I’m delighted to announce, first, the return of my podcast, ANTIQUITAS: Leaders and Legends of the Ancient World. The first episode of the new season, “How to Win a War,” was uploaded on Thursday, June 1. Thanks, everyone for making the launch such a success: the listener response has been great. If you haven’t heard it, ANTIQUITAS is available on Apple, Spotify, and my website, among other platforms. Stay tuned for additional episodes in June.
I was planning to write about Cleopatra this week, but I ask your pardon for a postponement until next time. The sad news came, the week before last, of the death of Claudia Rosett, an extraordinary journalist whom I was lucky to call a friend.
Claudia had many achievements as a reporter, for which she won many awards. She blew the whistle on the Oil-for-Food corruption scandal at the United Nations. She took the lead on reporting the truth of Chinese repression in Hong Kong. She covered Russia’s war in Chechnya. But perhaps she is best known for her reporting on the Tiananmen Massacre.
As editorial page editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal, Claudia was based in Hong Kong. In 1989, when Hong Kong was still under British rule, a protest movement in favor of freedom broke out in China. When she got the news about the protests, Claudia hurried to Beijing. There she risked machine-gun fire to cover the repression of the young people in the capital’s Tiananmen Square, where the government sent in the army on June 4. Estimates of the number of people killed range from several hundred to several thousand, but the true figures will never be known.
"There is an ever more urgent need for America’s leaders to stand up to our enemies, and defend our rights and freedoms."
Claudia’s report about the massacre ended with these words:
No doubt when the Chinese government has finished dealing with its people, the tidy square will be presented again as a suitable site for tourists, visiting dignitaries and the Chinese public to come honor the heroes of China’s glorious revolution. It will be important then to remember the heroes of 1989, the people who cried out so many times these past six weeks, “Tell the world what we want. Tell the truth about China.”
Claudia was brilliant. She was astute, eloquent, and fearless. She had a wonderful sense of humor, and I can imagine her laughing at the thought of being compared to Cleopatra. The Egyptian queen and the American journalist shared courage and intelligence. But they couldn’t have been more different on the most important point. Cleopatra was a monarch who repressed opposition bloodily. Claudia was a lover of freedom. She spoke for the oppressed against tyranny. She reminds me of another figure from antiquity: Antigone.
Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone, presents the title character, a young woman. She defies, Creon, the tyrant of Thebes. He decreed that no one could bury Antigone’s brother because he had been killed in a rebellion while leading an attack on Thebes. Creon’s forces defeated the rebels. In vengeance, he ruled that their bodies be left out for the dogs and vultures.
Antigone wouldn’t stand for it. She sprinkles dust on her brother’s body, is caught in the act, and is brought before the tyrant. He confronts her and she makes no attempt to hide what she did. Antigone says:
I declare it and make no denial.
Creon asks her if she knew that he had forbidden the burial. Antigone responds defiantly:
Yes, since it was not Zeus that published me that edict, and since not of that kind are the laws which Justice who dwells with the gods below established among men. Nor did I think that your decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes given us by the gods. ... Not for fear of any man's pride was I about to owe a penalty to the gods for breaking these.
Creon accuses Antigone of breaking with public opinion, but she will have none of that. She says of her fellow citizens:
All here would admit that they approve, if fear did not grip their tongues. But tyranny, blest with so much else, has the power to do and say whatever it pleases.
Antigone pays for her courage with her life.
Antigone was without fear in her defense of the right. She didn’t hesitate to stand up to tyranny. As a result, she lives on as a symbol of freedom. Men too fight for freedom, but Antigone’s gender makes her courage more poignant. Because women are generally less physically strong than men, they stand out when they defend freedom.
So, Claudia. In a published piece in April, Claudia dissected Vladimir Putin’s attempt to pressure the U.S. government by arresting Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich on a charge of spying. As she points out, this is the first time that Russia has arrested an American journalist since the end of the Cold War. She concludes:
There is an ever more urgent need for America’s leaders to stand up to our enemies, and defend our rights and freedoms.
Claudia was a woman of valor. She and her husband, Tim Wilson, a retired British army officer, made an extraordinary couple. Whenever my wife and I enjoyed their hospitality in their home in the Finger Lakes, it was always a whirlwind of politics, poetry, passion, and just plain fun.
To Tim, I extend the deepest sympathy. To Claudia, I say, to quote the poet,
ATQUE IN PERPETUUM, AVE ATQUE VALE.