Rome began as a monarchy, posthumously deified. According to legend, its founder Romulus, raised with his twin by a wolf, began building a city, inviting freeman and slave alike to participate in its construction and become citizen – this during a time when the kingdom of Israel was first being split into North and South by the Assyrians, the Greeks were solidifying from a diverse exploratory to a centralized Hellenic culture instituting the Olympics and penning the Odyssey, and Egypt was transitioning from a berber Libyan dynasty to an African one – sometimes known as Nubian, other time Kushite (from modern day northern Sudan).
Romulus created the first Senate, its 100 members initially appointed as council by the king, later by the consuls, then by military tribunals, and finally by the censors. It was government with a big G, a structure with rigidly and authoritatively defined roles, power allocated with military precision among various sources. And yet, its structure was not able to self-perpetuate, with intrigue and coalitions, its top would transition from a monarchy, to a republic jointly governed by 2 aristocratic consuls who ruled for 1 year or until they were ousted due to incompetence, to triumvirates, emperors, and dictators (25/37 of them removed by assassination), followed by the empire’s eventual demise as it turned its attention to a civil war, and its last emperor was removed around 500 AD by the Germans.
The Romans developed a way of posthumously rewarding good leaders by giving them the stature of gods through popular process, a process eventually given the Greek name: apotheosis. The divi and divae, sometimes enshrined with temples, were semantically yet distinct from the dei. It was perhaps an attempt to orient desire toward beneficent less present authority, all the while acknowledging the existence of corrupt, lust-driven, and frivolous assertions of power sometimes present in the figureheads of government. (Incidentally, the link to the coins presents what may be a factual statement with correct interpretation regarding the betrayal of Jesus. It is however often used to propagate a negative stereotype. I would consider the fact that Judas was a member of a group more relevant to the situation than the fact that he was Jewish. Jesus was also Jewish. I would be interested to know what fraction of the population surrounding Jesus was Jewish during Jesus’ time, and did not betray him for money – some 400 000 Jews maybe?).
Rome left its legacy in a moral authority still embodied in a church, in the senate, arguably in the sewage system, and in Latin, a language that would no longer be spoken, but would yet be learned for centuries by people as a necessary qualification to education.
Against this backdrop of rote:
and fierce battles with ancient Latin historical texts, enters the bard, who would struggle to bring an interest in Rome to the masses, with great mastery and art beautifully adapting the historically Greek venue of tragedy to early 17th century English language.
Shakespeare wrote 8 or so plays about Rome (all but one, a tragedy). I set out for an evening of public theatre to hear Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ performed under the stars. Yet tired and somewhat distracted, I chose to experience it “raw”, uneducated as to the context of the protagonist’s triumvirate conflict that would set the stage for Caesar’s Rome (the father of the one that would crucify Jesus), and also lead to the fall of Egypt’s last pharoah (Cleopatra). Although also attended by noblemen, Shakespeare’s plays were thoughtful clever works that made a very common appeal through sometimes pretty base humor. They were also attended by the common class who would pay a penny to stand in the pit.
So, I’m out under the stars, lying on the grass frolicked by young children and dogs, trying to grasp the subtleties of Elizabethan English with a less than fresh mind, probably not unlike your average adolescent who has it dropped on him/her in high school in the middle of an otherwise pretty distracting day. I’m initially shocked by the display of powerful lusts in the context of government, the glorification of war and its shaping of men through conflict. And yet, even with my tired head, the play eventually rose to great moments, and by the end, I would leave, aspiring to artistic excellence, seeking opportunities to define myself with valor and honor, and wondering how the balance of human life could hang so delicately on emotion.
The nuts and bolts of what I took away from the play are interesting – I scored about a 60% on this little quiz after the play. The quiz focused my attention a little, and I then went on to read the play which has some beautifully articulated thoughts, that could apply to today’s tragedy in Egypt.
That which combined us was most great, and let not
A leaner action rend us. What’s amiss,
May it be gently heard: when we debate
Our trivial difference loud, we do commit
Murder in healing wounds: then, noble partners,
The rather, for I earnestly beseech,
Touch you the sourest points with sweetest terms,
Nor curstness grow to the matter.
Would that these words could be spoken by an Egyptian who wants to heal the situation that is currently there. Although the differences between the sides are not trivial, murder has yet been committed in trying to achieve political authority. A government, unable to tolerate the persistent confrontation and presence of a dissenting voice, has fought initially silent clubs and guns possessed by a few among these with tanks. Our breath sucked from us, we pause to remember those that gave their lives to peacefully express their dissent to what had occurred, and then struggle to forge a common path forward that will respect life.