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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A&M: 2002 July

6th July 2002
At the Austrian Grand Prix last month, the Ferrari driver Rubens Barrichello was ordered to pull over and let his world champion team- mate Michael Schumacher win. This caused outrage among the sporting public, and Ferrari have been fined — but for the antics that went on at the winner’s podium after the race, not for their orders to Barrichello to pull over. Ancient Greeks would have applauded the decision.

Since the Greeks’ desire to win at everything was intense, their athletes were professionals. Games were put on all over the Greek world, and prize money and appearance money, though not available at the Olympics, made the periodos, ‘circuit’, as it was called, very lucrative for the top performers. Such athletes were sponsored by their families if they were wealthy, by their cities if they were not, and top trainers were eagerly sought. When an individual won, it was he who got the glory, and the celebrations might well include a song composed for him by a poet who specialised in victory odes, such as Pindar (c. 518–440 bc). His surviving odes celebrate clients over the full range of events — boxing, wrestling, running, the pankration, horse-racing and so on — and, where individuals were concerned, Pindar was eloquent about their skills.

Equine events, however, were different. They required phenomenal outlay — horses, stables, chariots, etc. — and were therefore the domain only of the rich and successful. As a result, chariot victories carried by far the greatest prestige of all. Indeed, Alcibiades thought it politically advantageous to boast of once having entered seven chariots, more than anyone else, and coming first, second and fourth. The crucial point, however, is that the winner who was celebrated by Pindar was not the jockey or chariot-driver, but the owner. Winning was down to the horses. The jockey/driver was merely a technician. He did what he was told — or was out of a job. We even hear of a horse, Breeze, that threw its rider at the start but still won in superb style and was duly given the prize. As a result, Pindar’s odes for equestrian victors concentrated not on the jockey/rider’s skill but on the glory the owner had gained, his great wealth, and his willingness to spend it on a good cause.

It was the owner who made horse-racing possible. It was the owner, therefore, who ran the show and took the credit. The same is true of Formula One. The drivers, sitting behind their little wheels going brrm brrm, may be brave and brilliant technicians, but that is all they are. In relation to the owners, they know their place. Nowhere.

13th July
The territorial fence which the Israelis are building is structurally and functionally a dead ringer for Hadrian’s Wall (started ad 122).

Hadrian’s Wall was about 14 feet high, the Israeli fence about 11 feet. The Wall discouraged approaches from the barbarian side with a 10-feet- deep V-shaped ditch about 20 feet from the Wall; men trapped there would be in easy throwing range. The Israelis are placing razor wire on the Palestinian side. On the Wall’s Roman side, the first construction was a military communications road, running its whole length; so, too, with the Israelis. Behind that the Romans constructed another V-shaped ditch running the length of the Wall, about 10 feet deep and 20 feet wide at the top; and on both sides of that ditch they built turf mounds 6 feet high and 20 feet wide. Behind the Israeli military road, running the length of their fence, is a 24-feet-wide stretch of razor wire, and behind that a steep anti-vehicle ditch. Finally, both Hadrian’s Wall and the Israeli fence have look-out positions and heavily controlled crossing-points.

The name of the game on both sides is separation, definition, defence and control. The first purpose of Hadrian’s Wall (as our only source to mention it says) was to ‘separate Romans from barbarians’, especially the warring tribes of northern Britain (the Brigantes) from those of southern Scotland. From now on, there should be no more trouble there. But in building a wall to achieve that end the Romans were also announcing that, effectively, in northern Britain their empire finished here.

The Wall brought to an end a difficult situation in which boundaries were fluid and ill-defined. Everyone now knew what was Roman empire and what was not. The Romans were back in control, able to supervise movements north and south of the Wall, prevent petty raiding and hinder large-scale attacks, and so encourage peaceful development of Britain right up to that frontier. This explains the extensive ditch-plus-turf-mound complex on the Roman side of the Wall: the whole area immediately behind the Wall was designed to be a Roman military zone, under army control, where civilian and other access was strictly forbidden — except at the controlled crossing-points.

Mutate the mutanda, and you have the Israeli situation in a nutshell, the single, absolutely critical difference being that it made little odds to the Romans where they drew their line. The Israeli fence, in other words, signals the beginning of the end of the Israel–Palestine territorial conflict.

27th July
Mr Paul Kelleher, who demonstrated his free-thinking credentials by knocking the head off a statue of Lady Thatcher in the Guildhall Art Gallery in London, will never know how close an escape he had.

In the course of his 22-year career as a boxer and pancratiast, Theagenes from the Greek island of Thasos (c. 480 bc) is said to have won more than 1,300 victories in the various games held in Greek cities around the Mediterranean, even including one as a long-distance runner. However unlikely this is, he was clearly some athlete; and the Greek travel writer Pausanias (c. ad 170), writing up a guided tour of Olympia, tells us that when Theagenes died the people of Thasos proudly erected a bronze statue of the great man in their town.

Theagenes, however, had made his enemies, and one of them took to coming every night and flogging the statue, as if he were flogging Theagenes himself. The statue, presumably tiring of this abuse, put an end to it by falling on him and killing him, at which the sons of the dead man prosecuted the statue for murder. After due process the statue was found guilty, and, in accordance with a law that inflicted exile even on inanimate objects if they happened to kill someone, the statue was taken out to sea and dumped.

Next year, however, the crops failed, and when the Thasians sent to Delphi to find out what they should do about it, the oracle instructed them to bring back their exiles. This they did, but the famine continued. So they sent again, and the priestess replied, ‘You have forgotten your great Theagenes.’ This put the Thasians in a very difficult position, since they had no idea where the statue had been dumped or how to locate it, but fortunately some fisherman accidentally netted it and brought it in.

The Thasians immediately re-erected it in its original position and, as Pausanias tells us, ‘sacrifice regularly to it as to a god’ — some 650 years after it was hauled out of the sea and restored to its plinth. Pausanias goes on to say that there are many other places he knows of, both Greek and non-Greek, where images of Theagenes have been set up to receive honours from the locals and obligingly cure diseases in return.

Mr Kelleher probably got away with it because Lady Thatcher is still alive and therefore, in theory, able to exact her own retribution. But he would be unwise to try the trick again. It would be so distressing for a free-thinker to know that he might have enshrined her cult for the next half a millennium.

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