Sunday, January 30, 2011

29th January 2011

So everyone is going to live much longer and will therefore have to work much longer to pay for their pensions. But what is so wrong with dying, Greeks and Romans would ask?

They came at the problem from different angles. Homeric heroes sought to compensate for death with eternal heroic glory (and got it, judging from the number of people who still read Homer). Plato argued that the soul was immortal. The Roman poet Lucretius thought that was the problem. For him, life was an incipient hell because of man’s eternal desire for novelty. So as soon as he had fulfilled one desire, he was immediately gawping after another. What satisfaction could there be in that? The soul was mortal, he argued, and death, therefore, should be welcomed as a blessed relief.

This tended to be the general response. Cicero, for example, thought in terms of a time and season for everything. ‘Boys have their own typical pursuits, but adolescents do not hanker after them because they have their own interests. These in their turn cease to attract mature grown ups because they too have their special interests – for which, when their time comes, the old feel no desire since they again, finally, have interests peculiar to themselves. Then, like earlier occupations, these activities fall away; and when that happens, a man has had enough of life and it is time to die.’ A character in one of Euripides’ tragedies put it more succinctly: ‘I can’t stand people who try to prolong life with foods and potions and spells to keep death at bay. Once they’ve lost their use on earth, they should clear off and die and leave it to the young’.

For Seneca the question was whether ‘one was lengthening one’s life - or one’s death’. A terrifying myth made the point: Eous (‘Dawn’), divine wife of mortal Tithonus, wanted her husband to live forever and her wish was granted. But she forgot to ask for eternal youth at the same time, and he just faded away, quite unable to die.

Marcus Aurelius put it beautifully: ‘Spend these fleeting moments as Nature would have you spend them, and then go to your rest with a good grace, as an olive falls in season, with a blessing for the earth that bore it and a thanksgiving to the tree that gave it life’.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

15th January 2011

Last week Geoffrey Wheatcroft speculated whether a regiment of what he called Gay Gordons might not have something to be said for it, giving a whole new meaning to ‘once more into the breach, dear friends’. Ancient Greeks would probably have approved, but with some reservations.

Plato argued that Sparta and Crete were largely responsible for introducing a homosexual ethos into the military, a practice that came to be imitated elsewhere in the Greek world. In Sparta, for example, boys were removed from their parents at the age of seven to spend their time in common messes where they were trained up as soldiers. Every twelve-year old had to take a young adult warrior as a lover till he was eighteen, though the purpose was pedagogic as much as pederastic.

The most famous example of such institutionalised homosexuality is provided by the Theban ‘Sacred Band’ (c. 378 BC) an élite troop of 150 pairs of lovers. The historian Plutarch explains the rationale by arguing that a regiment bonded by sexual feelings was ‘indissoluble and unbreakable’ because they did not flinch in the face of danger out of their feelings for each other. He goes on to say that this band was never beaten until the battle of Chaironeia (338 BC), against Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great). Further, when Philip came across the place where they had ‘fallen in their armour, all mixed up together, facing the enemy head on, he wept and said “Perish all those who claim that these men did, or allowed to be done to them, anything shameful”.’ Two hundred and fifty four skeletons have been found in the vicinity, laid out in seven rows – the very men?

Yet there was a residual doubt. The military commander Xenophon tells us how he formed a regiment of the handsome because of the example of one Episthenes, who offered himself to die in place of a young boy who was about to be executed. But desire for wasteful self-sacrifice is not much use in a soldier. ‘Such lovers often seek danger beyond the call of duty’, comments Plutarch.

Such conduct is no part of a soldier’s code. One’s duty is to look after one’s mates, and one does not need to be gay to do that.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

8th January 2011

Every year the situation in Afghanistan is reassessed, and every year the conclusion is the same—mixed military progress, but otherwise, zilch. Romans would not have gone there, at least not on the terms that we are there.

The Roman empire was a success, for the Romans at any rate, because it was under their total control. When they moved into places like the Greek East, they were dealing with cultures that were largely urbanised. Administrative structures were in place to handle governance and taxation, and an élite ran the show. Romans could convince the élites it was to their advantage to be under light Roman control. But tribal northern Europe was a different kettle of dormice.

When the Romans moved into Britannia in AD 43, southern England had enough of a hierarchical structure to be controllable. But the further north they went, the more difficult it became. The problem was that territories requiring a constant military presence could never, by definition, be handed over to the locals to run. That meant they were ungovernable in the long term. In the 1st C AD the British governor Agricola did his best to make headway into Scotland from Rome’s furthest northern base in York, but could never get a grip on the tribes there. Shortage of manpower did not help either.

So the Romans gave up and built Hadrian’s Wall instead (AD 122), a Roman military zone, under army control, where civilian and other access was strictly forbidden, except at the controlled crossing-points. Romans were now able to supervise movements north and south of the Wall, prevent petty raiding and hinder large-scale attacks, and so encourage peaceful development of Britain right up to that frontier.

The central difference with the situation in Afghanistan is obvious. Far from taking the place over—not even building a Waziristan wall—we are working there only with Afghan consent. We are not, therefore, in control. So the question is: what is in it for Afghanistan? Do they really want what we want from our presence there? We shall find out only when we have left. It could be very cold comfort.