Saturday, 2 February 2013

The New Dionysius

Reading ancient authors can be disconcerting.  It's hard to be certain if you're inhabiting the same mental universe as they are.  How similar are we to our forebears of two millennia ago, and how much have shifts in time and culture made fundamental changes to our outlook?  For instance, my recent reading of some of Plutarch's Lives.

Plutarch was a Greek author and philosopher who wrote at the end of the first and beginning of the second century CE.  He was a philosopher, trained at the Academy in Athens, and also a priest of Delphi, the famous shrine of Apollo from which Greek and Roman leaders sought oracles before they set out on important ventures. 

However, he is best known for his "Lives", a series of short biographies of prominent Greek and Roman leaders from various eras.  He produced these in pairs - one Greek, one Roman - intended to illustrate different moral and political lessons and to compare and contrast Greek and Roman civilisation.  The Penguin editor tells us that he was not so much concerned with historical fact as with moral lessons.

Penguin Books obviously didn't feel Plutarch's original concept would sell to 20th century readers.  Instead, in the late 1950's and mid-1960s they extracted two collections of his Roman lives and published translations respectively titled Fall of the Roman Republic and Makers of Rome.  Most of the biographies are from the two centuries before Christ, when Rome was expanding its influence and territory.  Its city-state polity was awkwardly suited to a growing empire and unrest at home grew as the wealthiest citizens captured the riches of empire and the rest got nothing. 

Roman society was deeply religious.  The early Christians were not despised because they were religious but because they were not.  They refused to worship the Roman gods, including the emperor, and insisted on exclusive fidelity to their single God/man.  Such irreligion would bring the wrath of all the other gods down on their heads if the Romans didn't deal firmly with it. 

For them the gods were very close and personal, so personal that an emperor of sufficient power could be a god himself, if not in his own lifetime then soon after his death.  It's not easy to know how seriously the emperors themselves took this.  Those who overplayed their divinity, like Caligula or Nero, were generally portrayed as mad.  Yet they always ensured their immediate predecessors were swiftly deified.

Plutarch takes religion as a given.  He doesn't discuss it much, apart from repeated references to augury (the practice of reading omens in the behaviour of birds), but it's there, not far from the surface.

Some of his characters are instantly recognisable types.  Cato the Elder, for instance, is a classic moralist.  His chief virtue was thrift.

He tells us that he never wore a garment which cost more than a hundred drachmas, that even when he was praetor or consul he drank the same wine as his slaves, that he bought the fish and meat for his dinner at the public market...that when he was bequeathed an embroidered Babylonian robe he immediately sold it...

This admirable thrift and simplicity was, however, also applied to human beings.

...he never paid more than 1,500 drachmas for a slave...and when they became too old to work he felt it his duty to sell them rather than feed so many useless mouths.

It's hard not to hate Cato and Plutarch doesn't try to persuade you otherwise.  He could easily be one of Charlotte Bronte's cruel, self-righteous parsons.  He made me think of the priest in one of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael books who is described as having all the Christian virtues except compassion.

Mark Antony is a completely different kettle of fish.  He could be extravagently generous, passionate and forgiving, as well as violent and cruel.  He was noted for his wild drunken parties and his seductions, for his habit of disguising himself as a slave and wandering the streets of the city in search of adventure.  His entourage, instead of generals and diplomats, was made up of actors, singers and circus performers.  Each night there was feasting and revelry.  In so many ways he was the model for the later emperors, for men like Nero and Commodus who ruled with passion and extravagence.

As the republic tottered on its last legs, Antony at the peak of his power was virtually the sole ruler of two thirds of the empire.  He could have become the first true emperor if he had not been outsmarted by his younger rival Octavius, who went on to become the Emperor Augustus.  Yet for a modern reader his motivations are a mystery. 

Plutarch is also a little mystified, and is inclined to attribute his misjudgements to passion.  Blinded by his love, or his lust, for Cleopatra, he throws away opportunities for victory in order to be near her.  Yet by this time he was already an experienced leader and she was no mean political schemer herself. 

I would actually hazard a guess (in true Plutarchian style, quite possibly despite the facts) that Antony's problem was that he was a religious idealist, even a fanatic.  He was the opposite kind of fanatic to Cato, that strict, old-fashioned Roman who allied fidelity to the old gods with strict morality.  Cato, like the later Octavius, was passionately opposed to the introduction of Greek ideas into Rome, and particularly to the spread of the rites of Dionysius (the Roman Bacchus), god of wine and revelry.

Antony, on the other hand, was a lover of all things Greek.  His family was reputed to have descended from the Greek hero Hercules, son of Zeus, but Dionysius was his own particular deity.  He was even referred to as the "new Dionysius", the first Roman ruler to be lauded as a god.  To Octavius his maintenance of performers, his drunken feasts and revelry, were simply immoral.  Yet for a Dionysian they were acts of worship, devotion to a life of pleasure inspired by the god of joy and feasting.  Nothing gave Antony more pleasure than to glorify and serve his god. 

His affair with Cleopatra inspired him to new heights of worship.  If he was the new Dionysius, then she was the new Isis, the Egyptian mother goddess, bringer of fertility and new life.  Together they flaunted convention, outdid each other in their devotion to pleasure, in the extravagence of their feasting and their gifts.  So much so that the pleasures of empire paled.  It was hard for Antony to remain interested in war or politics.

Of course it eventually brought them undone.  Their followers wanted victory and spoils, not parties.  Their extravagence bankrupted them and impoverished their empire.  Octavius' prudence and discipline overcame them.  He established the kind of relentless, disciplined empire that was built to survive. 

Yet I suspect Antony might say that survival is not everything.  For him, a life lived on Octavius' terms was no life.  Without the regular Bacchanalia his life would not be worth living.  The Catos and Octaviuses of the world may end up with the spoils, but only the Antonys really know what to do with them.

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