The Roman emperor Claudius is somewhat an enigmatic figure.
What we know of him comes principally from that delightfully scurrilous work "De vita Caesarum", better known as "The Twelve Caesars" by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.
Suetonius, as he is better known, wrote about Julius and the next eleven emperors in the early 2nd Century CE, almost a century or more after the men themselves had lived. He is said to have had access to many official records, and historical accounts contemporary to the men he wrote of, but has also been accused of delighting in backstairs gossip and never neglecting a good story even when it clashed with other, more reliable, accounts.
In Claudius' case this is fairly crucial, since the coverage of this period in the other primary source, the Annals of Tacitus, has been lost. So we're left with the Claudius of Suetonius; a pantaloon, foolish and distracted, a greedy, lustful, stupid, cowardly moron who was largely ruled by his wives (a pretty unsavory lot themselves) and his freedmen. In the absence of any first-person account of the man and his life, we are left mostly with the Suetonius' dirty-doings-in-high-life version.As Rumsfeld of Ephesus would have said; the absence of evidence is not always the evidence of absence. The problem with this National Enquirer version of the fourth Caesar is that it is often at odds with the physical accomplishments of the man, who finished the Julian conquest of Britain, commissioned several notable public works, reformed and refined the public administration and is considered purely on those grounds to have been a relatively effective ruler. His extant writing is lucid, its reasoning as sophisticated as a well-educated Roman of his class should have displayed. The portrait that emerges from the bits of the man we can find outside the histories is more than a little at odds with the idiot within them.
This paradox enabled Robert Graves, the British translator and author, the freedom to construct an entirely reconstructed Claudius for his two-volume work of historical fiction, "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God". He limns the emperor as a survivor; cunning and intelligent, feigning his incapacity for self-defense and then for political advantage.
In his most fascinating (and historically unlikely) diversion, he imagines Claudius as a secret republican. Disgusted with the arbitrary and capricious rule of his imperial peers, he wishes to divest himself of the purple, to revive the Senate and invigorate the People of Rome, returning the state to the less placid but more energetic condition of a Republic.
Why am I thinking of some dead and gone Roman, even if that Roman is an emperor?
Perhaps it's just the hint of madness wafting around our foreign adventurism?Nah. We jumped the "What-the-fuck-batshit-crazy-idea-is-this" Great White Shark of foreign policy lunacy back when we invaded the Middle East because Osama bin Laden dared us to.Is it because we're actually debating - debating - the notion that we should be hiding things from our own public that our enemies already know (because, y'know, we, like, DID them to them) because it would be bad for us to actually see the things that our leaders ordered our soldiers to do in our name?
Or doing things like making war on people who live in countries we are "allied with" without a warrant? Or sending 30,000 new solders into a land war in central Asia without a clue what our objective is?
Nah. Shit, anyone who thought we are still the smart guy in the white hat in the Middle East had spent waaaayyyy too much time hanging out with the "Small Wars Journal" and "Abu Muquwama" crowd.
[And as a sidenote, anyone remember the guy who called himself "MSR Roadkill" (and later, "soldiernolongerinIraq") from the old Intel Dump? Smart guy, good correspondent, but the man had a...mmmm...let's call it a certain blind spot for some aspects of American history. I'm thinking of the time he termed the American colonization of the Philippines an "exercise in tutelary democracy". The conquest of the Philippines was a lot of things, but teaching Filipinos about democracy it was not. That may have happened along the way (along with a hell of a lot of death, concentration camps and waterboarding) but only in the way that a burglar helps you enjoy a nice cross-ventilation by breaking your windows out. We may end up doing the Iraqis and the Afghans a favor or two in the end, but I suspect that if you asked them, they'd gladly give that little helping hand a pass, thanks.]
Is it, as now appears apparent, that our national political leadership is, for the most part, fully bought and paid for by the medical, insurance, pharmaceutical, financial and banking industries?Hmmm. That gets closer to it.
Because the first couple of issues troubling though they are, are "foreign policy" and by definition, largely about foreigners. Americans have trouble picturing foreigners as "people", and as a result we often treat them as though they were not but something pesky and annoying, like jock itch. Americans have trouble seeing through their Yankee Doodle beer goggles at things that deal with what we do to foreigners, and so the results can be sui generis, like the dry-gulching and murder of Cheyenne women and children in "winter campaigns", the napalming of villages for the mistake of being there or the interment of innocent American citizens for the crime of being Japanese (and they were all slanty-eyed and kinda brown so they were LIKE foreigners).
But the last is a gen-u-wine red-blooded, born-on-the-Fourth-of-July kind of American problem. The figures don't lie; our nation has been getting more divided between rich and poor with the rich getting more of the riches, less secure, less provident for those of us still working for a living. Deregulation, or NONregulation, in the case of things like credit-default swaps (which the regulators didn't even understand, let alone know how to parse) has led to a bubble economy which benefited the rentier class and the financial geniuses that designed and ran the Ponzi scheme until some other fucking genius figured out that real estate doesn't just increase in value, every day, forever. While the manufacturing and agricultural jobs - people making and growing stuff - continue to flee, leaving us increasingly at the mercy of the people who drill and produce our fuel, grow our crops, make our steel and autos and televisions.
And health care?
Please! If you sat down and thought about it with both hands you couldn't come up with a system designed to produce a worse outcome in the long run that insurance and health care for profit! Think about it. Both have relatively fixed costs for the basic services. So how do you make more money if you're selling medicine (or insurance) to sick people? How does any business make money?
You sell less for more, of course. Or you sell the same, only charge more. Or you charge the same but provide less.
You wonder why your insurance company fights you for every claim? Why that hospital Motrin cost you $29.50?
And the outcry? The sullen storm of wrath of the American people? Sick of being lied to, sick of being cheated? Sick of being led by people whose only real, central belief is in their own power, power at any price?
Near the end of "Claudius the God", Graves has the aging Claudius engineer several plots to return his Rome to a republic. They all fail. Graves' point to this, which has no basis in history or what we know of the actual man's beliefs or career, is to emphasize that when a formerly free nation has accepted servitude for too long, it cannot be returned to self-rule. The people have lost not just the ability, but the desire, to play an active part in their own destinies. Politically, they are dead men walking.
Claudius himself speaks Graves' words: "by dulling the blade of tyranny, I reconciled Rome to the monarchy".
In a sense there is a "happy" ending to the story of Claudius. His empire lived prosperously for several hundred more years. It produced masterworks of art and literature, architecture and governance. As, in the end, we may be remembered for as well.
But I fear that if we cannot muster the outrage now, today, at the combination of foolishness abroad and venality and greed at home, we may walk beneath the shadow of the statue of Claudius and peep about, to find ourselves dishonorable graves.