Friday, 31 July 2009

Greeks vs. Gurkhas

Our loyalties are easily manipulated by emotional narratives, but emotional narratives that would lead us astray are no rival to equally powerful calls imploring our allegiance to primary affiliations. Someone just has to make them.

Polybius 27.9.3-13
Circa 130 B.C.

In the gymnikoi agones when a humble and very inferior boxer is matched against a famous and unbeatable opponent, immediately the crowd splits off its support for the inferior man and they call out encouragement and bob and weave and punch together with him. And if he happens to land a punch on the other guy and marks his face, they jump up and down in their excitement. Sometimes they attack the other fellow with insults, not because they hate or scorn him, but becoming curiously sympathetic toward and naturally supportive of the underdog. But if someone gets their attention at the right time, they quickly change their position and resume their impartiality. They say that Kleitomachos did this, for he appeared to be unstoppable in the games, and his fame was worldwide. But King Ptolemy had ambitions of demolishing his fame, and he prepared and sent off with great pride the boxer Aristonikos, who seemed naturally adapted for this sport.

When Aristonikos arrived in Greece and was set up at the Olympic games against Kleitomachos [216 B.C.], the crowd came to be on Aristonikos’s side and cheered him, happy that someone had dared, even for a little, to stand up against Kleitomachos. When, as the bout proceeded, he appeared to be the equal of, and now and then wounded, Kleitomachos, there was applause and the crowd shared in his attacks and shouted out encouragement to Aristonikos. At that point they say that Kleitomachos, who was standing off and catching his breath, turned to the crowd to learn why they wanted to cheer Aristonikos and take his side as much as they could. Did they think that he was not following the rules of the games? Or did they not understand that he, Kleitomachos, was fighting right now for the fame of Greece, but that Aristonikos was fighting for the fame of King Ptolemy? Did they want to see an Egyptian win the crown at Olympia from the Greeks? Or did they prefer that a Theban and Boeotian be proclaimed as victor in boxing in the men’s category? When Kleitomachos had spoken in this way, they say that there was such a change in the crowd’s feelings that it rather than Kleitomachos finally beat Aristonikos.

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