Sunday, 16 August 2015

Arcana Imperii

[1.4] A well-hidden secret of the pricipate had been revealed: it was possible, it seemed, for an emperor to be chosen outside Rome. Galba was put up for rule (June 68) by his Spanish units, including a legion he had raised himself; Vitellius by his forces in Germany (January 69); the troops in Judaea and Egypt (and following them, in Syria and Pannonia) were to declare for Vespasian (July 69).

Only Otho (January 69) could claim a more conventional power base. Before leaving Rome to meet Vitellius' army:
[1.89] Otho then summoned a meeting of the whole populace, in which he stressed the prestige of the capital and the united support of senate and people as factors which told in his favour. 

Tacitus makes it abundantly clear that SPQR are anything but united:
[1.50] Here then were the two most despicable men in the whole world by reason of their unclean, idle and pleasure-loving lives, apparently appointed by fate for the task of destroying the empire. It was the realisation of this that now evoked unconcealed regret not only from the senate and knights, who had some stake and interest in the country, but from the man in the street as well.

Beneath the veneer of order there is continual chaos. The Praetorian Guard and City cohorts, the most prestigious of Roman formations, behave often as a drunken rabble. Late one night an issue of arms at the Praetorian barracks to the 17th Cohort, ordered from Rome to Ostia, sparks a mutiny. Suspecting that this is part of a plot to assassinate Otho, the Praetorians go on the rampage, storming the palace where Otho is entertaining the great and good to dinner. The guests stampede and Otho is reduced to standing on a couch and tearfully entreating the squaddies to return to barracks [1.81-82]. They do so and each is paid a bounty of 5,000 sesterces (five years' pay or more, ten if you're only counting disposable income). Even so, order is barely restored:
[1.85] However, peace and quiet had not returned to the capital, which clattered with arms and bore the look of war. The soldiers caused no concerted disorder. But they had insinuated themselves into all the great houses disguised as civilians, and kept a jealous eye upon all those whose station, wealth or some other uncommon distinction exposed them to gossip. It was commonly believed too, that Vitellian soldiers had entered Rome to explore the degree of support for their cause. The whole atmosphere was heavy with suspicion. Even the privacy of the home was hardly secure. But in public, anxiety reached a climax. Men had constantly to attune their attitudes and expressions to the latest rumour: it would not do to appear too upset by bad tidings and insufficiently gratified by good.

Soldiers on both sides routinely ignore (sometimes injure or murder) their officers, extort from or turn violently on peaceful communities in their path, mutiny for all sorts of reasons. The Othonian general Spurinna's soldiers, for instance, based at Placentia (Piacenza) just south of the River Po and the strategically vital west-east Postumian Way (Genoa-Piacenza-Cremona-Verona-Aquileia) go off on one [2.18], crying out that treachery is afoot, and stomp away north to the river:
[2.19] When the Po was sighted and night drew on, it was decided to entrench camp. The physical labour (a novelty for troops normally stationed in the capital) effectually broke their spirit. Then the older men began to denounce their own credulity, and point out the critical danger of their position if [the Vitellians] surrounded their slender force of cohorts in the open plain.
They return, now under orders again, to their starting point at Placentia.

There is in most formations a minority of good men who hold to their officers and the standards: this seems to render them ineffective and they play no part in quelling disorder or in the unfolding events.

Other secrets emerge into the light throughout the account. Near Cremona the Othonians score some tactical successes but the commanders keep things in check in case the Vitellians counter with reinforcemants:
[2.23] This created suspicion among the Othonian troops, who put an unfavourable construction on everything their generals did. Cowardly and loud-mouthed elements among them vied with each other in assailing [their commanders]. The accusations were varied, but the most violent incitement to mutiny and sedition was offered by the murderers of Galba, who were crazed by guilt and fear. These men caused chaos, both by provocative remarks openly made and by communicating secretly with Otho. The emperor was always ready to listen to the lowest of the low, and it was good advice he feared.
Those who have once usurped the right order of things live constantly in, and constrained by, fear of usurpation.

All quotations from Cornelius Tacitus "The Histories" trans. Kenneth Wellesley (1995)

I quote this at length not only because it is a most gripping story but...
Readers: because you are bored, drunk, unemployed and have too much time on your hands?
              no, I am not drunk
                                 ...but because in so many eerie ways (and in minor keys) it seems to speak of life in this our own Soviet-Union-on-Sea.

For example, let somebody make a remark which, wrenched out of context, might be understood by a determined few to be "immapwopwiate" or nearest offer.

Naturally since it can be it is, and a preliminary barrage is opened on the "social" media by the usual little platoons of Social Justice Warriors, One-Inch Minds, Serially Aggrieved Gripers, the Stand-By-To-Be-Offended, Persons with Degrees in Fields Nobody Ever Heard Of Before from Universities Ditto &c &c &c.

A growing horde (ooh, hundreds...) of obviously silly people join in this waste of time and typing, et voilà, Twitterstorm!!!

Eventually a small band of honest reporters put the remark back into context and note that it was, say, intended ironically, and taken as such by an audience who received the somebody's speech well. Too late: the narrative (© A Campbell, T Blair), as opposed to the truth, has been stood up, grown a millipede's-worth of legs and gone beserker.

A tangentially involved institution, one from which one might expect some assertion of principle or integrity, proves moribund and cravenly throws in its cards as quickly as it possibly can, preferably within the 24-hour news cycle (© A Campbell, T Blair).

I won't mention University College London in particular, UCL being neither the first nor the last.

Yes, got it in one, I am bored and unemployed and have too much time on my hands. But I am not drunk. The above might have had a touch of humour to it if I were.

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