Sunday, 14 September 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: dynasty or i quote in elegiacs all the crimes of heliogabalus

After Julius Caesar claimed autocracy and posthumously set the precedent of dynastic rule, it was in essence just a generation that separated the empire from the relative beneficence of Caesar's heir, Octavian called Julius Augustus whose long reign, political networks and civil reforms were just revolutionary enough to endure and to weather future crises, from the absolutely corruption yielded by absolute power and inheritance. Octavian groomed his successors with great care in hopes of ensuring a smooth transition of power and keeping Rome's political model, social services and borders in Octavian's image—plus all in the family. His heirs-apparent, however, did not live to see through Octavian's dominion, both his natural sons who had been educated, trained and primed for leadership, and in the end, Octavian was compelled to rewrite his will to name his step-son, Tiberius—ancestor of Nero and daughter of Livia by her first marriage, as his successor. Interestingly, though Octavian himself warned against harbouring creatures of the court that held illegitimate or behind-the-scenes authority, Octavian also adopted his widowed wife Livia as his daughter, so that she might retain some of the unofficial powers that she wielded, becoming known in all circles as simply the Augusta.

Tiberius proved less than harmless, and always the reluctant emperor, ceded much of the day-to-day matters of governance to a single adviser, who gladly took on the extra responsibilities and quickly identified and then indulged a native sense of paranoia. Tiberius' angst was not completely unwarrented of course, as his mother, the Augusta, had conspired to make sure her son became emperor, going so far—some believe—as having Tiberius' step-brothers taken out of the picture and even poisoning the old Octavian before he changed his mind about Tiberius, and the city was full of intrigues, including the self-fulling hatred that grew amongst the citizens once the emperor's adviser started the campaign of purges to execute or exile all those suspected of treason against the regime. Eventually Tiberius grew wise to the reality of the plot against him and had the adviser dismissed and tried as an enemy of the state himself, but by then it was far too late. Tiberius had his own son, the general known by his cognomen Germanicus, put to death for not following protocol and representing a threat to his father's authority. Rome had suffered a demoralising loss a decade prior in the Teutoburg Forrest to the commander of the Germanic tribes Hermann (Latinised as Arminius). Germanicus made a few winning forays on to the Eastern banks of the Rhine and was an inspiration to his troops and to the public, including making good on some old promises of pensions and better pay—out of his own personal fortune without bothering with bureaucratic embargoes. Recognising that Germanicus was far more popular than the emperor, presented a risk of a military coup, like forefather Julius Caesar, and had violated one of the terms set forth in Octavian's last will and testament, not to expand the boundaries of the empire. The Rhine remained the furthermost frontier of the empire but the adventures of Germanicus, if left unattended, might have expanded German control. Moreover, Tiberius dispatched Germanicus' family to ensure no further resistance was nascent—sparing only Germanicus' youngest son (and young daughters) since he did not pose any sort of challenge to the paranoid emperor. In fact, after Tiberius left the capital on a permanent basis to rule in absentia from his palace in Capri, he decided to do some estate-planning of his own and adopted his young grandson, whom Tiberius recalled fondly had accompanied Germanius on his expeditions, and was outfitted with a little legionnaire's uniform—including a tiny pair of boots, lending him the pet-name, Caligula. Once, for all intents and purposes, retired from political engagements and away from the city, Tiberius, with young and already traumatised Caligula to watch, was able to engage freely in his favourite pastimes—tossing slaves off the cliffs of his mountain top retreat in the gulf of Naples. Once Tiberius died, Rome believed that this new ruler, Caligula, would restore civil order and herald a new period of peace and prosperity. That delusion was short-lived, however.
The public was made to endure a long succession of madness, precocity and wantonness with only the very briefest of respites and naïve honeymoon periods after new families killed each other off. In the spirit of “the king is deal; long live the king” statues erected erected to certain regimes throughout the empire, on the streets and in temples, were often without thought for the historic record beheaded and replaced with the likeness of the new emperor—which is why archaeologists find a lot of disembodied busts and unofficially treated to purge the career of their predecessors. There was even a legislative mechanism for erasing the past, called damnatio memoriae, but this statue seemed to have been enacted only sparingly—at least as far as we know, since if it did work according to the letter of law, we would never know about it. This striking from the record was imposed on the assassins of Julius Caesar, to include the proscription on the pain of death that no one from his clan ever be called Marc Antony—although later pardoned and rescinded. After the horrors of Tiberius, Caligula (who bankrupted the empire, among other things), Nero (who is reported to have burned down Rome in order to make space for the palace he wanted to construct for himself and burned Christians for candlelit dining), the first emperor whose memory was to be condemned to oblivion was a man from Emesa (Homs) in the province of Syria called Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus.  Domitian came first but as his condemnation was spearheaded by a Senate bitter for being completely bypassed by someone who refused to recognise the charade of democracy, and this selective memory was even less potent than usual.
He was given the regnal name of Elagabalus—or Heliogabalus to make the Persia name of the sun deity sound a bit more solar to Greco-Roman ears), after his service as a priest to that order in his homeland, who venerated a meteorite which was sent to Earth from the Conquering Sun, and tried to introduce this religion to Rome. For someone who historians tried to toss down the memory-hole, there are surely some other lascivious details about his emperorship aside from his proselytising, including his male-lovers and the grace-and-favour postings they received, his desire to “mate” with the Vestal Virgins to produce “godlike offspring,” and reputedly making a brothel of his palace. Although any and all of the claims cannot be elevated above the suspicion of embellishment, maybe the act that besmirched his reputation the most, aside from being a foreigner and as gender-/role-challenged as Cleopatra, was allowing his grandmother and mother to participate directly in the Roman Senate. After Elagablus' reign was cut short, his religious trappings were sent back to Syria, women were barred from the Senate and his existence erased. Though extant there's only the strain of his name sung in the Major-General's Song in the Pirates of Penzance and a Gilded Age cult following for his decadent parties, damnatio memoriae, de facto or sanctioned, seems to leave a lot of blanks to fill in.