Politics by any means

κἀν τούτῳ καταβοήσεως ἐν τῷ συνεδρίῳ περί τε τῆς
τῶν γυναικῶν καὶ περὶ τῆς τῶν νεανίσκων ἀκοσμίας,
πρὸς ἀπολογίαν δή τινα τοῦ μὴ ῥᾳδίως δι’ αὐτὴν τὰς
τῶν γάμων συναλλαγὰς ποιεῖσθαι γενομένης, καὶ
ἐναγόντων αὐτὸν καὶ ἐκείνην ἐπανορθῶσαι χλευασμῷ
ὅτι πολλαῖς γυναιξὶν ἐχρῆτο …
Meanwhile there was a loud uproar in the senate about the unbecoming
behavior of both women and young men.  There was some kind of
suggestion this conduct made it difficult for them to exchange marriage
vows, and the sentators urged Augustus to se matters right, not
without irony in view of his own habit of having numerous women as
sexual partners.

Dio Cassius 54.16.3
The kind of behavior spoken of here was all in the genes so to speak of Augustus’ own daughter, Julia.  After all, daddy was no saint.  He divorced his first wife, Julia’s mother, the “difficult” Scribonia, on the very day that Julia was born.  At this point he had fallen in a bad way for a 19-year-old beauty, Livia, who was pregnant with a second child by (presumably?) her then-husband Tiberius Claudius Nero (the great-great-grandfather of the last Julio-Claudian emperor, the lunatic Nero).  As it turned out, Livia’s ex understandably complied with Augustus’ request that he stand father to the bride, his former wife, at her wedding with Augustus three days after Julia’s birth to Scibonia.  This Livia, whatever her good points – and there were many – tolerated the many infidelities of Augustus and was even alleged to have taken her wifely obligation to comfort and cherish her husband literally enough to pimp for him when he required young virgins to pleasure him.

As a teen-ager, Augustus displayed a marked cold-blooded-ness, “deeming nothing more appropriate than revenging the murder his father’s uncle” (nihil convenientius ducens quam necem avunculi vindicari), Julius Caesar, on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.  Augustus was impetuous and had a hot temper (? not unlike Julia’s ?).  His personal conduct during the dreadful proscriptions in the aftermath of the assassination was bad enough, but it seemed positively benign in comparison to his treatment of losers in the civil war that followed.  After Philippi, he had Brutus’ head chopped off and returned to Rome, where it was hurled at the feet of Caesar’s statue.  Prisoners – fellow citizens – taken in the Perusine War, after pleading for mercy, were given the laconic reply moriendum esse (“you’ll have to die”), and according to some writers, 300 of them were selected from both equestrian and senatorial ranks to be ritually sacrificed like animals on the Ides of March at the altar constructed for the deified Julius Caesar (Suetonius Divus Augustus 15).

This behavior seems utterly barbaric to our way of thinking (as it clearly did to some Romans), but the truth is that our own government and many others have done and continue to do business as usual with leaders who have come to and maintain absolute power through a not entirely dissimilar ruthlessness.

In all of this I would like not to be misconstrued either as mocking or as scoffing at the efforts of today’s politicians to change some of the fundamental ways we do things in our country – quite the opposite.  Societies, like individuals, seem to grow complacent;  from time to time they need to ponder shifts.  Reforms, not the reformers, are the thing.  Augustus was hardly more successful 2000 years ago in his attempts at the “moral” betterment of the Romans than more recent crusaders elsewhere attempting to alter human nature.

And although he employed brutal methods in a brutal age to seize power from brutal men, he did in fact save Rome from itself, bringing about in many essential areas – government organization, veterans’ affairs, foreign policy, political stability, just to mention a few – a deep and lasting change that enabled Rome to endure centuries beyond his own era.  The private lives and youthful acts of public figures positioned to remake society are demonstrably not – and in my view should not be – the sole and defining criterion for a capacity on their part to serve country and fellow citizens to noteworthy benefit.

Without wishing to suggest comparisons in any sense invidious in the personal details of ancient and modern leaders, I for one do hope that a modern democrat (Democratic or Republican) can bring about much needed national reform that is for our time and our place as successful as that of an ancient autocrat was for an imploding Rome.  And in all of this we must recall, finally, that you and I in 2011 C.E., unlike the ancient Roman citizen (never mind all the slaves!) in the last decades of the first century B.C., have the treasured right to let our voices, however small individually, be heard in this matter in all their collective power and diversity.

Go, 2012!

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