Monday, March 19, 2007

Short-Changed History

Famous Romans, by Rufus Fears, Read by The Author, The Teaching Company, 2001

The second half of Rufus Fears Famous duo, Famous Romans, treads much of the same concepts as its predecessor, Famous Greeks. Again we are treated to his great men theory of history, again the parade of noted notables with their capsule biographies, again the enthusiastic retelling of interesting stories from the past.

And yet, for some reason, Fears’ material seems less compelling this time around despite having ample historical ingredients from which to work. Partly this could be following the Greeks with the Romans immediately and tiring from one battle after another (and the history of the Romans is more conquest than defense as it was with the Greeks, underdog defenders being naturally more sympathetic) not to mention how repetitive those battles ended up being. Ah here, we are in Germany once more with yet another do or die scenario against the marauding tribes of Europe, here is yet another engagement with the Carthaginians, etc.

But perhaps we should not expect too much of Fears’ style. He is after all a historian with their all too frequent blindness to much of the culture and arts of the time. Thus the Great Greeks and Romans we meet throughout are typically governmental figures or generals. When art is brought in here, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, it is shown to be nothing more than the reflected glory of Augustus Caesar; little accounting is made for the writer of the poem save how he plays into the Caesarian story. It had been the same way for the Greeks, Sophocles striding the stage, but only to disparage Pericles, the great democrat and orator.

Nevertheless, there is a kind of tonic effect in the triumphal march of the winners of history, Fears making the good point that too often the romanticized version of events chooses to celebrate the loser. Napoleon brings to mind greater heroism and historical sweep than Wellington; Lee is lauded despite losing to Grant; Hannibal is a name known to all while Scipio lingers in only the minds of the historians.

Yet, much of the history of Rome is just that, senators jockeying for power and influence, consuls eyeing higher office, generals in far off battles either maneuvering to lead the people or being accused of attempting such a thing. And thus we meet Gaius Flaminius, a senator who spent his whole life backing the people and sponsoring bills that attacked the senate, trying to prevent them from making money from their exalted position, who eventually is elected general. His defeat by Hannibal leads to Quintus Fabius Maximus being declared dictator, a short term of office the Roman republic used when they deemed the situation dire enough for a suspension of their usual laws and legal niceties.

Fabius has the clever notion of defeating the invading Hannibal through slow means, a war of attrition that would sap the invaders of food, men, and ultimately resolve. Impatient with that route, the Romans rush Scipio Africanus the Elder off to war, he who ultimately defeats the great Carthaginian general by appropriating many of his tactics, who sacks Carthage and cuts down everything on two legs including the chickens.

In thanks for his action in saving Rome from destruction, Scipio Africanus is later accused of embezzlement while on a campaign. Rather than show his books, he tore them to shreds in front of the Senate and marched out. Like Hannibal, he died in exile. Which is the kind of history the Romans put out, bloody, cruel, militarily involved, and filled with enough ups and downs to keep the wheel of fortune spinning like a dervish.

At least that’s the kind of history Fears tells us. We get little of Virgil, nothing of Catullus, a smidgen of Marcus Aurelius at the end. Ovid? Forget it. Horace? Not in this history. Hadrian’s wall is discussed, not as you may imagine for its architectural features. Which is a real short-changing for the audience. A military history is a decidedly single dimension — or less. It reduces a culture to its single least interesting feature, its singularly least noble strivings.

If there is a portion of this military history that is at least compelling from a dramatic perspective in the midst of all the military strategy and battlefield techniques, it is the politicking behind the scenes. To listen to Julius Caesar wend his way through his domestic enemies is often far more gratifying than to hear how he pacified the Gauls. Perhaps the moment of his military conquests that is most fascinating is the account of how he and his troops made it as far as the river Thames. The idea of Caesar astride London’s future site has an appealing historical quality.

Of all Caesar’s partners, Crassus is interesting for his initiation of one of the earliest fire departments. He grew in power by realizing that Roman buildings, built of wood, frequently burned to the ground; his slave-based fire department would ride out to a fire and ask the owner if they wanted to sell the building at way below its market value. Once the people sold, realizing that they’d get nothing if the building burnt to the ground, his slaves would put out the fire. In this way, Crassus amassed immense wealth, able to single-handedly finance putting down the rebellion of the slave Spartacus.

Julius Caesar, we all know, was short lived in his role as emperor of the Roman people. He was followed in the position by Octavius, his adopted heir, who was later granted the title Augustus by the Roman senate. From this point out, the idea of the Roman Republic fades a little more with each passing year, the office of emperor growing in stature and in power. And with each growth in power, the emperors seemed to diminish in quality.

Augustus is followed by Tiberius who is followed by Caligula and on and on. The path is by this stage downward at sometimes slow, sometimes fast paces. There are occasional upticks, such as the rule of Claudius, long-regarded by the imperial family as an idiot because of his stammer and his social ineptness, though he proved a capable and wise emperor. There are also the named Five Good Emperors who helped delay the decline and slide of the Roman Empire into disaster, though as all empires have a lifespan and a ending. All move through their Golden Age into their decadence and eventual collapse.

Here at the end, as the military men and politicians become a bit irrelevant, as the emperors slide into madness, irrelevancy, and debauched military puppets, Fears seems to realize the paucity of his choices, devoting an entire lecture to the philosopher Epictetus, one to the writer Apuleius, and one to the historians Plutarch, Suetonius, and Tacitus. He ends the series with Marcus Aurelius, both emperor and philosopher, his Meditations one of the books I’ve personally found inspiring. It’s a nice ending, though it would have benefited by including more of the Roman’s culture and philosophy throughout the whole rather than tacking it all on the end once western civilization was in decline.

As a whole, Fears contributions to the Teaching Company’s catalog is entertaining, if at times a bit too bloody minded and campaign devoted. His definition of history and of “great” seems decidedly narrow, part and parcel of his great man theoretics, poetry and philosophy and all the other arts getting short shrift. As martially minded as both Greek and Roman culture could be, they hardly neglected the arts in the fashion we do in our modern times. And as a result, it is more Homer than any other figure who stands out as meeting the test of time. While Caesar is a name all children know, only the smallest fraction of them will ever read his Gaulic Commentaries while Homer is almost a requirement for high school graduation.

Thus, Fears for all his erudition seems to miss a good deal of the culture he deems to teach us about. Perhaps he saved much of that material for his Great Books classes where Aeschylus, Plato, Homer, Marcus Aurelius, and Euripides all come in for a lecture — some more than one!

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