Palimpsest of History

“I’d three times sooner go to war than suffer childbirth once.” – Euripedes, Medea

Shield, at the ready

A woman that I work for loaned me the book Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Mater by Thomas Cahill. I had read Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization which is wonderful. But that was not the only reason that I was excited to read it – it was just the thing I needed to propel me to finish The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. In  THotPW, after an early bout of what would be regular spates of protracted speechifying by various parties I read:

The long speech of the Athenians I do not pretend to understand. They said a good deal in praise of themselves, but nowhere denied that they are injuring our allies and Pelopannese.  – Thucydides

You said it brother! 21 years later…
I suppose the point is that we never change. And here poor Thucydides went to all the trouble of relating with exactitude and extreme tedium the method by which we justify and convince ourselves to what amounts to base butchery for what ever reason someone can make sound noble and “right.” And how do we show our respects? By completely ignoring the point. Our wars are always justified- no no, really, this time it’s true. Although, sad to say, today we even lack the fancy rhetoric and sophisticated sophist warping of our ancient forebears, our modern political discourse is blatantly fallacious and downright stupid.

And! Furthermore! After all that- the Spartans won. The Spartans?! Their lifestyle of choice was about as miserable a mode of living as one could possibly conceive of…boggles the mind.

But, according to Cahill, there is more that matters in the Greeks than their oh-so-mundane proclivity for war. He does, for instance,  a wonderful job of showing why we (by which I of course mean- me) love Hector so much. Cahill cites Homer’s passages concerning Hector: some of the first instances, in the history of literature, of romantic and familial love.

“Andromache, dear one, why so desperate? Why so much grief for me?”

Why? Because she loves, and she is loved. That’s why.

Cahill’s insights into Euripedes are also fascinating. As one of the first writers to depict some “real life,” outside of the purlieu of the capricious gods and interminable warfare, he was not exactly the ancient world’s winner of Athenian Idol but there are not many instances of men anywhere in ancient history showing even an interest in the lives of mere people or Zeus forbid – women.

At one point in Thucydides’ version of the world, I had to suffer through an advisory bit on how a woman should properly conduct herself. The message was something like – you can achieve excellence as a female by never being talk about for bad or good.  We are, sadly, not very far from that mindset today. Cahill too quotes at length this famous speech which was given by Pericles. Well, it is swell of Pericles to include the ladies, my goodness I think he gave us at least two sentences – why am I even complaining?

“…hers greatest of all whose praise or blame is least bruited on the lips of men.”

It’s an especially rich sentiment coming from a man who married a former courtesan- and they were a famously fabulous couple to boot.

Cahill’s praise of Odysseus left me a bit cold as well. I was not amused at the bloody vengeance brought down on the heads of the woman that consorted with the suitors. I thought it was gratuitous and shabby treatment of an underclass. Cahill suggests that I should have “enjoyed” the revenge as one would enjoy a modern-day violent cartoon.  It just seemed mean to me.

Never the less, Cahill gives real and fascinating insight into the Ancient Greek world- their influence as a whole. Our human history colors our experience, we may ignore it, but it cannot be erased. We only add to it – if we were clever we would learn from it. Maybe someday.

I love what is delicate,
luminous, brave –
what belongs to the sunlight.

That’s what I crave.

Sappho, from –  Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

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2 responses to “Palimpsest of History

  1. The Greeks loved their war, their politics, their philosophy; partly made possible because of their slaves.

  2. Yes, there were gaping blind spots in their otherwise progressive world view.

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