No Disaster Greater Than This…

Thucydides 7.29-30

“And there in Mycalessus was a great disturbance and every kind of ruin took root. [The Thracians] even attacked a school for children which was the largest in the region, when the children had just entered, and they cut down all of them. No greater suffering affected the whole state than this; it was terrible and unexpected more than any other.”

[5] καὶ τότε ἄλλη τε ταραχὴ οὐκ ὀλίγη καὶ ἰδέα πᾶσα καθειστήκει ὀλέθρου, καὶ ἐπιπεσόντες διδασκαλείῳ παίδων, ὅπερ μέγιστον ἦν αὐτόθι καὶ ἄρτι ἔτυχον οἱ παῖδες ἐσεληλυθότες, κατέκοψαν πάντας: καὶ ξυμφορὰ τῇ πόλει πάσῃ οὐδεμιᾶς ἥσσων μᾶλλον ἑτέρας ἀδόκητός τε ἐπέπεσεν αὕτη καὶ δεινή.

A twitter correspondent sent me this passage number last night after I tweeted:

This passage is affecting and Thucydides’ Greek is really powerful here. But when compared to the situation of school shootings in the United States, it is more troubling. For Thucydides, the Thracians have been sent home by the Athenians and are at best only quasi-civilized: he writes right before this passage that the Thracians “are a race which are most bloody in whatever they dare, similar to the most extreme of the barbarians” (τὸ γὰρ γένος τὸ τῶν Θρᾳκῶν ὁμοῖα τοῖς μάλιστα τοῦ βαρβαρικοῦ, ἐν ᾧ ἂν θαρσήσῃ, φονικώτατόν ἐστιν, 7.29.4).

So this murderous rampage is performed by a people, marked judgmentally as barbarians, in a time of war. (Yes, we try to “other” the murderers by marking them as insane or disturbed in some way.) More importantly, even in a narrative about one of the greatest wars of all times (from Thucydides’ perspective) the murder of children is seen as an (1) unexpected calamity for the (2) whole civic entity. Can we honestly say our acts of violence are unexpected when they happen with such frequency?

Once the cities of central Greece heard of the Thracian activities, the Thebans sent out an army and put down the Thracians with some difficulty. Thucydides, no sucker for hyperbole, concludes (7.30):

“These things which Mycalessus suffered turned out to be the kinds of events worthy of lamenting more than any other during the war because of the city’s size.”

τὰ μὲν κατὰ τὴν Μυκαλησσὸν πάθει χρησαμένην οὐδενὸς ὡς ἐπὶ μεγέθει τῶν κατὰ τὸν πόλεμον ἧσσον ὀλοφύρασθαι ἀξίῳ τοιαῦτα ξυνέβη.

But maybe we should rethink what atrocity and ‘war’ is. Every year 1300 children die from gun shot wounds in the US. That means that since 2001 the number of children who have been killed is nearly six times the adults who perished on 9/11. The terrorist attacks were largely unexpected. Gun violence is not.

Here’s the note from Charles F. Smith presented on Perseus:

καὶ ξυμφορὰ τῇ πόλεικαὶ δεινή : Thuc. sums up the horror of the whole affair in the most impressive manner, the subst. placed first, followed by the phrases οὐδεμιᾶς ἥσσων and μᾶλλονἑτέρας, which have the force of sups., and the dem. pron. The position of the subst. gives it a character of generality with nearly the effect of the part. gen. See on i.1.8. This passage differs, however, from those cited at i.1.8 in this respect, that here two qualities in their highest expression unite in a single case, viz. the extent of the destruction (οὐδεμιᾶς ἥσσων) and the complete unexpectedness of it (μᾶλλον ἑτέρας ἀδόκητος). “And so this blow, than which no greater ever affected a whole city, was in the highest degree both unexpected and terrible.” μᾶλλον . . . ἀδόκητος and δεινή stand in pred. relation to ἐπέπεσεν.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: No Disaster Greater Than This… — SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE | Talmidimblogging

  2. Pingback: Atrocity Exhibition | Sphinx

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