Monday, June 22, 2015

Book #60 (Part 2) - Roman Lives (Plutarch)

I'm sitting here drinking my Plymouth Gin martini and trying to figure out how to start this latest blog post.  Usually I try to be witty and funny, and I let the alcohol wash over me like a wave of inspiration, sweeping me up into the vast ocean of wisdom to be found in the world's greatest literature.  Meh, but not tonight.  My martini is good, but somehow it's not quite the drink I thought I was craving.  And my reading of late has been slow going, just because the pressures of daily life have kept me away from the pages.  And finally, the mass shooting a few days ago in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina has made me sad and worried for this country.  WOOO, 'Merica!!  Ugh.  This country is so divided between right and left, common sense and respect for wisdom and knowledge have gone out the window, and the government seems so incapable of doing anything except for what's good for the rich and powerful.  Fuck!

I've been reading a few more of Plutarch's "Lives" lately.  It's interesting to compare what's happening today, versus the events and lives Plutarch tells us about from over 2000 years ago.  Back in Ancient Rome, man, now they knew how to get things done!  No sitting around in fancy cocktail bars drinking $12 cocktails made with artisan gin and pineapple gomme and hibiscus bitters, and moaning about how bad things are getting.  No, when those ancient Roman dudes got pissed off they took to the streets and got it DONE!  Take Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, for example.  What, you never heard of them?  The Gracchi brothers?  Well Plutarch, in his Life of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, tells us about how these two dudes stirred it UP in the old Roman Republic.  You know, before the whole Republic thing fell apart and became a dictatorship...uh, I mean empire.  The Gracchi brothers lived in the mid-100s BC, and came from a wealthy and noble family.  They both served as tribunes, which means they were elected officials who served to protect the interests of the plebeians against the senate.  The Gracchi, in spite of their wealth, sided with the 99% against the wealthy landowners, and decided to push for agrarian land reform.  OK, that sounds pretty dull, but what it meant was that they were pissed off at the rich dudes who hogged up all the farm lands and wouldn't give the little guy a chance to do any farming.  So the Gracchi figured they should pass laws limiting the amount of land any one person could own, and thus take some of the land owned by the rich farmers who were just kicking back smoking weed while their slaves worked their asses off, and give it to the poor and homeless who just wanted a break, and maybe were veterans and all, and deserved a chance at a piece of the pie.  Go Gracchi!!  Occupy Rome!!  Of course, the rich dudes in the senate didn't like this at all, because they themselves owned a lot of farmland and didn't want it to get snatched up.  So the rich fought back against attempts by the Gracchi brothers to redistribute some wealth to the poor, and guess how that turned out.  Yep, the Gracchi were killed.  Tiberius was clubbed to death by his fellow senators, and Gaius killed himself years later after being cornered by an angry mob of political opponents.  Woohoo, violence solves everything!  Anyway, that was the beginning of violence seeping into the Roman political system, which became more and more ingrained as time went on, eventually undermining the Roman Republic.  So what can we learn from this?  We can learn Fight the Power!...and if we do we'll literally get beaten down and killed.  Woo.  I need another drink.

Ahh, feeling better now.  I'm drinking a rum and pineapple now, because rum remotely sounds like Rome.  That seemed like a pretty valid reason to me.  Meanwhile back in Ancient Rome:  after the Gracchi brothers, along came these dudes Marius and Sulla.  And yes, Plutarch wrote two of his Lives about them too.  Under their leadership, the violence in Rome's political system got worse.  A lot worse.  Gaius Marius was born in 157 B.C., Marius became a great Roman general, beating up on Germanic tribes and other foreigners, and served as consul for an unprecedented seven times.  Marius became a Roman hero, but in 88 B.C, another Roman consul, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, was put in charge of a Roman army to defeat an enemy of Rome, King Mithridates.  Marius did not like this, and tried to get the army for himself, and in response, Sulla took the army and turned it against Rome and Marius in an act of Civil War.  Marius was defeated and had to flee Rome.  Plutarch describes his flight, and it's pretty exciting, with lots of close calls and near escapes.  Finally Marius makes it to Africa, where he is safe, and Sulla takes his army and goes to fight Mithridates.  Sulla's absence allowed Marius to raise his own army and to march on Rome, retaking it for himself.  He and his soldiers sought a bloodthirsty vengeance, and killed a lot of his opponents upon his return to Rome.  Then he died in 86 B.C., of some kind of illness.

But the violence was not to end there.  In 83 B.C., Sulla once again marched on Rome, after having won the war against Mithridates.  After a huge battle, he seized control of the city.  Then the killing began in earnest.  Seems like Sulla was the Stalin of ancient Rome, instituting a series of purges where lists of "enemies of the state" were publicly posted, and bounties put upon their heads.  Sulla's enemies were killed, and then enemies of Sulla's friends, and then just rich people so that Sulla could seize their property and auction it off.  It was a bloodbath.  Plutarch's descriptions of the murders and executions are chilling.  Finally, two years later, Sulla surprisingly ended his dictatorship and returned Rome to its Republican rule.  He retired from public life and died a few years later of natural causes.  Nonetheless, his example of being a dictator was not lost on Julius Caesar, who took control of Rome a generation later and finally ended the Republic for good.

Reading Plutarch is surprisingly fun, for two reasons.  First, the dude is a natural born storyteller.  He's the kind of guy you'd want sit around the fire with on a cold winter evening, and hear him tell stories about the old days while sipping on another rum and pineapple.  But second, it's fascinating to hear these stories of people and times that are 2000 years gone, and yet still ring true today.  It's not hard to imagine how today's political debates and divides could break out into violence...and indeed, they sometimes do.  The Roman Republic fell, and launched an age of emperors, and that too eventually ended.  We sometimes take for granted that our own republic will always stand, but there's no guarantee.  Reading Plutarch makes one remember that nothing is permanent, and today's strife and struggles will one day be ancient history, and yet they may one day also be repeated in one form or another.  Hmm, so then I might as well have another rum and pineapple...