Sunday, December 5, 2010

Song of Wrath

I just finished reading my friend Ted Lendon's new book, Song of Wrath, which I loved. To understand what this is about, it helps to know something about Ted's last book, Soldiers and Ghosts. This was a historical anthropology of battle in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. The point was to show that the way people fought was not simply determined by their desire for victory and the best available technology. People fought in ways that were largely determined by their cultures. For one thing, what it means to "win" a war is often not obvious. The goals of many combatants have been rather nebulous, having more to do with honor, revenge, or the assertion of superiority than conquest. To achieve these things it was necessary to fight in the approved way; an enemy who felt he had been defeated by a trick or a devious new weapon might not accept the superiority of the victor or recognize his honor.

This thinking reverses the logic of naive technological determinism. One can still read books in which, for example, technological advances in weaponry and armor made hoplites dominant on the Greek battlefield, which led to the decline of aristocratic regimes and led to the rise of tyrants, oligarchies, and democracies. As Lendon shows, hoplite battles were not a product of new technology but of a new goal in warfare. The main point of the wars fought between Greek city states was to determine which state had the greatest timē, which meant something like worth, honor, or status. This was most reasonably determined by lining up armies of men with equal armaments and fighting a straight up battle, with victory going to the bravest and strongest. The causality goes mainly from cultural change to military change, rather than the other way around.

Song of Wrath is a case study, applying the anthropological method of Soldiers and Ghosts to a single well-documented war. This is what the Greeks called the Archidamian War, the first ten years (431 to 421 BC) of what Thucydides taught us to call the Great War between the Athenians and Peloponnesians. In this war the main goal of the Spartans was to assert their status as the top state in Greece, the "hegemon," whereas the main goal of the Athenians was to force the Spartans to treat them as equals. Thucydides is often read as a guide to the kind of thinking we call "realist," in which relations between states are entirely determined by power and the fear of power. But such an account leaves many things that happened in the war without explanation. Lendon shows that considering the war as as expression of ancient Greek culture explains most of them, and I found his interpretation completely convincing.

The best thing about Song of Wrath is the writing. Anyone who has met Lendon or received a letter from him knows that he has a marvelous and unique personal style. He toned this way down in Soldiers and Ghosts, and the result is a book that is well enough written in a conventional sense but not nearly Ted-like enough for my taste. In Song of Wrath, he put his own voice on the page, and the result is wonderful. He also filled in the spaces between battles with marvelous details of ancient Greek life, like this:
The Eleusinian Mysteries, the Panathenea, and the City Dionysia were only the most opulent of Athens' rites. Every year the Athenians celebrated also ghost festivals, and bean festivals, and moon festivals, and washing festivals, and festivals where whores consumed lewdly shaped cakes. They jubileed at carnivals where ugly men were beaten and driven out of the city bearing the city's sins, festivals where men dressed up as women, festivals where women sat on the ground, festivals where young girls pounced like bears, festivals where young girls swung on swings, and festivals where baffled bulls were lifted bodily by teams of men before being thumped down for sacrifice upon the altar. And who knows what strange rites were performed at the altars of the Unknown Gods, or the altar of Love Avenging? . . . At the somber city ritual of the Bouphonia, or "Ox-Slaying," the skin of a sacrificed draft beast was stuffed with hay and yoked to a plow, while the slaughtering axe was taken up and solemnly tried in the court of law the Athenians reserved to prosecute the crimes committed by inanimate objects. Upon being convicted -- we may guess that few axes won acquittal -- the felonious implement was doomed to exile and cast beyond the borders of Attica.
That's how to write about history.


Unknown said...

This is how to write a book review.

Unknown said...

(That was meant positively by the way.)

John said...

Thanks. Been accused of too much irony lately?

Unknown said...

In a room full of freshmen, irony can be risky business.