11-3 polis3

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

11.3 (Summer 2011)


the polis vs. progress


courtesy of artrenewal.org


Mass Hysteria and Name-Calling: A Very Ancient Example

Peter Singleton  

In his Histories, the Greek historian Polybius (whose life almost perfectly spanned the second century B.C.) begins by writing lengthily of the troubled politics of Carthage, because it was in response to this city’s maneuvers that Rome embarked upon the road to empire.  The Carthaginians had caused the Romans no little labor and worry in Sicily, but they were finally defeated–after their prowess at sea spurred the Romans on to create a navy–and their troops, largely mercenary, were packed off to the African mainland to await payment and passage back to their countries of origin.

What followed was so fascinating a study in human perversity that the Polybian account of it inspired Gustave Flaubert to write his ornate historical novel Salambô.  The mercenaries could not be paid off in a timely manner, and as they lingered, they trumped up more and more demands and began to ravage the local population.  The natural unruliness of this rag-tag band of adventurers who did not even share a language was compounded by the incitement of two figures at the nucleus of Flaubert’s novel: Spendius, an escaped Roman slave, and Matho, a Libyan career criminal.  Both of these desperados had obvious reasons to fear peace: there was a good chance that they would lose their lives if brought to justice for pending civil charges.  They therefore collaborated in doing everything possible to embroil the situation between Carthage and her uncashiered mercenaries.  The story reaches an appalling crescendo in Book 1, 79.8-81.11, which I present below through  W. R. Paton’s translation for the Loeb Classical Library (first published in 1922).  I should note that Polybius, while otherwise not difficult to read, is a challenge to the translator because of his interminable sentences.  The complexity of this text is for the most part not Paton’s fault.

Mathos and Spendius , as well as the Gaul Autaritus, were apprehensive of the effect of Hamilcar’s leniency to the prisoners, fearing that the Libyans and the greater part of the mercenaries might thus be won over and hasten to avail themselves of the proffered immunity.  They therefore set themselves to devise some infamous crime which would make the hatred of the troops for Carthage more savage.  They decided to call a general meeting, and at this they introduced a letter-bearer supposed to have been sent by their confederates in Sardinia.  The letter advised them to keep careful guard over Gesco and all others whom they had (as above narrated) treacherously arrested at Tunis, since some persons in the camp were negotiating with the Carthaginians about their release.  Spendius, seizing on this pretext, begged them in the first place to have no reliance on the Carthaginian general’s reported clemency to the prisoners.  “It is not,” he said, “with the intention of sparing their lives that he has taken this course regarding his captives, but by releasing them he designs to get us into his power, so that he may take vengeance not on some, but on all of us who trust him.”  Moreover, he warned them to take care lest by giving up Gesco and the others, they incur the contempt of their enemies and seriously damage their own situation by allowing to escape them so able a man and so good a general, who was sure to become their most formidable enemy.  He had not finished his speech when in came another post supposed to be from Tunis with a message similar to that from Sardinia.

Autaritus the Gaul was the next speaker.  He said that the only hope of safety for them was to abandon all reliance on the Carthaginians.  Whoever continued to look forward to clemency from them could be no true ally of their own.  Therefore he asked them to trust those, to give a hearing to those, to attend to those only who [might] bring the most hateful and bittermost accusations against the Carthaginians, and to regard speakers on the other side as traitors and enemies.  Finally, he recommended them to torture and put to death not only Gesco and those arrested with him, but all the Carthaginians they had subsequently taken prisoners.  He was much the most effective speaker in their councils, because a number of them could understand him.  He had been a long time in the service and had learned Phoenician, a language which had become more or less agreeable to their ears owing to the length of the previous war.  His speech therefore met with universal approbation, and he retired from the platform amid applause.

Numerous speakers from each nationality now came forward all together, maintaining that the prisoners should be spared at least the infliction of torture in view of Gesco’s previous kindness to them.  Nothing, however, they said was intelligible, as they were all speaking together and each stating his views in his own language.  But the moment it was disclosed that they were begging for a remission of the sentence, someone among the audience called out, “Stone them,” and they [the rest] instantly stoned all the speakers to death.  These unfortunates, mangled as if by wild beasts, were carried off for burial by their friends.

Spendius and his men then led out from the camp Gesco and the other prisoners, in all about seven hundred.  Taking them a short distance away, they first of all cut off their hands, beginning with Gesco–that very Gesco whom a short time previously they had selected from all the Carthaginians, proclaiming him their benefactor and referring the points in dispute to him.  After cutting off their hands, they cut off the wretched men’s other extremities, too, and after thus mutilating them and breaking their legs, threw them still alive into a trench.

The Carthaginians, when news came of this unhappy event, could take no action, but their indignation was extreme, and in the heat of it they sent messengers to Hamilcar and their other general, Hanno, imploring them to come and avenge the unfortunate victims.  To the assassins they sent heralds begging that the bodies might be given up to them.  Not only was this request refused, but the messengers were told to send neither herald nor envoy again, as any who came would meet with the same punishment that had just befallen Gesco.  With regard to treatment of prisoners in the future, the mutineers passed a resolution and engaged each other [sic] to torture and kill every Carthaginian and send back to the capital with his hands cut off every ally of Carthage, and this practice they continued to observe carefully.

No one looking at this would have any hesitation in saying that not only do men’s bodies and certain of the ulcers and tumors afflicting them become, so to speak, savage and brutalized and quite incurable, but that this is true in a much higher degree of their souls.  In the case of ulcers, if we treat them, they are sometimes inflamed by the treatment itself and spread more equally; while again if we neglect them, they continue, in virtue of their own nature, to eat into the flesh and never rest until they have utterly destroyed the tissues beneath.  Similarly, such malignant lividities and putrid ulcers often grow in the human soul, [so] that no beast becomes at the end more wicked or cruel than man.  In the case of men in such a state, if we treat the disease by pardon and kindness, they think we are scheming to betray them or deceive them, and become more mistrustful and hostile to their would-be benefactors; but if, on the contrary, we attempt to cure the evil by retaliation, they work up their passions to outrival ours, until there is nothing so abominable or so atrocious that they will not consent to do it, imagining all the while that they are displaying a fine courage.  Thus at the end they are utterly brutalized and no longer can be called human beings.

Of such a condition the origin and most potent cause lies in bad manners and customs and wrong training from childhood, but there are several contributory ones [i.e., causes], the chief of which is habitual violence and unscrupulousness on the part of those in authority.  All these conditions were present in this mercenary force as a whole, and especially in their chiefs.

The number of reasons I wanted to publicize this text almost as soon as I had read it are beyond reckon–literally: as soon as I make a list of them, I think of yet more.  At the very least, every young or impressionable person who wants to be a responsible citizen should ponder carefully the events described by Polybius.  When the Founding Fathers of our nation wrote of their dread of democracy (as they often did), this is what they had in mind.  Human mobs do not make good decisions.  Sometimes they make such terrible decisions that one cannot distinguish them from a pack of ravenous animals.  One problem is that, having no leader at first, they will acknowledge the authority of any scoundrel loud and brash enough to step forward and cater to the lowest common denominator.  Spendius and Matho are no intellects: they are two blackguards with a noose hanging over their heads who know well how to appeal to others like themselves.  They offer money, wine, and women, and they speak of underhanded dealing and class exploitation.

As we are asked by our own rulers to celebrate the rise of democracy in Arabic streets, perhaps we should withhold our enthusiasm until the shouting stops; and, if it does not stop, perhaps we should look for another cause whose guiding inspiration resembles less a pack of wild hyenas.  The other day I found the Sixty Minutes interview of reporter Lara Logan on the Internet and watched it from start to finish (having not viewed an actual airing of this decayed “news journal” for years).  Logan was mauled in the streets of Cairo while trying to do her job, a mob of thousands “celebrating” its freedom from the tyrant Mubarak by shredding her clothes and somehow–in some unique and grotesque fashion–raping her.  The rape, in Logan’s own words, sounded more like a drawing and quartering than a specifically sexual assault, with hundreds of hands reaching into as well as onto her and attempting to dismember her much as Gesco and his unhappy countrymen are mutilated.  The same m.o., twenty-three hundred years later, in almost the same spot on the map.

And yes, that raises another thought.  The pernicious tendencies of Arabic society seem not wholly elicited by Islam: many of them seem to precede the Koran, which often merely set down practices and beliefs of long standing.  Is there something in the water?  Or, since so little potable water exists, is this a phenomenon of dehydration?  Is cruelty a physiological result of too much sun and too little drink?

Logan never mentioned Islam in her interview, of course.  A devoted progressive, like any good reporter, she seemed determined to attribute her attack to unbridled maleness rather than to a profoundly flawed belief system, to the degree that those are different.  (And the point is, really, that they cannot be very different: male behavior remains behavior, and behavior is largely taught through rearing, as Polybius says.)  In the same way, when reporter Mika Brzezinski was mugged by a vagrant a few years back, she immediately excused her assailant by arguing that she should have been carrying more money to give him.  Polybius is right: Gesco’s treating the mercenaries with common humanity only made him a target for their brutality.  One cannot parley with animals.  One must cage them first, and then allow individuals release as they demonstrate an ability to perform at a higher level.

But we find in our own country, contrarily, an active and operative policy of importing great masses of people all at once–or letting them import themselves–who do not even share our language and hence would not even understand what we might try to say to them.  Evidently, the engineers of this policy have it in mind to stone someone, or some group.  Polybius writes before the cited passage that all of the mercenaries can comprehend one Greek word:  βαλλε.  “Throw, throw!” they all shout when someone attempts to speak who annoys one of them: “Stone him!  Stone him!”  Mob hysteria is perhaps the single most frightening and depressing phenomenon that any optimist ever has to explain about human beings.  They go crazy in bunches.  Without having swallowed a drop, they act like so many hundreds or thousands of roaring-drunk cowboys or sailors.  They do things collectively that no one of them could imagine without horror in a calm moment–things like tearing bodies limb from limb, an excess forever commemorated in the Greek myth of Pentheus and the Bacchae.  Civil societies cannot survive when Dionysiac orgies rage in the streets; and when fellow citizens cannot even communicate through a shared language, the attraction of doing what one’s neighbors do becomes almost irresistible.

Of course, our rulers realize this.  They intend to divide and conquer us.  Like Spendius and Matho, many of them are running from something–they would have hell to pay if all about their past were known and they were packed home to answer for their misdeeds.  The only safety for them lies in inventing new quests, missions, crusades, wars, and conspiracies to stir up the mob.  Behind all the shouting and the lynching, they may securely go about business as usual.

Carthage did not last.  A house divided cannot stand.  These days, our society makes one think less of a house than of a zoo whose cages have all been left open.  We must teach our children to mistrust the mob–always to mistrust the mob.


Peter Singleton has been a frequent contributor to this journal since its inception.  He lives in semi-retirement in the North Texas area, teaching part-time, writing for pleasure, and tending his garden.