In the ancient world, if your city was defeated in war you could expect to be either killed or enslaved. I want you to imagine that. Unless you were exceptionally well-traveled this would mean the end of everything you’ve ever known. Let’s think in modern terms for a moment: every house, shop, restaurant, car dealership, movie theater, church, bank, and law court you’ve ever seen — leveled, or if not leveled at least put under new management and forever beyond your grasp. Your neighbor — I want you to imagine his face — has been killed before your eyes by an armored phalanx of men with spears. The same men raped his wife (along with any suitable daughters), possibly with the man’s body still bleeding out on the floor of the same room. If they’re lucky, the daughters are now carted off to spend the rest of their lives as somebody’s kept concubines, while any sons get to look forward to bound servitude in a copper mine.
You can guess what your fate would be.
Don’t imagine I mention these things to criticize the ancient world — not in the least! But a few more thoughts before I tie these things together.
It’s fairly well-known that in the Second World War the supposedly hyper-modern Wehrmacht depended on horses instead of trucks to transport their heavy equipment. Common sight behind the front line to see a team of horses towing a German 105 mm howitzer. Almost like something from Napoleon’s time. We can easily see this as an indicator of stretched resources, if not outright desperation on account of scant German fuel reserves. The Panzers have to get the fuel before the trucks, right? Still, fuel-rich British and American officers would never have dreamed of letting horses do the job of a truck or halftrack.
And if you take that as a measure of desperation, what about cases where soldiers — German and otherwise — ate their horses? It happened, you know. Stalingrad, along with other places.
Seems you can gauge desperation by the types of animals you’re willing to eat. If you’re eating fried chicken, beef stew, and bacon and eggs we can say you’re doing all right. If you’re eating your horse you’ve reached a point where starvation is a real possibility. Especially if you’re a soldier who’s campaigned with that horse for years — it’s likely your horse has saved your life more than once. And now you’re asking your old friend to save your life one last time.
Pure survival has become the priority, in other words.
So it’s not at all insignificant what people are and are not willing to eat to survive. And I don’t think it’ll come to a shock to anyone that under truly desperate circumstances I can imagine myself eating a horse. Probably you can imagine yourself doing the same.
But would you ever eat… a cockroach?
A friend recently informed me that in certain countries, cockroaches are actually farmed as food. Apparently they like them dried or put into soup. A nice cockroach soup… yummy!
(Those are the same countries, by the way, where it’s not uncommon to find things like bats and pangolins in wet markets.)
I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine being so desperate for survival that I’d eat a cockroach. Mere survival isn’t important enough to subject myself to such disgusting humiliation. I’d sooner eat another human being… although I hope I’d be willing to starve rather than turn cannibal.
(Cockroaches are cannibals, by the way. One of the most effective strategies to exterminate them is to fill one up with slow-acting poison. This way it gets back to the nest before dropping dead, at which time its cohorts devour it, poisoning themselves in the process.)
But some people eat cockroaches like it’s nothing. And say what you will, but I’ll hardcore judge anybody who would do that. Sometimes death is better than a degrading kind of survival.
Which, by the way, is a choice the citizens of doomed cities would sometimes make in the ancient world. Rather than submit to the prolonged degradation of a life of enslavement, whole cities would commit suicide en masse once final defeat was imminent. It’s the clearest possible case of Live Free or Die.
We are not ancient people. Our problems are not as vivid and clear-cut as theirs. But today, just as much as two thousand years ago, a human being worthy of the name would rather die than submit to a degraded life.
If it comes to it, I hope I prove to be a human being worthy of the name.