Lawyer, Liar!

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Crassus was the Millionaire, Pompey Magnus was the Soldier, Caesar was the Politician and it can be said that Cicero in his day was, as an Orator, the equal to those big three.  He was offered a seat at the big table and turned it down.

I grew up in a world that pronounced his name Sissero, but now Kickero is more widely deemed correct.

Born on this day in 106 BC to a family with no prior political standing he was immensely proud of his record of rising up the Greasy Pole of Roman Politics; the cursus honorum, achieving each step “in his year”.  That is to say that he attained each step on the ladder of promotion at the earliest possible juncture.

A self admitted coward he shunned military life.  His fight was in the courtrooms and the senate.  His influence on latin was immense and it was he, not Caesar, who was the model for written and spoken latin.

He was a great lawyer and a great liar.  He maintained that no argument was so weak that oratory could not make it believable.  If he had no argument he attacked the defendant, or he made one up.  “I criticize by creation; not by finding fault”.

His greatest lie was his defence of the Roman Republic.  He sided with the Senate.  He defended the “republican” rights of ordinary Romans while at every step he opposed the reforms proposed by the Caesar camp to provide land and voting rights to the commons.  In public he defended the rights of a class of poor people that in private he despised.  In this he serves as the posterboy for that class of politician who adopts populism to mask an extreme capitalist agenda.  The kind of politician who tries to sell trickle down economics as an excuse to tax the poor and exempt the rich.

Every plutocrat and oligarch should study the works of Marcus Tullius Cicero.

The Cabbage Farmer

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Emperor Diocletian began his reign as ruler of Rome on November 20th 284 AD.  In 305 AD he did the unthinkable for a Roman Emperor; he retired.  He expressed a desire to live in his estate and grow cabbages.  He was very proud of his cabbages.  The modern Croatian town of Split is centred on the villa of Diocletian.

Diocletian rose to power in the “Crisis of the 3rd Century” when Rome was falling apart as one general after another competed for the top job.  Diocletian established a system called the Tetrarchy, four rulers, as a means to stabilise the empire.

Both Eastern and Western Empire had a senior Augustus and a junior Caesar.  His new system worked successfully until the rise of Constantine the Great, who became another Augustus, founding New Rome in Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, and now Istanbul.

Diocletian was the only Emperor I know of to retire.  Emperors died in office, were assasinated or forced to abdicate.  The only other Roman I can think of who retired, without being forced to leave, was Sulla.  In 78 BC Lucius Cornelius Sulla astoundingly retired from his Lifetime Dictatorship to write his memoirs and live a life of luxury on his country estate.  His departure from power is celebrated as his moment of ultimate glory in the verse from Byron below.

That Diocletian retired was a mark of his commitment to peaceful succession.  The ultimate failure of his system, within mere decades, underlines how difficult it is to have power hungry leaders give up the reins of power.  Democratic systems succeed only if they prevent a return to family dynasties.

Donald Trump likes to float the notion, from time to time, of a presidency for life.  Vladimir Putin has gone further and established one using some smoke and mirrors.  In North Korea the cult of the leader has entirely undermined socialist principles of meritocracy by establishing a 3 generation dynastic rule.

Great leaders are great until they go bad, and then they become really terrible.  Limit your leaders.  Give them a maximum time limit.  They may suggest a candidate to follow them, but don’t let them choose one.

 

From the “Ode to Napoleon Buonoparte”; by George Gordan, Lord Byron

VII

The Roman, when his burning heart
was slaked with blood of Rome,
threw down the dagger — dared depart,
in savage grandeur, home —
he dared depart in utter scorn
of men that such a yoke had borne,
yet left him such a doom!
His only glory was that hour
of self-upheld abandon’d power.

 

Vercingetorix

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“Oh”

My last word.  Cut short.

Choked off as they say, by the ligature.

 

“Eau”

My last drink, a bitter draught.

Hemlock were better.

 

Oh.  Eau.  Auvergne.  Land of the Arverni.

My last freedom.

Five years past.

Freedom surrendered to Caesar to save my people.

 

Verse.  No poet I.

Verse in….

In what?  It was poetic for a time.

Glorious.  Heroic.  Foolish.

 

Vercingetorix.

Yes.  Now I recall.

At Alesia, beneath the Yoke.

Beneath Caesar.

He is bald.

He hides it with a wreath.

 

My hair long, free, in the Celtic way.

Proud, so proud.

Oh how proud.

Oh, Oh, Oh.

O.

Carpe Diem

Born in the Consulship of Cotta and Torquatus (65BC) the poet we now know as Horace lived through the greatest era of Roman History.  In the year he was born Pompey Magnus was at the very height of his power.  He was fighting Tigranes in Armenia and Mithridates the Great.  Julius Caesar was Consul in Horace’s second year of life, and Cicero was consul in his third year.

He lived through the two Civil wars that defined the boundary between Republican Rome and Imperial Rome.  Too young to participate in the Civil War of Julius Caesar.  He found himself on the wrong side in the Octavian civil war at the Battle of Philippi (42BC) where he was on the losing side with Brutus and Cassius.

Luckily Horace was favoured by Maecenas, Octavians right hand man and an avid patron of the arts.  Horace became an Imperial court poet under Augustus.  He was in the inner circle during the creation of the Roman Empire.  He saw the young Octavian rise to become Princeps and then Augustus.

So, as it is your birthday, Happy Birthday Horace.  Seize the day!

 

Ode I-XI “Carpe Diem”; by Quintus Horatius Flaccus

Ask not Leuconoë for we never know
what fate the gods grant, your fate or mine.
Waste no time on futile Babylonian astrological reckonings.
Better by far to suffer what comes
whether Jupiter grants us more winters or if this, our last
is stripped away like those cliffs by the Tyrrhenian sea.
Be wise, mix the wine, life is short, temper your long term ambitions.
Time is envious of this moment, even as we speak: Seize the day, trust not to tomorrow.

Topless towers burnt down

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Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? asked Christopher Marlowe in Dr Faustus.

Ilium, the city of Troy, canvas of heroes.  On the fields of Troy Homer introduced us to Ajax, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Priam, Hector, Paris and a cast of thousands.  Achilles the almost invincible and his lover Patroclus.  Cassandra who saw the future but was cursed never to be believed.  The wily Odysseus, AKA Ulysses and his 20 year journey home.  The seeds planted in Troy have germinated and multiplied to inspire a wealth of literature from ancient to modern times.

The Julii Caesares, who gave us Caesar and Augustus, claimed descent from the hero Aeneas who fled from burning Troy with his bride, a daughter of Priam.  Virgil made a career of that tale in the court of the First Emperor of Rome.

It was ostensibly on this day, April 24th in the year 1184 BC that Troy was sacked and burned by the Greeks.  For many that was as far as the myth went.  Then Heinrich Schliemann, a German Businessman, decided that there was no smoke without fire.  So he read Homer as a travel guide instead of as a legend.  He followed the clues and lo and behold he found the ancient city.  Burned, exactly as described.

He bedecked his wife in the jewelry he found there and put her on display for high society to see.  Then he followed more clues and found the tomb of Agamemnon at Mycenae.  A new form of archaeology was born and led to many discoveries all over the world.  Today the science has evolved to the point where Satellite images from earth orbit are being used to search for ancient sites.

 

No Second Troy; by William Butler Yeats

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
with misery, or that she would of late
have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
or hurled the little streets upon the great,
had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
that nobleness made simple as a fire,
with beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
that is not natural in an age like this,
being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

Happy Birthday Petrarch

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Eugene Delacroix : Christ on the sea of Galilee

Born on this day in 1304 Petrarch is called by some the father of the Renaissance, by others the father of Humanism and by still others as the father of the Sonnet.  It takes a great man indeed to father so many illustrious children.  Mountaineers consider him the first Alpinist as he is the first person recorded to ascend a mountain (Mont Ventoux) for recreation alone.

A latin scholar he encouraged other scholars to scour the libraries of the world for the writings of ancient Greece and Rome.  He acquired a copy of Homer’s Odyssey but lamented his lack of Greek saying that “Homer was dumb to me and I was deaf to Homer”.  He had more success with his discovery of a cache of the letters of Cicero, who is our key primary source for the political and judicial goings on in the late Roman Republic when Cicero wrote of the day to day doings of Julius Caesar, Pompeii, Brutus, Cassius, Cato, Marc Anthony et al.

As a writer he was a contemporary and a correspondent of Boccaccio.  His writings had a major impact on the evolution of the modern Italian language.  His use of the poetic form of the Sonnet had an enormous impact on the world of poetry and especially on the works of Shakespeare.  Sonnets are somewhat easier to rhyme in Italian than they are in English, but here is a translation of one of his poems.  It sits nicely in this blog site as it is a classic “Mind Ship” as he uses the metaphor of a storm battered ship to personify the ravages of age.

La vita fugge, et non s’arresta una hora; by Francesco Petrarch (Trans A.S. Kline)

Life flies, and never stays an hour,
and death comes on behind with its dark day,
and present things and past things
embattle me, and future things as well:
and remembrance and expectation grip my heart,
now on this side, now on that, so that in truth,
if I did not take pity on myself,
I would have freed myself already from all thought.
A sweetness that the sad heart knew
returns to me: yet from another quarter
I see the storm-winds rattling my sails:
I see no chance of harbour, and my helmsman
is weary now, and my masts and ropes are broken,
and the beautiful stars, I used to gaze on, quenched.

Sic semper tyrannis

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So said Brutus as he drove his blade into the body of Julius Caesar.  “Thus to all tyrants”.

Brutus was hailed as the noblest of the assassins of Caesar, who was motivated by the good of the state and not by personal desires.  Still, was he exactly happy that his mother was mistress to the great JC?

Ultimately Brutus paid dearly for his defense of the Republic.  He was defeated in the final battle of the wars of the second triumvirate, losing to combined forces of Anthony and Octavian.  When he lost Second Philippi Brutus took his own life.

Brutus had two of his men brace his sword while he ran himself on to it.  His final words were “By all means must we fly; not with our feet, however, but with our hands”.  And then he called out “Zeus!  Judge the authors of these crimes.”

Oct 23rd, 42BC.