S. Cornelius’ World: Balthus Whispers an Essay
I, BALTHUS, having come to enjoy this first chance in my life to write, will not be entirely modest about the potential. I will present to you the world. If that seems overstated, I shall be modest, restricting myself to the world of S. Cornelius and thus my own. I will, as I already have, offer commentary. What Rome is, what families are, what milieus provide, what personalities are like, what idiosyncrasy does, all have shaped S. Cornelius. That is everyone’s formation, but his are the more aristocractic and extreme. I summarize him as a decent eccentric and hardly better off for being a Roman with either of those abnormal qualities..
As for myself, I am an excellent fellow, quite modest, very good at my work whatever it demands I am particularly discrete but for here in this writing which, because it will not be read in my lifetime –allows my quill free reign. A further summation, I am as opportunistic as life allows, I am trustworthy but for when I am not, am peaceable but when violent, prizing sobriety particularly when I am hung over, and, since all of that is normal enough, will confess the one peculiarity, that of having a mind puzzled because I have read far too much without instruction in what I should think of it all. Given that, I keep serious thoughts to myself. Now, given opportunity as editor and compiler, I can write to my heart’s content, and do. I am sure I will bore you. When I do, skip pages and curse me, but also be grateful, for I am your window on life and thought hereabouts and S. Cornelius in remarkable particular.
In writing this late introduction to materials which Luke, others and I have collected as this Book, I want to make clear that life around here is ordinary enough not to deserve a daily chronicle, so I strive for overviews. These are of course my take on things, people, and our times. My opinion here may be taken as fact, which is what any man thinks he knows no matter how ignorant he is. No surprise then that I consider myself expert, as does any man who lives anywhere, has eyes and ears, has survived, and owns to a good opinion of himself.
I have had the experience before where others may not share as great an interest in my views as I do. My wife is foremost among these. She often insists that when I am pronouncing on things as a kind of talking essay, I do it in a very low voice. She is hard of hearing. She does not want to hear me. But as a good wife, she will smile occasionally, although she has often been known to leave the room to my most appreciative audience, me, talking there to myself. Should you be like my wife and not wish to learn as much as you need to comprehend our time and ways, I will write a bit of this essay in a whisper. We have a scribe, a slave, with a lovely script. He will write the duller stuff, which nevertheless you should know but might not wish to, in small script. I will have done my didactic duty. Let’s see whether you do yours, that is, read my whispering writ small.
In compiling this Book, Luke, who served bishops Ignatius and Heron, has assisted. He has given me considerable material to incorporate. He and I have talked about Ignatius. It is the affair of Ignatius about which I have inklings, and will do some searching as to facts. There is no question in my mind, and it is a perspicacious mind, that Ignatius was a victim of some conspiracy, as, believe me, you will learn others here have been as well. It is an ugly thing about Rome, and of course its provinces, for where Rome rules, Roman ways follow.
I will shortly begin my whispering. Perhaps you, like my children, listen more closely to a whisper, thinking there is some worthy secret, or salacious news which one will be able to hear. I ordinarily whisper, as others do, of conspiracy, family, rumours and, here bearing on the man himself. Names are part of destiny, although Heraclitus rightly cited character too. Destiny as doom or glory must be whispered, for when the Fates decree, a life is but the page on which those “blessed ones” write. One may also hear of glory, but that writing, those sounds are often self-deceiving. The oracles at Daphne or Delphi will know, most are wisely afraid to ask her. Note that here my whispering is transcribed by our scribes, excellent slaves they are, in smaller letters. How else does one write a whisper?
I am now darkly moved to reflect on conspiracies as beginning and endings. Romans like conspiracies too well. They imagine them Whether or not they have occurred, they are sure they did. They engage in them. They do what they have conspired to do. . At critical moments however, when on that course, they deny conspiracies are in motion. One emperor, I forget who it was, complained that people didn’t believe an emperor who knew he was in danger from conspirators until they had succeeded, until the emperor was killed. This one of course was. Never under- estimate the proportion of middle and higher classes, of imperial associates in the major cities of Rome, who are at any moment conspiring deaths. In the provinces, it has spread to the middling lowly. In Rome the motives are power, wealth or vengeance. In the East, Syria here, lies well done are a goal in themselves. Hereabouts, to lie is instinct making cunning and treachery art forms, and as such, pleasures in themselves. Even those deceived will admire the lie done well.
If one Syrian believes another about a consequential matter, be assured the credulous one is quite mad. The other one, if local will discount madness as but a pose, and will be by deeply wary of the first, wondering what he is really after. Those who preach religions hereabouts are not necessarily exceptions.
Romans have no trouble understanding conspiracies, not even when it is the gods who are at it, or the gods just interfering which is almost the same since it is externality entering human affairs, Deus ex machina, that sort of thing. Naturally Romans pray to the gods to join them in conspiring. Euripides made use of them to get him out of play-writing scrapes, a plot problem for instance. Romans instead use them to create plot problems for others in real life. That’s the sort of bad luck that spelled the end of the house of Atreus. One name for it is Doom. When the Erinyes, as the Furies, sometimes ”the Fates”, plan a life’s story, the plot line is simple. They bring Doom. Happily the Cornelii have had as many successful as ill-fated closings.. Great families especially, in traveling come to too many crossroads. Hecate is there grinning at every one of the great who come by. She cannibalizes destinies.
I am going to recount some family history to you. It is I trust but coincidence of names that another and earlier Drusus, Marcus Livius, tribune, angered that the Cornelia born, Sempronius Gracchi brothers, both tribunes as well, wanted to give citizenship to all Italians. They also distributed land to the poor, and reformed government finance. This Drusus was the major conspirator in the murder of the Cornelian Gracchi tribunes. As many say and his name suggests, these Sempronius Gracchi were direct ancestors to our S. Cornelius here. He has the curse of good and bad of bloodlines and luck all mixed up. He has Hecate’s crossroads mapped by his very veins.
My mind wanders here, I apologize but I feel pushed off my brain’s purposed path by malevolent force, but that is nonsense. These flimsy connections are but Rome’s murderous history, that full of Cornelii names. In Rome there have been an uncountable number of conspiracies. The rule seems that a death wished for finds company whereby to achieve it, so with the Cornelii. Consider conspiracies: Brutus against Julius Caesar, Druses against the Cornelian Gracchi, servants and Tiberus’ earlier wife Livia Drusilla with Sejanus conspiring against her husband, a later Drusus who died of the disease of conspiracy. I must then be mindful of the good of our time and its principal guarantor, Emperor Hadrian. As loyal subject I particularly pray for his health-which will require attentiveness to not being poisoned. One also prays for immunity from knives. What he does no receive he may yet dispense. Hadrian executes carriers of the conspiratorial disease, sometimes doing so while infected with their same disorder.
I will make an offering to Minerva in proof, promise and propitiation, yes, I am inconsistent, earlier I said these Roman gods were but show. Well, sorry, a man can be of two minds respecting the gods. My prayer to them now is for the health and longevity of Publius Marcellus who governs Syria easily with a light, but of course outstretched, hand. He extorts no more money than those before him. Syria has not always had luck with governors, or emperors either. I know of two Cornelii -related failures here in Syria. Dolabella, a Cornelii, rumored to be Caesar’ illegitimate son, if so, in marrying Caesar’s daughter he was incestuous. Either way he was dissolute. Dishonest, and an assassin, he murdered the republican governor of Syria to rule Syria after Caesar was killed. He plundered the province, thereby arousing the ire of the Senate who sent an army after him, and in spite of Cleopatra’s military support all was lost. He killed himself. Cleopatra may have been his mother, but in Rome that guarantees no “affection,” indeed Latin does not have the word, one uses the Greek one. Reflect on this, no word “affection”! What does that tell the world about relationships in Rome? “Love”? Yes, “amor” of course, but too often only the Greek “eros”. Argue that the Latin “caritas” means “affection”? Hardly, “charity” or “caring” maybe, but not the deeper stuff .Take it as basic, Rome is a place without love.
I continue to give you familial history. It is what the upper classes breathe, dine off of, wear, are fated by, unless of course the gods whimsically intervene. With the god- luck of the Cornelii, our S. Cornelius here better pray there’s a reliable god on his side. Reliable? Not in our pantheon; we shall have to find a new god for that.
Another Syrian governor, quite recent, was a Cornelius. Make no kin-friendly assumptions of regard, let alone trust, even among close cousins, nor or indeed within marriages. By now, so many descending years from Gracchi-mothering Cornelia and her aristocratic times, most once noble families, if not destroyed by wrath, disease, exile, and the like will have dozens or hundred of descended cousins . There are others with the name but not by blood. That includes Cornelii legally adopted who can count equally as family and heirs. There is another blood-unrelated group, typically freedman slaves who will, if owned by any Cornelii, likely take the name with them into freedom and their new trade. Nor is there anything to stop some freedman, out of admiration and however distant, from taking the name for himself. Indeed anyone of standing sufficient to be allowed three names may in admiration, or effort to impress, with some official approval, may add a “Cornelius”. Writers, careless or scheming may invent or erroneously shape kinships so that other fictitious relationships are invented. And, oh yes, especially in matters of property, inheritance, forgery can do the legitimating job. By all of these routes one can become a Cornelius, over the generations who but an insider or well-informed gossip knows who is legitimate blood?.
Roman records are detailed; the problem is in believing them.
With so many options, permutations and posturing, given further the will to appear better in blood than we are, authentic lineage after a few generations can be unsure. By count then, so many Cornelii among imposters, or casually assumed names among provincials just borrowing status, which is so much easier than working for it ,or descendents of freed slaves long parted from their blood families but still named for a long-ago Roman masters, it is nearly impossible to be sure what is in a name, or who. Given that that people lie about blood ties to make themselves look more famous in ancestry out of which fraud committed, they swell with pride in their falsified selves. Or they claim inheritances.
Kinship by birth or adoption is important in Rome, good for advancement and connections, but dangerous, for you can easily die from it. One is especially likely to be killed the closer he, and assuredly she, get to imperial rights or ambition. In literary evidence, read the teaching record Tacitus tells. There is much there of Cornelius kin, but we need not look only at these to learn. For example, Tacitus writes how the intensity of demonstrations by mobs in Otho’s (just post Nero’s) time were proportionate in size to their insincerity. After telling us how conspirators “preferred the advantage of the moment to the incalculable risks of honor”, after telling us how the five-day-only emperor Piso whose formal adoption by the soon-to-be-murdered emperor Galba, gave Piso one advantage, “he was the first to be murdered”. We learn also that many who assisted Otho in his bloody scramble petitioned him after accession for rewards. Otho had them all killed, for he was mindful that men who would assist him to seize the imperial scepter might do the same for another following his own example. Tacitus, excellent but a bit sour, tells us of Piso’s career dénouement, that the assassins of this so- brief an emperor, that Piso, cut off his head and took it away. That was to force his wife Verana to pay them ransom for it so that she could place the head properly close again to its body for burial! Double-dipping assassins, rolling in money and blood. No matter, for myself I find Tacitus’ gossip amusing. No matter, Rome is the grandest Empire that ever was and might ever be.
My own share of it was bought by 30 years of loyal military service. All legionnaires who live share. That makes us loyal. All emperors reward their legions. That is practical for we defend them and Empire, unless of course we decide who they are to be, our vote allowed Hadrian his succession Yes as a share, Rome is good for the greater number of people spread across the three continents of Empire. Do not count those slaves, whose number may be equal to free subjects, who are not in rich family household, or those lucky few who are, increasingly, administrators in government. More and more are mechanics keeping the machinery of government going. Here in my new office, all the clerks and some supervisors are slaves captured in one war or another. Spartacus led a slave revolt a about l15 years ago, back, but that army’s bodies crucified have been a remembered disincentive. Nowadays we worry mostly about Jews rebelling, for they have a demanding, independent god, The rest of Rome know the alternative to civilization; know the barbarian life in darkest forests, driest deserts, or chained and whipped as slaves to the despots of India or elsewhere south and east. Household slaves here may at least hope to be emancipated, although law forbids one owner manumitting more than 100. The emperor is said to have 20,000 of them. A local adage talks about going through the eye of a needle as the best doorway out.
To know S. Cornelius, as I must, I consider the fabric of his family, for any man is a figure woven in it by those generation-fashioning, child-destining looms. These looms still prize being aristocratic, although blood is of less importance politically, socially, now than in the Republic. Here are other Cornelius kin, now presented in that more easily unattended, smaller scripted, I call it the writer “whispering”. Do not listen if learning all of the family and their contagious fate, which you should, is, even so, not your reader’s pleasure:
Gallus Gaius: a writer, he invented a new kind of love elegy producing four books. He supervised the poet Virgil’s farm. The emperor Octavian made him prefect of Egypt where he managed to negotiate, carrots and sticks in play, that Ethiopia become a Roman client state. He loved himself too much, littered Egypt with statues of himself, inscribed his name on pyramids, inscribed praises to himself on an Egyptian obelisk that would be carried to Rome. He was so obnoxious the Senate condemned him, but allowed him the honor of suicide. He was a distant cousin to my boss.
Fuscus: he hated rank, resigned from the Senate, happily went off to war as praetorian prefect, and was killed near the Danube. In Romania an altar was erected to commemorate him. His attitude toward rank was rather like our S. Cornelius here, but he had an higher one.
Lentulus: he wanted to succeed Cornelian Scipio Africanus (attend to our Cornelius’ name) became an augur, an honorable and important post, since Rome relies on them to foretell the future. There is the gift of prophecy in augurs, understanding mysteries originating in a world beyond Rome. I wonder if our S. Cornelius has inherited such gifts, for there is something odd about him.
Lentulus Marcelinus: he was an excellent administrator without blemish, becoming praetor and consul in Syria about 75 years ago, about the time the legends and advocates of the Christian cult were fermenting. He was an orator of merit. In his administrative skill and quiet career one can see traits of our Cornelius we see too that Syria looms large in the Cornelii imperial, more than republican, service, including its troubles
Palma Frontonianus: no less than my favorite poet Martial -as you know- praised him as governor of Syria, He served only a few years ago at the turn of the century. He acquired Nabatea and the province of Arabia for Rome, that by negotiation not be force, although in such situations there are always a few legions glaring at the weaker party across the table. Another consulship followed, as did riches, power and deserved distinction. Trajan gave him statues and the ornaments of a triumph. I would say his is the kind of career our Scipio Cornelius here could have had he been ambitious, but be glad he didn’t, consider instead the Roman curse. .
Hadrian didn’t have as good an opinion of Palma Frontonianus as did Martial. It is said Hadrian had long harbored some kind of grudge. Perhaps Palma was too loud an homophobe. Almost immediately when Hadrian assumed power, here in Antioch as you remember, Hadrian immediately accused P Frontonianus of conspiring against him along with three other consuls. Call it the risk of hard work and the unquestionable right of emperors to be suspicious, sometimes imaginatively so. All four were executed, just eight years ago. Unlike Ignatius, -or such as Peter and Paul of the Christians who also were taken from Antioch to feed Rome’s entertaining wild beasts- P Frontonianus didn’t even get a free sea voyage to meet his destiny’s executioner in Rome. Perhaps that was merciful, being in chains while seasick lands a lot of puke on your chest. You stink of it through the very end. But it is also said Hadrian may have enjoyed it more, the killing being done here, intimately so to speak, so, as gratifying, one of the first spoils on becoming imperator, since it was likely done even before Hadrian returned to Rome.
I suspect our S. Cornelius knew poor P. Frontonanius, happily not well enough to be seen by Hadrian as politically close. Whether Hadrian had solid ground for his action is not a question you ask in this palace if you wish to keep your own head in place. Not that “grounds” matter, no emperor needs grounds, just a handy executioner. Earlier feted P Frontonianus wasn’t even allowed honorable suicide; a stranger’s blade did him in. This kind of thing, with which I am trying so hard to make you familiar, would account for our Cornelius lack of interest in advancement. The Greek aphorism has it that a man only knows if he has had a happy life at the moment, let us add, “in the circumstances” of his death.
I cite other likely distant cousins. Remember this is my boss’s blood and learned inheritance. I presumed they live in his mind like every rich household’s family gods, those Lars and Penates, reside in niches in the main hallway.
Scipio Publius: augur his only office, thus a seer, conceivably even a religious man. He was also a competent historian of Greece and a respected scholar. Cornelius should admire that, but it is not in his mind to follow.
Scipio Africanus: he was one of the greatest of the clan by reason of conquests, triumphs, regard. I raise my voice for him:
Son and grandson of two also great Cornelii, he lived during the republic. He fought rampaging Hannibal in Italy, captured Carthage, Rome’s only serious enemy—remember Hannibal and his elephants crossing the Alps to attack us? He destroyed the city entirely, sold all in it into slavery, and laid a curse on anyone who might ever settle there again. There was his curse on Hannibal too, who killed himself upon finding no escape, as his later rule over Carthage failed due to Roman fleets. To this day, but for vipers, jackals, leopards and the like, Carthage is dead. And will be forever, so powerful was Scipio’s curse, and the memories of Rome’s vengeance. The columns of burned temples rise silent against the African moon, some say you can hear the shades (“manes”) of slain Carthaginians whisper at night. A cleft in the floor of one ruined temple faintly carries their mournful voices upward from Hades itself. Which is the more desolate, Carthage devastated, ruled by the dry winds or Hades’ desolation ruled by Pluto? No one but visitors to both will know. Such a visitor is twice cursed.
Hannibal sought refuge here in Antioch with Antiochus, fled on to Roman Asia (Bithynia) where, when his host was going to surrender him to vengeful, implacable, pursuing Rome, he poisoned himself.
Scipio visited Antioch before it was fully Roman Syria, conceived policy toward the Jews here, journeyed as far as Parthia, and when home, according primarily to his friends, saved the reputation of his brother–in -law, Sempronius Gracchus, over some Spanish politics, but infuriated him nevertheless. That might be because he, the more powerful and conservative, opposed the socially liberal Gracchus, reversed the land reforms Gracchus initiated, and, while some historians say, vaguely enough, that the Senate murdered Gracchus, it is agreed Scipio Africanus approved the murder. Dark enough, but history is murkier as to whether Scipio had a shadowy hand in the doing. ( Now for the learning in it. learn from it!) It may well have been that Scipio, joining in with his wife, herself Grachus’ own sister and, with his mother-in-law, the famed Grachii-mothering Cornelia herself, assassinated S. Gracchus Now there’s a “family matter” !
Attend to that; It is salutary for sentimentalists! You are, I trust, beginning to appreciate the nature of family relations in Rome. And if that is family, what are the rest of less intimate and “loving” relations going to be like, eh? Whether or not a particular set of suspicions, allegations are accurate hardly matters. Yes, bits of history are theater or masquerade, serve a sustaining mythology, hagiography or leap out as the writer’s revenge. No matter, the Rome of it was, is like that The ground of it is there as it is. Practical. The nature of Rome’s practical greatness cannot be misperceived.
The Empire is a glorious one. It is of little import just whose shades are false accusers, thus still conspirators though dead, as contrasted with those shades’ desiccated lips which justly shape the silent and accusing sounds, those murmurs heard through broken floors of dead temples, those pale dead voices protesting wrong done them. Those thirsty shades, all mankind who are doomed to become them—unless the Christians are correct, but I think they delude themselves—all shades who were victims are condemned to stare impotently at the monuments, statues, arches, emblems and ornaments awarded to their slayers; those betrayers, enslavers, seducers of their children. As for which particular stories come from truthful shades or false ones, none of us are ever to know. We are not sure of our own truths!
What is never to be known cannot properly color the reputation of that Cornelii, Scipio Africanus. He is known as a great and honorable man, friend of philosophers, the most moral and admired of leaders who foresaw – no seer ,only sensible- the end of the republic due to the failed morality of the aristocracy. The Senate was also incompetent. He was the friend of the captive Polybius, the great Greek historian who sought first to negotiate peace with Rome on behalf of the Greeks and, failing, was, with so many others, enslaved. He was appreciated by Scipio and allowed to write. Choosing the rapid rise of Rome as his topic, his curse was to write, as part of that, Athens’s and his own defeat and felt disgrace. He offered, I have not read it but I will pretend to know, sound reasons for Rome’s dominion and his own Athenian disaster. His question, how could Rome so quickly- in half a century- conquer the world ? One answer is found in observing S. Africanus who was resolute, a master general, ambitious, civilized respecting philosophy and the amenities, but foremost he was the epitome of ruthlessness. It is his blood that flows, can it be pre-potently?, in our Quaestor’s veins.
As for Polybius, he was sure we could all learn from history, its regularities. Can we?
I, Balthus, ask: At what cost to himself does our Quaestor tame the calculating savagery Scipio’s blood, and grand-mothering filiocide Cornelia’s bequeathed to him? Shredded and torn in his mind, must this Quaestor be, for his warrior arm and own capabilities to lead men were awesomely displayed, all renounced in his self imposed modesty.Modesty is not the Roman way! What punishment does our Quaestor self-inflict, insisting on only lesser rank, when the Emperor himself would have raised him high? At what cost does this S. Cornelius deny himself, indeed deny Rome, the prizes his inner Scipio and Cornelia would have won him through craft, the savage, and the common sense practicality of Roman ruthlessness. This Quaestor instead seeks the good. It is, perhaps, however elevated philosophically, a punishment. If so how much punishment must he inflict on himself for denying the blood, pursuing a good so foreign to Rome? I am much his inferior. There is yet something I could teach him. Now, for another relative not enjoying
Cornelius Sulla, Faustus: As must a respected Cornelius be, he was a leader of men in battles, first to scale the walls of Jerusalem in the triumphant war against the rebelling jews. He performed good deeds in Rome such as rebuilding the Senate-house after its destruction in the civil war. He too held Quaestor rank.but he sided with Pompey who was attempting to save the Republic after Julius Caesar declared his dictatorship. Pompey, another famous gambler with lives, , lost the crucial battle of Pharsalus after which, this Cornelius Faustus fled to Africa, where he was captured by Caesar’s forces and, was executed by the commander, P. Sittius. I presume Sittius slew him by his own hand. I know myself there can be great pleasure in the resonating “thwack” of it. It would have been a satisfying moment for P. Sittius, the senses wallowing in the rich crunchiness of the neck eating the sword blade, watching a famous Roman’s head fall into the dirt, perhaps even the last blink of Faustus Sulla’s eyes acknowledging as their tearing made him mud. For Sittius this was Rome, being Roman, at its best.
I admire a straightforward hero such as S. Africanus. I would be uneasy with a wife and mother-in-law who were murdering conspirators. What if I myself got out of line? To wake up dead with your wife and mother-in-law admiring their handiwork, oh my. How much of S. Scipio in this Cornelius here? They are, after all, his blood namesakes, and names are said to influence destinies. It is too late for any greatness in his career; he is muddling through without any ambition I can see. Family flotsam perhaps, already having committed himself to be unmemorable. Yet the bitter look on his face tells me there’s something he doesn’t like about it.
Cornelius, S.N.C Publius: a military and political leader. In Rome one qualifies for the political battlefields by success in wars, he was son-in-law of P. Cornelius, a consul, honored with a triumph, his letters were memorialized by Plutarch, the great writer of our own times procedural events forced his abdication, at no cost of his head. Elected head of the Senate, he then was elected high priest and, finally, pontiff, as chief among priests.
I detect, even in these early days of our acquaintance, possible religious interests in our S. Cornelius. Whether these would lead him to leadership there, when the interests of his aristocratic class and his, their wish to retain its power or, alternatively, idealistic hopes for the failed Republic, is not clear. I doubt the former, for he seems a man who would not wish to climb too much higher than a garden wall. Romans, as with him, are as you see, quite ready to cast their lives with the dice, win all, or so they hope, for in winning you may also die. victors devour one another, whether out of care they not suffer the same as they visited, or as an initial pleasing exercise in the power they have achieved. As a rule, those who survive when all is said and done, are good matches for one’s daughter, if for no other reason than the better insurance that your own head, now better protected, will remain connected to your neck.
Do you gain now a sense Roman simplicity respecting rewards, punishments, and the prevalence of mercy? The dice here when thrown lead to triumphs, or the grave. As for the blood traits? Never stated, but some Romans look back to the idea of a Republic, not acknowledging what a terrible failure the Senate, corruption, made of it. I will never speak of these matters to our S. Cornelius, but if the benevolent Gracchus side of blood is too strong in him, as opposed to the conquering, murdering, rich red of a sensible Scipio, he might be foolish for the sake the human good. That is a guaranteed way to fail. No grateful mob avenged the Gracchii death, not even a small crowed gathered to morn. So much then for the good, for social justice expected gratitude, that sort of rot.
The Drusus story I just told, in fact everything I report to you which is of my world, S. Cornelius’, these names, their history, are likely boring, off-putting because you’re not here to live and die with us, not forced to calculate your chances and best moves. You do not roll our dice, although in our rolling them we bring on a bit of your-you have no choice fate as well. ask But attend, for we are your history invisibly-unless you read as is now your opportunity- influencing what you know or do. What we designed that makes for trade, laws, languages, roads and religions to become Empire, worked and, I wager, at least the knowledge of what worked has come down working to you as well. I am no god coming to you in a dream to tell you this; we are ingrained as your past, active in your present and inevitably part of your future.
How does our S. Cornelius look now? A good strong nose, neither hooked nor bulbous as one sees on Egyptians, Syrians, a battle scar still reddish running down his left cheek, eye to chin, and parallel lines of aging as well. A scar slicing through his lip. What else about him do I see?, He is over average height-seeming in Syria even taller for Syrians are all runts, averaging maybe 5’4” -whereas in Rome, it depends on whether as a child you’ve been fed or not, but say an average 5’7` I’d put Cornelius at 5’10” He towered over most but for northern Europeans. Ask now what he knows? As elemental,ant man with so many years at war’s work, will know what basic humans are like. They like wars. Soldiers like booty. That means drink, gold, burning, sex at its best which is in rape. Less energetic and triumphant, soldiers in any settled camp, fraternize, maybe acquiring- one takes, one does not ask- a local wife to do domestic work. War means sanctioned savagery. It means food, honor and a good life, one which must always accept less good deaths, but the battlefield is an happier burial ground than is the lot of the common man who dies of painful illness, or perhaps, in the provinces, of starvation. That common man, if not living in the Empire, can also look forward to his being slaughtered by bandits or invaders, quite possibly after watching his wife and daughters raped before they too are killed. A not so genial world out there, be glad for Rome taming it.
I catch myself now observing trenchantly, philosophizing and speculating profoundly, thinking deeply and wisely, pleasing myself thereby immensely. But you whom I have never met, but S Cornelius are sure are there, “downstream” from us, might be bored, however good for you to attend to my opinionated wisdom. I scold, but I give you permission to skim this brilliant light on Rome, on the current anarchy of the gods, an implied design for a new one. Or alternatively, as S. Cornelius said-he must have been quipping-that then really God’s own excellent design for himself.
So be it then, I whisper, not too softly, my own opinions, and excuse you who, having unswayable opinions of your own, are full of knowledge. You need not read at all!
I say humans must be led. We are best given visions, standards to fight under, close comrades for whom to fight. We like to be roused, excited, and purposeful. Their leaders must excel. A mans normal urge to kill must be channeled. After victories when they feel themselves powerful, they become dangerous. Any power is dangerous unless there are controlling structures; arms, a government, laws and morals, the fear of punishment Even these are not always enough, for some calculating men are exceedingly ambitious.
S. Cornelius will know these things. He commanded, he will know strategy, how to appeal to men, how to coerce them. He will know by blood, rearing and respect that he is superior to most humans, that he is born to responsibilities to Rome, which have included our continuing wars. He has seen his men die and will know what loss is. To command and fight he has passed beyond that human, loyal concern to appear heartless, whatever compassion, sorrow he may harbor inside. Victories require able men, a vital army has experienced one, a leader not prone to extravagant losses earn his men’s trust, it is for these reasons he will not want men to die. Nor will he mind if they must. If he is the very best of strategists, he will want to win his wars before fighting them. Most of us do not progress to that intelligence. If he has, I have no idea his strategy is to win least risk . But now, what might he want to win? There is a great unease in him. He is unsatisfied. One s wary of those biding, hungry looks.
I assume hen his practical education and something beyond that. I see in the sum of his looks a manly fellow with an aristocrat’s, almost haughty, too rough to be patrician, bearing. He is well barbered and bathed, but a certain carelessness, roughness, betrays lack of current care at home or sufficient self attention. This is compatible with inner unease which invited others’ turning away, not toward him. I doubt if he was aware how his fixing eyes- they can put clerk on a skewer without his intending it- put others ill at ease. My intuition is that his look is a shield. It contributes to his somewhat fearsome reputation around the palace, that and his military record, known heroism, and fancy blood lines. No one is going to tangle with him head-to-head. Now that he is in politics, all government at his level is that, the route to destroy him will be through conspiracy, treachery. A man like S. Cornelius invites these Roman arts. It is his innocence.
I myself am in no way bothered or even puzzled by him, for I had and loved a likewise solitary, once heroic yet uneasy brother, What others found opaque, I saw more clearly through the curious and sympathetic lens of my love for his excellence. Am I then a doctor of character? I am.
I began to adopt with Cornelius the manner I had with elder brother Tuisto. It developed slowly I was respectful always, by no means always attentive, as for example when if he rambled. I offered subtle reassurance, low key compliments. Once he began to talk to me, his sentences became complex. One of the best techniques for easing another is to let words be a mirror. Whenever I was unclear as to what he might mean, or he seemed himself searching. I would put as simply as I could what I believed him to feel or intended to mean. He would seem relieved, for such words are a mirror allowing two to look at the same image simultaneously.
At our first meetings, boss to subordinate, the discussions were of our governing business. Since I have little administrating interest, but of course must be seen to do well, and to avoid complaints. I initially deemed much of it boring. Yet an administrator for a province, its capital, responsible for all of its major event, must soon realize that almost every decision is political. The power to allocate, to favor and deny, to direct or to impede, indeed to confound or expedite is, but for military campaigns when senior centurions make decisions on the field. That power resides at this palace center. Imperial edicts telling us what to do are few and specific. In contrast a well governed provincial capital advises the emperor constantly, solicits his decision on all matters unsure ruled by law, precedent, custom but also expedient flexibility. The goal is stability, to keep the peace and the money from trade and taxes flowing We want to bother ourselves and the governed subjects least, which is to encourage thorough conformity to public order, respect for Rome and its symbolizing gods, to maximize production of food and of wealth and some of its distribution in public projects, to get the food requisition to Rome to mollify their mobs, and to feed the appetites of rulers. The legions must always be well fed.
We like to stimulate people’s memories; erect grand statues of heroes to emulate, like, trumpet the greatness of Rome of which they are apart---and to which they owe the everything of their beings. We assist in memory, we post edicts to remind them of law. Whenever subjects protest, then we provide whippings, torture, crucifixions to fix their memories on the cost of disrupting the routines of the city, the cost of our displeasure. We balance measured savagery inflicted on the few with constant entertainment for the many; games, theaters, musicians, freedom to pleasure themselves with drink and tarts, to watch gladiators contesting and criminals devoured by wild animals in the arena. As long as there are wars, or sometimes raids, we can see to the constant supply of slaves. Antiocheans do not like work. Their laziness is an asset in ruling, we like them pleasured, fat and sleek we are not fools In famine we dispense food, although not regularly as in Rome. Here we rule, never the mob.
I have been here only a short time but you see I have learned well. Roman civil service is not that much different from the army. I commanded provincials then, I am a commander now, even if but secretary, for I enjoy a much greater reach. I like my job. I am not at all sure that my boss feels the same way. Someday, since he is very much like my dead brother Tuisto, I expect he will tell me what’s on his mind
There is excellence in clarity in and enforcement of the law, of steadfastness in policy, of Imperial continuity and wisdom. In these Governor Publius Marcellus is reasonably adept, his greed is measured, his indulgences not entirely scandalous, his person pleasant enough, and his rule, so far, not married by riot beyond that normal in a city where many are exceedingly unfortunate. Misery, when exploited by agitators, finds outlet in blame and its visitation on those nearest, however innocent. The fruit of our tree is always ripe for trouble. Whether disease or disaster, tribal differences, many languages, ways of dress, incongruous customs and degrees of insolence, are fuel enough for intrinsic differences to become riot. There are crowds enough always calculating disagreement. “Hatred common among neighbors” as Tacitus observes. Arson, looting are also forms of amusement, with the latter profitable.
The larger the mob the greater the license of impunity, which is why a delinquent leadership recruits the most to do their worst. Whatever the absence of other skills and satisfaction, members of a mob excel in doing harm and enjoying it. In this, the many demons of the night, and their riotous priests exhorting them, are entirely facilitating. Ruling was easier, I know this intuitively, before the gods had become unimportant. The emperor shared in their power, the people feared, obeyed and respected that aggregated strength. I think it was Emperor Tiberius who was the first Imperator who didn’t bother to tend the gods. That he could afford such carelessness signified a fatal moment for the gods. Nowadays it is rare to regard those gods who are public figures with any emotion. Duties to them, however formally compelling, are superficial. It is at the personal level that one fears their whimsy or annoyance, prays, tends, or intensely propitiates. The folk believe, the State does not. Rome performs, it neither respects nor reveres. That is of no matter, for our gods are like us, they are not interested in sentiment, but in material tribute and public show.
With the Jews misfortune is due to the anger of their Yahweh over his people’s failings. This signifies a people of conscience riven with potential guilt. The man, not his god is responsible, but for creation, alliance and blessing. There is a kind of optimism in that. Mankind manages its own affairs, secure crops, children, triumph over its enemies by behaving righteously as prescribed by Hebrew law, for in doing that they will blessed by a pleased and protecting Yahweh god. Both sides will observe the Covenant. In contrast, Romans, who have no covenants, not even with one another, are not possessed of conscience, guilt or responsibility before the gods. They make their way with practicality, brute power, cunning and the mechanics of offerings. With no power greater than them, the limitations of which are daily evident, no Roman can be at ease beyond the moment, none can enjoy deep optimism beyond the moment. This is a profound contrast. It accounts for, some estimating that almost one in ten urban Romans converted to Judaism, at least before the Jews’ own destructive madness was unleashed. As with aspirants for the imperium, their Yahweh demanded for his Temple and People complete power and preeminence. Their revolt, the Jewish Wars and more recent insurrections, have made the very name of “Jew”, once admired above all other tribes in the Empire, fraught with suspicion.
Jews failed, as I understand this was in earlier wars as well, to recognize that their Yahweh was not as good a warrior general as they believed. Good but not good enough. They lacked the Roman common sense, the sensible estimate of where effective power lies. Practicality then, dominance in war, is proven the greatest good. Had their Yahweh been peaceful, half of Rome might be converted Hebrew now, although only by cheating on that foreskin circumcision business. No sane man wants to give up any part of his manhood. It is obvious to me, and I am sure to S. Cornelius, that the design for a new God, if we were to be such engineers, would call for a peaceful, practical fellow, all-powerful, predictable, and not requiring too much by way of observances. He would not have an appetite for foreskins.
When emperors ignore the gods, thus acknowledging they are dead, there are empty personal spaces which follow. If the State is not sincere and providential, individuals must provide for themselves. A new market opens for religions that are not civil, authorized, tested by tradition, orderly under the State, but private. Each man on his own! There is spiritual anarchy! An ordinary man will fall in with one sect or another, one or another lunacy, its magic, revelations and secrets. Because such cults do enjoy secrets, there is no public scrutiny for reasonableness. That invites at least ill logic of not group madness. Such seekers becoming a disorderly group may take it upon themselves to generate public disorder. It was a bad day for Rome when emperors personified the anarchy of the gods by calling themselves a god. That defies modesty, sense, order, sanity, all respect, and should there yet be in fact vital deities, is dangerous hubris that one day may well be fatal to Rome. The vengeance of a serious deity, Yahweh is the lesson, is awesome. I am not optimistic about the Empire’s long term future. Horace was right, carpe diem, seize the day, quam minimum credula postero, there is little trust in the morrow. Other than ambition guided by craft, what else do we have? I say that is why there are no virgins in Rome!
Emperor Domitian was the most recent to consecrate himself a god. That was not politically clever, whether or not blasphemous. When no Jupiter/Zeus chastised his vainglory, when the public saw that Domitian was not brought down by earthquake or lightning for hubris, the mob understood there were no serious gods after all. (Or at least none choosing to act at the time) An emperor had taken their place. In being the highest, he became, in people’s eyes, responsible for the health of Empire. Without higher gods to blame, the emperor had no excuses for his failings. Domitian had a plethora of these. Since Domitian was known to be a bid mad, and there was no credible higher deity to whom to turn for help, Roman pessimism became pervasive. So did hatred. No wonder Domitian was murdered. So much for the delusion of immortality. It does not rule out divine retribution as cause.
Emperors now, for all show of temple-building and reinstitution of offerings, have replaced the gods as expected providers, even if a personal modesty, or sensible caution, for wise ones comprehend the consequences, disallow now permissible deification. These days, with implied divinity, emperors must either be good at what they do, or terrible in punishing others for objecting to the costs of their failures. The Empire is strong, in Trajan and Hadrian we are blessed with competence. But the chance nature of imperial succession guarantees there will be more madmen, assassinations, legions fighting one another to secure succession for their candidate, all in all that inevitable instability reveals the fragility of a Rome which has not found a way to guarantee excellence in leadership, or a satisfied people. Any design for a new high god would best attend to securing the Empire and wisdom in the methods for succession of kings. If the hand of the god himself intervened directly, a presence in coronations, so much the better.
I have told you of the disproportionate interest a ruler must take in the Jews, or any who threaten to be like them, as I am told the Christians who follow a crucified rabbi, may be, although they are not a tribe but more like a club, and social clubs as such are outlawed across Empire by reason of our fear of secret and opposing princes being nurtured within them. The nature of Christians is not yet revealed; they are few but grow more popular. The palace here seeks to keep itself well informed as to the intentions of the Hebrews. Spies do not so easily infiltrate them, for they are a close tribe and know one another, probably despise the rest of us. Here in Antioch they do not mingle, except as merchants must in display and sale of wares, Their Jerusalem Temple is destroyed, they now carry Yahweh with them in a box, each meeting place held holy for his presence. Spies are recognized when they enter, for the Jews make no effort to hold secret meetings. The Jewish solidarity and religious devotion, ferocity, much continue to be of concern to any governor, certainly one who governs Syria/Palestine. As heirs of the Jews, we must also be watchful of the so-far un rebellious Christians.
As a general relies on intelligence before a battle to secure its winning, S. Cornelius requires that I be well informed. It may seem strange, but my approach assesses our future vulnerability by a comparison, the design if you will, of gods. Consider further, our dominant local competitors. I rule out Mithra because, however attractive it is to be an initiate, with Mithra it is all to complicated by symbols that mean little to us, too messy with that bull blood bath of an initiation, Mithra makes insufficient promises and demands little by observance that would generate an institution. All in all Mithra, is too casual and Oriental to have staying power, but as a kind of religious holiday buttressed with superstitious symbolism and a few silly stories. One compares what Rome so weakly offers, Jupiter, originally the Greek’s thundering Zeus, to the Hebrew Yahweh for strengths. Our Zeus/Jupiter wrote no rules nor agreements, thus no Covenant nor law, was exceedingly lusty, easily diverted and bribed, and was head not of a single and possessive human tribe but of feuding Olympian family whose narrower powers, randy mating, and whimsical antics were, and are, more fit for story tellers’ amusements than genuine worship. Greek religion itself by the time of the democracy was more an art form and creative source than for piety, just as our official Roman one is a symbol of state, without an adoring cult. Roman gods are simply political devices. You see my skepticism., I keep no gods of my own, although I mean no disrespect to whomsoever may be out there. I have no idea yet what S. Cornelius thinks, he is a deep and complex fellow. I hope his obligation to assess these faiths does not lead to entanglements, for I fear that these days, no matter his great past, he may not be as practical a fellow as I am.
Yahweh and his Semitic tribe might yet convert emotionally idle , or needy or lonely Romans The attraction is singular self definition as Chosen children of the one Yahweh, close membership in that tribe, passion for worship, and promises of blessings. There is rule of law among the Jews, like our Roman law, theirs is clear, admirable in intent, and threatening fair enforcement. Our laws are negations, what not to do, while the most egregious behavior, the kind that wrecks a person, reputations, relationships, is allowed Further, our Roman judges are corrupted, courts are moved by egotistical rhetoric, verdicts go astray. There is much reason for plebeians not to be satisfied with their spiritual or social food.
We humans wish our rulers, whether ethereal or temporal, and our estates under them to be predictable. We want them to have loyalty to us, as we are loyal to them. In essence we want them to be as we are, or rather I should say, far better. A practical civil and criminal, law, to restrain subject disaffection, should serve the weak as well as the strong, the weak having little influence by any route would like to be able solidly to rely on protections forced upon the strong by law. That can work only if laws are internalized, thus linked to a morality. Rome has no such working law. Internalized are only demands, admonitions to appearance such as honor, gravity, dignity, and duty. Any one weak in society, and millions are that while, while not one thousandth of the Empire’s people are strong, having nothing upon which to rely, no ties to power, little morality in how they are ruled. What better recipe for disaffection, but for the games, food dole, excitement of the cities.. Bread and circuses are a sop, on day the mob will want more. When the day comes that the legions want more, even if they have plenty now, Rome ends. It is my fervent hope for myself, devil take any one else, that this inevitable day is centuries away.
Romans were much more so before the Jewish War, vulnerable to recruitment by Hebrews, I suppose they will one day be vulnerable to the cult of “Christians” here who seem to be Jews of some sort (albeit a faction of them deny it). It will be the honest weak Roman who is attracted along with those convivial enough to want close membership in a cult where their high god and plebs mutually are said to enjoy a remarkable, reciprocally binding contract between the high and the lowest. Or at least such a contract is claimed by one book of theirs I have seen. S .Cornelius has given me the task of being informed. He vacillates between being too little and too much interest in these quirky people.
The weak, dissatisfied, or venturesome on their inner frontiers-these are the ones I have told S. Cornelius are open to conversion- would find this surgery on their soul, - appealing. Membership in a real and constantly attentive god-community, gives a man much to do by way of “hello”, pious duties and self-examination day to day. The immediate Jewish foreskin surgery required could appeal only to those with a pension for humiliating pain. The circumcision Jews require of converts is repulsive. Perhaps the act of conversion is exciting, but one’s foreskin detached as souvenir and proof goes beyond excitement. I am told the Christians have abandoned that initiation. That gives them great advantage to any balanced mind seeking a new religion and preferring intact genitalia. I am sure my own foreskin keeps my penis more sensitive. I object to any tinkering before. aging imposes the inevitable impotency on me.( A woman’s lips may yet end up being my only solace.) In any event, conversion, as are other imaginary solutions to a hard life, is distrusted by a Roman. The best we can do is to pluck the rose while we can, and if in any way the load of pain can be shifted, by all means that pain is my gift to any other so weak he cannot refuse it.
I doubt if Moses’ tablets to whom Tacitus refers, are forever preserved, as in amber like time-frozen Baltic beetles extracted from my homeland bogs. (Some women wear that amber decoratively). Even if undocumented, the claim of laws inscribed by god is revolutionary and reassuring, for secular rulers, even when best of emperors do not bind themselves through sacred oaths to the underclass, whereas imperial promises to a Roman Senate, and vice versa, are subject to convenience. In Rome, regrettably, even in matters of law, contracts are unilaterally ‘renegotiated’ by the more influential party. It is self-interest not virtue that too often rules. The Moses’ laws, on the other hand insofar as I know them, are quite sensible in everyone’s peaceful service. That would be a communal attraction
I ramble on here, I apologize, but I marvel how Jews, even after Titus, Vespasian and Jerusalem’s destruction, continue, albeit much more slowly, to add some converts to their ranks. Maybe it hinges on that kind of virtue more Aristotelian than Roman, which expands civic duty. It becomes a tribal not the “polis” (city) citizens’ duty. That is simultaneously expanding and contracting. That was the core of the Athenian citizen’s life and duty. That required generous participation wars in the democratic life of his city, from voting to attending theater to fighting. Once virtue expands geographically beyond a city wall to all peoples, it resembles Roman law over the Empire, except that Roman law requires obedience, including to corruption and horror, not virtue. If we are to be virtuous in all our dealings, all members of the tribe of brothers, the creed is valuable to all, thus becomes an inner sentiment to be protected everywhere. An high god, those who have him say, “God”, who requires and protects that universalizing morality would be a fine fellow indeed. I am not aware that the Hebrew deity has come along that far in mandating kindness to all, that is outside the scope of tribes and clans. I have added then another element to the design of a more perfect god. Yes, there are pleasing insights here. As I close with my resulting exchange with S. Cornelius, the whisper ceases.
I told S. Cornelius about my drafting this opinionated essay rather eloquently disparaging the locals and their superstitions. I told him what might emerge from the commentary might be a design for a god, and some serious advice to a sensitive Roman administrator as to our own, I think irreparable, deficiencies. (“Ours” because I am here doing, benefiting, but not “mine” when the ‘me” looking is that Swabian, Baltic farm boy). Cornelius listened more than I deserved, was thoughtful, and put to me an astonishing question,
“What Balthus, if it is as the Christians claim, that there is already such a god, one of his own excellent self- design? In that case your template is of that which exists, and, were I Plato, I would say you are more sensitive to the worldly implications of the form of the One than you give yourself credit for. Consider it, Balthus, if the Christians have it right, I don’t say they do, mind you, then your design preexisted and your mind, harmonious with the universe sensed it as it is, adding some very good reasons for its present incipient welcome. Yours is a very good mind, Balthus, although you may not admit it. Just listen to your words and thoughts as I do, - you are quite the soldier–scholar. If, as the Christians say, the Form of their god was always, but is revealed to them only now because mankind is in terrible need, and I would add, is presumably enough advanced in thought to comprehend. Anyway, Balthus, your casual “design” makes me thoughtful. What do you say to that?”
“Sir, may I be exceedingly rude and honest? “
“Of course, honesty a rare enough trait hereabouts. I have detected the former in you before, but was never sure of the latter. In any event, honor the moment”
(I ignored the sting) “Sir, if my mind reflects the One e, it would scare me to death. There have been a couple of times I felt the gods might be hovering by, and these weren’t pleasant moments. I will lead my own life, best I can, and save me from any superstition. I would beg you, Dominor and Quaestor, keep your mind free from probing Plato’s cave,. Dangerous things could hide there, Pluto, Hecate, who knows what? I’d rather you were telling me of some purple Egyptian crocodile you’d seen singing in the palace baths, one balancing a vase of yellow flowers on his snout. I’d worry, Sir, worry very much, if I thought you might ever come to see a little Jesus cherubim sitting on your shoulder, a long cat’s tongue licking your ear with nonsense. Excuse me, Sir, I that’s the way I look at it, but if that offends, I apologize”
S. Cornelius, for the first time in our acquaintance, grinned a broad grin. His face lit up as he chuckled. He came from behind his desk, gripped me on the shoulder, said,
“Balthus, old rock, if I see any crocodiles I’ll have them sing for both of us, ask Tyche to join in, give us some rousing bawdy army song. As for the Jesus angels, well, they are so light I haven’t felt their weight, but you know, I don’t think I’d mind if they sat there.
He keeps a bowl of fruit and nuts on his desk; figs and dates; fresh or dried depending on the season, grapes; again fresh or as raisins, Damascus plums (Damson)-0nly when in season,-pistachios, almonds, applies, all such treats. It is the rich aristocrat of him that allows him to commission the marketing slaves buy fruit, no matter how expensive, from Egypt and Libya. It is not the custom of those high to share their food with those low, not when house guests and certainly not in the office. Imagine then how surprised I was when he held that fruit bowl in his hand- a handsome Greek piece of red and black pictorial painted pottery it was- saying,
“Balthus, have some treats. Take them any time, whether I’m here or not. A good man deserves the good” I took from the bowl, enjoyed it immensely. I have been nibbling from it every day ever since. It is never empty. The slaves see to that. Life in this office, in this palace, is good indeed. This boss of mine amazes me. I was glad to learn he could laugh, and as for the compliments, that generosity, it is a cheery thing.
I am glad I told the scribes not to write in smaller script here, no whispering when I show you a man like this.
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