I may be repeating some of the material from the musings entry earlier, if so, sorry.
After I got done watching my swords and sandals epic the other night, I immediately turned around and watched the first half again. I believe that this is one of the few American movies about an ancient culture that tries, however ham handedly, to give you a feeling for where they were coming from.
The script didn’t go into the great many things about ancient Sparta that we probably would find repugnant. There were very few full citizens and a very large, brutally controlled serf population. The army was as much police force as army. Weak or defective children were killed shortly after they were born, boys left their families at seven and began training for the military, education beyond the basics was minimal, and keeping your place in the group was emphasized and admired. A citizen/soldier served from age 20 to 60 and he spent the majority of his time in the barracks, including nights. He took his meals in the common and mess and slipped home to his wife when he could.
If I admire how some of them acted in one battle, it doesn’t mean I’d want to live there or that I believe their way was the best way. But, if the Spartans had a reputation in their own times for speaking little, they wrote even less. All we really have to go on are a few entries in surviving texts or second hand reports from people writing several centuries later. Ironically, Aristotle criticized the way the citizen assembly was chosen as “perhaps being too democratic.” But, sometimes I wonder how we’ll fare in the histories of the future.
Trying to give a feeling of religious attitudes isn’t just a matter of using the plural when someone says “thank the Gods.” The custom of interpreting omens and offering sacrifices is mentioned more than once. The full army can’t leave Sparta because another religious festival is due to start and the army is forbidden to leave thecountry at that time. The same one that kept them from showing up at Marathon, actually. The speaker for Athens seems to enjoy reminding the Spartan representative about that. On the other hand, one of the Spartan council members wants ‘nothing to do with Athens and its sinful ways.” The researchers and the writers tried give us some idea of what these people were like. If they missed as often as they hit the target and the dialog is a little clunky at least they tried. Perhaps there was a time when an audience had a little more patience for sitting through this kind of material.
And Thermopylae was important. Not just because it was the first of s series of battles that helped break the Persian invasion, but because of what happened afterwards. I don’t know if the Themistocles of history or even Leonidas made moderately stirring speeches about the virtues of Greek unity. The dream of Greek unity turned into a nightmare as shifting alliances tried not only to define that unity but which city was going to be the first among equals, Athens or Sparta.
Nearly fifty years later, the civil wars began. Power shifted back and forth between various city states for generations. Ironically, Greece would be unified by the end of the fourth century BC. By Alexander the Great, a Macedonian.
I think I’ve spent more time than usual on this because I’ve always been intrigued by stories of people who get to that moment of “here I stand, God help me, I can do no other.” When does a person realize that fidelity to faith, loyalty or honor demands the ultimate sacrifice? That terrifying point where compromise will change your sense of self beyond recognition? The moment when you are no longer you?
When does someone finally have to say:
I can’t betray an intelligence operative to get back at her husband because he doesn’t agree with me.
I can’t fire lawyers we appointed because they have more loyalty to the law than our party.
I may want to kick the shit out of Iraq, but we really can’t tie them to the 9/11 terrorists so it might be better to wait.
I may want to prove I can do the job better than dad did, but I’ll have to find a better way than this.
Yes, I did head this company before I was elected. That’s why I’m staying neutral in awarding contracts.
Yes, I could make a fortune cooking the books, but it would be dishonorable.
We’re asking our men and women in uniform to sacrifice everything. They deserve the best we can do, even if we have to raise taxes.
And there are plenty of examples from earlier administrations.
When was the last time we heard the word fidelity used in something besides the name of a company or to describe the quality of a stereo system? When did loyalty come be defined as our loyalty to the elected hired help, but doesn’t seem to include their loyalty to us? Is there any way to define the actions of the current administration or many members of congress as honorable? Curiously, many of them probably realize that we can’t. It’s been so long since I’ve heard or read the word outside a movie script or history book, I’d probably faint if I did.