherness.  They tended to look down on “going your own way” in general, and as we might expect, in the army as well.  The key to their military success lie in the fact that everyone stayed together, everyone did what they were told.

The values that went into the formation of their government and city design also went into their army, whether consciously or not. The standard Roman military formation looks somewhat like its city design, with the men spread out in checkerboard fashion:

Rome’s design gave them more flexibility of movement in the field, but each “maniple,” or individual grouping, had a high level of discipline.  This clip below, manages in 1:30 to show some of those values (warning: not bloody, but violent).

Greece, being a more individualistic society, had a long history of heroic individuals.  In Roman stories, the hero is Rome itself.  The clip illustrates a few key ideas along these lines:

  • When the whistle blows, the front lines move back, and others move up.  Normally soldiers would fight in front for much longer than the clip shows, but the principle is clear: we all share the burden equally.
  • Roman tactics, like their other values, were simple.  Block with the shield, strike with the sword around the enemy’s waist, step back into formation.  With this basic move they conquered much of the world around them.
  • No one gets out of line.  They do not tolerate even the successful “hero.”  Rome itself will always get the credit.  The cohesiveness of the line reflects the cohesive nature of their society.  And these cohesive military formations gave them a great advantage over other less cohesive, more heroically oriented tribes surrounding them.  In these kinds of circumstances, Rome simply did not lose.

Here is a clip from Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, where you see the Roman army advance in their maniples.  The message seems to be that the city of Rome itself has come to fight as they fan out into their grid pattern.

Next week we will begin to look at Rome’s conflict with Carthage, a struggle that would define the destinies of both societies.

Have a great weekend,

Dave

World War II, Japan’s Peloponnesian War

Any student of classical history must admire the incredible flourishing of 5th century Periclean Athens.   From the years 480-430 B.C. we see the birth/enormous growth of drama, architecture, sculpture, politics, etc., etc. Kenneth Clark called this period one of the four or five great eras in human history, and few would dispute this.

Historians also always point out how the unexpected victory of the Greeks in the Persian Wars between 490-479 B.C. propelled them into this golden age.  The victory gave them an unexpected burst of confidence and a validation of their identity.  I have not read anyone who has not made this connection, for it seems obvious.  More than this, we can see that golden ages in other civilizations have origins in similar bouts of resistance against an apparently stronger foe.  So, the Florentines resist the French in the early 15th century, and the English defeat Spain’s Armada in 1588 (not long after we get Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, etc.), and the Dutch defeat the Spanish in the early 17th century, after which we get Rembrandt.

The epilogue to this glory comes with the Peloponnesian War, where Athens flushes away this incredible storehouse of achievement in a messy and long conflict with its rival Sparta.  Athens loses and the golden age ends, but . . . all good things must end, the wheel of fortune spins, and no one doubts the salutary effect of their victory in the Persian Wars.

Recently I have read a slight amount of Japanese history and I wondered about certain possible parallels.  The Russo-Japanese War had all the makings of an equivalent to Greece’s triumph against Persia.  With Japan, we see a ‘rising star’ defeat a much larger power in Russia that everyone expected to win.  Like Greece, the Dutch, the English, etc. the Japanese also were a rising naval power.  Like the Greeks, the Japanese experienced a surge of confidence which led them into a disastrous conflict between 1937-45.  Yet I have yet to read anyone who makes this connection.

Add to this, certain historical conditions for the emergence of a golden age in Japan existed in addition to their underdog victory over Russia.

  • Their naval power gave them a chance to come in contact with other civilization to experience a cultural fusion, (like the Dutch and the English), and
  • A cultural fusion of sorts already existed in their country, with a revival of traditional Japanese culture combined with the western industrial influence.

In response to this at least partial connection, a few thoughts arise:

  1. Though the classic conditions for a golden age in Japan existed, they did not experience a golden age for various possible reasons (most seem to think that Japan’s golden age existed in the Edo Era (1605-1868).
  2. Maybe they did experience a golden age, or at least a silver age, of cultural achievement but we in the west don’t recognize it as easily.
  3. Perhaps neither the Japanese or the Greeks experienced a golden age after their unexpected victories! Perhaps the appearance of a golden age in Greece in the 5th century B.C. is simply a sham propagated by generations of uncritical historians!
  4. Perhaps unexpected military victories are in fact not the necessary spark that ignites a golden age.  Perhaps instead they serve as impediments.

Numbers 1-2 both could be possible, but both lie beyond my abilities to discern.  Alas, though I love the exhilarating death or glory dash of number 3, we must conclude that yes, at least Athens experienced a golden age in 5th century B.C.   We shall have no slaying of dragons today.

Sigh.

But I am intrigued by #4.

Let us revisit the “Golden Ages” I listed above with a fresh eye.

After Dutch independence from Spain we did get Rembrandt and certain pleasant, if unremarkable architectural style.  But the other byproducts of this victory appear more prosaic, such as the first corporation and the first stock exchange.  Of course Shakespeare has few if any equals, but might we see a more sustained English cultural flowering from the late 18th-mid 19th century with Turner, Dickens, etc.?*

Furthermore, we see that some of the greatest and most profound cultural landmarks have come in the midst of defeat or decline.  St. Augustine writes The City of God after the fall of Rome.  Plato and Aristotle pen their penetrating insights after the Peloponnesian War.  Homer’s tales come to us in the midst of the Greek Dark Ages.  The Byzantines may have done their best art just decades before their fall to the Turks.  The golden age of Russian literature came in the final years of the Romanov’s.**

We should also surmise, did civilizations experience a golden age without the assumed prerequisite of unexpected military victory?

Florence’s true golden age may have had nothing to do with the French in the 15th century and more to do with double-entry bookkeeping developed far earlier for medieval fairs.  This skill put them in demand throughout Europe.  The increased revenue and attention led to a burst of innovative construction way back in the 11th century.  This lacks the pizazz of defeating the Persians, but may have been more effective.

Northern Europe experienced one of the great golden ages in history during the late 12th and early 13th centuries.  Here we had a revival of individual scholarship but also the invention of Gothic architecture.  One could argue that this had something to do with the Crusades, but not necessarily a direct military victory that impacted local communities.  I agree with Kenneth Clark, who argues that this particular cultural boom had more to do with movement in general (even for double-entry bookkeeping) than the Crusades which took place so far away, and from which no news would be had for years at a time.

Maybe a military victory such as Athens and Japan experienced might serve as a dangerous stimulant.  Both victories did not contribute to golden ages, but both contributed certainly to overconfidence and expansion.  In the case of Athens they turned the Delian League and the Aegean Sea into an Empire, which certainly contributed to their demise as a result of the Peloponnesian War.  As for Japan, their triumph over Russia may have spurred on efforts to turn much of Asia into their backyard.^  Historian Niall Ferguson I believe argues that Japanese expansion had more to do with the origins of W.W. II than Germany’s expansion.

The Russo-Japanese War may have been akin for Japan to the Persian Wars for Greece.  But if so, perhaps World War II served as their own version of Greece’s disastrous Peloponnesian War.

Dave

*One could argue that this happened after England’s triumph in the Napoleonic Wars, however.

**A possible answer to this might be the civilizations do their best work amidst heady and confident days–things like great architectural works, whereas individuals have their most penetrating insights only in the midst of suffering.

^We think of W.W. II as a global war, but we can see Japan mainly trying to establish dominance over other Asians.  The Greek city-states had a relatively common religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage (with certain distinct differences), just as perhaps did Japan, Korea, China, Manchuria, etc.

 

8th Grade: The Country Rome and the City Rome

Greetings,

This week we started our unit on the Romans, where will remain for the rest of the year.  We began by looking at Italian geography and made the following observations:

  • Roman civilization began not in the more fertile southeast of Italy, but in the more challenging south-central area near Rome itself.  We have met the concept that civilizations flourish not in ideal circumstances, but moderately challenging ones, as in other civilizations like Egypt.
  • We noted that unlike Greece, Italy favored more agriculture. While Italy is a peninsula and never too far from water, it has a fairly even coastline without many ports.  The best ports are in the southeast, but Rome did not get there until nearly five centuries of its history had elapsed.  By that time, Rome had a thoroughly rural bent to their way of life.
  • If one stands in Rome, it seems the land tended to run downhill in a north-eastern direction.  If true, even slightly, this may help explain why Rome’s conquests ran initially towards that direction.  This in turn meant that Rome would not have any significant interaction with the naval oriented cultures of Greece and Carthage until around 300 B.C.  So, while Greece and Rome would inevitably share certain similarities due in part to their common geography, Rome developed along different lines than Greece in the early part of its history.

Here is a topographical map of Italy:

This agricultural bent of Rome shaped their civilization in ways similar to other agriculturally oriented areas, like Egypt.  Just like rural cultures today, Rome based much of their way of life around tradition, the past, routine, and practicality.  Both urban and rural cultures have strengths, but a key question for Rome would how they would react when they did interact with the more cosmopolitan Mediterranean.   When it comes, this clash will determine the fate of Rome, Greece, and Carthage.  As Rome conquered others, they could not avoid confronting the possibility of changing their own identity.

We likened Rome to a young farm boy (we’ll call him ‘Jim’)who goes off to New York City for college, and postulated three different outcomes.

  • Benign Awkwardness — Jim doesn’t really fit in city life, and knows it.  He try particularly hard to fit in either, and soon wearies of his clumsy attempts.  He keeps his rural identity, plugs along more or less alone at school, goes home on weekends, and returns home after graduation.
  • A Happy Medium — Here Jim keeps his roots, but also approaches NYC with an open mind.  He learns to see the good and bad of both city and rural life, and picks and chooses from both like a cafeteria menu.  The experience changes Jim, but he learns to enjoy both environments without changing who he fundamentally is.  This ideal reaction, however, is probably the least likely of the three possibilities I list here.
  • Drink from the Fire hose — Jim becomes completely enamored with his new surroundings.  He chucks his rural identity and jumps in with both feet into city life.  Tragically, he doesn’t even manage to attach an urban identity to himself.  He so obviously ‘tries too hard’ that he fails to find acceptance, and this rejection only makes him try harder.  His actions leave him with no identity at all.

How Rome faces this challenge will be the subject of our study in the weeks to come.

Next week we will look at Roman religion and the extreme emphasis on the practical over the theoretical.  Again, it will help us if we remember that Rome was a nation of farmers, who often have little use for theory and speculation, and who focus on soil, crops, and so on.

Ancient chroniclers agree that the Romans were a religious people, unlike the Greeks.  But their sense of religion was also much different than in Egypt, for example, another ancient “religious” people.  In Egypt, their beliefs filtered down into the government, architecture, and where they lived.  Their literature is filled with stories of the gods.  They wrote psalms/hymns of praise to their gods.

We see nothing like this in Rome.  The Romans had devotion to their religious duties, but they saw “religion” usually in terms of “checking off the box.”  They would do what they needed to do, but rarely did their religion touch their souls, and a variety of stories from their past illustrate this.

Machiavelli recounts a story from Livy, where a Roman general wanted to attack the enemy, which I recount below. . .

The consul Papirius, in conducting a war against the Samnites, [saw a favorable moment to fight], and ordered that the priests take the auspices.  The birds, however, did not eat.  But the chief priest, seeing the great desire of the army to fight, and their confidence in victory, reported to the consul that the auspices were in fact favorable.  But one of the assistant priests told the consul that the chief priest lied.  . . . And so the consul put the Chief Priest in the front ranks of the army, and it happened by chance that a Roman arrow struck the chief priest, whereupon he died. When Papirius heard this, he declared that whatever wrath the gods felt toward them had been appeased, and thus by apparently to accommodate his designs to the auspices, Papirius gave battle without giving the appearance of neglecting his religious duty.

Was the general ‘impious?

According to the Romans, not at all.  He did his duty.  He took the sacrifices.  A priest told him that the gods approved.  And they won.

Machiavelli relates another story. . .

Appius Pulcher acted just the contrary way in Sicily during the first Punic war; for wishing to fight the Carthaginian army, he caused the priests to take the auspices, and when they reported that they did not eat, he said, “Then let us see whether or not they drink,” and threw the birds into the sea.  He then went into battle and was defeated, for which he was punished in Rome.

The historian Livy goes on to say that Pulcher was not punished for losing, but for his brazen impiety.  Paprius “kept up appearances,” whereas Pulcher did not.  But I have doubts.  If Pulcher had won the battle, would he have been punished?  What these stories show, I think, is that Rome really worshipped Rome itself.  All things bowed to glory of Rome.  Was then their religion a mere smokescreen?  We know, for example, that Roman religion technically forbade offensive war of any kind, yet they became one of the greatest conquering empires they world has ever known.  Something it seems, gave at some point.

Blessings,

Dave

8th Grade: Burning Out vs. Fading Away

Greetings,

This week we wrapped up our look at ancient Greek civilization.  The death of Alexander the Great allowed for the Greek city-states to try and rebel once more from Macedon.  They did not have the strength to do it on their own, so they asked for help from Rome.

As the Greek’s found out, however, it’s dangerous to ask Rome over to visit.  They had a knack for overstaying their welcome.  From around 200-150 B.C., Greece became a satellite of the then mighty Romans.  Their culture lived on in a kind of degenerated way afterwards (see Luke’s comment in Acts 17:21), but as an independent political entity, they were done.

As we leave Greece and introduce Rome I wanted the students to think about the following choice.  I chose basketball because of March Madness, but one could apply the same concept to other areas of life.  In class we had fun thinking about the ultimate hamburger, for example.

Choice #1

You will be given the ability to dunk, but only one time.  However, this dunk can be the most spectacular dunk you can possibly imagine.  You can jump from half-court, do a double summersault reverse spin, twirl, reverse jam — whatever you can think of.  Furthermore, you will execute this dunk in stadium full of people, and it will immediately go viral on You Tube.  The dunk will be forever known as the greatest dunk of all time.

Or

Choice #2

You will be given the ability to dunk as often as you like.  You will be able to dunk in games, but the dunks will be unimpressive, and not noteworthy in any way.  But it will be a dunk, and you will be able to do it whenever you wish.

This choice illustrates one of the differences between Greece and Rome.  In their heyday Greece ended up bequeathing more towards the formation of the future than perhaps any other civilization.  They practically invented science, literature, drama, democracy, and so on.  But their run was relatively brief.  They followed Neil Young’s dictum, “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”  They compressed most of their brilliance into about a 100 year period of practically unmatched excellence, but the intensity of the heat may have led to their fire putting itself by devouring all the oxygen around them.

Rome will have many similarities with Greece, as we might expect from sharing the Mediterranean basin.  But I think that one of their differences is that Rome would not have agreed with Neil Young.  They were good, sometimes very good, at most things they tried.  And they managed consistently to achieve this level of “very good” for much longer than Greece maintained their “excellent” status.  But, the Romans never achieved the level of brilliance of Greece.

What kind of dunk the students choose will probably reflect what side they will defend in one of our year’s great debates on whether Greece was superior to Rome, or vice-versa.

Next we will examine Roman civilization.  As usual we will begin with geography.  If we look at a topographical map of Italy, how might we expect Italian geography to influence Roman civilization?  How might this differ from how Greek geography influenced the Greeks?

More on this next week.

Many thanks,

Dave

Traditional Strengths

About a month ago Jordan Peterson returned to the public eye after a long period of dealing with his own personal and family medical issues. Controversy followed him in his earlier rise to prominence, and sure enough, controversy picked up where it left off with his first major interview in years with the Sunday Times. It appears that the published interview, and the unpublished edited transcript, show that the Times performed something of a hit piece. Given the mainstream media’s general dislike of Peterson (I also am critical of certain aspects of his message, and appreciative of others), some called into question why he would give the interview at all. One could easily assume that it came from weakness–a desire to correct the “embarrassment” of his departure from the public eye and subsequent issues with medication. Others questioned why he would, even with the best of motives, open himself up to the “jackals” of leftist media.

Peterson acknowledged the issues and explained some of his motivation on his website, writing,

So, what would a wise man do?

Learn my lesson, and avoid the press at all cost? But I don’t know how to distinguish that from turning my tail and hiding, and I think that would be worse for me, even in my currently compromised state, than continuing to engage as I have.

Only choose to make myself available to outlets that will produce positive coverage? First, how do I know which outlets are trustworthy. I could only talk to people with whom I have become friendly, such as David Rubin and Joe Rogan. But I don’t think it’s right to stay inside what risks becoming a mere echo chamber.

Was it a mistake for me to conduct the now-infamous Channel Four interview with Cathy Newman? Or the almost equally-viewed GQ interview with Helen Lewis? Both of those were markedly hostile. Were they failures, or successes? I don’t think it is unreasonable to note that they are markedly of our time, and perhaps indicate something important–whatever that might be–about our time. Both have garnered some 25 million views. There’s something of broad public interest about the tension that characterizes both conversations….

GQ, motivated by the success (?) of the Helen Lewis interview, plans to produce a profile on me in the near future. I have been asked to make myself available for an interview. Should I do it? I haven’t decided. If it goes badly, will I only have myself to blame? Should I therefore avoid it?

I hope to be judicious in my decisions about when and where to speak. I hope that I can stick to the truth when I do so, and believe that there is no better defense (and, indeed, no better offense) than that? Do I trust myself to tell the truth? Will my ego invariably get in the way? Has that already happened?

As the man says: You pays your money and you takes your chances.

I have no idea if Peterson should continue to give such interviews. But his “staying the course” I feel shows at least some strength. He gave such interviews before, which people interpreted in different ways. He can continue to give such interviews, with likely the same result–people will continue to disagree about him, perhaps even sharply so. But if he chooses the path of more mainstream interviews I will not condemn him. The temptation invariably will tend, however, towards seeing that choice as a weakness–as a love of attention, as an attempt to cover over his illness, etc. We love to break down narratives and deconstruct.

Within the Pseudepigrapha there exists a delightful story called “Joseph and Aseneth,” which details the marriage between the biblical Joseph and the daughter of the priest of On (Gen. 41:45). Essentially, Aseneth has great beauty and is much desired throughout the land of Egypt, but refuses to consider marriage to the great Joseph. Joseph, for his part, wants nothing to do with someone devoted to idols. But Aseneth repents, forsakes her gods, and marries Joseph, all the while preventing a clash between Joseph’s brothers and the Pharoah’s eldest son.

What struck me in particular the means whereby the editor (someone named C. Burchard) of the text framed the story. First, we have the insinuation that the story is designed to cover over an embarrassment–“How could Joseph–the model of chastity, piety, and statesmanship, marry a foreign Hamitic girl, daughter of an idolatrous priest?”* Rather–should we not see the story in terms of the triumph of the whole biblical narrative? If we read the Old Testament from Christ backwards, we should expect to see marriages to foreigners as a foreshadowing of Christ “wooing” the Gentiles into the Kingdom of God.

Second, despite the clear statement that, “The book is an author’s work, not a folk tale which has no progenitor,” the editor seeks here and there for textual origins of the story. I apologize, for I have little stomach for the minutiae of scholars on such questions, though I admit the minutiae has its place at times. I feel, however, that often we make things too complicated. He sees the origin of the story’s framework in various kinds of Greek literature, writing, “More helpful is hellenistic romance [most agree that the story was originally written in Greek], especially the erotic variety as represented by the Great Five, “Chariton’s ‘Chaereas and Calirrrhoe,’ Xenophon of Ephesus . . . [etc.]” I confess I have no idea who these authors are, but again–might we not be trying too hard for the sake of trying too hard? Isn’t there plenty of “origin” within the Old Testament itself, i.e., the Song of Songs, Hosea and Gomer, or the Book of Ruth for such romantic tales?

Though I lack all of the technical knowledge possessed by the editor, and therefore perhaps should not judge–yet–what bothers me is

  • The idea that tales such as “Joseph and Aseneth” present themselves to cover gaps, to explain away embarrassments, etc. rather than expand/magnify the existing tradition.
  • The idea that traditions are inherently weak, that they must constantly fill from the outside in

Essentially, the problem I encounter at times (though perhaps I judge the editor C. Burchard too harshly) involves focusing so much on the bark of one tree that no one sees the forest.^

Rachel Hallote’s Death, Burial, and Afterlife in the Biblical World suffers from a similar problem. Her main thesis involves showing that the burial practices she uncovered show that the Israelites borrowed heavily from pagan practices in other peoples, and therefore failed to follow Mosaic law in their attitude towards the dead. Well, given the many denuniciations found in the prophets and elsewhere, the fact that Israel broke various commandments should not surprise us. We do not need an archaeologist to tell us this, though some of the burial details could illumine how they broke biblical law and whom they might have borrowed from. But, hearkening back to my earlier point, many scholars see themselves in the role of breaking down traditions by finding smoking guns in the historical record. When they do so, they sometimes miss the forest, as I think Rachel Hallote has in her book.

Hallote’s central point revolves around her observations that, while the Mosaic Law seems to mandate a definitive break between the living and dead, and that Israelite burial practices show a much more fluid relationship between them. Her main observations include:

  • Evidence of family members buried in agricultural fields, and not strictly formal graves. While at first glance this may seem disrespectful, Hallote and others speculate that the dead were to function as sentinels, in a sense, of fields laying fallow. Israel practiced this, as did other Middle Bronze Age cultures.
  • Iron and Bronze age burials of family members also took place under houses, indicating a continued relationship with the departed. The members buried under houses might be those still thought in need of care in some way, such as children or the elderly–not those in between, who might be buried in fields.
  • A strong suggestion that alternate forms of burial, such as placing a body under a stone mound, likely indicated that such a person was to receive no offerings, prayers, etc. It was a way of marking that person as ‘cursed’ in some way (i.e., Josh. 8:29, 10:27).

I see her chapter “The Cult of the Dead in Ancient Israel ” as central to her thesis. She cites various proscriptions about not participating in “sacrifices” to the dead, common among the Canaanites. She then goes on to point out that various Old Testament texts show that Israelites participated in such practices, such as Ps. 106:28. Certain particular archaeological finds certainly can illumine these texts for us. But she puts all of her eggs into the archaeology basket–everything similar from the Israelites and the Canaanites regarding their dead for her must mean an unbiblical syncretism. She cites a variety of passages from 1 Samuel to show that Israelites conducted yearly worship service families for their dead (1 Sm. 1:21, 2:19, 20:6, 20:29), which apparently the Canaanites also held. Yet no condemnation exists that I am aware of for such services (one of the references involves the soon to be crowned David and the family of Jesse).

Where Hallote sees embarrassment, I see strength. Some time ago my wife knew a lady that attended a particular church with a distinct fundamentalist leaning. Our friends’ skirts were inevitably the length of her shins. Obviously, skirts too short would be immodest. But at that time, long flowing skirts were very much in fashion. Thus, to avoid “worldliness” one had to wear modest skirts that out of fashion–to wear something modest but “fashionable” would not cut it. Should shin length skirts shoot up in popularity, her church would switch to those of a longer length. When one tacks so much to the world around them, “strength” is not the word most would use. Ideally one has such confidence in their way of life, that the world around them fades as a reference point. So in Deut. 26:13-14, Hallote sees evidence of Mosaic law making a concession to existing practices that Israelite leaders cannot control, rather than establishing a clear delineation between having a relationship with the dead and offering them sacrifices. She sees weakness where she should see strength.

So, not every Canaanite practice is “wrong,” just as not every fashion choice the “world” makes Christians need to avoid. A further distinction Hallote misses shows the limits of what archaeology can prove. To praise the dead is not worship. To remember the dead is not worship. To pray for them is not to worship them (i.e, 2 Macc. 12). To ask them to pray for us is not worshiping them. To offer sacrifices to them–that is worship, and that the Law and the Prophets condemns.

Archaeology deals with “facts,” with observational, physical data. So when Hallote observes practices that allow for a narrowly “physical” meaning, that is what she puts forth. So the Israelites used spices for the dead because of the smell of decomposition in the hot weather. Or, they buried people under trees to provide a kind of fertilization. To her credit, when such a narrow interpretation would lead into absurdity, she backs off (as in the above cited examples about burials in fields, for example). But why not apply that same symbolic understanding to all of what she sees? Surely, a trees at least have a great deal of rich layers of meaning attached to them. Surely death itself is a great mystery and only the barest minority of us deals with it in a strictly physical manner.

Archaeology can give wonderful insights into particular matters, and the strengths of Hallote’s work share in the strengths of that field. But trees can never show you the forest.

Dave

*After writing this, upon reflection and a re-read, I may have read the editor’s intro to the story (C. Burchard, found in Charlesworth’s collection of the Pseudepigrapha, p. 177 ff.) too critically. A week later I am not as confident in my interpretation above–the idea of the editor that the story meant to cover an embarrassment. I still think it likely given the tone and content of the intro, but I may be over-sensitive. If anyone else reads it for themselves and wants to offer a correction, my ears are open. Of course, this initial reading of the Burchard’s intro formed the basis of this haphazard post, so naturally I cannot question my initial reading too substantially.

**The story may be of Christian or Jewish origin. Either way, there is the fascinating renaming of Aseneth to “City of Refuge.” If the story is of Jewish origin, it shows that Marian typology, i.e., Mary as the “City of God” has its roots within Jewish tradition. If the story is of Christian origin, it shows us how to read back into stories “types of Mary” just as we can read back “types of Christ.”

^I find it perfectly natural that western scholars should seek to deconstruct traditions, for they would naturally view traditions as weak. Modern western civilization is built on a rejection of tradition. It is in our cultural DNA to assume that traditions are weak because we naturally assume a kind of unreality about them. Thus, it seems we must continually find underdogs to keep our culture moving at all.

The Mirror Crack’d

Some years ago I saw a video about the emergence of Greek culture and the talking heads discussed the magnificent achievements of Greek drama.  Before talking about the drama itself, they mentioned the origins of drama, though only very briefly.  After all, Greek drama began in the worship of Dionysius, a confusing and strange subject for modern ears. I found it fascinating to watch the speakers deal with this aspect of Greek civilization.  They hated being on unfamiliar territory — unfamiliar not so much intellectually, that is, but emotionally and experientially.

Briefly,

  • Dionysian worship started with women sneaking off illegally, or at least shamefully, for their rites. Dionysius himself occupied, at minimum, the barest fringe of Greek religion.  Some of the commentators latched onto this, for it promised a narrative we could identify with.  “Aha!  A sisterhood of oppressed women, sharing radical beliefs! And observe the vital contribution they made to their society and the world at large, etc.”  But Dionysian rites also involved men, too, so they couldn’t press that narrative too far.
  • The Dionysian rites for women also seemed to involve ecstatic experiences invoking bulls, snakes, wine, and so on. This too got the barest mention, for the “oppressed sisterhood” narrative didn’t really match the fact that Dionysius was a fertility god, and so the women may have been praying and dancing furiously for the chance to have children, a very traditional “role” (ha!) for women to play.
  • To add insult to injury, male Dionysian worship may have invoked blessings to “survive ordeals.”  This got no mention at all.  It appears that these “rebels” danced around madly and got drunk to attempt to fulfill the most prosaic of traditional gender roles of “tough guy,” and “nurturing mother.”  This square peg had no place in their round hole interpretations.

So, after passing over all this in the quickest fashion, finally smiles came to their faces as they talked about the drama itself. Here they felt far more comfortable.  Greek drama “allows for the community to come together and deal with issues of importance,” or something like that.  Ah, yes, the “humanism” of the Greeks.  This we understand, so this they talked about at length.  Gone were any of the religious associations involving Dionysius.  The important thing to us is the emergence of drama, for without the emergence of drama, how could we watch Dumb and Dumber today instantly on Netflix?*  And we very naturally assume that what is important to us must have been of prime importance to the Greeks.  Dionysian worship, then, got relegated to a mere carrying device for what we understand and what we feel is important.  As a friend of mine stated, whenever we use a word to describe an ancient people that they themselves did not use (in this case, the word “humanism”), we will likely reach false conclusions. The talking heads are not unusual. Most of us unfortunately avoid confrontations with the “other.”

I don’t like anything Tennyson wrote (to be fair I’ve read very few of his works), but his poem “The Lady of Shallot” intrigues me in one way.  The Lady in question deals with a curse, and can only look at reflections in a mirror to ascertain reality.  The mirror of course serves as a poor substitute of reality, and later cracks upon her sad and untimely death.

Out flew the web and floated wide-

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shalott.

Tennyson’s work came from the same spiritual place as the dreaded pre-Raphaelites, whose paintings reveal an intense desire to recover something of antiquity.  And yet the grossly over-dramatized version of the past in their eyes reveals far more about themselves, with their aspirations fit perhaps for the teenage soul more than an adult world (hence L.M. Montgomery has her young Anne of Green Gables grow fascinated with the “Lady of Shallot”).

All of us tend to distort reality to fit our own images of it, but the way the Parthenon has been interpreted over time stands as one of the more curious episodes of this typical human folly.  Joan Breton Connelly chronicles this and gives her own interpretation of the architectural masterpiece in her recent book, The Parthenon Enigma.  The building occupies pride of place in the history of western civilization.  Its marble facade inspired those who saw it to grand notions of ideal beauty.  The building’s perfect proportions inspired noble visions of clarity and a sense of true humanity.  Certain technical achievements of the building are practically unparalleled.

But we made the building in our own image, and Connelly writes to set the record straight.  Ever since the Enlightenment we have seen the Parthenon as reflecting the “humanism” of the Athenians.  We have some justification for this.  If you trace the religion of the Athenians one sees a clear descent from Aeschylus (who takes religion seriously) to Thucydides (who didn’t).  The Athenians elected Pericles to multiple terms of their highest office, and he certainly fits the humanist mold. Observers therefore assumed, as the Parthenon was Pericles’ project that it would reflect his values.  Then again, maybe not.

She has two main arguments, with the first drawn from the he Parthenon friezes, long thought to depict contemporary Athenians mingling with the gods.  Connelly has an ironclad argument that Athens instead hearkens to not to its present but its mythological past.  At Athens’ founding it had a king named Erechtheus, who had three daughters that sacrificed themselves that Athens might survive (images below on a Parthenon frieze).  Athens makes an explicit statement, and explicit prayer of hope, that death might come from life with the Parthenon.

Amidst our wondering at the architectural genius of the building and the democratic (and therefore mostly familiar) practices of the Athenians, we forget that the Parthenon was a temple to Athena.  Excavations show that they built the Parthenon on top of an older temple, so clearly the Parthenon was sacred space, and not merely civic space with a civic purpose.

Corinthian_Column_Head_JerashModern eyes miss many such death-life associations in Greece.  For example, look up any article on Corinthian columns and you will likely see something about their fancy, or perhaps excessive, ornamentation.  Certainly Corinthian columns do not fit with Enlightenment sensibilities about classical decorum and proportion — such people always prefer the Ionic column (I prefer the Ionic — to the right — as well so I don’t mean to cast stones).  But Connelly points out that the plants in Corinthian columns hearken back to ancient myths about death and rebirth in their city.  Articles may describe Corinthian columns as “one example of a Greek votive column” (as one site does) without paying any attention at all to the fact that “votive” columns, like votive candles, have a distinctly religious purpose.  It’s almost as if they use the big words to obscure the meaning.  We will have the Greeks be “humanists” by hook or crook.

A fascinating sub-plot is the length Victorian society went to deny that the Parthenon originally was painted.  Evidence after evidence turned up, mostly brushed aside and denied with too much protest.  A painted Parthenon would overturn all of their ideas of classical beauty and classical purity.  Whole artistic theories got erected on an unpainted Parthenon, and they could not let it go.  This in turn clouded their vision in other areas, and allowed false ideas about the Parthenon to persist well into the 20th century.

725-1422641769E21CEBE6B

Did the Parthenon have no contemporary political meaning?  Perhaps . . . perhaps Pericles wanted to heal the fractious wounds of a prosperous democracy.  Success has never sat well with democracies, and it would make sense that Athens would want to go back to its founding and a story of sacrifice for the common good.  All this rings partially true, but the bulk of the evidence makes the Parthenon an overtly religious shrine — one that seeks life from death.  Plenty of evidence exists that Athenians saw it this way themselves.  For example, during the plague that struck during the Peloponnesian War, sick Athenians came to the Parthenon for refuge, as well as for healing, and possibly, to die.  It would be hard to imagine them doing so if the Parthenon was their equivalent of our Capitol or Washington Monument.

But this interpretation also challenges my own thoughts regarding the Parthenon.  The “humanist” interpretation fit how I tended to see the late 5th century Athenians as essentially worshippers of themselves.  This view gets lots of support from seeing contemporary Athenians mixed with gods on the Parthenon friezes.  With the Parthenon cast in this new light, I think that interpretation gets challenged but not overthrown.  I think other evidence exists for seeing the Athenians as self-worshippers, and perhaps the Parthenon itself still supports that view.  But this will need rethinking on my part.

The lesson of this book is the peril of using history rather than receiving and letting it change you. Self-idolatry is alas, not only confined only to the Greeks, or the Enlightenment and Victorian eras.

Dave

*To be fair, this is actually a pretty good movie . . .

8th Grade: The Possible Alexanders

Greetings,

This week we examined the brief and turbulent life of Alexander the Great, a man who has enthralled people for centuries.  No one conquered more people quicker than he.  Of course, his early death immortalized him and helps us tend to see his successes.

I offered the students four different ways of thinking about Alexander, adopted by different historians in different times and places.

  1. Historian J.F.C. Fuller sees in Alexander one the great men of the ancient world.  In him we see statesman, philosopher, and man of action all rolled into one.  He at times sunk to the morals of his time, but often rose above them.
  2. Some see Alexander as the embodiment of a romantic ideal, a young boy out to change the world, an idealist visionary.  A variation of this view would be one that does not see Alexander in primarily moral terms, but views him as a “force of nature.”  We do not call a tornado good or bad, but we cannot help but stand and stare, perhaps even in spite of ourselves.
  3. Some see him as a great military leader, but a failed statesman.  Great generals win battles, but great statesman get men to transform their view of the world.  Regardless of how we view Alexander’s desire to unite East and West, he failed to sell this to his men and his dream collapsed.
  4. Still others, like Victor Davis Hanson, see in Alexander a common thug, a man who lived to kill.  He massacred Thebans and most in Tyre after their defeats.  Like Stalin, most of those close to him ended up dead.  He demanded practices like prostration, and may have believed what his mother told him, that he was the Son of Zeus.  Hanson sees admiration for Alexander as dangerous, a symptom of boredom and our will to escape this boredom through death.

This image of Alexander, though made long after his death, captures something of his madness, focus, brilliance, and lust for conquest:

alex11

alexander2

The battle that defined Alexander’s life and career was Guagemela in 331 B.C.

He had already beaten the Persians decisively twice, but this time Darius III, king of Persia, seemed to have learned his lesson.  He choose a wide open plain for battle, which could maximize his numeric advantage which was probably at least 5-1.  He brought with him chariots, one of the fearsome weapons of the ancient world.  He gave more heavy weaponry to his infantry.

Many of Alexander’s advisors urged him to wait, to go around, or perhaps fight Darius at night.  Alexander would have none of it.  He would not, he argued, “steal his victory.”

How did an army of around 45,000 defeat an army at least 5x its size?

Part of understanding Alexander’s victory is to see that many problems that most generals traditionally worried about Alexander felt he could ignore.  For example, most generals would take troops to protect supplies, but Alexander didn’t mind if the Persians raided his supplies.  If he won the battle, he could march straight to Babylon and have all the supplies he needed.

Alexander also believed that he make up for his lack of numbers by speed.  In fact, he probably hoped that the deficiency in his own numbers might provoke the Persians to over-commit themselves in a certain area, leaving a gap in their lines.  By a lightning quick cavalry thrust from what may have been the best cavalry in the known world at the time, Alexander could cause panic and confusion in the ranks, and once that set in, Persia’s numbers would work against them.  Imagine a horrible accident on the interstate that forces people to turn around and redirect their route.  In that case, this redirection would be much more easily accomplished with fewer numbers.  The large amount of cars, or people in our case at Guagemela, would make for nightmarish confusion.

Here are a couple of depictions of how things went.

It was the gap in the Persians indicated by the map directly above, that gave Alexander the opening he needed.  He plunged through and rode right at Darius, who lost his nerve and fled.

I confess that I am cheating a bit with the image above, because most think that this mosaic depicted Darius’s flight at the Battle of Issus two years earlier.   But accurate or not, Darius fled the scene in both battles, and this, just as much as Alexander’s cavalry charge, cost the Persians the battle.

Guagemela stands for all time as Alexander’s most impressive victory and crowning achievement.  It also may have marked a turning point in his character.  Darker elements always latent in him rose to the surface much more often than before.

Dave

8th Grade: The Parthenon

Greetings,

Recently we spent time looking at the Parthenon in Athens, in my opinion one of the greatest buildings ever constructed.  I think that looking at architecture is one of the best ways to gain insight into the past.  I didn’t come up with this idea, but borrowed it from the man to whom this site pays homage.  As I have said before, a civilization might throw a banking system together haphazardly, but would not do so with a sculpture.  And buildings, more so than individual works of genius, reveal more because they involve the mind and skills of whole civilizations.

Here is what the building probably looked like ca. 435 B.C.

Parthenon Original

They built it atop of their Acropolis, the highest point in the city which served as Athens’ religious epicenter.

Acropolis Recreation

The building as it looks today. . .

Of course most people when first gazing upon the Parthenon usually think, “Yes it’s good, but what’s the big deal?”  We understand instinctively perhaps the influence this style has had on western culture.  Banks, the Supreme Court, and almost any other building that wants to convey wisdom and trust copy this style.  That in itself should clue us in that the Athenians had something special in their design, but we have to look closely to see the real genius of the Athenians.

When we look at tall buildings like skyscrapers on the Washington Monument, at least from certain angles, the buildings do not appear straight.  Built with 90 degree right angles, our eyes fail to perceive the perfectly straight.  I don’t understand the science of why this happens, but we have all experienced it.  Part of it has to do with how our converging line of sight deceives us.  For example. . .

the top line appears longer, but is in fact the same size as the bottom line.  In this second image the middle lines appear bowed, but are perfectly straight.

The Athenians understood this and built the Parthenon to compensate for the tricks our eyes play.  Each column has extremely slight variations throughout its many cylinders, sometimes with fractions of a millimeter the only thing distinguishing one block from another.  But the cumulative effect compensates for our vision and always makes the columns appear perfectly straight.  The following images exaggerate the effect, but give us the basic idea of what the Greeks accomplished:

Parthenon Columns

In fact a close look at the Parthenon reveals few right angles.  Each of the thousands of column drums remains an unique construction to that particular column.  This is not a lego set of interchangeable parts, but each part of the building stands as work of art unto itself.  If you have the time and interest, this video, and especially the last 30 minutes, give a good overview of their techniques in creating this building.

We can and should marvel at its construction, but we should go one step further and ask what the Parthenon means, and whey the Athenians built it as they did.  In class we focused on a few key areas:

  • The Greek Ideal of Perfection

In much of their philosophy and politics, the Greeks searched for the abstract ideal beyond the visible, a trend that would not really shift until Aristotle.  The Romans, for example, or at least the early Republican Romans, rarely idealized people when depicting them,

Cato the Elder

but we can say with only slight exaggeration that the Greeks did nothing but idealize people in their sculpture.

The Athenians went to tremendous lengths to bring make this ideal of perfection at least  seem  real among them in stone.

  • A Theological Statement

In theory, the Athenians built the Parthenon as a temple to Athena.  Originally a huge 35 foot statue of Athena overlaid in gold stood right at the center inside the building.  But architecture rarely lies.  The figures on the outside of the Parthenon tell a different story.  Here the Athenians put sculptures of Athenian heroes, with the clear intent of showing that the gods and men can intermingle, that Athens itself can achieve the perfection the gods embody.

That, at least, is one interpretation.

But another interpretation argues that this “temple” to Athena merely served as a cover for their true (even if subconscious) intent to glorify themselves.  It would be as if we built a church and called it “Trinity Church,” but put images of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc. throughout (this actually begs the question of whether or not American flags should reside in churches, or perhaps whether or not the Capitol building is a church of sorts).

  • Mankind as the Measure

The Greek philosopher Protagoras has received a lot of bad press over the years for his comment that, “Man is the measure of all things,” and deservedly so.  But before we critique him we should understand the context of what he said and ask ourselves if the Greek gods were good “measures” of things.  Clearly, Protagoras and other philosophers had a measure of genuine spiritual insight in rejecting standard Greek religion as a guide for their lives.  The gods lived lives free of consequence, free of any restraint other than the power of other gods.

In the Parthenon the Greeks did not use the “eternal” or “mystical” dimensions as in the pyramids.  Some suggest that the proportions of the building in fact reflect the proportions found in the human body, as represented in Da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man” (named after a famous Roman architect).

Vitruvian Man

What exactly the Greeks meant by this phrase, “man is the measure of all things” is not clear to me, at least. It may have been a statement of moral relativism, or it may have been a theological/cosmological assertion that mankind functioned as a “microcosm” of the cosmos itself.  After all, we have physical elements to our being and spiritual elements.   Our higher, “heavenly” aspect (the intellect) guides our “lower,” more earthly parts, and so on.  Again, I’m not sure how to unwrap this phrase, and I’m happy to add it to the list of mysteries surrounding the Parthenon.

Blessings,

Dave

8th Grade: The Military Revolution of Macedon

Greetings,

This week we began looking at Macedonian civilization, and as usual we began with geography.

The map shows Macedon as a land-locked and mountainous area, and we would expect this kind of terrain to have a particular emphasis on its people. . .

Map

  • Mountainous areas are always difficult to control, leading to weak central governments
  • Usually an aristocratic warrior elite seeps into the culture, which usually divides the people into warring clans (for this and the above point, think of Afghanistan, which has a similar geography to Macedon).
  • With this environment, we usually see a low level of cultural output, due to their relative isolation and internal divisions (this is not the case with Scotland, but Scotland is not land-locked as Macedon is).

I was glad to see the students start to make connections between Macedon, Assyria, and Sparta.  All three share a similar geography, and all three share a similar geographic position — on the periphery of their respective societies.  Sparta and Assyria had stronger central governments than Macedon, but their similarities should make us realize of the power of geography to shape the course of a civilization.

As I mentioned, Macedon had little role in Greek civilization for many centuries.  But as luck would have it, Macedon saw the rise of the charismatic and ruthless Phillip II just at the very moment of Phillip of Macedongrave political weakness for Athens, Thebes, and Sparta.  Opportunity knocked for Macedon.   Phillip looked every inch the tough customer he portrayed, wearing an eye patch over his wounded eye for necessity, and probably, for effect as well.  But Phillip combined his personality and appearance with a keen understanding of how to maximize the qualities of his society into a formidable military machine.

One key to the effectiveness of his military was that he matched the personality of his culture with his army.  Infantrymen in other Greek city-states often came from the middle-upper classes.  He owned land and had a stake in the politics and way of life of his city-state.  The Athenian hoplite, for example, therefore oriented himself toward defense of what he had.  He wore heavy armor and carried a large shield.  This was not a mobile force, but one geared to “make a stand” to defend home turf.  A standard Greek military formation might look like this:

Greek Phalanx

In contrast to other city-states, Macedon had virtually no middle class.  Anyone recruited for the infantry would be either poor or a mercenary.  This type of man would not fight to defend anything in particular.  He has no stake in the society for which he fights.  Such a man might be motivated to take from others, however, and this would require shifting the balance toward an offensively minded and equipped infantry, which you see below:

Macedonian PhalanxIn addition to the long spears you see above, their soldiers also carried a long dagger, another offensive weapon.   While the image above does show the Macedonians with shields, I agree with Victor Davis Hanson (and others) that argue that Macedonian shields had no real function in battle.  They were worn apparently mostly around the neck and draped to the side (as both arms would be needed to wield their spears).  Some argue that the shields were used in battle, but mainly as a prop for their spears.  If this is so, we see that even their shield served as a offensive weapon of sorts.

Phillip’s infantry gave them much more firepower at the point of attack.  Not only did they have longer spears, but because they had to stand sideways to hold the spears, they could fit more men in each row.  Some students wisely pointed out that the Macedonians would be vulnerable to a quick flanking movement, but the Greek infantry Phillip faced was “heavier” infantry, and not equipped for fast movement.  They could not exploit this weakness of Phillip’s force (though a century later, the Romans would do so).

I hope that the students understood that militaries don’t, or at least should not, be created in a vacuum. They function best when they are a direct product of the civilization from which they arise.  Next week we will continue by looking at the most famous Macedonian of all, Phillip’s son Alexander.

Many thanks,

Dave

 

8th Grade: All Good Things Must Come to an End

Greetings,

This week we saw the great golden age of Periclean Athens collapse into the abyss of the Peloponnesian War.  We began the week by asking why “Golden Ages” tend to last not much longer than a generation.

  • Some suggest that the success and power a golden age brings would bring about the envy of others, and this envy could turn into a threat.
  • Another might suggest that the generation that grew up with the ‘golden age’ in place would likely have a much different experience than their parents.  I found this comment especially perceptive.  As we saw last week, golden ages usually arise from a creative response to a particular challenge.  Those that grow up without the challenge won’t have the experience or ‘training’ to continue what their parents started.
  • Last week we also noted how golden ages require a variety of factors coming together at once, some physical and others psychological.  No one can reasonably keep all the plates spinning for long.  Eventually nature dictates that something will begin to spin off the axis sooner or later, and this will drag other things down with it.

Some of their comments did in fact apply directly to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, especially#1.  Athens went from plucky underdog in 490 B.C. to the then equivalent of the New York Yankees or New England Patriots by 431 B.C.  Many city-states lined up against them with Sparta. We did not spend a great deal of time on the war itself, as during their senior year we devote a few weeks entirely to this conflict and the issues it raises, but we did touch on a few key points

1. How in war the unexpected and unforeseen can occur

Of course the unforeseen can always occur, in war or at any other point.  But since war requires a great deal of planning, many assume that the conflict will go as we wish.  The making of the plans itself creates that expectation.  Yet, in war as in life, things rarely go according to our preconceived version of events.

2. Peace treaties may not be what they seem

After 10 years of intermittent conflict, both Athens and Sparta signed a treaty called the Peace of Nicias.  But treaties in name may not be in fact.  Some treaties bring real peace, some only reflect a desire to call a ‘time out’ in the fighting.  Unfortunately for Athens, this treaty turned out to be one of the latter.

3. War Stresses Democracy

War will put stress on any form of government and any society.  Some wars brought down monarchies — like W.W. I.  We assume that democracies are more stable, but the Peloponnesian War brought out many weaknesses within Athenian democracy and for a time ended it within Athens.  We looked at how desperation and panic act on a democratic people in the battle of Arginusae.  The Athenians won this battle, but the generals failed to pick up the dead and give them proper burial, something that could be considered sacrilege, and sacrilege could be punished by death.  Grief stricken, the city put the generals on trial, found them guilty, and executed them.  A few days later they regretted their actions. They put the lawyer who prosecuted the generals on trial for murder, found him guilty, and executed him also.

Ostensibly, Sparta won the Peloponnesian War.  But in truth the war had no real winners in Southern Greece.  All exhausted themselves in the conflict.  Thebes, involved in the conflict but slightly to the north, emerged as the strongest party in the more immediate aftermath of the war.  But it would be Macedon, further still to the north, and never involved in the fighting at all, that would eventually assert absolute supremacy over Greece in the person of Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander.  We’ll look at them next week.

You can see the geography of it below here, with everything pink or yellow caught up in the fighting (with even blue areas involved sporadically), and Macedon waiting patiently above in brown.

Peloponnesian War

For those of you who have seen From Russia with Love, the scene where “Number 1” talks about the Siamese Fighting Fish is a good parallel, if we think of Macedon as the fish who stays out of the fight.

8th Grade: Finding the Persian Center of Gravity

Greetings,

This week we focused on The Persian Wars, a conflict that historians claim marks a transition point between Eastern and Western dominance.  Persia staked a lot of their invasion, and their failure would lead to the rise of Greece in general, and Athens in particular.  Our main focus Thursday and Friday lay with  the Battle of Salamis, one of the more crucial naval engagements of the ancient world.  As I mentioned back in September, one of the things we focus on this year and throughout the history curriculum is how to make choices.  This can be applied in a  variety of different settings, and this week I wanted the students to consider that on the level of strategy and tactics.
  • The Fleets

The Persian fleet was bigger, with a variety of incorporated Greek city-states that had surrendered to Persia.  Ionians, Phonecians, Egyptians and more went into the mixture.  In general, their ships were lighter and faster.  Athens controlled the Greek fleet, and in general they had heavier, bulkier ships.  But the weight of the ships did perhaps produce an innovation, that of a ramming prow.  This in turn, led to a change in how the Athenians fought.  Whereas most ancient navies wanted to get close and board other ships, the Athenians wanted to use their prow to ram other ships and sink them with a broadside charge.The Persians had sacked Athens, and the Athenians in desperation abandoned their city, got in their boats, and headed for the island of Salamis.

  • The Questions:
  1. Would an immediate battle be more to the Persians advantage, or the Greeks?
  2. If a battle were to be fought, what side would have the advantage in wide open water?  What about in more narrow confines?

I enjoyed the student responses to this question, and most of them did get around to seeing that

  • Battle now definitely favored the Greeks, and
  • The geography of the Bay of Salamis definitely favored the Greeks.
 Bay of Salamis
  • Why?
The Athenians needed a battle.  The Persians did not.  With Athens abandoned they could have simply occupied the city, and hemmed in the fleet at Salamis.  If they wait eventually a tired and bedraggled fleet would have to come out of hiding and face the Persians on their terms.  Fighting in the bay itself would mean narrower corridors where the Persians could not use their numbers and speed to their full effect.  Think of a heavier boxer vs. a lighter, quicker opponent.  The heavier one (Athens) seeks to trap or corner the other to take away his advantage.  By fighting in the bay, the Persian fleet gave up much of its advantage.
  • The Result
Again, with so many of our choices there are no guarantees.  We must weigh the options and make our best guess. But it is important not to choose blindly.  So why then, did the Persians attack the Greeks?Here we are back, at least possibly, to the personality of Xerxes.   We saw that both Herodotus and the Book of Esther show us a king who was not wicked, but perhaps indolent, and someone who tended to flit from one thing to another.  Note that Esther 1 begins by describing lavish parties amidst opulent splendor. Herodotus mentions that Xerxes wanted the invasion over as soon as possible.  Ideally, of course, the Persians should have bottled up the fleet, entrenched themselves in the city, and watch Athens suffocate to death.  When Themistocles sent a messenger to lie to the Persians about the disorder in the Greek ranks, the Persians jumped at the chance and moved into the bay to attack.  Xerxes seems a suggestible, impatient type.  “Let’s get this over with. . .”  The result was a complete victory for the Greeks.  It turned the tide of the whole Persian invasion.  Having been smacked on the nose, Xerxes decided enough was enough.  He withdrew most of his navy from the region.  His infantry at current levels could not live off the land in Greece, and besides, winter approached.  Without the navy to supply them, Xerxes withdrew a good portion of his troops back to Persia.  The Battle of Platea in 479 BC would, for all intents and purposes, finish them off.
  • The “Center of Gravity”
Clausewitz used the term “center of gravity” to describe what one colonel described as a “factor of balance” in a campaign.  This does not have to be something purely physical, but in this case, the “factor of balance” in the Persian Wars would surely include control of the sea.  In invading Greece en masse as they did, Persia made naval superiority a key to the campaign.  But for about 75 years prior to this they concentrated their strength on their infantry.  They did not play to their strength. But we might also conclude that the whims of Xerxes would constitute part of the “center of gravity.”  The Book of Esther gives us clues.  Note how casually he decides on the Jews destruction, and how quickly he reverses course.  Of course, it’s good that he changed his mind!  My point, however, is that Xerxes never seemed fitted for the role of a noble kingly persona.  He would much rather not be bothered.  In every conflict, the hidden factor can often be each combatant’s internal political system.  In this case, the nascent democracy of Athens had an advantage over the indolent monarchy of Persia.

8th Grade: Enslaving Others, Enslaving the Self

Greetings,

This week we looked at Spartan civilization and began our look at the beginnings of democracy in Athens.  We will have a test next week on Early Greece.

We began our look at Sparta by examining its geography.  They had access to a limited water supply via a river, but otherwise a variety of mountains nestled them inland, and they had little contact with the sea.  We have seen this kind of geography before — in Assyria.  Geography never commands, but it does suggest, and like Assyria, Sparta developed with an almost exclusive focus on warfare.  One historian commented

When the Spartans found their ploughlands too narrow for their population, they did not turn their eyes to the sea, like the Corinthians or Megarians.   The sea is not visible either from Sparta city or at any point on the Spartan plain.  The natural feature which dominates the Spartan landscape is the towering mountain range of Taygetus.

Archeological records indicate a significant shift in Spartan civilization sometime around the year 730 B.C.  According to tradition a group of Dorian Greeks invaded Sparta successfully, and became the “new” Spartans, enslaving the locals called Messenians.  But they quickly faced a problem.  The Messenians vastly outnumbered them and had already attempted one revolt.  It seemed likely that other revolts would follow, and eventually they would overwhelm their conquerors.

The Spartans could have retreated, or they could have simply slaughtered the inhabitants and moved on somewhere else.  But their solution to the problem seems uniquely Greek to me.  They transformed their society by militarizing it, making every male a soldier, allowing themselves to continually have a challenge to master.  All this provided extra opportunity for showing “arete,” or, “excellence.”  No longer could one choose to be a shoemaker, farmer, and so on.  By 620 B.C., after the second war between Sparta and its enslaved population, every male now carried a spear, and the slaves grew the food.  Herodotus records one  Greek commenting to the Persians in 480 B.C. that

Free though the Spartans are, they are not free altogether.  They too serve a master in the shape of Law.  They show this by doing whatever their master orders, and his orders are always the same: ‘In action it is forbidden to retire in the face of the enemy forces of whatever strength.  Troops are to keep their formation and either conquer or die.

They sacrificed everything to make this happen.  Making every male a soldier, and using the slaves to farm did consolidate their conquest.  But 1) All traces of cultural creativity disappeared, 2) No personal freedom of job, lifestyle, or travel, was allowed, 3) Boys were separated from their families at a young age, 4) Slave economies lack effeciency, so resources were precious.  Any infant deemed physically unfit was usually killed, and so on.  Spartan society  ‘stopped’ in sense.  But they developed the most feared heavy infantry force in ancient Greece, and that was enough to give them power and influence.

This ideal impacted their marriages.  They arranged to have the strongest men marry the strongest women to create the best chances of strong sons.  If marriages did not produce strong children, they were encouraged to look elsewhere.  Women bought into this ideal as well.  They spent their time training their bodies to have children.

Their society had all the strength of a high powered rifle bullet.  Powerful, yes, but narrow in its application.  The Spartans sacrificed what most would consider to be the things that made life worth living, such as personal freedoms, family life, cultural experiences, etc.  Truly, you are what you worship.

Was it worth it?  Some might argue that their slaves lived better lives than the Spartans.  It appears they had more variety in their diet, and possibly more personal freedom as to who they married.  Of course, they had harsh lives under the constant watch of Spartan overlords, but did the Spartans live much better?  The Spartan world and lifestyle had all the narrowness of slavery.  The old adage, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you,” might stand true for the Spartan regime.

Aristotle wrote the best epitaph of the Spartan system, saying,

Peoples ought not to train themselves in the art of war with an eye to subjugating neighbors who do not deserve subjugation. . . . The paramount aim of any social system should be to frame military institutions, like all social institutions, with an eye to peace-time, when the soldier is off duty; and this proposition is borne out by the facts of experience.  For militaristic states are apt to survive only so long as they remain at war, while they go to ruin as soon as they complete their conquests.  Peace causes their metal to lose its temper; and the fault lies with the social system which does not teach its soldiers what to make of their lives when off duty.

Arnold Toynbee concurred and wrote,

The superhuman–or inhuman–fixity of Sparta’s posture, like the [doom] of Lot’s wife, was manifestly a curse and not a blessing.

Blessings,

Dave