Sunday Sol Day – 1Sep2013 – A Syria Dilemma and a Tragedic Reality

I hope to begin a new Sunday fixture of Sunday Sol Day. Sunday for a round up of the past week’s news; Sol Day for some Classics-related nonsense by me.


The big news in the past week comes out of Pompeii. Art Newspaper reports on UNESCO’s musings about placing Pompeii into the “World Heritage in Danger” list ( Later in the week, we hear that the Germans come to the rescue as specialists from Technical University of Munich and the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart head to Pompeii to aid restoration (The Guardian Independent: Repubblica (in Italian):

Slightly overlooked is the story that there are voices from Germany calling for struggling Euro nations to sell some of their national heritage. So this the Spanish should do (Le Monde (in French):; so this the Greeks should do (El País (in Spanish):

A Roman theatre was discovered in Hatay in Turkey (Hurriyet Daily

Is it any wonder? Well who knows? 61% of the British interviewed can only name one wonder, usually the Great Pyramids. 21% can name two. The Great Pyramids is the only one of the wonders extant, but maybe we Classicists need to work harder to introduce the other ones (Daily Mail

The wonderless situation will not improve in Scotland, as Lee Baker suggest in this letter to the Times Education Supplement ( There is a distinct lack of qualified Classics teacher in Scotland that is not helped by the lack of teacher training provision there.

The Michael Scott documentary on Ancient Theatre, entitled “Ancient Greece: the Greatest Show on Earth” was received. The second of three instalments will air at 9pm on BBC Four this coming Tuesday. Read more about the show and its topic with HistoryExtra ( or rewatch the first episode, which tells of Athenian democracy through drama (

And finally, something out of this world, in Latin (BBC:

Sol Day – A Syria Dilemma and a Tragedic Reality

On Tuesday Michael Scott presented the first episode of his programme on Greek Tragedy. In this episode he tells the story of Athenian politics and democracy through drama. On a day when news and images continue to come in from the chemical attack in Syria, on a day when the parliament is about to be recalled to debate the possibility of war (as the motion was then), the programme was viewed through this modern, stained glass.

Everyone suffers in war. In this episode entitled “democracy”, many of the democratic debates and decisions highlighted revolves around war. Persians recount how neglect of the gods led to setbacks such as that of Salamis, except the play is performed in Athens only years after they have defeated the Persians. This is the Athens that had to move out of Athens because of the Persian attack. Scott rightly asks, what would the veterans, wounds yet unhealed, be thinking? How should we consider our enemy? In the case of Syria, we are given the classic black-and-white picture that the government is bad, and we would actively and subconsciously draw the conclusion that the government supporters are bad. But those who serve, suffer and expire in war are pawns in a battlefield. The tragedy of a human death crosses boundaries and divisions in any battlefield.

The same theme is addressed in Antigone, where a previous war has wiped out the forces of two brothers competing for the rule of Thebes. The army effectively cancelled each other out, with the two pretenders dead by eachother’s hands. Antigone, the sister of the two pretenders, hope to ensure that both brothers had their due funeral rites despite an edict issued by the now ruler of Thebes that one of the brothers should not be buried. Scott in his programme focuses on the self-inflicted tragedy of the ruler Creon, but other themes are at play that we could apply to modern situations. For example, should the rule of law have precedence over morality? If military intervention is not permitted under UN resolutions, should Western countries still go into Syria? Another theme is Creon’s decision to favour one of the two sides in this struggle. Should the Western countries be so resolved to oppose Assad? If the cilivilans are the prime consideration, would removing Assad help the Syrian situation (sc. Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Gadafi). This brings to mind the songs of Alcaeus, when he would sing well of Pittacus sometimes, and wish ill on Pittacus at other times, presumably after Pittacus became leader of Mytilene and decided he didn’t need to please Alcaeus’ faction.

Talking about Mytilene, another part of Scott’s programme hovered over the mutiny at Mytilene. Mytilene want out of the Delian League (which, to grossly simplify, is the Athenian Empire). Athens saw this as a rebellion and considered a solution to it. In a debate well-documented in Thucydides, the citizen body voted to massacre the male population and sell off the women and the children as slave as a punishment for rebelling, convinced as they were by brilliant rhetoric. On the next day, the democratic body reconvened and a proposal to overturn the decision to massacre was carried, after another brilliant speech. So the Mytileans were saved, by a change of heart, by a very fast trireme and (possibly) by having the decision to kill first before the decision of reprieve, rather than the other way round.

Several themes emerges from this. The first one ought to be that, once you have militarily intervened (as the Athenians did to quell the rebellion), you have to then have an end-plan! The Athenians may have felt they needed to quell what they saw as a rebellion, but merely sending in troops and then returning them would serve no purpose. Such would be the case in Syria, as the French discovered in Mali. The second one is that we are swayed by rhetoric and speech. The politicians then and now will try and convince the populace with facts that we may not know, such as intelligence report, and with rhetoric with every persuasion. It is not easy to see through the embellishment (both in facts and in style) in the argument, in part because we are not professionals armed with the knowledge (of Mytilene, of Syria) to make the decision unaided, in part because we as participants of a democracy expects politicians to woo us and are very often quite happy to make decisions based on who impresses us most – a slightly irrational method but one that we all except.

By all standard, criticism against Cameron for the way he presented his case is justified, for I never felt he had the facts or made statesmanlike speech for this cause despite his passion for the case. Tony Blair was and is the master of this, unfortunately. In tragedy, in Thucydides and in Plato, in Xenophon, the Greeks debate with hearts and mind – in a sympotic context, in a military council, in a democratic body, in a desperate situation when a man or woman defied threat of death to stand up for his or her belief. The stichomythia of tragedies (where characters “argue” with alternating single lines) makes contrasts of two cases more stark; the Socratic method is essentially a way of telling us that there are no perfect knowledge or solution; the great speeches illustrate the power of speech coupling style and reason (or perhaps one where style masks the lack of substance, or where a good case fails because of a bad speech). I will be bold to say that the war debate here in the UK have not reached the heights of the Greeks and that the decision may have been defeated contributed by a defect in presentation, but we should be encouraged by the fact that decisions are no longer easy and unchallenged. A decision for war should not be taken lightly. Any decision to go to war, to sanction, to help the Syrians would have more weight after a worthy debate.

War is an unfortunate thing. This has not changed since the tragedians’ time. There is already a war, internally in Syria, and the Syrians would have experienced first hand the pains of these tragic characters in the plays. Some would have done so because they believe firmly in their faction; others are just civilians caught in the crossfire. In some ways, though, every tragedy has some form of resolution and, as the Syrian tragedy plays out within the country, we can only wish the curtains will fall at some point soon. To think the end of war is the end of tragedy would be naive, as the Trojan Women will tell you, but at least we are one step closer to the end of sufferings.

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