John Fletcher: The Sicilian Expedition

Athens. The most extraordinary, the most beautiful, the most terrifying civilization of all time. The template we all live out.

Effortlessly its drama, its art, its science and philosophy bestrode the world. But despite its superb democracy, all-powerful economy and a "shock-and-awe" military the envy of the world -- out of a clear blue sky came sudden, terrifying and total collapse.

The Athenians had their very own Iraq War -- The Sicilian Expedition.

My play is an examination of how a nation can suddenly, bizarrely, and with great dramatic effect, auto-destruct.

Sixty years before the Sicilian Expedition the Athenians too had their "heroic" generation. Who, against overwelming odds, using only the democratic tools of free speech and self-organization, managed to rouse the rest of Greece against a massive Persian invasion, and, at Thermopolyae and Salamis, drive it back. Who, altruistic and self-sacrificing themselves, decided their children should have all the things they had been denied themselves: ­ a superb education, wonderful public buildings, the freedom to question all things, and ­ wealth.

Their children, Athens' very own "baby boomer" generation, experimented wildly in everything --­ sex, extreme booze, the arts, atheism, sophistry. No taboo was too taboo. It was a golden age of creativity and hangovers. But as wild-eyed youth slid into portly middle-age, lust for the material started to replace a lust for the unknown. The Athenian baby boomers became the greatest consumers in history ­ pillaging the world for art, clothing, consumer durables, and those really rather exquisite little hams wines and cheeses which just seem to drop off the trees in Italy.

But they were still denied that one consumer trophy every totally cool society cannot be without -- their own "heroic" war. Their parents had had one -- why couldnıt they?

There was a "Neo-con" faction who argued that, having the finest military in the world, the world being the way it is, its better to hit the world before the world hits us. Behind them lurked various shady businessmen and corporatists, keen for trade monopolies and new markets. But it was the ideologues and demagogues who really shone, eager to prove their excellence in sophistry and spin and uber-patriotism.

An obscure place was chosen. Nobody was really sure where it was. Far off, across the seas. Sicily, thatıs its name. (Rather handy for controlling the booming trade with Italy, but nobody mentioned that). Anyhow, these backward Sicilians peasants had, apparently, dared denounce Imperial Athens for arrogance and aggressiveness. The orators in the Athenian Assembly went code purple. A frenzy was constructed. In vain did the remnants of the real "heroic" generation plead that this insanity was irrational, unpragmatic, god-darnit, un-Athenian. They were contemptuously dismissed as cowards and curs.

The greatest, most technologically-advanced military expedition the world had ever seen assembled off Piraeus. Amid unparalleled pomp sailed off into oblivion. The seas were rough and treacherous. When they eventually arrived in this far off and little known region, after an initial invasion they were surrounded by ferocious and implacable insurgents, who drove them back into desperate encampments where they were overwelmed and slaughtered to the last man.

Until now the rest of the world (or Greece) had supinely sat back and watched this curious Athenian act of auto-da-fe. The Athenians were always so good at putting on plays. But then someone in Sparta ­ Athensı ancient and implacable foe ­ realized Athens was defenceless ­ and invaded her ­ and sold many of her citizens into slavery ­ and put her to the torch.

That isnıt the end of the story.

Camille Paglia has long argued that civilizations are at their greatest at their moment of supreme decadence. Like a plantıs exotic flower, at its moment of decay it shoots out its seed into the world around.

The idea, the concept which has proved to be the foundation of Western Civilization, was born, hammered out in the very moment of Athens agony and self-destruction. The idea of universal human love.

A few months before the Expedition sailed, at a private symposium, Socrates, representative of older "heroic" Athens but fascinated by the "new", ran into its epitome, a drunken Alcibiades, his former pupil and lover and neo-con orator extraordinaire.

The clash which occurred that night, recorded 25 years later by Plato, invented modern concepts of love. Provided the bedrock for St Paul and Christianity, imbued Islam and the Jewish Kabbalah, re-surfaced to inspire the Renaissance, and was the intellectual backbone of the English puritan scientists of the C17th, culminating in Sir Isaac Newton.

Not bad for one drunken night in pre-apocalypse Athens. Thereıs no breaking without making. My play, "The Sicilian Expedition":

TX details: BBC Radio 3, Sunday, 4 Dec 05, 7.45 PM.

...............John Fletcher.

The above essay was put online and attracted some interesting comments:

"............As a college student who's spent quite a bit of time on Thucydides' account of the Peloponessian War, I can't really agree with some of the things said here about the origins of the Athenian expedition. There had already been quite a bit of fighting in Sicily involving both the Athenians and Spartan allies.

In addition, it seems to me that Sicily is being considered a nation unto itself, when instead, like most of the Hellenic world at the time, it was composed of several city states who frequently went to war with one another.

In fact, it was in order to help one of these cities(Egesta) that Athens sends the fleet. It seems to me that the Vietnam War would be a better analogue than the current conflict in Iraq.

The other major gripe that I have with this is that the failure of the Athenian invasion has nothing to do with "insurgents" or anything like the current situation in Iraq. Instead, due to political upheaval in Athens, the Athenian best suited to wage a sucessful campaign(Alcibiades) is called back to be prosecuted for impiety. Thucydides almost explicitly says that were it not for the removal of Alcibiades, the Athenians would have won the war.

I'm interested in hearing this radio play, but I've got some strong doubts about it, based on what I see here.

..........sorry - I do not know your name ....... please email me if you see this and wish to be credited..........

ND comment: ..............John would probably admit to some historical distortions. History is a science which looks at all the evidence and says at the end - this could have happened, or this might have happened. Drama is an art. An audience needs to know where it is. Who people are, what definitely happens. It needs a complete and all-enveloping world and reality, not a tentative one.

Nigel Deacon / Diversity website

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