An Homage to Plutarch (12/22/09)

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An Homage to Plutarch (12/22/09)

Postby Ferguson Foont » Tue Dec 22, 2009 7:29 pm

As those of you who have so much excess time on your hands that you actually read my little screeds are dimly aware, I am an avid, almost obsessive, student of Roman history. It fascinates me so not only because it is really very interesting start to finish, filled with strange characters and a set of morals and ethics that, at least for the first 900+ years or so, predated any well-developed set of Christian teachings, and not only because many of the aspects of western culture, even in relatively fine detail, date themselves to the Romans and their laws and behaviors. I am also, perhaps chiefly, interested in Roman history because the United States may be the most similar nation to Rome throughout all history.

The parallels are, of course, quite inexact, and we do not run parallel to Rome in many ways. Our technology is so different that a great deal of adjustment must be made in order to contrive the parallels, particularly temporally. Things move MUCH more rapidly today in many ways like travel and communication, but much more slowly in others. See, they had no television. While television can inform it can also serve almost as a hypnotic, oppressing the aspirations of our population into inaction, and particularly in a reluctance to engage in violence even in defense of the most basic of needs. I am reasonably certain that, if Rome had invented television around the time of their final victory over Hannibal that history might be quite different, both for the late Roman republic and empire and also for the subsequent world, if indeed there would had been any world other than Roman even to this day.

I am particularly fond of reading the classical historians, most especially those who wrote while Rome remained largely intact. In this way I am able to read from the sources that most modern historians used and make my own assessments of the information the old guys like Livy, Arrian, Polybius, Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Cassius Dio, Plutarch and the others who wrote so very long ago, weighing their words on the scales of what I can presume of their various prejudices and the forces that may have guided their hands. For example, anything praiseworthy about the emperors who reigned during the time of their writings can be heavily discounted -- it was very dangerous to criticize even the most enlightened and moderate among the Roman emperors. Similarly, criticism by the authors of the predecessors of their reigning emperors is similarly to be taken with a large grain of salt, because anything that might hint that the current guy was worse than the guy before him might be construed as treasonable.

Also, after you read them for a while you grow somewhat familiar with their various idiosyncrasies, the same way you do with political columnists today. I mean, if you didn't know better, some of the stuff written by America's Most Overrated Intellect, George F. Will, might seem almost reasonable if you were unaware of his history and his tendencies. Of all the historians I have read (and trust me when I tell you that I've read a few), only two were almost -- ALMOST -- always actually objective and dispassionate, the Athenian Thucydides and the Englishman Edward Gibbon. Livy liked to embellish to create flowery allegories; Suetonius liked salacious gossip; Herodotus liked to enhance his credibility by pretending that he actually saw things, etc., etc., etc.

Furthermore, there are many ways to check things out for yourself via the archaeological record and surviving official documents (as well as the work of other historians), often enough to determine who is being accurate and who is engaging in advocacy or revisionism. And there is the most magnificent history ever written in the English language (and possibly in ANY language, its only real competition being the History of Rome written in the first century AD by Titus Livius ("Livy"), only parts of which survive), Edward Gibbon's "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," the first volume of which was published in 1776 at the very pinnacle of the Age of Reason. Gibbon was a genuinely objective historian and the breadth and depth of his research will never be surpassed. My deepest regret about Gibbon is that he did not address at all the period of Roman history that is of greatest interest to me, that period between the final defeat of Carthage in 146 BC and the permanent consolidation of monarchical power under Augustus around 27 BC. Gobs of stuff has been written about the period from 50, when Julius Caesar defeated the Gauls and started squabbling with Pompey, to about the beginning of the "Christian Era" at the height of the reign of Augustus, but it is the period preceding that that might provide the best lessons for us here in America to heed in our political meanderings.

And VERY little is available about that hundred-year-long period of almost unending turmoil and factional strife in Rome. It featured some really amazing characters like the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus ("The Gracchi"), born to high nobility but strong advocates for the needs and aspirations of the Plebeians. Both were assassinated and the parallels between the courses of their lives and those of John and Robert Kennedy are so startlingly clear that it is almost trite, a belaboring of the obvious, to point out the similarities. Wars were fought on foreign soil in Germany, Africa, Greece, Persia, featuring jockeying for power by rival Roman generals and factions where some of the more bulbously whimsical of them can't help but remind one of John McCain and his constant meddlesome puffery.

Some of the other characters include Gaius Marius, whose public life started very well indeed but may have served as the inspiration for the notion that "Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely." Then there Marius' front man, Cinna, and their chief enemy, the strongman on the right, Sulla, whose "Dictatorship for Life" actually signaled the end of the Republic as it had evolved since the day that Lucius Junius Brutus drove the last King, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, out of Rome. Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus both came of age under Sulla, with Pompey (a Plebeian) a strong supporter of Sulla, whose government was exclusively to the advantage of the nobility, and Caesar (a Patrician), pursuing policies almost exclusively favored the plebs.

One of the most interesting events of those days was what came to be known as the "Catiline Conspiracy." It is almost impossible to discover anything about the actual nature of this movement because almost everything written about it is from the point of view of those who forcibly put it down, and much of the writings that survive may have as its purpose an attempt to justify official violence against law-abiding Romans. It's sort of like listening to Glenn Beck about Barack Obama and trying to glean from his slavering gibberish what Obama was really about. Nearly everything that can be discovered about it comes from the writings (not to be confused with Beck's slavering gibberish by any means) of its chief opponent, Cicero, who was the chief mouthpiece of the nobility against the interests of the Plebeians. The Catilineans were characterized as scoundrels, the worst of the worst, immoral, cowardly, treasonous, without actually providing any example of their scurrilous behavior -- simple, unsupported, highly pejorative characterizations. By reading between the lines, however, it is possible to discern that Julius Caesar, who was just entering his adulthood at the time, was at the very least not an opponent of the Catilineans and may actually have been a supporter and protector of some of their leaders. It is quite possible, and I think it likely, that the Catilinean "Conspiracy" may have been a civil, and largely peaceful, political uprising on the part of citizen laborers and farmers against the power of the Patrician Senate and the dictatorship of Sulla. But as I said, it is very difficult to obtain any reliable information about those days from anything other than an archly partisan point of view.

Some of the similarities are just weird. For example, two wars were fought on an issue very similar to what we now contentiously debate under the topic of immigration, the "Social War" and the first Civil War. These involved the citizenship rights of non-Roman Italians who were expected to fight in foreign wars but were given only partial political rights. In the case of the Civil War it was largely fought over a piece of legislation that would allow the Italians to vote other than last, after elections were nearly always already decided. Regulatory agencies and tribunates were overtaken by the very classes and entities that were supposed to be regulated by those offices. The government often neglected the needs of the people out of slavish and self-interested allegiance to the nobility. Foreign wars were fought to enhance personal power and reputation, and to suppress popular anti-government sentiment.

Plutarch wrote his "Parallel Lives" (usually just called "Plutarch's Lives," a truly essential work that I highly recommend to anyone) in an effort to compare Rome with Greece, through its founders and most important influences, and note the differences that left Rome, instead of Greece, the dominant world power. My purpose is somewhat more crass -- to try to figure out what's next for us here in America. I assure you, my friends, divination, particularly of a longer term variety, is not one of my chief talents, but nevertheless...

I put America's progress as of the present at some point in the late Republic, after the Gracchi but not yet to Sulla, although George W. Bush and his administration shared some characteristics with Sulla, including the desire to transform the political movement (actually it was more like a victory in a civil war, but...) that brought Sulla to power a permanent and insurmountable advantage for what passes in America for nobility -- our corporate robber barons.

But I don't think we've had our Sulla yet. We might have if George W. Bush had been less incompetent, but we may have lucked out there. There are persons in our current political landscape, however, who might fill that role at some point in the future, and woe to us if it happens. See, one of the chief characteristics of the dictatorship of Sulla was the "proscriptions," where opponents of his regime were basically taken down through bogus prosecutions and executed or exiled, with the property and that of their families confiscated by the state (for which you can read "Sulla") and redistributed among Sulla's supporters.

So we may still have a Sulla in our future, and that will be a very hard time for America, with possible efforts to alter our Bill of Rights on the pretext that it is counterproductive to American security (wait a moment -- Bush tried that, too!).

But in Rome Sulla was, after a brief time, followed by Caesar, swept into power by the strong will of the lower classes. Just as this was a time of very great prosperity for the people of Rome and great works, like the expansion of the harbor at Ostia, were planned when, despairing of regaining their privileges, he was murdered on the Senate floor on the Ides of March. You know, the upper classes have no compunction against killing when they can get away with it and see it as the most efficient way to gain the political upper hand, and this is as true today as it was then. If anything the stakes are higher and the gratification more immediate today, so the motivation is stronger.

After Caesar's death a civil war followed that led to the final dissolution of the Republic in favor of a semi-inherited empire with all genuine political, administrative and military power falling into the hands of the head of state, the Emperor. The institution of Emperor, however, had its initial inception as a protector of the lower classes against the predations of those whose wealth permitted them to control the levers of power in the late Republic. The institution of Emperor and his monarchical power endured until Rome finally fell.

I find all this oddly disturbing. Of course the parallels are inexact, and many things happen, don't happen, or happen in a different order here than they happened so long ago in Rome. But people are basically the same, ambition is still precisely the same driving force, and people who have the power to do so act in what they perceive to be their ultimate self interest even when those actions violate universally held moral and ethical constraints.

The greatest of Roman historians, Tacitus, held it as axiomatic that societies run in a three-part cycle, from an initial democracy to oligarchy as wealth and power begins to consolidate, to monarchy when the this consolidation finally progresses to concentrates power at a single point, and then back to democracy as the corruption of absolute power becomes intolerable and the people summon the will at last to throw off their oppressor. I'd say, if I had to venture a guess, that we are at some point past the middle of the second "oligarchy" phase here in America today.
Republicans whine and Republicans bitch: "Our rich are too poor, and our poor are too rich."
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Ferguson Foont
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