A WAR COMMENTARY
IN THREE PARTS




I: A Roman War Casualty,
miles Roman. aet. XXVII



[H]YMNIDI L COI
AGATHANGELI
CONTUBERNALIS V A XXII

Hymnidius Freedman from Cos
Agathangelus [his stone]
A soldier. He lived Years 22



Putting the words into a more readable order, we have:

The funeral marker of Hymnidius 'Agathangelus' in military service, a freedman, from Cos, who lived twenty-two years

As commentary for details of the inscription, note the common abbreviation L. for libertus, indicating that the person was a member of the large freedman or libertus class, while the first line indicates his former master's name as a matter of identification. COI is adjective genitive singular, referring to the Greek master's identity as coming from the island of Cos. CONTUBERNALIS means literally "mess-mate" from con+taberna, a commonly used word for a soldier in the ordinary ranks. The standard abbreviations V. and A. stand for "vixit" 'he lived' and "annos" is the accusative of time-span 'for years' = 22.

Agathangelus is Greek for "brave-messenger" and a clearly Christian name, found as early as the time of Tiberius at Pompeii, and as far afield as Agathangelus the bronze-smith in England at an indeterminate date. The name is later used by martyrs and appears in medieval and Late-Latin titles as a frequent Christian name.




There is something pathetic about viewing an actual funeral inscription from such an ancient date which marks the abrupt death of one of the myriad young Roman soldiers who died for one reason or another in military service.

But there is an echo of this inscription in the world of today. In this year 2004 the United States military is at war in the Middle East, and among the soldiery are many young Latino immigrants who are serving in the US army. Their names are now perhaps Lopez and Gonzales, but they are the exact analog of the Greek freedman Agathangelus who was also serving in a national army against national foes on a global landscape. For those who are under arms as a way of winning citizenship, then as now, this is a hard road which often has a bad ending, as here.

Have we learned anything from history, or is it the same disposable use of young men who go to fight the enemy in foreign parts? Is it forever both the young and also the new citizens who have to bear the brunt of international warfare? Will someone be reading our inscriptions in Arlington two thousand years hence, and what will they be thinking?



II: Declaring War in 57 B.C.


Invading a foreign land with strong military force is usually justified by some political motivation, a wrong which needs to be erased, a dangerous movement best crushed. But there is usually a hidden agenda everybody is aware of, which is not declared openly.

When Julius Caesar invaded Britain in the middle of the first century B.C., it was suspected that he had in mind access to freshwater pearls. Unlikely as this might seem to us, Suetonius (Life of Caesar 47) reports : "They say that he was led to invade Britain by the hope of getting pearls, and that in comparing their size he sometimes weighed them with his own hand; that he was always a most enthusiastic collector of gems....".

Cleopatra trying to impress Marc Anthony at dinner, crushed a valuable pearl, dissolved it and drank it down. The Roman guest Marc Anthony declined doing the same with the other pearl and admitted defeat. Pliny the world's first gemologist, writes in his Natural History that these two pearls were worth an estimated 60 million sesterces, or 1,875,000 ounces of fine silver ($9,375,000 with silver at $5/ounce).

A century later the historian Tacitus (the life of J. Agricola 12) states: "The ocean, too, produces pearls, but of a dusky and bluish hue. Some think that those who collect them have not the requisite skill, as in the Red Sea the living and breathing pearl is torn from the rocks, while in Britain they are gathered just as they are thrown up. "

Ocean pearls from oysters and the highly colored freshwater pearls from mussels constituted a major industry in the pearl-crazy world of the late Republic and Empire. More than a temporary fad, pearls as part of clothing decoration as well in necklaces were of huge economic value, and whether Caesar invaded Britain primarily for pearls or for expansion of Roman frontiers is immaterial. Dealing with a hostile native population in a land which was totally unexplored, some market advantage would make an invasion much more reasonable. Could a Roman politician make a case for large-scale military action without a secondary purpose? Reason sufficient for such a large expense could be best stated for a country which had a known product - - - gems for the international pearl market.

When the Bush government decided to invade Iraq, it was the catastrophe of 9/11 that was the proclaimed reason; but it is obvious that considerations involving the international oil market were an undeclared and unconfirmed agenda. How could this be doubted for a country whose only serious product was crude oil?



III: Declaring War in 1225 B.C.



Herodotus, the earliest serious historian in the West, recounts a story which has a peculiar ring today, that I would like to quote from Book II 119 ff. There is a myth abroad that history is especially important as a serious study, since if we pay attention to the facts, we can actually learn from History.

After the abduction of Helen there came a large army of various Greeks to help Menelaos, and when the army had come out of the ships to land and had pitched its camp there, they sent messengers to Troy, with whom went also Menelaos himself. And when these entered within the wall they demanded back Helen and the wealth which Alexander had stolen from Menelaos and they demanded satisfaction for the wrongs done. The Trojans told the same tale then and afterwards, both with oath and without oath, namely that in deed and in truth they had not Helen nor the wealth for which demand was made, but that both were in Egypt, and that they could not justly be compelled to give satisfaction for that which Proteus the king of Egypt had. The Greeks however thought that they were being mocked by them and besieged the city, until at last they took it. When they had taken the wall and did not find Helen, but heard the same story as before, then they believed the former tale and sent Menelaos himself on to Egypt.

My opinions is this: Priam assuredly was not so mad, nor yet the others of his house, that they were desirous to run risk of ruin for themselves and their children and their city, in order that Alexander might have Helen as his wife. And even supposing that at first they had been so inclined, yet when many of the Trojans were losing their lives as often as they fought with the Greeks, and several of the sons of Priam himself were slain when a battle took place (if one may trust at all to the Epic poets), ----- when, I say, things were coming thus to pass, I consider that even if Priam himself had had Helen as his own wife, he would have given her back to the Greeks, if at least by so doing he might be freed from the evils which oppressed him.

In truth however they lacked the power to give Helen back; and the Greeks did not believe them, though they spoke the truth. I declare my opinion, that the Divine Power was purposing to cause them utterly to perish, and so make it evident to men that for great wrongs great also are the calamities which come from the gods. And thus have I delivered my opinion concerning these matters.

There is a well known Greek tradition that Helen went to Egypt, probably the Greek trading port at Naucratis, and was never at Troy at all. Of course Homer did very well with Helen at Troy and the wonderful familial scenes with Hector at the Wall, high points in a literary masterpiece. But the historian Herodotus pointedly notes variations in the story, which explain the above quoted passages. Now consider this same story with a few changes of names, leaving the thrust and intent of Herodotus' words intact.

After the calamity of 9/11 there came a large group of politicians to help the President's "coalition" , and when the army had come out of the ships to land and had placed planes in attack locations, they sent messages to Saddam Hussein, with whom went also representative of the Military Command itself. And when these contacted Saddam Hussein they demanded the " Weapons of Mass Destruction" and the biological warfare factories, which Saddam had got from the international black market, and they demanded satisfaction for his many wrongs done. The Iraqis told the same tale then and afterwards, both with oath and without oath, namely that in deed and in truth they had not WMD nor the rest for which demand was made, but that both were in another country, and that they could not justly be compelled to give satisfaction for that which another government had. The Americans however thought that they were being mocked by them and besieged the country, until at last they took it. When they had taken the defenses and did not find WMD, but heard the same story as before, then they believed the former tale and sent the CIA to search elsewhere........

My opinion is this: Saddam assuredly was not so mad nor yet the others of his house, that they were desirous to run risk of ruin for themselves and their children and their country, in order to retain weapons which did not actually exist. And even supposing that at first they had been so inclined, yet when many of the Iraqis were losing their lives as often as they fought with the Americans, and several of the sons of Saddam himself were slain when an attack took place (if one may trust the reports of the Media), ----- when, I say, things were coming thus to pass, I consider that even if Saddam himself had had some secret weapons stored underground, he would have given them back to the Coalition, if at least by so doing he might be freed from the evils which oppressed him.

In truth however he lacked the power to give them back. And the Bush Administration did not believe him, although he spoke the truth. I declare my opinion: that the spread of Empire was operating to cause the Iraqis utterly to perish, and this makes it evident to men that for great plans for global expansion, there are also great calamities which come from the idea of greed and expansion of Empire. And thus have I delivered my opinion concerning these matters.

When one examines an ancient text from two millennia away, it is often necessary to add footnotes for details and a general commentary to make the sense of the cited material. But this case I think no comment is required, the situation speaks for itself, incidentally making it clear that we have not learned much from past events, and probably may not learn much in future ages from the academic pages of History.

Again at war for a reason which does not stand up with the facts, again we seem to have ignored research into the truth of the situation, which has again been so disguised that future historians may questions our Administration's real reasons for the declaration of war in Iraq. When we are, at some future date mere pages in the chronicles of past history, will our present situation be just another chapter in the accounts of useless and misguided warfare?



William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris