My Summer Study: War in Ancient Greece

This Greek August passes under layers of cicada, warm wind, and feisty salads and lots of keto. The days begin with practice, then office work and then a gathering of attention for these things I have put off studying for far too long. One of the delicious discoveries of this period of quarantine restriction is to revisit some historical and intellectuals subjects which I put off long enough to do deep monastic practice.

For the last several days, I have been very deeply engrossed in watching the lectures of Professor Donald Kagan, the Sterling Emeritus Professor of History at Yale, on “Introduction to Ancient Greek History”. It is such a vast panoramic view that he gives, the grand sweep of history guided by the story of the growth of Greek social organization (the polis and the hoplite phalanx). It is not beer factory history, but an intellectual panorama of the people, their minds by one of the leading authorities on the ancient world, on military and political history. As a result, I have looked up several of his other talks online, and I am greedily devouring them, as well.

Professor Kagan is a towering figure in American academia, one of the truly Great Professors of the 20th century humanities in America. He was interested in why human beings make war, and this led him into a total immersion in the wars of ancient Greece.

 When I was an undergraduate at Yale, his “The Origins of War” class was one of the most popular courses. During meals in the dining halls those days, one often heard a “Kagan quote” thrown around the discussion — as much in admiration and awe as in a humorous appreciation of his curmudgeonly expressions — and my classmates spoke with a mesmerized awe about the world that had been opened up to them in Professor Kagan’s lectures. Hundreds of people took his course every year. Sadly, I missed out. I did not see the reason for studying “war,” per se. My Catholic training had judged war to be evil — something of the world and for the world — and therefore very worthy only of activist eradication, not a subject for increasing fascination and awe. It seemed like such a strange thing to spend these valuable (and limited) course credit class options on: Why not something enriching, like Shakespeare? If studying, why study “war”? It took some years to begin to appreciate this. It is only now really dawning, due to his lectures on Ancient Greece.a

Here is a link to the online course – – the history of ancient Greece. It is 24 episodes – – I am only on the eighth, and enjoying it immensely. Each episode is a world brought alive for the imagination. You see the sweeping flow of lives, the hubris and vanities. How different we are, yet how much actually just the same.

“Introduction to Ancient Greek History,” Yale College Course CLCV 205:

Anyway, Prof. Kagan always emphasizes the growth of the polis after the Dark Ages, and the emergence of the the hoplite phalanx revolution — farmer-warriors who marched downfield shoulder-to-shoulder, shield-to-shield — and its role in allowing the growth of the conditions which would later make room for the study of reality, or “dharma” (philosophy), and democracy and everything else the ancient Greeks developed. It was sustained by the role of the hoplite phalanx citizen-soldier. I dug around and found this simulation or two, which show the genius and the lethality of such a movement of testosterone down a countryside. Amazing recreation. This would be from the “Greek” side:

Real hoplite phalanx happening:

And this depicts a “Roman” side, replete with “Gladiator” music. But did the Romans do the phalanx the way the Greeks did? This is also meant to show the Spartans, but they are linked with Romans in the music and the toning:

Thucydides wrote the history of the Peloponnesian War which inspired Prof. Kagan’s intellectual passion for life — understanding human nature through the study of the causes of war. For the first time, today, I downloaded a copy of the text:

Thucydides Mosaic from Jerash, Jordan, Roman, 3rd century CE at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

“It has been argued that Thucydides was moved by the suffering inherent in war and concerned about the excesses to which human nature is prone in such circumstances, as in his analysis of the atrocities committed during the civil conflict on Corcyra,[32] which includes the phrase “war is a violent teacher” (πόλεμος βίαιος διδάσκαλος).”

And then, as usual, I pursue porn about this subject matter, whenever I can. These interviews with Donald Kagan show his intellectual growth. It is an astounding story.

On his birth in Lithuania and education in the US, in Brooklyn. Fascinating insights into the coming-of-age of a giant:

Interview Part 1 of 5: birth in Lithuania

Part 2 of 5:

Here is a really great TV conversation with Kagan on “On the Origins of War,” one of his two bestsellers on war:

Needless to say, I am becoming a fanboy. Better late to the feast, than never attending at all.