Friday, 31 March 2017

20170331_214653 (1) Tacitus on Imperial Rome (wiki) also known as the Annals or similar is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero, the years AD 14–68.

I picked up my copy second hand after finding the phrase corruptissima re publica plurimae leges, or "the more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government"; although in the edition I read, it is translated as "corruption reached its climax, and legislation abounded". Which is the other way around. Never mind, it was a concept I was interested in - see that post - and it was enough to make me get the book.

To some extent I was disappointed; it is not, as I had half thought, a collection of aphorisms. Much of it is a rather dry recitation of history, much of which was, apparently, gathered from the records of the senate. What excitement there is comes from the underlying subject, which is a mixture of Imperial Rome doing stuff (conquering, ruling, whatever; see below) and the political machinations at Rome, much of which in the later parts is the hideous corruption and cruelty of the emperors. The death of Livia is touchingly told.

Of the "Imperial Rome doing stuff" there are things of interest. Mostly, as usual, upsetting my ideas of what it was they did. Quite a lot seems taken up by Rome, as a patient but not inexhaustibly so paternal figure, keeping the peace amongst the warring and nominally conquered tribes of Armenia, or Germany. Britain gets a brief mention. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Empire, and at some point is rather casually converted from subject nation to province. None of this seems to greatly trouble the power of the Imperium.

Of the corruption at Rome: this is all rather more familiar stuff. It is hard to pick out the more relevant bits; but it is all too familiar in the cases of Nazi Germany; or Iraq; or Gaddafi's Libya. In that taking down a tyrant is risky, so people don't, so they get killed anyway. But the tyrant is always uneasy; which provokes yet more paranoid culling of prospective rivals, which generates yet more unrest. And the populace has to be fed, and there needs to be some money in the treasury to bribe the populace with.

Many of their customs appear bizarre. People, when accused before the senate often implausibly, choose suicide over trial; generally by "opening their veins", though this is generally described as a painful slow death. The Papian Poppaean law prohibited celibacy; you would be preferred in the senate if you had more children; and so on. Shades of the "decline of the West" we hear in our society? "It had failed, however, to popularise marriage: childlessness was too attractive". But why?

Page 129 in my edition - its just before, well includes, the quote re abundance of laws and corruption - is a sort of idealised history of the process of law formation, which Tacitus mostly bemoans. But what it speaks to is the way that Rome never really found itself a stable constitution or proper set of legal principles. That's especially obvious during the period that the book covers. As I understand it, Tiberius ruled as Emperor, but with no legal backing. Formally, he ruled through the senate. And from reading the book, I get the impression it was a mixture of him wishing they would do more - he frequently leaves things up to them - and doing things because they're incapable of handling them. But, he had the power.

Tacitus doesn't much like Tiberius but he was at least competent, as far as I can see. And perhaps sufficiently secure not to need to brutalise his people. In subsequent emperors, that fails.

Part of the subsequent-emperor problem, and the lack of legal basis, and the longing for the olde dayes, seems to be tied up with Imperial Rome actually being a rather small place. I don't actually know how big it was, but the reason it seems small is that everyone is there. Being exiled is a severe punishment. Despite the carnage in Rome, very few people seem to run away to safety in the provinces.

But as I say, there is so much I can't understand. One of the principle perquisites of some class was a better seat in the colosseum. Really? That seems so petty. Unless they were really status-obsessed. Like I say, I just don't understand.

A folded down page: Nero punished the "notoriously depraved Christians... the deadly superstition had broken out afresh... in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital".

Another: after a foolish commander botches Corbulo's war in Armenia, there is no victory only peace: "At Rome, however, trophies and arches for victory over Parthia were erected... voted by the senate while the war was undecided they were not now abandoned. Known facts were ignored in favour of appearances".

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Chronicle of a death foretold

Poor Phoebe is approaching the End, I fear. She has been slowing down this past year, staying in more, going out less. She is, we think, about 12; not young any more though not especially old. Last week, last Sunday, we noticed that she was slower than ever and her breathing was very laboured - breath in, collapse out. We took her to the vet on Monday morning and £600 and a day's stuff later - including 4 hours in an oxygen chamber - we had a diagnosis of Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy and a largeish pot of yellow-orange fluid extracted from her chest cavity. And some pills to feed her.

The pill feeding was a total failure, but once we stopped doing that she settled down quietly and seemed to be breathing better. Another appointment on Wednesday taught Miriam the mystical trick of feeding pills to cats: hold them tight by the scruff of the next, pull back their forehead skin with a finger to give them the "bug eyed look" whilst lifting them off their forepaws. This was better, but still largely a failure and I had very little heart for it. Phoebe clearly hated it. Meanwhile, she was eating little or nothing, but drinking a lot.

Come her next appointment on Friday morning she could not be found! She had been somewhat in the habit of going out, and needing to be brought back in. And also of hiding in odd corners of the house, including in Daniel's sleeping bag. On Friday Miranda had left early, so we weren't even sure if Phoebe was in the house or outside. We looked both in and out, down the garden several times and in the road; but there are so many places that a cat that doesn't want to be found, won't be. In the end the vet's appointment had to be cancelled. Later, on Friday night at 9 pm when we were really quite worried, she came scratching at the back window a poor bedraggled thing, the weather had not been good that day.

Miriam took her in on Saturday morning, to discover that she had lost 400 g from her not-very-heavy previous weight of 3,100 g on Monday. Unless she can recover her appetite - we tempt her with goat's milk, with tuna, with sardines, with her own cat food, to no avail - then she is not long for this world. We have a pipette; we could try force-feeding milk or mush; but I am reluctant.

Why is this here? Well, for the bits I haven't written yet I suppose. What of the morality of it: we could spare ourselves some pain by having her put down, but would she want that? We owe her some love and some kindness at her end; and our best guess at what she would want. But she's a cat; they're inscrutable.

Sad update: in the early hours of Sunday I heard distressed noises; Phoebe was nearly at the top of the stairs. I carried her down to her bed and laid her there; she seemed quiet. In the morning she was quiet; as I got my breakfast she moved a little. Later, she walked around a bit but her back legs were not working properly. A little later she made more distressed noises from her bed; I stroked her; she quieted and seemed calm. When I came back ten minutes later she was dead.

In the afternoon Daniel came round to say goodbye. We dug a hole in the back garden and buried her. I chanted dust to dust and we threw the soil in, and put daffodils on top of her grave so that we will remember in future years. Miriam read the "a time to be born and a time to die" passage from Ecclesiastes and a short Buddhist piece.


Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Book review: The Dragon Masters

Jack Vance again. An old classic. I can still recall when I first read this, sometime in my teens, fresh I think from some Pern-y type stuff, and thought this might be more of the same - not being familiar with Vance at the time. And on a hot summer day I cycled through the English countryside near Berkhamstead till I found a nice empty field and settled down to read.

Oh was I disappointed! The book was completely weird and not at all what I expected. When a book isn't what you expect it is hard to get started. At first you don't realise it isn't what you expect; it just appears as hard to read, and you keep reading on for the familiar bit, or when the story will turn into the rut you were expecting. Eventually you realise and are either liberated, or you throw the book away in disgust.

I, of course, was liberated. This is more splendid Vance-type stuff with a weird situation and a ruthless hero and aliens and the end of times. I won't spoil the story by telling you more; see wiki if you want that or Goodreads for many more reviews.

Does the book have anything to say about the meaning of life, of slavery, or what it is to be a man? The Goodreads folk seem to think so. I confess it never really occurred to me it did. The Languages of Pao does have something to say, sort of; or rather, it is an illustration of a concept. I think Vance is more that than messages.