June 03, 2009

Ziggy and Xerxes

Themistocles, leader of the Greek naval forces at Salamis. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

"For pride will blossom; soon its ripening kernel is
Infatuation; and its bitter harvest, tears."

A common image of Greek tragedy is one that El Cabrero likes to think of as the Ziggy Stardust interpretation. I am referring to the David Bowie song in which the title character "took it all too far/but boy could he play guitar"--i.e., he was someone brought down by excess.

That doesn't work for all tragedies but it fits Aeschylus' The Persians pretty well. In it, the Persian ruler Xerxes plays Ziggy. Master of a huge land empire and incredible wealth, he wasn't content with what he had but planned a massive invasion of Greece.

For Aeschylus, Herodotus, and many others, Xerxes was the embodiment of hubris and excess, which was also impiety--the pagan equivalent of blasphemy--against the gods.

One example of this impiety as far as the Greeks were concerned was Xerxes' audacity in building a bridge of ships across the Hellespont, the narrow body of water between Asia Minor and Europe. This was seen as the attempt to shackle the sea itself. When a storm damaged this project, he was said to have ordered the sea to be flogged.

In biblical language, this is the pride that goeth before a fall. And the fall comes fast in the tragedy.

It begins with the anxiety of the Persian court and Xerxes' mother Atossa over the army's fate. It gets worse. A messenger arrives with news of the total defeat of the Persian navy at Salamis. It gets so bad that Atossa consults the shade of her dead husband and former emperor Darius, who is appalled by the excess and loss. (Note: not to be nitpicky, but the real Darius planned to do the same thing but died before he could do it.) By the end of the play, a chastened and humbled Xerxes slinks home.

The play can be interpreted as Athenian triumphalism but it seems to me that it was also a warned to a confident city-state and budding empire to avoid making the same kind of mistakes. Too bad it was a warning not taken.

ANOTHER ROUND. Economist Dean Baker is one of several calling for a second stimulus.

GOING UNDERGROUND. Here's an item about infiltrating hate groups.

ANIMAL REGRET. They may experience it too.

IN CASE YOU'RE RUNNING A LITTLE SHORT, here's a new hominid.


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