Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Roman Experiment

There are three kinds of people in the world, politically speaking.

Firstly: Those who believe that the greater good is accomplished by reducing governmental power.

Secondly: Those who believe that the greater good is accomplished by increasing governmental power.

And thirdly, those who are just in it for themselves, who disguise themselves in whatever cloak of political rhetoric they need in order to achieve and cling to power.

Conservatives, at least of the United States type, align with the first theory. Different labels may be put upon proponents of limited government elsewhere.
Liberals (again speaking of the U.S.), align with the second.

At times, people of both the first or second persuasion charge each other with evil motivation. In reality, both of the first two types are, by and large, good people, trying to make the world a better place.

True evil belongs to that third type, which includes horrible human beings such as Pol Pot of Cambodia or Kim Jong Il of North Korea. I read that Kim has now thrown off all pretense of leading a communist utopia and instead adopted the motto of the old Roman emperors: Take care of the army and don’t worry about anyone else.

The critical problem with increasing governmental power as a means to achieve greater good, is that it is the surest way to empower that evil third type. Lenin’s Soviet framework, built upon the idealist Marx’s vision – Marx, who never built a gulag or oppressed anyone – was the perfect structure to support the monster Stalin.

We can argue about whether other notorious world leaders, past and present, were trying to build better societies or simply enjoying the spoils of power. I speak of Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Hugo Chavez, Nicolai Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, etc. But can anyone seriously argue that any of the above preached, or preach, less government rather than more?

What has fascinated me in my study of the late Roman Empire, is the history that we don’t learn in school and how it relates to the above.

How much this entity, which survived for roughly five hundred years (if you count from the rise of Julius Caesar to the sack by Alaric and don’t count all the previous years of the Republic or the Byzantine Empire that struggled on in the east after the fall of the Eternal City), was a constantly changing, conscious experiment in human government.

How various Roman leaders, from Augustus to Diocletian, tried different and creative ways to balance power and address the needs of the people. How some of the most reviled of its rulers, such as Nero, actually started out with apparent good intentions but then succumbed to paranoia or power lust … because there was, ultimately, no one to stand in their way.

How gradually a hard-working society of independent-minded, mostly agrarian folk, with a relatively democratic system of leadership, degenerated into a an entertainment-crazed, urban mob demanding more and more hand-outs from their leadership, a mob which ignored national defense and a leadership which constantly added more and more planks to its pulpit of power and rarely, if ever, removed any of the accretions once each spasm of grumbling over their illegality had ceased.

We are fools to ignore the lessons that Rome taught by long and painful experience. Fools to think that world leaders today are cut from different cloth than the ones who once wore the purple toga. Fools to think that human nature ever changes.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Strange dream

"Those other 10 o'clock shows that come on, all you get from them is headaches and nightmares when you go to bed! At least we give you food, know what I mean?" -- Chef Emeril Lagasse.

What do you call a vision by night that is neither dream nor nightmare but something in between?

Returning home from a horribly lengthy work meeting (11 p.m. -- absolute insanity!), I stopped by Wendy's and bought an "Oriental" salad. My Beloved warned me that it would give me nightmares. I countered that only greasy, spicy foods do that and that I was so tired I would sleep like a baby.

We were both a little right and a little wrong.

My dream was simply bizzare. I was on my hands and knees in my front yard, weeding around a low berm of dirt. When I yanked up some tall crabgrass, a hole in the berm was revealed to me, a sort of entrance into a vast room carved out of the inside of the berm.

The cave-room was beautifully furnished, with a hardwood floor. But as I peered into it with amazement, a large cat shoved its way out the entrance, past me. I had a vague sense of foreboding about the animal but not quite fear. Another cat appeared but I don't remember what it did.

The narrator of the dream impressed upon my mind that these cats, not humans or hobgoblins or whatever, were the owners of the place.

And then I woke up.

I do not have a cat. Cats are not a part of my life. Neither are secret rooms in my front yard. I would be genuinely puzzled about why I would have such a weird dream, had I not realized long ago that my brain dreams randomly, assembling odd bits of this and that for its own amusement while it is forced to lie in the dark waiting for me to wake up.

In this case, the concept of cats in a cave only connects to an obscure book that I read at least 22 years ago -- a pun by Piers Anthony in one of his Xanth books on the subject of a cat-as-trophe.

That's a long reach back in the cranial file cabinet.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Blue butterflies, red ants, rabbits and cows

Fascinating story!

"In a rare conservation success, a beautiful butterfly species that was headed for extinction has been brought back from the brink, thanks to careful biological observations of the insect’s life cycle. The mysterious disappearance of the Large Blue Butterfly across most of northern Europe was originally put down to its popularity among insect collectors [Telegraph]. Then biologist Jeremy Thomas spent six summers in the 1970s studying the very last colony of large blue butterflies in the United Kingdom, and determined that the butterflies were dependent on one species of red ant for their survival–and those ants were losing their habitat."

full story:

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Pyrenees Puzzle

45 million years ago, in the Tertiary period, a certain island crashed into the western edge of Europe. Today, we call it Iberia, or Portugal and Spain. The impact shoved up a mountain range at the collision point, which we call the Pyrenees.

Not well-versed in the science of plate tectonics, the ancients had other ideas about the creation of those mighty mountains. The hero Heracles/Hercules, it seems, wandered that way during the performance of his 12 labors. Here we run into an ancient he-said, She said. Some versions of the story have him raping a Girl named Pyrene, others that She attacked him, and they all involve some brutish cowherd named Geryon. All of the stories, sadly, end with Her death. In his grief, Hercules piled up great heaps of rocks at Her burial site, forming the mountains which are named for Her.

I spent a lot of time online last night (hey, some guys watch football for hours, so sue me) trying to figure out what ancient writer actually told this story, especially since the modern re-tellings conflict so greatly. I have an obsession with going to the source of things.

I scoured my notes on Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, etc., to no avail.

It appears that a first-century Roman named Silias Italicus preserves the earliest extant retelling of the myth, in an obscure book called Punica.

Tangent-ially (is that a word?) check out this link for a scholar who connects the whole scenario to Celts and ancient ritual:;%20charset=Windows-1252