Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Ancient Greece, a Road Map?

So far I have learned very little about the Messenian War, though it is still high on the list.  It is more the history of Ancient Greece that has grabbed and ensnared.  There is so much that is so amazing about Ancient Greece that it is almost impossible to focus on such a narrow topic.

Sparta itself, is a fascinating subject, with many intriguing aspects, not the least of which is the brutal repression of their neighbors, called "helots" by the Spartans, and fanatic devotion to military training.  Of course it makes the task of constant military training much more achievable if you have subjugated enough people.  Conversely, it makes the need to train constantly almost a necessity.  As Xenophon (an Athenian contemporary who knew the Spartans well) explained, "the Helots would gladly eat the Spartans raw."  When the people who produce your food and provide for your well being are so resentful and bitter it requires a certain amount of military preparation to ensure their continued "loyalty."

But, the whole history is fascinating.  From the rise of the Polis, to the advent of family owned farms the ancient Greeks were amazing.  It was a seminal, transformative, singularity.  Ingenious, industrious, and constantly evolving, they were a revolutionary force of unimaginable power with an almost infinite effect on the growth of humanity.  More than any other culture, Greece changed the story arc of history.

Plato is quoted as saying, "the Greeks never invented anything, but everything they borrowed they improved upon."  Since Plato was there, and Greek, he should know.  Even if this were the case, they improved on some things so dramatically that they became something completely new, an invention, and that is enough for me.

But, the history of Greece is a history of war.  They were not any worse than anybody else, before, or since.  In many ways, the history of Ancient Greece mirrors the history of man.  It is an abridged history of the human race, in a very small place.

Wars, alliances, treaties, shifting centers of power, allegiances formed, broken, intrigue, and rebellion.  It starts with the rise of Sparta, and pretty much ends Alexander the Great.  From one warrior to another, with a lot of warriors in between.

Just like human history the history of Greece is the tale of powerful states, deciding that the existence of the other was such a threat that war was inevitable, and once it had begun winning was the only option, no matter the cost.  Noted historian Donald Kagan, wrote "In peaceful and prosperous times both people and
nations behave reasonably because the tissue of material well-being and security that separates civilization from brutal savagery has not been torn away and people reduced to brutal necessity."*

It is the story of mankind, condensed into approximately 700 years, in an area about 51,000 square miles.  From one empire to the next, from one rapidly developing city state, to a super power in decline.  Sooner or later they all figure the results will be worth the cost, and occasionally they were.  Unless you happened to be the loser, or one of those sacrificed for victory, for them the stakes were a little different.

And, in all this time, the game really hasn't changed, nor have the motives.  They may seem more significant, but every war was justified, vital, absolutely essential, at the time.  And, they still are.  We haven't really learned much.

Next time we will look at one of the wars involving Ancient Greece.  Probably the Persian Wars, a time for Greek unity, a time for common ground, and cooperation.  But, when it was over, it was business as usual, and it could have been almost any where at almost any time.

*"The Peloponnesian War," page 117.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ancient Greece, Sparta; Act 1 Our Journey Begins.

Ancient Greece left a legacy of achievement that would make any modern nation proud.   Democracy was born in Ancient Greece.  They pioneered jury trials and public literacy.  Critical analysis was an idea driven from this amazing time.   Philosophy, mathematics, drama, these all have roots in Ancient Greece.  It was ancient texts discovered and translated at the end of the middle ages that led to the explosion, and learning of the renaissance.  It was a glorious time, in some ways, for humanity.  But, it was still "humanity," and as normal, that meant trouble.

Sparta was a city without walls, which at that time was an oddity in Greece.  Walls provide protection, and cities had plenty of need for protection.  It really did not matter the relative wealth of a city, sooner or later another city would decide it should be theirs.  Of course, you needed an army, but you needed walls to intimidate potential invaders.  Not a very comforting thought for farmers, or traveling merchants, but such was life in those times.  Sparta felt it did not need walls to be intimidating, that being a bunch of Spartans (or Spartiates, which might be correct, but, if nobody minds, we will use Spartans) was probably enough.  They were wrong.  As were all of the cities that built walls, and over the next few posts we will see why.

Free Spartans were warriors, that was their job, their hobby, their life.  It was, they felt, their heritage, they were the offspring of Heracles, and that gave them some divine rights.  One of which was to subjugate their neighbors in Messinia.  These people became known as the Helots, and were forced into abject slavery at the hands of the Spartans.  

It is one of the oddities of history, without the Helots, who held a ten to one advantage over the Spartans, the ability to train, and nothing else from the age of seven, as a warrior would have been impossible.  It took the ten slaves to provide the labor to support a "Free Spartan" and allow the time it took for training.   Training that was needed to ruthlessly oppress the Helots, and allow the time needed for training.  

Often times this military prowess was used to aid Spartan allies.  Allies who occasionally helped Sparta crush Helot revolts.   In our next post we will learn about the First Messenian War, it's origins, it's tragedy, it's inevitability, and it's outcome.  Or at least as much as we can find.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Past, the Present, and the Future.

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."   George Santayana.  It seems that this quote may have been altered, or incorrectly attributed, but for this post that does not matter.  History has become my obsession.  Like any good obsession this started simply enough.

A friend of mine told me about "podcasts."  Little episodic units of information, or entertainment.  There are thousands of them, covering topics from ancient Egypt to futuristic science fiction, conspiracy theories to religious services.  I was lost, so it seemed like history would be a good place to jump in and start listening.

Soon, I was stopping at the library on my way to the gym and researching further the subjects from the podcasts.  It seemed like a good subject for My blog, a little about working out, getting in shape, and a little about the past.  

Of course, it would focus on the obscure details, and little idiosyncratic bits, the things that could easily be turned into light hearted fodder, for the endless parade of self indulgent fantasy that makes up Life Explained.

Unfortunately, most things recorded through history are not very damned funny.  In fact, most of it seems awful.  And it just keeps happening, over and over again.  None of which would fit in with the recurring theme of goofiness that makes up my other blog.  Hence, the new blog.

From this research, it seems we should alter the quote attributed to Santayana to say "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and those who do learn are doomed to watch others repeat it."  Or maybe "Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and those who do learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Which brings us to our next quote, 

"In the shuffling madness
Of the locomotive breath
Runs the all time loser
Headlong to his death."

From Jethro Tull's Locomotive Breath.

Throughout history, for various reasons, cities or states, later countries, would decide to take the possessions of their neighbors.  The reasons were many, and made sense to the rulers, maybe it was a more defensible position, maybe it was to enhance food and material supplies, maybe it was religious convictions, but the need to conquer was always there.  

Athens, the birth place of democracy, couldn't help itself.  Exerting "goodwill" all over the known world, until the rest of the world had just had enough.   Rome was born, if you ignore the story of the twins being rescued, and raised by a wolf, through a defensive struggle, and took over the whole known world in a "continuous defensive campaign," until the rest of the world decided to struggle for themselves.  

As I continued reading, and trying to understand how this keeps happening, and how the modern world could get off the Jetson like treadmill, it struck me, there may not be a way out.  This may be our destiny, the destruction of our "enemies."  And, trust me, even a cursory glance backward will provide ample proof that everybody will, at one point, become enemies. 

So, what is the point?  I don't know.  Since I am looking into all of these societies, and there rise, and eventual self destructive attempts to "have it all" I might as well share it with you,  and maybe we can all come together and say, this has gone on long enough.  

Tune in to our next exciting episode, it will either be Athens, or Assyria, or Rome, who knows?  It doesn't really matter, they are all eerily similar, and the lessons are the same, not that anybody is learning anything from them.