November 11, 2014, by Esther Eidinow
We have two blog entries today, both from doctoral students in Classics: in the first, Peter Davies, reflects on the legacy of the poet Simonides’ words in commemorating the fallen…
After the battle of Thermopylae – immortalised by Herodotus and, in our own time, given new fame by Snyder’s epic 300 – the Lyric poet Simonides wrote an encomium for the Greek dead. In 1838 John Sterling would translate some of his words thus:
Of those who at Thermopylae were slain,
Glorious the doom, and beautiful the lot:
Their tomb an altar; men from tears refrain
To honour them, and praise, but mourn them not.
Such splendour nor drear decay
Nor all-destroying time shall waste; this right have they.
The verse speaks of agelessness, timelessness, and remembrance. The defence of the pass at Thermopylae, a few thousand fighting hundreds of thousands, would become legend. Though the truth of their exact actions may be almost impossible to access, the impact the battle has had on the western concept of self-sacrifice is far-reaching.
Today, the 11th of November is set down to remember, perhaps hopefully, the end of hostilities in Europe, in 1918. However, the war started, for the British forces at least, more than 4 years earlier, on the banks of the Mons canal. Here the tiny British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would face the far larger German 1st Army. Although the line would hold for a day, the battle would result in two long weeks of retreat. The bloody sacrifice of this first battle of Britain’s first mechanised war would shock the nation to its core.
It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that when a poet and classics graduate was searching for words to understand his own, and his nation’s, grief, that he might turn to a time when others had laid down their lives to slow the advance of a vast invading army. That poet, Laurence Binyon, wrote the words which have, ever since, been spoken in remembrance for the fallen of Britain’s wars.
They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
The similarity with Simonides’ encomium seems striking. Just like the Simonides, the piece speaks of timelessness, agelessness, and remembrance. The sad, measured tone given by the short balanced phrases echoes the structure and rhythm of the Greek verse. The second line in particular, which speaks to the eternal youth of the dead, echoes closely Simonides’ words: translated by Sterling as: “Such splendour nor drear decay// Nor all-destroying time shall waste.” It seems almost impossible that Binyon, the classicist, could have written this verse without the Simonides in mind.
In 1919, Binyon’s words were spoken at the first Remembrance Day service, as they will be today. The words would become one of the defining statements of Britain’s grief, and loss. Its effect on the national consciousness was profound. Its origins, however, seem to lie not on the banks of the Mons but of the Aegean, and not with the bodies of the young men of the BEF but with those of Leonidas and the Greeks who fell at Thermopylae. Today, we remember them all.
Image: J.-H. Janßen, Poppy field with Field Poppies (Papaver rhoeas) in Schermen, Möser, Landkreis Jerichower Land, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.
By J.-H. Janßen (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
In our second blog entry for today, as part of the Nottingham Anniversaries through Coins project, Mike Welbourn offers some thoughts on Licinius’ rise to power….
On this day, 11 November, in AD 308 Valerius Licinianus Licinius (usually known simply as Licinius) became Roman emperor.
In Licinius’ case, however, it is more accurate to say that he became one of a group of four Roman emperors. In this period the Roman Empire was ruled by a group of four men – a system known as the Tetrarchy.
In the years shortly before the ruling imperial group had consisted of Galerius as Augustus (senior emperor) ruling the eastern half of the empire with Maximinus Daia as his Caesar (junior emperor and intended successor); the western half of the empire was controlled by Severus as Augustus with the future Constantine the Great as Caesar (Lactantius, Deaths of the Persecutors, 25).
Licinius’ path to the position of Augustus in the West began with certain events in 307. In that year the usurper Maxentius, who was the son of Diocletian’s former imperial colleague Maximian, declared himself emperor in Rome (Lactantius, Deaths of the Persecutors, 26). The reigning western Augustus, Severus, set out to suppress him but was prevented from doing so when his troops, who had previously served under Maximian, deserted to their former commander (Lactantius, Deaths of the Persecutors, 26).
Severus fled to Ravenna, but eventually surrendered to Maxentius and Maximian (now co-Augustus). Severus’ eastern colleague Galerius decided to march against the two usurpers, a decision which prompted Maxentius to have Severus executed on 16 September, 307 (Orosius, Seven Books Against the Pagans, 7.28; Lactantius, Deaths of the Persecutors, 26; Aurelius Victor, Epitome de Caesaribus, 40.3).
The western half of the Roman Empire was thus left without a (legitimate) emperor, but with a surfeit of usurpers: Maximian made contact with Constantine – who now controlled the Western provinces as Caesar – and forged an alliance with him. Constantine vowed to aid the attempt to fend off Galerius’ assault and the war that followed Galerius’ invasion of Italy was short indecisive – Galerius failed to enter Rome and retreated (Lactantius, Deaths of the Persecutors, 27). In addition, in 308 Maximian had attempted to topple Maxentius; when this failed he fled back to Constantine’s court (Lactantius, Deaths of the Persecutors, 28-9).
As a result of this increasingly complex situation, on 11th November 308 an imperial council was called at the city of Carnuntum (in modern day Austria). In attendance were Galerius, Maximian, and Diocletian, former emperor and author of the system which was then falling apart. It was there agreed that Maximian must once more retire, whilst Constantine was demoted back to the rank of Caesar. It was at this meeting that Licinius became a Roman emperor (Lactantius, Deaths of the Persecutors, 29).
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