Saturday, August 22, 2009

Rowing to democracy...

...is the title of a New York Times book review of John R. Hale's Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. I've speculated on this myself in this blog, so I'm interested.

An excerpt from the review:
Mr. Hale’s thesis in “Lords of the Sea” is that the construction of the mighty Athenian navy, composed largely of lightweight warships known as triremes, in which 170 oarsmen rowed in three tiers, led directly to Athens’s Golden Age and its advanced form of democracy. For more than a century and a half, from 480 to 322 B.C., Athens’s city-state of some 200,000 people had the strongest navy on earth. “Without the Athenian navy there would be no Parthenon, no tragedies of Sophocles or Euripides, no ‘Republic’ of Plato or ‘Politics’ of Aristotle,” Mr. Hale writes. “Before the Persian Wars, Athens produced no great traditions of philosophy, architecture, drama, political science or historical writing. All these things came in a rush after the Athenians voted to build a fleet and transform themselves into a naval power in the early fifth century B.C.” The hard work of building and maintaining a fleet pulled the society together. The protection the navy afforded Athens allowed it to prosper, to fend off the enemies that would have overrun it and changed its tolerant and inquisitive character. Among those who commanded fleets or squadrons of triremes were the playwright Sophocles and the historian Thucydides.

“Lords of the Sea” is, largely, a book about war. It describes a running series of water and land battles between Athens and its shifting enemies, including Persian and Spartan armies and navies.

Mr. Hale points out that the use of triremes ushered in “a new age of warfare.” For the first time “battles were being fought where the majority of combatants never fought hand to hand with the enemy — indeed, never even saw the enemy.” Triremes won battles by ramming opposing ships, and cunning was even more important as brute force.

The naval success that built Athens also, in the end, helped destroy it.

Another pirate story?

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The 300 Spartans (1962) and Charlie Wilson's War (2007): two historical movies

Last night I took it easy and watched two movies: The 300 Spartans, the 60s film that inspired the Frank Miller graphic novel and the recent movie The 300, and the much more recent Charlie Wilson's War, which tells the story of a Texas congressman who took the initiative in financing covert operations to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with, as IMDB says, unexpected consequences. They really provided an interesting contrast in filmic style.

I saw The 300 about a year ago and enjoyed it, though I did not think it was a particularly serious movie. Lots of perhaps unintentional laughs in that treatment of the battle of Thermopylae. Certainly in decades to come, people will kill themselves laughing at the cultural hangups revealed in the movie. But it was enjoyable. At least once.

Like Frank Miller, I saw the older movie treatment as a child and I wondered how the previous film would hold up. The answer is, not very well at all. It had its virtues: Greek landscapes, reasonably good depiction of military operations, some good sets (for instance, Xerxes' royal pavilions). The story, however, was slow and plodding and really not very much truer to the real situation than the Frank Miller version. It was a movie made up of old Hollywood clichés of character, and if you have seen enough old movies you could've written it yourself. My guess is that very few people today would write something similar from scratch. The year 1962 as seen through this particular lens, seemed a long way back.

I am not familiar enough with the small details of US policy towards the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to critique Charlie Wilson's War as a depiction of history, but it certainly is a modern movie. Movies go a lot faster now, they are much more efficient in setting the scene and characters and establishing plot points. Of course this movie was produced by Mike Nichols and written by Aaron Sorkin, who are consummate pros, but what they are professional at is noteworthy.

Interestingly enough, this weekend I also saw the classic British flick Darling (1965), when Julie Christie burst upon the film scene and won an Academy award for one of her first roles. She was fabulous but so was everything else. It had that same efficiency of pacing that I noted in Charlie Wilson's War. Perhaps someone better acquainted with the history of film could tell me how unusual those qualities were when they appeared in Darling.

As for yesterday's two films as historical films, let me quote something that a friend of mine posted at her blog two days ago. Sandra Dodd said:
So I'm sewing and watching Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a movie [about St. Francis and St. Clare -- SM] I will love for life despite that criticism of those who can't appreciate religious-art in the form of a movie. Had it been a painting with discrepancies from the historical record, or a sculpture, or a medal, no one would care. But make it HUGE, with real scenery and real medieval buildings and costumes and music, and people say "the armor is crap" and "Clare wasn't that age," and blah blah. ART. Art.
You know, I hear a lot of that, too, and I too get impatient.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Laughing along with Cornelius Tacitus

The Roman historian Tacitus (wrote circa AD 100) is not usually associated with humor -- and no wonder, since he chronicled the bloody intrigues of the Julio-Claudian emperors. Mordant, or bleak might be better words. However, I was recently reading Michael Grant's lively Penguin translation, and it occurred to me that he sometimes might have been going for laughs, and not just a sour little chuckle.

Read these two passages and see what you think:

Pharasmanes [leading a group of Iberian mountaineers against the Parthians] reminded his troops that they had never submitted to Parthia -- the loftier their aspirations, he said, the greater the honour of victory, and the disgrace and peril of defeat. Contrasting his own formidable warriors with the enemy in their gold-embroidered robes, he cried: "Men on one side -- on the other, loot!"

OK, maybe that's a doubtful case (though whether you laugh or not, it does sound like something out of 300), but consider this:

[An honorary triumph was awarded to Curtius Rufus, a commander in Upper Germany:] He had sunk a mine in the territory of the Mattiaci to find silver. Its products were scanty and short-lived, though the troops suffered and toiled, digging channels and doing underground work which would have been laborious enough in the open. This forced labour covered several provinces. Worn out by it, the men secretly appealed to the emperor, in the name of all the armies, begging him to award honorary triumphs to commanders before giving them their armies.
What do you think now? (NB: no blood was shed in either anecdote.)

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

300 finally runs me down!


The movie 300 finally tracked me down in my own lair, in the form of a free showing sponsored by NU's Classics Club.

I have to say that it had a certain quality, a watchable quality, while it was on. Twenty-four hours later I'm not very pleased with what came across as the Battle of the Pelennor Fields with more body piercings.

The very big plus side was the way 300 put a graphic novel on a screen (not so big a screen in my case). It looked like there were no more than 4 colors used. Everything was visually simple and dramatic. I am sure the makers were aiming for this look and they have reason to be pleased with themselves.

On the other hand, I think I must be getting tired of stories that feature blood and muscle taking on sub-human enemies who do evil for incomprehensible reasons. Maybe it's because I recently saw Black Hawk Down for the first time? That was a good movie, too, but the wave upon wave of AK-47-wielding Somalis were no more convincing than Xerxes' boys (?).

On the third hand...I have to admit that though there was little connection between the movie and Herodotus' account of the Persian wars (except for the use of the words Sparta, Persia and Greece), 300 was closer to the spirit of H's History than one might guess.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Beowulf basics in preparation for the Beowulf movie


This is the year of naked and semi-naked heroes and villains in Hollywood movies of classic historical and legendary stories. First 300 on the Persian War, upcoming Beowulf, a big-budget version of the best Old English poem. Because these really are classic stories, there's been a lot of debate about them, even though we still only have trailers for Beowulf.

If by some chance you are a little vague (or maybe a lot vague) on the story and the background of Beowulf, an expert Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar, Michael Drout, has a FAQ on Beowulf.

Thanks to Scott Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard (one of the coolest blog names in the universe; see his explanation) for drawing my attention to Drout's piece. (BTW, see Drout's blog for another really amazing blog name.)

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Religion and politics today


In the Ancient Civilizations this week we talked about the close relationship between religion and politics in the earliest records of the Middle East. Someone quite rightly pointed out that religion and politics often go together now. So of course for the next few days religion and politics met my eye every time I looked at the Web. Here are two recent news items and a slightly older one I hadn't got around to.

According to this BBC story, Pope Benedict has refused to receive US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in person because, among other things, she was the point person who publicly rejected Pope John Paul's concerns about US policy on Iraq in 2003. A few well-informed commentators recalled to mind an occasion when Joseph Stalin brushed off papal concerns with the scornful question, "How many divisions does he have?" The point being of course that Stalin and his Soviet Union are gone, while the papacy is still here.

Then there is the piece that a friend of mine alerted me to last month, about continuing Chinese efforts to suppress Tibetan identity. The Dalai Lama in exile is the heart and soul of Tibetan resistance so (according to Newsweek):

In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation." By barring any Buddhist monk living outside China from seeking reincarnation, the law effectively gives Chinese authorities the power to choose the next Dalai Lama, whose soul, by tradition, is reborn as a new human to continue the work of relieving suffering.
"Absurd?" "Traditional" might be a better word. When you're talking about "absurd" and "history," you've got a lot to choose from -- especially when the subject is official reasons why you should shut up and do what you are told. The raising and toppling of monuments to former god-kings doesn't seem so far out by comparison, does it?

This last item, about the "House of Wisdom," gives me the creeps:

The U.S. military has introduced "religious enlightenment" and other education programs for Iraqi detainees, some of whom are as young as 11, Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, the commander of U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, said yesterday.

Stone said such efforts, aimed mainly at Iraqis who have been held for more than a year, are intended to "bend them back to our will" and are part of waging war in what he called "the battlefield of the mind." Most of the younger detainees are held in a facility that the military calls the "House of Wisdom."

The religious courses are led by Muslim clerics who "teach out of a moderate doctrine," Stone said, according to the transcript of a conference call he held from Baghdad with a group of defense bloggers. Such schooling "tears apart" the arguments of al-Qaeda, such as "Let's kill innocents," and helps to "bring some of the edge off" the detainees, he said.

Now normally I'd be happy to hear that Muslim moderates were engaging with young jihadis to talk some sense into them, and once upon a time the idea of a school for that purpose might have struck me as a positive development. That was before the setting up of the prison at Guantanamo and before the US military took over Saddam Hussein's torture chambers at Abu Ghraib. I have to be deeply suspicious of an institution meant to "bend them back to our will," (whose will, exactly?) and which has appropriated the name of a long-ago Baghdadi religious school to do so. What does this "battlefield of the mind" look like, anyway? What will we know about it in 20 years that we don't know now?

What do you think?

"We're busting them down, we're making whole moderate compounds that didn't exist before."

Stone described a sort of religious insurgency that occurred at one detention facility on Sept. 2. "We had a compound of moderates for the first time overtake . . . extremists. It's never happened before. Found them, identified them, threw them up against the fence and shaved their frickin' beards off of them. . . . I mean, that is historic."

Gotta love that "religious enlightenment."

Image: A poster for the movie 300. I feel an inexorable pressure to see this flick.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Bayeux Tapestry: a medieval "graphic novel" in a video version!


I was just talking about a graphic novel, 300, and its recent movie version, er, 300. This reminded me of a really old graphic novel, or perhaps we should say graphic history, that has also been redone in video form: the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a huge embroidery history of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 that hangs in a church in the Norman city of Bayeux. It shows the story of William the Conqueror taking possession of England from the point of view of the winners -- many people think that it was made for William's brother, Odo, the fighting bishop of Bayeux (and after the conquest, Earl of Kent).

The modern animation of this work gives it more impact to our eyes, which are accustomed to moving pictures and which are disappointed when we don't get state of the art images. But students in the upcoming course, Medieval England, might want to consider how impressive this embroidery 70 meters (230 ft.) long was to contemporaries. And indeed it's a very detailed story well portrayed (even if some parts are obscure to us). You have to wonder who conceived of this project, and whether they had any precedents to refer to. I can't think of any.

In Medieval England we will be covering 1100 years or so. The sources for that huge range of time will be diverse. Sometimes we'll only have archaeology to guide us. But we will always be trying to make the connection between what a written work, piece of art, artifact, or site meant originally, and what it might be able to tell us now.

For a non-animated version of the BT, see this site.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

The movie "300" -- not fantastical enough

If there are any student in NU's upcoming course on Ancient Civilizations reading this blog -- instead of having fun in the sun -- here's a topic worth thinking about.

Will McLean in his blog Commonplace Book says you shouldn't be thinking about ancient Greece when you watch the recent movie on "Thermopylae," 300. Lots of people have said the same but Will provides us with a science-fiction rationale that makes sense of the 300 scenario -- sort of.

That's amusing in its way but then Will goes on to make quite a profound point. When the Frank Millers of the world try to make an edgy fantasy of the past, they seldom are fantastical enough. This analysis is not offered in a mean-spirited way, but with full acknowledgement that for any author, filmmaker, or other artist, recreating even the known aspects of the past is hard -- especially if you harbor any hope that your audience will be able to relate to the finished product. This is a really fine post.

Update: link to the entry is now fixed.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

The Athenian navy: could they beat the 300?

I am going to start by pasting in a post from Adrian Murdoch's blog, Bread and Circuses and my own reply to that post:

The faculty of biological science at Leeds has some interesting research about the fitness of ancient rowers:

We may not be as fit as the people of ancient Athens, despite all that modern diet and training can provide, according to research by University of Leeds exercise physiologist, Dr Harry Rossiter.

Dr Rossiter measured the metabolic rates of modern athletes rowing a reconstruction of an Athenian trireme, a 37m long warship powered by 170 rowers seated in three tiers. Using portable metabolic analysers, he measured the energy consumption of a sample of the athletes powering the ship over a range of different speeds to estimate the efficiency of the human engine of the warship.

By comparing these findings to classical texts that record details of their endurance, he realised that the rowers of ancient Athens - around 500BC - would had to have been highly elite athletes, even by modern day standards.

Thanks fo AJ for passing this over.

And here's what I said, more or less:

[The demos (common citizens) who were paid to row Athenian warships] have often been accused of being a belligerent, imperialistic group because more war meant more pay (and presumably more profit from the empire).

If these guys were a large group of physical fitness fanatics, too, you can see how they might be a rather fearsome political pressure group.
Would you want to face these guys in a heated debate in the assembly -- 6000 overexcited Greeks all determined to exercise the sovereignty of the people?

I still have not seen 300, but when it came out lots of people remarked on the physiques of the Spartan heroes, and somebody said, roughly, that beautiful architecture and literary debates and even democracy were all very well, but sometimes you needed people who could give the opposition a kick where it counted for something.

Even at the time I thought, "Friend, you have no appreciation for the dynamic of Athenian democracy;" now I think, "Friend, who had better sixpacks, the rowers or the infantrymen?"

Bread and Circuses is well worth a look for all sorts of ancient material, especially concerning the Later Roman Empire. See this on a movie on the last emperor in the west.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Father of lies

The current movie 300 is based on a "graphic novel" (sorry, can't take that phrase seriously), which is based on a movie of the 1960s. Some Iranians have been outraged by the bizarre and ahistorical depiction of the ancient Persians, just as some Kazakhs have been by Borat. (The Uzbeks and Tajiks are just glad they dodged that bullet.) I have some sympathy for the Iranians, but haven't felt it necessary to keep track of their counterblasts, since in the end they'll just have to lump it (or make their own movie).

Somehow, though, I took a look at this article by Amir Nasseri in the online Persian Journal. Nasseri is upset, too, but more about Herodotus' supposedly contempory account, written sometime after the war, maybe a generation. Why, he asks, do people appeal to Herodotus against 300, when he himself tells a half-mythological tale that is inherently improbable?

Nasseri's not the first person to make these points, but he makes them reasonably well. I, too, have wondered how classicists over the century have found it possible to believe Herodotus' military statistics, or at least some of them.

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