Goats, Goatherds, and the Making of History
The list of facts learned, adventures embarked upon, friendships formed, and places seen on this trip is extensive. The last 76 days have been unique in scope and intensity. But how can I summarize? How can I contain such a broad set of experiences into a few paragraphs? Doing so misses the point of it all. Upon returning home, I will inevitably be asked the unrealistically broad question, “How was Greece?” I will not struggle to shove two and a half months of adventure into a tightly wrapped description. Instead, I will tell a story:
This is a story about goats—about what they mean and why they matter. Specifically, it is a tale of our adventures in goat herding on the island of Syros. On a quest to find an archaeological site atop a hill near the coast, we stumbled upon a pen of about 40 goats at the bottom of a rocky valley. Rather than taking a somewhat precipitous detour around the fence, several of us chose to make their way through it. We opened the gates, passed through, and closed them behind us. Ascending up the other side of the valley a few minutes later, professor Faro looked back and let out a gasp at the sight of several dozen goats stampeding through the gate and flooding into the valley. It had been shut but not tied fast. Within a matter of seconds, the entire livelihood of a local goatherd was escaping to the sea.
Almost instantly, Jason sprinted off in an attempt to contain them. I dropped my backpack and followed soon after, taking position 20m up the north side of the east-west valley to head them off. They turned right, now heading southeast towards the coastal plain where they would have kilometers of open terrain in front of them. In a burst of inhuman speed which only a Nemean Games champion could muster, Jason bolted up a hill near the coast—covering a couple hundred meters on rocky, sloped, thorny ground—and contained the goats within the valley. By this time, Johnson had caught up and positioned himself on a separate hill near the coast. Faro, Ben, and I approached from farther back in the valley.
Slowly, surely, Jason pushed the herd back towards us. Johnson contained them from the northeast, I held the hills to the north, Faro blocked the south, and Ben ran back to open the gate. They had nowhere to go but back west, into the valley. There were five of us (two in sandals), 40 goats (excellent climbers), and several hundred square meters of rough, craggy, hilly space to contain. Methodically, calmly, Jason worked them west. Speaking softly to the goats in an attempt to keep them calm, and restraining the rest of us when we got too aggressive or shouted too loudly, he maintained the quiet confidence of a true leader. Meter by meter, we flowed west.
Twice, we almost lost the herd to the northern hills. It took a high-speed dash from me and an impressive diagonal climb up a steep hill from Ben to keep them contained. Faro kept the southern hills blockaded, and Johnson fell in next to Jason to keep them from doubling back. Finally, the moment arrived. The goats were clustered just meters from the open gate. Some tried to flee to the northwest hills, but Ben barely headed them off. Others turned back east, but Johnson and Jason held them in place and crept forward slowly. Then in a rush of movement, they flowed, one by one, west, into the gate. We secured it safely behind them. About six goats were lost, but we returned the vast majority to their pen.
Jason’s actions on the hills of Syros reinforced an idea that I had been pondering for much of the FSP. We are defined not by what we think or how we feel, not even by trends in our behavior over time. It is our actions in the moment—the split-second decision to be brave, run away, give up, or try harder—that defines us at that moment. People can change. Those who think themselves bold and brag about their valiance may fold under pressure. Those who sit quietly on the sidelines may find courage previously unknown to them. The empathetic may abandon their sympathy. The jaded may become compassionate. The world is not driven by the planners and schemers, though they are important. It is driven by the hard workers, lovers, soldiers, teachers, and leaders who see a moment of need, set aside their reservations, and simply do what needs to be done.
What does all this have to do with Classical Studies? It is something I realized while standing at the pass of Thermopylae, where 7000 Greeks held off an invading army of about 200,000 Persians for three days in 480 B.C. It is easy to stand apart from history, to study it as an observer who is temporally and spatially distant. It is easy to joke around about the lives of those who have been dead for a few millennia, to produce movies like 300 and video games like Age of Empires. However, we should always remember that the deeds of people like the soldiers at Thermopylae—just like the actions of those in Iraq or Afghanistan today—were exactly the sort of in-the-moment decisions I mentioned above. We do not award a Medal of Honor for thinking about valiance or a Purple Heart for being willing to risk injury. Men like those at Thermopylae do not become great because of their plans, emotions, or thoughts. They become great because, in the moment when it really matters, they do what needs to be done. We would do well to remember that the decisions of those who came long before us were as immediate, important, and deeply personal as the decisions we make today.
History is about action, not intention. Those of us who hope to change its course should remember that lesson.