Thursday, March 23, 2017

One More Myth Gone: Marcus Aurelius And Commodus

There’s a lot of loose talk around now about how all great civilizations descend into madness and end up with rulers that are narcissists, insane, demented or merely perverted. Those pundits are hinting that our current Grand Poobah is a sign of the End Times for America. That is presented as the progression: great rulers, then good, then okay, then poor, and finally perverted/demented/insane narcissists. Like most processes, this one is not linear. It is actually a one step forward, one or two steps backward kind of thing.

Take Commodus, please. He became emperor of Rome in 177 AD. You may remember a fictionalized Commodus from the movie "the Gladiator," staring Russell Crowe as Maximus (the gladiator) and Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus. “Fictionalized,” yes, the real Commodus was a combination of slightly better and much, much worse than Mr. Phoenix’s Commodus.

Perhaps all you need to know about the real Commodus is that he was Emperor from 177 to 192 AD; he was finally assassinated when people just got totally sick of his bullshit; and for all of that time, and particularly towards the end of his reign, he kept adding honorifics to his name and getting more and more annoying. The man’s ego was out of control. By 191 AD his name was:

Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus Augustus Herculeus Romanus Exsuperatorius Amazonius Invictus Felix Pius.

That’s a mouthful. In the last year of his life he added two more titles, Pacator Orbis (pacifier of the world) and Dominus Noster (our Lord).

Commodus in real life was even much more annoying than Commodus in the movie. But before you start to believe that he was a product of the final stages of a decadent Roman Empire, bear in mind that he had succeeded his father Marcus Aurelius to the throne. Marcus was a great Emperor, really one of the greats of all time. Marcus was a genuinely intelligent man of moderate personal habits, who left the empire in much better shape than he found it, a great general and philosopher, very careful with money and good to his people. He was a man seemingly without vice, loved by all. Marcus was a late-empire ruler, too. So they weren’t all bad.

The lesson is that we cannot now believe, as some pundits would have us believe, that Donald Trump is a sign of the end times for the American ascendency.  Sure, Trump is an annoying egomaniac, an ignorant bull-in-a-china-shop, but Donald is an aberration. He will pass from the scene like a meal of undercooked shrimp. There will be some discomfort, but finally it will all sleep with the fishes.

Take heart, America! There is at least a thirty percent chance that things will begin to get better within ten or fifteen years! I don’t think that it could get better any faster than that, that’s about as good as we can do, I’m afraid. It’ll take some time to get out of this hole. But it could have been worse! We might, if we are lucky, be able to avoid a new Dark Age of one or two hundred years.

Or not, who knows? See what you can do to push it all in the right direction. 

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