Thucydides, naval warfare and sandwiches

I have now finished reading Thucydides’ abbreviated account of the Peloponnesian War. Which could perhaps be more aptly named “The war the Athenians would’ve won if they’d actually kept focusing on the Spartans instead of getting distracted every other year”. The history, written in the 5th century BC, goes on for 554 modern, tightly written pages. OK, with lots of maps, but it is still a tremendously extensive history. You find yourself wondering how there were enough papyrus reeds, or sheep, or whatever they were using to write on in those days for all of it. More astonishingly, the text ends abruptly, mid-paragraph, in the 21st year of the war. Given that there are some passages that show signs of later editing, it is entirely possible that the book went on for another couple hundred pages – but the remainder got lost. (You can just imagine the banal or tragic circumstance. Used to mop up spilled milk? Dropped from the desperately clutching hand of a man hanging with his other hand to the rigging of a boat? Forgotten when a family packed up and moved?)

Reading Herodotus and Thucydides back to back has led to a pretty darn decent grounding in ancient Greek history (and an EXCELLENT understanding of ancient Greek geography). The two authors are very different. Herodotus was very interested in sociology, social custom and anecdote (especially any of those that have to do with having sex in weird ways). I don’t remember any particular speeches in his story. Thucydides only gives you sociology when it is required for the storyline, and switches between event narratives and speeches. The speeches are really excellent.

Towards the beginning of the recounting, when Pericles fires the blood of the Athenians, you find yourself SO GLAD that you’re from Athens. As time goes on, your pride turns to ashes in your mouth as the Athenian public opinion squanders opportunities and reaches for unattainable and stupid goals. It’s possible, just possible, that I might have seen some corrolaries between those Athenenians and my own people, in character, confidence and (um) lack of focus.

Anyway, the seventh book is dedicated to the events of the siege of Syracuse. The Athenians, having left the Spartans and their allies strong and regrouping on their near border, decide it’s an awesome time to go and invade Sicily – mostly at the importunings of Alcibiades. Alcibiades is the most important and intriguing historical figure you’ve never heard of. If his decisions had gone another way, the whole history of the Mediterranean would have been different. Perhaps Alexander would have been a vassal, not a King. And had that happened, the world would have been different.

Anyway, long distance naval warfare was a relatively new concept. And Athens and Sicily were separated by a not insignificant expanse of water. Triremes were not ships – they were boats. They were not intended to be slept in. There were no facilities for preparation of food. So if you were in a trireme, you needed to stop on land in order to eat or sleep. This has an obvious restraining quality on who you can attack by sea in trireme warfare.

In one of the peculiarities of this form of warfare, the Greeks expected their soldiers to feed themselves from their wages (or booty). So they would pull ashore, find a market, have everyone eat dinner, go to bed, and then do battle the next day. At one point, to the end of the Syracusan campaign, the Syracusans arrange with a market to be held right on the shore. They pull off to get dinner, and the Athenians go and do likewise. But the Syracusans arranged to buy all the prepared food in the market, so the Athenians have to go further inland to try to find dinner. Meanwhile, the Syracusans have a quick dinner from the arranged market and then go back to attack while their opponents are still haggling over mutton. This was a decisive move. The Syracusans won that naval battle against the greatest naval power the world had ever seen. It was all downhill from there for the Athenians. A scant handful of the flower of their military forces survived to return from Italy.

While I was reading this, all I could think of was sandwiches. Seriously, if they just had sandwiches on those triremes, what an advantage it would have been! What a tremendous tactical flexibility this would’ve offered!

This war was brutal and bloody. Men died horribly. Women were enslaved and raped. (Seriously, the only time women appear in this narrative is to either be enslaved or, obnoxiously, widows told by Pericles that their greatest honor will be in being completely invisible to the real people.) But especially in the beginning, it was civilized enough to have some assumed graces. In the beginning of the war, you started in the morning and fought until dinner time. Then the living stopped, had dinner and gathered their dead under truce – to begin again on the morrow. Anyone violating these rules could generate an advantage – but it made warfare that much more awful. No dinner, just sandwiches, was what I would’ve suggested if I was an Athenian general. The next battle in Syracuse ended up being fought at night – with no lights, torches, uniforms. Men were killed by their compatriots, who in daylight knew them because they _knew them_ not by some other marker. This let the Syracusans defeat a superior number of Athenians, speeding the boulder of their defeat downhill with increasing momentum.

We are not done optimizing our lives and our battles. An innovation like sandwiches can be easily copied by the enemy. It brings a decisive but fleeting advantage, after which war is permanently even more miserable for all participants.

I think we still do this. Would you have invented sandwiches on triremes, or would you have left well enough alone? What are the modern equivalents, in warfare or in life? What do you think?

Herodotus (II)

Our new car was named Herodotus. It’s pretty cute to hear Thane ask, “Can we ride in Her-od-o-tus??” Now, the inspiration came because Herodotus is theoretically “Tuscan Olive”. Back when I was a kid, we used to call that color “Green”.

So I think I whine here sufficiently about how I have no time for anything, ever. But somehow, I sneak a few things in. One of my sneaky additions is a humanities book club run by some friends of mine. I first argued I didn’t have time. But I thought about the reading list. And I thought about my intellectual starvation. And I decided that I would aspire. I would try.

I recently read a very interesting blog post about intellectual obesity, talking about how the same cultural influences that lead us to eat too much of the wrong food also lead us to the easiest forms of entertainment. As the author says, “Given infinite choice and no fabricated pressures, you will consume the least effort, most enjoyable information.” This resonated with me. After college (actually, after reading the entire Canterbury Tales) I decided I had nothing to prove. I knew I could read the hardest literature and derive pleasure and knowledge from it. So I piled up the fantasy novels and YA literature. And you know, there’s nothing wrong with those. Nothing at all. But after Grey was born, I began to feel the effects of intellectual malnutrition. I subscribed to the Economist, but was still hungry. At the same time, I have so little leisure and reading heavy literature is, well, hard. It really is. I have the skills, but they’re rusty.

So. I have tried. I missed the first book. I read the Odyssey (for the first time!) on my own, and became enraptured with Homer. He’s good! Who knew!!! I read significant parts of Plato’s Republic, and was completely underwhelmed by it. But by golly, I got through all 800 pages of Herodotus’ Persian Wars. I even read many of the appendices. (Note: if you’re reading hard literature in your precious precious slivers of free time… go for the very best version you can find, not the cheapest.)

I must confess that this gives me, in addition to more intellectual grist for my poor starved mental-mill, a tremendous sense of satisfaction. I did a hard thing, not because I had to, but because I chose to. I did something challenging with no external validation or reason. It was a lot like running a race after being a couch potato for years. It felt excellent.

And I’m doing it again. I’m well into Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars, which has rather more good speeches and rather fewer digressive stories.

So, for those of you who are curious, here’s our reading list. We’ve been at it for about a year. At this pace, we should get through our curriculum by, oh, 2020 or so. But that’s ok with me.

Humanities Book Club Reading List

Homer, Odyssey & Iliad (Homer is good and quick!)
Plato, Republic (Ugh. Historically important. Needs a teacher. And an editor. You begin to understand why they killed Socrates for being annoying.)
Aesop, Fables (We skipped this one)
Herodotus, Persian Wars (Hard, but I did it!)
Thucydides, Peloponnesian War (Next up)
Aescylus, Oresteia
Virgil, Aenid; Caesar; Conquest of Gaul
Plutarch, Makers of Rome
Lucretius, The Nature of the Universe; Cicero on Duty
Old Testament, Selections*
New Testament*
St. Augustine, Confessions
Two Lives of Charlemagne; Song of Roland*
Memoirs of the Crusades
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight*
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy (this is the guy I tried to name Thane after, but that was for his De institutione musica)
St Francis, Little Flowers
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales*
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Cellini, Autobiography
Shakespeare, Henry IV*; Hamlet*
Descartes, Meditations
Gibbon, Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire
Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
Scott, Ivanhoe*
Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution
Parkman, The Oregon Trail
Newman & Huxley, Selection on Education
Dostoyevsky, Crime & Punishment

*I have already read

A day to myself

Today should be written down on the calendar. For reasons obscure to me, today is a holiday in my company. Not in my husband’s not-for-profit company that takes Columbus Day off, or my son’s preschool. No, just for me.

It’s like one of those daydreams you have, “What would you do if you suddenly had $100,000?”… the object of my fantasies has become reality. Better yet, it comes at a point where I’ve caught up on sleep, have no laundry to do, the dishes are done, the house is clean, the pictures are uploaded, the church web site is up to date and I’ve gotten clean through my backlog of blogging ideas. Bliss!

Although I’m at the snot-phase of a cold, I’m actually feeling quite energetic. So I did get up with my husband (instead of moaning inarticulately and covering my head with pillows which is my standard method of pleading with my husband to please let me sleep in just this ONCE! — I do this at least once a week.). I hied my sons to school. Thane looked trepidatous to return, but Grey was delighted. As I left he was busily comparing t-shirts with Nicholas. (Nicholas had gotten a Mario shirt, for the record.)

8:15. I was home and awake. So… I broke my fast, made a pot of coffee, made the bed (I NEVER make the bed, ever), checked my email upstairs, called two financial planners to talk about financial planning (I’m hitting the point where I need help, I think) and my OB to schedule my annual. Then, I tackled the attic.

Ah, the attic, repository of all that is not needed! As part of my energetic New Year’s burst (it’s astonishing how much energy I have when I don’t have to work!), I went through all the boys’ toys (with at least Grey’s help) and we set aside the ones that aren’t played with, or have been outgrown or broken. I called Salvation Army to schedule a pickup, so now its open season on “things I really don’t need”. And the attic figures prominently in that role. But there is a catch.

Bats. You remember when I said that “I know there is a population of bats in our area”. Confession time: the real reason I know is because they live in my attic! Such a welter of conflicting impulses there. The homeowner is all “BATS OUT! NOW! NO BATS!” while the environmentalist argues, “But their habitat loss is sooo bad you wouldn’t kick them out would you?” and the mother argues with herself “I don’t want those rabies and histoplasmosis vectors in the same building as my children, but I won’t kick them out until after hibernation and baby season is over because that’s just mean.” The mom voice is winning here. I set up a bat house to give them a place to go, and I MEANT to evict them (gently!) in the fall… but I got busy. Plus, all the bat eviction places I googled looked… histrionic. “Bats, the great bug scourge of the skies!” (Extra credit for getting the reference.)

So, I cleaned up all bat-related evidence, fixed the temperamental light fixture, plugged a few more holes (not so it would prevent them from getting outside, but prevent them from getting further inside) vacuumed and rearranged the attic. That’s as good as it gets until fall! I worked up a sweat going from attic to first floor and back again, moving the outgrown baby things to the porch!

Then I showered. Don’t worry, I had a mask on for that work.

A “what I did next” list is probably boring (well, if it’s not already too late for that!), but let’s just say my errands involved EIGHT different stores in three different zip codes. Then I came home and started a batch of bread.

Because I am a domestic goddess.

I’ve noticed a trend on Facebook and Twitter so far that points to 2011 getting off to a rocky start for many of my acquaintance. Although I have a small and unrepresentative sample so far, let me just be a voice of dissent to that trend. I’m totally digging 2011 to date!

It’s also interesting to see how much I like myself when I’m not incredibly tired and busy. It took me 10 days to get to this point (with significant help from my MIL who was primary child-carer, cook, maid & chauffeur for 9 days!) but this sense of energy and enthusiasm is very pleasant. I’d like to have it more often. I don’t know how to do that.

PS – SCORE! One of my 8 errands was to our local used bookstore, The Book Oasis to drop off and acquire new books. I brought the list of books we’d be reading for the humanities book club I belong to, and having struck out, I gave them the list and asked them to keep an eye out for the titles. I just got an email from the proprietress who did research on the best version of Thucydides and is working to get it for me. WIN! Now to make it through Herodotus. Not light reading. Even with all the leisure time (see above) I only made it through to Book 4 this Christmas!