Category Archives: History

Did he really say it?

There is a quote by Marcus Tullius Cicero that has been making the rounds at blogs for a few years, mostly on the side of the hard right  and Libertarians, usually invoked in the context of an imposing Marxist or “one-world-government” takeover with the occupant of the White House being in on the plot:

“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.  For the traitor appears not a traitor – he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men.   He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear. The traitor is the plague.”

 On the face of it, it sounds possibly authentic. the cadences are there and the use of trios of phrases that was a hallmark of the Ciceronian style. If it wasn’t written by him, it was written by someone who at least superficially knew his style. Further, the subject matter of the passage is similar to some attested Ciceronian work. Cicero was known to use the disease metaphor in dealing with specific traitors, in 1 In Catilinam 31 he likens the Republic to a man delusional with fever, the pathogen in question being Lucius Sergius Catilina and his partisans within the city of Rome, and in the other speeches does discuss the danger of having men like Catilina within the city walls. (Catilina was accused by Cicero of having tried to destabilize the Roman Republic in 63 BC, the results of a bitter election battle for Consul the previous year.) For instance, 2 In Catilinam 5:

As for these men [Catilina’s remaining men including Publius Lentulus Sura] whom I see flitting about in the Forum, standing in front of the Senate-house, even coming into the Senate…these I would have preferred him to have taken with him as his soldiers. Remember that, if they remain here, it is not so much his army we have to fear as those who have deserted it. They are all the more frightening because they are unmoved in spite of the realization that I know their plans.

— (from the Loeb Classics Library edition, tr. C. MacDonald. Emphasis mine.)

 But did he actually say it? I can’t find any links to the quote that provide a cite beyond the date it was supposedly said (about which more below). In the speeches that I have read of Cicero’s, the phrase does not appear. The phrasing also seems a bit off from Cicero’s style. It seems to be too conspiratorial, too paranoid, too whispery for a man whose speeches usually are more ringing and showy — his speeches against Catilina are a bombastic denunciation, laying bare everything he knows about the Senator’s plans to destroy the city. Cicero did not do much of anything in sotto voce, if his biographers are to be believed. And that quote looked like it was meant to be read in sotto voce.

 If the quote were genuine, it is a passage that would have stood critical scrutiny in journals and scholarly works — Cicero has been a wellspring for scholars since the days of Macrobius’ Saturnalia (which cribbed liberally from de re Publica and de Legibus and from which many passages from the fragmentary works were recovered). Most other Cicero quotes are featured not exclusively in blogs and reader comment sections, but also in academic works, and in legal texts, and in speeches unto this day of politicians. Nowhere does this quote seem to appear in any work of the sort.

Most of the cites claim Cicero made the statement in 42 BC in a document called “Speech in the Roman Senate.” Two things are wrong with this. I’ll handle the lesser point first.

Cicero was not known for giving nondescript titles to his speeches. “Speech in the Roman Senate” does not appear as a work by him in any known list of his works, mostly because the nearest Latin equivalent, in Senatu habita, literally meaning “delivered in the Senate,” was a tag on such speeches to show the circumstances of the work’s provenance, for instance In Catilinam prima in Senatu habita. His speeches were instead directed for, or against, or on something, like In Catillinam (“Against Catilina”) or Pro Murena(“For Murena”) or De Imperio Cn. Pompeius (“On the Military Command of Gnaeus Pompeius”). The closest thing to such a speech title was Post Reditum in Senatu, which was Cicero’s first speech in the Senate after his exile at the hands of Publus Clodius Pulcher was abrogated, though this was in 57 BC. The quote does not appear there, thought it would have been a prime opportunity for Cicero to have made the remark. 

The more important point follows. There is no way he could have conceivably given a speech in 42 BC. He was not in a condition to speak in 42 BC, having been murdered on the orders of Marc Antony on December 7, 43 BC. Some bloggers, realizing the problems of having a dead man give a speech in the Roman Senate, backdate this to 45 BC, but that presents other problems for authenticity. In 45 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar was still firmly at the helm of the Roman ship of state, and probably would have, given his stated clemency campaign, thought a “traitors in our midst” hysteria counterproductive. There is no real evidence that Caesar, outside of a few troublemakers and recidivists, bothered to enact a purge on the model of the Marian/Saturninian massacres or the Sullan Proscription.  Cicero himself was despondently sitting out much of the Senate proceedings, devoting his time to philosophical works like De Re Publica and De Legibus, and writing a treatise on correct behavior to his son Marcus. He was also in mourning that year for his beloved daughter Tullia, and history records that this was another reason for his somewhat uncharacteristic silence. He did make a few fawning speechs on Caesar’s behalf and in Caesar’s interest (one of Cicero’s failings was that he proved to be a moral coward when faced with overwhelming authority or force — for instance his collaboration with the Triumvirate, which he politically loathed), but for all intents and purposes,  Cicero didn’t return to full public life until after Caesar’s assassination and the delivery of the 14 Philippics against Marc Antony (the speeches that sealed his doom) in 44BC.

Even charitably attributing the quote to his son, also Marcus Tullius Cicero, doesn’t work. The younger Cicero was away from Rome in 42 BC, having fled Antony’s armies after the disastrous Battle of Philippi of that year. And Cicero junior was not known for having the rhetorical genius of his father — there are few, if any, surviving works of his. He’s arguably best known for being the target of de Officiis (“On Obligations”), the above-mentioned treatise that Cicero was working on at the time of his death as a “kick in the pants” to his son, who was spending much of his time in Athens carousing and slacking on philosophical and rhetorical studies (much to his father’s chagrin).

Given all of this, I can only assume that the quote falls in the same category as the infamous “Franklin Prophecy” (an attempt to put in the mouth of — of all people! — Benjamin Franklin an antisemitic rant) or the faked “quotation” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesarthat surfaced, unbidden, after 9/11 as an indictment of the Bush Administration, or Lincoln’s supposed warning about capitalism.

The dead cannot contradict or deny the words we put into their mouths. But let’s get an expert opinion on this:

Quidem concessum est rhetoribus ementiri in historiis ut aliquid dicere possint argutius. (Indeed, rhetoricians are permitted to lie about historical matters so they can speak more subtly).

  • M. Tullius Cicero, Brutus 42.

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Amazing eyewitness article on the fall of the Berlin Wall

Here. All I have to say is amazing. The fall of the Wall still brings tears to my eyes every time I see it on TV.

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President Obama, it’s time for your closeup!

History was made last night, and don’t you think that the supporters of Barack Obama are going to let anyone forget that for quite some time. From Washington DC all the way to the town of Obama, Japan, celebrations have broken out across the globe, hailing the first black man to become President of the United States (no. Bill does not count, no matter how much he billed himself as “the first black president.”). That in itself is an amazing, epochal, foundation-shaking event. Only 50 years ago, within a human lifetime, blacks were refused seating in restaurants across the south, were told to sit at the back of buses — they even were forced to use separate drinking fountains from whites. Less than 150 years ago, blacks could still be legally kept as property. And now, a black man is president. In an election won in a majority white nation. I do not agree with President-elect Obama on the issues, and did not vote for him, but I salute, congratulate and celebrate him and his achievement. He’s earned his place in the history books.

A few things to remember though:

For the Democrats, remember that “all glory is fleeting.” Obama has won the presidency. The Democrats have also consolidated their hold on both houses of Congress (as of this writing, they still have, if four razor-thin-margin races go their way, a shot at a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate). They essentially rolled back the clock to the pre-Newt Gingrich status quo, where the Democrats had held a majority in the Senate and House, and had even wrested the presidency away from the Republicans — in effect this was the delayed Democratic answer to the Reagan landslide of 1980, when it seemed that were were on the cusp of a perpetual Republican ascendancy through Ronald Reagan.  Before Bush the Elder, Clinton and Bush the Younger.

Now, it’s Obama’s turn, and he has a job that nobody should envy. Iraq is improving, but both we and the Iraqis see a need to stick around, at least in the short term and it can still get messy. However, with anti-war groups seeing him as the last best hope for a full withdrawal immediately, he is going to be pulled in two directions at once, especially once the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) between Iraq and the US is finally settled. The economy is still in shambles from the sub-prime mortgage fiasco (if I were advising Obama, I would suggest he order criminal investigations of Lehman Brothers, AIG, Bear-Stearns, Countrywide, and the other subprime lenders, and then introduce bills in Congress geared towards making sure this disgrace never happens again), and it will fall to Obama to start picking up the pieces — Lord knows Bush hasn’t had a run of particularly good luck or competence in repairing it — the $600 stimulus giveaways were a joke, and the bailout only seemed to reinforce the perception that the Bush Administration was only interested in helping out well-heeled donors and corporate grandees (it didn’t help that AIG turned around and sent its top execs some of the same people who got us into this misshive in the first placeto a spa resort for pampering). The bailout did nothing to fix the problems with selling mortgage-backed securities, particularly from those at risk of default, that was the powderkeg that exploded the crisis. 

Obama undeniably benefited from this groundswell of anger at a Bush administration now widely seen as incompetent, and it showed. Here, in California, for instance, numerous counties that had gone for Bush in 2004 (while the president was still riding the post-Iraq high)  flipped to Obama, including San Bernardino County, which has seen a drastic increase in foreclosures since the crisis hit.  People were not voting for the Democrats. They were voting for change, as represented by Obama. He could have worn a ferret or a marmoset or a Thompson’s Gazelle on his lapel instead of a donkey — so long as it wasn’t an elephant, he was golden.

Since much of the vote is coming down to the pocketbook, we still have to see which Obama is going to be the one in office — the financially secure if governmental expansionist Obama who will lay on a new New Deal or the “marxist,” “redistributionist” Obama who will raise taxes on the rich (whatever his definition really is) to try and float all boats equally. If we get the latter, whether from a desire to be that or through his being goaded by radicals who want to see implicit promises carried through, it could end up backfiring if the economy suffers.

And to that, remember that the electorate is fickle. They want to see a quick turnaround (even though such may be impossible, and even Obama acknowledged that in his victory speech, pleading for patience by saying that solutions may not take effect in one year or one term) and if the situation does not improve to their satisfaction, 2010 is right around the corner, hanging like the sword of Damocles ready to drop on the Democrats.

For Republicans and conservatives who may be on suicide watch right now, the message should be “don’t panic.” The sun rose in the sky this morning, even if it be over a America that elected Obama. The world is not going to tilt off its axis. This is not a sign of the apocalypse. It’s just an election. Take a deep breath and realize that Pennsylvania Avenue is NOT about to be renamed Red Square or Arafat Boulevard or some such nonsense like that. And, let’s call a spade a spade — John McCain was about as electrifying a candidate as a soggy paper towel, which is a let-down because the man showed cojones of brass while a guest of the NVA in Hanoi. He chose not to forcefully fight Obama, carrying on a bizarre campaign that would play things close to the vest and then suddenly lunge out and mention Bill Ayres or Jeremiah Wright, while not attacking Obama’s use of private contribution funds after publicly stating that he would eschew them to qualify public money. His plans were often non-existent and poorly articulated, and his attempts to suspend the campaign and get back to Washington, in the hopes that it would make him look like a statesman still on the nation’s clock while Obama blithely continued on with business as usual, backfired hugely, as it both tied him with the pork-laden abomination as well as make him look panicky by going when there ended up being little to do.

 So, suck up, buck up and come back with a new plan if you seriously want to retake either Congress or the White House.

And stop with the sour grapes nonsense. On the radio today, I heard some callers talk of how Obama’s not “my president.” It doesn’t work that way. Whether or not you agree with him (and I don’t), Barack Obama won the election of 2008 fair and square. He earned it. He is our president, or at least he will be on January 20, 2009. To say otherwise is to strip him of his rightly-deserved laurels and to strip the office of President of the respect it deserves. I dislike George W. Bush for a great many things. But he is my president. I distrusted Bill Clinton. But he was my president. I will likely disagree with Barack Obama on a great many things. But he will be my president. We do not have the luxury in this country of setting up a “government-in-exile” every time an election goes awry (or when the candidate, as here, just seems to say “screw it”). There will always be another election. But for now, it’s time to deal with President Obama.

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Your Underwear Knows Where You Live!

You have got to be kidding me. GPS-enabled underwear.

While, yeah, you can argue that some wome will buy it for security, how much do you, dear reader, want to be tthat the grand majority of the lingerie wil be bought by insecure nebbishes who are completely and utterly afraid their sweetie is getting some on the side? Even though the article claims that the system can be turned off at will by the wearer, it would still show a marked lack of trust on the part of any husband or boyfriend who would buy it. (Unless they’re wearing it themselves and are into that sort of thing. Not that there’s anythng wrong with that…)

Some feminists have called the device a “modern day chastity belt” and the designer, one Lucia Lorio, a “modern-day slaver” (a charge which is just on the cusp of Godwin’s Law territory). It’s not quite that dire, in my opinion. It’s just creepy to think that your significant other might be keeping track of you, in a world where we’re already surveilled into annoyance by marketers and into apprehension by government.  The last thing people need now is for their underwear to be broadcasting their location to everyone.  And what if unsavory folks get a hold of the GPS info?

For the fashion designers who dreamed this up, here’s an idea you might want to take for a redesign of the undies, a GPS lingerie 2.0, if you will…

If nothing else, it’ll fit in with the whole high-tech sci-fi theme, right? And the rather outdatd “keeping women under control” thing as well. (Hutt crime lord not included, unless you’re in to that sort of thing. )

Although on the other hand, this could have some interesting benefits too… perhaps they could put a IFF (or in this case, a IFWB?) on the devices to signal whether the wearer is taken or not or looking for romance/nookie…

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Short Order History: Caesar at the Rubicon

This piece was originally published in the Palos Verdes Peninsula News.

                January 10, 49 BC. The great man stood in a gladiatorial ludus in Ravenna on the banks of the River Rubicon. Across the stream, flooded by a midwinter’s rain squall, lay the border of his authority. Gaius Julius Caesar, Proconsul of Gaul, watched a display of training gladiators but with scant interest. His mind was on a more immediate and bloody task than slaves sparring with wooden swords. He stood ready to declare civil war – all for the chance to stand for election unmolested.

                He’d intended on returning to Rome, the center of power, as a victorious general – the man who had finally put an end to the traditional Roman bête noire, the Gauls, and there stand for his second election to the top post of Consul. It had all been arranged between Caesar and two other ambitious men – the legendary general Pompey and Crassus, the richest man in Rome. As the Triumvirate, they’d run roughshod over the Senate for years. Yet now the Senate, led by Cato, was ready to exact its long-awaited vengeance. They took advantage of Crassus’ death and Pompey’s alienation from Caesar as the former junior partner rose into ascendency to offer Pompey command of all the Republic’s armies should things come to blows. The Senate demanded nothing less than Caesar immediately laying down his commission and returning to Rome a private citizen. Caesar knew what would happen next – he’d be buried under a mountain of lawsuits and private prosecutions that would sap his finances, prevent his candidacy, expel him from the Senate and likely result in his permanent exile from the city. He had the measure of Cato – the old drunkard wouldn’t rest until Caesar was utterly ruined. And if Caesar merely ignored the summons, Cato had a pliant Pompey in charge of the Senate’s armies to use for coercion. 

                This Caesar would not allow. His sense of destiny was too strong. He would impose his reforms on the decaying city of Rome, by any means necessary.

                He appreciated the risk – by leading his troops out of his province, he was declaring war on Rome. He’d be in direct combat with Pompey and all other loyal generals. If he failed, he’d be declared an outlaw and executed if caught alive. Even if he succeeded, his hold on power may well be precarious – common wisdom said he’d have to become a bloody-handed tyrant like the dictator Sulla or else leave himself exposed to the threat of a counter-coup. He had plans to navigate between those two rocky shoals – he had been famous for his clemency, perhaps it would serve him well now. And Caesar had always been a gambler – his obituary, political and otherwise, had been written countless times in the past.

                That evening, as the storm still raged, Caesar waded into the river, beckoning his men to follow, men who had followed Caesar to hell and back for almost ten years in Gaul. They had every intention of following their leader now to glory or destruction. As Caesar entered the water, he uttered a phrase half-remembered from an old play by Menander:. Alea Iacta Est. The die is cast.

                The die had been cast, and only Fortuna would know whose number would come up – Caesar or the Republic’s.

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Old Potsherds, New Discoveries

This has been a banner couple of months for archaeologists. There was the discovery of the tomb outside Rome of the famed Marcus Nonius Macrinus (one of Marcus Aurelius’ most trusted advisers [and the prototype for Russell Crowe’s “Maximus” in Gladiator–except that Macrinus’ life had a much happier ending]). Then, the discovery of ruins outside Venice of the ancient Roman city of Altinum, hidden until satellites were able to tease the outlines of the ruins from the earth.

And now, archaeologists have announced that they may have found some of the earliest Hebrew writing in existence — actually dating back 3,000 years, to the time of King David — at a site near Jerusalem. Written on a potshard, they believe it to be a letter, from a people whose literacy at the time was in doubt.

As a language and history wonk, this makes me squee (a word I’ve rarely used and hopefully never will again) with delight. This (if it’s proven to be Hebrew and not another language that used the same alphabet) could show the clear development of the Hebrew alphabet from … It also could shed light on the accuracy of the Bible, and whether the histories presented could possibly have been true chronicles or just oral-tradition histories of folk heroes (as with the Odyssey). If this letter survived 3,000 years buried in a Levantine desert, who knows if there might not be inscriptions waiting out there that could have been actually chisled by Solomon or David, stating in thir own words what they did (or would have liked their subjects to believe they did), as we have with the capsule autobiography of Augustus. We can’t prove the Scorpion King’s existence, nor Gilgamesh’s, nor really Jimmu Tennou, but we might be tantalizingly close to proving the existence of a King David.

Then again, it might all disappear like a desert mirage.

However, don’t start jumping on this to prove or disprove the existence of God. As we all know, God exists by two falls to a submission.

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What Once Was Lost, But Now is Found…

I’d defy anyone to actually lose a 30-foot tall metal tower that on a clear day can be seen twelve miles away. But, according to the Los Angeles Times , it happened in 1928 when YOUR United States Government moved the lighthouse from Cape Cod all the way across the country to San Francisco by still unknown means.

And then promptly forgot about it. It’s stood there ever since, growing a small youth hostel around it, but still functioning as a beacon. Just nobody ever realized just where the lighthouse had come from.

If nothing else, it’s an intersting story from the fact that the beacon, still in use by the Coast Guard, was shining over Massachusetts back in the days of Herbert Hoover’s administration, only to find itself piercing the Frisco Fog at the close of the Bush Administration. The only one, apparently, to have that honor. And I’m particularly enthused — It’s not often here in the US that old architecture is recovered in this sort of dramatic fashion — the tower is believed to date back to 1881.  

But, still — how does one lose a lighthouse?!?!

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