Stuart Leavenworth: When it comes to history, it's all Greek to Arnold
By Stuart Leavenworth
The Sacramento Bee
Published 12:00 am PST Friday, January 19, 2007

Mystifying maxims tend to ooze from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's mouth on an annual basis. This year, he offers the slogan that California is a nation state similar to those that once dominated ancient Greece.

"We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city states of Athens and Sparta," Schwarzenegger declared in his recent State of the State address. "California has the ideas of Athens and the power of Sparta."

Some colleagues say I should go easy on Schwarzenegger for this mind-bending analogy. After all, they note, the governor recently broke his leg. Undoubtedly, he was drugged up on Vicodin while writing his speech, having just thumbed through a bedside copy of Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War."

Maybe so, but his Jan. 9 speech wasn't the first time Schwarzenegger has exaggerated California's place in history or its supposed independence. During his inauguration address, the governor also used the term "nation state." Apparently, California has become so self-sufficient that it no longer needs to depend on the federal government to subsidize its water, maintain its interstate highways or contribute the $5.5 billion the governor is seeking for his $12 billion health insurance plan.

I could devote several columns to skewering Schwarzenegger's conceit of leading a "nation state," but his mention of Athens and Sparta is far more intriguing. As history buffs recall, Athens dominated Greece until about 431 B.C., when war broke out with its resentful rival, Sparta. Together, these two metropolises built some of the pillars of Western culture, such as philosophy and the arts, but only were able to flourish by depending on slavery and ruthless militarism.

To explore this further, I contacted Thomas Palaima, who directs the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory at the University of Texas in Austin. I could almost hear him chuckling in cyberspace when I sent him Schwarzenegger's quote.

"Arnold needs a history lesson," Palaima responded in an e-mail from Barcelona, Spain, where he is spending part of the year on a Fulbright scholarship. "Of course, that he even has a vague idea of the meaning of Athens and Sparta puts him way ahead of the guy in the White House."

Palaima, who has written or edited eight books on ancient Greece, notes that Athens and California share some vague similarities. Whereas Athens had its Theater of Dionysus, California has Hollywood and Burbank.

Greece brought new ideas to the world at Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum, whereas we have Berkeley and Cal Tech.

California also operates under a form of representative democracy, although the one in Athens was far different. Whereas California legislators are elected based on their fund-raising skills and connections to the party machines, the Athenians were wary about rich families controlling power. Thus, says Palaima, the Athenian boule, the equivalent of our Legislature, was chosen by lottery.

The comparison further erodes from there. California historically has been tolerant of immigrants; the Athenians and Spartans welcomed only skilled resident aliens, and even they were denied citizenship. Eventually, the Athenians restricted the benefits of citizenship to children born of two Athenian parents.

Because of this requirement, asserts Palaima, the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger never could have become archon, the equivalent of governor in Athens. Nor could he have ruled in Sparta, which had a highly restrictive oligarchy.

Both Athens and Sparta were brutal in suppressing revolts and holding power. When residents on the island of Samos rebelled, the Athenian leader Pericles had them hanged in the city center and beaten with clubs. Imagine Schwarzenegger doing such a thing to rebellious members of his party.

As for Sparta, says Palaima, this city state possessed admirable power, but was generally reluctant to use it.

Spartans were always worried about revolts by their large class of slaves, and therefore did not want to commit their armies to unneeded military excursions.

While Schwarzenegger may think California has the power of Sparta, it is doubtful that many Californians would enlist for such an army. Soldiers started training at age 7, and those deemed too weak at birth were left to die in the wilderness.

"The training was brutal," says Palaima. "It would make a Marine training on Parris Island look like a fun time in Disneyland."

Californians do share some Spartan tendencies, although not on the battlefield. Like Californians, Spartans were susceptible to alien hedonism, such as exotic bubble baths, massages, fine wines and designer cheeses. Palaima thinks that Californians could defeat the Spartans in battle if we invited them to Palm Springs or Beverly Hills beforehand, and gave them a corporate expense account.

Given this analysis, the governor may want to take care with his analogies. Still, as Palaima notes, at least he has some appreciation of history. President Bush, on the other hand, can't even get the terminology straight. As Bush once said, "Keep good relations with the Grecians."

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