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Civilization's First Attack Ads

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If you've missed Rudy Giuliani's 9-11 exploitation ads or waited anxiously for Swiftboaters to start running some shadowy Bin Laden video, this 2008 Democratic primary is for you! At the rate it's devolving, voters in South Dakota and Montana can look forward to Deal or No Deal getting interrupted by footage of Hitler at the Reichstag--with Obama.

All the ridiculous sniping got me wondering how politicians went after one another before television. It turns out the Ancient Greeks--inventors of Democracy--may also have invented the first smear tactic: the attack poem.

Don't laugh. Poetry was primarily spoken, not written, back then, and it was often recited publicly. A well-timed poetic assault in front of the right audience could do some serious damage to one's rival. Archilochus, a soldier and renowned poet in the 7th Century BC, had such a gift for these attacks that it's said he drove a rival--and his entire family--to hang themselves. His verse was nasty enough to get him banned from Sparta. Just how how nasty could Archilochus get? Here's a poem he directed at a rival (all translations are from Brooks Haxton's book Dances for Flute and Thunder from Viking Press):

Swept overboard, unconscious in the breakers,

strangled with seaweed, may you wake up in a gelid

surf, your teeth, already cracked into the shingle,

now set rattling by the wind, while facedown,

helpless as a poisoned cur, on all fours you puke

brine reeking of dead fish. May those you meet,

barbarians as ugly as their souls are hateful,

treat you to the moldy wooden bread of slaves.

And may you, with your split teeth sunk in that,

smile, then, the way you did when speaking as my friend.

Such attacks weren't an uncommon practice. Even the kinder, gentler--though no less passionate--poet Sappho (7th-6th Century BC), lashed out at her enemies:

Dead, no thought of you from anyone

who wants or wishes anything,

no one word said concerning you, forgotten,

wavering beyond extinction, may you be

unseen, and restless there, among the corpses.

In a particularly vicious (and effective) political attack, Timokreon of Rhodes (5th Century BC) wrote the following lines about Themistokles, a hero in the Athenians' war against the Persian Empire. Off the battlefield, not everyone held Themistokles in such high regard. Here's Timokreon's attack:

Themistokles--who kept Timokreon his former host in exile,

and who helped his fellow thieves, hurt friends, and murdered

anyone you like, for money--first was ostracized,

and then, before he killed himself in shame, set up

an inn for scum and losers, whom he served cold meat.

There, at his own table, lowlife daily cursed his name.

It's the textual equivalent of stabbing someone on the forum floor. Simonides, a friend of Themistokles, struck back at Timokreon after his death with the following epitaph:

Having eaten much, drunk much, and said much ill

of many men, here lies Timokreon of Rhodes.

I guess it's heartening to know that politics hasn't deteriorated much since Ancient Greece. If anything, it's gotten more civil (and probably less artful). How might the old attack poem look today? Here's my best shot:

Barack--who kept me from my rightful nomination,

who would not wear flag pins, and called many men

bitter--long ago he crossed paths with scum and losers:

a thief, a former Weatherman and a crazed preacher

who said "God Damn America." He's also Muslim,

some say, though I take him at his word.

And, of course, the responding epitaph:

Having spent much, won...not so much, and said much ill

of one man, here lies Hillary's campaign.

Here's hoping we can use that last one soon.

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