Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is the past another country?

Brad DeLong gave me the opportunity today to put a deeply-felt conviction of mine into words.

Brad was quoting from a blog called The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, whose author, Rufus F., was reflecting on the Odyssey.

[Brad]: Rufus F. on the Homecoming of Odysseus:

Homer “The Odyssey” | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen: I find his homecoming strange though. After winning a test of strength, Odysseus and Telemachus slaughter the suitors. The whole scene is excessive; he claims to kill them for their outrageous violence, but it amounts to boorish behavior and a failed plot to kill Telemachus. It would make more sense to run them off: “Scram, wimps!” Instead, Odysseus kills every last man for having dropped in for a visit and deciding to stay for several years...

[Brad:] It's considerably worse than that: consider the servant-women of Odysseus's palace who had consorted with the suitors:

"I will tell you the truth, my son," answered Euryclea. "There are fifty women in the house whom we teach to do things, such as carding wool, and all kinds of household work. Of these, twelve in all have misbehaved, and have been wanting in respect to me, and also to Penelope....

[T]he women came down in a body, weeping and wailing bitterly.... [T]hey took the women out and hemmed them in the narrow space between the wall of the domed room and that of the yard, so that they could not get away: and Telemachus said to the other two, "I shall not let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me and my mother, and used to sleep with the suitors."

So saying he made a ship's cable fast to one of the bearing-posts that supported the roof of the domed room, and secured it all around the building, at a good height, lest any of the women's feet should touch the ground; and as thrushes or doves beat against a net that has been set for them in a thicket just as they were getting to their nest, and a terrible fate awaits them, even so did the women have to put their heads in nooses one after the other and die most miserably. Their feet moved convulsively for a while, but not for very long...

Here's what I said in comments (touched up a little):

I am not so sure that the past is another country... Can't you imagine a similar scene taking place in another neighborhood in our own time, with the woman killers giving a similar justification? Remember that even in his own time that Odysseus was a smalltime pirate; today, unless he got particularly ambitious and inconvenienced the big guys,perhaps by hijacking a ship off the Horn of Africa, he would rate no space in the New York Times. Certainly the killing of the insolent women would get no coverage. Neither would the destruction of their elementary school or women's health clinic.

My point was, that the past is not one country, and our time is not a single country either, and the differences between different countries in any one era are very big sometimes' and broad similarities exist between some past countries and some in the present. Not everything that existed in the past exists in some corner of our own world now, but I believe that many things that existed in the time of, say, the Greek dark ages have rough analogues today. The failure to recognize that, I think, leads to one of the big errors of historical understanding: focusing on one country, one short period, one culture, one imperial court, one literary circle, and saying "this was the human experience on planet Earth at such and such a time."

And another serious mistake is to believe that some phenomenon that you find impressive or repulsive is absolutely unique in human history.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

Re-creation and the Olympic torch -- from The Big Picture

Top: Priestesses at Olympia light the torch.
Then: Vikings keep it burning at L'Anse aux Meadows.

Too cool.

More here.
Or click on the pics.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Rowing to democracy... 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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Friday, March 27, 2009

Another excellent seminar

Unlike this phone picture of him, Richard Wenghofer's presentation in the history seminar series was not at all fuzzy: it was an excellent conclusion to an excellent year's worth of papers.

"The Racialization of Civic Identity in Classical Athens" argued that we can trace the invention of the notion of racial distinctiveness and a feeling of racial superiority, even to other Greeks, among the Athenians as they democratized their polity over the course of a century or so. In the old days when noble families have a lot of clout, and intermarried freely with nobles in other cities, it was commonly accepted that Athenians were descended from a variety of Greek and non-Greek peoples. When the poorer citizens gained legal and political rights, they sought to restrict citizenship to those of purely Athenian descent, and eventually succeeded in doing so. This restrictive definition of citizenship, argued Richard, affected Athenian views of their origins. It came to be accepted Athenians were autochthonous, sprung from the Attic earth. Not only were Athenians distinct from their neighbors, but they were superior as well, and superior in a racial sense because their superiority was inherited from their ancestors. So we have a record of known political choices and definitions adopted for practical reasons leading to an ideological view of all past history, one that is not particularly attractive. Athenians came to regard themselves as the only true Greeks who had taught their neighbors what Greek traits they possessed, and whom they deserved to rule.

After that, go back to Pericles' funeral oration and see if it doesn't seem a lot less attractive! And as I said here after I read Thucydides the last time, that was the only part of the whole book that made the Greeks seem admirable!

I can't wait to see the article version of Richard's argument.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Richard Wenghofer speaks: Racialization of Civic Identity in Classical Athens -- Wed. March 25, 10:30 AM, F307

From James Murton:

The final History Department Seminar Series of this year will feature Richard Wenghofer of the Classics program, speaking on "The Racialization of Civic Identity in Classical Athens."

Richard's paper will argue, contrary to received wisdom, that racism did exist in ancient Athens, and it emerged in lockstep with, and as an indirect consequence of, the evolution of democratic political structures and their concomitant social and political ideologies.

Wednesday, March 25, 10:30 am, F307

Refreshments will be served.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Thucydides on ancient Greek politics

In my Ancient Civilizations class, I referred to the famous Funeral Oration of Pericles as "the one passage in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War that makes the Greeks look admirable." I was only 3/4 of the way through a rereading of the History when I said that, but I'm still looking for the second. More typical (though to my sensibilities more repellent than many others) is this incident from Book 8, chapter 41, page 560 of the Penguin translation:

On his voyage along the coast he landed at the Meropid Cos. The city was unfortified and had collapsed in an earthquake which was certainly the greatest one that can be remembered. He sacked the city, the inhabitants of which had fled to the mountains, over-ran the country, and made off with everything in it except the free men, whom he let go.

One could rant for hours about this passage. Even the Soviets would be ashamed to admit to this kind of behavior.

BTW, I have left the war criminal anonymous here; he's got enough publicity over the last 2 1/2 millenia. I have a similar policy for famous assassins.

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