… manesque Verginiae mortuae quam vivae felicioris
per tot domos ad petendas poenas vagati nullo relicto
sonte tandem quieverunt.
… and once all the guilty were gone, the specter of
Verginia – happier dead than alive – ceased wandering
in and out of all those homes in search of revenge,
and finally lay down at peace.
Livy ab urbe condita 3.58.9
Back in the day, one of the glossier skin mags slid past the public a lurid pictorial kiss-and-tell by a woman who claimed to have been at least partially culpable in the matter of “some problems in our marriage” which candidate Clinton told the American people he and Hillary had experienced. Not long before that, new biographical revelations about President Kennedy addressed this quondam icon’s apparently uncontrollable itch for female flesh, and Mr. and Mrs. Family Values themselves apparently were neither all values nor certainly all family either. Even President Carter admitted to lusting in his heart on more than one occasion, and the flamboyant Johnson, like staid old Ike, we have been told, wandered from the hearth in the odd byways of lust. (Nixon of course was too busy with his other naughtiness.)
Until very recently in our history, any political wannabe who publicly had sensations in anatomical regions lower than his heart was destined to self-destruct like a defective missile: one thinks for example of how Gary Hart’s campaign, in what now seems like another era, exploded. Yet in the popular mythology of movies, books and television, the political power of powerful politicians is often represented attractively, if not always with approbation, as operating like a sexual pheromone.
This particular paradigm of leadership’s perquisites enjoys a great antiquity. Livy, the great Roman historian (c. 60 B.C. – 17 A.D.), recounts an exceptionally gruesome version of such cravings, shaped by political power gone astray (48.1.1: decemvir alienatus ad libidinem animo “a politician whose lusts have estranged him from reason”) – the monitory exemplum of a certain Verginia (suitably named), and the violation of her contemplated by the debauching Appius Claudius in mid-fifth century B.C. He simply wanted her. As Livy tells the narrative, it is the typical triangle-tale familiar from innumerable Greek myths: a beautiful virgin who is betrothed or in love with a young man comes to the heated attention of a powerful older man, or god, and is made the helpless and often resisting object of his lustful purposes. Livy’s tale comes to serve the larger political purpose of explaining how this patrician monster, Appius Claudius, sufficiently outraged the sensibilities of the common people. As a result, despite their misgivings about the new freedom that allowed them to proceed in this manner against so distinguished a person, he was thrown into prison, where he committed suicide and thus conveniently removed himself as a continuing obstacle to the expansion of popular rights.
Of course, not all politicians who are sexual hunters come to so final an end. Think of that lachrymose (“I spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina” – Reuters: ATLANTA Wed Jun 24, 2009 7:29pm EDT) governor Mark Sanford from South Carolina whose torrid emails to and from his Buenos Aires “soul mate” Maria Belen Chapur conferred a kind of grubby celebrity status on him. Remember Bob Packwood? How about John Edwards? And Eliot Spitzer? et al., et al., et al., …
What about the women in these dramas? To the extent that we even remember them as individuals (do you remember the name of the woman who “destroyed” Gary Hart? John Edwards? Eliot Spitzer?), it is generally as seductive vamp. Although Verginia’s intended, Icilius, was incensed on her behalf, he swore that “I plan to marry her as a virgin and intend to have a wedded wife who is chaste” (3.45.6: virginem ego hanc sum ducturus nuptamque pudicam habiturus), and all bets were off if her father couldn’t guarantee that; her father, in turn, being of the opinion that a wretched death (not his own, of course, but his daughter’s) was preferable to dishonor (3.50.8: miseram sed honestam mortem), killed her with a liberating knife-thrust to the heart (3.48.5: hoc te uno quo possum … modo, filia, in libertatem vindico “this is the only way I can bring about your freedom, daughter”). Is that what contemporary culture refers to as an ‘honor killing’?
Appius Claudius, being an extreme case of the lecherous politician, certainly got what he had coming to him, but did Verginia? Livy clearly thought so. After all, once Appius and his partners in crime had been suitably punished, Verginia’s comfort and consolation was that her manes, her “spirit,” her “ghost,” could rest secure in the knowledge of justice meted out. It is an extremely Roman point of view. That’s just the way it was then.
Although marital arrangements in 2011 America are presumably not entangled in such drastic coercion but entail a degree of consensus among the parties in question, there surely lingers even today something of the ancient sense of opprobrium directed especially towards the woman. The politician usually doesn’t commit suicide and may even get elected for his “honesty.” The woman may get a lucrative layout in an expensive monthly or even a chance at the movies, but few would probably applaud her “honesty.” Of course, if she were the politician, there had better not have been much straying with “soul mates” in Argentina (or anywhere else for that matter) away from that little hearth, no matter how “honest” the denouement. Is the asymmetry of modern attitudes on such matters still shaped unconsciously by a lack of percipient awareness of the ancient traditions of which they are, it would seem, at times but a sleazy continuum?