The knowledge base of history

A nasty deal. Jephthah slaying his daughter as a result of vowing to God that he would sacrifice whatever came out of his house first if he was granted a victory over the Ammonites.

Cicero believed that history is the teacher of life, in his own words the magistra vitae, a source of wisdom providing both exemples to follow and admonitions to heed. Perhaps more of the latter than of the former.

If you’ve managed to steer clear of Scylla and Charybdis, you may still pass beneath the Caudine yoke. And if you’ve avoided that too, then you may still leave your dreams and indeed your life on a Procrustean bed. Never trust a Pyrrhic victory, you will surely lose the war.

If you’re not careful what deal you broker with the gods, you may end up sacrificing your child, as Agamemnon gave up Iphigenia in exchange for naval fuel, or Jephthah his daughter Iphis for the sake of a military victory. Always read the fine print, whether you’re a Greek polytheist king or an Israelite monotheist judge.

Ancient history and mythology are a depository of warnings born out of things gone wrong. It’s always easier to learn from the mistakes of others rather than from their achievements. Warnings are universally applicable and have a long lifespan. Achievements are anchored in time and space and are seldom serviceable beyond their narrow context. Tragedy has always sold better than victory dances. Tragedy, that distillation of human wisdom and the pursuit of self-knowledge (at the cost of death to the individual) ages better than a general’s triumphant return from battle – unless that general gets assassinated a while later.

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