Greek paddle used to strike at the bare buttocks of a freshman in Fraternity Houses
The smallest unit in the Roman military in the 1st Century BC, was a platoon known as a conturbenium, which had a centurion who had eight legionnaires under his command. The conturbenium had a particularly gruesome initiation ceremony for fresh recruits. The rookie had to display his willingness to shed blood. Since Rome was constantly at war, the opportunities were always numerous.
First, all the rookie’s worldly belongings, his bedroll and his cash (and maybe a tiny jar of goat cheese that his momma had made for him), were confiscated by the centurion and held, to be handed over if he survived the initiation. If he didn’t, the centurion simply got to keep the stuff.
The rookie was brought into a clearing where his adversary was already waiting – a captured POW, usually an already wounded poor bastard. It was to be a fight to finish, one between a battle-hardened, but wounded enemy grunt versus a rookie. The deal – if the POW won, he would be freed and if the rookie prevailed, he might get to call himself a legionnaire. I say ‘might’ because there was another tiny item in the initiation procedure – the rookie had to slash, chop and eviscerate the dead man, tear his heart out and stomp on it with his thonged feet.
Jeeze, I could never be a legionnaire, unless the Romans changed their initiation procedures to something benign, like poker or sex. In fact in BC Rome, there was no place for guys like me.
Take it even further back a few centuries, around 500-350BC and you have the Spartans, with the most disciplined military in the ancient world and a way of life that was, you guessed it, Spartan. Being born a male Spartan meant you couldn’t sit under a tree and draw pencil sketches. A Spartan man joined the military at age six, no kidding, and he lived in army barracks till he was 30, an age that very few actually got to see, so constantly were they at war.
Imagine you were a Spartan male infant. The initiation process began that early. First you would have to survive the culling. You were brought before a panel of physicians and examined for any defects. If you were found to have anything in your appearance that looked funny, you were ‘tossed inside a chasm at the foot of the Mount Taygetus’ according to the 1st century historian Plutarch.
Say you passed inspection; you still didn’t quite qualify to say ‘phew, that was close’. You were still under observation, by none other than your very own parents. If you cried, you got hit. If you showed any soft and mushy demeanor, it was beaten out of you. To bathe, you would be dunked inside a tub filled with ice-cold water. Spartan women were in fact so good at building ‘tough kids’ that they were much sought after in the ancient world, as nurses and nannies.
At 6, you were taken away from home, to begin the agoge, a state-sponsored training regimen designed to mold you into not only a skilled warrior and but also an ethical and moral citizen. Housed in communal barracks, you would be schooled in warfare, stealth, hunting, athletics, morality and ethics. Learning not just to kill but how to kill with honor was important. For example, if your opponent dropped his sword, you waited till he picked it up, before you took a swipe at him. I lied. That’s not true. If your opponent dropped his sword, tough shit. You skewered him. Period. Spartans were Spartans, not schmucks.
At age 12, you went into a training regimen that would be the envy of a Special Forces command anywhere in the world. You roughed it out with your buddies in the wild and trained to survive at all costs. The life inside the agoge was a vicious free-for-all. You were expected to show fearlessness with every breath and were constantly challenged to show how you handled pain, cold and hunger.
If you backed off from a fight or from performing a hazardous training routine that could get you killed, you were ridiculed and beaten by not only your supervisor but also your peers. To heighten the shame, your Spartan tutors even brought in girls, to jeer at you and make fun of you. I wonder how they said ‘boo’ those days. Bookusmicus?
Sparta had rituals and rituals, all designed to do just one thing – turn you into a tough guy. One ritual, diamastigosis, was an annual practice of flogging with whips that were encrusted with crushed glass. It was meant to be a test of your resistance to pain. The chances were even that you would not survive the test, given the flesh-tearing severity of the whiplashes.
Sparta’s education system left you with no other choice than to stand up and take it. Living a soldier’s life was the only option for young Spartan men who wished to become equal citizens, the other alternative being one in which there was only a 20/80 chance of your survival – back-breaking work inside the arsenic-laced gold and silver mines or in monument construction, hazardous work that could get you killed very easily, besides paying you just enough to be able to barely survive. Anyway, 50/50 is better than 20/80, no? So you tried your best to stay with the military. Sparta had no time for losers.
We have always been creatures of blood lust and we always shall remain so. To and from work, sometimes I pass a serious accident and try to slow down so I can catch sight of the occupants of the smashed car. If I am late and the bodies have already been cleared, I feel strangely let down, like I miss a spectacle. I am not alone.
We all hate violence but can’t wait to watch the latest episode of ‘Dexter’, ‘CSI’ or ‘Law and Order’, TV serials that are known to depict graphic violence. Likewise, crash videos, police cruiser dashboard videos, drone camera strike movies are some of the most often seen videos on YouTube. 10 most horrific car crashes, mid-air collision and all sorts of gruesome compilations teem on the internet.
Ancient Romans are considered barbaric, going by today’s standards but likewise, if you happen to be watching an NHL hockey game a millennium later, you will see two teams slugging it out and call that barbaric. You will grimace as you watch a fight break out, with the fans up on their feet, gone wild. While cameras roll, you will see referees step aside and let the blood flow onto the ice, making it look like some macabre kulfi-faluda spread. The refs will wait for a pre-programmed period of time for the media and the crowds to satiate their thirst for violence and then, as if on cue, proceed to break it up before someone got killed.
However, deep within us things won’t change one bit since the days of the gladiators. Watching others being humiliated will remain the spectacle of spectacles. Being maimed and even killed for the entertainment of others, will continue to be the ultimate humiliation. In a few Islamic nations even today, justice remains medieval. In order to provide the public with a lesson in deterrence and also a means of entertainment, executions are public. For us in the west, the sight of a condemned person being stoned to death is something unimaginably horrific, going far beyond the crime, if any had been committed at all.
Roman entertainment was a horrendously violent event. The gladiatorial muneras could leave any 21st century human being with untreatable PTSD. The rich sponsors held the extravaganzas to show off their authority and power, while the commoners went there to feel some worth within the society they lived in, secure in the knowledge that even though they were in the bottommost rung of the Roman social totem pole, they were still above those poor sods in the arena. Gladiatorial muneras were in fact an extreme form of hazing, with the gladiator who prevailed, leaving the arena feeling the same as the guy who survived hazing.
Which brings me to hazing in modern times, an initiation ritual that has been in vogue in the so-called Greek Letter Societies within American (and some Canadian) universities. They are so called because their names contain exclusively, letters from the Greek alphabet.
The first Greek letter organization was Phi Beta Kappa, believed to have been established in 1776. It started as a secret whites-only brotherhood, bound by rituals and tradition where one had to be seconded and then initiated, in order to become a member, in much the same way that one gets to be a Freemason, a Klansman or even a made guy in the Cosa Nostra, except that the Greek letter societies (known as Fraternities for boys and Sororities for girls), had university students as members.
In the beginning, the Fraternities (Frats, for short) had lofty ideals – charity work and community service based on Christian beliefs, besides enlightened debate for the betterment of the society at large. Today, those Christian traditions have been discarded for drug and alcohol-filled binges and horrendously disgusting hazing. Only their so-called core missions, often seen printed on fancy stationary, remain in the form of fetching logos, badges and letterheads. ‘Friendship, justice and learning’, says Sigma Chi, while Phi Gamma Delta’s moto is ‘Friendship, Knowledge, Service, Morality, Excellence’. The Spartans made similar commitments, the difference being that they kept them.
Frats have been in the news frequently, for all the wrong reasons. As in ancient times, the hazing of a fresher is a very violent spectator sport, practiced with exactly the same purpose as what the Romans and the Spartans had in mind – humiliation. The depravity is horrendous – flogging, beating, slashing, water overdose, water boarding, alcohol overdose, urination, smearing feces, sodomy and last but not the least – paddling, a ritual that is said to have been first established at the ancient Spartans’ military academies. Hand-carved and monogrammed wooden paddles, like the one shown above, are used.
Freshmen (called ‘pledges’) being whacked with a paddle in ritualistic hazing. In the background is the standard of the Omega Pi fraternity, inside a gold-bordered Teutonic cross. A sorriest bunch of knights of the covenant that you’ll ever get to see (Wikimedia)
Since 2005, 60 students have died from one of the above forms of hazing in the US. Yet, Frat Houses are not banned and there is a reason for that –
Today’s Fraternities are very powerful, even more powerful than the universities themselves. Higher education in America run like everything else in America – a multi-billion dollar business – and it’s main clients are the students. Whole armies of professors, administrators, secretaries, staff, coaches, janitors, cafeteria workers, nurses, trainers, lab technicians, security guards, counsellors and professionals in hundreds of other categories, depend upon the students’ fees for their livelihoods. I am not even mentioning the multi-million dollar student loan industry
For all the above to justify their existence, the universities need to attract that ever-renewable resource – fee-paying students. In order to be able to sustain the frenetic pace of admissions, therefore, the universities have to make living and studying in them look like a lot of ‘fun’. There is no way fraternities are going to be abolished.
There is another compelling reason for frat houses to be around. For some inexplicable reason, fraternities seem to breed leaders. As alumni, they boast – 69% of all US Presidents since 1877, 85% of all Supreme Court justices since 1910, 63% of all US Presidential cabinet members, 76% of Senators, 25% of Fortune500 CEOs and 96% of all American members of the Bildeburg Conference.
Looking at the stats above, one would immediately jump to the conclusion that Fraternities must be doing something right, to be able to spawn such a high percentage of successful people.
I would dispute that, for two reasons.
First – Perhaps the reason why fraternities breed so many leaders is simple – they really aren’t leader material, only made to look so. America is the only country whose political and business leaders have created a business and governance model that virtually guarantees collapse every fifty years. No fewer than twice within a span of a century, they have managed to bring the American economy to it’s knees and brought down along with it, that of the world as a whole. Real leaders wouldn’t let such things happen.
Second – Fraternities have helped to create an old-boy network, perched on an impregnable fortress of patronage and greed. They have actually stifled innovation and aided in the widening of income disparity.
Only a fraternity could have sent a George W. Bush to the White House.