Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Rains Come To Stay

It's not that late, but I have to be on the road again in the morning, early, so it's late for me. The kiddos have both been packed off to bed and the front room is a mess from a day forced indoors by the autumn's cold and wet. I'm too tired to try and pick up the litter.

My legs ache with the steady ache I've learned to live with for the past year. My neck and shoulders ache with too little exercise and the hard graft of entertaining small children over a long weekend. The back of my skull aches with the unpleasant knowledge that in less than six hours I will have to rise and drive 200 miles north and then walk a mile through the wet woods to work.

And over all of that I am soaked in a sort of quiet despair. I look around at my country and my world and realize that what I'm seeing isn't really new and it isn't really terrible. It's the same old tiresome horseshit that human beings have been doing to themselves and each other since Cain ambushed Abel out in the cuna grass; lying and pretending not to lie, grabbing everything around them regardless of what the long-term destruction they are causing. Indulging in every hate and stupidity and lust and whatever other evil toxic fucktardry they can think up.
When I was researching the last Decisive Battle I spent some time with the Praetorian Guard. You can't learn about the Guards without encountering a man named Lucius Aelius Seianus, better known merely as Sejanus. He was, perhaps the "original" Praetorian; one of the Emperor Tiberias' cronies who took the piss-ant garrison troop that had hung about the Forum for centuries and made them into the chooser and slayer of Emperors.

Anyway, you can follow the link if you want to learn more about ol' Lucius. Suffice to say that he was probably an evil little man who was brought down by others probably just as vicious and ambitious as he was. He got the chop, too, for his pains.

But I'm not thinking about an ambitious soldier now, sitting in the window seat looking out on a drizzly night. I'm thinking about a young girl.

Her name was Junilla, and she was the daughter of Lucius Aelius. Her right name was probably something like Junilla Aelia, and I have no idea who she was or what she was, down to her age at the time of her father's sudden encounter with the public executioner in 31AD.

We know nothing about her; not her age, or her looks, not how she walked, or talked, or stood up, or sat down. Being Roman she was probably dark-avised, and being young - at least, young enough that she was not considered a woman but a girl by the ancient chroniclers - probably slender and gracile. Based on the description of her arrest she sounds like a very young woman or little girl. Tacitus says of her:

"...the little girl, who was so unconscious that she continually asked what was her offence, and whither she was being dragged, saying that she would do so no more, and a childish chastisement was enough for her correction."

But we have no idea whether she was a silly or serious girl. Whether she was cheerful or solemn, light-hearted or glum, friendly or standoffish. Did she like to read, was she an indoorsy sort of girl, or one who liked to play outside and exercise with her friends, a sort of 1st Century tomgirl?
Was she one of those young women who grow up early, approaching womanhood with trepidation, or a late-bloomer still a child when her father ran onto the rocks of Roman politics and his own greed for power.

And of her last moments we only know this, as written by Cassius Dio some two hundred years after she died:

"His children also were put to death by decree, the girl (whom he had betrothed to the son of Claudius) having been first outraged by the public executioner on the principle that it was unlawful for a virgin to be put to death in the prison."

First, let me say this: I find this tale of prison rape, which is recounted only in Tacitus and Cassius Dio, to be hard to believe. There is no record of any such "law" in the Roman legal codes, while the punishment for rape (stuprum, that is, forcible intercourse) of a freeborn citizen was death.

But then let me add that regardless of the letter of Roman law the story is effective as horror. It strikes home because of the act itself and the young age of the victim.

Perhaps thinking about the recent awful clamor about abortion and rape got me thinking about what a fucking awful horror rape is.

Perhaps most of all because it takes the moment we are most intimate and defenceless and turns it into a waking nightmare. It takes what should be the most tender act of lovingkindness we can perform and turns it into the ultimate moment of powerlessness, hate, and fear.

So though I don't really think that one of the jailers of the Tullianum went and raped a little girl before he murdered her, I think that the ancient storytellers thought that story was the most awful thing they could think of to add to the horror of the end of the tale of Sejanus and his fall.
And what saddens me even more is that they felt they needed something more awful than the cold fact of a young girl casually strangled for the crime of being born to an ambitious father. Something more shocking to tittilate their readers' jaded tastes.

Something more frightful than the bald fact of her child-body cast down the Gemonian Stairs in a tangle of dirty clothing, her still-unformed arms and legs asprawl in the gross indignity not just of death but of careless cruelty. Something more awful than the thought of the vengeful citizens of Rome stepping casually over this sad little corpse, of the cold winds of December skirling the ragged clothes around her stiff limbs and the pale sun unreflected in the flat stare of her sightless eyes.
I don't really understand why the long-ago death of a girl two thousand years old so saddens and depresses me. But it does, and outside my window the night rain seems to weep for every little girl so lost, and torn asunder, and thrown away down the brutal stairs to lie forlorn under the careless feet of the passersby.


Podunk Paul said...

Certainly the level of horror necessary to maintain the Empire and to satisfy the ambitions of the late-arriving power-seekers had much to do with the rise of Christianity. Maybe, something similar is happening now with the fallout from drone killing, sensory-deprivation prison cells, PTSD from violence endured and dished out, and the general burden of our history. We might be witnessing the stirring of a new religion or, in some fundamental sense, a new formulation of what it means to be human. Anyhow, violence induces a gut-level reaction, as your post so well demonstrates.

FDChief said...

My understanding, Paul, is that the Second and Third Centuries saw the rise of a number of "mystery" religions; Christianity was one of them, but they included Mithraism and Eastern religions like the cult of Isis and the Magna Mater. Not sure whether these were related to the exigencies of Imperial rule or the general sense that the "center of civilization" was under siege.

My thought was that, rather, the sad constant in the human condition was our talent for cruelty and callousness in all eras and in any circumstances. And the smallest and weakest tend to be our victims of choice.

That there are people who choose not to be inhumane is a constant marvel to me - Jim and Lisa had a great post about a man who chose to tell the truth about our country's torture of our helpless captives - but the reaction of the majority (in the case of the torture whistleblower it has been trial and conviction) seems to be true to this universal rule of afflicting the afflicted.

Ael said...

People live up to expectations. They also live down to expectations.

The challenge is in setting expectations. Peoples excpectations typically get set by watching the behavior of their social peers and especially immediate superiors. This is why a top level leader can have such a high impact on an organization.


Lisa said...

I agree with Ael; we mimic what we see. Like Chief, I feel sad at any such story of exploitation and violence because it emanates from the obdurate human impulse,

"... lying and pretending not to lie, grabbing everything around them regardless of what the long-term destruction they are causing."

And we think to call that "gaining the advantage". Sad foolishness.

MsB Cheet said...

This story is so sad and depressing.