Roman Legends, Book Burning and History’s Hunt
“audacious still to gaze on her humbled court
with tranquil face, and valiant enough to take
the scaly asps in hand, that she might
drink with her body their deadly venom,
ferocious all the more in her studied death;
she was indeed — disdaining to let the fierce
Liburnian ships lead her dethroned to
arrogant triumph — no humble woman.”
Quintas Horatious Flaccus –aka– “Horace” (65-08 BC)
You’ve seen the movies, perhaps the BBC / HBO series. Maybe you’ve read the books, and been instructed by cultural managers. The Roman Empire, with its dashed republican stirrings, its culture of conquest, slavery, militarization; its eventual fusion with the Judeo-Christian sky-god cult and its fall from world dominance have intrigued authors and fans for centuries.
Author Michael Parenti, in his important “The Assassination of Julius Caesar; A People’s History of Ancient Rome” (2003) discusses the watershed moment when Roman senators (the optimates, or “best men”) slaughtered the last of the “populares” to hold power in Rome. “(W)hy,” asks Parenti, “did a coterie of Roman senators assassinate their fellow aristocrat and celebrated leader Julius Caesar? An inquiry into this incident reveals something important about the nature of political rule, class power and a people’s struggle for democracy and social justice — issues that are still very much with us.”
Beginning with Tiberius Gracchus in 144 B.C. and ending with Caesar in 44 B.C., several Republican leaders had emerged who favored policies benefiting the majority and used class rhetoric. “Agitators” they were called by the optimates — “demagogues,” “tyrants,” “dictators.” They met untimely ends, slashed and punctured by senators or hired death squads.
After Caesar’s murder, Rome knew only emperors who ruled in the interest of themselves and the wealthy, setting a pattern that runs largely uncompromised from that day to this, from Italy to America. Since the optimates and their apologists wrote the history, it’s seldom presented in exactly this way however.
One of Caesar’s faithful generals, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) had been elected tribune, charged with representing the people’s interests in 50 B.C. After the senatorial putsch, he governed in the “Roman East” which included Egypt. There he renewed a relationship with Queen Cleopatra. Children were born to the couple. In a subsequent sovereignty dispute, Octavian Caesar sent his legions against Antony and Cleopatra’s forces, and in the naval battle of Actium, 31 B.C., defeated them.
Retreating to Egypt, legend has it that Antony fell on his sword. Sometime later, rather than be paraded through Rome in tribute to Octavian (later called Caesar Augustus) Queen Cleopatra committed suicide by snake-bite.
“Augustus,” his power consolidated, went on to rule for decades and was followed by a series of emperors whose dominion drew the riches of captured lands and people to the purses of the well-connected among the Roman oligarchy.
It was a time, much like our own, where despite some limited and hollow republican formalism, the rich got richer, force ruled behind “soaring rhetoric,” and Rome’s lower classes (the plebs) were diverted by spectacle. Not having television at their disposal, the governing class made do with chariot races and huge battle reenactments featuring real blood.
Lately, these events lie unmentioned behind the headlines announcing an Egyptian archaeologist’s claim to have perhaps finally found the graves of Antony and Cleopatra — “doomed lovers” the Los Angeles Times called them. Their tombs have been long-sought. Ground-penetrating radar now appears to reveal three hollowed out “spots of interest” beneath the temple of Taposiris Magna west of Alexandria.
Media coverage of course has been largely inspired by the romantic movie/theatrical treatment of the “love story” — all that remains of the Republic’s last days — the mopping-up action ushering in the rough outlines of the world we know.
Of course, much of the story of Rome’s first few centuries is, as Parenti puts it, “lost to us.” For as the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, its paganism proved insult to the newly pious. As always, the theocrats employed hammer and flame to erase an inconvenient past. Though the great Alexandrian library, the Serapeum, and Museum were left intact by the Caesars, (Julius and Octavian) they were laid waste by monotheistic hordes.
“The Egyptian Serapeum — containing hundreds of thousands of scrolls and codices dealing with history, science, and literature — was … brought to ruin by by a gang of Christ worshipers, led by the bishop Theophilus in A.D. 391.” Parenti continues, “This was at a time when the ascendant Christian church was shutting down the ancient academies and destroying libraries and books as part of its totalistic war against pagan culture. ‘The burning of books,’ Luciano Canfora notes, ‘was part of the advent and imposition of Christianity.’”
After the ascension of Emperor Constantine, Christianity becoming the official religion of the realm, “Rome’s twenty-eight public libraries ‘like tombs were closed forever,’ laments the noted fourth -century pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus. In pagan times, the Romans boasted libraries of up to 500,000 volumes. But under Christian hegemony, laypersons were regularly forbidden access to books, the profession of copyist disappeared, and so did most secular writings.” (Parenti)
Though the writing of Roman history was “a time honored task” undertaken by many, the record was largely erased by “systematic campaigns waged by the Jesus proselytes against library archives, secular learning, and literacy in general.”
So today, in our understanding of “ancient history” — of the implacable violence deployed by elites against democratic reforms such as land distribution, rights to food, rent controls, rational power relations and other issues of perennial importance to plebs and peasants everywhere — important evidence is denied us.
Only scant fragments remain, handed down second-hand, based on previously glimpsed, long-destroyed source material and recorded generations later, usually by those in service to the wealthy and blood-stained.
There’s vastly more to the Caesar, and Antony, and Cleopatra epic than some trivial “love story.”
And it’s worth the digging-up.
RICHARD RHAMES is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org