Monday, October 15, 2007

Shapes and shadow; Ancient Rome

Shapes and shadow
Originally uploaded by jhhymas

Today I drove into town for milk and cranberry juice. I took the cardboard to the recycle bins; then I saw I was across the street from the library, which was open. I got a bunch of 25-cent paperbacks from the sale rack. I have just started on Livy: The Early History of Rome. According to the translator's forward, Livy came right at the end of the great Roman literary period. When he was fifteen, Julius Caesar was killed.

This book is much more interesting than I though it might be; I actually bought it just to save "culture" from the dump, and because I never did any study of the Ancient World as part of my formal education and I feel an empty space where that learning should be.The following quote is from page 18 of this Penguin edition.

"I invite the reader's attention to the much more serious consideration of the kind of lives our ancestors lived, of who were the men, and what the means both in politics and war by which Rome's power was first acquired and subsequently expanded; I would have him trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them. The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warning: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.

I hope my passion for Rome's past has not impaired my judgement; for I do honestly believe that no country has ever been greater or purer than ours or richer in good citizens and noble deeds; none has been free for so many generations from the vices of avarice and luxury; nowhere have thrift and plain living been for so long held in such esteem. Indeed, poverty with us went hand in hand with contentment. Of late years wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought is, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death both individual and collective.

But bitter comments of this sort are not likely to find favour, even when they have to be made. Let us have no more of them, at least at the beginning of our great story. On the contrary, I should prefer to borrow from the poets and begin with good omens and with prayers to all the host of heaven to grant a successful issue to the work which lies before me." [The writing of this history.]

Livy, The Early History of Rome;
Books I-V of The History of Rome from its Foundation.
Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, Penguin Books, 1960, 1969.

This is related to the prison population explosion that I talked about yesterday. We can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them. The increasing manifestations of greed and overdoing everything, from the space in houses, to the many gas-powered toys (for just two examples) that I have seen just in my lifetime are almost impossible to get the mind around, or to explain to a younger person. The certainty that we are headed, almost irrevocably in the wrong directions, is difficult to avoid. Good night . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment