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Monthly Archives: March 2007

Hostage-taking redux

March 28th, 2007 - 7:43 am

A Depressing Spectacle

I listened carefully to the Democratic Senators denouncing the effort in Iraq. All were supposed repositories of deep wisdom. Most of them voted for the war, once gave alarmist speeches on the threats of WMD, and now demonize the Iraqi reformers of all people as ingrates who weren’t worth our sacrifices. For each face that came to the podium, I remembered a past quotation: the now shrill Sen. Harry Reid once demanded that we go to war on the basis that Saddam had broken the 1991 armistice accords (a fact no one has contested); the kinetic Sen. Durbin once compared our soldiers to Nazis and Pol Pot; the therapeutic Sen. Patti Murray once praised bin Laden’s social welfare efforts in Afghanistan while castigating the supposed lack of our own. The list goes on. Even more embarrassing pronouncements could be produced for Sens. Kerry (we are a “pariah” nation), Kennedy (we opened up Abu Ghraib under new management, no different from Saddam’s); Biden (we need a troop surge), and so on.

Apparently the American people, if polls and the emboldened nature of the Democratic-controlled Congress are any fair indication, have expressed a desire to return to the past, to withdraw from Iraq, to put Afghanistan out of sight, out of mind—and hope for the best. Yet these are not unilateral decisions, but involve the enemy as well, who may think today Iraq, tomorrow the Gulf, soon the Mediterranean.

Some other tired talking points:

“There is no military solution.” Who denies that? But such reductionism means nothing when no Iraqi politician can craft any meaningful compromise until Anbar province is first secure.

“It’s time the Iraqis step up.” Of course, they should. But it’s difficult for 25 million to do so when under daily assault by a few thousand killers in their midst who kidnap, behead, and now employ poison gas. How odd that liberals are the most vehement illiberal critics of liberal Iraqis.

“George Bush did …” Of course, as President he is responsible for the war. But he went to war only after seeking approval from Congress, and not only got it, but also as dessert impassioned speeches from the Democratic Congress on why he should. His policy was approved in two national elections, and when it wasn’t in the third, he changed personnel and tactics.

“We are in the middle of a civil war.” It would be wise, then, to cite a civil war akin to Iraq. We are in the middle of gang fighting, sectarian violence, the killing by a few against the many, but not two antithetical and organized factions and forces that offer different futures for Iraq, not when Sunnis are in the government, some Sunni tribes are fighting al Qaida, who in turn is fighting against Shiite militias, who themselves are at odds with each other. Better to call it a modern Corycra, a bellum omnium contra omnes. The latest poll showed that Iraqis who are dying did not think they are in a civil war. It is not the Civil War of Lee versus Grant, but something more akin to the Kansas bloodletting, as modern-day bushwackers do their dirty business.

“We took our eye off the real war in Afghanistan.” Would some Democrat explain exactly how to invade nuclear Islamic Pakistan and kill the al Qaeda leadership responsible for 9/11? Anything less is more of the same hot air. And we seem to think that a country of 300 million cannot fight in Afghanistan and Iraq simultaneously, when just 60 years ago, a country not much more than a third of our size defeated Germany, Japan, and Italy all at once, and then mobilized to face off its former ally, the Soviet Union.

And then there was the timing. Democrats the last two years called for Rumsfeld’s head, for more troops to be deployed, for a change of military leadership in Iraq—and now got all three. But no sooner has Dr. Petraeus arrived and inaugurated his radically different way of doing things, than the Democrats wish to cut off his funds before the verdict is in.

The Sewnami as metaphor

A small village is Gaza was flooded by a burst sewage reservoir. Four Palestinians were drowned, 20 injured, numerous homes buried.

And the reaction? As predictable as it was swift: the international community was to blame for cutting off funds and thus did not upgrade the overworked system for the Palestinians. That such funds were not part of those ended after the terrorist organization Hamas’s election, or that the repairs might have begun had not the Palestinians kept up their terrorism that scared workers off meant little.

All that meant little because we see the ‘beyond the absurd’ now on the West Bank and Gaza. There are $500 billion in excess petrodollar profits floating around the Middle East after the climb to $65 a barrel for oil. None seems to find their way to the Arab brethren on the West Bank. And why would it, when most Gulf sheikdoms know that most of the money would be siphoned off by gangs, warlords, and terrorists?

There is a pervasive ‘the man did it’. Fill in the blanks: the UN, the Jews, the Americans, the West, etc. Never cited is what Thucydides called the unspoken aitia, the “truest cause”, that of an endemic failure of Palestinians to take responsibilities for their own destiny, to accept that the existence of Israel is permanent, that for right now there is plenty of land to build a thriving lawful society, but a dearth of reasonable people who prefer the hard work of peace to the lazy sport of gratuitous killing.

Take away Middle East oil, terrorism, and anti-Semitism from the equation, and the Palestinians would garner almost no attention, surely not as much as the genuine needs of those now neglected in Dafur or Zimbabwe.

The Ripples of 1979

Jimmy Carter established the Western precedent, amplified by Ronald Reagan in the arms-for-hostages deals, that there is almost nothing a Western government won’t do to retrieve its kidnapped citizens. Now we see his ripples, as Iran promises to release the female soldier. If there are any minorities among the 15, expect them to follow as in 1979. Iran has “issues” with plenty of other governments. Why not kidnap a Russian diplomat in protest of cessation of fissionable material? The cynic answers that Russian assassination squads and worse might be turned loose.

Iran is betting that that a guilt-ridden and exhausted British public—scolded for decades over its past in Persia, furious at the Iraq war of “Blair-Bush,” having gutted the British military for social programs that bring demands for more rather than gratitude—won’t or can’t do anything. The EU, Iran’s biggest trading partner, won’t want to give up such profits and so will shrug, ‘Why were you Brits there in the first place?’ NATO is, well, NATO, a Potemkin alliance that exists to the degree the United States acts.

If I were a European sea captain, I would not venture forth from port unless accompanied by US ships, knowing that I could be attacked without repercussions at any time, and could do little about it. How odd the more the European public wants distance from the United States, the more its ships on the high seas will seek our companionship.

This is different from the USS Cole incident, since there is no deniability of culpability: the Iranian government itself is the admitted hostage-taker. Yemen fobbed responsibility off on “terrorists.” We still should have acted after the attack, but targeting the culprits was said to be more difficult.

The China downing was likewise different in that China is a billion-person nuclear power, but one that also made it clear pretty early on that the personnel would eventually be released.

What to do? Europe should cease all trade immediately with Teheran, and enforce a global financial boycott of its commerce. The UN should return to session to expand its watered-down sanctions. And the US fleet should review its rules of engagement to ensure that we shoot at even the close approach of Iranian vessels.

Hostage-taking works

In the medieval ages, hostage-taking was a lucrative business. The Ottomans in the 16th century made it a national money-maker by sweeping over the Mediterranean to intercept any Italian or Spanish galley they could. 1970s South America and Mexico saw serial hostage-taking. It is predicated on two principles: the victim’s kin or country have the money and willingness to meet the demands, valuing life more than honor, and the kidnapper keeps the prize alive and lets it go after concessions or money, are granted, hoping to perpetuate the industry as long as possible.

But Iran is weakening

Still, this crisis is a sign of Iranian weakening, a rabid dog gnashing at any blur that comes into the field of its declining eyesight. Money spent getting nukes and spreading terrorism is not spent at home, and so one of the world’s largest oil producers imports gasoline and must bribe consumers with subsidies. Iran has few friends, only wary customers. Its people despise the government, not yet enough to risk life to overthrow it— but enough to spread enough cynicism to result in rioting when food or fuel grow scarce.

Outtake # 9—No Man A Slave

The Spartans are trapped at Leuktra, their king Kleombrotos dead. But just as the Thebans are to crush the final circle and carry off Kleombrotos, Lichas charges through the enemy to save his the body of his king, and nearly kills Chion, Melon, and Epaminondas as he finds a path out.

Lichas and his son cared nothing for the collapse of the Spartan ranks, much less the truth that the day of his parochial state was over. No worry that its dwindling manhood would never again march far to the north as it had for a 100 seasons and more.

No, it was enough that they were Spartans. Now in the joy of battle, now with their grip on shield and spear, whether that was here in the north or far to the east. His son was with him. Good men still lived. Life was sweet, the best when in the hammer and tongs of battle.

Spearing Persians or Thebans, it mattered little. Whether in the heyday of Spartan power or now amid its twilight also countered for nothing. Lichas was Spartan and in his armor, the gear of no less than Lysander himself. So he was stalking proudly and upright despite his age. If the Spartans were to lose, they would lose the way of Leonidas and Lichas, killing as they protected their king with all blows to their front.

The stabbing now grew fiercer still, and Lichas smiled as he heard the dying around him in vain begging the Keres to pass them by, the vultures of death now back above Melon, but who kept their wide distance from Lichas lest such a man strike even them a lethal blow.

Then without missing a step, Lichas stepped on the downed Chion’s chest and tried to stomp the slave to death. The slave rolled away, and Lichas moved on to finish off others less dangerous.

But the slave stumbled somehow to his feet, bellowing, “Chion lives! Kill the king! Where is Kleombrotos?” Then Chion crashed to the ground again, still muttering as the battle raged past him.

Lichas next slammed his freed shaft with an upward flat stroke against the helmet of the onrushing Epaminondas himself. Before Epaminondas could recover from the slap and with his men swarm such a killer, old Lichas stooped down, and with one fluid motion, more a god now than human, picked up his bleeding king, slung him over his back, and used his body as a shield to batter himself a way out back through what was left of the guard. Antikrates backpedaled behind his father, screaming for all those still alive to follow the path of the old man.

They were aiming at an escape route, perhaps back through the shattered circle and on right through the Sacred Band to the open country—slashing and shouting as their leader went ahead, “Turn Spartans. Turn back. Draw back from these stinking pigs. Apostrepesthe tôn suôn. They will not have our Kleombrotos. They will not have a Spartan king for their slop. Not today, not ever.”

There were perhaps only 100 Spartans still alive in the circle who broke out with Lichas, the bald hoplite god, roaring to all, “Not today, not ever, not today, not ever—ou sêmera, oupote, ou sêmera, oupote.

These were desperate and defeated men, abandoned by their allies, surrounded by the Boiotians. But such killers were now buoyed by this late appearance of their bloody Ares, their god Lichas who had always found a path out for them.

With Lichas they were determined to fight their way out with their Kleombrotos rather than surrender. With Lichas by rote they returned to all their training and as if awoken from their trance backpedaled in column.

With Lichas, almost magically they wheeled around and plunged ahead through Pelopidas’s men to their rear who thought the battle was long over. With Lichas in the armor of Lysander they could do anything! One man, a single man like Lichas was worth a lochos, maybe two.

Ag Subsidies Always to the Rescue?

The Democrats’ bill to strangle the war effort is loaded with give-aways to ‘farmers.’ Do we remember “Freedom to Farm”—the bipartisan $40 billion something bill in 1996 that gave farmers cash, no strings attached, in exchange for eliminating subsidies within seven years?

Then going into its 6th year, 9/11 came along and the agribusiness community (I say agribusiness because only a few thousand receive large subsidies, with all statuses of farmers themselves comprising about 1% of the population) rushed to nullify the agreement under a new national security bill. I wrote about it once for the Wall Street Journal in 2002 (“Gimme, gimme, gimme: http://victorhanson.com/articles/hanson021002.html).

Apart from the war, on the matter of more subsidies, free-market conservatives should oppose this bill on grounds that it interferes with the market and distorts free enterprise; egalitarian liberals should deplore the focus of big federal money on big farmers, and ask why particular crops are targeted and others not, and why the current heady state of agriculture is in need of government largess.

It is a sign of the moral vacuity of this legislation that it now must always be welded onto some national security legislation; otherwise the counter-arguments—the money is no longer needed, it goes to the already wealthy, it has no logic in the crops it targets (peanuts but not almonds?) it hurts third-world farmers, it stifles importation of ethanol from Brazil, and on and on…

More on the 300

I wrote another bit on the historicity of the film 300 (http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2007/03/300_fact_or_fiction.html). Iran’s mullahs are enraged—banning the film, taking the matter even to the UN, screaming that the US is waging “psychological warfare”. All this over an adaptation of a graphic novel—but then worse followed the Danish cartoons. Apparently Zack Snyder’s bald strutting make-believe Xerxes is much more an insult than threatening to wipe Israel off the map.

It is hard to imagine any doctrine that demands so much from others, so little from itself than radical Islam—and so paranoid and touchy too! Blowing up somebody is one thing, making a joke about the oh-so-serious nature of the Middle East, well that can get you killed.

What’s it all about?

Just as the nation could not breathe without learning the size of Dick Cheney’s shotgun pellets (I remember a Washington reporter calling me to ask what a 4-10, 20, and 28 gauge were), or the minutiae of Scooter Libby’s testimony, so now the fired federal attorneys hog the airways.

These may or may not be critical stories of the age, but my confusion is over their transitory nature: the world is supposed to stop over the Harriet Meyers nomination or Valerie Plame testimony. Fine, but why then do they become ancient history within hours? Various explanations: 24-hour cable news stations must create scandal and headlines; the NY-DC media is in a serial hysteria over George Bush; the inability of the American viewer to put up with a sustained analysis, etc. In any case the net effect is abject cynicism, with the public realization that what was supposed to work the nation into a frenzy will be sominex in three weeks—and all this tucked between fights over the corpse of Anna Nicole and worry over lost hikers.


In the current issue of the Claremont Review I reviewed God’s War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman. Reviewing three books right now, one comparing Rome to America, a gripping account of the Battle of Lepanto, and an academic collection of books on ancient Greek views of Persia. I try to do one book review every two weeks, and read one ms. a week for either blurbing or as a referee.

In the seconds before the sea battle after Don Juan of Austria announces to the assembled Spanish and Italian admirals that the time of talking is over and the time of fighting “is upon us”, he then dances a jig on the deck of the Real. A strange world, when a defiant Italy and Spain once went it alone to stop the spread of jihad…

No Man a Slave—Outtake #8: The Speech of Kallistratos

Before Backwash spoke, the Athenian visitor Kallistratos asked to address the council chamber of the Boiotians. The Theban victory at Leuktra is a year old, and the Spartans have kept inside their borders to the south, unable to stop the construction of the new walled cities of Mantineia and Megalopolis in nearby Arkadia.

So why the need to restart the war and invade Sparta? Kallistratos goes on to warn the Thebans that Athens will have nothing to do with their crazy efforts at provoking King Agesilaos.

Alkidamas was sitting behind Melon and could lean forward to whisper in his ear as he identified the Athenian strangers, “There is Kallias next to Iphikrates. He had more coins in his mouth that even you do in your strongbox. And this Kallistratos— Kebês once taught him, but now the two-face outruns even his master in deception. He is a follower of old Isokrates. Yes, he loves his Spartans dearly. His name may mean “a fine army,” but he is a weaver of intrigue, not a fighter.” But Alkidamas forgot to say that his Kallistratos was a clever sort, and a far better speaker than Pelopidas or any other of the rustics who yelled in the assembly of the Boiotians.

“Men of Boiotia and friends of Athens. What is all this fiery air that this lackey of Pythagoras has breathed into this hallowed assembled of yours? Who let in this scaled dragon that would scorch Hellas with his sparks and embers of hate? Bloody Ares has left us. Peace with all her gifts is at hand. And yet this man, this unhinged Pelopidas alone it seems of the Hellenes yearns for corpses rotting in our fields. Food to sate birds and dogs. By the gods, man, at least give our peace a moment! You Boiotians, the summer before last have won a great victory. Yes, indeed, all Hellas acknowledges the achievement of Leuktra—a turnabout not unwelcome in my own city of Athens. But do not spoil the triumph with greed. Why would you drop the fine shiny apple in your hand by now grasping the rotting one so far out of your reach?”

Kallistratos sensed that his words had silenced a few of the louder mouths, and now pressed on to undo all the work of Pelopidas, “We men of Athens have no love for the Spartan. Indeed, for thirty years we fought him. Then your own grandfathers were not so friendly but often smiled at our grief. Thebans, not Spartans, stripped our houses on the border. Thebans sent men to Sikily to spear our sons. And, yes, Thebans clamored to tear down Athena’s city when Lysander sailed into the Piraeus in his pride. All this we paid you back not with invasion, but with haven for your exiles, when the Spartans then turned their attention to you and sat atop the Kadmeia right over there.”

Kallistratos gestured over to the Theban acropolis, and then once again lowered his voice, and extended his arms wide. He had an ample gut and wasn’t shy showing it. Instead Kallistratos wanted to impress on these dirt farmers how his clever speech had earned him such a rich table. “And there are many faces in this crowd—not the least this now suddenly tame Pelopidas himself—that I recognize from their sanctuary in Athens. We the men of Athens once took them in, all hungry and on the run. Then no one else would—and at great danger to ourselves from our newfound Spartan friends. Yes, these Theban embers still fire up. But now these renegades would turn their flames on their benefactors by scorching friend and enemy alike. Gratitude and xenia, I would have thought, are attributes not lightly thrown away by the Hellenes.”

So Kallistratos now softened his speech and began more to implore the crowd to stay home. “But time heals all. Such recriminations are for the gods now to sort out. We Athenians are magnanimous folk. And since the time of Theseus the men of Athens have always come to the aid of you Thebans when those from the south have camped outside your walls. Learn from us. War, after all, has proven a great leveler. We have had our fall. So has Sparta its own ptôsis—and so now beware that you of Boiotia do not trip up as well.”

Alkidamas leaned forward again, and whispered once more that Kallistratos had talked grandly, but so often like his teacher Kebês, said nothing, “Watch this snake that will now retract his slithering tongue and perhaps in his anger and arrogance show his fangs. I’ve watched this sophist for twenty years at Athens and his end is always his best. Look for his feigned close as he steps down, walks away, and then startled, remounts the Bema as if a sudden impulse in regret has forced him to speak one final word.”

Melon muttered back that he had seen the same thing the year before at Thespiai with old Kebês. It must be an old trick of sorts that the sophists were taught at Athens, this plague from Athens that infected all who study their artifice of speech.

Slowly the smile left Kallistratos. With an increasingly contorted look, he began to raise his voice just a notch, “Yes, we are now three brother poleis as it were, Thebes, Athens, Sparta—equal peoples all who should patch their tears and pull up over our heads our shared stitched cloak to fend off the harsh wind from Persia. A new consensus has emerged after the old war of the two great powers, under which no one city of Hellas in this balanced world can dictate to another or perhaps even simply do as it pleases. And so our Theban friends, you stay within your borders—as you wish your own cities to stay within Boiotia. Do not put our democracy at Athens in the unenviable position of having to censure its cousins across the mountain who seek to preempt a war when there in reality is very little to worry about from Agesilaos.”

Kallistratos felt the crowd hush, and in his appeal to their self-interest, now bellowed out his finale, “Let him be in his box and bars in the Peloponnese. Yes, let the old lame king be to rail at his darkness after he lost his army at Leuktra. So, join us in pledging that our democracies do not send armies across their borders into the lands of another.”

One lone Theban with a broad brimmed hat of leather, no more, yelled out, “When did Athens ever stay within its borders—or is our Delion in your Attika now?” A few jeers followed but it was hard to tell whether they were made at the interruption or the audacity of the strutting Athenian with his perfumed hair and gold clasps.

So Kallistratos peroration now turned both hot and frigid, mixing praise and disguised threat, in letting the Thebans know the price of sending their army south to the Peloponnese. “Boiotarchs, men of moderation and sobriety you are, so ponder this wise counsel and put off action until after the new year. Then once more when the weather warms and the buds break can we bring matters to the council of all the Hellenes in peace, and without the disruption of firebrands who scream and storm out of councils when they do not get their way. Wise men, I might add, seek to adjudicate the strife of the Hellenes in peace and with the nod of many poleis, befitting our equal say in stopping the folly of war, war that is always hateful unless it be against the hated Mede.”

At the end, Kallistratos’s voice had once again turned soft, as soft as Pelopidas’s, but by far the more polished. Had he not been an Athenian, the suddenly enchanted in the hall would have preferred his mellifluous speech to that of one of their own!

As Kallistratos began to walk down, he suddenly turned, jumped back up, struck his head, and ended with, “Men of Thebes, make no mistake about it. You are not talking of war thrust on you as happened on that dark day of Leuktra when a king crossed your borders. No, no, no, democrats of Boiotia, you are pondering an optional war. Yes, yes, yes, this is a preemptive act as it were. This proepixeirhsis of putting your hand to the enemy first that you now so embrace, of hitting the Spartans when they have no desire or ability to hit you, foul though they be.”

Now Kallistratos was almost weeping in lamentation, “This is not the wise path. Not what we would allow in the city of Perikles, and so we will oppose it in hope of bringing you back to your senses, as the friends we are.”

If any thought that Kallistratos’s sudden finale was an impulse, he ruined the studied effect by now droning on a bit too long, proving to Melon that even old Kebês was the better student of Athenian sophistry after all.

“Remember the helots are the concern of Sparta, not ourselves—just like Agesilaos has no say whether our own slaves walk or crawl in our streets. Yes, we supported your first war at Leuktra since war had sought you out. But this second act, this unprovoked invasion against the Spartans, this we cannot stomach. And so we will not. Preemption and aggression are not in our natures, and we can only hope you will turn from your present disastrous path.”

Kallistratos felt the crowd hush, and in his appeal to their self-interest, now bellowed out his finale, “Let him be in his box and bars in the Peloponnese. Yes, let the old lame king be to rail at his darkness after he lost his army at Leuktra. So, join us in pledging that our democracies do not send armies across their borders into the lands of another.”

A lone Theban, no more, yelled out, “When did Athens ever stay within its borders—or is our Delion in your Attika now?”

So Kallistratos peroration now turned both hot and frigid, mixing praise and disguised threat, in letting the Thebans know the price of sending their army south to the Peloponnese. “Boiotarchs, men of moderation and sobriety you are, so ponder this wise counsel and put off action until after the new year. Then once more when the weather warms and the buds break can we bring matters to the council of all the Hellenes in peace, and without the disruption of firebrands who scream and storm out of councils when they do not get their way. Wise men, I might add, seek to adjudicate the strife of the Hellenes in peace and with the nod of many poleis, befitting our equal say in stopping the folly of war, war that is always hateful unless it be against the hated Mede.”

At the end, Kallistratos’s voice had once again turned soft, as soft as Pelopidas’s, but by far the more polished. Had he not been an Athenian, the suddenly enchanted in the hall would have preferred his mellifluous speech to that of one of their own!

As Kallistratos began to walk down, he suddenly turned, jumped back up, struck his head, and ended with, “Men of Thebes, make no mistake about it. You are not talking of war thrust on you as happened on that dark day of Leuktra when a king crossed your borders. No, democrats of Boiotia, you are pondering an optional war. This is a preemptive act as it were. This proepixeirhsis of putting your hand to the enemy first that you now so embrace, of hitting the Spartans when they have no desire or ability to hit you, foul though they be.”

Now Kallistratos was almost weeping in lamentation, “This is not the wise path. Not what we would allow in the city of Perikles. And so we will oppose it in hope of bringing you back to your senses, as the friends we are.”

If any thought that Kallistratos’s sudden finale was an impulse, he ruined the studied effect by now droning on a bit too long, proving to Melon that even old Kebês was the better student of Athenian sophistry after all.
“Remember the helots are the concern of Sparta, not ourselves—just like Agesilaos has no say whether our own slaves walk or crawl in our streets. Yes, we supported your first war at Leuktra since war had sought you out. But this second act, this unprovoked invasion against the Spartans, this we cannot stomach and so will not. Preemption and aggression are not in our natures, and we can only hope you will turn from your present disastrous path.”

<strongThe Righteous Ms. Plame

Valeria Plame’s sermon under oath about the virtues of CIA employees eschewing ideology and politics was laughable. The Wilsons have long been partisans with and contributors to the Democratic Party, and were, if only in a minor way, involved in Democratic politics. While mourning their collective loss of privacy, they translated Ms. Plame’s victimhood into lucrative film, book, and magazine deals, and welcomed the ensuing partisanship, as the soap-box encomia from her Democratic questioners attested.

She should have given a talk about the CIA and nepotism—and why we should believe her implausible story that some unidentified guy thought up the idea of Joe going to Africa, despite her reservations. This is ludicrous. But it does call for some sort of policy at the CIA forbidding employees from being involved in decisions of hiring their own relatives as outside contractors. From both financial and political considerations such a practice as Plame/Wilson’s is patently unethical.

Lost in all this are other two salient facts: the Special Prosecutor failed in his mission to indict anyone on his assigned task of finding out who “outed” Ms. Plame, because he saw that no law had been violated.

And, two, a real violation of national security that goes to the heart of the republic—the sanctity of official documents—bothered not at all Congress or the DC media. I refer to Sandy Berger’s October 2003 effort to rewrite history by stealing or destroying documents perhaps damning to his own President Clinton’s legacy. That felony should have earned him a 10-year minimum sentence. Despite the buffoonish method of sticking documents in his pants, the intent to airbrush away evidence was criminal, a reconstitution of the past along ideological lines.

Those Thespians and the 300

In a prior life I spent an inordinate amount of time championing the Thespians, who lost 700—400 more than the Spartans—at Thermopylai, and just days after the loss, their entire city as well.

I wrote about these brave fighters in Ripples of Battle, 192-199, and earlier in an obscure article, “Hoplite Obliteration: the Case of the Town of Thespiai in J. Carmen and A. Harding, Ancient Warfare. Archaeological Perspectives 1999), 203-218: e.g.,

“The history of the Greek city-state cannot be understood without considering the histories of hoplite battles. It is no exaggeration that the fate of entire communities literally depended on where, how and against whom their landowning hoplite soldiers were deployed in particular engagements… because of the decisive and horrific nature of the conflict, and the uneasy nature of coalition armies, [an] entire generation of farmers could be lost and their homes and families left vulnerable for decades—the experience of Classical Thespiai is an especially good example. In some sense, that city-state’s entire history is the story of little more than three tragic hours of fighting at Thermopylai, Delion and Nemea. Hoplite obliteration on those days led directly to the demolition of the city itself.”

More on the 300

I will write this week’s Tribune column on the reaction to the 300. The film’s producers must be delighted at the furor of the Iranian government. But how odd! The Islamic Republic believes that history started in the 7th century with Islam, so why all of a sudden are they harkening back 1100 years to infidel Persia?

In this regard, when an unpopular government like the mullacracy wishes to rally Iranians around getting the bomb, it usually appeals to nationalism, in the manner a despised Stalin after the June, 1941 Nazi invasion, suddenly began talking of Mother Russia rather than the Soviet Union.

It is true that Xerxes in Herodotus’s account is bearded, seated on a throne, fully masculine, and a somewhat tragic figure who weeps at the fragility of the human condition. But the Iranians should at least be happy that their ancestral king was not shown decapitating Leonidas, or ordering the eldest son of Pythius to be cut in half, the torso put on one side of the royal way, the legs on the other, or having the waters of the Hellespont lashed and branded—in other words, there is an entire corpus in Herodotus of anecdotes that might make the King seem far worse and sillier than the comic-book portrayal in the movie.

It is true that the surviving story of Thermopylae is from Greek sources only (Herodotus, various works of Plutarch, Diodorus, etc.), but that fact too illustrates the difference between an autocratic imperial east and the decentralized and autonomous city-state in which history was not merely the deeds of an autocrat chiseled on stone honorific monuments.

Too late?

For much of my early life, I would hear my grandparents and parents, who inherited the present farm from their grandparents and great-grandparents, say something like the following: “Keep the land, some day farms will be scarce and it will be a precious resource.”

But mostly those who lived in my house lost far more than they made on the farm, using scarce off-farm dollars to subsidize operating losses, especially during the early 1930s and then, again, during the 1980s. The idea of such agrarianism was to pass down a chance to grow up in a rural landscape to one’s children, to let them have the same opportunity that you did, thanks to the sacrifices of others. And such sacrifices were many. Despite the surge in world population, farm prices often fell, due to globalization, increased planting and land development, and the dwindling,ever smaller share given to the farmer from the sale of food to the consumer.

But I wonder recently if after a 130 years of such sermonizing, the long awaited radical change in supply and demand is at last coming true? The growth of affluence worldwide, land diverted from edible crops to bio-fuels, the restrictions on land-use, urbanization, environmentalism, and water shortages, like a perfect storm, are suddenly conspiring to raise both food and land prices. The tragedy is that it came very late in the game and most of the nation’s small farmers are long gone.

I write this reading a notice that our small 43-acre farm is to be placed inside the nearby Selma city limits, after 130 years of rural existence. . .

No Man a Slave—Outtake #7: The Parable of Epaminondas

After the failure and death of a Spartan hit squad sent up to Mt. Helikon to kill the family of Melon, (who is prophesized to kill a Spartan king at Leuktra), Epaminondas arrives to convince Melon to join his army. He promises to defeat the Spartans in Boiotia and then invade the Peloponnese itself. In this exchange, the Pythagorean Epaminondas turns to a parable to show why preemption is the only way to stop the annual invasions of the Boiotians’ homeland.

Although they are talking on a hillside in Boiotia, Epaminondas assumes the role of a Pythagorean interrogator, engaging in a type of dialogue, whose style, diction and formality we know from Plato’s work.

“But tell me this also farmer,” Epaminondas pressed even closer, still grinning at upping the Thespian. “Think when you have wasps with the sharp tails in you vineyard that Malgis planted. You know the terrible black ones. The ones that sting the paws of sleeping Sturax over there. Or land on the nose of Porpax. Or even in their pride jab the tall legs of your Neto or the chest of buxom Damo—do you chase them all over the orchard, flailing at one or two of them with the broom or clapping at them with your hands?”

“Of course, not!” Odd that the Theban knew of Neto and his son’s wife Damo, and of Chion and apparently Sturax and Porpax too, but at least not Gorgos as well.

“You think me a fool, Theban? To protect this household that you apparently know so well, I hunt out the nest of these stingers and then burn them out all at once with a torch of straw. Yes, I do. And so would you, had you any sense.” Melon sensed the Theban had a good lid on his own pot, and would need two or three more sticks on the fire before boiling over.

Still, Epaminondas flashed his black eyes, “Then don’t mark me a fool either, when you call me dream monger and worse. Like an old woman by the fire, you warn me that it is terrible to fight the Spartans. Maybe it is—as we both know—or maybe not. But when you fight the Spartans, you must kill their king. No one, not even our Malgis had done that. Then when you take on Sparta , you fight in Sparta, not where and when the kings slither or buzz to sting you.”

Epaminondas would play no more notes on his reed and now pointed his finger in Melon’s face.

“No, there won’t be any more sideshows here in Boiotia chasing a few wasps, beneath Helikon. No more on the farm of Malgis son of Antander as we did this morning. I am tired of swatting Spartan stingers far from their nests, as each year these Spartans flit from the farms of Thespiai to Thisbe and back to Tanagra. Or haven’t you heard them brag that they bury their own in the land of others, never others in their own? So sit here if you like until the King’s army, not eight krypts, are in your vineyard for all I care. They came to kill you because there skies are full of comets and oracles that cry out an apple will fall and end Sparta. Ask your Neto—they think you for some reason are the apple, the mêlon. So they kill you and so they think will live. Silly folk, children really Spartans are, but deadly all the same.”

Scooter Libby by the Numbers

March 7th, 2007 - 2:41 pm

You try to think of the right adjective—Kafkaesque, Orwellian, surreal?—to describe the Libby fiasco. I don’t know Mr. Libby, but met him on two occasions at dinners in Washington DC.

Both times he seemed to me the most widely read and affable in the room; he was also polite and well spoken, which is rare among the powerful in Washington. Despite all the mess, this much is clear.

1. During the lead-up to the war, one Joe Wilson, a sort of DC gadfly and has-been blowhard, was nominated to go to Niger by some in the CIA, most probably on the prompt of his own wife, to investigate reports of sales of yellowcake to Saddam Hussein. His selection is inexplicable, because the very idea of a Joe Wilson, on a government-sanctioned trip, to inquire, in discreet fashion, about sensitive transactions, is itself Orwellian.

2. He comes back, announces loudly and erroneously that he was on a mission chartered under the auspices of the VP—and that there is no evidence that there was any Iraqi interest in raw nuclear materials. This assertion, as Christopher Hitchens and others have written, was probably false.

3. The VP’s office and others are furious that this buffoon is lying about the circumstances of his trip, so they begin doing background on him, and discover the spousal connection and perhaps suspicions that he is staking out a partisan career. Almost immediately all sorts of reporters and government officials gossip about Valerie Plame’s CIA affiliation to explain his inexplicable selection. Her position, it turns out, is not covert—a fact that may or may not have been known at the time.

4. Apparently Richard Armitage is the first to disclose to a reporter the process how Wilson was chosen, in an interview with Robert Novak. No doubt he wanted to illustrate the conflict of interest involved in the Wilson selection, inter alia, to paint Wilson as either a showman or a partisan or both. As the national mood changes, given the absence of WMD caches in Iraq and the growing insurgency, Wilson sees an opening and suddenly becomes a cry-in-the-wilderness hero to the anti-war Left. I met him in this period in the Fox DC greenroom once, and heard him speak later at UC Berkeley at a journalism conference. Both times I came away thinking with friends like these, the Left didn’t need any more enemies. No wonder that Wilson was quickly let go from the Kerry’s 2004 campaign as a “consultant.”

5. A general allegation is made that government officials violated the law for partisan advantage by disclosing the identity of a covert CIA operative. The Left sees traction here in the storyline that the pro-war Republicans are shorting their own beloved CIA, irony given that past CIA whistleblowers who disclosed top-secret information were lionized for it by liberals.

A special prosecutor is appointed. Fitzgerald immediately discovers that (A) Richard Armitage first disclosed Ms. Plame’s identity to Mr. Novak, and (B) there was apparently no crime in doing so. But he continues to ask questions from various reporters and officials about the nature of this feeding-frenzy, much of it caused by Mr. Wilson himself who seized the moment, as they say, by publicizing his own wife’s status, glamour, and anger, doing a book deal, magazine spread, and joining the Kerry campaign.

6. Fitzgerald apparently concludes that he has no proof of wrongdoing concerning the original charter of his special prosecutorship, given that Ms. Plame’s status was not covert. He also feels no need to or cannot prosecute Mr. Armitage or others either for violating federal statutes about CIA confidentiality or lying. His highest-ranking target, Mr. Libby, apparently alone will justify his original mandate, albeit on different charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. After hours of testimony from Mr. Libby, contradictions between his recollections and those of others are established, although it seems there is no common truth. Nearly all those interrogated at some point contradicted someone else.

7. Libby alone is charged. If his defense tactics were culpable, it was largely in the initial suggestion that Libby was a fall-guy. That suggested some sort of conspiracy where there was none. The defense had a right to be angry at Armitage, Ari Fleischer, and others who had talked to reporters about Plame, but none had done so in a conspiratorial fashion, and had simply cut their own deals without orchestration. Libby was culled out because he was the highest-ranking target that might justify the prosecutor’s time and expense, and because he either would not or could not strike some deal in the fashion that others had, formally or informally.


1. We now have a new branch of government—a symbiosis between a special prosecutor and the Washington DC judiciary. Given the available jury pool and justices in DC, together with the high-stakes, high-publicity of a special prosecutorship, any prominent conservative is fair game. An innocent or hung verdict spells financial ruin, a guilty one the destruction of a career.

All this is much like the ancient Athenian notion of ostracism, in which the prominent could be exiled and ruined simply by a populist vote on their high-profile stature that was felt to be a danger to an egalitarian Athenian ethos.

2. The Washington DC press corps and high-ranking officials talk, spin, and network 24/7. Trying to sort out anything among any of them is impossible. These are the grunt soldiers with no rules of engagement in a vast ideological battle between the mainststeam media and conservative administrations.

3. There is no sense of proportion or morality involved. One example: Richard Armitage comes off quite negatively. He knew he was the most culpable given the initial directive of the Special Prosecutor, and yet stayed quiet while the searchlight went on to others. This was especially reprehensible given his prior carefully crafted voice of conscious as a luke-warm supporter of the war.

4. We will never know all the power-plays, ego-trips, and vested reputations in all this. But apparently Fitzgerald had a lot on the line by going after Libby, and was willing to apply to him a standard not applied to others in or out of government. This does not mean necessarily that Libby’s testimony was not inconsistent, only that a degree of scrutiny was applied to it in a manner not done elsewhere.

5. All this reminds me again of wisdom from my late mother, a California superior and appellate court justice. She used to remind me that the most powerful people in government are not judges, not juries, not even legislators or executives—but state and federal attorneys, who act as judge and jury of sorts in selecting whom to prosecute. I say that because in the modern age, an indictment ipso facto can spell financial ruin and irrevocable loss of reputation. Our prosecutors must be above any hint of partisanship or grudge-holding, and must not see their offices as platforms for wide-ranging, Les Miserables obsessions.

Sadly, in this case, Mr. Fitzgerald got his one conviction, but in the process lost his own reputation as well.

The “300″

I haven’t written a formal review of the “300″, since I was asked to write an introduction to the book accompanying the movie, and wouldn’t be a disinterested critic. Below are the reactions I had after seeing the premier Monday night in Hollywood, posted in NRO’s corner.

I took my son and daughter to the showing. They had a great time, especially talking to Frank Miller. I also wrote something about it for the City Journal blog http://www.city-journal.org/html/rev2007-03-07vdh.html

From NRO: Last Night at the 300

I went to the Hollywood Premier of the “300″ last night, and talked a bit with Director Zack Snyder, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, and graphic novelist Frank Miller. There will be lots of controversy about this film-well aside from erroneous allegations that it is pro- or anti-Bush, when the movie has nothing to do with Iraq or contemporary events, at least in the direct sense. (Miller’s graphic novel was written well before the “war against terror” commenced under President Bush).

I wrote an introduction for the accompanying book about the film when Kurt Johnstad came down to Selma to show me a CD advanced unedited version last October, but some additional reflections follow from last night.

There are four key things to remember about the film: it is not intended to be Herodotus Book 7.209-236, but rather is an adaptation from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, which itself is an adaptation from secondary work on Thermopylai. Purists should remember that when they see elephants and a rhinoceros or scant mention of the role of those wonderful Thespians who died in greater numbers than the Spartans at Thermopylai.

Second, in an eerie way, the film captures the spirit of Greek fictive arts themselves. Snyder and Johnstad and Miller are Hellenic in this sense: red-figure vase painting especially idealized Greek hoplites through “heroic nudity”. Such iconographic stylization meant sometimes that armor was not included in order to emphasize the male physique.

So too the 300 fight in the film bare-chested. In that sense, their oversized torsos resemble not only comic heroes, but something of the way that Greeks themselves saw their own warriors in pictures. And even the loose adaptation of events reminds me of Greek tragedy, in which an Electra, Iphigeneia or Helen in the hands of a Euripides is portrayed sometimes almost surrealistically, or at least far differently from the main narrative of the Trojan War, followed by the more standard Aeschylus, Sophocles and others.

Third, Snyder, Johnstad, and Miller have created a strange convention of digital backlot and computer animation, reminiscent of the comic book mix of Sin City. That too is sort of like the conventions of Attic tragedy in which myths were presented only through elaborate protocols that came at the expense of realism (three male actors on the stage, masks, dialogue in iambs, with elaborate choral meters, violence off stage, 1000-1600 lines long, etc.).

There is irony here. Oliver Stone’s mega-production Alexander spent tens of millions in an effort to recapture the actual career of Alexander the Great, with top actors like Collin Farrel, Antony Hopkins, and Angelina Joilie. But because this was a realist endeavor, we immediately were bothered by the Transylvanian accent of Olympias, Stone’s predictable brushing aside of facts, along with the distortions, and the inordinate attention given to Alexander’s supposed proclivities. But the “300” dispenses with realism at the very beginning, and thus shoulders no such burdens. If characters sometimes sound black-and-white as cut-out superheroes, it is not because they are badly-scripted Greeks, as was true in Stone’s film, but because they reflect the parameters of the convention of graphic novels, comic books, and surrealistic cinematography. Also I liked the idea that Snyder et al. were more outsiders than Stone, and pulled something off far better with far less resources and connections. The acting proved excellent-again, ironic when the players are not marquee stars.

Fourth, but what was not conventionalized was the martial spirit of Sparta that comes through the film. Many of the most famous lines in the film come directly either from Herodotus or Plutarch’s Moralia, and they capture well, in the historical sense, the collective Spartan martial ethic, honor, glory, and ancestor reverence (I say that as an admirer of democratic Thebes and its destruction of Sparta’s system of Messenian helotage in 369 BC).

Why-beside the blood-spattering violence and often one-dimensional characterizations-will some critics not like this, despite the above caveats?

Ultimately the film takes a moral stance, Herodotean in nature: there is a difference, an unapologetic difference between free citizens who fight for eleutheria and imperial subjects who give obeisance. We are not left with the usual postmodern quandary ‘who are the good guys’ in a battle in which the lust for violence plagues both sides. In the end, the defending Spartans are better, not perfect, just better than the invading Persians, and that proves good enough in the end. And to suggest that unambiguously these days has perhaps become a revolutionary thing in itself.

No Man A Slave—Outtake #5

Near the end of the novel. The veterans are nearing home in Boiotia, after the campaign to free the helots. They stop at the harbor of Delphi, on the Gulf of Korinth, to send away Melissos, a Macedonian hostage who has served them for a year, as a good faith pledge from his father that the peace between the north and the Boiotians would be kept. His final words, though, surprise the Boiotians who are puzzled at their former servant’s arrogance.

The four gave their ward a final goodbye. But as Melissos walked on board, Ainias called out, “Wait, Makedonian. One last request. It won’t require you to carry our shields any longer. Just tell me a final thing, northerner. What exactly did you learn from your year with our Epaminondas? So hostage boy, give me something that I can tell him on his return.”

Melissos stopped and smiled. On the final walk along the Gulf he had been going over just such questions—and how to answer them when his father King Amyntas at home pressed him for wisdom. He had learned too much in his year with these Thebans. And now he thought he was more than their match. So he turned to Ainias, no longer in the old role of hostage servant, but as a future king of a warrior tribe who was coming of age.

“I figured out many things, Tatikos. Of democracy, of course, that it is the silliest thing— a pass for the dirtiest and loudest to shout down their betters. Why the Thebans risk their lives for such a folly—and for others no less—I don’t know. But we in the north never would. And we must some day convince you of its danger—and how the best men cannot be chained by the worse. So there must have been some gold or a secret shipment of slaves in the bargain for you? I am a boy, true. But still I’m not so dense to believe you marshaled thousands for stupid ideas about freedom for the man-footed helots. Are we really to believe that Kalliphon, Lophis, Proxenos, and Chion and all the rest of your best really died for this notion—and for others no less?”

Ephoros bore this northern faker no ill will: “You are the conniving adult; we the carefree children. I can see that. Yes, Melissos, I will leave a chapter to you alone in my scrolls to follow the freedom of the Messenians and the work of Epaminondas. But I am afraid I will be writing of you when my hair is thin and white. Since you and your tribes up north overturn the work of Epaminondas—to kill, not birth democracy in Hellas.”

Melissos ignored the taunts of Ephoros, and bored on. “But I will also tell my father that we will fight deep like Thebans. We will carry spears longer even than yours. Some day we will even drop our shields. Instead we will use two hands for our heavy pikes. And then we march at an angle as you taught at Leuktra. Why do you carry such heavy armor, since you can hire all the men you need without worrying too much about how many live or die? We would spend far more of our gold on the pikes, not the worthless breastplates or shields of our soldiers. And I know too that it is not Sparta or Athens that hold you Hellenes together. No, it is the men of Boiotia such as Melon, and Pelopidas, and Epaminondas and that Sacred Band. Kill you all, and everything else falls into place.”

Then Melissos began to laugh as he put his hands on his hips in front of the crewmen as the boat left the pier. “ So should I come back, I will honor you all even as I must end you all. But I will swear a great oath that I will never touch your holy Messenians who will remain free even if all of you will not. I will give you that much for my year of servitude.”

Then as his voiced was carried off by the wind, he yelled a last time, “Oh, and you will be stung by me not as your silly slang Melissos the “honeybee,” but by my true royal name, Philippos, the lover of horses, of the Royal House of Pella, son of Amyntas and the royal Eurydice.”

With that the boy was gone, and was not seen in the south again for thirty seasons—until Hismenias, Historis and Neander and the men of Thespiai would fall before him and his own son Alexander at Chaironeia, not more than a day’s walk from where they all now stood.

The Greeks, the war, and everything else

March 2nd, 2007 - 8:54 am


My daughter and son and I are going to the premier of the 300 this Monday in Hollywood. After watching a rough cut CD last October, I wrote the introduction to the picture book accompanying the film (http://victorhanson.com/articles/hanson101106.html).

The key to remember is that Zack Snyder’s film is, in the tradition of Frank Miller’s comics, a stylized adaptation, not intended to follow exactly the story right out of the pages of Herodotus and Plutarch. Its heroic nudity (e.g., the warriors often fight bare-chested) reminds me a lot of hoplites on Greek vase-paintings, and some of the cinematographic rules are sort of like the conventions of Greek drama. But the message of Herodotus comes through the impressionism, especially its unapologetic affinity with the Spartans and Thespians holding the pass.

I’m looking forward to seeing the final edited version on Monday, and will post something on the screening then.

The Head of Hera?

Archaeologists have uncovered an impressive statue of Hera in northern Greece—without the head. Cutting off statue heads was a great pastime of thieves, from Roman times to the Ottoman period, an easy way of selling art to grandees without lugging around the massive bodies.

So perhaps somewhere in an art collection in Europe or in a basement in a Greek museum, are fragments of the missing head. I say that because once in 1979 while excavating at Corinth, we found shards of a red-figure vase-painting, with parts of Herakles’ club on it. The then director of the excavation, Charles Williams, took the fragments into the museum, examined them for about a day, and then went to one of cases, took out a vase done by the Altamura painter (ca. 470 B.C.) and, presto, fit in the long missing pieces.

I remember two astonishing facts, one, and most obvious, the director could envision hundreds of pots in his head, and then see where that this new fragment might likely fit; and, two, the remains of the ancient world are not that vast and sometimes are pretty stationary. That is, this Altamura vase, once unearthed decades earlier by an American excavation at Corinth, apparently had its missing pieces still buried in the same place on the site (our trench had been touched upon in the 1940s). How odd that they would be recovered still intact after we sifted through Ottoman, Frankish, Byzantine, Roman, Hellenistic, and Classical levels of fill.

Illegal immigration blowback

There have been a series of reports about Cudahy City a few miles from downtown Los Angeles, and how the rise of gangs, the culture of corrupt politics, violence and intimidation, and tribal factionalism resemble a Mexican border town.

But why wouldn’t islets of Mexico sprout up, when the country has lost confidence in assimilation, requires nothing of the immigrant, doesn’t believe the English language should be our national cultural currency—and has allowed somewhere between 11-16 million illegal aliens living in apartheid communities?

All this was true by 1980 in segregated towns like Orange Cove, Parlier, or Mendota, California that had schools in crises, medieval city politics, and recall after recall—each alleging that the in-bunch was somehow stealing money through tribal favoritism and nepotism.

The antidote? Close the borders now (through a multifaceted plan of verifiable IDs, employer sanctions, fortification, increased security, and scrapping of bilingual government services). And then once done, fight the next decade over guest workers, amnesty, immigration numbers, etc. But if one were to close the borders now, the other problems will lessen by the time we get to them.

The more things change, the more…

The controversy over Sec. Rumsfeld has plenty of antecedents in the Louis Johnson’s resignation, Truman’s Secretary of Defense. Johnson after World War II was committed to “transforming” the military. In those days it meant reducing the Marine Corps and Navy, partly to save costs after the huge wartime military, partly because he could not see a Pacific threat on the horizon, partly perhaps due to carnage of the 1943-5 in island hopping, and the pie-in-the-sky hope that “air power” would win all future wars.

This conundrum also took place on the eve of war, and then unhappiness over Korea soon amplified outrage at Johnson for the ill-preparedness of our troops. As war loomed, there was a genuine “revolt of the admirals.” Navy brass (like our own “revolt of the generals”) were livid that cuts to ships (and especially the cancellation of the super carrier United States, coupled with Air Force largess like the B-36 bomber), had made us unable to fight another war. Then Korea broke out, and soon the disasters there led to the firing of Johnson.

Ultimately, the US geared up, spent billions, saw the real threat of the Soviet Union, saved Korea, and built both bombers and carriers, and the revolt was forgotten—until now.


National Review Online will now publish my Tribune Media Services column on Thursdays; every other Friday I’ll have a NRO essay that appears only at NRO.

We have 5 openings still on the Greek trip. I’m looking forward to lectures by Bruce Thornton, and some first hand-tours of Nemea and the agora by the excavators.

We will try to eat and chat with all the participants each day.

Thanks to all those who wrote about biking, and the safety and fashion involved. Rode 21 miles yesterday with Bruce Thornton on some roads on the northern outskirts of Fresno, with snow on the higher foothills, crisp cold sunny air, and the white Sierra looming. Then drove up to Huntington Lake, and found 5 feet of fresh snow in the driveway–3 hours later had dug a tunnel of sorts to the garage. 2-3 more storms and we can have a normal water year. Much better to have late wet snow after a dry winter, than to see the early heavy snows melt by March.

No Man A Slave—Outtake #5

From the very beginning of the novel in the months before the battle of Leuktra. Epaminondas has climbed to the high mountain farm of Melon, son of Malgis, the Thespian, whom the prophecies swear must be in the front rank of the Thebans if they are to beat the Spartans. But Melon’s family has a bitter history of fighting for the Thebans, and he wants no more of any such great adventures, either in Boiotia or down south at Sparta. The two spar, before Epaminondas leaves in disgust at the selfishness of the farmer.

General of Boiotia or not, Melon thought, this Epaminondas, did he not puff up his chest far bigger than his small breastplate? And did he have anything to replace the order of Sparta with—any idea that he was talking of the destruction of the good men whose forefathers held the pass at Thermopylai? These were the best of the Hellenes. They bore the Dorian spear that broke the Persians at Plataia. And then they ended for good at Aigospotami the tyranny of the Athenians.

This Theban upstart was to turn over their rule to what? The trash of Messenia? Why, those animals would loot and kill each other before they’d build walls and harbors. Give democracy to tribal folk without a polis, and you give them mob rule—worse for them, let alone for others. Break the pottery of Sparta, and who must sweep up the chards?

Melon and his father Malgis had only seen the Spartan King at Koroneia for a moment surrounded by his royal guard. And that was only because the main battle was nearly over and both sides charged head-on in a final crash. But to spear a King first meant to kill three hundred killers about him, the Royal Guard who themselves had cut down a thousand of your own first or even more in such business. No, all Hellenes of sane mind except Epaminondas knew that they could not kill Spartan kings unless they were behind a Xerxes with a half-million Persian soldiers on the move.

So Melon sputtered back in astonishment, “Not even your Sacred Band dances into Sparta, Theban—even if that should be a good thing.”

“The God will decide that soon enough. But I am no lounger in the agora who spins off idle yarns to earn my daily bronze. No, I have hard men who have drawn up plans for battle and a great march to the south. All this is word play enough. Thespian. I hiked up here to ask you to raise a Thespian company for Boiotia. Or better yet to anchor the line at my side against the Spartan invaders—first to beat them here in battle, and then perhaps to crush them all at home.”

With that Melon let him speak on, since he had never heard this sort of madness before.

“Yes,” Epaminondas shouted back, “The Boiotians then will report to your superstitious folk, the ignorant and the dull of Thespiai, that we have Melon of the omens at our side, who, the crazy seers swear, will kill a king in battle. The Spartans believe this nonsense as well. They are told that when an apple, the melon, will drop from the tree on Helikon, their king will die and the helots will go free. Your slave girl Neto tells all of Boiotia that Pasiphai of Thalamai in Lakonia herself sang to her as much in a dream.”

So was their meeting an accident? And did it have anything to do with the hunting party of Antitheos and Pelopidas? “Ask the ghost of our fathers what happened the last time your generals stomped onto this vineyard to save the holy soil of Boiotia at Koroneia. A week later Malgis was rotting in it.”

“And a better man you the son are for it, prisoner of the past, as was all of Boiotia for his sacrifice. Nothing is worse for a people to nurse the wounds of the dead—always allotting blame of their present humiliation to others, never to themselves or their fathers. You sound like a Persian still weeping over his lost horsemen at Marathon.”

Epaminondas was about to give up, but would offer one last attempt, still in the formal speech of the high talkers at Thebes, to win the stubborn farmer over.

“Well, embittered old man, all for nothing today. I see that your thought goes no further than your fancy press and threshing floor. But would you fight for your queer paths and pear arbors, the dam with your fresh water we hear about even in Thebes, and your big house with its tall tower, all with a view of us smaller mortals below? Or do you think your horn of plenty gives you freedom from the world beneath your mountain?”

Epaminondas’s was angry now after all, pushed as he was by the hammering of Melon, who if not for the prophecy was just a lame farmer unseen by those below for a generation.

“So you and the one before you have crafted a fine-looking estate—with a big water pipe into the house and vines head-high tied on reeds are the work of philosophers not mere farmers. Your god Zeus is proud. So we salute you. Perfect your estate has become. But a lie as well it is. It rests on others to keep safe if you are to live free and not like the helots of Sparta. Have you forgotten who crushed your knee at Koroneia and the killers at Tegyra that quit Boiotia only on biers? Melon, we know what you don’t believe in. But, friend, what do you trust in? It is not done for a leader to be against everything and for nothing—or to tell those you find less than perfect that they are not even good. How I hate the leper who points out the mole on the nose of his leader.”

Melon noticed that both Gorgos and Neto had quietly returned, and were waiting for his answers, but each for a different reply.

Almost on cue suddenly Epaminondas turned around and again pointed to the two helots, “Well, would you fight for these two, this good helot Neto, and the other not so good Messenian?”

Gorgos snickered, but Melon snapped back, “What, I am to die for slaves of Messenia!”

“Or so the Spartans say helots are slavish—though in fact such people are the first Hellenes. And they will be free under the sun like us, whether you come with us south or stay back. The tall quiet one, a Chian I gather from his name. Is the islander all that much a worse man than you because half his face is a brand?”

A cheap trick to divide master from slave. But Epaminondas needed this Chion to spur his master.

Melon wanted to believe that Epaminondas cared nothing about the freedom of Messenia and the helots other than as a way to cut off the Spartan phalanx from its food makers. But now he wasn’t sure.

“So, you Epaminondas, are not content with killing yourself a Spartan king and wrecking a Spartan army up here. No, not happy with all that you will march down into the sea of darkness itself and change all of Hellas? Then, if the Spartans have not thrown you alive in the clefts of their Kaidas, and your Thebans have not lynched you with hemp for leading them to death, you propose next to march over the snows of Taygetos—or is it along the impassable cliffs along the Spartans’ coast? Yes, into Messenia we are all to dance. And you will free twenty myriads of helots. And free again any slaves you can find as relish on your plate? Will you build them an Athens or Korinth with tall stone walls to keep the Spartans out as well when the wind howls and the snow falls, and you leave them to come home? ”

“Oh, far taller,” he smiled again at Melon’s sudden long wind, adding. “At least something like theirs—but only, farmer, if I have men like you at my side.”

Praise when overt and face-to-face, even if both accurate and well-meant, can be as embarrassing as slurs. Melon had no intention to go into the debt to this man for his honeyed words. Good speech didn’t gain credence because it comes from enemies.