Monday, April 26, 2021

Lions and tigers and technocrats.

The great writer, Daniel Mendelsohn, has a very short piece in last week's New Yorker magazine that is well worth the time it will take you to read it. Because the New Yorker lives behind a pay-wall, and because the piece is so short, I'm pasting it below. So that I don't get sued by the august magazine, next time you see an issue at a newsstand, buy a copy and tell 'em George sent you. It's the very least you can do to support journalism.

The piece is set 203 years ago and involves an English architect named George Ledwell Taylor. He's out to explore the ruins of an ancient town called Chaeronea, in central Greece.

His horse stumbles on a stone in the roadway. On closer inspection, Taylor discovers the "stone" is a part of a monumental sculpture of a lion's head. The head alone is nearly six-feet high.

The monument was a commemoration of a battle of 300 Thebans. They were known as the Sacred Band and they were regarded as most-feared warriors in all of Greece, until they were utterly destroyed by Philip of Macedon (and his son Alexander the Great) in 338 BC.

Here's the bit of the story that really got me--and Mendelsohn:

"The Band was composed entirely of lovers: precisely a hundred and fifty couples, whose valor, so the Greeks thought, was due to the fact that no man would ever exhibit cowardice or act dishonorably in front of his beloved. In Plato’s 
Symposium, a dialogue about love, a character remarks that an army made up of such lovers would 'conquer all mankind.'" 

Last week an old friend who has his own eponymous agency called me to help him on a new business pitch. I was really too busy to do too much, but we talked for a few hours on the phone and worked for a few hours on our own, sharing ideas along the way.

On Friday, I got an email from my friend and a Zoom invite from his business partner. I assumed that that meant they had won the business--and were celebrating.

I felt a little abashed by all this. I had really done nothing at all. If we were a baseball team, I would have been a batboy to a line-up of Mantle, Maris, Berra and Howard. Nonetheless, though I had contributed nothing to the win, when my other three-o'clock call was pushed back, I dialed into this one.

It's a funny and magical thing to witness camaraderie and cohesion. Even though every business has competition and rivalry and hors d' ouvres of hand-picked sour grapes--I'm sure the "Sacred Band" did too, it's wonderful when all that is put to one side and the entirety of that band--in this case a small agency--rolls up their sleeves, sweats the details, laughs, cries, yells and comforts and carries the day. 

That's an army of lovers--lovers of what we do--that can conquer all humankind.

I'm not sure how much of the management of the giant holding companies who control roughly 75% of the world's agency ad dollars understands this. When they win a big account, I'm not sure that they celebrate the blood, sweat, toil and tears as much as they celebrate the euros, drachmas and dollars.

But seeing people who love what they do, as Plato remarked in his Symposium, might be enough to do what the giant technocrat-run holding companies can't. Because, chances are they don't understand it at all.

Or as Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It ain't the 397 offices in 4537 countries, the 44027 shortlists or any hogwash like that that make an agency worth. The best agencies--whether they're large and holding-companied, or small and independent, or one person and a pencil, are the ones who bring love--to brands, to ideas, to getting things done.

It has been ever thus.

In June, 1818, during a visit to central Greece, a young English architect named George Ledwell Taylor went out riding with some friends in order to explore the ruins of an ancient town called Chaeronea. As Taylor’s party neared its destination, his horse took a “fearful stumble,” as he later recalled, on a stone in the roadway; on further inspection, he saw that the stone was, in fact, part of a sculpture. Energetic digging eventually revealed an animal head nearly six feet high—or, as Taylor put it, a “colossal head of the Lion.”

That definite article and the capital “L” are crucial. Taylor realized that he had uncovered a famous monument, mentioned in some historical sources but since lost, known as the Lion of Chaeronea. The Englishman had been studying a work called “The Description of Greece,” by Pausanias, a geographer of the second century A.D., which states that the gigantic figure of the sitting animal had been erected to commemorate a remarkable military unit that had perished there. The lion, Pausa­nias surmised, represented “the spirit of the men.”


The unit to which those men belonged was known as the Sacred Band. Comprising three hundred warriors from the city of Thebes, it was among the most fearsome fighting forces in Greece, undefeated until it was wiped out at the Battle of Chaeronea, in 338 B.C.—an engagement during which Philip of Macedon and his son, the ­future Alexander the Great, crushed a coalition of Greek city-states led by Athens and Thebes. Scholars see Chaeronea as the death knell of the Classi­cal Era of Greek history.

Others might find the story interesting for different reasons. Not the least of these is that the Band was composed entirely of lovers: precisely a hundred and fifty couples, whose valor, so the Greeks thought, was due to the fact that no man would ever exhibit cowardice or act dishonorably in front of his beloved. In Plato’s Symposium, a dialogue about love, a character remarks that an army made up of such lovers would “conquer all mankind.”

Sixty years after George Taylor’s horse stumbled, further excavations revealed a large rectangular burial site near the Lion. Drawings that were made at the site show seven rows of skeletons, two hundred and fifty-four in all. For “The Sacred Band” (Scribner), a forthcoming book by the classicist James Romm, the illustrator Markley Boyer collated those nineteenth-century drawings to produce a reconstruction of the entire mass grave. Black marks indicate wounds. A number of warriors were buried with arms linked; if you look closely, you can see that some were holding hands. 

Published in the print edition of the April 19, 2021, issue, with the headline “Band of Brothers.”

Daniel Mendelsohn, the editor-at-large of the New York Review of Books, teaches at Bard. His most recent book is “Three Rings.”


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