Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

The recent exchange of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers for five living Hezbollah (and much else) has produced outrage in some sections of the Israeli press. Admittedly, it lays Israel open to further blackmail from Hezbollah who, glowing with high-minded idealism, long to capture and murder as many Israeli soldiers as they can. But the press is wrong.

Last time, we saw how important it was for ancient Athenian families that their dead be properly buried and their graves tended. This was felt to be even truer of its soldiers who died in battle, whom Athenians deemed worthy of hero-cult. Breaking with the normal Greek custom of burial on the field of battle, they demanded that the ashes of the dead be repatriated and buried in a special location in 'the finest suburb of Athens' (those killed at Marathon were the only exception). Everyone -- foreigners included -- was welcome to join their chariot-borne cortège (chariots being an aristocratic touch), and their bones were on display for two days (not the usual one).

Further, the best man in the state was chosen to speak the funeral oration. That was democracy at work.

The ceremony was an annual one, and in his famous 'Funeral Speech' (431 BC) Pericles talks not about the dead so much as about the greatness of Athens and its uniqueness in the world, which could never have been achieved unless men with 'courage, sense of duty and keen feeling of honour in action' had been prepared to die for it. …

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