This is going to be a bit of an unusual post, but with things moving so rapidly, it didn’t seem to make sense to wait for a break in the normal schedule. Don’t worry, this Friday’s normal post (a Collections on chemical warfare and doctrine) will appear on Friday as scheduled.
But it felt irresponsible as someone with a platform – however small – not to talk about the current COVID-19 pandemic. If that’s not what you are here for, that’s fine you can check out but before you do, please, please read and follow the recommendations of your local health agency (the USA’s Center for Disease Control recommendations are here). Let’s not let our carelessness put others at risk.
This little update is going to come in two parts: a bit on how the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping my life and then an exhortation.
I didn’t have time to edit last week’s Friday post to note this, but late last week, my institution went to an all-online instruction method, extending Spring break a week to give us time to convert all of our courses for online delivery and instructing students not to return to campus.
I had actually been following the COVID-19 outbreak since January, because I’m a bit of an international news junkie, so I put together an all-online plan the week before last, talking over the details with some colleagues who had more experience with some of the software and systems.
It is, let me tell you, more than a little awkward to deliver lectures to a camera (in this case, the one on my laptop) rather than a classroom. I don’t talk much here about the art of teaching, but to deliver a good lecture on a topic, you really do need to be reading the room and feeding a bit off of the energy – seeing if students ‘get it’ or if you need to back up and explain something another way. You can’t really do that with a camera.
For those wondering, “why not use video-conferencing software to deliver lectures live?” Two reasons: 1) I’m not confident in the ability of some of those platforms to hold up under the staggering load they’re about to get, but more importantly 2) it’s going to be very hard for a lot of students to attend those sorts of zoom-lectures. Some of my students are international – I have at least 12 hour time differences to contend with. And some students may not have access to the high-speed internet to manage a video-stream. By recording videos, students can watch them at any time, and they can also download or buffer them to get by on more limited internet connections.
I’m also having to make arrangements to do discussions, conference with students, do tests, all online. It’s difficult, to be sure. It certainly takes longer to record lectures, once you factor in encoding, saving and uploading time, than it does to just give them in person. Nevertheless, I am convinced that this is the correct move; I only wish the university had announced it earlier during the break.
Meanwhile, I am fortunate in that my job as a university instructor lets me work at distance, so I can implement social distancing with relative ease. I have an office here in my home, which has a lot of my research materials, so there should be no interuption in my teaching or my writing (here or in my professional research). I know a lot of people whose own work situation isn’t so fortunate. We did have to cancel a trip we had scheduled for last weekend, but that’s a small sacrifice compared to many people.
So we are hunkering down here (my spouse is also distance-working), though to be fair, I am basically a history hermit anyway. As I write this (literally as I wrote the previous paragraph), the university has informed us that the first COVID-19 case in the university community has been detected (given that we have many international connections, I’m only surprised it didn’t come sooner). And of course that’s why we’re social distancing as much as possible here: it’s not about avoiding the virus yourself, but about making sure you don’t become a threat to others (although I have no reason to believe I, or anyone I know, has been exposed).
Which brings us to:
Stand the Line
Plutarch reports this Spartan saying (trans. Bernadotte Perrin):
When someone asked why they visited disgrace upon those among them who lost their shields, but did not do the same thing to those who lost their helmets or their breastplates, he said, “Because these they put on for their own sake, but the shield for the common good of the whole line.” (Plut. Mor. 220A)
This relates to how hoplites generally – not merely Spartans – fought in the phalanx. Plutarch, writing at a distance (long after hoplite warfare had stopped being a regular reality of Greek life), seems unaware that he is representing as distinctly Spartan something that was common to most Greek poleis (indeed, harsh punishments for tossing aside a shield in battle seemed to have existed in every Greek polis).
When pulled into a tight formation, each hoplite’s shield overlapped, protecting not only his own body, but also blocking off the potentially vulnerable right-hand side of the man to his left. A hoplite’s armor protected only himself. That’s not to say it wasn’t important! Hoplites wore quite heavy armor for the time-period; the typical late-fifth/fourth century kit included a bronze helmet and the linothorax, a laminated, layered textile defense that was relatively inexpensive, but fairly heavy and quite robust. Wealthier hoplites might enhance this defense by substituting a bronze breastplate for the linothorax, or by adding bronze greaves (essentially a shin-and-lower-leg-guard); ankle and arm protections were rarer, but not unknown.
But the shield – without the shield one could not be a hoplite. The Greeks generally classified soldiers by the shield they carried, in fact. Light troops were called peltasts because they carried the pelta – a smaller, circular shield with a cutout that was much lighter and cheaper. Later medium-infantry were thureophoroi because they carried the thureos, a shield design copied from the Gauls. But the highest-status infantrymen were the hoplites, called such because the singular hoplon (ὅπλον) could be used to mean the aspis (while the plural hopla (ὁπλά) meant all of the hoplite’s equipment, a complete set).
(Sidenote: this doesn’t stop in the Hellenistic period. In addition to the thureophoroi, who are a Hellenistic troop-type, we also have Macedonian soldiers classified as chalkaspides (‘bronze-shields’ – they seem to be the standard sarissa pike-infantry) or argyraspides (‘silver-shields,’ an elite guard derived from Alexander’s hypaspides, which again note – means ‘aspis-bearers’!), chrysaspides (‘gold-shields,’ a little known elite unit in the Seleucid army c. 166) and the poorly understood leukaspides (‘white-shields’) of the Antigonid army. All of the -aspides seem to have carried the Macedonian-style aspis with the extra satchel-style neck-strap, the ochane)
(Second aside: it is also possible to overstate the degree to which the aspis was tied to the hoplite’s formation. I remain convinced, given the shape and weight of the shield, that it was designed for the phalanx, but like many pieces of military equipment, the aspis was versatile. It was far from an ideal shield for solo combat, but it would serve fairly well, and we know it was used that way some of the time.)
Why am I talking about hoplites and shields here?
Because we need to do hoplite-style disease control.
Now, I want to preface this by noting that while I am an expert on hoplites, I am not an expert on health or viruses. I encourage you, strongly, to seek out the expertise of your local public health departments, like the CDC – and yes, I am just going to keep linking that, because people need to <expletive deleted> read it.
Folks, we are at war with this virus. If you haven’t been paying attention to the news, first from China, now from Iran and Italy, start right now. This thing isn’t ‘coming’ – it is already here (no matter what country ‘here’ is). And remember: many people who have the virus will show no symptoms – any of us might be carrying, might be exhaling it into the air or leaving it on surfaces and not even know it. So we all have to have our shields up.
(I feel I should note, as a matter of record, we are in this situation because one government – note, not the people, the government – decided to put politics before public safety and allowed this virus to go worldwide when it may well have been contained. We are in this mess because of selfish, short-sighted leaders; we will only get out of it through selflessness and foresight.)
I am reading about a lot about people who are ignoring the recommendations of their local health agencies, still going out to bars, or to crowded gyms and the like – mostly because they think ‘hey, I’m young and healthy, I can risk it!” First: a virus does not care how many reps you can do, and while most serious cases of COVID-19 strike the old or sick, not all of them do. In France, a lot of the cases currently in hospitals are from younger people – who are, we should note – occupying beds and equipment which will thus be unavailable when serious cases among the very vulnerable arrive. Every hospital bed occupied by an avoidable infection represents resources that cannot help someone else!
But more importantly, this isn’t a ‘you pays your money, you takes your chances’ situation. This isn’t about protecting you from COVID-19. This is about protecting others from you, if you have the virus and may not know it yet. The people who are most at risk are counting on you to shield them from this virus, they are counting on you to ‘flatten the curve‘ so that health resources are available if they get sick, they are counting on you to buy time (possibly as long as 18 months, so settle in folks) until treatments and vaccines can be devised to beat this virus.
The hoplite wore his armor for himself, but he carried his shield for the whole line.
So if you want to wash your hands a bunch, carry a ton of hand-sanitizer for yourself – good, do that. A hoplite wears his armor for himself. But, if you are sick, or might be sick, you need to quarantine for the common good of the whole line. Cancel events for the whole line. Stay in for the whole line. Don’t go to bars, clubs, gyms, or restaurants for the whole line. Avoid crowds for the whole line. For students and households that are financially fragile, those of us – and I include myself here – whose jobs and income can survive social distancing are going to need to be generous with time and money, for the whole line.
So pick up a shield and stand in the line.
Now I know that for many folks, they can’t afford to do social distancing. They have an essential job (healthcare, police, etc), or they can’t afford to lose the paycheck and still eat (and can’t distance-work); that kind of thing. But precisely because there are people in that position is why we – who aren’t – need to step up and reduce the risk to them. And of course many people – the old, those with compromised immune systems, those in poor health and so on – may not be able to completely remove their risk. You need to carry your shield for them.
Because the fact is, if someone could do social distancing, but is instead choosing to be out in the bars or traveling or what have you – quite frankly, that person might well be a killer, without even knowing it. That sounds dark, I know, but in many legal codes, ‘gross negligent manslaughter’ is a thing for a reason (disclaimer: I am also not a lawyer). Don’t let your carelessness endanger someone else’s life – remember, that elderly person, or immune-compromised person, or sick person is someone else’s son or daughter, father or mother or grandparent, spouse or partner. This is likely to be remembered as one of the great challenges of our time; act how you would want to be remembered.
I know I have quite a few older or immune-compromised family members, colleagues, friends and mentors (academia, it turns out, full of old people – who knew?). I’m sure you do too. Think of them, pick up a shield and stand in the line.
And one last time, here is the link to the CDC’s recommendations for behaving responsibly during this pandemic. Folks, we may have to do this for a while; this may not be short or quick. But when this is over – be it in 3 weeks, or 3 months, or even the 18 months it may take to get a vaccine – we’ll be able to put all of the things we had to put on pause back in order. Bars and restaurants can be replaced; people cannot. We need to stand together – at a respectful, safe, six-foot distance – to beat this thing.
Alright; regular history stuff resumes on Friday.