everything old is new

An Old Line of Argument

The commander (imperator) as head of state and father of the fatherland: a statue of Augustus from Prima Porta. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Statue-Augustus.jpg

Military historians often admire professional armies whose members have no trade but war. These armies can learn their art well, carry out clever manoeuvres, and don’t start arguing with each other when their general wants them to be making some decisive attack (before the 1980s, military historians tended to identify with the generals). In Europe this tradition goes back to Xenophon in the 4th century BCE and can be traced through wanna-be army builders like Sir John Smythe of Little Badow or J.F.C. Fuller the British general, tank visionary, fascist, and mystic. This line of argument has its virtues: the history of the past 500 years is dotted with sad tales of keen but untrained and poorly equipped fighters marching into the bullets and shells and being mowed down. But it usually summons a counter-argument about what those young, aggressive, highly trained men will do when there is no war to fight. I can trace this tradition back to Kabti-ilani-Marduk’s Erra Epic, which was composed sometime in the 8th or 7th century BCE as the Assyrians were sowing blood and flesh to plant the first world empire. Erra has Seven terrifying weapons, and they are feeling bored:

Warrior Erra, why do you neglect the field for the city?
The very beasts and creatures hold us in contempt!
O warrior Erra, we will tell you, though what we say be offensive to you!
Era the whole land outgrows us,
You must surely hear our words! (80)
Do a kindly deed for the gods of hell, who delight in deathly stillness,
The Annuna-gods cannot fall asleep for thge clamor of mankind.
Beasts are overrunning the meadows, life of the land,
The farmer sobs bitterly for his [field].
Lion and wolf are felling the livestock, (85)
The shepherd, who cannot sleep day or night for the sake of his flocks, is calling upon you.
We too, who know the mountain passes, we have [forgotten] how to go,
Cobwebs are spun over our field gear,
Our fine bow resists and is too strong for us,
The tip of our sharp arrow is bent out of true, (90)
Our blade is corroded for want of a slaughter!

Epic of Erra, tablet I, from Benjanim Foster, Before the Muses, pp. 775, 776
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Astyages’ Thanksgiving Banquet

Life-sized head of a bearded man carved of smooth stone
They told another version of this story about Zeus (Porphyry head of a bearded Olympian in the Burrell Collection, Scotland, photographed by Sean Manning)

If you wandered through the ports and festivals of the Aegean 2500 years ago, Herodotus would tell you a story about Astyages’ banquet. One day Astyages the king of the Medes went to his lieutenant Harpagos and ordered him to take the newborn son of Astyages’ daughter Mandane and kill him, because he had dreamed that this son would become king of the world, and because the boy’s father was no Mede but a Persian. Harpagos took the son but refused to kill him, instead giving him to one of Astyages’ slaves to kill, and when this slave went home he found that his wife had given birth to a stillborn child. His wife offered to raise this other child instead, and so Mandane’s son was spared. One day Astyages noticed that this boy had a lordly manner and a face which resembled his own, and he questioned Harpagos and uncovered what had happened. Astyages declared that it was good that the boy lived, because the fate of the boy had troubled him, and that he would feast with Harpagos and make a sacrifice to thank the gods who had preserved the boy.
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