Thursday, January 1, 2015

Fortune's Favorites: In General

The third book in McCullough's Masters of Rome series is Fortune's Favorites, which deals with Sulla's second march on Rome, his dictatorship, and the disorders and sporadic civil war that followed, ending with the apparent return of the Republic in peace and prosperity.  As before, I will begin with literary comments on the book and move on to political.  This time, though, I intend to devote fewer posts to chronology and plot and more to character studies.

First and foremost, these novels need an index!  They are so long that when the author brings back a character we haven't seen in several hundred pages, she feels the need to give a little reminder of what that character did several hundred pages ago.  That is fine and good, but it would be really helpful if we also had an index so we could get a fuller refresher on all the details instead of having to dig.  And that is to say nothing of very minor characters who leave us scratching our heads and saying, who?n

My next observation is that we see crucifixion for the first time in the series.  In the first two books, we saw plenty of executions, but all but one took the form of beheading, flogging, or throwing from the Tarpeian Rock.  The only exception was Jugurtha, King of Numidia, who was thrown into the pit and left to starve.  (More on that later).  What would a novel about Rome be without crucifixion?  Well this one makes up for lost time with crucifixions galore, most of them historically accurate.  It indicates who was crucified -- slaves, rebels, and outlaws.  It also makes the point of how casually a crucifixion could be ordered.

hen there is the question of breaking the legs.  As every reader of The Gospel of John, 19:31-37 knows, when the Romans wanted to finish up a person being crucified, they did so by breaking the legs.  John did not explain why because everyone in his day would have known.  Once the legs were broken, the victim could no longer support himself and quickly suffocated.  McCullough seems to imply that breaking the legs was standard practice and not to do so was considered an act of gratuitous sadism.  If so, she has a lot of gratuitously sadistic characters.  Servilia has the laundry girl crucified just for dropping her son Baby Brutus when Servilia hit her, and doesn't break the legs.  This drives home the point that Servilia is evil, evil, evil and also that Romans had the power of life and death over their slaves and could kill on a whim.  Sulla has a group of temple slaves crucified when a dog gets in a defiles a ceremony and doesn't break the legs.  This drives home both the existence of publicly-owned slaves and the severity of the desecration.  Caesar has some 500 pirates crucified, although he does break the legs of all the their leader.  This is historically true.  (More on the subject later).  Crassus has some 6,600 rebellious slaves crucified after the Spartacus rebellion and does not break the legs.  Also historically true.

McCullough points out in her glossary that the Romans are beginning to transition from calling the Mediterranean the "Middle Sea" to "Our Sea" ("Mare Nostrum") as it was known in the Empire. Never actually mentioned but there if you are looking is a clear transition to calling men by their cognomina.  In the first book, men were invariably addressed by their praenomen et nomen (forename and clan name), like characters from a Russian novel.  When Sulla's wife refers to him as Sulla, her sister is shocked that she would use just his cognomen, even though she says it is the new fashion.  In the second book, women and children are starting to be referred to by their cognomina, but to speak of a man that way is considered insulting.  Some, however, are starting to use the praenomen et cognomen, especially when they belong to the same clan and could therefore have the same nomen.  By now, men are normally addressed by cognomen. More formally, they are addressed or referred to by their praenomen et cognomen.*  Use of the praenomen et nomen is used only under highly formal circumstances.  This is particularly marked in Sulla's circle.  He invariably addresses the men around him by cognomen, while they usually address him formally as Lucius Cornelius.  This may be at least partly his way of showing who is in charge.

It is hard to tell the significance of this use.  A freed slave or non-citizen granted citizenship takes the praenomen et nomen of his benefactor and uses his original name as a cognomen.  Thus when Lucius Cornelius Sulla frees his Greek steward Chrysogomus, he becomes Lucius Cornelius Chrysogomus. In that context, one can imagine that calling a man by his cognomen would be insulting because it would remind him of his foreign or servile origins.  On the other hand, sometimes a cognomen is earned, as when Gnaeus Pompeius takes the cognomen Magnus, or Great and becomes Pompeius Magnus -- Pompey the Great.  He altogether likes being called Magnus!  Likewise, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius probably likes being called Pius because it reminds him of his devotion to his father, or Lucius Marcius Phillipus likes being called Phillipus because it reminds him that some ancestor won an important victory at Phillipi.

And when Caesar's family holds a family conference, we learn something about the power and influence of Roman women.  Public politics is the sole preserve of men, of course.  But women take part in family conferences and give their men advice on public matters.**  In this case, Caesar's cousin Young Marius (son of the great, now deceased general) calls a family conference to discuss whether he should run for consul despite being underage.  Who he invites is intriguing, but really needs clarification.  Young Marius' father and uncle are dead.  He is an only child.  So the family members invited are his mother, his wife, his late uncle's wife, his late uncle's two daughters and son (Caesar) and the family steward.  (Attendance by the steward is optional).  Clearly this is a mostly female gathering.  Caesar's child-bride is not invited, but only because she is only 12 years old.  If she were of age, she would be invited to attend.  The two sisters' husbands are not invited.  One is in a war zone at the time and presumably could not make it anyhow, but the other is in Rome but does not attend.  Why?

I can think of two possible reasons.  One is that in patrilineal Rome, men are considered members of their birth family only, while women are considered members of both the family they are born into and the family they marry into.  That would mean that all family conferences would be mostly female, and that women would take part in twice as many family conferences as men, a thing which would increase their influence.  On the other hand, it is made clear that the two sisters are married to men who, though rich, are not part of Rome's ruling circles.  They may be excluded as outsiders.  Likewise, Marius has not invited any of his paternal relatives to the conference, although it is not clear whether this is because they are too obscure to matter, or because they are too far from Rome to make it.

The conference is significant in three ways.  The women discuss public law and politics at the conference along with the men.  But their advice is ultimately based on their concern for Marius' safety, not for what they consider the good of Rome.  And in the end, Marius feels free to ignore their advice and go ahead with what he plans to do anyway.

Finally, I cannot keep my mind out of the gutter on one thing.  The glossary brings up the words fellator and irrumator, a man sucking another man's penis and a man having his penis sucked. The author apologizes for having confused the terms.  She says she tends to confuse opposites -- right and left, clockwise and counter-clockwise (anti-clockwise, as they say in Australia), cock sucker and cock suckee.  One of these things is not like the others!  And it is certainly not a mistake any man would make!  I might give the author a pass because she is a woman if the words fellatio and fellate had not long since made their way into the English language.  But they have.  And they are familiar enough that when someone refers to a fellator, the term should be familiar enough to the reader to need no translation.
Next up: More recurring motifs.

*Caesar, for instance, prefers to be called by his cognomen, Caesar.  He might be more formally addressed as Gaius Caesar and very formally addressed as Gaius Julius.  He would never be known as most people call him today -- Julius Caesar.
**Plutarch's biography of Cato often refers to the women of his family and what they encouraged him to do, presumably at similar conferences.  In Cato's case, his only brother was dead, but he had three surviving sisters.  He also had only one son, but several daughters, some of whom were probably too young to participate.

No comments:

Post a Comment