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March 4, 2009 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | March 4, 2009 |

For an excellent review of Rome, check out the TV Whore’s piece here. For stipe42’s mad ramblings about the show, please continue. And yes, by Jupiter’s cock, there are spoilers, the show concluded two years ago!

“This can only mean that the Republic has fallen.” -Lucius Vorenus
“And yet, the sky is still above us and the earth still below. Strange.” - Titus Pullo

This is a story of how democracy dies.

Rome is the mother of nations. The legend lurking at the dawn of history. The altar at which our laws and governments still worship. Every courthouse and capital echoes the ruins of that ancient city we still haunt. Legalese is still half Latin a millennium since the last native speakers died. Our senators and theirs would hardly notice the difference between each other, besides the togas and Italian suits.

Rome was a young state in an old world. Just old enough to feel confident and experienced, young enough to think it would last forever. For two thousand years, Egyptian slaves had built desert mountains for god kings. Italy was such a backwater for so long that Alexander overran the world from Greece to India, but didn’t bother hopping the Adriatic. Less than three centuries later, Caesar thought he was special. Ozymandias and all that. Empires always believe they’re eternal because men never believe they’re mortal.

They conquered through ingenuity, through a granite faith that their law was the only law. Anything outside of Roman law was barbarian. Order was their one true god, immortalized in all the identical temples and standardized roads. Rational repetition fueled the legions: men trained to fight as a single machine, gears and clockwork carved from flesh, individuality burned off in the smelter. They tamed ancient Egypt, yoked Spain and France, pillaged Greece for fertile minds. They destroyed Carthage so utterly that atomic weapons could not have improved on the job. Who now remembers the American Indians?

They were the first combination of that most potent meme of state: the imperial republic. They always insist that they rule by force for the good of the people. “For the republic!” Say it enough and you believe your own press. They were the embodiment of that ancient dichotomy of war and peace. Pax Romana. Pax Britannica. Pax Americana. It’s lightning in a bottle, catching the fever for empire along with the spasmodic beauty of freedom. An unstable equilibrium cannot last: either the empire exhausts itself or it devours its own children. The British did the former, the Romans the latter, America’s decision is pending. Rome is the story of that devouring.

“The Roman people are not crying out for clean elections. They are crying out for jobs. They are crying out for clean water, for food, for stability and peace.” -Posca

Rome presents a senate of aristocrats, bickering about rules and propriety while the mob owns the street and legions push out the frontiers. It is a state under constant siege both from within and without. This is not representative democracy, but some ancestral relation. There are is an essential freedom, at least for citizens: you may speak your mind and do as you will. And that is the heart of democracy, self governance rather than state governance.

Caesar conquers his own country while the citizens cheer. The gulf between democracy and populism is the distinction between the people as an actor and the people as a tool. Caesar wields the population as a sword. Here’s the real catch though: democracy can never be taken away, it can only be given away. One of the great tragedies of history is how the people are constantly unaware of their own power, even as rulers harness it. De Tocqueville said “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” Caesar buys the Roman people with their own money, just as Octavian later does. And they love him for it.

“So this is how liberty dies: to thunderous applause.” George Lucas wrote at least one true thing.

The senators can only destroy Caesar by becoming exactly the horror they hate in him: knives in the senate, blood on their hands.

In another story, Brutus would be the hero. Shakespeare saw it: “This was the noblest Roman of them all.” What matters more? Freedom or security? Dante placed three men in the innermost sanctum of the ninth circle of hell, three men eternally trapped in the jaws of Satan himself: Judas, Brutus and Cassius. In the wake of the dark ages, the supreme sin was betraying order to chaos.

But without the support of the masses, the senate must trade one enemy for another. They invite Octavian in, give him the legitimacy he lacks.

A trick of Latin: male and female noun endings. Bellator/bellatrix: warrior/amazon. Male and female sides of the same coin. Senator/senatrix: senator/whore. Male and female sides of the same coin. Words lie, languages don’t.

“Cut off his hands and nail them to the Senate doors.” -Mark Antony

Before modern times, it was a given that the body of the state was analogous to the body of the ruler. The ruler was the state. It is the antithesis of our “by the people, for the people” conception of the state. Likewise, the psychology of the ruler became the psychology of the state. Octavian’s sexual repression inevitably becomes codified. The grand orgies are outlawed, the state regulates promiscuous behavior. The superego binds sex with shame. I didn’t bring Freud into this; Octavian did that himself whilst screwing his sister and making war upon his mother’s lover.

Id, ego, superego. It’s a cliche, but models become cliches because they fit so well. Pullo and Antony are all id: violence, wine and sex. Vorenus and Brutus are all ego: agonizing compromise between the id and reality. Caesar and Octavian are all superego: moral superiority and calculating control.

Civil wars are always about psychology because if the state is a body, then a war within must be a spiritual one. Ego holds a tenuous balance between id and superego, but by the end of this particular story, every ego-character is dead, every id-character dead or vanquished. Without balance, the system is unsustainable in the long run. You cannot kill part of your own soul without losing it all.

And so Pullo lives, vanishing into the masses with his stolen son. The Republic dies, the Empire is born.

“The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every State which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source. It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the Northern forests who were.” - Thoreau

Stipe42 is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come.

The Burning Violin / Stipe42

Film | March 4, 2009 |

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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