On Governing. and the Man

Once I had taken my post with S. Cornelius, I learned the business of the day was not as simple as I had presumed.  For example, who must receive a letter? Who need not.? Must it be courteous, aggressive,  encouraging?  These attributes depended on knowing a great deal of the who, what, context and possible consequences of each aspect of the communication and possibly subsequent transactions.   S. Cornelius,  like a good battle commander, wanted no missteps. He assumed nothing was inconsequential, at least until he determined the matter well.  Much of  the “knowing” of it, as investigation,  review, field work  was given to me to learn.  In doing that assiduously, I came to be, a surprise to me, quite interested in the array of “who” and “what” and they “why” of consequentiality across all Syria, including Palestine. 

I learned what is to be known about the means a civil government requires which intends tranquility, entertainments, essential services, fostering of trade and, but for exemptions recently by Hadrian, maximizing taxes and seeking to reduce the distress of those taxed, all of whom were voraciously cheated and over-taxed by collectors.  Their nature and practices guaranteed they were rapacious, rich, and hated.  The system, not the child of our office to be sure but long in practice across the agricultural and commercial regions of empire, allowed those who wanted the income of tax collectors to buy their jobs. We lived off their take as the collectors did. The treasury in Rome was, of course, augmented by the loot of war, the tribute of client kings, and gifts from any who sought favors.   When gifts were not freely offered, they were demands as bribes.  As for the tax collectors, we ruthlessly protected those scoundrels against all protests, and occasional local rebellion. 

Whether by a law or public service, by local institutions—the old Greek city councils were honored in name only, figureheads appointed, for Rome had no intention of letting locals in so important a city have any say in things. These appointments of hollow men to enact our charade nevertheless cost us annoyance, for sooner or later they would propose something troublesome.  We then had to argue with our own creature which, since this was noisy, irritable, fractious, rancorous, multi tribal, rumour-ridden city given to riots, led to just these.  We had little tolerance when any local leader swayed from our own purposes.  Ask what range of taxes could be forgiven a wealthy severe tax delinquent under Hadrian’s tax amnesty, how provisioning requirements levied upon the city by a legion might be most efficiently met, and at least cost to either Rome or Antiocheans?   The reply across Empire was that which had been decreed, was custom, or when action was open, then that which was expedient, including dispensing useful favors and seeing to official self-enrichment. S. Cornelius offered novelty, because he did not take bribes. Except when over-ridden by the Governor, policy decisions regressed to the lawful and practical in community interest.  Given his honesty, and careful scrutiny, I was compelled to honesty myself.  Wearing that suit chafed my character, and troubled a number of other junior officials as well. I cannot tell you how many official household budgets were strained as a result, and no one a bit pleased about it. But the Governor refused to hear complaints but from his closest cronies, indeed I think the novelty of it observed, not practiced by him, puzzled him.  He was for the most part too lazy to interfere with the competent work of S. Cornelius whose reputation, and rumoured close ties to Hadrian in any event kept the Publius Marcellus respectful. .

I, a simple German by no means entirely virtuous, after my initial sulking, saw the better side of it. There may be a better “best” in how to rule.   Ordinarily gold in hand decided the question of whom among builders’ bidding for an extension to a colonnaded promenade, or which stone masons’ crew were best suited to add a temple frieze.  Uproar followed, for outcomes were no longer secured by bribes and ties, but by the merit of plans, proposed costs, and performance.  Our engineers,  along with soldiers Rome’s most admirable professions, were rather pleased, for their works are all the better.  Evaluation, consultation, supervision, all required a lot of work from our office..  Unheard of.  Should we add to the fire watch numbers, assign more solders to street crime patrol; expand the frequency in the market place of testing by  supervisors of weights and measures? Make sure everyone listed on the payroll, down even long lists of sweepers and far away clerks, actually existed and were not ghosts invented by supervisors to boost their own income?  New tasks to say the least. As I said, Romans are a lazy lot, the Syrians given opportunity, more so. The new ethic, new duties, new constrains led to much grumbling,  all out of S. Cornelius earshot of course.  People button-holed me, burdening me with with wheedles, whimpers,  complaints.  The typical request, “His rules are making us paupers. You’re close to the Quaestor, can’t you make him listen to reason?” I found the best defense was to become as stern, outwardly, as my boss himself. A moral, righteous Balthus, now that was a development..  The outer offices were carpeted with dissatisfaction. S. Cornelius had made a number of enemies, not one of them honorable, their whispers were their knives, their lies their shields. As a man who could do them no good, I was soon disdained. I confess that rankled.

As for the province itself, now with no bribes in play at our top level, Syria began to enjoy value for money.  The word got out. Tongues wagged. Two camps emerged,  those approving because they saw benefit, and those who were losing income and influence. At the highest level, complaints from cronies got to the Governor.  He was a fellow who liked to please, he was after all, old school, but it demanded deftness, indeed new policies on his part, for a round of imperial notices made it more than clear that the Emperor expected less corruption. On top and below him, Publius Marcellus was pressed by the honesty disease.  Insofar as he could maneuver, the Governor wore smooth gloves, and dispensed unguents, but only his  closest clients could rely on the old ways. S. Cornelius intended no trouble for the Governor, but the Quaestor could be grossly insensitive to protocol, and was quite able to demands to the Governor’s face there be accountings.  Nor could he be disciplined for it, he was the Emperor’s personal appointee, this fair-haired hero of earlier Trajan as well. Publius Marcellus required no arithmetic to calculate that, should his second-in-command bring impropriety to the attention of the Emperor Hadrian, Public Marcellus might be short a job, or his head. S. Cornelius had made no friend of his boss. 

The Administrative Quaestor has dozens of other tasks, for example seeing to the dredging of our river Orontes so that ships’ passage from coastal Seleucia Pieria, our port for the world, is not blocked by mud silt from Mt Silpius particularly carried by the waters of the rushing stream Parmenium which divides the hemispheres of Silpius (across the peaks of which stand high our extensive city walls.)  The Parmenium tumbles tumultuously into the Orontes just east of their walling circuit on the plain. Mt Stauron too disgorges storms become rock and mud as they flow.  The Orontes is called the “rebel” for good reason, for her waters in flood are wild as she refuses to abide within her banks, creates whirlpools, in general then she requires stern and constant attention, albeit above the city she is the quieter hostess in by-waters and lagoons to excellent fishing.  Necessary work, crises of a weekly sort, but we had good engineers, craftsmen as regular staff or contractors, so that many days were hum-drum busy but dull. I am sure the honesty of it was so boring that partisans with cash to deploy, denied high governmental pockets, invested it in ways novel to them, public buildings for instance, trading ships and camel trains, more irrigation for their farms. 

I saw to my job well, as directed by S.Cornelius, and began to like it.  His honesty remained unwelcome.   As I said, bribery is easy; Cornelius made normal Syrian business lives, now based on actual deeds and data, more difficult.  The governor heard complaints but dared not accede to Cornelius’ removal, for the emperor upon hearing would be, so went the rumour believed, displeased.  Such subtleties of understanding are decidedly unusual.  We are left on our own. 


Upon occasion the courier post- (we as all capitals and military headquarters were in at least weekly communication with Rome)- would bring us new projects or preparations originating with Emperor Hadrian or his immediate staff. You don’t need to be told these were our first priority, and since Hadrian was generous in ordering building, the entire city basked in his favors.  No other emperor has treated his cities better. The situation is ideal:  Rome is richer without her wars, all parts of empire are productive, pirates are scourged thanks to Pompey’s sanitizing navies the impact of which has been lasting- our warships see to that, as do extreme punishments when new pirates are caught, trade is booming, there are no plagues or draughts at the moment, the armies now freed from expansionist adventures see to it that the roads are policed and any irascible tribes reduced, and the emperor followed by rich locals engage in opulent, self-advertising  giving, from games to festivals to temples, baths, statues, roads. Any public gift given is wrapped in bragging  speeches. I use every excuse to avoid them.  That is one advantage of being a secretary at my lower level, for we are not called to be public shows of the Governor’s interest. S. Cornelius was less lucky in this.

In the offices around me clerks, many of them slaves with junior administrative powers, scuttled about, sported officiousness, practiced being haughty in their mirrors, fashioned their voices into sharp edges of insult. S. Cornelius knew too much to try to reform them entirely, he would have had to rebuild the entire machinery of governance, but he was intimidating enough, and severe enough in his punishments so that the lot of them on our floors in this business wing of the palace, learned not to misbehave when he was watching. Since he had far more functional power than an ordinary quaestor, he was feared and respected, his daunting insistence on honesty aside. He was friendly with none, demanding of all, fair rather than arbitrary in his dealings, and rarely resorted to the lash.

There were some days when things went smoothly enough, messengers; callers, engineers needing instruction, supplicants, would-be clients etc were not a demanding presence, that he could relax.   Quite a different mood overtook him   A Chaldean might says it was the stars’ lucky conjunction, for during my time with him there were no civic or construction crises.  Yes of course, riots, epidemics, floors, toppling buildings, fires, the usual, but none of us were ruffled by the ordinary.   Yet there was more and more ease in our company together.  From my experience with Tuisto, I recognized that some of his change arose from trust in me. I was neither critic nor sycophantic enemy, nor in work a slacker, complainer, bribe solicitor or thief of public funds.  Anyone in the palace has these opportunities, most had taken full advantageous.  Among palace staff, honesty was not even a virtue honored in its absence. 

There was a good a heart there in this self-distancing aristocrat. The better I knew him the more I saw his loneliness and melancholy.  We did not touch on these in our talks, but as he opened up, he was self critical and sometimes launched into critical social commentary as well.  The lot of the poor, of the less kind aspects of Rome itself, and finally, it came a rather harsh self assessment, critical of his own inadequacy, as if he himself facing the world’s troubles honestly had some duty beyond good governance of correction.  This was a wrong-head burden indeed; even philosophers only talk about how best to live in a difficult world, not to upset its balance. No one is grandiose enough to think about changing Rome’s heart, but for the mad emperors who make it worse . There was no Plato amongst us to think grandly, certainly none who proposed a benign philosopher might be the best of kings.   Where would the booty come from? The fear of us?

Most of these philosophers, almost all Greeks, having endlessly propounded one or another way of self-change, compete for students all around our city-center, its forum and markets.  Be assured there were no great minds at work in any of them.  The practice, I say the curse, was to engage in mind-numbing desiccating debate with other teachers of other doctrines, but none less sure or less noisy. After so many arguing centuries of these sophists, whether Cynics, Platonists. Epicureans, Stoics, Hedonists, etcetera, the debates were no longer entertaining. No philosopher I heard was as useful, any more than tits on a bull or balls on a vestal virgin. 

The practitioner- philosopher’s public ends are met by talk and showing himself the head of the longest line of trailing students, the talking head of a snaking dragon of sorts.    His private goal, beyond being a bit respected and never having to haul a load for a living, is to glue himself to a wealthy patron upon whom talkatively to attend, and be invited to dine as a regular client. I have seen none of this type in Rome who ever shouldered a burden of personally caring for anyone. Once a while they did give good advice. I have seen philosophers give pennies to beggars, but they made a public show of it.   I have heard them sigh when a potential student walked away, for there is an income lost. I have heard them curse the stupidity of those not converted, but, like any salesmen, the peripatetic practitioner quickly moves to another pitch. 

The best of philosophies today tells you how to look after yourself in a hard world, but no expounder I’ve seen, busy talking, will wade into the Orontes to save a boy from a capsized boat from drowning.  Words don’t put cloaks on any shivering woman’s back.

So you understand our Antiochean days and ways.  More and more I came to learn how little our S. Cornelius liked them, that pain, indulgence and the corruption. His own family names were fateful. A Gracchus, a Sempronius had  idealism in his blood. S. Cornelius arrived directly from his bloodlines at his brooding, dissatisfaction and the inevitable woe that thinking oneself responsible for anything at all generates.  It is a curse to know things as they are when having in mind that they might be if better. Worse, and hardly Roman, to conceive that one oneself has some duty of reform. It is my gift of good sense that no such thoughts enter my mind

There was, I suppose, an inevitability of the sort a Greek tragedian would seize upon, this rather unpredictably distributed Cornelian family curse of goodness. With S. Cornelius, he did not blame the gods, but quite sensibly but hardly common, what blamed Rome itself had become.  I couldn’t agree.  Rome had been good to me.  In my view it had been more than good to S. Cornelius.  After all, he enjoyed family, wealth, an outstanding reputation and could have had almost any rank he would have liked.  Yet here he was, a dissatisfied. I am sure I was the only one to whom he had ever revealed this.  I was by no means sympathetic.  It was irritating how he refused to argue, but instead weighed my remarks with respect, too often agreeing that his own views were a fault within him.

I told S. Cornelius he should, as most of us do drunk in our cups and lamenting one thing or another,  curse the world but brag about ourselves.  That drunk is at least happy the night of the drinking and will the next day, or maybe the next after that, recover.   The world, faced head to head brings on an hangover one cannot get over, thus wine with its glorious time outs, is the better approach. 

I told S. Cornelius to appreciate and shout the great good we palace people do here governing well, by trying criminals, keeping local peace and some order, and  seeing that nothing interferes with the constant and essential business of ships carrying grain grown and here sail on schedule for Rome where those cargoes become bread, that free for the luckier poor getting the dole. That social generosity originating with the unappreciated Gracchii tribunes still averts starvation, riot and potential destabilization. Be glad for our receiving and quick action when merchants robbed by brigands come crying to our agents about their loss.  Our worries when they come are greater than theirs, for desert pirates sailing camel humps can wreak havoc with all trade to the east, those  spices, jewels, silks, and diplomatic missions. 

In these governing matters we are responsible and effective.  We deserve our pay, which is very good.   But no, for  S. Cornelius the consequential routine of victualing, protecting, advancing Rome as it is, is not enough.  He disapproves the very tenor of the world. It depresses him.  I have seen that before, my brother, my beloved who Tuisto killed himself.  I was glad S. Cornelius hadn’t done that, nor gave real signs of doing so.  I’d watch him. I did not want to lose another decent man.  Besides, no next boss would likely be as good to work for.  I am not known to be compassionate, but it takes no philosopher to tell me to be sensible.

Poor devil, king of the mountain from the standpoint of one of the noblest families in Rome, socially radical from the start with the Gracchi tribunes. The Gracchii remain the idols of any educated poor man in Rome. But for enslaved Greeks, there are almost none of them. The historical reality?  Then as now and forever, should the rare good rich with the power to do it take from the bad rich to give to the poor, who never have power, there will be big trouble. The Senate saw to the murder of both the Gracchii tribunes.  That was two hundred years ago but nobody forgets it.  Cornelius’ family-the grandparents insisted, I was told, he be given the name -informally, an unusual practice so that he himself did not use it, the name, “Gracchus”. That kind of prideful carelessness could dog a man’s career. 

Any man born poor like me, a rude fellow, envies the powerful unless they are stupid. Being Gracchi- generous with public monies, thus betraying the interest of your own class and relatives, is stupid. That is not at all like a rich man giving a temple to his city to display his importance. What that men spends, he gets back in influence and praise multiplied. Nor is it the same as being an emperor who spends the public purse as he wishes, for he buys the legions, the favor of the plebs, the gratitude of clients, and eternal fame. And think about it, no emperor ever earned his own pennies.  S. Cornelius, who had inherited a lot and was hardly ill-rewarded at his high rank,  was at least clever enough not to put on any shows of generosity. Perhaps he stoppered his own do-good bottle out of good sense. Fact was, he struck me as a tight-wad. So, not entirely stupid, whatever his gloomy emotions, and giving credence to the story of his having that remarkable patron, the reputation he had with the legions, it was not impossible S. Cornelius was yet on his way to top dogship. That was not a ship, his, this Balthus would desert. I am a loyal fellow, and success will prove it.  Yet I am an honest fellow, so conceive that if a time ever came for the rats to leave a ship,  okay, I might scurry down the hawsers with them. 

The talk of the palace people at my level and below is critical, even insulting.  That’s behind the back of course, nobody’s fool enough to be insulting face to face with the governor’s administrator, especially when he’s dangerous with a sword. S. Cornelius either doesn’t’ know about the bad feeling, or care. It’s not normal aristocratic indifference or despise,  there seems a strange. That too reminds me of my brother Tuisto, inside both some alien in charge, molding a character, eccentric, idealistic, often miserable. Makes a man do strange things.  Did you guess it?  Tuisto fought on the side of the winners in Teutoberg forest! I suspect he was the man who handed Roman General Varus his sword so that he might honorably kill himself. Stupid. The General  would have been worth a fortune ransomed as a prisoner, or for just the head alone.  So Tuisito won and came back to kill himself.  Like S.Cornelius only more so, both strangers in their own land.  

Before coming here I inquired after Cornelius, as anyone will do when going to work in a new place with a known boss.  In the army I had much reason for such queries, going to Africa, Britain, Gaul and Dacia, as legions were needed.  I had not seen Syria yet, but any soldier might expect it, because it’s been a busy place for the legions, certainly the auxiliary cavalry, which had, after the archers, become my branch.  Syria was busy because it was the eastern border, the Parthian frontier, and near Jerusalem in Palestine. Anyway I asked here and there about cornelius about whom there were stories. He was an odd legend. He had declined high rank, displays of wealth, and claims of personal glory. In spite of his outstanding war record, rumour- in an army these are always sworn too as true- as to the favor of the empire’s most remarkable patron, these marked him as a puzzle, a glorious puzzle.


When I come upon him he may be staring at nothing. When working he focuses like lens of the best of Phoencian glass concentrating rays of the sun, burning.  He is not a consistent man. Having known my inconsistent brother Tuisto so well , I sense some special tie between S. Cornelius and myself. My intuition is that he reciprocates.  The nobleman and the churl are an unexpected duo, but he is no worse off for having a friend.  Trust me then when I summarize, saying of him this: there is a mystery to him, this stranger to his time  It follows that on at least some of this life’s hazardous journey, he is also stranger to himself.


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