Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

Two British commandos from the Special Boat Service (motto `Not by force, but by guile') escaped capture in Iraq by trekking some 100 miles across mountainous terrain, by night, to the Syrian border. Who were they? Nobody knows, or will know - a unique form of heroism.

In the ancient world it was public performance, and so public acknowledgment, that counted. In Homer's Iliad, Sarpedon, a Trojan ally from Lycia, gives the classic statement of the heroic 'contract' to his second-in-command Glaucus that in return for the best of material rewards eve are obliged to take our places in the front ranks and fling ourselves into the flames of battle. Only then will our Lycian men-at-arms say of us, "Well! These are no dishonourable lords of Lycia that rule over us and eat fat sheep and drink the best sweet wine: they are indomitable and fight in the front ranks of the Lycians." ' Sarpedon concludes,My friend, if, after living through this war, we could be sure of becoming ageless and immortal, I should not fight in the front line nor send you out into the battle where men win glory. But the world is not like that. A thousand demons of death hover over us, and nobody can escape or avoid them. So in we go, whether we yield the victory to some other man, or he to us. …

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