still thinking ’bout the fall of Rome

Over the past several months I’ve written at length about Rome and its many reifications on television. Over the same period I have also read Thomas Harris’ novels on the life of Cicero, Imperium and Lustrum, and while these aren’t weighty books or particularly nuanced works they have extended my current fetish for old school textual analysis, for another post at the very least. It feels very antiquated to do this kind of thinking, all undergraduate and meaning under every stone, but there is something useful in asking what a thing is about? And what does it say about that thing? At any rate there is no harm in asking.

So let’s get stuck in: when I read Imperium I thought it was an attempt to revitalise US Republicanism through the figure of Cicero, a virtuous and ethical lawyer who diligently fights the good fight against power and corruption, a kind of ancient Matlock. I think this is only partly true now. Having reflected on Blood and Sand and Rome  the first thing that is apparent is that Harris’ representations have a good deal less sex and violence (there is still plenty reported but it simply occurs ‘off screen’).  Cicero can be fashioned into all sorts of shapes and positions, and has been over the years. I recall reading Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome many years ago and Cicero is more of an insecure, vacillating, suck-up in that book. Similarly, in Julius Caesar, Cicero is little more than a dealmaker and not a leading one. Cicero’s surviving works are also a mixed bag, though there is plenty to keep a Latin scholar busy for years but an overview gives the impression of someone who knew justice and would fight for it but oftentimes wanted a little more than justice for himself. Don’t we all? As such there is much to like about Harris’ Cicero: he’s clever, cunning, not out for absolute power and has commitment to justice. Plus his slave really likes him; Tiro is the ultimate character reference. But it is the politics that really counts. The first novel Imperium covers the early highlights of Cicero (Verres, Pompey vs Crassus, and the Consular election), the second deals with the early stages of the Roman revolution, the death of the Republic, and his eventual outlawing by Clodius. In both Cicero is the fulcrum as the political see-saw tilts to and fro. He maintains a central integrity, a weighty moderation in the face of various extremisms as represented by Pompey, Caesar and Crassus.

These three versions of Roman dominus (political, military, and commercial) are all equally hindered by the desire-service nexus. Caesar can dominate politics but needs the military for muscle and money to pay for that muscle. Crassus has buckets of cash but no skill for deals in politics and only private muscle. Pompey has muscle in the form of his legions but needs the Senate to provide land for his soldiers and can’t quite believe politics is so hard when he is a man of quality. All three desire that service to Rome be indistinguishable from service to them. Any of them might have come to recognise that the dominance of any of them would ultimately destabilise the Republic (and perhaps, historically, they did) and discount desire in favour of service. Cicero is not about crushing desire, indeed his own urge to be recognised beyond the usual limitations of his family background as a member of the equestrian order (just below the patricians), he is about giving justice to desire. Rome, for Harris’ Cicero, is a tool to enable and empower men but not so much that other men must live lives of service to Rome. Everything in Imperium and Lustrum is about moderating the obligation of the individual to central authority. Notably not freeing desire from authority or control but moderating it, limiting. One of the really interesting points in Lustrum is when Cicero is offered the body of Clodius’ sister for his personal pleasure and it turn out that his wife, Terentia is preferred for this despite her status as a wife of political convenience.  

Caesar, Pompey and Crassus are all absolutists. Their urge for dominance is their desire and the only way for that desire to be satisfied is by their synonymity with Rome and thus the object of service. Cicero and Tiro are the counter weights to absolutism. Of course nothing stopped Caesar, Pompey or Crassus except each other until the Civil War, long after they formed the Triumvirate which eventually got rid of Clodius as Tribune and called Cicero back from being outlawed. Crassus eventually fades from the story, he was killed fighting Pathians (which contemporaries took as a sign he wasn’t as deserving of service as Caesar and Pompey because he wasn’t so good at managing legions), but as we know the great battles between Caesar and Pompey eventually came to a head at Pharsalus with Pompey unable to hold his own. Cleopatra knocked him off when he sought refuge and security in Egypt. A sad end really but his desire got the better of him and we know what happens to Romans in those circumstances.

Women don’t get much play in Imperium and Lustrum, Terentia gets to say her piece but not as an equal, mostly they are erotic prizes for those deserving of service, or those whose service is desired. Clodius’ sister, Clodia, often appears as a kind of bribe. An ancient sex for votes arrangement, or maybe just sex for silence.  At any rate when women aren’t either religious or naked they don’t come into the story. Roman historians are at least partly to blame for this imbalance, all those endless narratives regarding the positions women were excluded from occupying. Gender politics, in Polybius and so many others, also happens off screen. And given Harris’ dependence on Polybius and the works of Cicero it is not surprising that the central question he has regarding Roman women is to what extent they were used to manipulate the choices of Roman men, to what extent women were temptations away from principle. Damned whores or the gods’ police, sometimes both. Not much of a palette for writing interesting and active women.

Slaves are similarly hampered by not writing history. Tiro, apparently, did write his memoirs after Cicero’s death but alas no copy exists for us moderns to consider. Other slaves did not have access to education, and while Tiro lived to the age of 99 most slaves who made it to their mid thirties could be considered fortunate and as such were not granted the opportunity to produce much of an oeuvre. Slavery, despite its central position in US history, doesn’t get much consideration in Imperium or Lustrum. I find this bothersome in many representations of the ancient world from the Adventures of Hercules to I, Claudius. Writing out those who do the labour is the classic move by those who do not, the only real aberration was the Abolitionist movement which eventually did lead to the War Between the States.

The key feature of the politics Imperium and Lustrum represent and endorse is moderation. Initially I thought there was something rather bland about the politics Harris chose to represent (and there are a number of scandals Harris simply did not include, a kind of nothing to see here moment) but in fact these are exactly the characteristics that he makes his pitch for: blandness, ordinariness, banality. The stakes are high but the matters themselves do not amount to much because what counts is the arrangement of sharing. For Harris the great evil at play in ancient Rome is not about whether Clodius slept with his sister, or if Pompey profiteered when defeating Mithrades, or if Catiline really wanted to murder the consulari, or any of that but rather the urge for dominance. Harris is arguing through the figure of Cicero that really the day to day choices made by governments make little difference as long as the many voices that the government represents are heard and not excluded. To allow one thing (a voice, an issue, a fact, a voting bloc, a class, a desire, a love) to dominate is to destabilise the practice of government, the rule of law. For Harris moderation is found in an almost Capra-esque approach to politics, an endless pragmatic appeasement of the plurality of voices constituting the polity. Desire in this regard is to be feared for its capacity to subsume the small, the minor, the irregular. Desire for Harris, and Cicero, is tantamount to dictatorship.

I think the central questions are threefold: firstly the changing nature of the Presidency, secondly the role of scandal and sex scandal in the electoral process, and finally uncertainty in terms of to whom the polity belongs and who belongs to the polity. For Harris, Cicero has the answer: centralised power is not preferred; it becomes an object of desire that serves its own end. And sex? Sex for Cicero is for procreation and any other kind is simply an amusing weakness to be moderated in the self and tolerated in others. Power and desire are threats to order, to function, to continuity, to a gift given to the future, and to the respect offered to ancestors and forebears. Contrarily for Apted and Milius nothing could be more ridiculous: desire is the quality required for survival and survival is battle played out over the course of a life that must end in one dead man or another. Centralisation is the obvious outcome of the Empire’s growth and the need for authority to grow proportionately and the greater the power the greater the desire needed to win it. In Blood and Sand the great show of politics and power is just window dressing for a system designed to exploit almost everyone except those born to power. As such it is a system doomed to fail, doomed to fail on its own terms, doomed because it sets itself up for failure and, ultimately, corruption to such an extent it must become corrupt in totality.

So we have three views marking out certain kinds of politics: a win at all costs, use every resource and gain the prize politics which has a strong resemblance to Presidential politics since Nixon; a more modest grassroots something to pass on to your children, invented tradition kind of politics in which respect and convention are core (it has a vaguely Jeffersonian twang to it I think); and a politics that says whenever power is deployed it will bounce back, a get what you give politics that can only lead to apathy and disengagement by those who have to wait to take the power back. Oddly enough I think all three views are pretty valid. Presidential politics is a fight to the death, grassroots politics do often protect value ideas and traditions for our children, and power is (as Foucault famously wrote) not possessed it is exercised and for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction that means the powerful one day will be powerless the next. Rome is the big ‘like-not like’ question for the US. Is it doomed, as Rome was, to be corrupted (to Christianity ultimately)? Is it more noble and valuable to pursue the big prize, world domination or is it better to simply concentrate on ensuring participation and engagement with the management of state affairs? These are the questions. They’re good questions and as such I think we will see a good deal more Rome themed material out there. I’ll be watching.


About rustichello

A rather too quiet fellow of little reknown.
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