Posts Tagged ‘Roman history’

Et Cetera

Posted in General on March 28th, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Mildreadful Pierce

I gave up watching the histrionic melodrama after 15 minutes of unadulterated annoyance.  Somehow the character Mildred Pierce managed to be offensive and dull, a remarkable tandem in itself.  It might be a compliment to Kate Winslet’s talent or a question of director Todd Haynes’ sanity.  In either case, however, it was not an incentive to watch.  On the contrary, the Pierce character could make baking a pie quite irritating.  I am surprised that her henpecked husband did not push the pie in her face.  I would have; Mohandas Gandhi would have.  Then we meet Pierce’s daughters.  Where was Margaret Sanger when we needed her!  The younger child is completely talentless but still insists on doing Jolson impressions.  The older brat apparently is adopted and is really the child Wallis Simpson had with Benito Mussolini. 

Yes, I am describing a comedy.  Unfortunately,  Todd Haynes did not realize it.  By distending this melodrama, he has made “Mildred Pierce” into an elephantine farce.  In this production, Kate Winslet is hopelessly miscast.  This Mildred Pierce really should be played by Harvey Fierstein or “Dame Edna Everage.”  If you are going camp, you don’t do it in half-measures.  Where was John Waters when we needed him!

Craigslist A.D. 193

There were some advantages to being a Roman emperor. For instance, until the fifth century, the pay was excellent. You would rarely be turned down at an orgy. Furthermore, the job would never be outsourced to India, if only because the Romans had but a vague notion about India’s location.

Longevity, however, was another matter. From an actuarial perspective, an emperor would have regarded murder as a natural cause of death. In a period of five centuries, Rome had more than 80 emperors. The total is imprecise because the imperial reigns often were.

The Emperor Pertinax might have expected a longer reign. He certainly was an improvement over his predecessor, the debauched and incompetent Commodus. (You remember him from “Gladiator.”) Indeed, on his own merits, Pertinax had the makings of an excellent ruler. He was conscientious, honest and capable. You could add frugality to his virtues, but that actually was a flaw in Rome. The people wanted their bread and circuses, and the Praetorian Guard expected “donations”.

The Praetorians could overlook any vice in an emperor but stinginess. Pertinax had every virtue but generosity, so he did not survive his bodyguards. Today is that dubious anniversary.

The impulsive Praetorians seized the throne but had no one to occupy it. Then the extravagantly rich Didius Julianus,  the Donald Trump of his day, simply decided to buy the position of emperor. He showed up at the Praetorians’ camp and proceeded to bid for their loyalty. Another patrician competed in the auction for the Empire, but Julianus outbid him. His purchased Praetorians then cowed the Senate into acclaiming him the emperor.

The Praetorians’ loyalty lasted two months. When an ambitious general marched on Rome, the imperial guard switched sides again. Julianus did not live to regret it. He now is remembered as a joke. (The same might be said of Donald Trump.)

The Repulsive Shall Inherit the Earth–at least one did.

Posted in General, On This Day on September 23rd, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

September 23, 63 B.C.:  Happy Birthday Octavius.

The Emperor Augustus commands our respect.  His teenage self was more deserving of a good slap.  You could imagine this short, puny, overbearing 18 year-old at the University of Chicago but not the inheritor of the Roman Empire.  Yet, that was exactly what the teenager demanded when he showed up, unannounced, at the home of Marc Antony in May, 44 B.C.

In the two months since the murder of Julius Caesar, Antony had demonstrated genuine brilliance as a politician.  The very fact that he was alive is proof.  On the Ides of March,  Caesar’s family, friends and partisans were also at the mercy of the conspirators–the self-proclaimed Liberatores.   Any resistance or the least misstep would have led to a purge, with Antony’s name on the top of the list.

The majority in the Roman Senate had not been involved in the assassination, but it certainly seemed acquiescent.  The august patricians were a pliant lot, as obliging to the Liberatores as they had been to Caesar.  The Liberatores demanded that Caesar be declared a tyrant whose murder was a patriotic and justifiable act.  Most of Caesar’s senatorial allies were understandably absent from the Senate, but Marc Antony had not fled or was even quiet.  He did not question the justification for Caesar’s death but he did raise the most interesting technical objection to declaring Caesar a tyrant.

If Caesar were indeed a tyrant, then all his laws and his actions were invalid.  That would include every appointment which Caesar had made.  Unfortunately, Antony noted, many of the Senators and their relatives were filling those posts as of that moment.  It would be a administrative nightmare and a personal tragedy if so many people were immediately stripped of their honorable and often very lucrative posts.

Now the question before the Senators was not liberty versus tyranny, but liberty versus their families’ net worth.  Yet, the Senate hoped to avert a civil war and so, until he was ready, did Marc Antony.  He offered this compromise:  Caesar was no tyrant but his murderers were fully pardoned.  Furthermore, their leaders were to be appointed to important posts far from Rome.  Brutus and Cassius may have realized that they were tactfully exiled, but in control of the rich provinces of the East they could raise an army to challenge their enemies in Rome.  Antony knew that as well, but he was playing for time.  With friends in Gallia and Iberia and being in Italia, he could raise an army, too.

As the executor of Caesar’s will, he began spending large sums on the recruitment of friendly legions.  Unfortunately, the chief heir to that will, Caesar’s great-nephew Octavius did not appreciate the expenditures.  Furthermore, he objected to the compromises with Caesar’s murderers.  Octavian, now styling himself as Caesar, showed up at Antony’s home and demanded an explanation.  The obnoxious youngster was kept waiting, but Antony eventually saw him.

According to the historian Appian, Antony offered two answers to young Caesar’s objections.   The first was a detailed account of the political situation that faced Antony and Caesar’s family and friends, and how his compromises and expenses were protecting them until the day that they could exact their revenge.  Antony’s second explanation was more personal: he really didn’t need to explain his actions to a presumptuous brat, so Octavius should never bother him again.

Well, as we know, Octavius did.  But if Antony dismissed the annoying kid, the Roman Senate adopted him.  The Senators saw in him a rival claimant to the Caesar faction, someone to undermine the growing power of Marc Antony.  Young Caesar was a senator at 19, and a general with consular powers when he was 20. Of course, the Senators just knew that they could control him.  As Cicero said of Octavius, “He is an admirable youth who should be praised and ignored.”

After all, he was just a short, puny, overbearing kid.

Germania–with the emphasis on mania

Posted in General, On This Day on September 9th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

September 9, 9:  Three Legions March into a German Forest; You Might Still Find the Body Fragments

Rome presumed that it controlled Germany from the Rhine to the Elbe, but the Germans were unaware of it. Their response to Roman tax collectors was to murder them. In A.D. 9, Rome sent three legions to crush German resistance. The Roman commander was Quinctilius Varus, whose chief qualification was being Augustus’ grandnephew-in-law. Varus did have talent for suppression. While governor of Syria, he taught Roman etiquette in Galilee, crucifying 2,000 unappreciative Jews, none of whom became celebrities.

Perhaps Varus expected an equal demand for crucifixions in Germany and wanted an ample supply of wood. He marched his legions into the Teutoburg Forest. They never came out. Actually, Varus’ head did, a momento from the German leader to Augustus. Rome launched punitive expeditions under more of Augustus’ in-laws. Fortunately, they were better generals and averted annihilation. When the Romans came upon the battle site of the Teutoburg Forest, even hardened legionaires were amazed at German etiquette. The captured Romans had been burned alive.  Setting the decor standards for Biedermeier, Roman skulls were nailed to the trees.  However, the most impressive expression of the German personality was that the Roman horses had been hanged! Rome decided that the Rhine was a satisfactory border for the Empire.

So, the Romans did not subdue Germany. Otherwise, Munich now would be called Monaco, and Wagner’s operas would be three hours shorter and far more melodious.

p.s.  For more information on Germania–or whatever it is called:  http://finermanworks.com/your_rda_of_irony/2006/10/02/a-mystery-of-the-map/

p.p.s.  And if your memory is as bad as the Scottish army was in 1513, here is another anniversary: http://finermanworks.com/your_rda_of_irony/2008/09/09/on-this-day-in-1513/

When In Rome

Posted in General, On This Day on August 27th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it also took three days to sack. The Visigoths ended their rampage on this day in 410.

At the time, Rome was little more than a very rich mausoleum. The Eastern–more stable–half of the Roman Empire was ruled from Constantinople. The Western, reeling half was now tenuously ruled from Ravenna. The Roman Empire had dispensed with Rome. Nonetheless, the former capital contained the accumulated treasures of Rome’s past glories, and the Visigoths wanted to pay their respects.

But where was the Roman army to prevent the barbarian rampage? Well, the barbarian horde was the Roman army–although flagrantly A.W.O.L. For some 20 years, the Visigoths had served the Empire fighting other barbarians, but it had not been the most gratifying experience. Under Roman command, they found themselves expendable and unappreciated–the heaviest casualties but the last to be paid. So the Visigoths decided that being Rome’s enemy would be more fulfilling and lucrative.

Led by Alaric, the Visigoths rampaged through Greece, the Balkans and then Italy. Of course, Rome was part of the itinerary, and there really was nothing to stop them. Yet, the old capital was surrounded by stout walls and should have withstood the barbarian attack. The Visigoths actually lacked the manpower to completely surround and besiege Rome; they only managed to blockade Rome’s gates. They also lacked the siege equipment to breach Rome’s walls. Yet, those walls did lack the real deterrent: anyone to man them. The Romans now were so craven that treachery prevailed. Someone opened a gate to the Visigoths. There was some Roman resistance; it lasted a day.

The Visigoths sacked the city: looting and rape were wholesale, and the slaughter–more limited–but still an enthusiastic demonstration of long-held grudges. Yet, the Visigoths did adhere to one restraint. They were Christian–albeit Arians who confused Jesus with Thor–and so spared the churches, which only recently had confiscated the wealth of the Pagan temples. Nonetheless, there still were government buildings and palaces to loot, and citizens to rob. The Visigoths also qualified as liberals; they freed slaves–a considerable segment of the Roman society.

Alaric died soon after sacking Rome. Let’s face it, his life would have been anticlimactic after that. He was succeeded by his kinsman Ataulf (yep, that’s the fifth century form of Adolf) who led the Visigoths into Spain, which they conquered and ruled until the Moors dropped by. There are some traces of the Visigothic presence in Spain today. Juan Carlos certainly is one; the family tree has Visigothic roots. And there is a region of Spain originally named Gothalonia; the Spanish now mispronounce it as Catalonia.

And in 455, the Vandals sacked Rome. They refrained from rape and slaughter, but they did rob the Churches. So, Visigoth or Vandal: guess who has the worse reputation?

Craigslist: A.D. 193

Posted in On This Day on March 28th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

There were some advantages to being a Roman emperor. For instance, until the fifth century, the pay was excellent. You would rarely be turned down at an orgy. Furthermore, the job would never be outsourced to India, if only because the Romans had but a vague notion about India’s location.

Longevity, however, was another matter. From an actuarial perspective, an emperor would have regarded murder as a natural cause of death. In a period of five centuries, Rome had more than 80 emperors. The total is imprecise because the imperial reigns often were.

The Emperor Pertinax might have expected a longer reign. He certainly was an improvement over his predecessor, the debauched and incompetent Commodus. (You remember him from “Gladiator.”) Indeed, on his own merits, Pertinax had the makings of an excellent ruler. He was conscientious, honest and capable. You could add frugality to his virtues, but that actually was a flaw in Rome. The people wanted their bread and circuses, and the Praetorian Guard expected “donations”.

The Praetorians could overlook any vice in an emperor but stinginess. Pertinax had every virtue but generosity, so he did not survive his bodyguards. Today is that dubious anniversary.

The impulsive Praetorians seized the throne but had no one to occupy it. Then the extravagantly rich Didius Julianus,  the Donald Trump of his day, simply decided to buy the position of emperor. He showed up at the Praetorians’ camp and proceeded to bid for their loyalty. Another patrician competed in the auction for the Empire, but Julianus outbid him. His purchased Praetorians then cowed the Senate into acclaiming him the emperor.

The Praetorians’ loyalty lasted two months. When an ambitious general marched on Rome, the imperial guard switched sides again. Julianus did not live to regret it. He now is remembered as a joke. (The same might be said of Donald Trump.)

When in Rome

Posted in General, On This Day on August 25th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it also took three days to sack. The Visigoths ended their rampage on this day in 410.

At the time, Rome was little more than a very rich mausoleum. The Eastern–more stable–half of the Roman Empire was ruled from Constantinople. The Western, reeling half was now tenuously ruled from Ravenna. The Roman Empire had dispensed with Rome. Nonetheless, the former capital contained the accumulated treasures of Rome’s past glories, and the Visigoths wanted to pay their respects.

But where was the Roman army to prevent the barbarian rampage? Well, the barbarian horde was the Roman army–although flagrantly A.W.O.L. For some 20 years, the Visigoths had served the Empire fighting other barbarians, but it had not been the most gratifying experience. Under Roman command, they found themselves expendable and unappreciated–the heaviest casualties but the last to be paid. So the Visigoths decided that being Rome’s enemy would be more fulfilling and lucrative.

Led by Alaric, the Visigoths rampaged through Greece, the Balkans and then Italy. Of course, Rome was part of the itinerary, and there really was nothing to stop them. Yet, the old capital was surrounded by stout walls and should have withstood the barbarian attack. The Visigoths actually lacked the manpower to completely surround and besiege Rome; they only managed to blockade Rome’s gates. They also lacked the siege equipment to breach Rome’s walls. Yet, those walls did lack the real deterrent: anyone to man them. The Romans now were so craven that treachery prevailed. Someone opened a gate to the Visigoths. There was some Roman resistance; it lasted a day.

The Visigoths sacked the city: looting and rape were wholesale, and the slaughter–more limited–but still an enthusiastic demonstration of long-held grudges. Yet, the Visigoths did adhere to one restraint. They were Christian–albeit Arians who confused Jesus with Thor–and so spared the churches, which only recently had confiscated the wealth of the Pagan temples. Nonetheless, there still were government buildings and palaces to loot, and citizens to rob. The Visigoths also qualified as liberals; they freed slaves–a considerable segment of the Roman society.

Alaric died soon after sacking Rome. Let’s face it, his life would have been anticlimactic after that. He was succeeded by his kinsman Ataulf (yep, that’s the fifth century form of Adolf) who led the Visigoths into Spain, which they conquered and ruled until the Moors dropped by. There are some traces of the Visigothic presence in Spain today. Juan Carlos certainly is one; the family tree has Visigothic roots. And there is a region of Spain originally named Gothalonia; the Spanish now mispronounce it as Catalonia.

And in 455, the Vandals sacked Rome. They refrained from rape and slaughter, but they did rob the Churches. So, Visigoth or Vandal: guess who has the worse reputation?

Ghostwriting for Caligula

Posted in General on January 20th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

As the ongoing–and ongoing–political campaign reminds us, the history of rhetoric is replete with the shameless and the preposterous. Let me reassure you, however, that it could be worse. From a speechwriter’s perspective, the Roman Empire was the Golden Age of hypocrisy.

There has never been a more shameless gang of orators than the Roman Senate. Those patricians once ruled the Roman Republic, but they abdicated their power and self-respect. Their sole remaining responsibility was to flatter the Emperor. The senators did not merely praise the tyrant; they prayed to him. Their speeches were orgies of hyperbole. Of course, such profuse unction was often prudent. If faced with the choice of death or hypocrisy, you too might decide that Nero was an artistic genius. Most of the Emperors, however, were not mad or particularly murderous; they limited their killing to predecessors, their own relatives and the aspiring saints.

If terror did not inspire the speakers, ambition did. The speeches actually were audition for government office. Within the Empire’s bureaucracy, there were many prestigious positions that offered wonderful opportunities for graft. When the Emperor had to fill such posts, he certainly chose his most devoted advocates. The positions required some ability, but the Emperor did not mistake flattery for talent. On the contrary, the Romans appraised a man’s talents by his mastery of rhetoric. An excellent speaker demonstrated intelligence, education and discipline. His sincerity was irrelevant, but his eloquence made him a suitable candidate for honors and office.

One can only imagine the ambition that prompted this praise of the Emperor Elagabalus. The third-century ruler was proclaimed the son of a god, “the unconquered, the supreme, the harmonious.” In fact, Elagabalus was a teenage transvestite; he was considered such an embarrassment that his own grandmother arranged his murder. From the third century, we also have this example of a profitable speech.

The Emperor Philippus was depressed by his own incompetence, so he went to the Senate for reassurance. In that chorus of sycophants, Senator Decius distinguished himself. The orator exclaimed that the Gods were devoted to Philippus; an Emperor so beloved by Olympus need have no worries on earth. Philippus’ confidence was restored, and he rewarded Decius with a strategic command in the army. Perhaps the Gods were devoted to Philippus, but the army and Decius were not. A year later, Decius was the Emperor. He was to reign only two years, but at least he was not killed by a fellow speechwriter.

Roman Nostalgia

Posted in On This Day on January 15th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Nero was the last of the Caesars; kicking to death a pregnant wife is not good for a dynasty. His uncle Caligula had merely thought himself a God; Nero was less modest and insisted on a career in show business. The entire Empire was a captive audience to this aspiring Homer. In fact, he did put on a good–and free–show with lavish spectacles that the audience enjoyed. Nero may have terrorized the patrician class and some obscure Jewish sect, but the public generally liked him.

However, the Emperor was not an elective position, and the pudgy, melodramatic Nero did not command the respect or loyalty of the generals, each of whom fancied himself a more suitable emperor. Rebellion was inevitable, and Nero’s response was to kill himself. He was succeeded by Galba, a man everyone respected but no one really liked. The cheap and charmless bureaucrat quickly inspired a wave of nostalgia for Nero. A playboy patrician named Otho exploited this popularity as well as the Praetorian guards’ susceptibility to bribes. In less than a year, Galba was dead and Otho was emperor, a reign beginning on this day in A.D. 69.

Unfortunately, Otho was less impressive than Nero. People tended to remember Otho for his wig, so he was not likely to have a long reign. Within a few months, he was overthrown by a Roman general named Vitellius. People tended to remember Vitellius for his gluttony; he didn’t last long either. Within a few months, he was overthrown by a Roman named Vespasian. (The year A.D. 69 would have an exhausting time for whomever was supposed to update the emperor’s portrait on the coinage.) People tended to remember Vespasian for his ability; he lasted ten years and had the originality to die of natural causes.

Born of more modest origins than a Caesar and conscious of his blood-stained inauguration, Vespasian sought to ingratiate himself with the Roman populace. His gift to the city is still standing: the Colosseum.

On This Day in 31 B.C.

Posted in General, On This Day on September 2nd, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Octavian (or at least his tougher friend Agrippa) won the naval battle of Actium, triumphing over a drunk and a trollop. (Tony and Cleo would have had a better chance in a barroom brawl.)

Mr. and Mrs. Antony had prepared for this showdown with that annoying Caesar boy by constructing a fleet of massive battleships. Just the name quinquereme suggests that they were twice the size of your standard trireme. The bows were stoutly built to withstand ramming and further protected with brass plating; you’d think that these naval fortresses might still be afloat. Of course, fortresses are not terribly mobile, and neither was the Antonys’ fleet. The ships were too massive, and the fleet’s oarsmen could barely move the deadnoughts. Yes, the quinqueremes would have crushed anything directly in their path, but Octavian’s fleet was not that obliging. The young Caesar’s ships kept moving and shooting, riddling the paralyzed behemoths until they literally were dead in the water.

Not feeling particularly suicidal that day, Cleopatra fled the battle and sailed home to Egypt. Seeing her flight, Antony abandoned his flagship and hitched a ride on Cleopatra’s galley. The rest of his fleet did not have that option, and either incinerated or surrendered. Watching the debacle from the Greek shore was Antony’s army. Without the support of the navy or the presence of their commander, Antony’s 19 legions soon surrendered to Octavian.

Marc Antony once had possessed such respect and charisma that, after losing a battle, he persuaded the victorious army to defect to him. Now, for the decadent sot, the opposite was true. He commanded neither respect nor even a viable army. His forces in Egypt either deserted or defected. Puny, reptilian Octavian had won. In any case, you have seen the movie. The drunk with the beautiful speaking voice stabbed himself, and the beauty with the annoying speaking voice snaked herself.

And that brings us to the first episode of “I, Claudius.”