Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Bronx to Bedriacum

I set off once a year on a quixotic bicycle tour and so far have lived to tell about it. This year’s route was: my place (upper Manhattan) across Long Island, ferries to the Rhode Island coast, north through Newport and New Bedford to land just north of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The four days included a delightful pit stop in Sag Harbor where Jackson Pollock painted, drank and raised hell and where artists and other interesting types apparently continue to do so, despite being surrounded by the invasive accoutrements of ultra-wealth.

Forays into the heartland are always a fascinating chance to leave the comforts of one’s ingrained prejudices and see what people are made of. Long Island is actually quite militaristic, and the July 4 holiday accentuated the atmosphere of relentless imperial pride: monuments to both fallen and surviving veterans as well as ubiquitous exhortations to support the troops ‘defending our freedom’ in their foreign campaigns. I am always puzzled as to which of our various liberties are referred to in these slogans but did not stop to inquire.

One liberty on prominent display in Sag Harbor was the liberty to tool around the placid waters of Long Island Sound in yachts as big as the city hall of a medium-sized municipality [above] and worth more, too. As we have freed capital from the annoying restraints of tax-and-spend liberals, it can now be dedicated to its proper role of displaying the superiority of our job-creating elites. The scale of the competition for status is quite daunting, but our modern Ptolemies seem to be up to the task.

Speaking of foreign campaigns, I have been reading Tacitus’s writings about the civil wars of 69 C.E., in which Rome had four emperors. The events were fairly fresh—only some 30-35 years in the past—and Tacitus could piece together the evidence from living sources. The fighters back then were legions, cohorts and random bands of Roman soldiers or roving mercenaries with ever-more-blurred boundaries between the two, sometimes loyal to the crowned head du jour, other times rebelling under opportunistic courtiers and junior field commanders. Everyone was trying to stay alive by choosing the winning side, and who could blame them? Anyway, it was not so easy when power completely changed hands every few months.

Their behavior when either winning or losing was generally appalling since payment under these unstable conditions was never guaranteed, and the spoils of war—rape and pillage, largely—had long been considered quasi-legitimate rewards for risking your neck. As usual, the civilians suffered greatly, tried to pick the winners as well, and were often punished with slavery and/or death if they got it wrong. Even getting it right was no guarantee of proper treatment since the seesaw for control undermined good war-making habits, like maintaining supply lines and keeping the troops fed. As a result, freelance bandits would help themselves to farm produce and the farmers’ daughters (or sons). While the centurions and other commanders might try to keep them in line, the higher bosses usually were busy with intrigue and in no position to discipline the wavering foot-soldiers.

Here’s how Tacitus describes the aftermath of the second battle of Cremona (or Bedriacum) won by Emperor-to-be Vespasian in Lombardy (northern Italy), a cosmopolitan city that had survived intact for nearly 300 years:

Forty thousand armed men forced their way into the city, with batmen and sutlers in greater numbers and even more viciously addicted to lust and violence. Neither rank nor years saved the victims from an indiscriminate orgy in which rape alternated with murder and murder with rape. Greybeards and frail old women, who had no value as loot, were dragged off to raise a laugh. But any full-grown girl or good-looking lad who crossed their path was pulled this way and that in a violent tug-of-war between the would-be captors and finally drove them to destroy each other. A single looter trailing a hoard of money or temple-offerings of massive gold was often cut to pieces by others who were stronger. Some few turned up their noses at the obvious finds and inflicted flogging and torture on the owners in order to rummage after hidden valuables and dig for buried treasure. Cremona lasted them four days. While all its buildings, sacred and secular, collapsed in flames, only the temple of Mefitis outside the walls remained standing, defended by its position or the power of the divinity.

It doesn’t sound like a very pleasant time to be alive, and no wonder the thought of someone—anyone—consolidating his rule and bringing peace was very welcome. The Flavian dynasty then came into power and kept things together for a few decades (just in time for the eruption of Mt Vesuvius).

But I digress. Long Island and small-town America generally identify mightily with the imperial power, so their stout and obedient sons are proud to engage in military service to it in far-flung places. For the Romans their distant possessions like Lusitania, Dacia and Pontus (Portugal, Romania, Turkey) were a source of income and prestige; no doubt this remains true today in our case although the tributary system is less directly suzerain in nature. The masses of Rome were kept fed with Egyptian grain; we are fattened by Iowan corn and clothed by the ceaseless toil of Chinese subjects bending over their looms and denim-piercing needles. To sustain this system, lads from Belmore and Narragansett trudge across the dusty steppes of Afghanistan dodging bullets. A juice store featuring protein drinks in Long Beach asked us wayfarers to sign a petition demanding that the Taliban return its lone American prisoner. We did not ask if he had information on a ‘ticking time bomb’ set to be launched over Afghan heads and thus might merit waterboarding. But the idea of sending a petition signed by several dozen suburban Americans to the Afghan warlords demanding their cooperation is compelling nonetheless.

The spirit of ’76, however, lives and breathes in New London, Connecticut, where Phil [below right], a friendly volunteer, welcomes visitors to the Nathan Hale museum made of the original schoolhouse where he taught ever so briefly before being hanged by the British for espionage (which he committed).

Hale caused a bit of a scandal during his short life (of 21 years) because he held Saturday classes for girls—the very idea! Not possessing drones, the Brits thought to discourage collaboration with the violent Washingtonian gangs by letting Hale’s body hang near the present site of the Plaza Hotel for three full days. Big mistake—we celebrate the sacrifice of this young life today, along with the recent additions in Kandahar and Khost.

Animals are a refreshing reminder that the tragedies and crimes of men are soon forgotten by an indifferent planet, which has been around for a long time and will keep going when we’ve blown our entire wad. No doubt the geese and ducks of Cremona still waddle over the local marshes and dump their gooey scats on scrabbled monuments to the ancients’ glorious slaughters. Here are a few of their cousins with whom I shared a quiet afternoon en route to the Atlantic shores.

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