Sheol Welcomes Ariel Sharon

After eight years in a coma Ariel Sharon (1928-2014), Israeli military leader, Prime Minister and war criminal, died on 11 January. Ironically, but quite understandably, he was lauded as a man of peace by western leaders. American Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that Sharon was a man who attempted to “bend the course of history toward peace,” a truly ludicrous proposition that demonstrates the stranglehold Israel has on US politicians. Among Israelis he was more honestly known as the “Bulldozer,” while for Palestinians he was the “Butcher,” a recognition of his complete disregard for non-Jewish lives. Apart from his Jewishness Sharon was an individual who would have been quite comfortable in the Hitler administration, something that may be said about a disturbing number of Israeli politicians these days.

Joe  Biden is Jewish?

Joe
Biden is Jewish?

the world remembers the man of peace

the world remembers the man of peace

Sharon was a sabra, that is, he was actually born in Palestine, giving him marginally more credibility in his claim to the land than someone who had recently arrived from Brooklyn. To his credit he was not involved in terrorism against the British, as were two other Israeli Prime Ministers, Menachim Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, but this may simply be because of his youth. He fought as part of the Haganah in the War of Independence in 1947-48 and after the armistice in 1949 he remained in the Israeli military for the next quarter century. During this long tenure he showed himself to be a brilliant military commander, but he was also insubordinate and extremely aggressive, often losing more men than his superiors thought was necessary.

the young warrior

the young warrior

From the beginning of his career he also demonstrated a ruthlessness and complete lack of morality when dealing with his country’s enemies. Shortly after the armistice he organized Unit 101, a sort of special operations squad that conducted raids across the armistice lines in retaliation for Arab attacks, to some degree setting the standard for the Israeli military. Collateral damage among Arab civilians was not a concern, and responding in 1953 to an Arab raid into Israel, his unit attacked the West Bank (then controlled by Jordan) village of Qibya, which had been used by the Arab force. His men blew up 45 houses, a school and a mosque, killing between 65 and 70 civilians, at least half of them women and children. The operation was disavowed by the Israeli government.

the old politician

the old politician

Sharon performed brilliantly during the 1956 Suez crisis, the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but controversial political views led to his dismissal in 1974. His political career began the following year, and despite his lack of experience he was made Minister of Agriculture when Menachim Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. During this period Sharon became the major supporter of the settlement movement, which began in 1974 with the creation of Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful), whose members wished to see the West Bank annexed by Israel. Sharon’s policy: “Everybody has to move, run and grab as many (Judean) hilltops as they can to enlarge the (Jewish) settlements because everything we take now will stay ours. … Everything we don’t grab will go to them.” The Jewish settlement of Palestinian territory would be Sharon’s greatest achievement and his lasting legacy.

defenders of Greater Israel

defenders of Greater Israel

the legacy

the legacy

In 1981 Begin appointed Sharon Minister of Defense, and a year later Israel invaded Lebanon, providing the opportunity for Sharon to become an actual war criminal. On 15 September 1982 in response to the assassination of Lebanese president and Israeli ally Bashir Gemayel Sharon, Begin, chief of staff Rafael Eitan and foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided to reoccupy West Beirut, violating their agreement with the United States. The Israeli army surrounded the Sabra neighborhood and Shatila refugee camp, where thousands of Palestinians, mostly women, children and old men, lived, and the following day Sharon and Eitan invited the Christian Phalange militias (See Ironies from Israel #2) to “mop up” the refugee camps, providing Israeli jeeps to transport them. The Phalange, originally modeled on the Nazi SA, entered the camps and began raping, mutilating and butchering the inhabitants, all of this being observed by Israeli officers stationed in buildings around the area. When darkness fell, the Israeli army continuously fired flares, illuminating the camps. The following morning the army ordered the Phalange to stop. By that time more than a thousand Palestinians, including small children, had been killed.

"personally responsible"

“personally responsible”

The United Nations condemned the massacre as “genocide,” with which term the US and other nations disagreed. An independent commission headed by Seán MacBride concluded that Israeli authorities or forces were indirectly or directly responsible for the slaughter, while the Israeli Kahan Commission, created only after 400,000 protestors gathered in Tel Aviv, concluded that Israel was only indirectly responsible. Sharon, Eitan and some intelligence officials were found to “bear personal responsibility,” and it was recommended that Sharon be dismissed. He refused to resign and Begin refused to fire him until massive protests forced a compromise whereby Sharon would cease to be Minister of Defense but remain in the cabinet. He also acquired the name “Butcher of Beirut.”

 
International outrage subsided, and Sharon remained part of the cabinet for the next eighteen years, serving as Minister Without Portfolio, Minister for Trade and Industry, Minister of Housing and Construction, Minister of Energy and Water Resources and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He became Prime Minister in 2001 and served until his stroke in 2006. As a cabinet minister he vigorously pushed the settlement of the
West Bank, but in 2005 he “disengaged” from Gaza, forcibly removing some 7000 Jewish settlers. For this he was lauded as a “man of peace,” taking the first bold step towards ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state. What nonsense. Unlike the West Bank, which is essentially Judea, Gaza was never part of ancient Israel and consequently expendable in the creation of Greater Israel, and the move took some of the attention away from the massive settlement program in the West Bank. “Disengagement” meant turning Gaza into a huge prison camp, its frontiers, territorial waters and air space controlled by the Israelis, who periodically bomb its fading infrastructure.

 
In an attempt to end terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in 2002 he launched Operation Defensive Shield, the largest military operation in the West Bank since the Six Day War. Various international organizations concluded that both sides could be faulted for their behavior and that Israeli use of heavy weapons in urban areas resulted in civilian casualties. More critically, the Israelis purposefully destroyed much of the Palestinian infrastructure, including private property belonging to a number of NGOs. By deliberately debilitating the Palestinian Administration and weakening the economic infrastructure Defensive Shield dramatically aided the settlement program.

 
In 2002 private groups began the construction of the “separation barrier,” which after some hesitation Sharon’s government embraced, pouring in funds. The concrete wall, generally more than twenty feet high, and other obstacles, including exclusion zones, are designed to protect Israel, but it also allows the Israelis to begin transferring Palestinian land to Israel by running the wall east of the 1967 cease fire line. More than 8% of the West Bank has now been in effect turned into Israel.

 

passing the baton

passing the baton

a new crusader castle

a new crusader castle

Many Israelis see Ariel Sharon as an embarrassment and even a war criminal, but generally he is remembered for his heroic and brilliant exploits during Israel’s major wars. His lasting legacy, though, is the settlement of the West Bank, where more than a half million Israelis now live and enjoy rights and resources denied the Palestinians. Israel now directly controls about two thirds of the proposed Palestinian homeland, while the remainder is cut up by Israeli-only roads and military enclaves. In complete conflict with international law Israel is gradually annexing the West Bank and painting herself into a corner. If the Palestinians are granted citizenship in Greater Israel, it will no longer be a Jewish state, which is unthinkable. The only alternative is apartheid, a system that is slowly being established. And through inaction and political cowardice my country is abetting this loathsome development.

honesty!

honesty!

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Free Speech. Where?

Freedom of speech is easily the most important of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, the most important freedom in any society.  If the people can say and write what they please, a government will have a difficult time becoming repressive, at least against the will of the people.  (There are clearly many who do not care what the government is doing so long as life is comfortable – five thousand years of civilization has not been so much a march towards greater freedom as towards greater comfort.)  Free expression is at the same time a fragile entity, easily damaged by political, economic and even social concerns.  Even liberal governments and politicians are very uncomfortable with free speech.  They do not like to be questioned or criticized or circumvented, and they certainly do not like to be made fun of.

 

The greatest threat to free expression inevitably appears when a society’s security is being threatened or perceived to be threatened.  Security is far and away the most common justification for enhancing the power of the government and at the same time checking the free speech that might be employed to expose and oppose the state’s actions.  Threats to the country are also the strongest motivation for the people themselves to do the government’s work and curtail the speech of those with unpopular and thus unpatriotic points of view.  Any American publically suggesting in 1942 that the Japanese were not entirely evil and had some reason to attack the US would immediately receive a personal and violent lesson in the limits of expression during wartime.  The popular protests against the war in Vietnam were tolerated in part because the state failed to demonstrate that there was in fact a serious threat to America.  It also allowed its credibility to be shattered by a news media permitted virtually unlimited access to the war, a situation that was corrected during the war against Iraq, when “embedded” reporters were fed carefully crafted reports.

 

The popular repression of speech that followed the 9/11 attack was particularly virulent, undoubtedly because the United States itself had been assaulted and we were suddenly at war with shadowy figures who might be lurking right around the corner.  Any criticism of government policies constituted a lack of patriotism, and even the barest suggestion that the terrorists had anything to do with our policy in the Middle East or that they were sacrificing their lives for a principle, benighted though it was, was akin to treason.  An admittedly insensitive crack about blowing up the Pentagon resulted in death threats and demands from individuals and state politicians for my dismissal from the university.  Meanwhile, the administration of the university, a place that should be a bastion of free speech, while justifiably criticizing my remark, refused to defend my right to make it and treated me as road kill,  requesting my retirement.  This attitude is of course that accepted by government, and in response to my comment the presidential press secretary publically stated that “Americans need to be careful about what they say!”  This is an outrageous idea and represents the sort of governmental intimidation that was subsequently built into the Patriot Act.

I worked here

I worked here

 

A more insidious threat to free speech comes with our attempts at social engineering, a questionable enterprise.  The unvoiced premise lurking behind much of this thinking is that freedom of expression means freedom of popular expression or decent expression or socially useful expression, all things that hardly need Constitutional protection.  So we now talk about “hate speech” and “fighting words,” that is, speech that is not popular, decent or socially useful but in fact constitutes a threat to social harmony and public safety.  This is all pernicious nonsense.  The only valid parameter for limiting speech is whether or not it is likely to cause immediate physical danger.  Inciting a crowd to riot would fall into this category, but hate speech that might indirectly lead to some problem in the future does not.  In the second case who would decide when offensive expression is offensive enough to be considered a danger to society?  Some government body?  Popular vote?  Do this and freedom of speech begins to crumble.  Or the “fighting words” notion, which maintains one cannot use speech that is so offensive to an individual that he assaults the speaker.  More nonsense.  You may be stupid for saying such provocative things, but speech can never justify doing violence to someone.

 

People seem to have a difficult time recognizing the burden of free expression: tolerance.  Your right to say what you please entails tolerating what others choose to say, no matter how disgusting you find it.  In fact, your duty as a citizen is to defend that person’s right to spout hate or nonsense. The grandest moment of the ACLU was defending the right of American Nazis to march through a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, a principled act that led to the resignation of many members.  These hypocrites were in effect saying “We believe in free speech, but…,” a statement that guarantees that the speaker is ready to limit that free speech.  Many appear to believe there is a clause in the Constitution that guarantees the right to get through life without ever being offended.

Even these idiots have the right to spew their venom

Even these idiots have the right to spew their venom

 

Truth is clearly not a necessary component of free expression.  If it were, politicians and advertisers would be in trouble.  Apart from the fact that it is often difficult to define precisely what is true and what is not, speaking nonsense is certainly protected by the right of free speech.  There is, however, a specific case of untrue speech being prohibited.  In Germany and Austria denying the Holocaust is a criminal offense, which is an outrageous abridgement of free expression, designed, presumably, to hinder the emergence of obnoxious and threatening groups.  While it is clear why this particular topic is a sensitive one in these countries, this is a dangerous practice.  Who is to decide what bits of history may not be denied or distorted?  When is an event in the past so horrible that one is punished for saying it did not happen?  Why not outlaw all speech which appears stupid or ignorant?

 

In Israel it is now illegal to publically support any agency or NGO engaged in boycotting Israeli products or services as a protest against the country’s policies regarding the Palestinians.  People who do so are “delegitimizing” Israel, an assertion that now takes a place alongside “anti-Semitism” as a standard reply to critics of Israel.  It may seem a small thing in a society that enjoys wide freedom of speech, but while an Israeli citizen is free to say all sorts of nasty things about his country, he cannot support or approve any boycott directed against Israel, which is to say, there is one traditional form of protest that is denied to him.  Asserting that it is criminal to “delegitimize” the state comes seriously close to punishing people who insult the state.

 

And now this Israeli – or at least Likud – assault on free speech in the interest of politics may be coming to America.  Opposing Israeli policies in Palestine, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has initiated an academic boycott of Israeli institutions and universities, which has now elicited a response from Israel’s many friends in the Congress.  The proposed Protect Academic Freedom Act provides that any academic institution that participates in the BDS movement will be denied federal funds under the Higher Education Act.  This is bad enough, but the definition of “participate” is breathtaking: “The Secretary shall consider an institution of higher education to be participating in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions or scholars if the institution, any significant part of the institution, or any organization significantly funded by the institution adopts a policy or resolution, issues a statement, or otherwise formally establishes the restriction of discourse, cooperation, exchange, or any other involvement with academic institutions or scholars on the basis of the connection of such institutions or such scholars to the state of Israel.”  Whatever one thinks of the BDS movement and the academic boycott, this ironically named bill would obviously put limits on free speech on the American university campus.

 

The man who introduced this constitutionally questionable act, Rep. Peter Roskam, explained: “These organizations are clearly free to do what they want to do under the First Amendment, but the American taxpayer doesn’t have to subsidize it. The American taxpayer doesn’t have to be complicit in it.  And the American taxpayer doesn’t have to play any part in it.”  (A perfect of example of “I believe in free speech, but…”)  So, federal funding of academic institutions that merely fund an organization that in turn makes a statement against a foreign country is somehow an unreasonable burden for American taxpayers to bear?  And only in the case of this one particular country?  The Congressman does not explain why it is on the other hand fine that the American taxpayer has to be complicit in and play a part in sending $3 billion dollars a year to a country that is universally recognized to be blatantly violating international covenants the civilized world is pledged to uphold.  How far is this from denying federal aid to a university that allows its faculty to publically support a boycott targeting American policy?  Well, probably very far, since the Congress often seems more concerned about Israel than the United States.

A bit frayed these days

A bit frayed these days

I don't need to show you no stinking Constitution

I don’t need to show you no stinking Constitution

 

Freedom of speech is the most fragile of our freedoms, since it is so easy to slowly pick away at it, to eliminate free expression in this or that seemingly small area in the interest of social and political welfare.  And most Americans will simply not care because it does not affect them.

 

A final historical observation concerning free expression.  While Athens was engaged in what would be a life and death struggle against Sparta, the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the comic play-write Aristophanes was producing very successful satires of Athenian society and policy.  Not only did he constantly lampoon the leaders of Athens, but he openly attacked the Athenian empire and the war itself, and he did this in a state that lacked any constitutional guarantees whatsoever, a state where the people in their assembly could take virtually any action they pleased.  It is hard to find a greater commitment to free speech.

"Take your war and shove it."

“Take your war and shove it.”

 

 

Abused Metaphors, Soon Dead?

Variety in speech and writing is a desirable trait, and employing a colorful metaphor in place of a more mundane literal statement will enlighten one’s prose. “He swallowed his gun” is certainly more vivid than “He committed suicide.” Some metaphors are so well established that they have become “dead,” that is, they have virtually taken on the meaning of the word they replaced and ceased to be metaphors: “head of state” or “foot of the mountain.” The problem comes in using the same metaphor over and over, eliminating any novelty that it might have once had and rendering it instead an annoyance, akin to a child endlessly repeating some word or phrase he has just learned.

 
It is of course no surprise that it is politicians, and to a lesser degree news anchors, who are most prominent in running metaphorical phrases into the ground. This habit primarily manifests itself in off the cuff (a metaphor!) speech, since political figures have speech writers for prepared comments. Using a trendy metaphor demonstrates that you are with it, and using it repeatedly then demonstrates that you have a certain lack of originality and likely a limited vocabulary. Politicians are after all accustomed to speaking in “talking points” in order to avoid saying something actually revealing and possibly damaging. Endlessly repeated and tiresome metaphors are at least distantly related to talking points, is so far as they are safer than trying another expression, which might lead to a slip.

 
Possibly the most tedious recently overused metaphor is “kicking the can down the road.” This is an especially useful political metaphor, since it means “putting off a serious decision,” which seems to have become endemic in the US Congress. While it is very doubtful that many people under the age of eighty know this is a reference to a depression era children’s game, it nevertheless presents a colorful image and does not have the immediate implication of inability to make a decision, which suggests failure. This expression has become almost intimately associated with America’s fiscal problems, so we can expect it to be trotted out (metaphor!) on a regular basis. Going on about cans being kicked certainly sound better than “we can’t do our job.”

kicking the can

kicking the can

 
Another periodic and increasingly annoying metaphor regularly appears during election campaigns, which seem to be going on most of the time. This is the constant need to “energize the base,” which sounds much more up-beat and electric than “appeal to my core voters.” And in the case of Republicans “base” sounds a lot more innocuous than “the radical minority that can make or break my reelection.” “Base” is incidentally another example of a dead metaphor.

 
Then there are the “options on the table,” wonderful for negotiations and especially non-negotiations, like the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Presumably this once had an actual concrete meaning in the sense that negotiators typically do sit across from one another at a table and on that table are documents pertaining to possible deals. This might be considered a legitimate metaphor, evoking as it does the actual negotiating circumstances, but it has been delegitimized by incredible overuse. Once cannot hear of any negotiating or bargaining situation without hearing at the same time references to options and the table. Tedious.

table with no options

table with no options

 
Particularly annoying to me is the ubiquitous “at the end of the day,” a favorite of public figures and news people. No one now ever says ‘in the end” or “at the conclusion” or even the concise “finally.” “At the end of the day” is certainly more poetic than the more literal possibilities, which is probably why it so overused by people who are distinctly non-poetic. It also sounds more romantic, suggesting a manor house rather than an office or studio.

end of the day (with non-people American)

end of the day (with non-people American)

 
Everyone of course has noticed that no politician, especially one who is being grilled, ever says “then.” No, it is always “at that point in time.” The reason for this is obvious and certainly well known to educationists, the other large group abusing our language: why use one word when you can say the same thing with five? “Then” is too simple; common people use it. How much more grand and redolent of intellect and education is “at that point in time.” One could of course say “at that time,” but this does not sound as precise as referring to an actual point in the time-space continuum. Because of their reluctance to commit themselves to well-defined positions, politicians are generally surrounded by a cloud of vagueness, ambiguity and lack of details and referring to a “point in time” creates some illusion of precision. But still, one wants to know: exactly how long is “a point in time.”

 
And have you noticed that politicians never speak about “the people” or about “Americans”? It is inevitably the “American people.” This phrase is obviously not a metaphor, but it is one that is endlessly repeated, which makes one wonder if these people also talk about “free gifts” or “true facts.” Apparently our politicians fear that if they simply said the “people,” listeners would not know exactly which people they were referring to. Perhaps President Lincoln was taking a big chance with his “of the people” thing, though one might think that today the fact that every politician wears an American flag pin would provide a clue as to which people he was talking about. Why not simply “Americans”? Obvious: it surely does not sound as grand (or pompous) as the “American people,” and in any case politicians are only concerned with Americans who can vote, which does not include the Americans who are not people. Odd how frequently what an elected official says the American people want is contradicted by polls. It must be poor polling.

 
Further, why do they always refer to themselves in the plural? Do they consider themselves a sort of royalty, since like Louis XIV they believe themselves to be the state? (The phrase attributed to Louis XV, après moi, les delúge, might be more applicable to American politicians.) Or is it because most of the work and thinking is done by their staffs and they are actually referring to a group? Using “we” instead of “I’ does of course allow the possibility of collective rather than individual responsibility in the event of a problem, an extremely important consideration for any politician.

 
Specific to news anchors is another abused metaphor: “walk us through.” A reporter or expert is never asked to explain something, but rather to walk us through it. Once again, the beauty of a metaphor is the ability to provide an alternative and more colorful way to say something mundane, in this case employing a concrete image of learning (walking one through, for example, a dance step or football play) for an abstract and colorless word, explain. And once again the problem is beating the phrase into the ground with overuse and in this particular instance robbing it of its specific meaning. The expression has been traditionally used for explaining something very complex, something you need to be walked through to understand, but now it is employed to request an explanation of even simple things.

 
Finally, there are two expression that are not overused metaphors but are nevertheless annoying to the intelligent (or at least should be) and plain stupid. They are manifestations of the rot of hyper-sensitivity and political correctness that afflicts our society and demonstrate the silliness people, especially public figures and academics, are willing to engage in. I speak of the “n-word” and the “f-bomb.” They of course stand for the racially offensive “nigger” and supposedly offensive “fuck” and thus allow serious discussion of issues involving these words without actually using the words themselves.

 
This practice is ludicrous. A word is a commonly understood symbol that allows reference to a thing or an act or whatever, and in this case another symbol is simply substituted for the offensive symbol. But does not everyone who hears “n-word” or “f-bomb” immediately think “nigger” or “fuck? So, the perceived problem must lie not in using these terms but only in vocalizing them, which suggests many Americans apparently live in some sort of mythic universe where the symbol is the thing and speaking the name brings about the existence of what is named. The Greeks, for example, never spoke the actual names of the Furies for fear of summoning them but rather referred to them as the Eumenides, the “kindly intentioned ones,” a wonderful appellation for three incredibly malevolent deities. So, is it thus all right to yell “hey, n-word” at a Black? If it is still offensive (which is how it will be understood), then is it not also offensive to sit around and talk about the “n-word”?

 
“F-bomb” deserves special attention. It is even more silly than “n-word,” because virtually everyone, including the well-educated, at one time or another employs obscenities, especially this one. The word is learned early on by most children and is a bit of vocabulary that is deeply embedded in our culture. But official America seems often inclined to pretend that we are not what we are and that most people would be instantly offended by hearing a reporter say “fuck.” Actually, in the case the media it is the fear that the three viewers out of several million who really were offended will take action and scare off sponsors. This at least is a rational consideration. It is interesting that it is not “f-word” but “f-bomb,” suggesting just what an outrage the public utterance of this word it. Then why is it not “n-bomb,” inasmuch as nigger is truly an offensive and explosive term, while fuck is a fun word that almost everyone enjoys using? Who knows? This is America.

Stuff from Way Back #26: Image Is Everything

 

In 31 BC Octavian (Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus), grand-nephew and posthumously adopted son of Julius Caesar, defeated Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra VII at the battle of Actium, ending the Roman Republic’s period of civil war.  Most of the people on the planet have likely heard of Antony and Cleopatra, but who has ever heard of Octavian?  The irony is that the romantic and celebrated couple are relatively unimportant figures when compared to the colorless Octavian.  They were simply another set of leading players during the last century of the Republic, while Octavian might be considered the most important individual in the entire sweep of Roman history.

 

By the middle of the second century BC the Roman Empire had been established, at least in the sense that there remained no power in the Mediterranean world that could seriously challenge Roman authority.  At the same time, however, the pressing need for reform in the state and military ran up against an all-powerful Senatorial class that had become corrupted and self-interested and resistant to even the smallest changes in the status quo.  The result was the Roman Revolution, which in the period from 133 to 30 BC saw the almost four hundred year old Republic gradually collapse into civil war and military dictatorship.  Ironically, the Republic was already dead when the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla restored and strengthened the traditional Senatorial government in 83-81 BC and then retired from politics.  Putting the pieces back together again was no longer possible, and Sulla himself provided a role model for future ambitious men.  The second fifty years of the Revolution was dominated not by the Senate but by powerful men and their armies, resulting in two full blown civil wars: Caesar against Pompeius Magnus (49-48 BC), and Octavian against Antony and Cleopatra (32-30 BC).

 Loser

Loser

Loser

Loser

 

When the 33 year old Octavian returned to Rome in 29 BC, he faced a task that might make the battle against the happy couple seem easy.  The Republic was dead, and as the immediately failure of the Sullan Restoration had demonstrated, it could not be revived.  With some small alterations the machinery of the Republican government was essentially that of the 5th century BC city-state fighting for its life in central Italy, and in the long run it was politically and administratively incapable of running an empire.  Enjoying the complete support of the military, Octavian could establish a blatant dictatorship, as his grand-uncle did, and allow Rome to face a return to civil strife when he died.  As one of Rome’s greatest statesmen, however, what he wanted was to manage the inevitable transition from oligarchic republic to autocracy in a way that would create a stable and lasting governmental structure.  In doing this he would become a second Romulus, virtually re-founding Rome.

Winner and Princeps

Winner and Princeps

 

While he almost certainly began with a basic idea of what he wanted to do, the realization of that conception would involve much trial and error, and the process would be accompanied by the first real national propaganda campaign in history.  He realized, unlike any before him, that in the public and political sphere image was everything, that the reality could be more easily ignored and accepted if it looked like something else.  The reality was to be a military autocracy; the image was to be the Republic restored.  And it actually worked.  His creation, the Principate, would maintain a stable and prosperous empire for the next two hundred and fifty years and allow a declining Rome to stagger on for another century or so.

 

The basic problem was to maintain control of the military (which was finally fully professionalized), without looking like a military dictator, and he needed to find Republican precedents for all his arrangements.  He also needed to give the hitherto ruling elites, the Senatorial class, a real role to play in the new government without surrendering the ultimate power in the state.  This was tricky business.

 

The campaign began in January of 27 BC when with great fanfare he gave up all his illegal powers, declaring the restoration of the Republic.  The Senate, in part cowed by the obvious loyalty of the army to the son of Caesar, in part grateful and supportive of establishing a stable government, then proceeded in the following years to vote all those powers back to him.  He realized early on that continually holding one of the two annual consulships – the supreme office that provided imperium, the power to command troops – would not work.  Not only was this contrary to old Republican tradition and reminiscent of the years of the Revolution, but it also limited the ultimate political prize and administrative training ground that the consulship provided to the Senate.  Instead, by votes of the citizen assembly and the Senate he accumulated and exercised all the powers associated with the consulship and other state offices without actually having to hold any of them, thus being freed from the limited tenure of the actual office.  He subsequently held the consulship only on special occasions.  There was no office of emperor.  He was ostensibly a private citizen, but one possessing a vast amount of power.

Augustan propaganda: the Altar of Peace

Augustan propaganda: the Altar of Peace

Augustan propaganda: the Deeds of the Divine Augustus

Augustan propaganda: the Deeds of the Divine Augustus

 

The major support of his authority was a special grant of proconsular imperium over certain provinces designated as “imperial”: initially the Gauls, the Spains and Syria.  These would be governed by legates chosen by him, while the remaining provinces, designated as “senatorial,” would be governed as they were in the Republic, by Senators who had just completed their terms as consuls or praetors (the imperium-granting office just below the consulship).  He also had the authority to interfere in the senatorial provinces if necessary and to move provinces from one category to the other.

 

This arrangement provided a way to control the army without actually being a supreme commander, which would be very un-Republican and redolent of the civil wars.  The imperial provinces were precisely those where the bulk of the military was stationed, thus providing Octavian with indirect command of the legions.  Grants of proconsular authority dated back to the early days of the Republic, but the only precedents for proconsular power on this scale were found in the Revolution and thus not very good.  But it could not be avoided: he absolutely required “legal” control of the military or Rome would slide back into civil strife.  Consequently, the confirmation of this power, first for ten years and then for life, was done quietly.  Incidentally, governance of the imperial provinces was generally of a higher quality than in the senatorial.

 

The other significant power granted him for life was the tribunician authority, which provided him all the powers wielded by the tribunes of the people.  These powers were really not that important to him, but the grant was very significant in terms of image.  The tribunate was an ancient office, created back in the fifth century BC, during the political struggles between the commoners, Plebians, and the aristocrats, Patricians.  The original mandate of the ten tribunes was to defend Plebians from hostile actions of the Patricians, and consequently Octavian could showcase this authority to demonstrate his position as a defender of the Roman people.

 

Supplementing his legal powers was his unmatchable auctoritas.  Auctoritas, “influence,” came with dignitas, “prestige,” the quality associated with an individual who had served Rome in some capacity.  In the grand days of the early and middle Republic it was dignitas that Senators competed for, rather than wealth and power, though dignitas did bring a form of power with its accompanying auctoritas.  (Yes, for almost four hundred years the majority of the Roman Senate actually thought first of Rome rather than themselves.)  The man (or men) recognized to be covered with the most dignitas would be styled princeps senatus, the First or Dean of the Senate.  Prestige of course brings political influence in any system, but for the Romans it was a much more real and compelling power.  And Octavian, who had literally saved the Roman state and restored order and prosperity, had a measure of dignitas unparalleled in Roman history.  He had become the princeps romani, the First Citizen of Rome.  Romans would listen to his advice.

 

Rome had become a military based autocracy, but there was no actual office of autocrat, no emperor, inasmuch as that would hardly look republican.  There was instead a Princeps and thus the early empire (27 BC – 235 AD) is known as the Principate.  Octavian took the more impressive name of Augustus and became in effect the second founder of Rome and its first emperor.  To the Roman people he was Princeps, to the army he was Imperator and to the provincials he was king and the center of the imperial cult of Roma et Augustus.  In the year 2 BC, acting on the proposal of Valerius Messalla, who had fought against him at Philippi, the Senate named Augustus pater patriae, the father of his country.

Pater Patriae

Pater Patriae

 

The Roman people were delighted with the Principate.  There was peace and growing prosperity, and in any case libertas, the Roman concept of freedom, had for them never meant any political participation beyond attending assemblies and voting according to Senatorial advice.  The Equestrians, the traditionally apolitical business interests, were of course more concerned with stability and prosperity than forms of government.

 

It was the Senatorial families, the former ruling elite, that were Augustus’ real concern as a potential source of trouble.  So he made them partners in the new order, both to give them something to do and to reconcile them to the Principate.  He actual had no choice: he could not govern the empire without the pool of administrative talent that was the Senate.  They were of course junior partners, but while the Princeps was the ultimate power, the Senate administered the state and through its ex-officials the empire.  They could still compete for offices and honors, for dignitas, but now in the shadow of the Princeps, who worked to keep that shadow as small as possible.  He showed the Senate respect and listened to its advice, and with imperial patronage he aided the political careers of members of the old families, especially those who had been against him.  And the whole thing looked like the Republic.  In fact, Rome was still in theory a constitutional state, inasmuch as it was the Senate, representing the Roman people, that voted the Princeps his power.  Image is everything.

 

Augustus succeeded in his establishment of a military dictatorship for a number of reasons.  The Roman world was tired of instability and war; they had just emerged from a century of struggle and two recent civil wars.  There was no one left alive who knew the Republic as anything but disorder and strife.  There were no rivals left.  The Senatorial oligarchy had been drained, and all the powerful men were now loyal to Augustus.  And there was the Principate.  Anyone with any intelligence knew the restoration of the Republic was a sham and that Augustus was the absolute ruler of Rome, but the Senate had no choice but to accept it.  The legions were completely devoted to the son of the now divine Julius Caesar, so that while there might be conspiracies, there could be no real threat to the Princeps.  Besides, he gave them a real role in the governance of the state and left them with all the trappings of power, while he maintained a low profile.  He made it as easy as he could for the former rulers of Rome to swallow the bitter pill of autocracy.

 

Finally, he lived long enough, dying on 19 August 14 AD at the age of 76.  Some forty years of power had allowed him not only to construct the Principate but also to wean it from dependency on his guiding hand.  Power passed more or less smoothly to his adopted son Tiberius.

 

There were of course weaknesses in the structure of the Principate.  It was after all an autocracy and thus faced the age old problem: what do you do when you get a bad autocrat?  Augustus hoped that each Princeps would select and train the best candidate and gradually associate him in power, but autocracies almost inevitably become dynastic, even in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  This was virtually guaranteed in the case of the Principate since for the foreseeable future the Princps must be a Julian in order to secure the loyalty of the army.

 

The other problem was that the autocracy was based on the military, thus presenting the danger that the army would sooner or later involve itself in the making and breaking of emperors.  The remarkable thing about the Principate is that it took so long for the legions to actually do this.  When Nero, the last Julio-Claudian, died in 68 AD, several army commanders converged on Rome, and after a brief and limited conflict Titus Flavius Vespasianus became Princeps in 69 AD, establishing a new dynasty, the Flavians.  The legions then retired to their camps and did not get directly involved in the political arena again until the death of Lucius Aurelius Commodus in 192 AD.  There was another brief but more widespread civil war to select the next ruler, Lucius Septimius Severus, in 193 AD.  The army was subsequently favored but not pampered by the Severans and remained loyal to the empire.  It is only with the outbreak of the Anarchy (235-285 AD) that the military loses that sense of duty and becomes corrupted and interested only in itself and thus a major force in the ultimate collapse of the empire.

 

Augustus probably foresaw these problems, but what else could he do?  In the last century before Christ the Roman Republic was irretrievably dead, and the only option was an autocracy.  And the only real base of power for that autocracy was the military.  Given the circumstances and the evolution of Rome in the last century of the Republic, a military dictatorship had become unavoidable.  But it is hard to see anyone else who could have come even close to facilitating that transition and preserving Rome’s future as well as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.  Few men have made history on that scale.