"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 2 May 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Decline and Fall



Despite considerable evidence that remembering the past does not in fact help us avoid reliving it, the idea that history is full of useful lessons persists in the human brain. And nobody provides a more plentiful hornbook than those back-stabbing, orgy-hopping, meat-disdaining Italians who ruled the Mediterranean basin for a few hundred years way back when. Even in post-literate modernity, the tales of classical antiquity come to us as pure thought exercises, free of the idiotic factionalism that poisons modern history. Even after the last Catholic has shucked off the last unholy declension of the Latin language, there's still nothing like a little Semper ubi sub ubi scrawled onto a desk plaque or inked onto the top of an article to perplex everybody in sight.


To a great extent, our old Greco-Roman pals invented this schoolbook historicism themselves, conceiving the dramas of history and biography as a set of fables from which we can draw wisdom. Plutarch, writing in Greek for a Roman readership, even published his Lives of the Noble Romans as a companion piece to his bestselling Lives of the Noble Greeks — the purpose being that a reader might compare the life and character of a particular Greek with his opposite Roman numeral. How, for example, does Demosthenes, who cured his own stuttering by gargling with marbles, stack up against Cicero, who ended up a long career by having his head and hands chopped off and displayed for his former coworkers? This is pedagogy in its purest form, every event folded neatly into a pattern, the kind of thinking a grammar school teacher can really get behind.


Unfortunately, our culture's rise almost exactly coincides with the decline and fall of the classical education. Nobody was seriously writing Latin anymore when America was built. Even our most eye-moistening building inscriptions ("Neither rain nor snow nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds") use plain English to recall us to our better, ancient selves. About the only aspect of antiquity that still speaks to us is its decadence. The Loeb Classical Library collects dust on remote shelves while our memory of the Bob Guccione version of ancient history remains undimmed. Our comprehension of the pagans and their beliefs is even more wispy — stretches of boredom puncuated by a desire that the speaker would cut to the woman who fucks the bull. It's like a long-term variation on the old "Do they call me Primo, builder of bridges?" joke. You can unite what was never united before or since, build monuments that stand through the millenia, and create art and literature that continue to inspire humanity's greatest artificers; but hold one party at the vomitorium and forever after your name might as well be Pukeus.



Actually, even here the Romans don't get a break. Their unmatched skill with plumbing and sanitation, which kept whole nations healthy and created the conditions for a rational society, usually comes in for mockery like the following:


What was their civilisation? Vast, I allow: but vile. Cloacae: sewers. The Jews in the wilderness and on the mountaintop said: It is meet to be here. Let us build an altar to Jehovah. The Roman, like the Englishman who follows in his footsteps, brought to every new shore on which he set his foot (on our shore he never set it) only his cloacal obsession. He gazed about him in his toga and he said: It is meet to be here. Let us construct a watercloset.


Nor did the handful of academic movements that a few years ago seemed ready to breath some fresh relevance into antiquity — feminist, numismatic, queer theory — manage to bring about the all-toga renaissance we were all secretly hoping for. Even the trail blazed so promisingly by Camille Paglia in 1991 turned out to be a decade-long journey up the author's omphalos.



Thus it's a great relief that Ridley Scott's romanesque epic Gladiator arrives in such good shape, vigorous evidence that the summer event movie doesn't have to be a complete piece of stercus. Hardly a scene in the picture doesn't feature multiple grace notes: The opening battle scene indulges the weapons fetishist in all of us — detailing the fueling up of the incendiaries, the cranking back of the catapults (For reasons not entirely known, obsolete technology is better than modern technology at demonstrating human ingenuity). Amputations abound. An operatic murder takes place amid busts of Poseiden and Augustus. The opening glimpse of Rome is a scene of such consciously Riefenstahlian glory you'll wish Hitler had diverted some of that doomsday-weapons funding into CGI development. Even the obligatory it's-personal killing of the hero's family is better than it needs to be, featuring a doe-eyed Elián type as the hero's son and a wife played by one of those fiery brunettes men like to imagine waiting for them out on some mesa. Like Daniel Day Lewis before him (and notwithstanding Al Pacino's star turn in Revolution), Russell Crowe proves that the historical action genre really is improved by the presence of real actors. Other performers are allowed to expand on signature roles they've worked out in past movies: Connie Nielsen tops the sultry sister routine she pulled in The Devil's Advocate, while Djimon Hounsou perfects his Amistad role as a man born free but everywhere in chains. Full-throated old frauds like Richard Harris and the late Oliver Reed chew stages' worth of scenery, while Derek Jacobi, who shows up at these affairs like ants at a picnic, makes fast work of a senator crafted as a sort of Roman Gore Vidal.



Is it history? Gladiator draws color and sustenance from two conflated events in Roman history — the assassination plot against the emperor Commodus by his sister Lucilla, and the heirdom of the eight-year-old Lucius Verus. Lucius actually predated Commodus by a generation; and in reality the sister's plot was discovered immediately (she was murdered for her troubles). On the other hand, Commodus really did enjoy climbing into the ring and cutting heads with the gladiators, (though he may have cheated), and his muderous paranoia as depicted in the movie (underscored by the deep loathing and disgust audiences feel whenever they see Joaquin Phoenix's face) is apparently no exaggeration. If anything, Scott shows uncharacteristic restraint in leaving out some of the juicier details of Commodus' biography. "His hours were spent in a seraglio of three hundred women, and as many boys, of every rank, and of every province," Edward Gibbon wrote in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, "and whenever the arts of seduction proved ineffectual, the brutal lover had recourse to violence."


More important, what does it teach us? The movie generally spares us any overt links to the contemporary world. Usually when Romans show up in movies it's to crucify our Lord or to pressure us into commiting mass suicide. Gladiator's 180 AD is as free of Jews and Christians as a Saudi girls' school. (Not all the peoples of the word get off so easily: Although the Islamic conquest of North Africa wouldn't happen for another four centuries, Arabs show up for a slave auction in a desert colony, their confounding tongue serving the same atmospheric purpose Greedo's language served in the same scene in Star Wars, Episode IV — A New Hope). Even the homoeroticism that used to give dubbed-from-Italian gladiator movies an extra zing is defused here in several ways — by bringing it out into the open (the Colosseum is decorated with enormous dildoes), by removing the red-hot stigma (Jacobi's senator is discreetly but comfortably out of the closet) and, in the movie's zaniest touch, by bringing women into the ring (a woman archer/charioteer in gold breastplates clearly owes more to American Gladiators than to actual gladiators).


Still, we'll always try to bring it all back home. "Stories about palace sex, political backstabbing and violent raids are as today as the Clinton Administration," Time writes, in what we hope will be the last use of this worn-out joke our teetering Republic will ever have to endure. The magazine goes on to quote screenwriter David Franzoni noting the "connection between that era and ours, about how sports heroes are slavishly worshiped by their fans." But more telling than these dabblings is the flourishing subculture of Roman re-enactors who grace the web with all-amateur money shots. The May issue of Details (published just before that magazine's decline and fall) reports on contemporary gladiators in the same breathless tone with which 11 o'clock news broadcasts a few months ago were announcing the discovery of a "real-life Fight Club." (Cleverly, both Time and Details use variations of the phrase "Empire strikes back" in their headlines. Expect to see further instantiations of this particular jeu de mots over the next few weeks).



In a recent (and long overdue) appreciation of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, Matt Zoller Seitz dissected our odd habit of expecting historical pictures to tell modern stories. At a more elemental level, though, the Roman Empire will always be with us because it will always be falling. The salient point here (and the distinguishing factor between Gladiator and earlier films where Chuck Heston or Max Von Sydow would take on the Empire single-handed), is that in this fantasy we are the Romans, the effete imperialists ripe and ready to drop. Isn't the luxuriant detailing of a movie like Gladiator itself proof of how jaded and decayed we have become, to the point where only the most tricked up Circus Maximus will pierce our deadened senses? It's the historical counterpart to the constant carping of those crashophiles who waited so many years for lovely, dark disaster to hit the stock market. Whether the argument is coming from the right (that we think nothing of letting our homos run wild) or from the left (that the military/entertainment complex wastes our treasury while appeasing us with crypto-bloodsport), the idea that we are following the late emperors down the via to ruin attracts more than just garden variety kooks. In his popular historical shorty How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill even treated readers to a lengthy discourse on the spooky similarities between pre-sack Rome and late-capitalist America. (The book's more compelling lesson — that if you give a Paddy a pencil it's just a matter of time before he starts writing about other Paddies — was ignored by most critics).


Oddly though, this view has fallen into some disfavor in recent years. The idea of America in long-term decline held greater sway ten years ago, when Japanese executives were taunting America for its mongrelized underachievement, and books like Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers were chanting sic transit gloria mundi from the bestseller lists. A robust economy and a few victories over third-world straw men has apparently been sufficient to bury grand theories of geological decay. We're never more short-sighted than when we think we're taking the long view.


A more useful view is the old dichotomy between the classical and romantic sensibilities. On the one hand the classical model: rational, clearheaded, Latinate, sunlit, formal, comfortable with corruption. On the other, the romantic model: impulsive, fuzzy, Germanic, moonlit, anti-formalist, idealistic. Dating back to Aristotelians and Platonists, this tension shapes such modern struggles as the one between the Demicans and the Republocrats. Windows vs. Linux, clear booze vs. brown booze, Adams vs. Jefferson, Bush vs. McCain, the WTO vs. The People, Bud Light vs. Bud; all of these struggles are at heart dramas in which the romantic and classical styles contend for top placement. Gladiator acknowledges this tension in its first scene, a twilit battle between the Roman technocrats and a hairy tribe of wild-eyed Germans. A decisive win for the Romans, as it happens: The romantic style tends to make a better story, but the classical almost always makes better policy. If there is a lesson in here for our spent, crapulous national juggernaut, that may be it. As the time frame of Edward Gibbon's big book makes clear, the Roman Empire fell, but it took a thousand years to do it.

courtesy of BarTel d'Arcy
picturesTerry Colon

BarTel d'Arcy