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Polybius: The bestialization of man by war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

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Polybius
From Histories
Translated by W. R. Paton

Numerous speakers from each nationality now came forward all together, maintaining that the prisoners should be spared at least the infliction of torture in view of Gesco’s previous kindness to them. Nothing, however, they said was intelligible, as they were all speaking together and each stating his views in his own language. But the moment it was disclosed that they were begging for a remission of the sentence someone among the audience called out “Stone them,” and they instantly stoned all the speakers to death. These unfortunates, mangled as if by wild beasts, were carried off for burial by their friends. Spendius and his men then led out from the camp Gesco and the other prisoners, in all about seven hundred. Taking them a short distance away, they first of all cut off their hands, beginning with Gesco, that very Gesco whom a short time previously they had selected from all the Carthaginians, proclaiming him their benefactor and referring the points in dispute to him. After cutting off the hands they cut off the wretched men’s other extremities too, and after thus mutilating them and breaking their legs, threw them still alive into a trench.

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With regard to treatment of prisoners in the future, the mutineers passed a resolution and engaged each other to torture and kill every Carthaginian and send back to the capital with his hands cut off every ally of Carthage, and this practice they continued to observe carefully. No one looking at this would have any hesitation in saying that not only do men’s bodies and certain of the ulcers and tumours afflicting them become so to speak savage and brutalized and quite incurable, but that this is true in a much higher degree of their souls. In the case of ulcers, if we treat them, they are sometimes inflamed by the treatment itself and spread more rapidly, while again if we neglect them they continue, in virtue of their own nature, to eat into the flesh and never rest until they have utterly destroyed the tissues beneath. Similarly such malignant lividities and putrid ulcers often grow in the human soul, that no beast becomes at the end more wicked or cruel than man. In the case of men in such a state, if we treat the disease by pardon and kindness, they think we are scheming to betray them or deceive them, and become more mistrustful and hostile to their would‑be benefactors, but if, on the contrary, we attempt to cure the evil by retaliation they work up their passions to outrival ours, until there is nothing so abominable or so atrocious that they will not consent to do it, imagining all the while that they are displaying a fine courage. Thus at the end they are utterly brutalized and no longer can be called human beings. Of such a condition the origin and most potent cause lies in bad manners and customs and wrong training from childhood, but there are several contributory ones, the chief of which is habitual violence and unscrupulousness on the part of those in authority over them. All these conditions were present in this mercenary force as a whole and especially in their chiefs.

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Hamilcar, like a good draught-player, by cutting off and surrounding large numbers of the enemy, destroyed them without their resisting, while in the more general battles he would sometimes inflict large loss by enticing them into unsuspected ambuscades and sometimes throw them into panic by appearing when they least expected it by day or by night. All those he captured were thrown to the elephants. Finally, taking them by surprise and encamping opposite to them in a position unfavourable for action on their part but favouring his own strong point – generalship – he brought them to such a pass, that not daring to risk a battle and unable to escape, as they were entirely surrounded by a trench and palisade, they were at last driven by famine to eat each other…

Hannibal encamped on the side of the town next Carthage and Hamilcar on the opposite side. Their next step was to take Spendius and the other prisoners up to the walls and crucify them there in the sight of all. Mathos noticed that Hannibal was guilty of negligence and over-confidence, and attacking his camp, put many Carthaginians to the sword and drove them all out of the camp. All the baggage fell into the rebels’ hands and they made Hannibal himself prisoner. Taking him at once to Spendius’ cross they tortured him cruelly there, and then, taking Spendius down from the cross, they crucified Hannibal alive on it and slew round the body of Spendius thirty Carthaginians of the highest rank.

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