Monday, August 18, 2014

Writing the emperor

A poet named Florus wrote a letter to Hadrian, emperor of Rome from 117-138 (source), and Hadrian replied. An ordinary citizen wrote an emperor, and got a written reply. An emperor's power and responsibilities make an American president seem feeble, btw.

Florus to Hadrian:
    I don't want to be a Caesar,
    Stroll about among the Britons,
    Lurk about among the...
    And endure the Scythian winters
Hadrian's reply:
    I don't want to be a Florus,
    Stroll about among the taverns,
    Lurk about among the cook-shops
    And endure the round fat insects
A couple of statues of Hadrian are below, and I'd like to mention something interesting about Roman statuary, and also explain my interest in this ancient culture. Rome is known to us, among other things, by its white marble statues, things that now stand in museums around the world. Despite the iconic white marble of the statues, they were never white. The base material, marble, was white, but the statues were always painted in a lifelike manner, with many realistic colors. The sculptors were famous and wealthy, as is well known, but the painters were famous as well. Our perception of Rome has been diminished, or at least suffers an inaccuracy, by looking at white-marble statues, when, in fact, they looked realistic at the time of creation. Even the columns were painted. Time eroded the paint, but not the base material. We need to be careful with our inferences.

As for Roman culture, and the people who populated it... they were 1700 years ahead of the rest of human development. That alone makes them worth studying. They are worth emulating, too, minus the obvious mistakes. None of that is exaggerated. The Romans had ships in the 1st century that carried 700 tons of cargo, and 300+ people, and routinely made passages of 1200 miles non-stop. That's roughly the distance from northwest Africa to the horn of South America. That wasn't a trade route, but two Roman ships did, in fact, arrive in South America in the 1st century AD, intact. One was discovered off the coast of Venezuela, and another off Brazil.

Most aspects of the culture, down to the anchors of those great ships, were not duplicated until just a couple of hundred years ago. A lot of historians have recently disputed the moniker Dark Ages, which generally refers to when the Romans disappeared (Western Empire), but don't believe it. The Dark Ages were far brighter than we've been taught, perhaps, but the the light of Rome really did shine on the Western world, and by comparison everything went dark for at least 1700 years after that light ceased to shine. Any westerner who doubts this can look to language. These people are still with us: July refers to Julius Caesar's favorite time of year, so he renamed a month after himself. July is for Julius, plain and simple, and true. His adopted son Octavian, who attained the title Augustus, claimed a month for himself, which we call August. We're in August. Think about that. Will there be a Reagan month 2000 years from now? Not a chance.

The rest of our months are misnamed because of these two Roman people. September means seventh month, but it's the ninth month. October means eight, but it's our 10th month. November comes from nones, which means nine in Latin, but it's our 11th month. December is obvious, meaning 10, yet it's our 12th month. This is because two real Roman people had the power and influence to insert two months into an existing calendar, which is our calendar, and  let the rest of the months ride (Rome had 10 months until Julius, July, and his adopted son Augustus, August). Who since then has had such influence, or power? Such impact on the world? Genghis Kahn, Alexander the Great, Gandhi, George Washington? Nope. Nobody has marked the world like these people, at least the Western world, and it was more than power and influence -- it was impact.. Also of note, the Romans only respected one culture, and that was the Greeks, another culture worth studying. Personally, I believe the ancient Chinese are worth studying for their independent advancements in many areas.

Ships and anchors, calendars, architecture, engineering, statuary, military, a democratic system of government, and no less than 1000 other things, are only the tips of gigantic Roman icebergs. To sound arrogant, although provable, the United Sates is many decades ahead of the rest of the world, and we're nothing compared to Rome. Iran sent a monkey into space three years ago, something the Soviet Union and the USA did decades ago. The Soviet Union, the first in space, has failed in 7 of 10 attempts to Mars, where the USA has been successful 9 of 10. The Ruskies are our closest competitors in space, and they're not even close, despite Sputnik. Arrogant or not, facts are stubborn things (heh), and reality cannot be denied. Statistics don't lie -- the USA is great by every measure conceived by man, but this only has meaning compared to other cultures. As much as I can discuss -- and prove -- American greatness, we are nothing next to Rome, if "greatness" is defined by comparison to others. That's a big "if", but there it is.

One of countless examples: our GPS constellation is mature, and the ESA Gallileo constellation is only now halfway deployed. Good for them, but remember who preceded that by a few decades. America preceded the Europeans by a long ways. This is especially meaningful because the Europeans are a great people by every measure except one: comparison to us. Now think about who preceded everyone by almost 2000 years. By my own metrics, the USA is the greatest country now in existence, present leadership excepted, but by my own metrics, we are very small and unimportant compared to the Romans. Now, 2000 years after the most important events of Rome, I wonder who will remember us in 2000 years. Nobody, probably. Hopefully, we'll be mentioned in history books, but I think that's all we can hope for -- first nation founded on personal, guaranteed liberty (1776), development of the first integrated circuit (Texas Instruments, 1958), the Moon landing (NASA, July 1969), and the microcomputer revolution and Internet (1970s). What else has the USA done that will be remembered in 2000 years? Our achievements are 50 years, or at least 20 years, ahead of our closest competitors, but that is nothing compared to Rome's 1700-year advancement. That is many things -- stunning, shocking, unprecedented, unduplicated, and well worth studying.

Hadrian, the emperor who hand-wrote a sarcastic letter to a poet, in marble, minus the paint:

A little bit about Hadrian: Most famous for Hadrian's Wall in the north of England, he was considered one of the Five Good Emperors, along with Nerva, Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. I never liked this list. I believe two good emperors are missing -- Augustus, the first emperor, and Vespasian. That last one, full name Titus Flavius Vespasianus, is my personal favorite for several reasons:

1. According to the lore at the time, Vespasian was a general who followed orders of the emperor, not part of an imperial family, and never wanted to become emperor himself. During a time of upheaval and instability and civil war, others begged him to declare himself. We won't ever know if this is true, because many leaders throughout history have found it advantageous to portray themself as a reluctant hero, even though they privately lusted after power. Then as now, the anti-hero is even more popular than the hero. There's little doubt that Vespasian believed he would be a better emperor than the three upstarts who declared themself emperor in 69 AD, and Nero, who was emperor until 68. Then again, the average Roman citizen probably thought themselves more qualified than those men. They probably thought their dogs would be better emperors than Nero. (National Geographic recently examined Nero, wondering if he is unfairly portrayed by history.)

2. While proconsul in Africa (Roman province in North Central Africa, between Egypt and Mauritania), Vespasian didn't do what most proconsuls were infamous for -- he didn't pillage the locals. This will be a sizable digression... By law, a proconsul (Provincial Consul, person the Senate appoints to govern a province) must collect taxes for Rome, at the rate decided by the Senate. If you think the U.S. tax code is detailed, investigate the Romans. We are an indirect extension of that culture -- and I won't detail all of that because I'm not in the business of writing a 20-volume set of books.

Importantly, an additional tax could be levied on the local population, and this additional amount was kept, personally, by the proconsul. A license to steal, as most proconsuls did. It was legal and expected, with some limits and excesses. Wealthy provincials commonly sued former proconsuls, in Rome, because of what they did in the provinces. There was a common joke at the time about a proconsul needing to make the extra tax massive because it must do two things -- it was used to make him rich and defend himself from corruption charges on his return to Rome. In other words, the wealth must be great enough to pay the necessary bribes to defeat charges of corruption, and still leave the newly returned proconsul immensely wealthy. Many of the names famous today from Rome are known specifically because of the wealth gained by the massive personal taxes placed on the shoulders of the helpless populations of the provinces, and what they did with the wealth skimmed from those people. For an interesting picture of proconsuls dealing with provincials, read the correspondence of Cicero. The senate ordered him to a province, something he hated. In private letters to friends and relatives, he details the arduous task of governing a province, right down to the intricate details of travel in the ancient world.

Tacitus, writing just after the death of Vespasian, sheds light on provincial rule by relaying the events of his father-in-law, Agricola, a general in the conquest of Britain (not a proconsul). Some details about the early days of provincial rule, per Tacitus:
    His object (Agricola) was to accustom them to a life of peace and quiet by the provision of amenities. He therefore gave official assistance to the building of temples, public squares and good houses. He educated the sons of the chiefs in the liberal arts, and expressed a preference for British ability as compared to the trained skills of the Gauls. The result was that instead of loathing the Latin language they became eager to speak it effectively. In the same way, our national dress came into favour and the toga was everywhere to be seen. And so the population was gradually led into the demoralizing temptation of arcades, baths and sumptuous banquets. The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as 'civilization', when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement.
The game of provinces is one of the more interesting elements of ancient Rome. The rise of Cicero, a novus homo of all things, to the position of Father of the Senate, came in part because of his orations on the merits and pitfalls of provincial consuls. Even when Cicero lost in open court, his arguments were so good, and his presentation so memorable, he rose above his social status -- a feat nearly impossible in Roman culture. His political writings, and advice given him by his brother Quintus during one of his campaigns, are studied by politicians worldwide today, and for good reason. Karl Rove gave a copy of Quintus' campaign advice to George Bush when he first ran for president, saying it's good advice. My favorite part:
    Make sure that your election campaign is one long parade, magnificent and splendid, appealing to popular taste, presenting a grand and dignified spectacle. If at all possible, you should also arrange for some scandal to be stirred up against your competitors, involving either criminal behavior or sex or bribery, depending on their character.
How much has really changed? We may have electricity now, and nuclear submarines and spaceships and electronic computers, but little else has changed. The Romans were the first modern human beings, nearly 2000 years ahead of everybody else.

Later, Quintus was appointed proconsul. Cicero wrote him a letter chastising him about reported abuses of power. In the typical eloquent style of Cicero, he admonished and cautioned his brother while flattering him. It's a ridiculously long letter, and one must read between the lines, as Quintus undoubtedly did.

Vespasian, like Cicero before him, was fair and generous with the people in his province, which made an extremely rare figure. In the Rome series on HBO this was glossed over when Cicero contemplated going to his country villa and giving up on his allegiance to Pompey Magnus. He said something to the effect that he did not have a name old and glorious like Brutus, so he would stay with the opposition party. This was partly true, especially about the old name. Reality was that Cicero was a moderate in the Senate, and didn't side with either party, the Caesarians or Pompeiins. He went to the country from the beginning, feigning illness. Some, even at the time, thought this was cowardice, but time showed the wisdom of his hesitancy. When he finally took sides, during the war between Caesar's adopted son Octavian and the forces of Brutus and Cassius, he chose the latter -- and during the proscriptions following Octavian's victory, he was murdered, with his hands cut off and nailed to the door of the Senate building in Rome. Picking sides in a civil war is a dangerous business, and he held off as long as possible. Wisdom and dying for a cause are not necessarily the same thing.

The people of Vespasian's African province loved and respected him because they knew well all of this history. Rome had libraries, and between 10% and 25% of people were literate -- not matched until the middle 18th century. To learn about history, all one had to do was venture to the library. Most, however, learned history from common conversations, corner theater productions, and readings sponsored by the wealthy elites (readers were paid to read propaganda and news items on street corners by torchlight in large cities of the empire). People like Cicreo and Caesar and Octavian were famous and often discussed by the latter half of the 1st century AD, and for all time to this day. The people of the African province were lucky to have Vespasian as a proconsul, and they knew it well. Fortuna, the god of good luck, smiled on them. Most proconsuls were corrupt and greedy, where Vespasian allowed the locals to keep their productivity and wealth. To me this sounds like Lucius Cincinnatus or George Washington or Gandhi. Not surprisingly, Vespasian had a lot of support from his former province when he later declared himself emperor. Then as now, popular support was the primary requirement for power, and Vespasian had earned their support by being fair, when he could have raped them, and was even expected to do so. By all contemporary accounts, he thought the people were entitled to the fruits of their labor, even though, by Roman law, Vespasian could have taken much of the wealth.

3. Vespasian was down to Earth, by all accounts. Some say this is because he was a simple soldier, lacking the sophistication and education of most other emperors. I'm not so sure. Two anecdotes illustrate Vespasian's character and, perhaps, simplicity.

The first is his response to a negative reaction to a new tax he imposed on the city of Rome. He put a tax on public toilets, the ones where the urine would be used for tanning. When an official complained about this, Vespasian held up a coin that had been collected from the tax and smelled it, declaring something to the effect, "It smells fine to me." Because of his association to public toilets, one of the French words today for public toilet is Vespasienne.

The second were his final words. Some of his contemporaries claimed he said this, and some thought it was folklore. Just before he died, Vespasian said, "I think I'm becoming a god." He was mocking the tradition of deifying emperors after their death. An emperor who mocks the ostentatious traditions of imperial families was destined to be loved by the people.

4. The Colosseum, which everyone knows about, was officially called the Flavian Amphitheatre, named after the man who approved the funding and pushed the project through -- Vespasian. Unfortunately, he died before the project was completed. The building was the first modern sports arena, and the only one of its kind for a couple of thousand years. Humanity would not catch up to ancient Rome, and Vespasian's creation, for more than 1900 years.

5. Stability and financial reforms. Nero committed suicide in the year 68, and in the following year four different people declared themself emperor.

From Tacitus:
    Welcome as the death of Nero had been in the first burst of joy, yet it had not only roused various emotions in Rome, among the Senators, the people, or the soldiery of the capital, it had also excited all the legions and their generals; for now had been divulged that secret of the empire, that emperors could be made elsewhere than at Rome.
Those words were written approximately 25 years after Vespasian became emperor, and 15 years after the death of Vespasian. Tacitus, himself a high-ranking statesman, admits that his rise was greatly aided by Vespasian's liking of him. That's another interesting facet of studying ancient Rome -- what is real history, and what was written to gain favor with the current person in power? Josephus' book, War of the Jews (available free at Amazon), included glowing passages about Vespasian, and was written after Vespasian granted him amnesty for his role in the Judean revolt against Rome. How much was true, and how much was aimed at showering goodwill on his benefactor?

Back to Vespasian, the results of the warring factions in the year 69 were the first civil wars in Rome in a hundred years or so (Marc Antony fought Augustus in the 1st century BCE, where Augustus prevailed). Vespasian was one of the four to declare himself emperor in 69, and he was victorious. After one of the worst periods of their history, Vespasian marked the beginning of a new trend -- stability and sanity. He may not have been an Augustus or Aurelius, but compared to previous emperors like Nero, and the bloody civil war that followed him, Vespasian was exactly what Rome needed.

A few links pertaining to this post are below, for anyone who wants to know more. Most of the info I included is from memory, but memory is a fleeting and biased thing, so don't trust mine. If you have an interest, begin with popular productions like the movie Gladiator and the Rome TV series, and read (not watch) I, Claudius. These are the most realistic productions. Then graduate to source material, like Caesar's two books that remain to us. Caesar wrote seven books, which we're aware of because many ancient Roman writers referenced them. Five are lost to time, but we still have two -- Commentary on the Gallic War, and Commentary on the Civil War, which detail, respectively, Caesar's conquering of Gaul (France), and defeating Pompeii and his senatorial allies in the civil war. Each shows the greatness of Caesar on the battlefield, when most of what's discussed about him is his dictatorial and administrative control of Rome (and his murder in the Senate house). This was a revalation to me when I discovered the books. It is this other side of him, his abilities as a general -- the reason he gained the popularity and wealth to challenge the other powerful men of Rome -- that makes him great. It's the reason we still know his name. I've read about Alexander, and I've read about Caesar, and I have no doubt that if the two lived in the same time, and met on the field of battle, Caesar would utterly annihilate Alexander. Alesia and the other battles have convinced me of that. Several times Caesar was outnumbered and destined to perish utterly, as predicted at the time by the senators and people of rome. Instead of perishing, he crushed his enemies decisively. In the Rome series on HBO, his greatness in battle was glossed by Marc Antony: "The man is a prodigy."

If you look for books written by Alexander the Great, going into great detail about how he accomplished his many military victories, you won't find anything. The same is true of every great ancient general, with the exception of Caesar. I was blown away, years ago, when I discovered that I could read an account of major ancient wars, written first person, by the commanding general. What is that? Stunning is the only word that comes to mind. I can buy two books today explaining battles, complete with local politics and details like logistics and fortifications, penned by an actual battlefield commander who fought before the time of Jesus. I can only shake my head. Why doesn't everyone know this? Everyone needs to read Caesar's books. I keep hoping we'll discover the other five books under an old cellar in some modern Italian city.

Next, read Ceasar by Adrian Goldworthy, and his Augustus, and other historians like Grant. Also read Cicero's correspondence and other writings that have survived, and Tacitus and Pliny and other Roman writings that are still available -- Marcus Aurellius, Martial, Juevenal, etc. There's even a cookbook. Not surprisingly, a menu painted on the wall of a Pompeii restaurant shows hamburgers -- roasted beef slabs sandwiched in bread, with a vegetable topping and mustard. As different as they were to us, they were surprisingly similar. You could drop by a pub and order a drink and a hamburger, then visit a brothel and play a game of Dogs & Robbers on your way home.

Also read Robert Harris' Imperium series about Cicero, which details three important phases of Cicero's life. Imperium isn't quite what people today think it was. Imperator, rendered in modernity as emperor, didn't mean "emperor" back then. Imperium was a right granted to a Roman citizen by the Senate, and it meant the right to raise and employ troops in battle. It was a mark of great respect and trust because the Romans were acutely aware of the dangers of a popular general becoming king with the support of military troops. Then as now, a coup is the greatest fear of a democracy. Because of the right's power, it morphed into the modern concept of emperor -- leader of an empire. Augustus, the first emperor, had around 10 different titles, including princeps, meaning first among equals, and augustus, which means the same thing today, and also imperator. Because Imperator implied the most power, and Augustus was the most powerful person in the Western world, an association was created between the leader of Rome and the title Imperator -- giving us the modern concept of emperor. His first and foremost title was not emperor at the time, but princeps.

The Imperium series by Harris is fairly simplistic, despite what the LA Times says (liberal journalists are fucking idiots), but it's a good look at life in ancient Rome and one of its greatest statesmen. It's amazing how much we know about a culture that flourished 2000 years ago, and earlier, and Cicero was one of the greatest people that culture produced. I keep waiting for Adrian Goldsworthy to write a biography of him. As much as I like Caesar, I believe Cicero was the greatest of the Romans. Caesar, though born relatively poor, was of the Patrician class, where Cicero was an Equestrian. Moving from a lower class to become Father of the Senate based on merit was extraordinary.

I better stop there because I could talk forever on the topic of ancient Rome. Greatness is worth studying. I believe America is the greatest now, and demonstrably so, but we're second fiddle in the history of humankind (because of bad leadership).

More on the Five Good Emperors at Encyclopedia Britannica

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