It is Monday, and Christmas is only three days away! In many northern European countries people will celebrate the holidays as the Germanic tribes did after they became Christianized, with Santa Claus and presents on Dec 25th. However, if you are a southern European or southern American, you will hold off celebration until January 6th, when the Three Wisemen will come to deliver presents, instead. It is an interesting mixture of barbarian tribes and civilized cities that created our modern beliefs in Santa, Jesus, and the Wisemen. Whatever our beliefs, we are actually celebrating the end of darkness, as the longest night of the year is Dec. 21st. These few days after the Winter Solstice mark the beginning of Winter, sure, but also the beginning of longer days and happier times. Funny how we forget these little tidbits of history.
So, unrelated to all of this, our Ancient Greek summons us in the words of none other than Thucydides. I know, I know, he is a scary guy, but there are some bits of history that only he can explain (sometimes literally, because he is the only writer who talks about them) and, sometimes, one learns to appreciate the twisting of his statements (I hope you read the post on Homer, otherwise that will make little sense – of course you should go back and read it…):
Οὐκετι ἐδύνατο ἐν τᾤ καθεστῶτι τρόπῶ βιοτεύειν.
No longer could he bear to live in the way that was set down.
Ya no podía suportar vivir de la manera que había sido establecida.
Straight forward, mostly; Thucydides is speaking of Pausanias, Spartan general extraordinaire. As we know, or as we should know, the Spartans were a particular people with a particular method of living. Since they were being pushed around for hundreds of years post 12th century, they decided to codify their laws and conquer other Greeks so their men could all become ὁμοι (homoi – if I would have been given a penny for every time I have been told the usage of this word is evidence of Greek homosexuality, I would be richer than the King Under the Mountain. A wrong assumption, by the way), that is, equals. Lycurgus, supposedly, was the mastermind of Spartan Law – whether he existed or not is a whole different can of worms. Thus, if you credit a single moment in history with the rise to power of your people, to go against the traditions set up by said moment is the equivalent of denouncing said traditions. Pausanias was the mastermind of the Battle of Platea (the film “300” shows the charge of the Spartans but Pausanias is nowhere to be seen – sad) and is reported to have found so many riches at the Persian camp that he became corrupted by them, against the laws of Sparta. The reference to “The Hobbit” is no coincidence, for it is “Gold Sickness” that corrupted the general and king of Sparta only a year after another king, Leonidas, had died defending the laws of the city. The insult was such that Pausanias was eventually accused of corruption (in the physical sense, not of having become corrupt as a leader) and Persian cooperation. He was tried, found innocent, and released. However, when he took Byzantium and liberated some Persian prisoners, he was again recalled to Sparta. In 370, only nine years after the great victory at Plataea, he was starved while pleading his case to Athena of the Brazen House (each city had a different Athena to whom they worshiped) inside her Spartan temple (the Ancient Greek concept of sacrosanctness while appealing to a god or goddess is why we have ‘sanctuary’ in modern Christian religion – the Greeks invented everything, just so you know).
All of it took place because gold sickens people, according to Thucydides. It makes them change, turn into something they are not. It wasn’t just J. R. R. Tolkien who thought of war and the power of promise in gold to corrupt the spirit of men. It is a fact, in fact (I love redundancy, I don’t know why other people hate it so much), that the worst of war can bring about a certain kind of greediness in men (and dwarves, it would seem). I think the reason is that when we see the world at its worst, we are made to realize that securing our own future is the only real protection against further craziness. In other words, in the heat of combat we learn that we can only help others by doing our part well, and we can only do our part well if we are secure. Riches guarantee that security, and therefore allow the good man to help others, and the bad man to hurt others. Both kinds of men understand riches brings about the possibility of being who you want to be. Knowledge may be power, but if you have no money, you cannot exercise said power. Thucydides, in the end, says that Pausanias was corrupted away from the established ways of his forebears and their gods because of wealth. The death of the Spartan general was made all the worse because while going against the gods, he pleaded to them for survival.
So, in the end, riches must be used to a good end order for them to be useful. Use them for anything else, and they are the tool by which destruction comes. Family and traditions matter more than riches and glory, and thus should never be superseded by wealth.
Do not change, reader, for a handful of coins.