Laying aside the everyday wearing of weapons was part of what Thucydides believed had allowed Athens to become fully civilized…

via How the Ancient Greeks Viewed Weapons : The New Yorker.

The people who opened the frontier were not dumb, and didn’t want their streets running with blood.

via Guns in the wild west: regulated, with no fears about ripping the Constitution « Fabius Maximus.



‘No Panic, No One Hang Back Now!’

Illustrations of Odyssey Polski: Odyseusz i Po...

Odysseus serving the Cyclops. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Assignment 1: Choose one episode from the Odyssey that was not given a Functionalist reading in lecture, and analyze this episode through a Functionalist lens. …What social norm does this episode legitimize?

A functionalist reading of Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops can serve to justify values of prudence and consideration in leadership, even in a society enamored with heroes. Leaders have grave responsibilities; recklessness can lead to ruin.

In Polyphemus’ cave, to the soundtrack of his shrieking men, Odysseus learns vital lessons: First, don’t act rashly; second, never underestimate danger; and third, when resolved, commit to action. He applies these lessons to bloody effect in the climactic books.

The folly of acting rashly is demonstrated to Odysseus within moments of meeting the Cyclops. Odysseus’ men, surveying the fleecy lambs and drying cheeses, propose to burgle the giant’s cave; but our hero compounds that audacious impulse by wanting to wait “till I saw him, saw what gifts he’d give.” He ignores the possibility that the Cyclops would be unaware of, or unconcerned by, the formalities of Grecian hospitality.

Odysseus’ greed leads him to underestimate danger: the giant’s cave he took to be a rustic grocery becomes a trap after the giant shuts himself in for the night. Instead of full bellies and parting gifts, Odysseus and his men spend the night groaning on the floor of a manure-strewn cave.

But Odysseus makes effective use of his time. He contrives a three-pronged plan to disable the giant (by getting him drunk and gouging out his eye), humiliate him (by convincing him that Odysseus’ name is “Nobody”) and complete the burglary that was proposed in the first place (by hiding under the sheep when the giant lets them out in the morning). Though his proposal is complicated, Odysseus is all in, as the card players say. He exhorts his men: “Courage — no panic, no one hang back now!”

Though the lessons take time to sink in — not long afterward, he walks his men into another cannibal ambush — they seem to form a blueprint for his confrontation with the suitors. Odysseus bides his time on Ithaca, collecting information and considering the risks before consummating the awful, final slaughter. Clever, brave Odysseus seems to have learned to value caution as much as courage.

The Odyssey, 10 Years in 10 Days: He Whom ‘the Blessed Deathless Gods Despise’


Aeolus, keeper of the winds (digital enhanceme...

King Aeolus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Day: 4 A pleasing, if strange, sojourn on the Aeolian island. Who: King Aeolus, son of Hippotas, the master of the winds, the imperator of incest. What: Odysseus and his crew take a monthlong breather here, enjoying “the savor of roasted meats” in a “splendid palace.”


King Aeolus is friendly enough, and Odysseus, I am sure, enjoys the attention — “He pressed me for news of Troy” — but things are nonetheless amiss. For one thing, the king married his sons to his daughters. But Odysseus is not one to judge, at least not when sex is involved. Before the Greeks depart, the king gives Odysseus the skin of an ox in which are contained three of the four winds. The fourth, the West Wind, is turned loose to push Odysseus home. It is the rare guest-gift in “The Odyssey” that is marvelous and practical.


However, Odysseus’ men, his hand-picked comrades, stalwarts who have fought with him for 10 years at Troy and for several weeks so far of the odyssey itself, now get suddenly jealous of his “heaps of lovely plunder” — in particular, the bulging ox skin. While Odysseus takes a nap — which is always when things go to hell — his boys start to scheme. “Hurry,” a malcontented ringleader says, “let’s see what loot is in that sack, how much gold and silver.” The ox skin is opened, the winds pour out, “and a sudden squall struck and swept us back to sea.”


Strangely, the winds sweep them back again, back to King Aeolus. Odysseus hops out of his ships and begs the king to retame the winds. But the king recognizes that someone is out to get Odysseus. He refuses to help, confirming that “the blessed deathless gods despise” Odysseus.


Talking point: As soon as Odysseus stops riding herd on his flowing-haired Achaeans, they run amok. Death toll: 0.


The Odyssey, 10 Years in 10 Days: ‘and the Broiling Eyeball Burst’

Illustration from Schwab, Gustav: “Sagen des K...

Polyphemus, getting his drunk on.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day 3: The wild, uncultivated land of the “high and mighty Cyclops.” Who: This is where things get good. Cyclopses are giant, one-eyed “lawless brutes.” What: Odysseus and his men barge into the high mountain cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops son of Poseidon himself; gruesome high jinks ensue.

Our heroes are expecting to cheerfully greet Mr. Polyphemus and enjoy his hospitality, according to the Greek tradition of xenia. Polyphemus arrives presently, “a man-mountain rearing head and shoulders over the world,” but is apparently unaware of, or unconcerned about, Greek customs. He answers Odysseus’ obsequious request for a guest-gift by grabbing two men: “Rapping them on the ground, he knocked them dead like pups.” Brains gush everywhere; all of a sudden, Odysseus is in a Tarantino movie.

Polyphemus ends up eating four more men before Odysseus, the man of twists and turns, can contrive a theatrical ruse for getting away.

  • Step 1, Get the giant drunk. Sleep “overwhelmed him now, as wine came spurting, flooding up from his gullet with chunks of human flesh — he vomited, blind drunk.”
  • Step 2, Use the giant’s own walking stick to gouge out his only eye. “So we seized our stake with its fiery tip, and bored it round and round in the giant’s eye.”
  • Step 3, Convince the now-howling simpleton your name is Nobody, so when he cries for help, he sounds like an idiot. “Nobody’s killing me now!”
  • Step 4, Elude the whimpering, blinded beast by hiding among his sheep. “The idiot never sensed my men were trussed up under their thick fleecy ribs.”
  • …Oh, wait. There’s a Step 5? Yeah. Brag about it like a jerk just as your ship is about to get away. “So I called back to the Cyclops, stinging taunts…”

This is perhaps the most gruesome, and entertaining, part of the first half the book. Where else can you get passages like this? “…And the broiling eyeball burst — its crackling roots blazed and hissed.” It also is a timely demonstration of Odysseus’ arrogance, lest we forget who is to blame for the debacle on Ismarus.

Angered by the taunts, Polyphemus nearly swamps Odysseus’ little fleet by chucking part of the mountain at him. But our hero keeps jawing, even as his men plead, “Why rile the beast again?” Polyphemus gets the last word, though; he tattles on our heroes to his father, Poseidon, setting in motion the divine forces that conspire to keep Odysseus away from home.

Talking point: Odysseus is a dick. Death toll: 6.

The Odyssey, 10 Years in 10 Days: ‘Blow on Mortal Blow’

Day 1: City of Ismarus. Who: The Cicones, ordinary Greeks who are minding their ordinary business. What: Odysseus and the flowing-haired Achaeans, in a fleet of 12 ships fresh from the victory Troy, land out of the blue and sack the city.

It’s an appalling orgy of sex and violence that Homer dispenses with in not quite two lines: “There I sacked the city, killed the men, but as for the wives and plunder, that rich haul we dragged away from the place.” It is a fine introduction to our hero. Apparently, to Odysseus, raping and pillaging is just what you do when you are on your way home.

Unfortunately, the quick and easy success makes Odysseus’ men loath to leave — “there was too much wine to swill,” as Homer puts it. And as will happen time and again, clever, brave Odysseus is nowhere near clever or brave enough to shift the wine-soaked Achaeans off their duffs and into their ships. This gives the Cicones time to rally a counterattack — which is astoundingly successful.

In other words, lounging around after an easy victory is probably the ancient equivalent of teenagers’ posting videos of a petty crime on Facebook.

In a furious clash, Odysseus and his men are routed from the city — “me and my comrades doomed to suffer blow on mortal blow” — beaten to their ships and are lucky to escape with (most of) their flowing hairs intact.

Talking point: It should have been a slam dunk, as far as city-sackings go, but poor leadership leads to disaster. Death toll: Most of the male inhabitants of Ismarus; 72 of Odysseus’ men.

‘The Histories: The Landmark Herodotus’

The Histories: The Landmark HerodotusThe Histories: The Landmark Herodotus by Herodotus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mostly recommended. This heavily-footnoted edition provides all the context any reader would want (and much that he or she does not).


Herodotus is far from stuffy, you know. Compelling, often clueless, sure, but he lards his “Histories,” a judgey retelling of the Greco-Persian Wars, with a readable, frequently fascinating, primer on the Greek world of the time. It is a nine-part monologue — think Colin Quinn‘s “Long Story Short” tour, or perhaps an Eddie Izzard rant on Classical civilization — that has just enough lively storytelling and provocative anecdotes to keep you going.

Oddly, the best parts are not his description of the battles of Thermopylae (the valiant and homoerotic 300) or Marathon (the stunning sprint to victory), but his half-sneering, slightly-bitchy would-you-believe-what-these-people-wear ethnography and his oh-my-god-you-have-to-see-a-hippopotamus travel writing.

Herodotus is too trusting of hocus-pocus and dubious information, but what could be more modern to readers today, who float in the flotsam of the Internet?

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