Friday, June 26, 2015

"it was naturally thought a grievous insult" to war, to war, with Thucydides

When they arrived at Athens, though a few had houses of their own to go to, or could find an asylum with friends or relatives, by far the greater number had to take up their dwelling in the parts of the city that were not built over and in the temples and chapels of the heroes, except the Acropolis and the temple of the Eleusinian Demeter and such other Places as were always kept closed. The occupation of the plot of ground lying below the citadel called the Pelasgian had been forbidden by a curse; and there was also an ominous fragment of a Pythian oracle which said:

Leave the Pelasgian parcel desolate, Woe worth the day that men inhabit it!

Yet this too was now built over in the necessity of the moment. And in my opinion, if the oracle proved true, it was in the opposite sense to what was expected. For the misfortunes of the state did not arise from the unlawful occupation, but the necessity of the occupation from the war; and though the god did not mention this, he foresaw that it would be an evil day for Athens in which the plot came to be inhabited.
Thucydides mentions the oracles quite a bit in his History, and makes it clear that there were certain Athenians who made it a habit of collecting oracles and with them attempting to influence public policy. Thucydides is careful about directly seeing the hand of the gods in any earthy events, for example the earthquake at Sparta ("it was said that the earthquake was a punishment from the gods"), but he talks about oracles with a straight face and refers to Apollo and Athena as if they are living beings who reside in Greece alongside him. Our historian seems to have been in the minority of Athenians, at least, who did not see the gods as being quite active in the world. Thucydides can sometimes not hide his wry amusement over the collectors of oracles (nor sometimes over the actions of the rest of his fellow citizens):
Knots were formed in the streets and engaged in hot discussion; for if the proposed sally was warmly recommended, it was also in some cases opposed. Oracles of the most various import were recited by the collectors, and found eager listeners in one or other of the disputants. Foremost in pressing for the sally were the Acharnians, as constituting no small part of the army of the state, and as it was their land that was being ravaged. In short, the whole city was in a most excited state; Pericles was the object of general indignation; his previous counsels were totally forgotten; he was abused for not leading out the army which he commanded, and was made responsible for the whole of the public suffering.
[translation by Richard Crawley, 1874]

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