Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Philus Donahuus

David Letterman once shared the Top Ten ways the world would be different if everyone were named Phil. Somewhere near the top came the revealing insight that when a caller on the Donahue show said, "Phil?" everyone in the audience would look up and say, "Yes."

Sometimes while reading Livy's History I get the feeling the situation wasn't much less confusing in ancient Rome. As Livy dutifully records the consuls for every year, I can't help thinking that I've heard the names before. And for good reason: I have. The patricians limited their membership and privileges to just a few clans, and, as a result, only the same few "gentile" names (something like our family names) become associated with the Republic's highest offices: Aemilius, Claudius, Furius, Valerius, and perhaps ten others cover probably 95% of the cases.

You might think that first names would provide the variety needed to clarify things. But the Romans bestowed only about fifteen given names on their sons. And to make matters worse, families usually passed down just a few of these generation after generation. The Wikipedia article (grad students: do as I say and not as I do) on the Aemilii lists dozens of historical figures named either Marcus Aemilius or Lucius Aemilius. A parallel article shows that the Claudius gens had a penchant for the names Gaius and Appius. As a result of this staggering disregard toward originality in naming children, Livy gives me the impression that the same few people stayed alive for centuries and just took turns running Rome.

It occurred to me yesterday that the ancient Romans might have had that very effect in mind. When an Appius Claudius and a Lucius Aemilius are elected consuls, it simply sounds right. Of course these guys are consuls; it has ever been thus. So when a plebeian named Lucius Sextius wants to be consul, the in crowd thinks, "Sextius?! What kind of name is that for a consul?!" Words wield power: brutalizing power, healing power, political power, and more. The Roman patricians must have used these names partly as a desperate (but ultimately futile) attempt to keep the ruling power within their tiny circle.

For most of the fifth and fourth centuries, the period I'm reading about in Livy this year, the litany of petty wars with local city-states generally serves to mask the real fight going on: the class war known as the "Conflict of the Orders." Drip by drip, the plebeians wore down the patrician stone of power during this era, asking for and eventually getting tribunes, debt relief, a plebeian assembly with legislative power, distribution of conquered lands to the poor, and plebeian consuls (Lucius Sextius was the first). The patricians often went to war for the very purpose of distracting the plebeians from their domestic concerns. (Oh, that would never happen today!) But the plebeians had the strength of numbers and through periodic secessions (essentially labor strikes and military boycotts) gained most of the political recognition they desired.

The Eastern Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire. The Kaiser. The Czar. Western civilization has spent far too much time and energy idealizing the Romans and trying to "preserve" or restore the Empire and its Caesar. (I found out about a current attempt called Nova Roma just yesterday. According to the citizens of Nova Roma, Rome "laid the foundation for our modern Western civilization." Babylonians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks: all slackers, I guess, who didn't do much for civilization.) I don't see Rome's oppressive, bellicose ways as much to emulate. But if I can momentarily, just for the sake of argument, adopt the Romans' value system of land acquisition and peace maintained at the point of a gladius, it seems obvious now that the patricians played a consistently bad game in these early days. During all the generations in which they viewed their neighbors -- whether their "less noble" coresidents in the Eternal City or the inhabitants of nearby towns -- as enemies, Rome stayed small, and the city experienced perpetual peril. But after it promoted these quondam enemies to fellow citizens and, in the third century, started identifying more distant states such as Carthage and Greece as targets, the size of its territory exploded. It took about four hundred years for the Romans to subjugate -- er, incorporate -- a few neighboring hill towns and only about two hundred more to circle the shining Mediterranean.

So I'm asking myself: How do my words thoughtlessly exclude people? How do I keep my horizons small by thinking the same few thoughts? Who or what are my enemies, and should they be friends? And how would the world be different if everyone were named Appius?

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