Mercenaries, Landmarks, and Marginalia

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January 2, 2021 by libroshombre


Contact Greg Hill, 479-4344                                                  December 31, 2020

            Xenophon, the Greek mercenary and historian, left a fascinating account of a part of history new to me in his “Persian Expedition,” which is also called “The Anabasis.”  He was a 30-year-old enlistee in an army of Greeks, known to history as “The Ten Thousand,” hired to invade Persia in 400 BCE by Cyrus, whose dad died and bequeathed the kingship and the best parts of the Persian empire to his brothers.  When Cyrus was killed near Babylon at the battle of Cunaxa, the Ten Thousand found themselves trapped and hungry, but heavily armed, deep inside enemy territory.  Their generals were killed at a feast given in their honor by the treacherous Persians, and the Greeks elected Xenophon to lead them home.  That took some doing. 

Xenophon also wrote “Hellenika,” a complex history of the war between Sparta and Athens.  Grasping the storyline used to be difficult without a solid background in classical history, but then a retired oilman named Robert Strassler, founder of the Landmark Ancient Histories series, changed that.  Learning about Strassler’s background and lifelong passion for ancient Greece dredged up memories of being tutored by Dr. Roy, an India-born Oxford don and visiting professor at the University of Texas.  I was his graduate teaching assistant back in my comparative international relations days and having doubts about calling political science “scientific” when Dr. Roy agreed to tutor me in the philosophy of social science in the month before he returned home.  He assigned no papers or tests, but every week I read and discussed two or three books with him.  The last required reading was Stanislav Andrewski’s “Social Science as Sorcery,” after which I dropped out of graduate school and began working in the Texas Legislature, which led to library school, with the encouragement of the director of the crackerjack Texas Legislative Reference Library, and eventually Fairbanks, Alaska.

            A good tutor can make a big difference.  Strassler was well-regarded Harvard student and convinced his dean to assign a former Oxford don to tutor him about ancient Greece.  Strassler graduated from the Harvard Business School (in the top 5 percent of the class of 1961), joined his dad’s investment company, and became an oilfield equipment magnate.  When oil prices crashed in 1983, Strassler was old and rich enough to retire and follow his bliss.  As wrote in 2007, “Strassler calls himself a ‘scholar without credentials’ … Yet this amateur scholar may turn out to be one of the bestselling classicists of all time.  In 1997 he published the Landmark Thucydides, a desk-whomping 713- page edition of the Greek historian’s account of the Peloponnesian War.  Strassler worked on it for seven years – without a publisher’s advance.  His goal: to unlock antiquity’s most intricate, difficult narrative for a modern audience.  He succeeded brilliantly: 114 detailed maps in line with the text, hundreds of margin notes, a header on every page showing the time and place, and 11 appendixes that illuminate military, economic, and political concepts of the time.  The book was a smash hit.”

            Being prone to creating marginalia in my personal books (never a library book!), I appreciate Strassler’s insistence on including copious marginalia.  Merriam-Webster defines “marginalia” as “marginal notes or embellishments (as in a book)” and adds that “marginalia is a relatively new word” in English, dating from 1819.  “Marginal” was first used in 1573, but “marginalize” didn’t find print until 1970.  I appreciate margin notes, and many of my literary heroes, like Mark Twain, who often vented in his marginal sccribblings, agreed.  An essay described how the witty Twain’s “best barbs never reached their targets.  Instead, they remained within the marginalia of his books … John Dryden’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives seems to have hit a nerve, causing Twain to change the inscription to ‘translated from the Greek into rotten English by John Dryden; the whole carefully revised and corrected by an ass.’”

            That criticism can’t be applied to the scrupulously researched Landmark Histories, which utilized the best modern translations.  As an example of the book’s utility, consider pages 302-3 in the Landmark Herodotus’ section on the nomadic Scythians that describes the many rivers in the Scythians’ territory.  Besides being fierce warriors, they were shepherds who lived in their wagons.  When outrunning the armies of Persian King Darius, this meant quickly crossing some mighty rivers, like the large Ishtar River, that the Scythians had to ford with their wagons.   Photos of wagon models from Scythian tombs are provided, and readers can easily locate geographic placenames thanks to the abundant footnotes indicating the nearest maps and appropriate coordinates.  Moreover, Strassler’s marginalia notes that unlike the rise and fall of the Nile, “the Ishtar stays at the same height because it is regulated by snowmelt.”

            Many abhor writing in their books for any reason, but others find reasons for so doing.  I enjoy reading others’ marginalia and find that writing margin notes are like lecture notes, helping me organize my thoughts and recall salient facts.  And as Billy Collins made clear in his poem, “Marginalia.”  “Sometimes the notes are ferocious,/ skirmishes against the author/ raging along the borders of every page/ in tiny black script/ … Other comments are more offhand, dismissive – “Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” – / that kind of thing/ … Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points/ rain down along the sidelines./ … Yet the one I think of most often,/ the one that dangles from me like a locket,/ was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye/ I borrowed from the local library/ one slow, hot summer./ …  a few greasy looking smears/ and next to them, written in soft pencil– / by a beautiful girl, I could tell,/ whom I would never meet/ “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

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