Thursday, July 10, 2014


The walls of Thebes sprang up of yore
to the sound of the lyre of Amphion.
                           The historian Knickerbocker

It is very old fashioned to call Khufu a cruel tyrant for making 100,000 fellahin, or peasants, work twenty years on his tomb. Scholars say he worked them only during the three months of the flood season, when they were not engaged in agriculture and were likely to find themselves at a loose end and get into mischief. The Egyptian lower classes were very immoral, always drinking or something. Thus, Khufu was doing them a favor by keeping their minds occupied and the whole affair was more or less one big picnic. At the same time, the exercise developed their characters and taught them the dignity of labor. The majority of pyramid workers were not slaves, as we used to be told. They were free men with rights and privileges specified in the Constitution.

The historian Cuppy

We work beneath the earth and above it, under a roof and in the rain, with the spade, the pickax and the crowbar.  We carry huge sacks of cement, lay bricks, put down rails, spread gravel, trample the earth . . . . We are laying the foundations for some new, monstrous civilization. Only now do I realize what price was paid for building the ancient civilizations. The Egyptian pyramids, the temples, and Greek statues—what a hideous crime they were! How much blood must have poured onto the Roman roads, the bulwarks, and the city walls. Antiquity—the tremendous concentration-camp where the slave was branded on the forehead by his master, and crucified for trying to escape! Antiquity—the conspiracy of free men against slaves!

You know how much I used to like Plato. Today I realize he lied. For the things of this world are not a reflection of the ideal, but a product of human sweat, blood and hard labor. It is we who built the pyramids, hewed the marble for the temples and the rocks for the imperial roads, we who pulled the oars in the galleys and dragged wooden plows, while they wrote dialogues and dramas, rationalized their intrigues by appeals in the name of the Fatherland, made wars over boundaries and democracies.  We were filthy and died real deaths. They were "esthetic" and carried on subtle debates.

There can be no beauty if it is paid for by human injustice, nor truth that passes over injustice in silence, nor moral virtue that condones it.

What does ancient  history say about us? It knows the crafty slave from Terence and Plautus, it knows the people's tribunes, the brothers Gracchi, and the name of one slave—Spartacus.

They are the ones who have made history, yet the murderer—Scipio—the lawmakers—Cicero or Demosthenes—are the men remembered today. We rave over the exterminatiion of the Etruscans, the destruction of Carthage, over treason, deceit, plunder. Roman law! Yes, today too there is a law!

If the Germans win the war, what will the world know about us? They will erect huge buildings, highways, factories, soaring monuments. Our hands will be placed under every brick, and our backs will carry the steel rails and the slabs of concrete. They will kill off our families, our sick, our aged. They will murder our children.

And we shall be forgotten, drowned out by the voices of the poets, the jurists, the philosophers, the priests. They will produce their own beauty, virtue and truth. They will produce religion.

Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

'Who built Thebes of the seven gates?" Bertold Brecht's "literate worker" was already asking. The sources tell us nothing about these anonymous masons, but the question retains all its significance.

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time. 
Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime? 
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime; 
Once I built a tower, now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?


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