Friday, March 18, 2011
The Cackling of the Furies
"To us, the climatic encounter between Brasidas and the Athenians on the plains of Megara seems as strange as a confrontation between tribes of hooting apes or a standoff between feathered savages in a faded documentary. Its logic was not that of a modern war, in all its glistening lethality, but that of drunks in a bar, eyes locked on eyes, shouting 'What you looking at?' and inching closer to each other, knuckles gleaming, until one drops his gaze and yields the victory. Under rapt observation of the Megarians, watching from the walls of their city, Brasidas led out his army, arraying it for battle facing the port of Megara. Out came the host of the Athenians, deploying for battle opposite Brasidas. Time passed. Each side stood regarding the other. Then, finally, the Athenians filed back within the walls of the port. Brasidas led his army back to camp. And so it was that the Megarians opened their gates to Brasidas and the Peloponnesians. For Brasidas had recovered the loyalty of Megara."
Lendon goes on from there, chronicling the origins of the great war and then its convulsive history of sieges, raids, ravishments, ambushes, trireme battles, and even a great description of the climatic hoplite clash at Delium. The book is rich with military and cultural history, but almost ground-breakingly takes an anthropological approach to the conflict in an attempt to put the reader into the minds of the Ancient Greeks themselves, and into the cultural context of their world. This approach is particularly enlightening, especially for us moderns who get flabbergasted by Thucydides' narrative at times, making the inscrutable motives of the Ancients much more understandable. Lendon reveals that the Peloponnesian War wasn't fought over resources or wealth, like modern wars almost always are, but instead was a war over honor, status, and prestige, originally marked by almost ritualistic warfare and by tit-for-tat revenge taking, but that eventually escalated into a form of total, all-out war. Another especially revealing theme of the book concerns the way the Greeks anthropomorphized their city-states, actually considering them like collective human beings that could feel humiliations, rejoice in triumphs, and to be prideful of their past historical accomplishments.
At first I thought the military motivations of the Ancients were completely alien to our more recent and 'sophisticated' culture, but the more I thought about how the Greeks became possessed by revenge taking, and the more I also thought about the history of our own wars over the last 250 years or so, the more I thought we have more in common with our ancestors than is immediately evident. Lendon describes the closing acts in his war in this manner:
"Characters in tragedy carry out revenge as if they were operating under remote control, wretched and fully aware of the doom they are bringing to themselves and all about them but unable to resist fate, the gods, or the simple, overwhelming logic of vengeance."
It appears that whenever the dogs of war are unleashed, and the combatants have heard the cackling of the Furies, it is difficult for the fighting to stop until complete victory is achieved or both sides face mutual exhaustion. Certainly read this book - you will come away with a much deeper understanding of the Ancients than you probably had before.