Quotulatiousness

November 22, 2014

What Thucydides can teach us about fighting ebola

Filed under: Africa, Europe, Health, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:43

In The Diplomat, James R. Holmes says that we can learn a lot about fighting infectious diseases like ebola by reading what Thucidides wrote about the plague that struck Athens during the opening stages of the Peloponnesian War:

Two panelists from our new partner institution, a pair of Africa hands, offered some striking reflections on the fight against Ebola.

Their presentations put in me in the mind of … classical Greece. Why? Mainly because of Thucydides. Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War isn’t just a (partly) eyewitness account of a bloodletting from antiquity; it’s the Good Book of politics and strategy. Undergraduates at Georgia used to look skeptical when I told them they could learn ninety percent of what they needed to know about bareknuckles competition from Thucydides. The remainder? Technology, tactics, and other ephemera. Thucydides remains a go-to source on the human factor in diplomacy and warfare.

But I digress. Ancient Greece suffered its own Ebola outbreak, a mysterious plague that struck Athens oversea during the early stages of the conflict. And the malady struck, perchance, at precisely the worst moment for Athens, after “first citizen” Pericles had arranged for the entire populace of Attica, the Athenian hinterland, to withdraw within the city walls. The idea was to hold the fearsome Spartan infantry at bay with fixed fortifications while the Athenian navy raided around the perimeter of the Spartan alliance.

[…]

That’s where the parallel between then and now becomes poignant. Thucydides notes, for example, that doctors died “most thickly” from the plague. The Brown presenters noted that, likewise, public-health workers in Africa — doctors, nurses, stretcher-bearers — are among the few to deliberately make close contact with the stricken. Relief teams, consequently, take extravagant precautions to quarantine the disease within makeshift facilities while shielding themselves from contagion. Sometimes these measures fail.

Now as in ancient Greece, furthermore, the prospect of disease and death deters some would-be healers altogether from succoring the afflicted. Selflessness has limits. Some understandably remain aloof — today as in Athens of yesteryear.

Teams assigned to bury the slain also find themselves in dire peril. Perversely, the dead from Ebola are more contagious than living hosts. That makes disposing of bodies in sanitary fashion a top priority. As the plague ravaged Athens, similarly, corpses piled up in the streets. No one would perform funeral rites — even in this deeply religious society. Classicist Victor Davis Hanson ascribes some of Athens’ barbarous practices late in the war — such as cutting off the hands of captured enemy seamen to keep them from returning to war — in part to the plague’s debasing impact on morals, ethics, and religion.

October 22, 2014

QotD: Ancient history

Filed under: History, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

New interests and different locations are provided by an iPad app that gathers pages relevant to my interests, and lets me indulge particular subjects, like “Ancient History.” This gives me the impression I am learning something, and perhaps I am, but when you finish an article about Xobar the Cruel who ruled during the Middle Period of the Crinchothian Empire (140 square miles in modern-day Herzo-Slavbonia) you think “well, there’s something of which I was previously unaware, and let’s preen for a second about being the sort of person who cares about ancient history,” and then it’s all forgotten. It’s all the history of rulers, which means the history of cruelty, and the remnants of settlements, which means the history of floors and walls and tombs. I fault myself for not having a better grasp on the shadowy beginnings of civilization; it doesn’t snap into focus until the Greeks, and then you’re surprised because they have shoes and religion and government and traditions and the rest of the recognizable pillars that hold up the ceiling mankind builds to put some space between himself and the raging caprices of the gods above. Except for Egypt, where they were doing stuff for a long time, but it was weird.

James Lileks, The Bleat, 2014-04-01

August 18, 2014

“It’s strange that the oldest literature becomes the model for the digital age”

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:04

Harvard University Press is putting all 520 volumes of the Loeb Classical Library online beginning in September:

When James Loeb designed his soon-to-be-launched series of Greek and Roman texts at the turn of the twentieth century, he envisioned the production of volumes that could easily fit in readers’ coat pockets. A century later, that compact format is still one of the collection’s hallmarks. Beginning in September, however, the iconic books will be far handier than Loeb had hoped: users of the Loeb Classical Library (LCL) will have the entire collection at their fingertips. After five years of dedicated work on the part of the library’s trustees and Harvard University Press (HUP), which has overseen LCL since its creator’s death in 1933, the more than 520 volumes of literature that make up the series will be accessible online. Besides allowing users to browse the digitized volumes, which retain the unique side-by-side view of the original text and its English translation, the Digital Loeb Classical Library will enable readers to search for words and phrases across the entire corpus, to annotate content, to share notes and reading lists with others, and to create their own libraries using personal workspaces.

LCL managing editor Michael Sullivan, whose position was created earlier this year to supervise the virtual library, said that the digitization project is “a major leap forward in the history of the Loeb.” According to HUP executive editor-at-large Sharmila Sen, the launch of the digital LCL marks “a moment of rebirth” for the historic collection. She explained that in the years preceding the library’s 2011 centenary, the trustees and HUP administrators began to think about how to make the LCL “relevant to the twenty-first century.” Even though online databases of Greek and Latin literature have existed for years, said the library’s general editor, Jeffrey Henderson, a classics professor at Boston University, the digital Loeb will be unprecedented in its accessibility and scope: for the first time, readers without knowledge of Greek and Latin will be able to explore a vast range of the classical literary heritage online through high-quality, modern translations. He added that the project, which cost the LCL foundation more than $1 million, will serve as a model for the digitization of other HUP series, noting, “It’s strange that the oldest literature becomes the model for the digital age.”

Consolidating a vast literary corpus involving two different alphabets into an interconnected, elegant, and easy-to-use website required much behind-the-scenes work, Sen said. Designing the software for the digital library and transferring the data have concluded, she noted, but the project overseers view the current product — which will be available by subscription to institutions and individuals — as only a 1.0 version. The website will be a dynamic workspace, Henderson pointed out, adding that user feedback will help the editors increase its functionality.

H/T to Colby Cosh for the link.

July 31, 2014

QotD: The cultural family tree of the West

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 06:34

Looking at our own family history, we tend to pay more attention to our grandparents than our cousins. Whatever they did, we have a duty to think well of our grandparents. We often forget our cousins. So far as they are rivals, we may come to despise or hate them. So it has been with Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. The Barbarians who crossed the Rhine and North Sea in the fifth century are our parents. They founded a new civilisation from which ours is, in terms of blood and culture, the development. Their history is our history. The Greeks and Romans are our grandparents. In the strict sense, our parents were interlopers who dispossessed them. But the classical and Christian influence has been so pervasive that we even look at our early history through their eyes. The Jews also we shoehorn into the family tree. For all they still may find it embarrassing, they gave us the Christian Faith. We have no choice but to know about them down to the burning of the Temple in 70AD. The Egyptians have little to do with us. But we study them because their arts impose on our senses, and because they have been safely irrelevant for a very long time.

Byzantium is different. Though part of the family tree, it is outside the direct line of succession. In our civilisation, the average educated person studies the Greeks till they were conquered by the Romans, and the Romans till the last Western Emperor was deposed in 476AD. After that, we switch to the Germanic kingdoms, with increasing emphasis on the particular kingdom that evolved into our own nation. The continuing Empire, ruled from Constantinople, has no place in this scheme. Educated people know it existed. It must be taken into account in histories of the Crusades. But the record of so many dynasties is passed over in a blur. Its cultural and theological concerns have no place in our thought. We may thank it for preserving and handing on virtually the whole body of Classical Greek literature that survives. But its history is not our history. It seems, in itself, to tell us nothing about ourselves.

Indeed, where not overlooked, the Byzantines have been actively disliked. Our ancestors feared the Eastern Empire. They resented its contempt for their barbarism and poverty, and its ruthless meddling in their affairs. They hated it for its heretical and semi-heretical views about the Liturgy or the Nature of Christ. They were pleased enough to rip the Empire apart in 1204, and lifted barely a finger to save it from the Turks in 1453. After a spasm of interest in the seventeenth century, the balance of scholarly opinion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to despise it for its conservatism and superstition, and for its alleged falling away from the Classical ideals — and for its ultimate failure to survive. If scholarly opinion since then has become less negative, this has not had any wider cultural effect.

Richard Blake, “The Joys of Writing Byzantine Historical Fiction”, Libertarian Enterprise, 2014-07-27.

October 2, 2013

“Saving” Greek democracy

Filed under: Europe, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:44

The sweep of arrests among the elected members of the Greek far-right Golden Dawn party are being hailed as saving democracy, but as Brendan O’Neill points out, this kind of action is extremely undemocratic:

Why isn’t there more discomfort, or at least the asking of some awkward questions, about the arrest of Golden Dawn MPs in Greece? Yes, Golden Dawn is a profoundly unpleasant organisation. Virulently racist, anti-Semitic, allergic to the ideals of free speech and free movement, and supported by people who are quite happy to use violence against those they hate, especially immigrants, it makes our own British National Party look like a chapter of the Women’s Institute in comparison. Yet that doesn’t mean we should give a nod to, far less cheer, the Greek state’s incarceration of GD’s leaders and members of parliament, who were democratically elected. Any police sweep on elected politicians should make those of us who call ourselves democrats anxious; that Greece’s military-style assault on GD hasn’t is very worrying.

[…]

Far from asking critical questions about what is motivating the Greek state’s clampdown on Golden Dawn, sections of the Greek left and vast swathes of the European left are celebrating it as a victory for democracy. They echo Greece’s public order minister, Nikos Dendias, who described the sweeping-up of GD’s leaders as ‘a historic day for Greece and Europe’. Greek newspapers are competing to see who can be the most effusive in their support for the clampdown. The brilliant arrests are ‘Golden Dawn’s Holocaust’, said one, rather tastelessly. Another claimed that ‘democracy is knocking out the neo-Nazis’. A left-wing British magazine described the arrests as ‘a victory for democracy in Greece’ and demanded to know why the Greek state isn’t doing more to shut down GD. SYRIZA, the left-wing opposition party in Greece which numerous European leftists have excitably hailed as a radical voice against austerity, has stood shoulder-by-shoulder with the state against Golden Dawn, claiming the arrests show ‘that our democracy is standing firm and is healthy’.

These radical cheerleaders of a state clampdown on democratically elected politicians urgently need to look up the word democracy in a dictionary. To describe the arrest of politicians who were elected by the public, by masked, armed police who were not elected by the public, as a ‘victory for democracy’ is the most profound contradiction in terms. Some leftists are claiming that the militaristic clampdown on GD has nothing to do with its political beliefs and is just a straightforward investigation of some men involved in alleged criminal activity. It’s hard to know whether such naivety is touching or disturbing. If this is just a criminal case rather than a political war waged by agents of the state against ideological undesirables, then why are so many describing it as a ‘victory for democracy’, as opposed to a potential victory for justice, and why are so many hailing the ‘knocking out [of] neo-Nazi ideas’? No number of lists of the alleged weapons found in GD members’ homes (apparently the party’s leader owns three guns) can disguise the fact that what we are witnessing here is a state war on a party supported by a significant number of Greeks.

September 24, 2013

The horrors of Greek Austerity strike!

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Europe, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:02

Those poor Greek civil servants … this is so hard on them:

In a sign of just how hard the austere financial climate is hitting, it has been reported that the Greek government has been forced to put an end to one of its civil servants’ most treasured privileges. We speak, of course, of the Hellenic Sir Humphreys’ entitlement to an extra six days a year paid holiday if they are compelled to work with that frightful engine of misery, the computer.

Reuters reports that the long-standing regulation, in which all Greek government workers compelled to use a computer for more than 5 hours a day get an extra day’s leave every two months, was axed in an official announcement on Friday.

August 25, 2013

QotD: Persian and Greek views of abduction

Filed under: History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Up to this point, there had been abductions only from each other, but after this the Hellenes were largely responsible for offenses. For they began to make war on Asia before their enemies made war on Europe. Now the Persians think that the abduction of women is certainly an act only unjust men would perform, and yet once they have been abducted, it is senseless to make a fuss over seeking vengeance. It is the way of sensible people to have no concern for abducted women; it is quite obvious that the women would not have been abducted if they had not been compliant.

Herodotus, “Book 1″, The Histories, c.450-420 BCE

August 13, 2013

It’s accurate to describe the Greek plight as a depression

Filed under: Economics, Europe — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:44

Allister Heath says the catastrophic state of the Greek economy fully merits the descriptor “depression”:

Sorry, but the fact that Greece collapsed at an annual rate of 4.6 per cent in the second quarter, rather than a little bit faster, isn’t good news. It’s terrible, awful, horrible news. Greek output is down by 23 per cent since 2008 and unemployment is at around 28 per cent; no wonder, given the shrinking economy, that gross tax revenues are continuing to undershoot targets.

Hyperbolic economists sometime claim that the UK has undergone a depression, which is nonsense — but Greece’s woes cannot be described in any other way. Its depression has been catastrophic, one of the worst ever recorded for any country in the modern, industrialised era (apart from during or immediately after a war). Its dramatic collapse reminds us that stupid economic policies can destroy a nation; depressions have not been banished from modern civilisation.

It may be, of course, that the collapse is beginning to abate and that the economy may finally stabilise next year. I’ll believe it when I see it; unless Greece’s money supply starts growing again, and demand begins to increase, a recovery is impossible. But Greece is just a tiny part of the Eurozone, so achieving such an outcome is even harder than in a country like the UK, especially given that the Greek financial crisis hasn’t really gone away. There is no way that Athens will meet its bailout targets and its debt burden is utterly unsustainable.

July 9, 2013

Replacing impartial courts with revolutionary tribunals

Filed under: Government, Law, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:57

Victor Davis Hanson talks about earlier experiments with tribunals:

In ancient Athens, popular courts of paid jurors helped institutionalize fairness. If a troublemaker like Socrates was thought to be a danger to the popular will, then he was put on trial for inane charges like “corrupting the youth” or “introducing new gods.”

Convicting gadflies would remind all Athenians of the dangers of questioning democratic majority sentiment. If Athenian families were angry that their sons had supposedly died unnecessarily in battle, then they might charge the generals with capital negligence — a warning to all commanders to watch their backs. As in the case of Socrates, a majority vote often led to conviction, and conviction to a death sentence, or at least ostracism or exile. The popular courts freelanced to ensure that “the people” would hold sway over the perceived powerful and elite.

For a couple of years in revolutionary France, a Tribunal Révolutionnaire tried royalists, clergy, the wealthy, and supposed counter-revolutionaries on trumped-up charges of crimes against the people. Their purpose was a more violent version of the Athenian idea that the courts should serve the public by targeting the prominent, influential, or wealthy.

We in the United States are in jeopardy of turning our own criminal-justice system into revolutionary tribunals — fanned by the popular media and public opinion and directed against so-called enemies of the people.

[. . .]

The American court system is insidiously focusing on social transformation rather than individual justice. If Neanderthal reactionaries in California twice voted to reiterate that marriage is between a man and a woman, then leave it to judges and courts to find them bigoted and politically incorrect. In the present revolutionary environment, the degree of the Obama administration’s enforcement of federal laws concerning gay marriage, or illegal immigration, or the new health-care law has hinged on politics and perceptions about social justice — and the courts increasingly predicate their own decision-making on these same considerations. The street can brand a court either an esteemed ally or a reactionary enemy of the people, and so the courts make the necessary adjustments.

Update: The New York Times editorial board expresses its concern about “the laws you can’t see”.

As Eric Lichtblau reported in The Times on Sunday, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has for years been developing what is effectively a secret and unchallenged body of law on core Fourth Amendment issues, producing lengthy classified rulings based on the arguments of the federal government — the only party allowed in the courtroom. In recent years, the court, originally established by Congress to approve wiretap orders, has extended its reach to consider requests related to nuclear proliferation, espionage and cyberattacks. Its rulings, some of which approach 100 pages, have established the court as a final arbiter in these matters.

But the court is as opaque as it is powerful. Every attempt to understand the court’s rulings devolves into a fog of hypothesis and speculation.

[. . .]

As outrageous as the blanket secrecy of the surveillance court is, we are equally troubled by the complete absence of any adversarial process, the heart of our legal system. The government in 2012 made 1,789 requests to conduct electronic surveillance; the court approved 1,788 (the government withdrew the other). It is possible that not a single one of these 1,788 requests violated established law, but the public will never know because no one was allowed to make a counterargument.

When judicial secrecy is coupled with a one-sided presentation of the issues, the result is a court whose reach is expanding far beyond its original mandate and without any substantive check. This is a perversion of the American justice system, and it is not necessary.

June 19, 2013

Examining Vermouth’s claim to being the “oldest wine in the world”

Filed under: Health, History, Middle East, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:13

History Today linked to an article in their archives from 1975 from Pamela Vandyke Price discussing the ancient provenance of Vermouth:

When the great vermouth establishments refer to their product as ‘the oldest form of wine in the world’, they are not exaggerating. If we could travel in time, we might find many of the wines praised in antiquity to be harsh, sour and coarse to our palates, but the ‘aromatized wine’ that we know as vermouth would then have existed and, even if we drank it for medicinal or preventive reasons rather than for enjoyment, we could recognise it and relate it to the vermouths of today.

Vermouth can be, and often is, made wherever wine is made. The ancient Egyptians used both wine and beer, plus juniper, frankincense, celery, lotus leaves and honey, in the treatment of certain ailments; and it is by a method of infusion, maceration, distillation, or two or all three of these processes that, essentially, vermouth is made today. In Book IV of the Odyssey, Helen throws a drug given to her by an Egyptian lady into the bowl in which the wine is to be mixed and diluted before dinner; this ‘had the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories’ — an efficacious aperitif, assuring good digestion. At the end of the third millennium B.C. what is perhaps the first written doctor’s prescription is recorded in cuneiform script on a tablet from the Sumerian city of Nippur — a physician notes that certain powders should be infused with a type of wine.

[. . .]

Other families in the drink business were quick to see the possibilities for vermouth, setting up in Turin, Marseilles and Sete (again in proximity to mountain herbs and a quantity of wine), and in Chambray. Many of them are still family concerns, even though they are great empires of the drink business. Martini & Rossi, who were founded about 1840, replaced a much older concern making vermouths and liqueurs at Pessione, near Turin (the head of that firm was the grandfather of Giovanni Angelli, founder of Fiat); the superb museum now established alongside the Pessione installations is a necessary detour for anyone interested in the history of wine from the earliest times.

The Cinzano family began in the drink business in the sixteenth century, and in 1757 the brothers Carlo Stefano and Giovanni Giacomo were invested as Master Distillers in Turin; today their business is gigantic, including, among other things, the Florio concern at Marsala, (itself including the former cantinas of Ingham and Woodhouse). Louis Noilly, in business at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Lyons, set up in the vermouth trade with his son-in-law, Claudius Prat and they enjoyed so much success that by 1843 they moved their headquarters to Marseilles. Madame Josephine Prat, who ran the business after the deaths of the two founders, was succeeded by her two children; and her granddaughter, Vicomtesse Vigier, who entered the firm before 1939, directed it until 1970 when she died, over a hundred years old.

It seems a little odd that, with so many modifications of wine-making and changes in the tastes of drinkers, aromatized wine should still be in demand. But, in fact, it is increasingly so. Whenever people order a straight vermouth they are ordering the oldest wine in the world.

June 6, 2013

IMF forced to admit that the Greek bailout “included notable failures”

Filed under: Economics, Europe — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:58

In the Guardian, Larry Elliott, Phillip Inman and Helena Smith round up the IMF’s self-criticisms over the handling of the bailout package imposed on Greece:

In an assessment of the rescue conducted jointly with the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European commission, the IMF said it had been forced to override its normal rules for providing financial assistance in order to put money into Greece.

Fund officials had severe doubts about whether Greece’s debt would be sustainable even after the first bailout was provided in May 2010 and only agreed to the plan because of fears of contagion.

While it succeeded in keeping Greece in the eurozone, the report admitted the bailout included notable failures.

“Market confidence was not restored, the banking system lost 30% of its deposits and the economy encountered a much deeper than expected recession with exceptionally high unemployment.”

In Athens, officials reacted with barely disguised glee to the report, saying it confirmed that the price exacted for the €110bn (£93bn) emergency package was too high for a country beset by massive debts, tax evasion and a large black economy.”

Under the weight of such measures — applied across the board and hitting the poorest hardest — the economy, they said, was always bound to dive into an economic death spiral.

March 31, 2013

The deep strangeness of the Cyprus bank haircuts

Filed under: Economics, Europe — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:36

At Forbes, Tim Worstall has some thoughts on the oddities now apparent in how the Cyprus banking crisis has played out so far:

Now that we’re seeing the real numbers coming out about who loses what in the Cyprus haircut/bank consolidations there’s something very strange about the numbers. Whiffy even, and that’s not with a good odour to it either. For, as far as I can tell at least, the haircuts are far larger than they need to be in order to make good the damage that we were told about. I’m therefore coming around to the idea that this wasn’t what we’ve been told it was, a story of Russian offshore deposits and tax avoidance. Rather, it’s two banks which invested regular domestic deposits into just terrible opportunities and then lost it all.

I don’t think I can make the case absolutely but I think it’s a case worth at least investigating.

[. . .]

But back to the point I’m trying to work through here. We’ve been told that the immediate cause was all about all that foreign money which flooded the country’s banking system. Yet when we look at the amount that is being raised by the haircuts it doesn’t look as if the two bankrupt banks had all that much of those foreign deposits. It looks very much like the banks which had the deposits didn’t invest badly and thus didn’t go bankrupt. So the problem isn’t therefore one of all that foreign money.

Rather, it’s a problem of where those two banks invested their deposits. And it looks as if this was largely in Greek Government and Cypriot Government bonds. Which is why they are bust.

December 31, 2012

The Spartathlon, a long distance run for true masochists

Filed under: Europe, History, Sports — Tags: — Nicholas @ 11:16

In The Economist, a look at a running event in Greece that attracts only the most obsessive of long distance runners:

This year’s Spartathlon, which took place in late September, was the 30th. Its heritage goes back much further. The most famous ultra-marathon in history was that run by Pheidippides, an Athenian who made the journey to Sparta in 490BC. His mission was to ask the Spartans for their help in fighting the invading Persians; Herodotus, a historian, records that he reached Sparta on the day after he left Athens. (The Spartans were celebrating a religious festival, so could not offer help until after the Athenians had dispatched the Persians at the battle of Marathon.)

Herodotus did not appear particularly taken by Pheidippides’s feat of endurance. Since his “Histories” also includes tales of ants bigger than foxes, it probably seemed rather unimpressive. But in 1982 his terse description sparked the interest of a British air-force officer and long-distance runner called John Foden, who wondered if it really was possible to run from Athens to Sparta and arrive the next day. With four other officers, Mr Foden decided to see for himself; after 36 hours’ slog they arrived in Sparti, as the town is now called.

Racing through history

That achievement inspired the organisation of the first Spartathlon a year later; the race now ranks as one of the world’s classic ultra-marathons. The Spartathlon’s allure has two sources. The first is the difficulty of finishing it. Any race that is longer than a marathon can call itself an ultra-marathon, but no self-respecting ultrarunner gets excited about finishing, say, a 48km course. The most talked-about events in the calendar are the ones that look most incomprehensible to the average person.

Take the Barkley. This 161km trail race in Tennessee forces runners to makes climbs and descents of 18,000 metres each inside 60 hours. The Barkley has been going since 1986, and in that period only 13 people have managed to finish the course within the cut-off time. Badwater is another race that derives kudos from insanity. The 217km course in California runs from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in temperatures of 50°C and above. (“Nudity is specifically not allowed,” say the rules.)

The Spartathlon cannot claim such extremes. It is not the hilliest race, nor the hottest. But it combines lots of different tests. There is the heat of the Greek day, then the plunge in temperatures when darkness falls. There are climbs, too: the route includes a series of ascents, among them a 1,200-metre mountain pass negotiated in the dead of night. Above all, there is the relentless pressure of the clock.

November 10, 2012

What Ataturk accomplished to create modern Turkey

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:35

History Today posted that today is the anniversary of the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the man who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire:

Mustapha Kemal Pasha was given the honorific title ‘father of the Turks’ at the height of a revolution which he was pushing forward intuitively and idiosyncratically, there being no precedent for such a fundamental sea change in a Muslim state.

Inevitably, it took someone standing outside the Islamic tradition of Ottoman Turkey to create a new state out of Anatolia — rising from the wreck of the empire. But as The Times was to say in its obituary, this was a man of extraordinary qualities; a Cromwell of the Middle East and also a maverick with an almost feminine subtlety in handling crises on the path to supreme power. He had an iron will and displayed single-mindedness when it came to ensuring the security of the state, even to hanging former confederates who plotted against his revolution.

Ataturk was born of an Albanian mother in Salonika and, without connections followed a military career in which, after being involved with the Young Turks reformist movement, he made his name in 1915 by rushing reinforcements to the Gallipoli beach-head and holding the ANZAC assault.

[. . .]

The Kemalists formed a provisional government in the small town of Ankara, in the middle of the desolate Anatolian plateau. On the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts the Greeks and Italians laid claim to what they regarded as their Asia Minor birthright, hoping to recreate some sort of classical empire. Kemal disabused the Greeks, who soon, of all the Allies hoping for a piece of Anatolia, were alone in arms against the nationalist forces. Halted in a blistering hot wilderness just short of Ankara, the Greeks, who had out-marched their supply lines, were outflanked and thrown back by Kemal’s outnumbered and ragged levies at the Sakaria river. A retreat became a headlong flight and the Greek forces joined their fellow nationals and the Armenians and foreigners who had formed the mercantile community of Smyrna, in a panic-stricken evacuation of the sacked and blazing port. Kemal is supposed to have indulged in a drinking orgy as Smyrna went up in flames — a Tartar conqueror’s celebration of total victory.

The Greeks quit the struggle and their sponsor, the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, who had threatened armed British intervention backed by the fleet to keep Constantinople an open port under British protection, followed suit. The French and Russians signed separate treaties, giving the Kemalists recognition and aid.

September 14, 2012

Why did people travel all over the ancient Greek world to consult the Oracle at Delphi?

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Megan McArdle on self-help, self-help books, and a good guess about why the Oracle at Delphi was so influential:

I must have read dozens — hundreds — of melancholy laments about the process of aging when I was in my twenties. I enjoyed the writing of many, and even managed to eke a wistful moment out of a few of them. But then one day, in my mid-thirties, I found myself reading another — and resonating to its message of lost youth like a finely tuned wind-chime. Suddenly I shared the wistful and slightly angry sense of a profound loss of possibility; I too had realized that there was no longer time for me to try another career, take up ballet, or enlist in the military. For the rest of my life, I was going to be basically what I am now. I also shared the sense of comfort that that realization brings; I wasted far too much of my twenties trying to construct unlikely selves from the basic starting material I was given.

Some messages can only be heard when you are ready. And some can only be taken from a stranger, as witness the dismal record of friends who try to “help” each other with their marriages. “Practice makes perfect” may not be any more true because someone did a study demonstrating it — but the edict may be easier to swallow coming from Malcolm Gladwell than from your mother.

[. . .]

Hale was part of the team that investigated the Oracle at Delphi, and found that the oracle seems to have sat directly above a crack in the earth which emitted psychoactive gases, putting her in an altered state from which she delivered her pronouncements. He gave us a stunning lecture on the topic of the Oracle (you can get a taste of what it was like here). And one of the topics he explored was what role the oracle played in Greek society. Why did people come to this remote place from all over the Mediterranean, and even beyond, in order to ask her a question? Not just to ask — to act on it. People seemed to have believed that the Oracle was really pointing the way for them.

One possibility, of course, is that the psychoactive gasses actually allowed the Oracle to see the future, and thus provide a very useful service. But I think we can assume arguendo that this is probably not the case. So why were people so interested in what she had to say?

Perhaps they were just all stupid — this is a popular theory about the past. But Hale offered another possibility. He suggested that even cryptic, elusive statements such as the oracle liked to make can be very valuable, because they snap us out of our current mode of thinking. When you are stuck in a rut, rehearsing the same arguments (or behaviors) over and over again, just having someone offer you new food for thought may open up possibilities that you previously hadn’t considered.

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