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World Poetry Project: In Praise of Warriors
We have in this project already met two Greek warriors: Archilochus and Alcaeus. Neither Archilochus, with his abandoned shield, nor Alcaeus, with his retreat into drink, present the image of the Grecian warrior with which we have grown familiar. The Spartan warriors of 300, for instance, do not appear to have a lot to do with Archilochus or Alcaeus. I would say they are drawn a lot more directly from the tradition established by Simonides during the Persian War.
Simonides of Ceos (556-468 BCE) made his living by his words. Unlike Sappho, Alcaeus, and Archilochus, he did not write for his own personal pleasure, or to share his artistry with chosen friends. He wrote for patrons, to please a public, or sometimes a single person, who would, in proportion to that pleasure, pay him. And he was very good at his job. Therefore, what we read in Simonides is not the view of a man of Ceos of events and persons, but the view of men and of events that his employers desired, and might have believed.
Simonides' epitaph on the Spartan dead at Thermopylae, that battle which forms the background of the chest-baring spectacular that is 300, is probably his most well-known work:
Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie
[Tr. William Lisle Bowles]
Certainly, this is a vision of themselves, and of heroic sacrifice, that the Spartans could appreciate. The heroism of Leonidas and his Spartans soon became a cult in Greece, with sacrifices to the honored dead and a devotion to their remembrance. This small body of warriors was representative not only of Sparta, but of all Greece in its wars against Persia. For, as Herodotus points out, the defeat of Persia was unexpected and seemingly inexplicable. Persia was a great empire with an able army, and Greece a divided community of very small powers. And yet, Greece did win; how could that be explained?
In part, it was explained by attributing great virtue to the Greeks. They won because they were better men: harder, fiercer, more passionate, more driven, more dedicated. The Spartans fought at Thermopylae knowing that they were beaten, but their fight bought time and for forces away from the field. They died for the whole of the effort, as a sacrifice for all of Greece, at least those city-states engaged in war against Persia.
As a side note, it is very strange to make this sacrifice by Leonidas and his men at Thermopylae into a fight for freedom. The Spartans, if they resemble any modern political formation, resemble a fascist state, rather than any state that pays even lip service to the concept of freedom. The Spartan ideal was duty, not freedom. Making Spartans into freedom fighters takes quite a bit of manipulation of the historical record. Certainly, Simonides is not praising the warriors who died for their love of liberty, but for their sense of duty: they lie obedient to Sparta's law. And that law which they have obeyed could certainly be the maternal admonition supposedly given to Spartan warriors to come home with their shield or upon it.
Simonides wrote during a time of tyrannies, and tyrants were often those he needed to please to get paid. What did tyrants want to hear? Largely, apparently, they wanted to hear praise of themselves, and of warriors, those hoplites who formed their power base in the city-states.
"Because of these men's courage"
Because of these men's courage, no smoke rose
Skyward from Tegea's burning. They chose
To leave their children the broad land's township green
With freedom, while in the front line they went down.
[Tr. Peter Jay]
One of the reasons we extol the virtues of our soldiers, one of the reasons all politicians are so eager to be seen with men in uniform, especially in time's of war, is contained in the threat dissatisfied military men form to the state. Men who have the courage to kill your enemy under orders, may, eventually, given the right (or wrong) conditions, turn upon you. Leaders, like the tyrants of ancient Greece, who largely rose to power on the strength of the city-state's warriors are more conscious than most of the revolutionary potential of armed men. So it is that the virtues of the warrior are so lavishly praised at a time when, perhaps, the city leaders had less trust in their virtue than in years before.
Simonides attained mythic status in ancient Greece on the strength of his ability to summon an emotional response from his listeners. He made men feel, and this brought him success and wealth. To him, the quote, "Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech," is attributed. He was listed among the Nine Lyric Poets compiled in Hellenic Alexandria. The Greeks memorialized him as a poet, a wise man, inventor of a mnemonic system, and creator of 4 letters added to the alphabet. Plato cited him in his dialogues.
Simonides achieved success by telling people what they wanted to hear. Tyrants do not want to be told they are tyrants, and so he did not say they were. Warriors, and the states that have sacrificed them, want to be told that they are brave, and that their deeds were worth the blood, and Simonides said they were. It is the modern artist, the modern poet, that expects to be paid to bite, not the ancient, and so it is the truth we find in the ancient poets is often the truth of image, the truth of a people's desires and representation, not of their life.
Mary Renault is an excellent writer. Her historical novels of Greece are among the best written, including this one in which Simonides appears.
No one had told Herodotus that history could not be a fun tale, and he includes many in his history, the first of its kind, focused on the Persian Wars, but with an extensive section on ancient Egypt as well.