"If you'd been emperor of Rome
At the age of just 15
Wouldn't you have done the same? So why then does his name
Retain the mantle of the evil
Always claimed by joyless vultures
To explain the strange allure other cultures?"
A couple days ago, I finished reading Stacy Shiff's recent biography of Cleopatra. Having already completed the designated "beach read" for my vacation, I treated myself to a copy at an airport bookshop before returing home. While no expert on the period, those hundred years or so around the turn from BC to AD, it continues to fascinate me both on account of the upheavals readily apparent at the time (Rome's gradual dissolution from a aristocratic republic into an autocratic empire) as well as those less so (a Jewish diaspera deeply at odds with their place in the world). All these events would cast long shadows in the years to come. So many dies were cast, that it is hard to resist the temptation to ponder the questions of "what if," or "if only . . ."
In her book, Schiff draws a stark contrast between the lifestyles of the Roman world, and those which Cleopatra knew in Alexandria. In Schiff's telling, the Alexandrians were a people given to luxury and ostentation, whereas a Roman prefered the plain style of his white toga. It is true that some Romans lived more grandly than others, but, they still paid lip service to the ideals of society. Antony did not, chosing to demonstrate his preferences grandly. It did not help his cause that he did so while reclinging beside a soverign female, as the Alexandrains granted more rights and respect to their women than in Antony's homeland. (The current Italian government is not the first to approach women as interchangable sex objects). In the eyes of his countrymen, Antony had abandoned his martial calling for more effete, less valorous pursuits. Thus, the general who once boasted of his descent from Hercules, now ran about town in the guise of Dionysius. It would seem that the conniving foriegn sirens of the first century were no less unmanning than the lulling idles of the nineteenth century opium den or geisha house . . .
It was while reading these sections of Schiff's book, reflections rattling around my mind, that I recalled the song "Heliogabalus" by the Scottish musican, artist, et al Momus.
I first became aware of the Roman emperor Heliogabalus through a short story by Neil Gaiman, which I read in high school. The piece, a musing on Gaiman's experience in the English public school system, Heliogabalus and Oscar Wilde made a strong impression on me at the time, and has stayed with me over the years. (It probably helped that at the time I was quite fond of both Wilde and Gaiman, which, I guess, just goes to show that as a teenager I prefered my narratives dripping with wit, while dressed up in goth and legend). Several years later, I bought my first Momus album, including the song "Heliogabalus," in which the singer defends the young emperor against the standard historical line of his rule being the nadir of Roman imperial debuachery. Now, some of this is tongue in cheek, and I, for one, do not intend to absolve Heliogabalus of all his (mis)deeds. However, there are two legitimate psychological observations that deserve our attention. First of all, if you had grown up in the hothouse of a late Roman imperial family, before ascending the thorne at age fifteen, how firm would have been your bearings? I suspect that the young man was already deeply disturbed by his surroundings before anyone handed him a sceptor. More important for the present discussion, is the other idea expressed in the above quote. There is a very human tendacy to take all that we fear, that unsettles us, that tempts us and project it onto some scapegoat, usually one from a different background than our own. Thus, we demonize by use of extreams: We should all be celibrate and temperate becuase look at what happens when someone pursues a course different from the norms of our society? Incidently, why was it that a young Gaiman was thinking about a Roman emperor and a Victorian playwrite anyway? They were both mentioned in a piece by Gilbert and Sullivan (Mr. Gilbert being quite a prude himself).
Antony lost not only the literal war, but the propganda one as well, allowing Octivian to cast/recast Cleopatra and her realm in an aura of wasteful decadence. (It should noted that those extragavant spoils from the dead queen's treasury paid for the foundations of Augustus' Pax Romana). Over the course of this week, I have found myself wondering what might have been instead. What if Antony had triupmhed in place of Octivian? Would we remember the Peace of Eygpt? Would we be living in a culture not so mistrustful of pleasure, but, more embracing of the sensual? Would the entire course of Western culture, and therefore history, flow differently? Now, I realize that I am oversimplifing, running the risk of swinging too far to the opposite pole in stereotyping. The intellectual enviroment of Hellenistic Alexandria also produced Neo-Platonism, a system of thought horribly antagonistic towards the material world, which has left deep scars along the body of Western thought. (This is not the time for my critique of Michelangelo, though it would be a good example). No society is perfect, all is a mixture of good and bad.
Still, it is tempting to speculate . . .
Or, perhaps, I should have simply mused on the similiarities between the Momus song "Bishonen" and the film Dogtooth?