Friday, September 17, 2010

End of the Line

This will be the last post I make on Hannibal Ad Portas. I am generally unhappy with the direction and theme, so I am making a new start at the lazily-titled Danimal Ad Portas. Since the blog began with a personal post, I figured I should come full circle.

Over the past year, I have overcome a demon in my life: my weight. I really don't want to take the time to weave a long narrative (Hannibal Ad Portas deserve a quick and painless end), so I am just going to give the interesting numbers and complain about things that weight loss didn't resolve.

Late August 2009: I start working-out daily with no goal other than lose weight. Scale reading: ~315 pounds. Waist circumference: ~ 48-50 inches. 30 minute moderate to high intensity elliptical machine sessions with occasional weights and stationary bike to break the monotony.

Today: I've thought about training for a half-marathon, but running for that long seems terribly boring. Instead I pursue less serious goals like beating the trainer in the Wii Fit Plank Challenge (broke through 300 seconds last week) and doing my first pull-up (not even close...). Scale reading: ~190 pounds. Waist circumference: bought new pants yesterday -- 34 inches. I do weight training + 30 mins on a stationary bike 3 days a week then run on 3 of the non-weight training days. 1 bonus day for baseball or stationary bike or a run depending on how I feel. I try to do between 2 and 5 miles whenever I go running.

My mother worries about me not eating. Honestly, the only dietary changes I have made are minimizing fast food (McDonald's/BK/Wendy's meals happen maybe every month or two), portion control (4 slice limit on weekly pizza nights), and avoid non-diet soft drinks like the plague.

At this point, you might be asking "what does he have to complain about, aside from the lack of Angus Burgers and pizza gluttony?" Shopping for new clothes is immensely painful and expensive, especially when it comes to dress shirts and winter clothes. It is virtually impossible to find dress shirts with the right neck width and sleeve length that aren't super baggy around the mid-section. All I want is to not look like a marshmallow and not asphyxiate.

My other pertinent complaint comes from my knees. I really enjoy going for runs and I would do it daily, but lately my knees have started getting sore if I run on consecutive days. No doubt the years spent north of 300 lbs. were not good for my knees.

Now the irrelevant things that weren't magically resolved:

- Jobs are still hard to find
- Ice hockey gear in Kalamazoo, very stinky, very bulky, probably doesn't fit, but I really want to get back into hockey.
- Women: This could turn into a treatise... I figure time, persistence and self-image realignment are the only cures. Self-image realignment is the most interesting part. It is very difficult to change how you picture yourself in your mind. I have trouble wrapping my mind around new pictures or what I see in the mirror. I generally feel more confidence and less self-conscious, but it is still difficult. I suppose the whole endeavor would be much less interesting if it were easy.

^^^ Not a treatise!!! ^^^

Hannibal has left Italy. Please join me at Danimal Ad Portas for less personal yet equally insightful content.

P.S. 8.9 stones, 3.9 slugs, 2.98 * 10^-26 Jupiters

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

My Rage is Unfathomable!

I don't truly rage about many things, but this is one of them. At the end of the season opener for the Detroit Lions last Sunday, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson appeared to make what would be the game-winning (or at least last minute lead restoring) touchdown catch.

So, apparently the rules for making a catch in the endzone are different from anywhere else on the field. If that catch were made anywhere else on the field, it would have been ruled a complete pass. Johnson doesn't bobble the football, gets two feet down, and gets his butt down. A long string of loud obscenities filled the apartment that Sunday afternoon.

They resumed when I found this:

The receiver's possession seems tenuous, at best, yet the two-point conversion is awarded. It's also worth noting that in both cases, the referee in the best position to make the call on the field was overruled. At least in the Super Bowl clip, that referee's ruling on the field was the one under dispute. In the Lions' game, the referee who signalled the touchdown was overruled on-field by some other schmuck before the video review.

I really don't want to buy into the conspiracy theory of the downtrodden Lions getting unfavorable calls from a haughty NFL front office. However, I'll play Glenn Beck (distasteful, I know) and ask the question: would this happen to Peyton Manning in Indianapolis or Tom Brady in New England?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Hiking the Himalayan Trail...

Before I get on to the interesting stuff, a shameless self-promoting shout-out. Not the most gripping material I've written, but it will probably be the most widely read thing that I have written thus far.

The aforementioned "interesting stuff" is also peripherally related to the shout-out. Today, at work, was a spring cleaning day in preparation for the massive renovations coming this summer for our office space. While going through the stacks of documents, we found this very amusing document. I've personally dubbed it the "Hiking the Himalayan Trail" document, for obvious reasons.

Hopefully, this will serve as an amusing start to everyone's weekend and a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Life of a Colossus

After nearly a year on my bookshelf and three weeks of public transportation, I finished Adrian Goldsworthy's amazing biography of Julius Caesar. On the most recent Ides of March, I decided that this particular tome had spent far too long on the shelf and I had heard far too many good things about it. Naturally, I decided to dive into Grapes of Wrath first...

I could easily present a blow-by-blow extended review, but instead I want to have a discussion. Fortunately for me, Julius Caesar is one of the few figures from antiquity that still provokes thought and discussion among mainstream historical and political thinkers. If I wanted to discuss the contraction of the Roman Empire under Hadrian, I might have a hard time finding an audience, but Caesar is too much fun to not have an opinion.

As I closed up the book and tucked it into my bag, my brain started wrestling with the influx of new information. First and foremost, what do I think about Caesar, in general? My view has shifted over time. After reading Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (in high school, if you want to judge my level of maturity), I sympathized with Caesar and thought the tyrannicide was unjust. Frankly, I was pretty happy when the conniving Brutus and Cassius wound up on the wrong end of the sword. In college and up to, more-or-less, the present, I gravitated more towards the conspirators' camp. I still love Shakespeare, but it is important to remember that the events that Julius Caesar presents do not exist in a vacuum. A lot of stuff happened before the curtain opens and a lot happened afterwards.

That brings me to my conundrum: in a system as corrupt and decrepit as the Roman Republic was in the 1st century BC, was it such a bad thing that one man overthrew the system in favor of something more effective at peaceful governance? In a system where individual ambition was poorly capped, it was an inevitability that one man would eventually rise to the top (see the Gracchi, Sulla, Marius, Pompey). What made Caesar stand out, at least for me, was his political savvy and tendency towards clemency for political rivals. Essentially, the system was broken, Caesar thought he knew how to fix it.

Compared to other "tyrants" in Roman history, Julius Caesar's rise was bloodless (at least for the Romans, the Gauls and Germans weren't so lucky). Proscriptions were never undertaken under Caesar's regime and political opponents were typically offered clemency the first time Caesar beat them. Many probably pined for the days of Caesar once the Second Triumvirate started their bloodletting. This brings me to my second interesting thought: do nice guys actually come in last place every time?

When attempting to implement massive social changes on a short time table, maybe bloody/destructive means are the only way of achieving your ends. Case one: Caesar plays nice with the Roman aristocracy and winds up dead on the floor of the Senate - more civil war, more civil strife, political changes (good or bad) tabled. Counter-cases: Caesar kills and enslaves hundreds of thousands in pacifying Gaul, Octavian takes part in one of the bloodiest Roman proscriptions and becomes the first emperor, General Sherman's "March to the Sea" scorched earth tactics delivers a crippling blow to the Confederacy, Allied forces indiscriminately bomb (conventional, incendiary, nuclear) German and Japanese cities to end fascism. Was Caesar doing it wrong?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Cleaning House

In 1972, Richard Nixon was re-elected for a second term as President. Of course, the political exploits of that administration are well-known to those with even a basic knowledge of 20th century American history. The Watergate scandal stole headlines, and rightly so, but a different variety of political subterfuge was also underway in the final months of 1972.

In May of 1972, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. signed an interim agreement with respect to strategic arms limitations which was the culmination of SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks). In November of 1972, the-powers-that-be decided that a change was needed (warning: links to a small pdf file). A quick dramatis personae: Henry = Henry Kissinger (National Security Advisor), Scoop Jackson = Senator Henry Jackson D-WA, Al Haig = Alexander Haig (Kissinger's military assistant and Army Vice Chief of Staff), others mentioned are either those in line for the figurative guillotine or their replacements. It's worth mentioning that the attachment mentioned in the memorandum is indeed not present and thus bait for speculation.

The Administration went ahead with a full-scale purge of the ACDA (Arms Control and Disarmament Agency) and the SALT negotiating team. Naturally, this move was the cause of some concern (warning: another pdf file, a bit bigger this time) among those in the arms control community. Paul Doty was a friend of Kissinger's from Harvard and had politically left-wing views.

Ultimately, SALT II was an ill-fated arms control agreement. One can not help but think that a massive purge of the two government bodies primarily responsible for strategic arms control wasn't a helpful development. Even Kissinger would later express some regret over the realignment of the ACDA and SALT team*.

Raymond Garthoff, a member of the SALT negotiating team and victim of the purge, provided an interesting perspective in his memoir, A Journey Through the Cold War:

"Nixon may have had his own reasons for wanting a "new team" in SALT, as Kissinger too may have had. The impetus for the wholesale SALT purge, however, had come from Senator Scoop Jackson. In a private conversation with Jackson in the Rose Garden, Nixon had agreed to replace the SALT delegation with a new team, as he accepted a version of Jackson's amendment on equal strategic force levels in SALT II, in exchange for Jackson's support not only for the SALT agreements but also for the Trident submarine program, which Jackson had threatened to kill. In the final analysis, Jackson got even more: one of the two Trident submarine bases was moved from the Navy's preference for California to Jackson's state of Washington. But the purge of the SALT team and weakening of ACDA were also part of the deal."

Sadly, hunting for documents related to this intriguing Cold War tale is quite difficult. I've spent a number of days sifting through the Nixon Library documents in College Park, Maryland and my boss at the National Security Archive has no doubt performed similar searches and has a number of FOIA requests pending on this matter. Further complicating matters is the fact that the entire Nixon collection is being shipped out to the Nixon Library in California later in February. Demand for Nixon documents is very high right now and I plan to spend more time trying to dig up some new information.

Two of the other big players in this event have archives that are out of my reach. Sen. Henry Jackson has a library of his documents at Washington State University. One of Nixon's assistants, Fred Malek, was heavily involved with this whole affair and has a collection of documents in the Nixon Library, but all of his materials are already in California.

Perhaps the most sobering realization is that documents pertaining to this purge were likely destroyed...

*I would love to link the document, but I foolishly forgot to pick up a copy and I can't access the National Security Archive's digital database from home. This oversight will be corrected on Monday - stay tuned!

Friday, January 22, 2010

42.195 Kilometers

In 492 BC, Persian King Darius I was not a happy man. Seven years earlier, a number of Persian satrapies in Ionia (modern-day west coast of Turkey) revolted. With the support of the mainland Greek city-states of Athens and Eretria, the Ionian Greeks set fire to the regional capital of Sardis. Both Athens and Eretria withdrew their forces shortly thereafter, leaving the Ionians to their fate against the might of the Persian Empire.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus wrote of Darius' reaction:

"[W]ord reached Darius that Sardis had been burned by the Athenians and Ionians and that the man who led these combined forces and had designed its course of action was Aristagoras of Miletus. It is said that when Darius first heard this report, he disregarded the Ionians, since he knew that they at least would not escape punishment for their revolt; but he inquired who the Athenians were, and after he had been told, he asked for a bow. He took the bow, set an arrow on its string, and shot the arrow toward the heavens. And as it flew high into the air, he said: 'Zeus, let it be granted to me to punish the Athenians.' After saying this, he appointed one of his attendants to repeat to him at least three times whenever his dinner was served: 'My Lord, remember the Athenians.'" (Histories 5.105)

Needless to say, Darius did not forget and in 492 BC, he launched a series of military campaigns against Greece culminating with a showdown against Athens on the fields of Marathon...

The Athenians had plenty of time to prepare for the Persian forces. On the way to Athens, Persian commander Datis had taken the liberty of sacking two other supporters of the Ionian revolt: Naxos and Eretria. Athens needed to gather allies if it was going to survive.

Pheidippides was dispatched to Sparta to request assistance. Herodotus claims that the Spartans were anxious to get into the fight, but were held back because of a religious festival. A similar fate would befall the Spartans in 480 BC when Xerxes threatened to invade Greece. Another theory that might explain the Spartans' reluctance to involve themselves in major land battles is the threat of a helot revolt. The helots were the people from the areas conquered by Sparta in the Peloponnese, typically Messenia (southwest corner of the Peloponnese). They were a poorly-treated slave caste that also constituted a majority of the population under Spartan control. Every so often, discontent or outright rebellion would stir the helots and the Spartan army would be called in to ensure/restore order.

The only other Greek city-state that sent troops to aid Athens was Plataea (a bit under 50 miles northwest of Athens). All together, the Athenians and Plataeans deployed around 10,000 hoplites for the battle while the Persians brought about 19,000 infantry along with 1,000 cavalry. Oddly enough*, Herodotus doesn't spend much time discussing the number of troops involved with this battle, so the numbers are a rough average from a number of estimations delivered by scholars.

The armies spent a couple days on opposite sides of the plain before the ten Athenian polemarchoi (generals) finally agreed to attack. When Miltiades' turn as commander arrived, he gave the order to attack...

In an attempt to match the length of the Persian line, Miltiades stretched the middle ranks to only a couple rows of depth, but concentrated his phalanxes on the flanks.

One of the great questions still unanswered about this battle is why the Persian cavalry did not play a significant role. The plains of Marathon are wide and flat, making it perfect terrain for lightning-fast cavalry maneuvers. Some scholars have speculated that the Persian cavalry had been loaded back onto the ships in preparation to move, or the Persians did not bring more than a token contingent to serve as scouts. Despite the heavy armor and long reach of Greek hoplites, they were no match for a cavalry force that could out-flank them and run them down. The Persian infantry would get their first taste of well-trained, massed hoplite warfare...

Herodotus writes:

"After the troops were in position and the sacrifices had proven favorable, when the Athenians were let loose and allowed to advance, they charged at a run toward the barbarians. The space between the two armies was about a mile." (Histories 6.112)

Herodotus had a penchant for exaggeration. Hoplites, despite what you might have seen in the film 300, were heavily armored. Standard equipment was a large (three feet in diameter), round shield made of wood and bronze (held at chest level and away from the body), a bronze helmet, bronze greaves, a bronze breastplate (solid or scaled lamellar in construction), a nine-foot spear with bronze head and butt, and a small sword. One can easily imagine that hot and cold days made the work of a hoplite very difficult. In his book, The Western Way of War, Victor Davis Hanson also mentions that modern testing of Herodotus' claim shows that an average hoplite could only make it 200 yards or so at a 5-6 mile per hour pace. One of the tactical challenges that hoplite armies faced against one another was timing the charge so that you hit your opponent's line with more momentum without overly exhausting your troops.

When the Greek and Persian lines met, the center of the Greek line was quickly broken. However, on the flanks, the superior equipment and tactics of the Greek heavy infantry routed the Persians.

With the Persian flanks in full retreat, the triumphant Greek flanks stopped pursuing and turned to the Persian center. Suddenly under threat from two sides, the Persian center collapsed and began a hasty retreat to their ships.

Now filled with the excitement of victory, the Greeks mercilessly pursued the Persians to their ships and drove them into the sea. Herodotus states that the Persians lost 6,400 men in the battle while the Greeks suffered only 192 losses. For once, Herodotus' numbers seem reasonable considering the initial dispositions of the armies and the course of the battle.

The legendary Pheidippides was sent to Athens to proclaim the victory. About 40 kilometers later, Pheidippides arrived, announced the victory, and quickly succumbed to exhaustion. For those of us keeping count, he ran 240 kilometers from Athens to Sparta, ran back to Athens, marched with the army to Marathon, fought in the battle, then ran 40 kilometers from Marathon to Athens - all in the span of about a week.

A bare-assed Pheidippides finally gets to deliver some good news.

The Spartan army showed up with 2,000 troops a few days later to see the carnage, give the Athenians a pat on the back, then return home.

The Battle of Marathon wasn't the last chapter of the First Persian War. The fleet sailing from Marathon attempted to round the southern tip of Attica and attack Athens before the Athenian army could return to the city, but were unable to outrun the army. The Persians laid anchor not far from Athens for a few days before abandoning the expedition and returning to Asia Minor.

Though this battle wasn't particularly decisive as far as convincing the Persian Empire to avoid the Greeks, it did demonstrate, for the first time, the superiority of Greek heavy infantry over Persian infantry. It's worth noting that the wealth and resources of the Persian Empire was many times that of the Greek city-states. Though the Persians did deploy some Ionian hoplites in later conflicts, their army was heavily invested in light infantry, cavalry and archers. The Greeks likely realized their fortune of not having to face cavalry at Marathon. In later encounters with Persia, the Greeks became highly adept at choosing their battles in order to deny the Persians the advantages that their diversity provided.

*Later in his Histories, Herodotus spends a very long time giving descriptions of the forces arrayed for battles. To someone who has read Herodotus, it seems downright bizarre that he would give up an opportunity to weave an overwrought tale concerning the state of two opposing forces.

Update: I felt a little guilty not fully citing all the sources I used for this post, so here are the credits. For creating the maps, I used the fantastic illustrations from Robert Morkot's Historical Atlas of Ancient Greece and Simon Anglim's [et al] Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World as starting points. The artwork is an 1869 piece done by Luc-Olivier Merson titled The Soldier of Marathon. I also feel the need to mention that the edition of Herodotus' Histories that I used is quite possibly the best version available. The Landmark Herodotus edited by Robert Strassler is not only an excellent translation, but it comes highly annotated, illustrated and contains a great series of appendices.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Storm is Coming...

...figuratively speaking.

My blogging has been sporadically present and relevant, but I am changing my mentality and content. I don't dislike my old content, it just feels very cliche and, to be frank, whiny. I see this blog as an opportunity to express some small sliver of intellectual insight inside a casual and entertaining package, and I feel like I have failed to fully exploit this chance.

To be honest, my life has been lacking academic discipline and I feel the need to reconnect, if only for a few hours every week. I look at all these really cool documents every week at work, but I have few outlets for showing other people this stuff and what it all means. Additionally, I still really enjoy reading and learning about classical Greek and Roman history. Oftentimes, I get strange looks when I tell people at work how many classical history classes I took at college. As I have written before, history, in general, is relevant and vital to modern life and classical Greek and Roman history is remarkably valuable for understanding modern Western institutions and culture.

My new approach to this blog is to create new[-ish] content instead of regurgitating existing stuff with my own thoughts. One might accurately assume that the new content will somehow involve what I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. I hope to get into a groove of one new post every week, starting Friday.