Sunday, December 13, 2015

March Up Country (Anabasis) - Xenophon

Though for their part victorious at Cunaxa, the death of Cyrus left the Ten Thousand Hellenes deep in Persia, with few prospects. Without supplies and soon-to-be leaderless, the Hellenic mercenaries would turn to Xenophon, something of an aide-de-camp who was along primarily for the adventure.

Anabasis ("going up") is the story of how the Ten Thousand Hellenes survived and made it ever-closer to Greece, through hostile Persian territory. Xenophon's prose is straight-forward, even somewhat terse. Though he can clearly deliver a stirring oration with the best, when it comes to relating an army's actions or the account of a march, Xenophon is all economy. One gets the sense that, while the settings and challenges are to be accounted for, what matters most is the right way to respond. Settings, particularities: these change. Right thinking and action transcend.

Xenophon makes a different kind of protagonist: he answers to what the world gives him. He is a marked departure from the mythological basileus; a very classical Greek hero. Achilles was all rage, destruction, petulance, and mayhem. Odysseus was the man of many talents, the skilled and learned, crafty and able. Xenophon is the honorable, the right-thinking, the philosopher-soldier. He provides a new kind of Greek ideal.

Xenophon's influence redounds. It is said that Alexander the Great carried the Anabasis as a field manual. Christiaan de Wet had a copy always at hand as he rode and hid in the veld during the Boer War. Xenophon espouses a particular philosophy of leadership: a transparency, a straight-forward practicality, a soldier's ethic. One wonders what it would mean to adopt it beyond the campaign. Maybe there is nothing beyond it. Much as the Ten Thousand seek a way home, we too wish to lay our burden down. Maybe there is no rest.

"thálatta, thálatta"

Friday, December 11, 2015

Guns, Race, and Power in Colonial South Africa - William Kelleher Storey

Firearms were not simply tools or weapons which colonials and natives picked up and put down. They were symbols of power, source of legal wranglings, and the means through which power and independence were exercised. Here tools and discourse were interwoven; each shaping the other.

Storey looks at the role of firearms throughout the colonial period in South Africa (ending with the Boer War). Firearms, he finds, were diversely manifest through time. They developed from wildly inaccurate muzzle-loaders to more precise breech-loaders. On the frontier of the veld they were seen to serve one function, on farms another, near urban areas still another. British bureaucrats and law-makers, both in the metropole and within the colonial center (Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, D'urbanville) tried to control access to firearms, as a means of controlling the social sphere. Of course, firearms could also be means to challenge power. Therein lay much of the foundation for wrangling over access to firearms.

As a lens through which to view the social sphere firearms allow us to see particular things well - access to political power and speech, changing aspects of self-sufficiency and freedom - yet they can also be manifestations of these things. The question of which comes first tends to ground-out in circularity - each led to the other through a dynamic relationship. Do we find this a satisfying category of historical explanation? It is certainly a common one. This seems indicative of a broader ontology within historical scholarship.