30 September 2006

nothing new under the sun

Pirates of the Mediterranean

Published: September 30, 2006 NY TIMES

Kintbury, England

Anthony Russo

IN the autumn of 68 B.C. the world’s only military superpower was dealt a profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart. Rome’s port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped.

The incident, dramatic though it was, has not attracted much attention from modern historians. But history is mutable. An event that was merely a footnote five years ago has now, in our post-9/11 world, assumed a fresh and ominous significance. For in the panicky aftermath of the attack, the Roman people made decisions that set them on the path to the destruction of their Constitution, their democracy and their liberty. One cannot help wondering if history is repeating itself.

Consider the parallels. The perpetrators of this spectacular assault were not in the pay of any foreign power: no nation would have dared to attack Rome so provocatively. They were, rather, the disaffected of the earth: “The ruined men of all nations,” in the words of the great 19th-century German historian Theodor Mommsen, “a piratical state with a peculiar esprit de corps.”

Like Al Qaeda, these pirates were loosely organized, but able to spread a disproportionate amount of fear among citizens who had believed themselves immune from attack. To quote Mommsen again: “The Latin husbandman, the traveler on the Appian highway, the genteel bathing visitor at the terrestrial paradise of Baiae were no longer secure of their property or their life for a single moment.”

What was to be done? Over the preceding centuries, the Constitution of ancient Rome had developed an intricate series of checks and balances intended to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual. The consulship, elected annually, was jointly held by two men. Military commands were of limited duration and subject to regular renewal. Ordinary citizens were accustomed to a remarkable degree of liberty: the cry of “Civis Romanus sum” — “I am a Roman citizen” — was a guarantee of safety throughout the world.

But such was the panic that ensued after Ostia that the people were willing to compromise these rights. The greatest soldier in Rome, the 38-year-old Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known to posterity as Pompey the Great) arranged for a lieutenant of his, the tribune Aulus Gabinius, to rise in the Roman Forum and propose an astonishing new law.

“Pompey was to be given not only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone,” the Greek historian Plutarch wrote. “There were not many places in the Roman world that were not included within these limits.”

Pompey eventually received almost the entire contents of the Roman Treasury — 144 million sesterces — to pay for his “war on terror,” which included building a fleet of 500 ships and raising an army of 120,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Such an accumulation of power was unprecedented, and there was literally a riot in the Senate when the bill was debated.

Nevertheless, at a tumultuous mass meeting in the center of Rome, Pompey’s opponents were cowed into submission, the Lex Gabinia passed (illegally), and he was given his power. In the end, once he put to sea, it took less than three months to sweep the pirates from the entire Mediterranean. Even allowing for Pompey’s genius as a military strategist, the suspicion arises that if the pirates could be defeated so swiftly, they could hardly have been such a grievous threat in the first place.

But it was too late to raise such questions. By the oldest trick in the political book — the whipping up of a panic, in which any dissenting voice could be dismissed as “soft” or even “traitorous” — powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned. Pompey stayed in the Middle East for six years, establishing puppet regimes throughout the region, and turning himself into the richest man in the empire.

Those of us who are not Americans can only look on in wonder at the similar ease with which the ancient rights and liberties of the individual are being surrendered in the United States in the wake of 9/11. The vote by the Senate on Thursday to suspend the right of habeas corpus for terrorism detainees, denying them their right to challenge their detention in court; the careful wording about torture, which forbids only the inducement of “serious” physical and mental suffering to obtain information; the admissibility of evidence obtained in the United States without a search warrant; the licensing of the president to declare a legal resident of the United States an enemy combatant — all this represents an historic shift in the balance of power between the citizen and the executive.

An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same.

In truth, however, the Lex Gabinia was the beginning of the end of the Roman republic. It set a precedent. Less than a decade later, Julius Caesar — the only man, according to Plutarch, who spoke out in favor of Pompey’s special command during the Senate debate — was awarded similar, extended military sovereignty in Gaul. Previously, the state, through the Senate, largely had direction of its armed forces; now the armed forces began to assume direction of the state.

It also brought a flood of money into an electoral system that had been designed for a simpler, non-imperial era. Caesar, like Pompey, with all the resources of Gaul at his disposal, became immensely wealthy, and used his treasure to fund his own political faction. Henceforth, the result of elections was determined largely by which candidate had the most money to bribe the electorate. In 49 B.C., the system collapsed completely, Caesar crossed the Rubicon — and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.

It may be that the Roman republic was doomed in any case. But the disproportionate reaction to the raid on Ostia unquestionably hastened the process, weakening the restraints on military adventurism and corrupting the political process. It was to be more than 1,800 years before anything remotely comparable to Rome’s democracy — imperfect though it was — rose again.

The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences: it fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to protect. Let us hope that vote in the United States Senate does not have the same result.

big weather

interesting weather thursday afternoon---walking home i got rained on and hailed on and saw a rainbow---and great clouds a little later

and they imploded the old first national bank at peachtree and north avenue (1960) this morning---too lazy to go watch but a great rumble when it went down---kinda sad since they aren't even building thing on that corner yet---i guess they didn't wanna risk messing up the new condo they're gonna build on the Courtland St. side of the lot.

28 September 2006

so much for amerika

so now let's hear the goddamn party of god talk about values and all about how this is a goddam christian nation---motherfuckers---i hope it is their son as prisoner of war on the other side who suffers the consequences, 'cause somebody's son sure as hell will----"military commissions act," my ass---even that retard arlen specter said, "What this bill would do is take our civilization back 900 years," to before the adoption of the writ of habeas corpus in medieval england---and the sniveling democrats won't even try to filibuster---and all because most of the assholes in this country can't even be bothered to pay attention---america's top model, survivor, whatever on the teevee they know about, but their basic rights and civil liberties on the verge of going down the tubes? huh? what? or just silence--but i can't do anything about it, they whine---bullshit---you can become engaged, because if you become engaged, you talk, and if you talk, there begins to be the possibility of influence, at least with those around you---"our generation's version of the alien and sedition acts," the times called it.

The light of our ideals shone dimly in those early dark days [of the Revolutionary War], years from an end to the conflict, years before our improbable triumph and the birth of our democracy. General Washington wasn't that far from where the Continental Congress had met and signed the Declaration of Independence. But it's easy to imagine how far that must have seemed. General Washington announced a decision unique in human history, sending the following order for handling prisoners:

"Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British Army in their Treatment of our unfortunate brethren."

Therefore, George Washington, our commander-in-chief before he was our President, laid down the indelible marker of our nation's values even as we were struggling as a nation – and his courageous act reminds us that America was born out of faith in certain basic principles. In fact, it is these principles that made and still make our country exceptional and allow us to serve as an example. We are not bound together as a nation by bloodlines. We are not bound by ancient history; our nation is a new nation. Above all, we are bound by our values.

not any more, mrs. clinton---

26 September 2006

gawd awmighty

get it---read it--short and sweet and mighty good---i'm over letting religionists of any ilk off the hook anymore---

"The current controversy over "intelligent design" should not blind us to the true scope of our religious bewilderment at the dawn of the twenty-first century. The same Gallup poll revealed that 53 percent of Americans are actually creationists. This means that despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antiquity of the earth, more than half of our neighbors believe that the entire cosmos was created six thousand years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue."

that last sentence cracks me up----

23 September 2006

autumnal equinox




went looking at chattahoochee river bridges today---at u.s. 41/northside parkway, the state's first four-lane bridge (1935) and still in beautiful condition; at roswell road, a great concrete arch bridge (1924) that has been obscured from the roadway by a second bridge built on the upstream side followed by a new deck over both bridges in 1985; and jones bridge (c. 1900), a steel-truss
bridge with only one span still standing---

he's just a dog

robert kept hersh while i was out of town this week and i just got him back last night---the place is awfully empty when he ain't here

18 September 2006


this is scary, like brian's jesus camp and big mama, who is totally insane----in all three situations, all one can say is "poor kids"---

"train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it."

Proverbs 22:6

universal health care

garrison keiler has the answer---faith-based medicine for the republicans is an inspired idea----

Hard choices need to be made, and given the situation we're in, I think we must bite the bullet and say no more healthcare for card-carrying Republicans. It just doesn't make sense to invest in longevity for people who don't believe in the future. Let them try faith-based medicine, let them pray for their arteries to be reamed and their hips to be restored, and leave science to the rest of us.

Cutting out healthcare for one-third of the population -- the folks with Bush-Cheney bumper stickers, who still believe the man is doing a heckuva job -- will save enough money to pay off the national debt, not a bad legacy for Republicans. As Scrooge said, let them die and reduce the surplus population. In return, we can offer them a reduction in the estate tax. All in favor, blow your nose.

16 September 2006

boom town

the atlantic business chronicle said there are 19 construction cranes from downtown to buckhead---this is one of them---for 201 17th st. at atlantic station, which will mostly kill my view of kennesaw mountain, dammit---architect is perkins & will---

13 September 2006

clearing from the west

nice thin line of clearing skies on the horizon this evening

12 September 2006

there goes the neighborhood

so they finished wrecking the old firestone service station (1937) at p'tree and 11th---the b/w image was taken in march 1953, lane bros. coll. at gsu----the orange gash across the color image at left is the cleared site today---as a piece of architecture, the building had gotten pretty well boogered up, especially after visions remodeled it a few years ago---but it's one more piece of the old business district from between the world wars that is gone---not a lot left anymore---another 30 or 40 stories of condos going up there---it will block my glimpse of 1180 peachtree entirely---

10 September 2006


"Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding," - Justice Brandeis, 1928.

08 September 2006

a great american

hey, i would love this man if he was ugly---another str8 guy that really gets it---a lotta guys say, yeah, yeah, i'm all for gays doing their thing or whatever, even when you know it makes them feel a little icky just acknowledging there is such a thing as a queer----but here's a guy that will actually make a Statement---altogether somewhat more secure in his masculinity, no doubt, than miss mell.

07 September 2006


"when i despair, i remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won---there have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall---think of it, ALWAYS!"

that was gandhi

05 September 2006

the crocodile man

well the animals got even, i guess---i never liked the way he provoked them---at least he didn't get bit in two by a crocodile---

03 September 2006

chattahoochee nature center

so cathi had to go look at the nature center since she is now working for the texas audobon society and they are planning something similar in dallas----her sister is big into bird watching so she went too---had all sorts of raptors there for one reason or another doing rehab---the bald eagle was impressive----

drunken str8 guys

just came up the elevator with some hot str8 guy brad with his girlfriend but he was falling down drunk---he was hugging all over her and then fell right down flat waiting on the elevator in which he continued to be a mess---also on the elevator with us was some poor woman and her pre-pubscent child and their real estate agent, showing them a unit (on 13 floor)---drunken brad started saying something to them about if they were partying or something, but decided it was rude and apologized and, immediately after that, was all about hershey---getting down and pointing at him with both fingers and saying hershey, hershey hershey, and laughing, over and over----i'm sure he's out cold as i write this---i thought it was kinda funny, but not everyone was amused---

peachtree street 3:30 AM

saturday nights are always busy on p'tree, although things calmed down a little after visions closed---but tonight or rather this morning is exceptional----bumper to bumper---looked different at 9:30 AM

02 September 2006


an odd assortment of people in midtown today---most of it football people here for the tech-notre dame game tonight---tailgate parties in parking lots over by spring street----and it's black gay pride weekend----which means bulldogs and environs will be busy busy busy----and i was out walking the dog and got stopped by this very white dutch couple and their infant----they saw my amsterdam tshirt and i guess it made them get all mushy about home or something---chat chat chat and pet the dog----a fighter jet has been flying over, the third time now---and helicoptors---

and derrigibles---but it was always the goodyear blimp----since when did it become the outback blimp---