“It seems that Nature produced him as an experiment, to show what absolute vice could accomplish when paired with absolute power.” – Seneca, about CaligulaI recently read James Romm’s book about ancient Roman philosopher Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD), Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, which I learned about in the New York Times’ list of the top books of 2014.* The book’s subject is of great interest to me, both Roman politics specifically and the transhistorical question of the political ethics of intellectuals, especially in autocratic, repressive, and violent regimes, and the ways philosophy and political theory themselves can be used to rationalize acquiescence to or participation in political crimes.
The political violence of Seneca’s era is of course horrific. But one of the more painful aspects of this history for me to contemplate has always been how the Senate continued to exist and to appear to function after it had bowed under the emperors (princeps). To read about the votes of the Senate to laud Nero and to chastise those who spoke out against his worst excesses, about how they cheered bitterly as he emptied and wasted the state treasury, is in some ways worse than reading about the physical violence that was so prevalent. Of course, real democracy, to the extent that it had ever existed, was past, and the principle of autocracy was well established, but it still makes me queasy to read of what I think Romm calls at one point the abject “moral capitulation” of the once-proud Senate.
At the same time as I was reading the book and feeling this pity and disgust for a system which not only produced these Caligulas and Neros but required the representatives of a hollowed-out democratic institution to grovel before them and cater to their whims, this played out in the US Senate:
What does the fact that Warren is one of very few left who are willing to show even this sort of bravery say about how far we’ve gone in the direction of Rome?
Then more recently, with this all still fresh in mind, I learned of the Koch brothers’ “retreat” at which presidential hopefuls performed to win their favor, and of their plan to spend almost a billion dollars on the 2016 elections. Some of the candidates singing the praises of the Koch brothers and their necrophilous corporate desires - many of which are causing the destruction of the planet’s natural systems and making it unsuited for human habitation – can still recognize that the policies they champion are indefensible. But the moral capitulation is nearly complete. Several in the corporate media have even heralded the “openness” surrounding the Koch event and their “revelations” about donations as marking a new era of transparency, rather than the normalization of the abject surrender of political elites and the collapse of even the pretense of democracy.
The US political class, of course, faces nothing like the violent threats to themselves and their families that led the Roman Senate to accede to and even cheer the depredations of the princeps. Then again, they didn’t wake up one day in the midst of an autocracy in which even the basic principle of democracy had vanished from memory. And their humiliating state of moral capitulation and dependence wasn’t inevitable. It was brought about through a million acts of surrender, praise, and acceptance.
What’s being created today is beyond corruption: a system of corporate Caligulas – even more perfect combinations of vice and power than the original – cheered by a pathetic courtier class who prop up the empty myths and rituals of a past democracy as they destroy billions of lives.
* A shoddy list, to put it mildly – the fawning recommendation of a book by Henry Kissinger is only the worst of its problems. And I actually question the inclusion of Dying Every Day. I generally enjoyed the book and found it a nicely written popular history, and I thought this review by Michael Miller unnecessarily harsh and snotty. Unless someone has really basically duplicated what’s come before, I dislike criticisms of the “I don’t understand why the author felt the need to write this” variety, especially when the reviewer is contending that some books published several decades ago written in a different style for a different audience and which might not be known or available to many people should suffice for every reader. I’m fairly amused by Miller’s assertion that
There is always the question of the need for a modern writer to tell a familiar story all over again, when ancient writers told the story so well, if with distinct, contradictory points of view. Commented editions of these writers fit the bill, and for literary enjoyment, they remain unsurpassed. For that matter, would anyone entrusted with the transmission of the classics want to interpose his or her own writing between modern students or readers and the glorious originals?I don’t think there is always that question – in fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever questioned modern writers telling these stories.** Furthermore, Seneca’s story is hardly familiar to most people today, nor is the interest in reading the ancient writers so strong that a modern writer making the ancients more accessible can’t spark it.
Nor do I care for Williams’ sneering at animated, accessible writing: “Romm borrows mannerisms from crime journalism and pulp fiction to give his narrative a sensationalistic tone, peppered with anachronistic phrases and other banalities.” Seriously? Using phrases like “hit squad” and “in cahoots” to describe hit squads and people who were in cahoots to modern readers is “anachronistic”? And the stories themselves are so sensational that it requires training in dry, academic writing to render them boring. It doesn’t appear that Williams recognizes that describing existing works on Seneca as “written for the most part in sturdy Oxonian prose, built to haul information, argument, and ideas” which “may require a little more effort than Romm’s self-consciously user-friendly idiom” probably won’t make many people rush out to get them. I imagine when asking someone to write a blurb for a book jacket a publisher probably isn’t hoping for phrases like “sturdy Oxonian prose.” (Then again, I’m not British.)
That said, some of Williams’ more serious criticisms are valid. A popular work based on historical scholarship has to succeed in translating history based on the best current scholarship into readable prose. This is sometimes difficult – and of course even the most responsible scholars often disagree in their interpretations of the existing evidence. But writing for a nonspecialist audience doesn’t give an author license to disregard scholarly standards or to take off into speculative flights of fancy, which, as Williams argues, Romm does seem to do. At times, Romm approaches the ancient sources, especially Tacitus, with far too much credulousness - including with respect to some of their more misogynistic claims, which is somewhat surprising in light of Romm’s acknowledgment of the misogyny of their culture. And often he dates works based on a series of strange conjectures and assumptions, which is especially odd in those cases (most) in which the claim isn’t at all essential to the narrative.
This is compounded by the stupid manner of presenting the endnotes, for which the publisher is probably to blame. My personal preference in printed books is for sociological citations and footnotes for longer asides, and I don’t care – as this post probably demonstrates – if the notes take up half the page or more. I like to have the information accessible without having to flip around looking for it. But numbered endnotes are tolerable in most cases. In e-books, numbers can be links to notes or even to original sources, and people should have a choice of whether they want the link to take them somewhere else or to click on it and see the information on the same page. But an unacceptable and inexplicable structure is the one used in Dying Every Day: this nonsense of having notes at the end referring back to quoted snippets of the text, with no indication in the text that the notes even exist, so if the reader wants to see if there’s a note or source connected to something in the text, they have to go to the notes – this is even harder in an e-book – and then try to find the specific phrase the note is linked to. Why would anyone, ever think this is a good structure for notes, much less think it’s remotely appropriate for an e-book?
So overall I would recommend the book for people with an interest in Seneca, Roman history, or more general questions about intellectuals and political ethics (and intellectual political ethics). It’s a fascinating and touching story. I wouldn’t call it one of the best of the year, though, or a stellar example of how popular history should be done.
** Or devising characters like Seneca Crane, for that matter.