The dictionary defines the word laconic¹ as a form of speech that is blunt or pithy that uses an economy of words to make a point, and sometimes the point is particularly biting or on-target or maybe mysterious, but I love the word because the word refers to a way of speaking that was popular amongst a particular group of people in Ancient Greece, people known as Lacedaemonians², otherwise known as Spartans.
Laconic speech is Spartan speech that’s the way they’re supposed to have talked. Imagine the love child of Clint Eastwood and Batman, and that’s the way they spoke.
Spartans were the kings of the one-liners in ancient Greek history, and they were cinematic in character. I mean there is not a movie maker out there who wouldn’t want Clint Eastwood during his various movie years playing various forms of Spartans.
From his Spaghetti Western era in his twenties, he could play your average Spartan warrior. Then, he gets into the Dirty Harry films in the 70s, when he begins to age a little bit more, but he plays one of those older spartan warriors. After that, you get him after the Dirty Harry’s are over – when he’s an older man – to be the King, and he talks like he talks in all of his other movies combined with Batman, and you have the way the Spartans are supposed to have spoken, laconically.
How cool is it that twenty five centuries after those people were at the height of their fame and power, we still know the way they talked? It’s famous, and it’s well-known because people wrote about it; people whose works we still have.
Telling us the way, as certain, people spoke that long ago describing some of the things that they said – all these sorts of little details – help bring colour to the story. They help us all relate to these people a little bit more. These are human touches that flesh out these historical figures.
When you begin to get this sort of stuff, the sorts of details that you will likely to hear in an oral tradition anywhere in the world before this time period, when you begin to get these stories that have come down to us, you begin to see truly cinematic-type creations. Stories that you could take – with very little changes and updating – and make movies out of them today and have them be popular. And it’s not just the character development either, the themes can be epic in these stories.
Take for example the most famous story involved in Sparta at all, the famous incident in 480 BCE at the pass of Thermopylae, the so-called “Hot Gates”.³ This may be because of the movies and because of the books that have been written forever, this may be the earliest confirmable historical event most people – especially western – know about. The defence of three hundred Spartans against a million or so Persians. A battle that some have described, over the eras, for the existence of Western civilization.
By the way, if those were the stakes, who’s side are you rooting for?
What did the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi supposedly say when someone asked him what he thought of Western civilization? Didn’t he say something like, “I think it would be a good idea.”? Nonetheless, the way this story is framed from the get-go is designed to have you affiliate with one side over the other.
One side is like the plucky little republic with Luke Skywalker and Star Wars, – and they are the good guys – and they are beleaguered and under pressure, and trying to survive against Darth Vader and the Empire that will snuff out all freedom and hope and happiness and all those kinds of things. That’s the way the ancient stories handled of what are called “The Greek and Persian Wars”.
A moment that is sometimes been portrayed in apocalyptic-like terms for what is sometimes been called: the West, Once upon a time: Christendom.
So already many in the West – and those who are influenced by Western culture – are going to feel like it’s a sporting event, and we’re the home team, the Greek team, right? We’re all homers when it comes to the Greek and Persian wars, unless of course we’re more like the people who were portrayed as the Persians back then.
Remember, this is not just an ethnic thing, this is a values thing, and in the narrative – sometimes called the Grand Narrative by some – Greece is fighting for things like liberty and freedom and democracy and artistry, in other words, everything that the evil Empire isn’t. The evil Empire will snuff it all out and make slaves of everyone.
So, whom you’re going to side with then?
The story of Thermopylae is one of those that is absolutely dramatic beyond anything you get in earlier history, and it’s because you have a master storyteller imparting the story to you.
When you start working in news reporting, the editor tells you that your job is to relate the facts of the story, the true information, and do so in the most compelling way you can.
If you imagine the battle of Thermopylae as written by, say, the scribes of Babylonia. It might sound like this:
“In the sixth year, the king of lands – by the will of Marduk – overcame the Spartan army at a place called the Hot Gates. 297 of the enemy were counted. The Spartan king went to his destiny.”
The Babylonians have been writing that way for ever. They were great record keepers, things were a little dry though.
Now, north of them were the Assyrians. A culture that existed, sort of, alongside the Babylonians; a lot more aggressive and big on the propaganda front, and didn’t mind shoving people’s nose in their defeats. They liked to maintain, shall we call, a muscular foreign policy.
Theirs would sound a little bit more like Darth Vader’s PR firm issuing a press release. They would have described the battle of Thermopylae like this:
“Like a storm I overthrew them. All I slew. Their king I crucified. Their land I devastated.”
Now, you may notice that there’s not a lot of character development there, unless making the king of Assyria frightfully terrifying is the development you’re after. Nonetheless, as I said, in this story, Darth Vader is really the only character on the other side that gets fleshed out very much.
Compare the sample Babylonian and Assyrian approaches to this story to the description you get from people like Herodotus of Halicarnassus; sometimes called “The Father of Histories”, occasionally called “The Father of Lies”, writing his history a generation after the events of Thermopylae.⁴ He talks about, you know, the Spartans blocking this road, about a tale that has developed over the hundreds of years afterwards, of an event that people have been adding a few screenwriting touches to, since the very beginning.
To be continued in the next episode.
¹ Laconic is named after Laconia, a region in nowadays south-eastern Greece.
² Laconia is also called Lacedaemonia, named after its mythical founder king, Lacedaemon, son of god Zeus.
³ Thermopylae means in Greek, the hot gates. It derives its name from its hot suphur springs near the narrow coastal passage that existed in aniquity. In the Greek myth, Heracles had jumped into the river in an attempt to wash off the Hydra poison infused in the cloak which he could not take off. The river has become hot and stayed that way ever since.
⁴ He wrote about the event circa 425 BCE, around 55 years after the battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE).