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Works and Days

The Greeks, the war, and everything else

March 2nd, 2007 - 8:54 am

300

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.

Tidbits

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.

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