Thursday, August 25, 2005
The Distance Between Ruler and Ruled
It is possible for me to walk alone without fear in any part of the city I please, though no companion attends me, though I have no sword at my house, none at my side; you, amid the peace you create, must live armed. You cannot escape from your lot; it besets you, and, whenever you leave the heights, it pursues you with its magnificence....Our movements are noticed by few; we may come forth and retire and change our dress without the world being aware; you can no more hide yourself than the sun.The Emperor Nero chafed against his forced isolation:
- Tacitus, Annals 13.25 (tr. Church and Brodribb): In the consulship of Quintus Volusius and Publius Scipio, there was peace abroad, but a disgusting licentiousness at home on the part of Nero, who in a slave's disguise, so as to be unrecognized, would wander through the streets of Rome, to brothels and taverns, with comrades, who seized on goods exposed for sale and inflicted wounds on any whom they encountered, some of these last knowing him so little that he even received blows himself, and showed the marks of them in his face.
- Suetonius, Life of Nero 26 (tr. J.C. Rolfe): Although at first his acts of wantonness, lust, extravagance, avarice and cruelty were gradual and secret, and might be condoned as follies of youth, yet even then their nature was such that no one doubted that they were defects of his character and not due to his time of life. No sooner was twilight over than he would catch up a cap or a wig and go to the taverns or range about the streets playing pranks, which however were very far from harmless; for he used to beat men as they came home from dinner, stabbing any who resisted him and throwing them into the sewers. He would even break into shops and rob them, setting up a market in the Palace, where he divided the booty which he took, sold it at auction, and then squandered the proceeds. In the strife which resulted he often ran the risk of losing his eyes or even his life, for he was beaten almost to death by a man of the senatorial order, whose wife he had maltreated. Warned by this, he never afterwards ventured to appear in public at that hour without having tribunes follow him at a distance and unobserved.
- Dio Cassius 61.8.1-2 (tr. Earnest Cary): He indulged in many licentious deeds both at home and throughout the city, by night and by day alike, though he made some attempt at concealment. He used to frequent the taverns and wandered about everywhere like a private citizen. In consequence, frequent blows and violence occurred, and the evil even spread to the theatres, so that the people connected with the stage and the horse-races paid no heed either to the praetors or to the consuls, but were both disorderly themselves and led others to act likewise. And Nero not only failed to restrain, even by words, but actually incited them the more; for he delighted in their behaviour and used to be secretly conveyed in a litter into the theatre, where, unseen by the rest, he could watch what was going on.
- Dio Cassius 61.9.2 (tr. Earnest Cary): Secretly, however, he carried on nocturnal revels throughout the entire city, insulting women, practising lewdness on boys, stripping the people whom he encountered, beating, wounding, and murdering. He had an idea that his identity was not known, for he used various costumes and different wigs at different times; but he would be recognized both by his retinue and by his deeds, since no one else would have dared commit so many and so serious outrages in such a reckless manner.
Miriam T. Griffin, Nero: The End of a Dynasty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 111, tried to interpret Nero's behavior in a favorable light:
Should we rather see in this practice the estimable desire of a young ruler, normally escorted everywhere by guardsman and lictors, to find out for himself what his people really thought?She compared Shakespeare's Prince Hal, and we might add Edward Tudor, Prince of Wales, in Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. If that were truly Nero's motivation in gadding about incognito, it would be a praiseworthy motivation.
Modern heads of state, no less than ancient ones, are isolated from those they govern. I can think of one in particular, who never meets with his ordinary fellow citizens unless they have been screened in advance to ensure their ideological purity; who spends his time surrounded by professional athletes and wealthy campaign contributors; who doesn't have the magnanimity to meet with his critics; who lives in a cocoon.
How different the behavior of our first Republican president! Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, volume 2 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1939), p. 236, tells an interesting anecdote. Chided by Major General Charles G. Halpine for wasting his time receiving ordinary citizens as visitors to the White House, Lincoln replied:
I feel--though the tax on my time is heavy--that no hours of my day are better employed than those which thus bring me again within the direct contact and atmosphere of the average of our whole people. Men moving only in an official circle are apt to become merely official--not to say arbitrary--in their ideas, and are apter and apter with each passing day to forget that they only hold power in a representative capacity. Now this is all wrong. I go into these promiscuous receptions of all who claim to have business with me twice each week, and every applicant for audience has to take his turn, as if waiting to be shaved in the barber's shop. Many of the matters brought to my notice are utterly frivolous, but others are of more or less importance, and all serve to renew in me a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage out of which I sprung, and to which at the end of two years I must return.Lincoln was truly a man of the people. Others just pretend to be.