Rome and the American politician
Every now and then someone asks me 'Is the United States the new Rome?' Generally those asking the question want to know if the USA resembles the Roman empire. My standard reply is no, the USA is nothing like the Roman empire, socially, demographically, economically or militarily. However, politically the US government is a lot like the Roman Republic. Consider this -
'Many were willing to grant the request, but Ted Cruz opposed it. When he saw that the senators were ready to gratify Obama, he spent the whole day speaking and so frustrated their intentions.'
This reference to a recent attempt to prevent congressional legislation comes not from a modern newspaper, but verbatim from Plutarch's 'Life of Cato the Younger' with only Ted Cruz swapped for Cato and Obama for Caesar. This sort of similarity is why I've been watching congressional politics with interest lately. The US government is in partial shut-down because Messers Obama and Boehner can't agree on necessary legislation. This may be followed by a funding crisis if the pair can't agree on financing the government. It all sounds a bit like 133 BC.
'But Octavius would not consent to this, and therefore Tiberius issued an edict forbidding all the other magistrates to transact any public business until such time as the vote should be cast. ... He also put his private seal upon the temple of Saturn [Rome's treasury], in order that the quaestors might not take nor pay any money into it.'
(Life of Tiberius Gracchus 10)
Sound familiar? This is neither selective quoting nor co-incidence. The founding fathers of the United States deliberately set up a state which embodied the principles of the Roman Republic as described by the ancient writer Polybius. Hence the USA's separation of powers, checks and balances, and a legislative body called the senate. The current gridlock in congress is due to the Roman belief that a veto over-rode an initiative, and if the organs of government couldn't work together, they shouldn't work at all.
However, it remains open to question whether the government of the USA now resembles the ideal republic of Polybius or the political mess of the Late Republic. And it's not merely academic, since the Late Republic ended badly and messily for all concerned. Personally I don't think we are there yet. However, the tomfoolery surrounding Obamacare brings to mind another quote from the Life of Tiberius Gracchus:
'But the senate in its session accomplished nothing, owing to the prevailing influence of the wealthy.'
A novel idea becomes real
Some time this week I'm hoping to be holding the pre-production copy of my latest book. This is always exciting; in fact so exciting that by family tradition I take the book and my wife to a good restaurant to celebrate the occasion. However, this time will be even more exciting than most. The book is 'The Gold of Tolosa' and it's my very first published novel.
The idea that I should write a novel has been suggested before. The first time was by an agent who was proposing to represent me with my non-fiction. The events described in the novel - the largest bullion theft in history followed by one of Rome's greatest military defeats - had always struck me as desperately needing a fictional treatment, so I happily agreed to supply one. To the factual scaffold of actual events I attached a dispossessed brothel-owner, a slave priestess and a gang of Gallic thugs and sent them on a wild adventure across Italy and Gaul.
Then the person I was dealing with at the agency left, and we never agreed terms for the non-fiction. By then I was having so much fun writing the novel that I broke one of my own rules and kept writing even when the finished product did not have a publisher. In fact I've started on a sequel.
Since the novel has been an experiment on my part, it seemed in the spirit of things to keep being experimental. So when a small local start-up began looking for a recognized name to launch their first publication, I knew my book had found a home.
So Ladieees and Genelmen, Monashee Mountain Press proudly presents their first publication, and Philip Matyszak's maiden novel. We give you 'The Gold of Tolosa' available on Amazon in paperback and e-book. Stop reading now and order your copy!
As a writer, I'm self-employed. Most of my friends work for large establishments - usually universities. Their perception of self-employment is that one can rise late in the morning and chuck in the day's work to go fishing whenever the urge strikes. And while I don't fish, and tend to rise at 7am this perception is basically true.
However, there's a dark side to all this as well. First of all, as most self-employed people will tell you, their boss is a swine. Someone working for a large organization might be able to coast for a while without the boss noticing. When you are your own boss, you note every minute you've been slacking. And even in your free time, there's the nagging feeling that you've work you should be doing. While those in a large organization know that their pay cheque is coming at the end of the month, the self-employed work on the charmingly-entitled EWYK system - you Eat What You Kill. If you don't produce the goods at the end of the month, you don't eat. Simple. (Unless you've been fishing, but you get the idea.)
Nevertheless, since my job lets me do something I love doing at times when I want to do it - which actually is most of the time - so I've no complaints there. However I wouldn't mind one benefit that wage slaves get. Someone else handles their tax, health benefits, pension funds and other financial dealings with The State. I shovel as much as I can on to my accountant, and fortunately my wife has a head for figures, but there are some things that have to be done personally. This month a tax issue developed. When you write books in one country for a publisher based in another, and that publisher sells a lot of books in a third country matters can get complex. Fortunately, the tax authorities publish helpful guidelines that make matters crystal clear. Or at least they do if you've spent years parsing Cicero's Latin down to the last sub-clause. Let me share the relevant paragraph in my case - take a deep breath now.
"(a) royalties shall be deemed to arise in a Contracting State when the payer is a resident of that State. Where, however, the person paying the royalties, whether he is a resident of a Contracting State or not, has in a State a permanent establishment or a fixed base in connection with which the obligation to pay the royalties was incurred, and such royalties are borne by such permanent establishment or fixed base, then such royalties shall be deemed to arise in the State in which the permanent establishment or fixed base is situated and not in any other State of which the payer is a resident; and
(b) where subparagraph (a) does not operate to treat royalties as arising in either Contracting State and the royalties are for the use of, or the right to use, intangible property or tangible personal property in a Contracting State, then such royalties shall be deemed to arise in that State."
AD 451 and all that ...
Recently an interviewer asked me how I felt about the fact that classical history is being taught less in secondary schools these days. Rather than getting indignant about it, my feelings are definitely mixed. There's no doubt that the classical world is immensely important, because what happened before AD 500 created the foundations of the world we live in today. Therefore it is impossible to understand western civilization without knowing something about classical civilization. And in a world where young people often feel alienated from the society they live in, dropping a course that helps them to understand that society is probably not a good thing.
On the other hand, if ancient history is taught the way it was taught when I was a lad, then I've no objection to it vanishing from the classroom. I came to love ancient history despite, not because of my schooldays. Ancient history as a relentless march of dry facts and dates, combined with indigestible gobbets of Latin and Greek is enough to ruin anyone's appreciation of the topic. It's like trying to get a kid interested in football by making him memorize the rule-book and the list of cup winners for the last century. In fact learning should go the other way around. Once a kid becomes passionate about football, the list of cup winners and understanding of the rules happens along the way.
In the same way, I strongly feel ancient history should be taught as a sort of alternate universe - rather like Star Trek or Middle Earth. It's a place packed with fascinating characters, epic stories and bizarre events. There's an awful fascination in seeing the Borg or the armies of Sauron sweeping down on nearly helpless humanity. Now let's look at Attila, the 'Whip of God' leading his Hunnic horde to take down western civilization in a climatic battle, and our hero Theodoric, the Gothic king who died in the epic charge that saved the day. It's stories such as Theodoric's that draw people into ancient history. And once you're hooked, the names and dates come naturally - and are not the main point in the first place.
That's why I don't oppose dropping ancient history from the classroom. Almost everyone I know today who is passionate about the subject got into it in later life. And the comment I keep hearing is that 'it's nothing like what I did in school!'
The temptations of spring ...
As the spring continues its relentless charge into summer, my winter hibernation seems to be well and truly over. Today I have had online discussions with two students, read Cicero's first Verrine Oration while in a doctor's waiting room, mowed the back lawn and read a chapter on the rise of ancient urbanism. And it's just coming up to lunch time.
All this activity has to be bad for one's constitution. I don't do hectic. That's why I moved to a small town deep in the mountains. A friend joked to me that the changing of the traffic lights must be an event. Indeed it would, as we don't have any. However, city types tend to underestimate how dynamic the social and cultural life of a small community can be. I'm having trouble keeping up.
Also, there's another distraction which you don't get in the city. The Monashee mountains look spectacular right now, with snow-capped peaks, mountain meadows covered with spring flowers, and a few million hectares of wilderness waiting to be explored. So on Saturday my firm resolve to revise the voting tribes of second century Roman electoral assemblies was somehow subverted into taking the Jeep to Salmo and having lunch somewhere in the Selkirk mountains.
Fortunately the spring started wet, and the gloriously soggy weather meant that I could stay home at the computer with my books, so by and large I'm well up to date. But I'm not sure how long it will last. Even as I complete this paragraph, I'm casting thoughtful glances at the sunny outdoors, and considering a nap in the hammock after lunch.
Vade retro me, Satan!