Thursday, January 1, 2015

Masters of Rome and Prophecy

All of this is a lead-in to my review of the next Masters of Rome book, Fortune's Favorites.  Apparently this author originally meant to call her work A Rising Sun, after a comment that Pompey is said to have made when Sulla thought he was too young to celebrate a triumph -- that the people prefer a rising to a setting sun.*  It would end (presumably) with Pompey beginning to fear that his own sun was setting and that the new rising sun was Caesar.  She ended up taking the name Fortune's Favorites instead.  Already by the end of The Grass Crown, characters are using the expression incessantly.  She explains that to the Romans Fortune (Fortuna) was a goddess of luck -- impersonal, mysterious and inscrutable, as were all Roman gods,** but not so random and impersonal as the term seems to us today.  On the one hand, a successful man made his own luck and could attribute his success to his own efforts.  On the other, it was no shame to acknowledge that one did not rise by ability and effort alone, but had a lot of luck along that way.  It just showed that one was favored by the goddess.

But the previous two books also tie in with my previous discussion in another way.  As in MacBeth, the literary convention is kept -- the prophecy always comes true, but not always in the way that the characters foresee, and sometimes what seems to be a blessing turns out to be a curse.

In First Man in Rome, Marius has his fortune told, and the fortune teller foresees a glorious future for him -- he will be a great war hero, hailed as Third Founder of Rome, and serve as consul and unprecedented seven times.  (This, or some other omen that he will be consul seven times is from Plutarch).***  Seen on the surface, this looks like a glorious destiny.  But looking deeper, it turns out to be one of those blessings that turns into a curse.  Marius saves Rome from the Germans, serves six times as consul, and is hailed as war hero, savior of Rome, and Third Founder.  If he had not heard the prophecy, no doubt he would retire, basking the glow of the people's gratitude and his role as beloved elder statesman.  But he has heard the prophecy and becomes obsessed with being consul a seventh time.  His seventh consulate would last 13 days (six spent on his death bed from a stroke), by which time he had gone completely mad and embarks on a mad orgy of slaughter and carnage.  If he had known, while in his right mind, what his seventh consulate would be like, one trusts that he would have killed himself before letting it come about.

Rather different and much less supernatural is the prophecy in The Grass Crown.  Marcus Livius Drusus, the non-protagonist hero, is implementing a spectacular series of much-needed reforms, but is stopped short when he proposes citizenship for Rome's Italian allies.  One of Drusus' enemies warns of evil omens against him.  No one is impressed.  He then searches the length and breadth of the entire Italian peninsula for every misfortune or evil omen that takes place on a date that Drusus introduced any of his measures, finds plenty (unsurprisingly), and persuades the frightened Senate to repeal them. To the modern reader, it is obvious that if you search the entire Italian peninsula, it is large enough that you will find something bad happening somewhere every single day.  Just take the ones that happen on the dates Drusus introduces his reforms, ignore the others, and you will come up with something very scary-looking.  But in fact there is no real pattern there, only a pattern that people have superimposed on random events.  The modern world has a term for this -- paranoia.

But of course no Roman, not even a skeptic, would dare say such a thing openly.  Scaurus, one of Drusus' allies hints at it, saying that no one has ever searched the entire Italian peninsula for omens before, and that he has never seen any omen that people could not read however they wanted.  When Scaurus' shocked friend, a priest, asks him doesn't he believe in omens, Scaurus says that he believes that the gods send us omens, but he does not believe in men's ability to read them right.  As for Drusus,when confronted with all these ill omens, he can only say that they are warnings of what will happen if his program (particularly citizenship for the Italians) is not enacted.

And ultimately Drusus is right.  Although the modern reader still remains confident that the ill omens throughout Italy are random and meaningless, simply routine misfortunes plucked out of countless other meaningless misfortunes to impose a non-existent pattern, the looming disaster is real enough. Drusus' program is repealed and he is assassinated, thwarting his goal of admitting the Italians to citizenship.  And all the foretold evils do, in fact, come true as the Italian Allies revolt.  The remainder of The Grass Crown describes the disasters that befall Rome as a result.  And Fortune's Favorites is a further continuation.

*This is, of course, a terribly impolitic thing to say, implying as it does that Sulla is a setting sun.
**This is an important theme.
***The author adds a prophecy of her own, that his wife's nephew will exceed him, and makes Marius determined to prevent this outcome, but that is her own invention.

No comments:

Post a Comment