Monday, September 24, 2012

Romans behaving badly

Corruption had reached an all time peak in ancient Rome. Julius Caesar, in keeping with the times, was a master of this sinister craft. He amassed great wealth, and then exhausted it just as quickly in paying bribes for getting elected to higher office. And this process was repeated, over and over again.

There is a story about Julius approaching Crassus (who was rumored to be the wealthiest man in Rome) for support, which in my head goes like this:
Julius: My term as Consul (chief magistrate of Rome) is soon coming to an end. I am afraid that my enemies in the Senate will persecute me for my indiscretions once I am no longer Consul.
Crassus: You have not done anything that the rest of us have not done. Or for that matter, the ones who seek to persecute you are no less guilty. Why do you seek my help?
Corruption was an integral, and accepted, part of the political machinery of Rome.
Julius: I need you to support my application for governership of Cisalpine Gaul?
Crassus: Why Gaul?
Julius: Because as Governor I have immunity from getting persecuted.
Crassus: Yes, yes. But why Gaul?
Julius: The Gauls are sophisticated folks. They understand the importance of trade with Rome. They are rich in iron ore, bronze and minerals; things we can benefit from. As Governer of Cisalpine Gaul, I will open the route to trade with the rest of Gaul more freely and levy heavy taxes on those who ply the trade.
Crassus (interested): And what is there for me?
Julius: You and I will split the benefit from the trade tax – maybe several million sesterces every year – down the middle. Do you agree?
Crassus nodded, eyes bulging out. This opportunity was god sent.
Crassus: What do you need of me?
Julius: I assume I have your vote and those of your followers. But I still have to rally around and win favors from (read as ‘bribe’) at least fifty other Senators.
Bribery, political maneuverings and assassinations formed a rich tapestry in the daily life of the complex organism called Rome.
Crassus: How much?
Julius: Two million sesterces.

This short, business conversation lasted merely five minutes or less, and led to a mutually beneficial situation for Julius and Crassus. Shortly thereafter, Julius was elected as governor of Cisalpine Gaul.

Interestingly, the institution of marriage was not exempt from the influence of politics. Marriages were a means of strengthening alliances. In keeping with the tradition, Julius Caesar broke off his engagement with a poor girl, when he was being appointed as high priest and instead married Cornelia, the daughter of an influential politician. Cornelia was the mother of Julius’ only legitimate child, Julia. Later in life, he married Julia to Pompey (who was much elder than Julius himself) to form an alliance, along with Crassus. The three of them formed a core body called the Triumvirate that controlled Rome.

Such practices may be frowned upon in modern times, but in the 1st century BC they were the norm: wives were acquired for furthering political ambitions. Romantic, and related, desires were satisfied by mistresses; and they were a-plenty in the time of Julius Caesar. Being an organized man, he approached his marital life and his amorous trysts, as two separate entities.

Nowadays, most of you marry for the sake of love. Beware! Julius Caesar frowns upon you!

A David Singh

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