Sunday, March 12, 2017

History: Ancient and Modern

When the rich began to offer larger rents and drove out the poor, a law was enacted forbidding the holding by one person of more than five hundred acres of land. For a short time, this enactment gave a check to the rapacity of the rich and was of assistance to the poor, who remained in their places on the land they had rented. But later on the rich men, by means of fictitious personages, transferred these rentals to themselves and finally held most of the land openly in their own names. Then the poor, who had been ejected from their land, no longer showed themselves eager for military service and neglected the bringing up of children, so that soon all Italy was conscious of a dearth of freemen and was filled with gangs of foreign slaves, by whose aid the rich cultivated their estates, from which they had driven away the free citizens. Tiberius, on being elected tribune of the people, took the matter directly in hand. With the people crowding around the rostrum, he took his stand there and pleaded for the poor. "The wild beasts that roam over Italy," he would say, "have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in. But the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else. Houseless and homeless, they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their imperators exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchers and shrines from the enemy. For not a man of them has a hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.


The reign of Tiberius coincides with the years in which Jesus of Nazareth was alive.  That whole "first shall be last and last first" in the basilea tou theou takes on a distinctly contemporary cast when put in the context of "ancient" history.  Well, that and the words of Jesus in Q (i.e., Matthew and Luke):   "And Jesus said to him:  "Foxes have dens, and the birds of the sky have nests; but the son of Adam has nowhere to lay his head."(Luke 9:58, SV).

Is it an accident that this same pericope in Luke is followed by:

To another he said, "Follow me."
But he said:  "Let me first go and bury my father."
Jesus said to him:  "Leave it to the dead to bury their own dead; but you, go out and announce God's imperial rule."  (Luke 9:59-60, SV)
But it was same as it ever was:

He did not, however, draw up his law by himself, but took counsel with the citizens who were foremost in virtue and reputation, among whom were Crassus the pontifex maximus, Mucius Scaevola the jurist, who was then consul, and Appius Claudius, his father-in-law. And it is thought that a law dealing with injustice and rapacity so great was never drawn up in milder and gentler terms. For men who ought to have been punished for their disobedience and to have surrendered with payment of a fine the land which they were illegally enjoying, these men it merely ordered to abandon their injust acquisitions upon being paid their value, and to admit into ownership of them such citizens as needed assistance.  But although the rectification of the wrong was so considerate, the people were satisfied to let bygones be bygones if they could be secure from such wrong in the future; the men of wealth and substance, however, were led by their greed to hate the law, and by their wrath and contentiousness to hate the lawgiver, and tried to dissuade the people by alleging that Tiberius was introducing a re-distribution of land for the confusion of the body politic, and was stirring up a general revolution.

The soldiers, says Tiberius, had no reason to defend the sepulchers and shrines of others from "the enemy."  Styled "masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own."  His speech, Plutarch says, was moving; but the status quo was not on the emperor's side.  Given that atmosphere under Tiberius, the reasons for the governor of Palestine to execute the man from Nazareth as a threat to the Pax Roman suddenly becomes a bit clearer.

*Plutarch was alive (45-120 C.E.) during the time the gosopels were written , but Q was assembled between 40 and 80 C.E., so it isn't likely Plutarch was an influence, or a source.  And the story of this law, which turns into a clash between Tiberius and Octavius, includes a "Brooks Brothers" riot and voter fraud, as well as astro-turfing.  There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

(Purely for fun, compare the account of Tiberius, emperor of Rome, and his failure to move Roman culture on a fundamental issue, and Rand's fictional John Galt, a man so important to the world he can, like Atlas, shrug and move mountains.  In reality, no one is that important, not even emperors.  Rome, in its collective effort, has had a huge and continuing impact on human history.  Then again, so did Jesus of Nazareth.  Go figure.)

No comments:

Post a Comment