Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Saturnalia Message: In Hoc Anno meets A.U.C.

The rich man’s Pravda (aka the WSJ) ran its annual string of lies, fabrications and half-truths this year, propagated originally in 1949 by the renowned ignoramus Vermont Royster, in which VR took on directly that grave threat to American democracy, Tiberius Caesar. No fooling. (Okay, I KNOW it was the start of the Cold War and the mindset was the USSR = the Roman Empire, while the USA = DOH! NEVERMIND!!!!!) It is a perennial exercise in the dissing of Mr. Tiberius, and so full of elision, innuendo, rumor, and half-truth that Tacitus, somewhere today, is surely smiling; how Sig. Victor David can, in good conscience as an ancient historian, continue to contribute to pages far more committed to vitriol than truth, defies analysis (as does VDH’s line of reasoning on contemporary politics in general - he seems obsessed with violence and the fact that the French have wine with lunch).

Ahem, on to our deconstruction. The first paragraph of the WSJ states the following:

“When Saul of Tarsus set out on his journey to Damascus the whole of the known world lay in bondage.”

Bondage? Not as the Romans defined it. The editorial implies, erroneously, that the ENTIRE population of Rome was slave; this is simply untrue. The question of liberty in antiquity is a vexed one for scholars, one too difficult to get into here. Suffice to say that, according to Tacitus, many of those in Rome who had given up their liberty (a property only of the privileged and propertied elite anyway, even during the “free” time of the republic) were only too happy to have security in place of the chaos that so harried the late republic. Gosh, giving up liberty for security; didn’t I see a headline in the WSJ editorial earlier this week that read “Thank you for wiretapping”? As for the whole of the known world living in bondage, sorry, wrong: Germania, Thule, Britannia, Hibernia, and points further south and east of which the Romans were quite aware, were NOT under Roman sway in the first century.

“There was one state, and it was Rome. There was one master for it all, and he was Tiberius Caesar.”

Well, one state if you except the client states of Rome; as for one master, maybe, but in the wake of Sejanus’ fall which had taken place at roughly the same time, Tiberius wasn’t even in a position to relieve from command certain of his governors (as witness the letter from Lentulus Gaetulicus, governor of Germany).

“Everywhere there was civil order, for the arm of the Roman law was long. Everywhere there was stability, in government and in society, for the centurions saw that it was so.”

But just how effective Roman law enforcement was in the provinces is problematic, especially in rural areas. As for stability, someone alert Tacfarinas and Julius Sacrovir, whose revolts in north Africa and Gaul had shown just how unstable Roman control could be – and this does not include the perennial problems in the eastern provinces or on the border with Germania. But even if we accept that “the arm of the Roman law was long”, and that “Everywhere there was stability”, what kind of societies does the WSJ THINK the Romans conquered? Peaceful idyllic ones? Or would the WSJ prefer that the tribes of Germania, Hispania, and Gallia remain in a perpetual state of warfare? Is the WSJ advocating chaos and autonomy from outside powers instead of stability and security ensured by foreign powers? Then how the hell can it advocate current American policy in the Middle East? C’mon guys – figure it out and make up your minds!

“But everywhere there was something else, too. There was oppression--for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people.”

Actually Tiberius’ tax policy was quite humane: “A shepherd must sheer his flock not flay it” he famously said. As for largess to the people, Tiberius was notoriously stingy about the bestowal of any largess, which contributed to his poor reputation following the (by comparison) more generous Augustus. By the 30s it is also dubious just how many amici Tiberius had – he had already outlived many as he approached his early 70s, and there were few that he could or would trust after the conspiracy of one of his most trusted advisors, L. Aelius Sejanus, against him.

“There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?”

Can Mr. Royster tell me of a single individual executed by Tiberius as a result of his direct proscription? Can he cite with certitude anyone who fell undeservedly or unjustly at his direct order? No, because the analysis of such cases are notoriously problematic. As for serving Caesar, Tiberius tried desperately to grant greater autonomy to the senate of Rome, but they wouldn’t have it and insisted on his guidance, leading him at one point to depart the senate in a pique, exclaiming “O homines ad servitutem paratos!” As for the impressor, we admit that this was a gross institution, yet we also note that even Christians were addicted to such sport – one wonders if Mr. Royster ever read Augustine.

“There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?”

That such a statement finds its way into the WSJ’s pietistic musings at Christmas is perhaps one of the most breathtaking instances of hypocrisy one can imagine. First of all, the initial sentence is an out and out falsehood; again I ask, is there any instance that we can cite with certainty that any of the three assertions in the sentence actually occurred? The answer is three fold: no, No, NO. (Has the WSJ never heard of source criticism?) As for disdain of men sans familiar visage, how many unnecessary wars against people without “familiar visage” has the WSJ supported over the years? That the WSJ can support torture and capital punishment and then publish a line taking to task Roman “contempt for human life” speaks to just how tone deaf the editors and many readers of the WSJ are.

The rest of the editorial gets into theological matters whereby Jesus and Paul, apparently, establish American democracy after overthrowing the evil Roman empire. Never mind the definitional problems of libertas (a term the WSJ raises frequently in the editorial) and its meaning for those living in 793 versus 2759 a.u.c. Never mind the textual and historical issues which lead scholars and theologians to dispute over both the teachings and even historicity of Jesus (though one could scarcely expect intellectual rigor on the pages of a paper that endorses the policy of the court du jour). And never mind the political background to the writing of the gospels (generally anti-Roman and written in the wake of the revolt in Judaea between 66-71 C.E.), which serves as the essential backdrop for the concerns and subject matter in general of the NT (except for Acts and a hand full of epistles), a sometimes negative perspective that not all subject of the Empire shared. All of this simply renders further deconstruction, as any sober scholar in the field will agree, superfluous. And in terms of its intellectual heritage and influence, the WSJ simply grants an unwarranted amount of credit to the New Testament for the development of modern liberal democracy, with willful disregard for the contributions of Athenian democracy, Roman republicanism, and Enlightenment philosophy.

To conclude:

Okay WSJ (to draw from a famous John Cleesian diatribe), aside from their roads, education, public order, sanitation, urbanization, spreading of Greek learning, great monuments of and innovations in architecture, essential contributions to political theory, enormous body of great literature, and laying the foundations of a major modern religion and humanism, what have the Romans EVER DONE FOR US!

Now, sit down, shut up, sip your lobster bisque and go pick on an empire your own size!

Merry Saturnalia,




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