Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Western Civ-101: The Old-Time Benedictines vs. Harvard. The Romans: Paterfamilias…Aristocratic….Patriotic…Democratic.

         BTW for those who felt I was too right-wing on ancient Greeks anent homosexuality, read The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton [1930] and The Greeks by H.D.F. Kitto [1950].  Remember this is not meant to be a scholarly disquisition…but is derived from notes taken long-long ago when the classics were not regarded as immaterial. 
     Q.  How did the Romans differ from the Greeks?
     A.  Markedly.  The males of ancient Greece were not especially family men because they congregated at male-only consortia…missed a lot of what we call “quality time” with their wives and kids while their women stayed home and raised the children practically alone.  It’s fair to say Greek kids were practically fatherless.
     Q,.  Not so the Romans?
  1. To the contrary. Roman families were bound up in patriarchy.  In the Golden Age,  Roman fathers were much better than the Greeks on women’s rights  But this they believed:  The style they followed was paterfamilias where the father was indisputably the head of the household and his word was law. So much so that technically a father could kill a child—although this was very rare. Their governing style was aristocratic and democratic. The state was sacrosanct. The statement, “I am a Roman citizen” was a badge of honor.  When they conquered the Greeks in the 1st century B.C. the Romans hooted that the Greeks were luxury-loving, soft because of riches, hedonistic, carnal.  The best line about Roman patriotism was delivered  by a youth captured in an ancient war whose lines impressed our old Benedictines hugely.
              Q.  Who was he and what were the lines?
              A.  The Romans were walled up while the Etuscan army was gathered outside and a kid…a teenager…named Mucius checked a plan out  with the town’s fathers…senators…and when he got their okay slipped outside the wall with a dagger hidden under his cloak.   He was looking for the squadron leader to kill him.  He perceived the leader and rushed him, sinking the dagger in his chest killing him instantly…only to discover it was the leader’s assistant.   He was quickly surrounded, tied up and brought to the very commander he had sought to kill.  His statement typified the Rome of his day.
             Q.  And in the statement he said what?
             A. A classic statement of Roman patriotism, cited by my history professor at St. John’s in Minnesota [1946-50] Fr. Vincent Tegeder OSB., whom we called affectionately “Smilin’ Jack” (after a comic strip hero of that name).  Here it is.  We had to copy it in longhand.
          “I am a Roman citizen.  Men call me Gaius Mucius.  I am your enemy and as your enemy I would have slain you; I can die as resolutely as I can kill: both to do and to endure valiantly in the Roman way.  Nor am I the only one to carry this resolution against you. Behind me is a long line of men who are seeking the same honor.  So if you think it worth your while, gird yourself for a long strong struggle in which you will have to fight for your life from hour to hour with  your armed foe always at your door.  Such is the war we, the Roman youths, declare upon you. Fear no serried ranks, no battle.  It will be between yourself alone and a single enemy at a time.” [Livy.  2-12]. 
          The virtues inculcated there were, in Fr. Vincent’s appraisal, were the ones that embodied Rome at its greatest, indeed patriotism today—subordination of self to country, unflinching unyielding to pain, courage in face of death, certainty in the right.
           This speech angered the Etruscan commander so much that he ordered Gais Mucius flung into a bonfire but Gais stretched his hand into the flames to illustrate that he was un-cowed, saying “Look how cheaply we value our bodies…we whose  eyes are fixed on glory!”
           Moved by the youth, the commander freed him. Tales of Gais Mucius went back to Rome and his family was honored as one of the noblest in Rome.
         Q.    You say Rome cherished aristocracy. How was it governed?
        A.   It started with the Senate which was invented by Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome. The Roman Constitution…unwritten…provided for it. The Romans believed democracy was fickle and should be heavily diminished by aristocracy.   Don’t get me started about the intricacies of the thing because we’ll never complete this.  Suffice it to say that when the plebeians invaded the decision-making of government and usurped the patricians it was the beginning of the end.
          Senate means “elders” and the membership—100 in number who served for life…which spared them from pandering to the mob…with their service to end only if they disgraced themselves. Members came from the principal families of Rome…picked first by Romulus and thereafter by kings and emperors. The Senate represented the aristocracy from which the concept of the  U. S.  Senate was derived.  The U.S.  Senate was elected by the legislatures which kept members at armed length from the people.  Then in the “progressive” era, a constitutional amendment was passed—unwisely in my view—for direct election of senators by the people. Bad idea in my view.
            Two consuls…who had to be patricians…were elected each year by a group of patricians and aristocrats called theComitia Centuriata.  Each consul had a veto over the other.  The consuls had extensive powers in peacetime, administrative,  legislative and judicial.  During wartime the consuls were distinguished by military experience and statesmanship.   You can see the importance the founders gave to patricians and aristocracy.  
           Q. Did the people have any role?
           A.  Yes—but the power was guarded. Eventually they could propose laws and they possessed some veto power over actions of the Senate.
           Q.  How did the whole system start to go to hell with Rome?
          A.  With democratization where the mob expected to be pandered.  There was a slow acquisition of rights by the plebeians from the patricians. But the old adage as in I Claudius that rampant immorality did it solely is wrong.   So was Gibbon who said in his Decline and Fall that it was Christianity. This piece is already gone on too long so I’ll continue it….but I’ll give you a tip:  the welfare state played a big role.   This isn’t meant to be a last-word compendium but the synthesis I drew from classes 60 plus years ago.
             Q.  When will we get to Part II of this?
            A.  Whenever I get around to it.  I’ll also give a little summary of what they were teaching about this at Harvard circa 1977.


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  2. Mr. Roeser,

    You are a joy to read. Thank you for the effort to articulate the thoughts of a well-trained Catholic intellect.