Thursday, May 18, 2017

I shall leave no-one unburied

From After Thermopylae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars by Paul Cartledge.

The oath was supposedly pledged before the Battle of Plataea by the various Greek allies though Cartledge makes a good case that this rendition was a post facto exercise in storytelling.

None-the-less, I find this striking. The U.S. Marine Corps (and I think the Army as well) has a particular tradition that no man shall be left behind, alive or dead and their determination to fulfill that tradition is a recurrent theme in accounts of battles down the years. That determination is part of what makes them such a fearsome and feared fighting force.

Victor Davis Hanson makes the case in Culture and Carnage for a distinctive western tradition of battle, originating with the Greeks, characterized by discipline and ruthlessness. They fought to destroy their opponent, not simply to win. Here is one of my entries on his book.

Cartledge includes the entire text of the Oath of Plataea which does indeed have some remarkable parallels in its commitments to fellow warriors to the modern tradition of the Marines.

I am reminded of Antigone by Sophocles which hinges on the king's decision that one of two brothers will remain unburied on the battlefield. The whole plot develops from there.

The text of the Oath of Plataea from Attic Inscriptions Online:


The priest of Ares and Athena Areia, Dion son of Dion of Acharnai dedicated.

Oath of the ephebes

Ancestral oath of the ephebes, which the ephebes must swear. I shall not disgrace the sacred weapons, nor shall I desert the man beside me, wherever I stand in the line. I shall defend the sacred and the divinely sanctioned and I shall not leave the fatherland diminished, but greater and better, as far as I am able and with all, and I shall obey those in authority at any time mindfully and the laws established and those established in future mindfully; and if anyone seeks to destroy them, I shall not permit him as far as I am able and with all, and I will honour the ancestral sacred things. Witnesses: the gods Aglauros, Hestia, Enyo, Enyalios, Ares and Athena Areia, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone, Herakles, and the boundaries of my fatherland, wheat, barley, vines, olives, figs.

Oath of Plataia

Oath which the Athenians swore when they were about to fight against the barbarians.

I shall fight while I live, and I shall not reckon living of more account than being free, and I shall not desert the taxiarch nor the enomotarch, whether living or dead, and I shall not retreat unless the commanders lead the way, and I shall do whatever the generals order, and shall bury the dead of those who were allies on the spot, and shall leave no-one unburied; and having been victorious fighting the barbarians, I shall tithe the city of the Thebans, and I shall not destroy Athens or Sparta or Plataia or any of the other cities that were allied, and I shall not overlook those who are oppressed by hunger, nor shall I bar them from running water, whether they are friends or enemies; and if I adhere to what has been written in the oath may my city be free from disease, if not, diseased; and may my city be unsacked, but if not, may it be sacked; and may mine (scil. my land) be fruitful, but if not, may it be barren; and may the women bear children like their parents, but if not, monsters; and may the animals bear young like the animals, but if not, monsters.

They swore these oaths, covered the sacrificial victims with their shields, and at the sound of the trumpet they made a curse: if they transgressed anything that they had sworn and did not adhere to what was written in the oath, those who had sworn would be accursed.

No comments:

Post a Comment