4th January 2003
‘Prepare for war, Blair tells army,’ announces a newspaper headline, stirring the ghost of the Roman military historian Vegetius in its grave.
The civil servant Vegetius composed his Epitome of Military Science — the sole surviving Latin treatise on war — in the late 4th century ad. His only memorable utterance is qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum, ‘let him who desires peace prepare for war’, better known in its slicker form si vis pacem, para bellum. He reinforces it later on by saying that the Romans always keep their fleet at the ready ‘since no one dares to challenge or harm a people they know are fully armed and ready to fight’.
This saying sounds like the basis of one theory of deterrence. It is, presumably, the message which the Americans and British are now trying to get over to Saddam. Vegetius goes on, ‘He who wants victory, let him train his men diligently.’ The Americans are. Is Saddam? Then, ‘He who wishes a successful outcome, let him fight with a strategy, not at random.’ Does Saddam have a strategy? And finally, ‘No one dares challenge or harm one who he realises will win if he fights.’ Are you listening, Saddam?
There is, however, another theory of deterrence, and this one is available to Saddam: the ‘pre-emptive strike’ theory. In 424 bc, the Boeotians were expecting an attack from their neighbours, Athens, and the contemporary Greek historian Thucydides makes their general, Pagondas, say to his troops, ‘When one has to think about the safety of one’s own country, calculations about what is prudent do not come into it. Prudence is for those whose country is secure and who are attacking someone else. But the Athenians are the most dangerous of all people to have living next door, and such people will always march out boldly against those who make no move against them but merely defend their own territory. But when someone goes out to meet them and takes the initiative, their enthusiasm for battle wanes.’ Saddam would, of course, be mad to adopt the pre-emptive strike theory, such would be the overwhelming American response. But is he mad?
If the Americans are not mad too, they will be preparing for peace even more keenly than for war. As the 5th-century bc Greek historian Herodotus puts in the mouth of the defeated King Croesus of Lydia, ‘No one is so foolish that he prefers war to peace. In peace sons bury their fathers, in war fathers their sons.’
Mrs Samira Ahmed, an ex-university professor in Sudan, has launched a sex-strike in an attempt to end the nineteen years of (un)civil war that have torn the country apart. The newspapers went into their usual routines about Aristophanes' Lysistrata (411 BC) - and, as usual, got it wrong.
In Lysistrata, we are regularly told, the women of Greece are persuaded to refuse to sleep with their husbands in an attempt to end the Athens-Sparta war that had begun in 431 BC; as a result, the sex- starved men, sporting huge erections all day, give in and the war ends. This is true as far as it goes, but in fact the sex-strike is only the half of it. The women of Athens also seize the Acropolis, where the financial reserves were kept, and 'manfully' protect it against counter- attack from the elderly chorus (the only men left in Athens); and the women of Sparta repeat the trick there. Thus deprived of cash, the two sides are unable to prosecute the war anyway, sex-strike or no.
Then we are told that the comedy is really about 'the liberation of women'. But this is not true either. It is about the destruction of family life. The frustrated males do not immediately resort to prostitutes, nor the equally frustrated women to any passing potential lover. It is their spouses they all long for, and at the end of the play there is a celebration of restored family life and conjugal love.
Finally, we are told that Lysistrata is a deadly serious 'anti-war' play which comments on 'the futility of war itself'. As one would expect, there is a major problem about how exactly one derives 'serious comment' from the illogical fantasies of comedy. The situation with which Lysistrata deals derives from contemporary political life, but that does not mean it is supposed to feed back into it (cf. Yes, Minister). But even aside from that debate, there is not one word in Lysistrata about 'the futility of war itself'. Lysistrata's aim is to force an end to this war, on equal terms for both sides, and a sex- strike was a good comic device for achieving this. It was, however, an impossible dream in real life, since Athens in 411 was pretty much on its beam ends, and Sparta would never have agreed to any peace except on terms that would have been wholly unacceptable to the Athenians.
Good luck to Mrs Ahmed, but to end the civil war in Sudan will require more than a comic sex-strike (which can hardly work anyway if the men are away all the time fighting a war). On the other hand, if she could gain control of Sudan's finances ...
Every week professionals such as teachers and doctors express their desire to get out of their jobs. Why? Because they have lost their independence. Greeks and Romans would have richly sympathised.
When Cicero was discussing the problems of old age, he said, ‘The old will be respected only if they fight for themselves, maintain their own rights, avoid dependence, and assert their authority over their households as long as life lasts.’ His point is that in old age one tended to yield one’s grip on that independence and control over one’s own affairs that gave one a sense of purpose. This was why satirists like Juvenal could be so contemptuous of the people and their ‘bread and circuses’, happy as they were to be locked by the state into servile dependency with free grain, festivals, banquets and games. Indeed, ancients valued their independence to such an extent that even working for someone else was felt to be the equivalent of slavery, since it made one dependent on the payer.
This determination to remain in control surfaces in all sorts of unexpected contexts. In his old age Sophocles is said to have welcomed escaping from his sexual urges ‘like a slave from a cruel and savage master’ (those in thrall to such urges were a constant butt of jokes in Athens). When Seneca writes to the emperor Nero to discuss the meaning of ‘mercy’, he distinguishes it from ‘pity’. For Seneca, ‘pity’ is ‘akin to wretchedness’ since it involves helplessly ‘succumbing at the sight of the ills of others’; but ‘mercy’ involves rational decisions of which one is in full control.
But independence did not mean refusal to co-operate. When, for example, vast silver deposits were found at Laurium on the southern tip of Attica in 483 bc, there was a considerable faction urging the Athenian assembly, the decision-making body consisting of all Athenian males over 18, to split up the surpluses among themselves to spend as they wished. But Themistocles persuaded the assembly to think of long-term advantage and to use the money to construct a fleet — the beginning of Athens’ maritime empire and greater prosperity than they could ever have imagined. Persuasion was the key. The assembly took the decision freely, seeing it was in their best interests. No one forced them into it.
Pride in one’s work and loyalty to one’s employer are generated by the feeling that one is trusted and valued. A government whose ever-rising stream of bossy demands makes it clear that it regards its public servants as slaves cannot expect to retain them.