Sunday, August 16, 2009

History of Ancient Rome, Condensed Version, Part II

Around the middle of the 2nd century BC there began a great struggle of the question of whether the lower classes in Rome, the plebians, were to be given more rights and powers. Two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Graccus, proposed things like taking some land from the aristocratic families, the patricians, and distributing it more widely among the general population. They were both killed by the patricians and their followers, but their example lived on. Other politicians made careers by proclaiming that they were on the side of the masses. To what extent they really were, and how much it was just talk, was a much-debated question then, as it still is today about populist politicians. Whatever their platforms and whatever their real motivations, the conflicts between leading politicains became more and more synomymous with battles between leading generals and their armies. Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Catullus, Pompey and other contenders for the leadership of Rome came and went, and the conflicts between them came to be more and more full-scale wars. Romans had always been opposed to any monarch ruling them, but occasionally someone was appointed dictator for a short period of time in order to deal decisively with a period of chaos and strife. Julius Caesar, who always presented himself as a champion of the masses, held the dictatorship very briefly in 49 BC, then again for a year from 48 to 47, then in 46 he was appointed dictator for ten years, and then early in 44 he was named "dictator in perpetuity." He was being heaped with other honors and titles and looking more and more like a king, which disturbed a lot of people as it seemed to violate Rome's democratic traditions and principles, and so less than two months after being named dictator in perpetuity, he was assassinated by a group of senators.

It had looked as if Caesar's dictatorship might have ushered in a period of tranquility in Rome. His death at the hands of senators, however, initiated another period of intense and bloody civil conflict, which finally ended when Octavian, Caesar's grand-nephew and chosen heir, defeated his last opponents, Marc Anthony and his partner the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, in 30 BC. In 27 BC the senate voted to give Octavian the name and title Augustus. The beginning of the Roman empire, the end of the republic, is said by many to have begun at that moment. However, Augustus was known as Caesar Augustus, and as all emperors after Augustus were also called Augustus, so also all the title of Caesar was given to all heirs to the imperial throne, making the case for placing the beginning of the empire in the brief reign of Caesar. Whether one marks the end of the republic at 44 BC or 27 BC or sometime in between, the pretense that Rome was not a monarchy, that the emperor ruled with the senate, not over it, and at their pleasure and under their control, persisted for another several centuries.

The good thing about a monarchy is that one person can make decisions about the running of a state much more quickly and simply than a group of people. Groups tend to argue, to squabble, to draw decisions out and bog things down. The bad thing about monarchy, of course, is that the quality of the decisions made on behalf of the state is entirely dependent upon one person, who may or not be competent, wise or sane. This problem is compounded if the monarch is absolute, and not removable by any group more or less representative of some concept of the people, and compounded again if the monarch is not elected, but appointed by the previous monarch, who may very well be blinded by familial affection, or if the monarchy automatically goes to an eldest son or what have you. Augustus seems to have been a very competent monarch indeed, so competent and far-sighted that the system of government he put in place in large part compensated for the incompetence of some members of his family who succeeded him. The period of time beginning with his reign and lasting for over two centuries is known as the pax romana, the Roman peace. Rome kept fighting other states and expending its territory, but within its expanding borders, things in fact were relatively peaceful during this period, and people and goods could move about in relative safety.

During this whole time, as apparently at all times all over the world, some writers had little or nothing to do with politics, some were not politicians themselves, but passionately took sides in political contests, and some were politicians. Caesar wrote twobooksabout his military exploits which have been widely read from his time to ours. (They may not be as widely read today as a century or so ago, when Caesar was often thought of as an ideal role model for boys.) Caesar's occasional partner, sometimes his rival, Cicero, had a combination of political success and high literary reputation equaled by no one else I can think of except Winston Churchill -- although Cicero was a lawyer by trade, not a soldier like Churchill, and although I think that Cicero is overrated as a writer and that Churchill is not. Those who really like Cicero must be delighted that so very very many of his letters, speeches and philosophical works, a whole shelf's worth, have survived intact to our day. Lucretius wrote a wonderful book-length poem, de rerum natura,dealing with belief in God (He was against it.) and science and philosophy (He was for them, especially the Epicurean philosophy which taught that it was wisest to stick to a small group of good friends and let the rest of the world screw itself up.)

During Augustus' reign, two leading poets were Vergil, who wrote the Aeneid, the poem about the mythical beginnings of Rome to which I refer at the start of Part I, and who seems to have been compelled to praise Augustus in a particularly lavish manner -- although who can say how sincere the praise may have been -- and Ovid, a particularly apolitical person who nonetheless fell afoul of Augustus, we don't know how, although the leading theory is that he made a dirty joke about a female member of Augustus' family. For this, Ovid, the quintessential Roman urbanite, was banished to a fort on the Black Sea, on the Wild East frontier of the empire, for the rest of his life. His two greatest poems are the Metamorphoses,dealing with those Greek dieties and myths which had been adopted by the Romans, and the Fasti,a calender of the native Roman religious festivals.

The slavish praise of Vergil (and others) and the banishment of Ovid point to a dark side of the pax romana, a humorless demand that the emperor be not just obeyed, but worshiped, as a god.

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