Roman Decadence and Complex Systems Theory: Toward a New Teleology of Historical Progress, Collapse, Modernity, and Futurism

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Post-Post-Modernism

Discourse on the link between the erosion of traditional moral values and political collapse during the era of the Roman Republic and Julio-Claudian dynasty nurtured the ideology that just as “capitalism” is often conceptualized as a ubiquitous bogeyman in the eyes of some contemporary critical theorists, in antiquity, “free love” was a similarly corrosive force beguiling individuals into losing a sense of allegiance to the state as they succumbed to their petty perversions.[1] This vision of the ancient world, perhaps best epitomized in the moralizing histories of Sallust and Tacitus, haunted the Western imagination forever afterward, with “perversion” thematically bound to the idea of social collapse. This final chapter stands as a rejoinder to such notions, defending the practitioners of vilified forms of sexual expression from the ridiculous allegation that they provoked the fall of Rome or will cause modern culture to descend into anarchy, instead proposing a very different model of historical change in the ancient world.

The idea of Roman history as the cautionary tale of a society where sexual transgression sparked the conflagration of civilization at large has found various forms of expression over time, alarmingly often in modern political contexts. In May 1971, for example, President Nixon complained that All in the Family was promoting homosexuality and declared:

You ever see what happened to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them. Aristotle was homo, we all know that. So was Socrates. The last six Roman emperors were fags. Neither in a public way. You know what happened to the popes? They were layin’ the nuns; that’s been goin’ on for years, centuries. But the Catholic Church went to hell three or four centuries ago. It was homosexual, and it had to be cleaned out. That’s what’s happened to Britain. It happened earlier to France. Let’s look at the strong societies. The Russians. Goddamn, they root ’em out. They don’t let ’em around at all. I don’t know what they do with them. Look at this country. You think the Russians allow dope? Homosexuality, dope, (and) immorality are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the communists and left-wingers are pushing it. They’re trying to destroy us![2]

Nixon’s bizarre understanding of history is grounded in terror at the idea of society slackening as its individual members kowtow to their personal inclinations rather than the cisgendered heteronormative patriarchal rules of the game. Depressingly, the idea of Rome falling in the wake of the normalization of homosexuality has remained something of a trope in conservative circles. According to his 2012 book America the Beautiful, future Presidential candidate Ben Carson wrote that “as a Bible-believing Christian, you might imagine that I would not be a proponent of gay marriage… I believe God loves homosexuals as much as he loves everyone, but if we can redefine marriage as between two men or two women or any other way based on social pressures as opposed to between a man and a woman, we will continue to redefine it in any way that we wish, which is a slippery slope with a disastrous ending, as witnessed in the dramatic fall of the Roman Empire.”[3]

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These kinds of cockamamie theories have often been promulgated by “scholars” too. For example, Roberto De Mattei, the deputy head of Italy’s National Research Council and a “prominent…historian” claimed as recently as 2011 that the “contagion of homosexuality and effeminacy” destroyed Rome after it subdued Carthage, which was apparently “a paradise for homosexuals.”[4] Other scholarly metanarratives about ancient history, love, and historical collapse have proved to be equally dark and outlandish. Perhaps no schema linking political disintegration and sex seems to be so misguided in retrospect as the work of Joseph Vogt, whose “Population Decline in the Roman Empire” (1935) and “Race Mixing in the Roman Empire” (1936) popularized the original theory of Arthur de Gobineau that racial mixing was responsible for the decline of Rome, with the originally “Aryan” conquerors increasingly diluted by inferior Semitic and African genetic influences.

In the wake of these kinds of revolting models, no wonder reputable historians have increasingly turned away from the construction of grand schemas and have instead accentuated the nuance and complexity of micro-systems, overseeing increasingly specialized and compartmentalized studies of the past (and writing for increasingly small audiences). In 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge challenged the underlying validity of sweeping explanatory schemas fumbling to account for complex phenomena like the onset of political disintegration. He characterized the postmodern condition in general as one of skepticism toward metanarratives, rejecting their old-fashioned emphases on “transcendent and universal truth.” According to Lyotard and critical theorists inspired by his legacy, such metanarratives invariably downplay the naturally existing complexity of various systems, and they are often created and nurtured by oppressive power structures begging to be deconstructed. In short, since grand metanarratives tend to ignore the heterogeneity of the human experience, theories of human progress as historical development toward a specific goal are ultimately deemed inadequate by most of my academic peers.

Nevertheless, while I realize that to propose a metanarrative schematizing historical progress in 2017 is to invite a barrage of criticism since the very definition of progress has been destabilized by critical theory, the merits of the theoretical approach outlined in this paper speak for themselves. Its themes stand as a strong retort to millennia of hysterical discourse demonizing non-normative sex as the cause of civilization’s ills. The fact that any given metanarrative can be problematized does not mean that metanarratives in general cannot still be useful as thematic prisms through which to view a complex social process, providing a simplifying yet clarifying lens that can often prove revelatory when it comes to accentuating unexpected dynamics of open-ended questions.[5]

Though this chapter is grounded in original research in complex systems theory, the underlying thesis is not unprecedented. In the eyes of Jose Ortega y Gasset, for example, the modern world was liberated from a tendency toward chaos and collapse due to the inherently progressive nature of technological evolution and its marriage to the scientific method, ensuring an increasingly vibrant standard of living for an increasing number of people over the long run. According to his view, a failure of “technique” [6] rather than non-vanilla sex doomed the Roman Empire. In the language of complexity theory, the system tended toward a state of collapse because the pace of technological and scientific progress was ultimately retarded before it could gain the unstoppable momentum it seemed to attain after the Italian Renaissance. The remainder of this chapter defines these terms, summarizes the themes of complex systems theory, and applies this lens to the subject of “historical progress” in the ancient world. I conclude by proposing falsifiable hypotheses that could test this framework, providing evidence against the idea that either sex or Christianity was at the root of Rome’s collapse.

Defining Terms: Progress and Modernity

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Once writing was invented and the memories of past thinkers could be stored and readily accessed, a long conversation was initiated between generations of brilliant individuals who, in long discussion and debate with each other’s ghosts, were ultimately able to further and further clarify humanity’s collective understanding of the empirical characteristics of reality, to say nothing of how its constituent elements could be carved up, recombined, and harnessed to serve utile human ends. Tragically, throughout many periods of history, voices were deliberately excluded from this evolving dialogue and even denied basic education, which consequently resulted in a lower quality of debate, less discourse, and slower advancement in the arts and sciences in general.[7]

Be this at it may, once history began (that is, once representational symbolic records came about), a long conversation between ingenious contributors was initiated which led to what I want to call “progress.” The invention of writing enabled a conversation to take place that could be sustained across multiple generations about questions to which there seemed to be no obvious answers, but to which meaningful contributions could nonetheless be made that served a useful, clarifying role. Is there a God? How is motion possible? Why does it rain? What is art? How can I maximize the yield of my crops? Different people have different perspectives on these kinds of open-ended questions and diverse ways of schematizing the problems and solutions. Once their perspectives are added to the evolving discourse, these people’s contributions can never be erased. If what they articulated was meaningful and clarifying, it will inspire new, micro-discourses in turn. Over the course of time, thousands of meaningful contributions lead inevitably to what I want to define as progress—an increasingly lucid understanding of the nature of reality and how to harness its constituent elements toward (hopefully) good ends such as the alleviation of physical torment. Across the millennia, if enough people are welcomed into the conversation of great minds, there will be millions of meaningful contributions which can never be erased, and this will inevitably lead to advancement over time as battles will rage in the marketplace of ideas and only the best ideas (those most bound to meaningful contributions from the perspective of the most people) will survive.

What do I mean by modernity? In this chapter, I mean a condition in which political institutions valuing both autonomy and stability, economic institutions catering to the distribution of “money,” and academic institutions governing scientific research create synergistic platforms where discursive progress can take place. Foucault, of course, reminds us that the influence of institutions on discourse can be oppressive, but in fairness, the great institutions of civilization can also provide stages upon which meaningful contributors can interact with one another and usher in an increasingly accelerated and exponentially growing rate of progress.

According to the teleology of modernity as imagined in this paper, and contrary to the idea that most premodern Iron Age civilizations were fundamentally similar in nature, I will argue that a formative moment for the West took place in the polytheistic, “democratic” civilizations of Greece and Italy and Asia Minor and not in the monotheistic or monarchic contexts of other civilizations. I will also suggest that the medieval contribution to modernity is in some ways being overstated in contemporary scholarship, though the preservation of ancient knowledge and the creation of the university-system would of course contribute immeasurably to the synergy between academic, political, and economic institutions which this paper associates with modernism.

Complex Systems Theory and Historical Change

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 According to complex systems theory, certain events such as rises and declines in the number of living species unfold according to a process of punctuated equilibrium, with spurts of sudden advancement or collapse associated with changes in the organisms’ relationships to their environment. The rule of the day is long intermediate periods of stable predictability interrupted by sudden catastrophic plunges, then a series of unpredictable oscillations before a new homeostatic balance is reached. I want to suggest that a similar lens can be applied to thinking about the process of historical change in the form of political collapse (the elimination of old institutions and the leadership roles associated with them) and reconsolidation (the creation of new institutions and the subsequent rise of novel opportunities for political dominance by new factions of people.) The system can be conceptualized as a zero-sum game for power expressed in the form of individual “players” scrambling to attain limited institutional positions; over time, individuals maneuver and form alliances to gain such positions, and preexisting hierarchies can be upset by changing environmental conditions.

Complex systems theory is an emergent area of scientific investigation. While chaos theory, a subset of the general field of complexity, has been enriched with quantitative theorems since the emergence of sophisticated computer technology in the 1970s, the study of complexity as a broad principle in itself is, as of yet, largely limited to qualitative descriptions of the dynamics of non-linear systems marked by sensitive dependence on initial conditions. In my opinion, these qualitative descriptions, while frustrating to mathematicians seeking specific formulae to describe the evolution of complex systems, are in fact an ideal prism through which to view the periodic transformations of civilization without reducing the infinite nuances of the phenomena involved to anything analogous to a neat set of simple rules. Fundamentally, in order to comprehend the behavior of a non-linear system, one must in principle examine the system as a whole and not merely investigate its parts in isolation. For this reason, a description of change over time in a civilization demands a somewhat sweeping chronological approach, whatever the detractors of metanarratives in history might say. Antiquity uniquely provides us with several useful examples of cultural evolution over whole millennia.

The essential idea of complex systems theory is that the interactions of individual parts within a whole can result in so-called self-organizing criticality. This is to say that the changing relationships between diverse constituent elements of a complex system can spontaneously result in great changes in the whole, potentially characterized by radically distinct emergent properties. The complex whole exists in a fragile state of equilibrium in a “critical state” on the “edge of chaos.” Changing environmental factors can tip aspects of the complex system into chaos itself through “cascading events,” resulting in the sudden onset of turbulence, tumult, and disorder. Eventually, according to chaos theory, the complex system should settle into new points of equilibrium rather than simply collapsing altogether—chaos is turbulent and unpredictable, but it is not synonymous with a complete and total breakdown of order. The new equilibrium, however, similarly exists at a critical point on the “edge of chaos” until new environmental forces again tip it toward chaos and the eventual emergence of a new state of homeostasis similarly radically divergent from the preceding initial conditions. The entire process is one of punctuated equilibrium-by way of analogy, imagine a graph that shows exponential growth, a period of stagnation, and then either a period of collapse or a resumption of growth; the horizontal axis would be time and the vertical axis would be some measure of the level of progress (which I suggest can be measured in such potential ways as surviving written records per year, patents produced per year, deaths by disease each year, institutional roles available per year, etc.)

According to information systems theory, the emergence of chaos can result from exceedingly slight shifts in environmental forces, minutiae like the emperor Claudius’ choice of a successor, or unpredictable migrations of whole barbarian tribes. Such forces precipitate the rapid emergence of unpredictable, fast-changing sets of information that have the capacity to overwhelm traditional governmental structures and contribute ever more to a slide toward a chaotic breakdown. Nevertheless, according to chaos theory, this breakdown should not be complete, but rather characterized by the emergence of new equilibrium points which are always themselves on the edge of chaos. This process perhaps explains phenomena like the restoration of imperial hegemony in the form of the “Dominate” in the third century AD after a period of civil war, the permanent splitting of the empire into eastern and western regions of governance, and finally, the tripartite division of the Mediterranean region into Western European, Byzantine, and Muslim spheres of influence. We can think about the history of the Roman Empire as a narrative of punctuated equilibrium; during eras of “chaos,” individual efforts by the government to restore the old order resulted in diminishing returns, reflective of the theories of Joseph Tainter, but clarifying when they actually come into play.[8]

In my opinion, the question of why certain eras are characterized by such diminishing returns has everything to do with the emergence of chaotic patterns complicating previous states of equilibrium until a new homeostatic balance is eventually reached, potentially far less complex than the initial system. The old ways of carving up and dividing resources are upset by demographic and environmental changes and shifting cultural expectations. During periods of turbulence associated with the onset of chaos, complex systems whose central organizing structures are burdened by an overflow of information tend to disintegrate—whether they were organized as a multiparty system, a monopoly by a single party, or a dual party system, old organizational structures built to accommodate old fashioned flows of predictable information quickly become outmoded. New factions rapidly form. However, as any single faction gains an upper hand, it is in the interest of all smaller factions to join together against it. This leads inevitably to a bipolar tension, with the creation of a two party equilibrium and the ultimate emergence of a single party system or a new multipolar equilibrium themselves susceptible to collapse and always tending toward bipolar cleavages. In this chapter, I will call this the factional nature of political change.

Insights from chaos theory can help to make sense of the largest questions in world history from a fascinating new perspective. Turbulence and transformation are the order of the day rather than decline and fall. The unexpected appearance of chaos belies the linear biases of traditional models of history. Violent fluctuations and oscillations cannot be casually dismissed by mono-causal theories; they are in fact a fundamental aspect of any system at a critical point on the edge of chaos.

As mentioned before, there is currently a decided movement among historians in the direction of micro-history. But there is nevertheless great value in a global approach to world history and the exploration of supposed periods of “decadence.” Broadly speaking, the very nature of causation itself is more complex than contemporary historiographical accounts of things like the “decline and fall” of the Roman Empire suggest.

In other words, a core set of beliefs in the field of history about the nature of complexity and causation are ultimately incorrect. Traditionally, it is assumed that simple systems behave in simple ways, and that as long as such systems could be reduced to a few perfectly understood deterministic rules, their long-term behavior should be stable and predictable; it is also asserted that complex behavior implies complex causes, and that a system that is visibly unstable, unpredictable, or out of control must be governed by a multitude of independent components or subject to random external influences. Now, however, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, and astronomers have created a new set of ideas. Simple systems can give rise to complex behavior, and complex systems can give rise to simple behavior. Moreover, contrary to the idea that the stories of the rise and fall of individual civilizations are fundamentally unique, it is now believed that the laws of complexity hold universally, whatever the constituent parts of the system.

Questions about causation need to be approached probabilistically (what forces worked to raise the odds that a specific outcome took place, and to what degree did they raise the likelihood of the outcome?) and inclusively (what diversity of explanations can help to explain an outcome rather than a mono-causal model?). The following three sections illustrate this approach toward describing history.

Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Phoenicia Versus the World of the Poleis

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In the beginning was the Stone Age. It last for an obscene number of millennia. A rock is only so sharp and strong, and during agonizingly long eons, humankind struggled to carve up and recombine the constituent components of nature, powerless to harness them toward useful and progressive ends. But then, civilization began in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China beside great rivers where agricultural surplus could be harnessed by the sundry institutions required to organize labor. The use of bronze was fundamental to this shift because it enabled the creation of objects like axes, ploughs, and swords, tools that could not be chiseled out of rock. Such devices enabled nature to be carved up more efficiently, leading to further surplus and the possibility of the creation of a leisured class devoted to discursive inquiry rather than the brute struggle to survive. Now, progress was born, and “history” proper began with the invention of writing. The pace of technological progress was incredible, particularly in the intercompetitive monarchic city-states of Mesopotamia, where the boat, writing, and the wheel were pioneered. I believe that the decentralization of the region was key to its innovativeness. Whenever one city-state innovated by creating a new invention, other city-states either had to adapt and improve the invention for their own ends or lose their territory and be winnowed out.[9]

Ultimately, however, these early Bronze Age Civilizations did not evolve institutions in which politics, economics, and academics lined up to create modernistic synergy along the same kind of radical lines to be seen in Greece and Italy and Asia Minor. After the great burst of inventiveness around the time that bronze was first forged, there was a sudden stagnation. In other words, a kind of equilibrium was reached after exponential growth (which could be measured according to such factors as numbers of inventions created per century, the number of new cities founded, etc.) The reason why is that the very institutions that created the platforms upon which meaningful contributors acted suddenly became oppressive, forming rigid class structures which excluded voices from discourse and emphasized the creation of rules where the goodies could be monopolized by the elite.[10] Subsequently, authoritarianism, rigid class structures, and oppressively dogmatic religious institutions barred, exploited, and excluded people from contributing to discourse (for example, all non male elites). This inherently retarded progress, since the voices of geniuses went silenced: for example, there were thousands of anonymous women who never got the chance to be Aristotles, though they had the capacity to do so.

Between the age of the pyramids and the birth of Thales of Miletus there extended a tragic 2000 years—approximately the length of time separating us from Cleopatra. But then, iron came, and a new age dawned, with a sudden rise in progress. When we mastered iron, we literally forged a new future for ourselves—stronger tools which were more productive, resulting in more utility (stronger armies, more crops yielded per acre, etc). This rise in productivity allowed the goodies to be spread to more people than traditional elites, and suddenly, new classes began to arise. These new classes for the first time could contribute to the development of political, economic, and academic institutions, leading to more progress. This promise would prove to be most fully actualized in the Greco-Roman-Semitic world.[11]

The cultures of the poleis of Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor did not have religious institutions strong enough to sanction or to ban provocative debate about the nature of reality. At the same time, in that society, inherent values of the government were grounded in the celebration of debate, equality, and the inherent importance of every man’s contribution. The city states were fiercely agonistic, yet their people spoke dialects of the same language, so everyone could simultaneously compete with each other and imitate each other’s innovations. Finally, the society was composed of disparate, far-flung colonies that were inherently at competition with the societies around them and forced to govern themselves without the help of age-old institutions. One man in this society declared that everything was made of water. Another man questioned the hypothesis of Thales. This led to a debate which progressed toward proto-scientific notions. The origins of “modernity” were not bound to be found in Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor, but rather probabilistically likely to be brought into being there thanks to institutional features of those territories, to say nothing of their geographically central location on the easily accessible Mediterranean Sea. Enriched by iron tools and metal coins, utile goods could be distributed to more people than ever before, and more and more brilliant positive contributors could make a difference to their communities.

Greece and Italy are in a culturally diverse spot in the Mediterranean Sea near the spot where one group developed the alphabet (the Phoenicians), another group pioneered centralized bureaucratic organization (Egypt), another group developed coined money (the Lydians), and still another group refined ideas about monotheism (the Jews), making the area a diverse hodge-podge including the voices of many different people with many different perspectives. Ultimately, the institutions of the Greco-Roman world created a unique situation where political, economic, and academic institutions could welcome a greater plurality of voices with a greater variety of ideas than in other contemporary states. Compare the situation to that in other ancient cultures:

The Egyptians: They essentially invented the idea of the centralized monarchic state and refined techniques of massive stone architecture in concert with the Mesopotamians. But their 3000 year old civilization was one of the least progressive in the history of the planet despite the enormous productivity of the land of Egypt itself. This is because political, economic, and academic institutions all aligned to impoverish the vast majority of the country and retain the goodies for a small minority who monopolized all education (it took years to learn hieroglyphs—difficult to do that if you’re a peasant). It boggles the mind to think of all the women, non-elites, and foreigners deliberately excluded from discourse—and many of them extraordinary thinkers! One of the sole examples of real political innovation took place under an elite despot (Akhenaten), and his legacy of “novelty” in questioning whether there were one god or many was vilified forever afterward in Egyptian lore. Tellingly, however, when Greco-Roman civilization came to Egypt and Alexandria was established as a polis, it became the greatest center of science in the ancient world because it welcomed a cosmopolitan congregation of voices debating the nature of reality in a way that was never possible before, and all in the presence of the bounty of the Nile River, which could feed enough people to provide a great deal of leisure time. Even women were sometimes allowed to participate in this academic discourse.

The Jews: Arguably, as a whole, Jews have made the most meaningful contributions to human progress from the perspective of individual ingenious contributions to life on this planet. But I think that ideas about religion and politics in ancient Judaea made it probabilistically much less likely that a “scientific revolution” would take place there rather than in Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor (the world of the poleis). This is because more people and more ideas were inherently excluded from discourse in the Jewish culture due to ideas about politics and religion, leading to less internal progress. In Jewish culture, there was no place for discourse questioning whether certain elements of the Law could be broken (though debates about the meaning of the law could, and did, take place, admittedly showing that what superficially seems dogmatic can often run much deeper.) A rigid priestly caste monopolized power and education, meaning that many voices which might have been brilliant went uneducated while a small group of individuals monopolized the learning for themselves. Much scientific progress was bound to discourse on the Law and its meaning, with a neglect of areas of study about the atomic nature of reality. After all, the Bible inherently answered certain kinds of questions (“God made it that way.”) The Jewish idea that God chose them, loved them, and had a special covenant with them sowed the seeds that would one day grow into the concept that there is fundamental goodness in the world and all people are inherently worthy of redemption and made in God’s image. Yet science and philosophy as we now know them began as a branch of Hellenic paganism and not monotheistic Judaism.

The Phoenicians: The Phoenicians are the most similar to the Greeks of any other Mediterranean civilization. They lived in mercantile-oriented small city-states; there was no single governing monarch; the people were seafaring and polytheistic; and they established colonies in the Western Mediterranean. They were also an inventive culture, pioneering glass, dye-making, and most importantly of all, the alphabet, which not only hastened economic transactions, but also made education more readily available to more people than ever before, and hence led to great material progress. There were even institutions resembling the ecclesia or comitia of the Greco-Roman world.

Yet while the Phoenicians were great explorers and agronomists, there seems to have been absolutely no tradition of philosophical discourse and debate in their society. Why? One of the reasons is that the Romans annihilated Carthage and its books, but we have to look deeper than this—there were no famous Phoenician philosophers (though Zeno of Citium might have been of remote Phoenician ancestry.) We must look to religion, economics, and politics, I think, to say nothing of social attitudes toward abstract philosophizing versus practical knowledge. The Canaanite form of polytheism was one of the world’s most brutal, at some times in history evidently mandating child sacrifice even among elites during times of hardship—this more than anything shows a brutal commitment to religious principle at the expense of reason, for all of the institution’s social-leveling power. The Phoenicians formed a narrow mercantile ruling oligarchy over polyglot city-states where the bulk of the non-Punic population was denied political rights. In the Phoenician homeland where there was the most scope for “equality,” overmighty empires like the Persians and Assyrians conquered the cities and set up restrictions to ensure that society was oriented toward the production of ships and money, not knowledge. Culturally practical knowledge was valued much more than silly, impractical “abstraction,” which was conceptualized as something fundamentally Greek.

Because we cannot rerun history as a simulation just yet, it is impossible for us to test hypotheses about what might have happened in other times and places and in other contexts. But the fact remains that in the history of our world, the Greece-Italy-Asia Minor axis created a certain synergy associated with democracy, empiricism, and coined money that proved hugely historically influential. Political, economic, and academic institutions were inherently more inclusive of more voices and ideas than in the case of their Mediterranean counterparts, and this made more scientific progress more likely. The fruits of that progress constitute the core of Classics.

From the Grandeur That Was Rome to the Squalor of the Dark Ages

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Between Thales of Miletus and the period of the height of activity in the Library of Alexandria under the early Roman emperors there existed a period of approximately 800 years. Toward the end of the period in Alexandria, Aristarchus was the first to propose heliocentrism and Hero invented the steam engine; early “computers” like the Antikythera Mechanism boasted the sophistication of eighteenth century Swiss clocks.

Aristotle’s work had long set the stage for empiricism and the development of the scientific method. “Modernity” seemed to be on the cusp of something great. Then, the unexpected took place. Among a perfect storm of other forces, the repercussions of a single man’s unjust crucifixion would reverberate through the centuries—history’s greatest example of the Butterfly Effect in action.

Earlier in this dissertation, I have addressed the topic of decadence from the perspective of the common but outmoded belief that sexual perversion was the destabilizing influence in Roman history around the time of Christ. Contrary to the opinions of scholars like Blanshard, I have argued that behavior which might be considered licentious did in fact exist in the Late Republic as a response to changing political and economic conditions in which the sexual availability of slaves and prostitutes coupled with the rise of totalitarianism by divine right upset traditional patterns of morality. However, I have also shown that the idea of sexual license itself as a chaotic influence on Roman history is a case of mistaking causation and correlation. Free love did not vitiate the Roman Empire. The inadequacy of its cultural hierarchies in the face of the turbulence of history did.

While the study of antiquity is inherently interesting for its own sake, it is perhaps particularly valuable because it represents a long stretch of time in which myriad historical changes took place, with the entire history of the system existing in a kind of metaphorical laboratory. The height of the Roman Empire and its subsequent decline are particularly fascinating because the sophistication of the Mediterranean world ultimately faltered, and the Roman Empire and the barbarian cultures surrounding it finally blended together into a single, largely similar culture. Why did the sophistication of the ancient world lapse so horrifically, and why was the recovery rate following this collapse so slow? The theory of complex systems provides the answer: the “parochial” elements of the ancient economy described by historians like Moses Finley ultimately hindered the development of historical momentum toward industrialization until the entire system collapsed over the edge of chaos into increasingly less complex states of equilibrium. Society was transformed from the single-party domination of the Principate to the multiparty chaos of the Dominate; then, society re-stabilized as the two-party Eastern and Western Roman Empires before the Western portion distintegrated and the Mediterranean was divided into the multiparty three civilizations of Islam, Western Europe, and Byzantium. The periods between the eras of stable hierarchies (the second century and the fifth century and the seventh century) are the ones associated with the onset of chaos; the conclusion of this chapter provides a means of testing the thesis.

Mono-causal explanations for Roman decadence such as “perversion” are ultimately fruitless. In fact, the era of the greatest sexual license in Roman history is ultimately the one of its greatest economic and territorial expansion. Instead, complexity theory provides a very different answer to the question of why the Republic fell and the Principate replaced it: a plethora of forces existed that pushed the old multipolar equilibrium represented by the checks and balances of the earlier Republic and its feuding dynasts over the so-called “edge of chaos” into a simpler new “homeostatic state” marked by the monopolar despotism of a single family, very much like those of their Hellenistic neighbors (and hence less complex than a unique Roman political system artificially distinct from the institutions of the civilizations around it).[12] The history of the transitions along the way are classic lessons in the factional dynamics of the organization of power, shifting between single-party and multi-party modes of organization with a marked tendency toward dualism: hence we see patrician versus plebeian, optimates versus populares, cives versus socii, Marians versus Sullans, the dictatorship of Sulla, the First Triumvirate, Caesarians versus Pompeiians, the dictatorship of Caesar, the Third Triumvirate, Octavian versus Cleopatra, and the ultimate rise of the dictatorship of the Julio-Claudians, the union of the two most influential families of the late Republic.

We have seen that throughout history, changing relationships between humans and the metals with which they forged their tools contributed to chaotic transitions and the emergence of new forms of social organization accommodating increasing numbers of people in dominant roles. In the late Roman Republic, however, as the Republic ripened (or rotted, depending on one’s perspective) into the Principate, it was not a change in humans’ relationship to metals but rather an information-overflow associated with the repercussions of Roman imperialism that destabilized the national government to the point of Civil War; the autocratic monopolar system which followed was both simpler (less complex) than the earlier multipolar system which preceded it and also far more similar to the surrounding civilizations (organized under monarchic rule by divine right), as if by a process of osmosis which diluted the institutions of the Republic. By the same token, when the Western Empire collapsed, the cultures on either side of the Rhine and Danube became fundamentally more similar: Christian, de-urbanized, and dominated politically by German tribes. The tortured intricacies of the late Dominate collapsed into simpler states more similar than dissimilar to the civilizations surrounding them.

Of course, the Middle Ages was not a single Dark Age, but we have to admit that the level of progress was retarded for some time. It seems to me that the period as a whole in the West can best be defined as an age of stagnation and decline at the end of the Iron Age that eventually settled into an equilibrium and then began to hit upon an upward trend again after the crisis of the Black Death created another pivot point on the edge of chaos at the end of the period. According to my formula, fewer voices must have resulted in less discourse for some time, and less discourse must have resulted in less progress in the form of meaningful contributions to questions about the nature of reality. Institutions must have become less welcoming of difference and more oppressive and oriented toward self-preservation rather than the creation of meaningful platforms for debate. At the same time, there must have been no new significant advancements in metallurgy to radically improve the potential for creating new sources of utility to fuel the development of new social classes. I understand that medievalists regret that classicists historically derided their era’s contributions and are right to emphasize that the era they love was a dynamic one in some ways, but it’s important to understand that the period between the fall of Rome and 1000 AD really was a Dark Age despite some cultural continuity. It serves as a sobering lesson for all ages—the momentum of material and technical progress can never be taken for granted.

According to complex systems theory, there existed at least a small probability that the Roman Empire might have industrialized at their pivot point c. 180 AD. Why did they fail to do so? Was it due to their penchant for licentious sex? How can historians even begin to go about answering these kinds of counter-factual questions in the first place?

Rather than branding ancient cities fundamentally primitive or modern in nature in the tradition of Max Weber, I want to examine the various forces working for and against the increasing specialization and application of productive technologies in the Roman Empire. My conclusion is that while aspects of the ancient Roman economy were in fact quite “modernizing” and might have led to a technological revolution under different circumstances, there existed sufficient forces in society hindering the momentum of material progress and rendering an industrial revolution in antiquity far less likely than one in late eighteenth century Britain.

Of all eras of world history, the period of the Roman Empire boasted many of the prerequisites for a commercial and industrial revolution. The Roman world contained some sixty to one hundred million inhabitants living in largely peaceful conditions. A single currency was employed throughout the Mediterranean, disseminated by bankers and professional financiers. The very existence of the Mediterranean as a great central lake facilitated trade and communication, as did the existence of a fine road system overseen by the policing power of the Roman army. Sprawling urban centers like Rome and Alexandria boasted populations in the hundreds of thousands, their populations demanding a steady stream of material products in order to sustain themselves. Great opportunities existed to serve increasingly globalized markets. At the same time, individual merchants enjoyed a set of circumstances marked by relatively free trade, and the capacity to make massive amounts of money by participating in the commercial life of the Empire. In places like Alexandria, intellectual elites cooperated to pioneer potentially world-changing technologies like Hero’s rudimentary steam engine. From the perspective of complex systems theory, all of these forces might have tipped the Roman Empire into a state of industrialization, and the “proto-modernity” of several aspects of the ancient world cannot be denied. As I suggested earlier, the world of the poleis is where institutional “modernity” was born and then refined and extended to the West by the Romans.

Nevertheless, several factors existed rendering an industrial revolution unlikely—the high Roman Empire was an era of equilibrium and eventually stagnation in world affairs. All of the following elements, from the perspective of a computer simulation, would lower the probability of progress and raise the probability of stagnation.

The language required to describe and conceptualize economic growth was relatively rudimentary. The cumbersome system of Roman numerals rendered mathematical calculations arduous and difficult, hindering the development of practices like double-entry bookkeeping, which is virtually unattested in antiquity. At the same time, ancient manuals on the field of “economics” usually emphasized the importance of maintaining the self-sufficiency of plantations, with expenditures kept lower than income. This stands in stark contrast to the later emphases of early modern economic theorists, who advocated catering to the rules of supply and demand to maximize fiscal profits. Ancient economic theorists downplayed the desirability of investment in trade, which was seen as inherently riskier than pooling resources in real estate.

There existed fundamental bias among the most politically powerful classes toward manual labor, commercial investment, and applied technology. Finley exhaustively categorizes these trends in his famous books on the ancient economy. While modern critics are correct to point out that these conservative biases were not necessarily universally felt in Roman society, their existence among the classes of society with the greatest ability to invest in new material resources surely acted at least in part against the chances for industrialization. In antiquity, slaves, freedmen, and non-citizens were responsible for most economic activity. The political powerlessness of these groups is remarkably conspicuous, particularly when their situation is compared to that of their counterparts in the Middle Ages; in medieval Florence, for example, membership in a trade guild was a prerequisite for political participation in the state.

In the late Republic, free enterprise and what Weber called “merchant capitalism” were at their height. Limited liability joint stock companies even existed in the form of conglomerates of entrepreneurs who pooled resources to win the rights to tax farm various provinces. In the early Roman Empire, however, there existed an increasing preference for the use of appointed officials for such activities, and the legal underpinnings of corporate cooperation failed to further develop. Thus, there existed no overlap between the era of the greatest commercial sophistication and freedom (the late Republic) and the era of greatest economic expansion and opportunity (the early Empire).

There existed several bars to the application of new technologies. While current archeological work admittedly points to the widespread implementation of certain technologies (windmills, etc.), there existed no patent law in Roman antiquity to spur on technological innovation. In fact, narratives exist of Roman emperors actively discouraging technological progress for fear that mechanization would result in unemployment, and hence social instability. For all of its revolutionary potential, Hero’s steam engine was viewed more as a toy than an implement of social change. Techniques of metallurgy stagnated in an era of universal peace, as did the need to create new weaponry for the sake of a competitive edge over enemies. At the same time, the omnipresence of slavery similarly served to deter investment in new machinery, since investments in slaves and real-estate promised the safest returns.

The very unity of the Mediterranean world stifled innovation. Consider the example of Roman Lusitania. Merchants in that province had access to the entirety of the Mediterranean basin to sell their wares. In the Middle Ages, however, geographical fragmentation denied the state of “Portugal” a Mediterranean coast. Thus, merchants were forced to turn to the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of finding new products and markets, spurring the development of radically new shipping technologies. No such incentives existed in the unified, relatively non-competitive world of Roman antiquity.

The existence of amphitheaters drained economic resources, particularly in the West (which, interestingly, had far more amphitheaters than the Roman East, which was traditionally more economically vigorous than the West and survived much longer). Rather than investing in economically beneficial infrastructure, local elites poured money into the celebration of gladiatorial games, importing professional fighters and exotic beasts to satiate the interests of the populace. However, all of these resources were ultimately wasted despite spurring limited economic activity. In the same way, the existence of grain doles similarly retarded economic growth, as major metropolitan centers invested most of their resources on defense and feeding the unproductive urban populace, who remained in a permanent state of economic non-productivity. In my opinion, these historical forces provide some validity to Weber’s insistence on the “parasitic” character of ancient cities, which generally consumed resources from the countryside rather than producing materials to be redistributed to suburban markets (though exceptions admittedly existed to this rule.) At the same time, though, the Romans’ emphasis on the importance of the distribution of the bounty of the government back to the people and the emperor’s promotion of fun on public holidays were, in my view, admirable features of their culture, if only the spectacles didn’t cause so much pain and heartbreak to their victims.

There existed virtually no notion of “historical progress” in the Roman Empire. Although many at least sensed that the order of the Roman world was preferable to barbarism, major historians advocated cyclical views of history, or the notion that the true “Golden Age” was in the distant past, before urbanization and the use of tools corrupted humankind’s primordial naïveté. With the civilization at large devoid of the sense that the world could actively be improved over time through the evolution and application of radical new technologies, the momentum of increasing material progress was actively retarded.

According to my model of the Roman Empire as a complex system existing on the edge of chaos, ancient civilization was able to survive for a remarkably long period of time at a “critical point” of great material prosperity so long as the army remained loyal to the emperor and the citizens of the realm agreed to pay the taxes required to support its infrastructure. In terms of the punctuated equilibrium of progress, it was an era of equilibrium after one of growth. Broadly speaking, the Empire can be compared to a snowball that could maintain its structural consistency so long as it continued to roll, but begins to melt when its journey down the hill comes to an end. In the same way, so long as the Roman army was able to incorporate new territory into the Empire and redistribute booty in the form of slaves, booty, and various forms of material resources, the civilization was able to subsist at the edge of chaos despite its lack of internal momentum toward industrialization. However, once the civilization’s territorial growth came to an end, the costs of maintaining the defenses of the sprawling realm proved to be immense, and the system became remarkably unstable. As instability led to the emergence of chaos, efforts by the emperors to preserve the structure of their civilization resulted (as Tainter suggests) in diminishing returns on investments in social complexity. Why is this the case? In the long term, chaos theory suggests that the system was bound to collapse into new states of less sophisticated equilibria unless the momentum of scientific and technological progress overtook the abiding forces of stagnation and “decadence” mentioned throughout the dissertation. The story of the “decline and fall of the Roman Empire” is actually a tale of turbulent dynamics upsetting the ancient society and resulting in a new homeostasis similar to the old order in some ways, yet fundamentally distinct in others.

According to world systems theory, the fall of the Roman Empire cannot be understood as an isolated phenomenon. The third to seventh centuries AD were in fact marked by cascading patterns of turbulence throughout all of Eurasia unleashed by the outbreak of plague, environmental degradation, and aggressive migratory patterns by individuals formerly content (or compelled) to exist on the fringes of civilization. After the period of the Antonine Plague, emperors became increasingly reliant on marginalized ethnic groups and finally barbarian hordes to man the Roman army. This resulted in a massive influx of foreigners into the empire with only marginal allegiances to the state, ever ready to resort to violence for the sake of promoting the interests of a local warlord. At the same time, as uncivilized tribes across Eurasia spilled into each other’s territory, barbarian groups saw their ancestral lands taken from them and were compelled to venture into new countries. The prosperous civilized territories surrounding the Mediterranean seemed increasingly attractive to such immigrants. Migrations were associated with the sacking of major urban centers, terrorizing the local populace into retreating into the countryside and destroying the traditional bases of Roman tax collection.

Chaos theory suggests that the onset of chaos produces more information than a stable state of equilibrium; for example, each new number in the numerical pattern 121212121… represents less new information than each new number in the chaotic, seemingly random series 173749724… As the Roman Empire slipped over the edge of chaos, the central government began to be flooded with information concerning the destruction of cities, the emergence of rebel groups, military disasters, the migratory patterns of barbarians, and the outbreak of diseases. Even as it was burdened by this information overload, it began to lose internal consistency as civil war swept through the empire and loyalty to the central government became increasingly divided. Unlike the situation in the Han civilization, Roman dynasties were usually helmed by individual emperors with a great deal of personal power as opposed to the largely ceremonial kings of China, ruled by a narrow oligarchy of Confucian bureaucrats. As the empire slid into civil war, the individual charisma of the Roman emperors was increasingly undermined, and the relatively feeble bureaucratic institutions of the central government proved incapable of juggling the dilemmas at hand. To make matters worse, as increasing numbers of would-be emperors attempted to finance their campaigns and new sources of precious metals dried up, massive inflation began to undermine the economy, and several areas of the empire reverted to bartering and trade-in-kind. While traditional historians often point to individual elements of this chaotic breakdown as an explanatory cause for the transformation of Roman society, chaos theory instead suggests that they are all fundamentally interconnected symptoms of a movement over the edge of chaos after a long homeostatic/stable period of self-organized criticality.

The leaders of the Roman Empire were confronted by major problems, and they were in no position to stem the tide of chaos despite their best efforts to do so. Just as chaos theory predicts, however, the system did not collapse entirely overnight, but began to re-solidify at new points of equilibrium according to the creation of new party-systems tending toward bipolar duality. Thus, the dictatorial Roman Dominate replaced the relatively gentle rule of the Principate, as military figures attempted to cement the structure of the collapsing society by imposing mandatory liturgies on local aristocracies who had once given freely in a process of euergetism, requiring children to follow their fathers’ professions, and mandating religious uniformity throughout the empire. This new state of homeostasis, imposed by brute force and driven by an increasingly de-urbanized economy, proved far more precarious than the old order, and unsurprisingly, the system again slid into chaos as the barbarous nations on the fringes of the Roman world created entirely new kingdoms within its borders. A division between East and West after a brief division in four would prove to be abiding.

In 1776, Edward Gibbon famously pioneered the view that Christianity was ultimately a symptom of decadence, and one of the principle causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire. He reasoned that its emphasis on peacefulness and passivity vitiated the ancient martial spirit of the Romans, and that its insistence on non-material causation served to hinder the development of the ancient scientific method. Thus, in the tumultuous third, fourth, and fifth centuries AD, thinkers increasingly turned to un-judicable philosophical debates about the nature of divinity rather than taking steps toward the refinement of the scientific method. Eventually, thought was “canonized” by the government, and discourse shut down altogether, relegated to the realm of “commentary” and “copying.”

There is some truth to this narrative. Yet ultimately, I believe that complex systems theory problematizes these claims, to say nothing of the fact that most of the warlike barbarian hordes who overran the provinces of the Roman West were themselves Christian, rendering the idea that the religion necessarily resulted in a state of martial enervation somewhat non-compelling.

First, I plan to explore the historical forces that gave shape to Christianity in the first place from the perspective of complex systems theory. The “Butterfly Effect” is a fundamental principle of chaos, which stresses the interdependence of the constituent parts of a complex whole, sensitivity to initial conditions, and the potential for cascading effects. On the most basic level, the life and death of Christ, an anonymous carpenter in a backwater of the Roman Empire, had the potential to revolutionize the entire Roman world due to its nature as a complex system sensitive to the Butterfly Effect. At the same time, the emergence of the idea that humans were naturally sinful served to incentivize parents to baptize their children, since the prospect of sprinkling water over an infant represented a low cost when it came to forestalling the possibility of eternal torture in hell. Moreover, in a world marked by widespread poverty, a philosophical system stressing God’s love of the poor was surely an attractive alternative to the official state religion, which accentuated the worship of brute power. As the structures of Roman government fell into increasing disequilibrium following the Antonine Plague of the late second century, the apocalyptic message of Christianity perhaps seemed increasingly instructive, as well as its emphasis on the promise of a better world in the hereafter. Roman culture’s traditional emphasis on exemplarity also likely facilitated the rise of Christianity, as martyrs met their deaths heroically in the face of persecution by the state, ultimately forming a new canon of exemplary figures replacing traditional Roman personae such as Lucretia and Cincinnatus. And the Christians were on to something in their aversion to the ubiquitous violent sexual exploitation permeating ancient society—unfortunately, this intolerance extended toward all elements of human sexuality, throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

In the short term, Gibbon was surely correct that the rise of Christianity led to a loss of momentum in the development of the ancient scientific method due to its emphases on supernatural causation and obedience to the Bible as the literal, unquestionable word of God. However, in the long term, I believe that Christianity in fact represented a major source of power for the West, embodying one of the reasons that the equilibrium of the Middle Ages ultimately metamorphosed into a new and more vigorous state of homeostasis in the Renaissance following a period of chaos in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, ripe for a new era of development in the unfolding of the punctuated equilibrium of discursive progress.

Unlike the situation in the Roman Empire, there existed opportunities for common men and women to become priests and nuns during the Middle Ages, greatly broadening the net when it came to the number of individuals contributing to intellectual discourse. It must be remembered that the possession of great intelligence and even genius is randomly distributed. Consequently, given the nature of ancient demographics, it stands to reason that most great minds were either enslaved or members of severely disadvantaged classes with little access to education. The rise of Christianity began to mitigate this problem, adding more knowledgeable voices to scientific discourse.

During the height of the Roman Empire, the greatest intellectual achievements associated with scientific development were associated with the Library of Alexandria. Why was this the case? Uniquely, it provided a centralized infrastructure through which scholars could share ideas, research the best writings of the past, and find rewards for new theories. Unfortunately, such centers were few and far between in the Roman world. However, the rise of medieval universities as schools for studying the Bible enabled numerous such centers to come into being in the long run, greatly facilitating the growth of the scientific method. Unlike in the pagan Roman Empire, there existed major incentives to provide access to such centers of learning, as knowledge of the precise Word of God was a prerequisite to enter heaven. At the same time, these centers often specialized in the copying of ancient texts, broadening their dissemination.

The system of Roman education was largely geared toward an education in rhetoric and debate, emphasizing relativity and a lack of absolute truth. At the same time, during the height of the Roman Empire, it was difficult to enjoy a career devoted to the pursuit of science and literature for its own sake unless you came from an especially affluent social background. The growth of Christian centers of learning altered this state of affairs, providing the possibility of education to more members of society (and hence more geniuses) than ever before. The Church’s emphasis on the possibility of the existence of Truth with a capital T coupled with the concomitant study of ancient literature emphasizing the rudiments of the scientific method eventually created a unique synergy paving the way for the achievements of figures such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Descartes.

It seems clear to me that the emergence of Christianity can be explained by complex systems theory as a variation of the unpredictable Butterfly Effect, with the cascading repercussions of Christ’s life and teachings increasingly prevalent throughout all levels of Roman society. As the late Roman Empire succumbed to chaos, the religion’s teachings appeared increasingly attractive to an ever-expanding core conservative group, who proved unwilling to compromise their major beliefs even in the face of widespread persecution. While Gibbon is perhaps correct that in the short term the rise of the religion led to a retardation of the development of the scientific method, in the long term, the presence of the Church in Europe served as a major stimulus toward scientific growth, to say nothing of representing a major step forward when it came to social attitudes toward coming to the aid of the poor and helpless.

Historical periodization is, admittedly, a somewhat arbitrary science—thus, for example, some have even hazarded to suggest that the Classical world ended with the fall of Athens at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War. In my eyes, however, there is great validity to Henri Pirenne’s thesis that the true end of the ancient world took place after the Battle of Tours in 732 AD, which halted the expansion of Muslim armies into Europe. Modern historians have questioned this thesis, suggesting, for example, that it conceptualizes the Islamic World as an Other. However, from the perspective of complex systems theory, 732 AD represents a significant date marked by the creation of a radically new equilibrium in which the Mediterranean was divided into Western European, Byzantine, and Muslim spheres of influence, and the unified system of currency came to an end; fundamentally speaking, the date marks the final and permanent fragmentation of formerly unified economic zones. Formerly, the most stable points of equilibrium involved either the political unity of the entire Mediterranean basin (the Principate and the Dominate) or a division between the Latin speaking West and the Greek speaking East (the Late Roman Empire). Now, for the first time, the economies of Western Europe would be left to develop on their own in a crucible of geographical fragmentation and intense internal competition. A new equilibrium had come about. The new civilization would ultimately give rise to a dynamic culture which, when pushed out of equilibrium over the edge of chaos by the Black Plague and Great Schism, arrived at a new homeostatic state enriched by the discoveries of the Renaissance and the resources of the Americas, empowering it to set forth and conquer the world.

Modernity and Futurism

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 By the end of the Middle Ages, urbanization had sprung up again and an inter-fragmented collection of nation-states loosely created by the tribes who inhabited the fallen Roman Empire were all competing to make meaningful contributions to ensure cultural survival; many meaningful contributions also came from the Muslim and Chinese worlds as well, who were no less involved in the struggle to survive, understand, and harness and recombine the world’s elements toward utile ends. Yet unlike the unified Chinese empire or the great Muslim monarchies, after the fall of Rome, the West was blessed with an inter-competitive edge much like that of ancient Mesopotamia, when a city-state had to innovate or be annihilated. After the Black Plague, there were so few people left alive in society and institutions had become so inherently weakened that the stage was set for an era of true rebirth. All the ingredients were there for renewed progress: competition, a demand for new elites and experts, the necessity of welcoming of new voices to the table, and higher wages for the living. Now, progress began to quicken, and the development of steel weaponry and maritime navigation made possible the discovery and exploitation of the New World. Descartes improved upon Aristotle, and the experimental method was eventually articulated and led to the possibility of Newton finally answering Parmenides’ questions about how limits and infinity should be conceptualized.

On a macro scale, the economic history of the West is until the nineteenth century largely the story of a loss of precious metals to the East in return for luxury items, a trend first undermined by the discovery of the New World, and then finally put to rest in the nineteenth century Opium Wars. The eventual emergence of full fledged European capitalism proved particularly productive to the development of new technologies. In the midst of intense competition, there existed major incentives to produce wares quickly, differentiate them, and deliver them to market more rapidly than competitors, all of which would be facilitated by more efficient productive technologies. In the Roman Empire, despite the intensity of urbanization, categorical bars existed to the development of such technologies. Max Weber’s model of “merchant capitalism” is particularly revealing, because it suggests that commercial agents had incentives to ensure that local production remained rudimentary so that there would continue to exist increasing demand for foreign products unable to be manufactured closer to home; this state of affairs was undermined in the capitalist age, when the political fragmentation of Europe rendered the geographical scope of merchants’ activities much smaller. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, England had twice as many people as Rome, huge international markets, knowledge of advanced science, and a particularly conducive environment to the exchange of free capital. Thus, the probability of an Industrial Revolution was much greater than in Roman antiquity. The forces working against Roman industrialization would ultimately render the “critical point” of its equilibrium on the edge of chaos increasingly precarious. In a sense, then, economic stagnation represents the heart of Roman decadence.

We are now in the midst of an era of great scientific development. In terms of the punctuated equilibrium of progress, we have all of the ingredients suggesting that we are neither in decline nor at an equilibrium, but in the midst of a rise—an era like the golden age of Athens, or Augustan Rome, or the Renaissance.

  1. We are transitioning into a new age of metal—the Silicon Age. The ability to process information and enhance the human body with computers will increase the potential for more and more people in society to enjoy sources of utility. This will inherently lead to more and more voices joining discourse, and more meaningful contributions over time.
  2. For the first time in history, women and non-elite males are being welcomed by academic, political, and economic institutions. This will inherently lead to better discourse and more progress over time for all of the reasons brought up throughout this paper: more geniuses will now contribute.
  3. There exist many new inventions every year, which is indicative of a high degree of technical innovation and experimentation.
  4. Wars are not being fought between dying superpowers. The era from the Boxer Rebellion to the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of crisis in which nuclear weapons might have annihilated material progress and shown its dark side, temporarily halting progress (but perhaps, like the Black Death, enabling the creation of progress in the future as the survivors experimented with new technologies to live on in the wreckage of the earth.) At the moment, the probability of major metropolises being destroyed by nuclear weapons is much lower than it was at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I define Futurism as the belief that close alignment should be forged between political, economic, and academic institutions to harness the most progress possible in as short a time as possible to be enjoyed by as many people as possible, particularly in the form of advancements in medicine and the development of cyborg technology, cloning, and genetic engineering. In the face of the threat of the “singularity” and a destabilization of the superpowers imperiling the world through nuclear war, Futurism is the only hope for harnessing the exponential power of progress for good rather than toward self-destruction in the form of the retardation of progress.

Concluding Thoughts: Simulations and Falsifiable Hypotheses About Ambiguous Questions of Causation

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 A major advantage of the theoretical model proposed in this paper is that it lends itself to the creation of “simulations” to explore open-ended hypotheses about causation, which is always a matter of a storm of different probabilistic influences, some more direct and major than others (in other words, certain forces raise the probability that an event will take place more directly than others). Assume that the unfolding of Roman political history from the Principate to the barbarian successor states represents the evolution of a complex system sensitive to initial conditions and the Butterfly Effect; it was one in which individuals engaged in a long term zero-sum game for power expressed in the form of a limited number of political and cultural offices and institutions, with conflicts represented by battles such as those mentioned in the (imperfect) historical record.

We will consider two hypotheses. The first is whether gay sex caused the Roman Empire to fall; the second is whether Christianity was the culprit. First we must consider how to model the questions at hand by constructing crude and imperfect simulations of history drawn from quantitative data when possible; next we need to justify what empirical results (what relationship between quantifiable variables) we would expect when examining the outcome of the simulation if a given hypothesis were true; then to say what we would expect if it were false; next what we ourselves hypothesize; and finally, how quantitative data drawn from the relationship between variables in the simulation sheds light on our assumptions, or defies them.

In the case of the first hypothesis, compose a list of years, listing battles per year. Also, search a database of literature (including legal literature) for mentions of gay sex. If it were probabilistically true that homosexuality largely precipitated the fall of Rome, the least I would expect is that the decades which saw the most battles would be associated with the most surviving mentions of individuals described as engaging in gay sex, and also the most surviving laws permitting institutions like, for example, gay marriage, relative to times of internal stability (measured by a lower frequency of battles per year). Yet if it were probabilistically unlikely that non-normative expressions of sexuality played a decisive role in corrosive social change, I would expect little alignment or even reverse alignment—individuals described in the historical record as having gay sex would be distributed evenly across the years, or their numbers might even decline as the empire entered into its most violent phases.

Of course, neither correlation necessarily guarantees causation—for example, perhaps as the empire declined, more religious hysteria arose leading more people to be falsely accused and demonized for homosexuality, generating an artificial rise in the historical record of how many times it is mentioned in surviving literature but saying nothing about its actual social prevalence or why society was collapsing. However, the specific information that the number of mentions of homosexual behavior declined in the final period of the greatest violence would be very problematic for the first hypothesis, because it would suggest not only that most instances of homosexual behavior come statistically from the late Republic and early Empire when there were the fewest battles and the civilization was strongest, but that the era of the final collapse was actually one of cultural repression toward gay sex, since one would expect that with all else being equal, the number of mentions should be equally distributed across the centuries, with highs and lows in the historical record reflecting various degrees of either cultural permissiveness or paranoia. (I actually hypothesize that the highest number of mentions of gay sex would come from the High Roman Empire, when the civilization was flourishing. Then, after an artificial rise associated with the rise of the hegemony of Christianity and discourse hysterically demonizing gay sex, laws banning it would lower the numbers in the final centuries of the Western Roman Empire, thus vitiating evidence for the first hypothesis.)

The second hypothesis made famous by Gibbon is even more challenging to model. Like the first simulation, we might compose a list of years, examine the number of battles mentioned as occuring per decade, and see if the most mentions of Christianity correlate with the years containing the highest numbers of battles. However, just as last time, there would be little revelatory information even if the number of battles correlated strongly with the most mentions of Christianity—after all, perhaps the civilization became Christian coincidentally while it was collapsing or as a response to the horror of the collapse, and this led to a rise in the number of mentions, saying nothing in either case about causation. However, just as with the first hypothesis, the specific information that mentions of Christianity declined during the time of the most intense violence might prove problematic for the theory, though it could also be a function of other forces as well, like so many people perishing, there was little literature produced during the final death throes of the culture. (I actually hypothesize that the data this time round would speciously vindicate Gibbon, with the most mentions of Christianity found during times of the most violence at the end of the Western Empire.)

In order to model the question more closely, we would need recourse to a wider comparison. Even if Christianity, which was unique to the Roman Empire and its environs, caused Rome to fall, we would expect it to have no effect on the history of another similar directly contemporary Iron Age empire such as, for example, Han China. Hence, if the hypothesis were true that it was Christianity that had the largest probabilistic influence on the collapse of Roman civilization of all other possible factors, we would expect it to have more of an effect on the outbreak of battles and their locations than, for example, Pan-Eurasian forces that might have affected both empires, such as the onset of plague or the migration of barbarian tribes or the widespread adoption of a new technology. If the hypothesis were false and Christianity’s rise had less to do with the fall of Rome than Pan-Eurasian factors, we would expect those forces to have more of an effect on the outbreak of battles. But how can all of this be modeled?

Imagine we were looking at a map of the Roman Empire and Han China, divided into many quadrants.

These are the elements that would be tracked:

1) the locations of iron deposits and other natural resources that can be pinned down with a fair degree of accuracy, including the locations of major mines (these are, of course, static)

2) The locations of recorded battles (these move about, and are thus dynamic)

3) The location of metropolises, major roads, and other geographical features (Mediterranean sea and the Rhine-Danube frontiers; major Christian centers, etc.)

4) The borders of the empire

I tentatively hypothesize that times of plague, rebellion, and civil war should show statistically significant changes in the relationships between the static and dynamic data sets as such periods would lend themselves to efforts to seize control of local mineral deposits and resource-distribution-centers.  By contrast, in times of relative internal stability, the Rhine-Danube frontier and the walled frontiers of China would be more likely to attract dynamic movement in response to external pressure along the borders. Permanent changes in spatial relationships would suggest watershed moments in Roman history. (Imagine, for example, if after a certain date battles suddenly never take place within a 50 mile radius of an area that once suffered from yearly violence.) The upshot of all this is that using the right mathematical tools, the relationship between these variables can be systematically evaluated, and we can investigate what various causal forces (internal or external) seem to have been primarily responsible for violence at different points in time.

Consider the question of Christianity’s influence on the fall of Rome. If it were true that Christianity was a major formative factor, we might expect major Christian centers to attract battles—this might be, for example, the result of sectarian violence between rival heresies, or barbarians sacking passive religious populations. We might hypothesize that the number of battles within a 50 kilometer radius of major Christian centers would rise over time as the empire collapsed, and we might even expect such centers to attract more battles relative to pagan cities untouched by Christianity or the fifty mile radius along the Rhine and Danube frontiers. By contrast, if it were not the case that Christianity were a major factor, we might see no such increase over time as we studied the decade by decade data. We might guess that the number of battles named in the historical record would remain highest within a 50 mile radius of the length of the Rhine and Danube, since the primary focus was on keeping out barbarians. (I actually hypothesize that the data this time round would again champion Gibbon, with the most battles found around cities, which were—albeit coincidentally—also Christian centers, since it was primarily an urban phenomenon.)

In order to disprove Gibbon, we might propose a new question—whether Christian centers or, for example, mineral deposits were greater probabilistic attractors of violence. If the urge to control mines was the primary determiner of where conflicts arose, we would expect the number of battles in the vicinity of mines (within a fifty kilometer radius) to rise during decades of turbulence, and we would expect the battles around Christian sites to either decline in number or show no statistically significant rise or fall at all. (In this case, I actually hypothesize that there would be no relationship between the locations of mines and battles at all; the number of battles in such locations would not rise over time relative to other indicators like whether an event is within 50 kilometers of a Christian center or 50 kilometers along the Rhine and Danube, since the late Roman emperors resorted to adulterating their coinage and hiring mercenaries.)

Our last resort might be to add Han China into the mix so that we could begin to see the limits of Gibbon’s view by considering Christianity’s impact versus that of pan-Eurasian forces, like the outbreak of plague, the spread of new technologies, and the migration of barbarian tribes. Comparing the two empires decade by decade, I would measure the number of battles per decade and whether they were within 50 kilometers of the borders of each empire (in the case of Rome, the Rhine-Danube frontier.) During times of internal instability, metropolitan centers and mineral deposits might be expected to attract battles more than the old frontiers, which are disintegrating (presumably because armed groups want access to the goods in the cities and countryside.) If Pan Eurasian forces were the largest probabilistic influence on the fall of Rome, I would expect the empires to both show an increase in the number of battles outside of the 50 mile radius along the frontier zones during the same period—the shape of the graphs (with more internal battles rather than frontier battles over time) would be expected to have the same shape over almost the same time frame. If a cultural force unique to Rome such as Christianity caused the fall, by contrast, I would expect no such relationship to exist between the datasets of the two empires, separated by thousands of kilometers.

Of course, any similarity or difference might be purely coincidental. Nevertheless, finding that both Rome and China were undergoing turbulence at the same time (measured by the number of battles in internal regions rising, to say nothing of the number of battles rising in general) would provide strong evidence for the view that Pan-Eurasian forces had a major formative effect, which itself undercuts the idea that the rise of Christianity was the vitiating factor. (This time, I expect that Gibbon’s argument would be undermined—turbulence in both Rome and China was probably caused at least in part by the same migratory phenomena affecting all Eurasia; in the language of this chapter, it was sparked by the complexity of an artificial border with a high degree of organization on one side and a low degree on the other collapsing into a less chaotic state of stable, simpler homeostasis with cultural similarity and less political sophistication on each side of the barrier. A heap of stones, however aesthetic, is no long-term solution to socio-economic and cultural division between neighbors in any time or place.)

 

[1] In the eyes of biographers like Plutarch, Mark Antony’s decision to divorce his Roman wife in favor of taking up with his Egyptian mistress and then dividing up Roman territories to their illegitimate children together might stand as the epitome of such forces in action. (Of course, from his perspective, he was only restoring traditional Ptolemaic territories to their rightful owners and leaving the Senate to govern Rome rather than imposing his will as a dictator upon it.)

[2] Quoted by James Warren, “All the Philosopher King’s Men,” Harper’s MagazineFeb, 2000. Accessed at http://harpers.org/archive/2000/02/all-the-philosopher-kings-men/

[3] See https://www.buzzfeed.com/andrewkaczynski/not-exactly-edward-gibbon?utm_term=.hhZqb9xD5#.xd8nKZpE5

[4] See www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/8438210/Fall-of-Roman-Empire-caused-by-contagion-of-homosexuality.html

[5] E.g., while one might not be a Marxist, applying a Marxist lens to questions about social change can help to illuminate specific dynamics associated with, for instance, class struggle. This is why so much of the work of people like Freud remains interesting and relevant despite the fact that few psychiatrists today subscribe strictly to his specific model of the human spirit; applying his model, however bizarre it sometimes appears, can help to emphasize and clarify the role of forces like family interaction in early childhood and repressed memories in shaping character. Ideally, scholars should use a variety of thematic lenses to examine a subject from different vantage points; many, however, stick strictly to their favorite set of glasses, stubbornly ignoring the microscopes and binoculars of the world and complaining that such apparatuses blur vision because they cannot learn to refocus their vision. The lens of complexity theory accentuates the role of the unexpected, the contingent, and the probabilistic on history.

[6] José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses : Authorised Translation from the Spanish (New York: W. W. Norton & co., 1932).

[7] Discourse becomes impoverished in the absence of diversity for two reasons—first, geniuses who were born anything but elite males are doomed to a life where they cannot actualize their potential; second, the greater the diversity of voices and lived experiences at the table, the greater and more powerful the synergy can be created as unique perspectives are applied to age-old problems.

[8] In the language of this paper, during periods of “turbulence,” a situation envisioned by Tainter can readily arise in which individual efforts by the government to micro-manage a devolving state of affairs in the face of rapidly changing environmental conditions and information-overload can simply provoke more devolution.

[9] Shades of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.

[10] This is where Foucault’s greatness as a historian is most apparent, because he understood this phenomenon intuitively.

[11] Interestingly, after the Bronze Age stagnation, there was a temporary dip into chaos and misery at the onset of the Iron Age when barbarous tribes armed with iron ransacked civilization. Eventually, however, a long and productive equilibrium was eventually reached.

[12]

The Meaning of Roman History to Britain, Italy, and Germany on the Eve of the Second World War

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Yesterday, on June fourth, 1944, Rome fell to American and Allied troops. The first of the Axis capitals is now in our hands. One up and two to go! It is perhaps significant that the first of these capitals to fall should have the longest history of all of them. The story of Rome goes back to the time of the foundations of our civilization. We can still see there monuments of the time when Rome and the Romans controlled the whole of the then known world. That, too, is significant, for the United Nations are determined that in the future no one city and no one race will be able to control the whole of the world… But Rome is of course more than a military objective. Ever since before the days of the Caesars, Rome has stood as a symbol of authority. Rome was the Republic. Rome was the Empire. Rome was and is in a sense the Catholic Church, and Rome was the capital of a United Italy. Later, unfortunately, a quarter of a century ago, Rome became the seat of Fascism — one of the three capitals of the Axis… Italy cannot grow in stature by seeking to build up a great militaristic empire. Italians have been overcrowded within their own territories, but they do not need to try to conquer the lands of other peoples in order to find the breath of life. Other peoples may not want to be conquered.[1](Franklin Delano Roosevelt)

The thematic content of this radio address by President Roosevelt speaks to the remarkable breadth and occasional notoriety of the legacy of the ancient Romans among their heirs, students and emulators. Over the course of Rome’s long history, the city experienced so many diverse phases of development that cognizance of contemporary parallels to at least segments of its story served to enrich the Western imagination ever since the twilight of antiquity in the fifth century AD. As Roosevelt explained, “Rome” in fact epitomized many paradigms at once. It was, in turn, a monarchy overthrown by Senators demanding the right to self-determination; a Republic corrupted by civil war; a universal Empire unconquerable in battle; a perverse culture that oversaw the enslavement of millions of people and the exhibition of lurid spectacles that disgrace its legacy to this day; a magnificent civilization that tottered and fell; the spiritual mother of Byzantine Orthodoxy and Latin Catholicism; an insistent reverie in the minds of would be Caesars from Charlemagne to Mussolini; and a living nightmare in the hearts of their victims.

We shall see that for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Roman history was endlessly adapted and reinterpreted through the prism of contemporary political beliefs about race, empire, and military might. For the British, the civilization’s rise often inspired a sense of pride in the value of struggling against all odds to maintain a polyglot global empire, and Rome’s fate served as a reminder that Civilization succumb to barbarism in the absence of proper vigilance. For the Italians, the nationalist unity of Augustan Italy (27 BC-14 AD) and the glory of the period’s art, poetry, and political precedents served as vital thematic inspirations for the development of Fascist doctrine as we know it (the name “Fascism” itself was of course a reference to the bundles of rods and axes grasped by Roman lictors, symbolic of the authority of magistrates to inflict absolute punishment in the name of the law.) Finally, at the hands of German propagandists, the fall of Rome was portrayed not as the result of barbarian invasions from Teutonic lands, but rather the inevitable consequence of infiltration by Jews and other provincial peoples flooding the supposedly Aryan hinterland of the civilization and weakening its very genetic fabric.

Considering the uses and abuses of Roman imagery in the first half of the twentieth century, it seems remarkable that references to the ancient civilization continued to enrich the propaganda of Axis and Allied combatants alike. Although Britain was once conquered by the Romans and Italy was its mortal enemy in the Second World War, references to the valor of ancient Roman culture were continually spoken with pride by the leaders of a civilization that found itself at the heart of an empire even larger than that of the Caesars. Though Rome ultimately faltered militarily and was conquered by Gothic hordes, Mussolini and his cadre aggressively insisted that the new Italian Empire was the very embodiment of the ideals of Augustan Rome, Vergil’s predictions of eternal glory overshadowing the unsavory reality that the civilization ultimately collapsed upon itself. And despite the fact that Germany was never a lasting province of the Roman Empire and that Northern European warriors were in fact the very men who sacked the metropolises of the Empire and propelled Europe into the Dark Ages, even Hitler and his entourage could not resist grandiloquent comparisons between their Reich and the Latin Empire. The twin facts that Roman history is so diverse and that the study of its language and culture served as the foundation for classical educations throughout virtually every nation in Europe likely resulted in the abiding popularity of references to the ancient culture even among enemy nations whose people had historically served as Rome’s victims and destroyers.

The Importance of Roman Imagery to Victorian and Early Twentieth Century Britain

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For nearly three hundred years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable, and most enlightened times its inhabitants have had…In this period, almost equal to that which separates us from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, well-to-do persons in Britain lived better than they ever did until late Victorian times… there was law; there was order; there was peace; there was warmth; there was food, and a long-established custom of life…To be a citizen of Rome was to be a citizen of the world, raised upon a pedestal of unquestioned superiority above barbarians or slaves.[2] (Winston Churchill)

The preceding Churchillian encomium portrays Britannia under the sway of the Pax Romana as a sort of progressive wonderland. The statesman explicitly calls the era “most enlightened” and suggests that, for the wealthy at least, the vita bona was unparalleled until the late nineteenth century. Churchill does not consider evidence that even the Georgian era was likely far more prosperous than antiquity, with luxuries made more widely available and basic goods cheaper than ever before in the thematic shadow of a sophisticated capitalistic structure, to say nothing of the benefits of improved medicine for rich and poor alike.[3] But the memory of Rome had always been associated with dazzling cultural heights, and the art of showering hyperbolic praise on the civilization boasted a lively tradition in English letters stretching to Gibbon and beyond. By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, the glorification of ancient Roman imperialism as a noble, civilizing force coupled with an appreciation for the discipline required to maintain the scattered Empire were deeply engrained mainstays in the English educational system. Celebrated Britons lionized the ancient Romans and proudly compared their multi-racial, multi-national empire with its two thousand year old counterpart. Only after the First World War did a sense of ambivalence regarding the violence of Roman imperialism begin to come, subtly, into play in certain intellectual circles.

Writing of the pervasive influence of Roman classics on British education, Churchill declared that “not without pride” would the Romans discover that knowledge of Latin was necessary if one wished to enter the “famous universities.”[4] Influential educational theorists of the nineteenth century such as Thomas Arnold emphasized the importance of inculcating students with a love of ancient writers, also accentuating thoroughgoing training in the nuances of Classical philology; the discipline and confidence required to navigate the complex twists and turns of Latin syntax was said to be character forming. Criticism of the virtual deification of Classics at the expense of pragmatic sciences was voiced since the 1860s, but until the aftermath of the Second World War (and perhaps even beyond it, to the 1960s), it was widely believed by individuals perhaps self-consciously justifying their own youthful scholarly efforts that knowledge of Greco-Roman culture would uniquely “open the door to the study of literature and art and all politics, and are the foundation of the humanities; which, finally, are full of high types and examples of great deeds done and noble words said, peculiarly capable of impressing the mind in the impressionable years which mark the transition to adulthood.”[5] Until after the First World War, knowledge of Greek and Latin was required for admission to Oxford and Cambridge, to say nothing of its being essential to the acquisition of academic scholarships. In recognition of this reality, so-called public schools often focused their curriculums on Greco-Roman antiquity, and drilling in Latin formed an abiding if often monotonous tradition at leading institutions at Winchester, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Charterhouse, and Westminster.[6] Knowledge of Latin and years’ worth of drilling in classical authors who sang the praises of Roman imperialism were also necessary for success in the Home Civil Service and Royal Military Academy. In this thematic context, the reverence paid to Rome by myriad British thinkers comes as no surprise.

Although many have written at length on the important of classical Greece to late Victorian British identity, even the arch-Hellenist Frank Turner admits that for long periods of history, Rome somehow clung more insistently to the imagination: “Roman law and literature…dominated Europe’s cultural experience. Roman walls, forts, bridges, baths, theaters, roads, and aqueducts could be found in Britain and across the continent…Even the broad Enlightenment appeal to antiquity had concentrated on Rome.”[7] Though eighteenth century German polymaths such as Winckelmann and Goethe had pioneered renewed enthusiasm for Athenian culture, Rome remained entrenched in the hearts of the British people who, like their ancient colonizers, found themselves a small nation at the center of a multinational, global empire. The notion of the Pax Britannica as a force for good on the world stage was closely modeled on the notion of the Pax Romana as a virtuous predecessor.

 

While eighteenth century French and American authors discovered archetypes worth emulating in the foundational legends of the Roman Republic as they struggled to win popular sovereignty, late nineteenth and early twentieth century British writers found sources of inspiration in the achievements of the autocratic Roman emperors. Writing on “The Imperial Ideal,” Sir John R. Seeley, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, declared in 1883 that “there are many other good things in politics besides liberty,” and that the Romans in particular introduced “the modern brotherhood or loose federation of civilized nations”.[8] Echoing a generation of thinkers who praised their nation’s expansion into tropical climes as an example of the progress of modernism over barbarism, historians such as W. F. Monypenny described Roman expansion as “conquest that ultimately justified itself as a furtherance to civilization.”[9] The Earl of Cromer’s praise in 1910 for the Romans’ talent at integrating foreigners into their empire is also typical of a fawning mindset: “No modern Imperialist nation has… shown powers of assimilation at all comparable to those displayed by the Romans.”[10] Sir Charles Lucas lauded Rome’s racial harmony in particular, theorizing that a homogenous equality existed among all free men of the empire regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Since slaves and freemen alike were of various colors, slavery itself was said to have contributed to a process of homogenization, drawing people of all ethnicities toward the imperial core, where they would eventually win their freedom and take their place as citizens. These emphases on class, color, and immigration were distinctly Victorian topoi.[11]

In contrast to German scholars who spoke of racial disharmony as the harbinger of Rome’s fall, there thus existed in Britain influential schools of thought that claimed quite the opposite—the strength of the Empire was its multi-national cohesion. Nevertheless, while progressive thinkers might have lauded the Romans for their color blindness, others found in antiquity a model validating the oppression of “barbarian” peoples. The notorious Cecil Rhodes enjoyed repeating the maxim of Marcus Aurelius: “Remember always that you are a Roman.” In fact, when ordering portrait busts of himself, he is said to have waxed lyrically upon similarities between his likeness and certain statues of Roman emperors.[12] For better or worse, Rome provided a model of despotic rule seemingly justified by the necessity of civilizing “barbarian” peoples, including, ironically, the ancestors of the British themselves. Nevertheless, a willingness to blindly emulate the methods of the Roman should not be overstated. In reference to Britain’s relationship with the English-speaking people of the dominions, historian Raymond Betts suggested that the Roman Empire was not worthy of comparison, since it was something “tyrannical and exploitive;” countries like Canada and Australia were predominantly inhabited by individuals of European stock, and there existed a sense that their people would not endure tyranny for long.[13] C. P. Lucas’s Greater Rome and Greater Britain (1912) is also typical of this trend when he writes at length about the difference between the administration of English-speaking dominions and tropical colonies—a constitutional framework is appropriate for the former, and paternalism for the latter.

Unfortunately, in the racially charged context of European men ruling over indigenous societies, some scholars were proud to look to Roman forbearers to justify their political control of other races. In 1883, the lecturer John Robert Seeley proclaimed that although Britain won its empire informally, there suddenly existed a moral duty to rule and civilize India, cautioning his audience to emulate the ancient Romans in their discipline but to resist their cardinal failure of developing tyranny at home as a response to expansion abroad.[14] The bureaucratic administration of India was in the hands of individuals steeped in myths of noble Romans civilizing barbarian hordes. So called “all-rounders” educated in the Classics, such as the Viceroy Lord Curzon, wrote of “the living influence of the empire of Rome” on the Indian subcontinent.[15] Sir James Stephen spoke boastfully at Eaton of the Indian empire being even “more populous, more amazing, and more beneficent” than that of Rome.[16] Indian Civil Service candidates in the mid-nineteenth century were required to be tested in a manner “not less severe than those examinations by which the highest classical distinctions are awarded at Oxford and Cambridge.”[17] For this reason, a grounding in the study of classical antiquity was held in common by most administrators. Proficiency in English language and literature was worth 1500 marks, Math 1000 marks, and Greek and Latin 750 marks each; Sanskirt and Arabic, though utile languages in India, were only worth 375 marks each, later raised to 500. The Royal Titles Act of 1876 established Victoria as “Regina et Imperatrix” over India, cementing the strange bond between the titles of ancient Roman despotism and those of British power over the Subcontinent.[18] For all of the crassly propagandistic abuses of Roman history at the hands of her Fascist enemies, Britain too thus had many sons and daughters who were willing to avoid the psychic repercussions of their aggressive imperial actions against other nations by imagining themselves clad in togas.

 

On the eve of the sobering horrors of the First World War and directly following that struggle, British scholars began to examine Roman history in an increasingly cynical and wry manner. Artists like Rudyard Kipling, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves began to challenge the supposedly glorious images of Roman legions triumphing over savages, age-old motifs immortalized in the poetry of Horace, Martial, and other ancient masters. For example, Kipling’s poem “A Pict Song” begins:

“Rome never looks where she treads, always her heavy hooves fall on our stomachs, our hearts, or our heads; and Rome never heeds when we bawl. Her sentries pass on—that is all, and we gather behind them in hordes, and plot to reconquer the Wall, with only our tongues for our swords.”[19]

Now, for the first time, the authorial voice identifies himself with the victims of imperialism rather than its agents. By the same token, Wilfred Owen famously challenged Horace’s claim that it was dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, calling it “the old lie” in a poem written between 1917 and 1918. By the time that Graves published I, Claudius in 1934, romantic images of the imperial household were completely set aside, and the rulers of Rome were portrayed as prototypes of the corrupt, fascist leaders of the era before World War Two. In The Roman Revolution, the great classicist Ronald Syme wrote: “When a party has triumphed in violence and seized control of the State, it would be plain folly to regard the new government as a collection of amiable and virtuous characters. Revolution demands and produces sterner characters.”[20]

Nevertheless, for all this increasing awareness of the imperfection of ancient Roman government, the civilization somehow retained its attractive luster for decades following the Second World War. In the words of Churchill, a Roman “would have the same sense (as an Englishman) of belonging to a society which was threatened, and to an imperial rule which had passed its prime. He would have the same gathering fears of some sudden onslaught by barbarian forces…”[21] In victory or defeat, Roman precedents provided poignant counterpoints to the English experience.

Augustan Rome and the Origins of Italian Fascism

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Rome is our point of departure and our point of reference: it is our symbol, or if you will, our myth.”[22] (Benito Mussolini)

In 1932, an American professor of Classics by the name of Kenneth Scott wrote rather effusively in the “Journal of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South” comparing Mussolini to Augustus:

“It is an interesting coincidence that Italy’s premier is a journalist, a master of language, in speech or written word, a dramatist, a man who in spite of manifold duties can find time to write an autobiography and memoirs of his experiences in the World War. He is carrying on a tradition not only of Augustus, but of such emperors with literary talent as Claudius, Nero, Hadrian, or Marcus Aurelius and Julian.”[23] Mussolini also said: ‘Italy has had enough of liberty for a while. What it needs now is law. The people want peace, work, bread, roads, and water.’”[24]

Before the catastrophes of the Second World War forever disgraced the memory of the Fascist movement, an understanding of the phenomenon as a classicizing manifestation of hyper-nationalism seemed to many observers a viable, even vibrant alternative to the threat of popular communist revolution. In his creation of an ultra-patriotic state fuelled by propaganda, Benito Mussolini and his crew mined Roman history for all it was worth to associate the glory of their regime with the triumphs of their nation’s ancient culture. Symbols of Roman authority abounded in the nascent movement: the ceremonial rods and axes called fasces which gave the movement its name, the stiff-armed Roman salute, colorful imperial standards, and eagles with outstretched wings. Appeals to Romanitas, the “quality of being like a Roman,” were key to the nationalist agenda, the necessity of providing “peace, work, bread, roads, and water” calling to mind the achievements of the ancient Caesars.[25] The potential allure of liberalism and Marxism were dramatically overpowered by the state’s ability to command the people’s fanatical loyalties. Fascism was designed to bring about a permanent change in the European imagination, ascribing value to individual life only insofar as it was committed to service and obedience to the state. Tellingly, the fact that ancient Rome ultimately eviscerated itself with civil wars and over-expansion had no place in Mussolini’s appeals to the past.

The so-called First Party Congress held in Rome in 1921 helped to cement the popularity of Fascism as a movement calling for efficiency and militarism as an antidote to the creeping contagion of Bolshevism.[26] By 1922, Il Duce already had enough support among the hoi polloi to march upon Rome, self-consciously following in the footsteps of demagogues such as Sulla and Caesar before him. In the wake of the increasing spread of Fascist doctrine, the abstraction characteristic of Italian futurism in the arts was largely set aside for a return to classicizing motifs. Between 1922 and 1943, the fasces began to be imprinted on posters, bass reliefs, and military paraphernalia, symbolic of collective force; at the same time, statues of eagles, Roman-style military parades, and legionary insignia and standards were all resurrected to cement the power of the nascent state in the hearts of the Italian people, who were longing for greatness again. The spiritual renovation of the state was thus physically expressed through seemingly endless repetition of core motifs; indeed, some have suggested that Roman imagery was aggressively recycled in order to create a sort of brand or logo for the state, inspired by techniques of early twentieth century advertising.[27] It is important to remember that the early movement was not grounded in anti-Semitism; Margherita Sarfatti, an early influence on Fascism, was in fact of Jewish descent, though by 1938, anti-Jewish feeling had begun to taint the ideology. Before this, however, Italian Fascism seemed to many like a process of aestheticizing politics, slapping a classicizing Roman varnish on hyper-patriotism and fanatical commitment to a dictatorial figure.

Comparisons between Mussolini and Augustus were especially prominent. Both men had come to power after a period of civil disorder, and both stood at the center of a revolutionary autocracy built on the embers of what had once been a Republic.[28] Panegyrics by Giuseppe Bottai (the Governor of Rome from 1935-1937) and numerous works by E Balbo repeatedly emphasized similarities between Mussolini and Augustus, even drawing parallels between the first Roman emperor’s Iberian campaigns and the Duce’s support of Franco.[29] Mussolini himself hosted a major exhibition called the Mostra Augustea della Romanita on the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birthday, with Giulio Quirino Giglioli appointed to serve as the general director the exhibition.[30] Opened in 1938, an indoor fairground highlighted the historical developments that look place in Augustus’ lifetime, with a second and third series of antechambers devoted to the topics of “architecture and engineering” and “religion and society,” respectively. Meant as a sort of interactive museum, the halls of the exhibition highlighted models, maps, and artifacts charting the growth of the Roman Empire, but tellingly contained virtually nothing extolling the achievements of Senatorial rule or Republican virtue—some particular facets of Roman history were now politically incorrect. In the central room of the exhibit, eerily anticipating Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe in later history, sixteen portraits of Augustus were displayed in repetitive rows, with posters of the monuments of his age set alongside more recent constructions sponsored by Mussolini himself. The exhibition was meant to serve as a great rhetorical exercise in hyperbole, explicitly uniting Fascism and Roman Imperialism as a single, glorious tradition. Hitler enjoyed the exhibition so thoroughly when he came to visit Rome in May of 1938 that he even arranged for a return visit to study the displays in greater detail before the end of his trip.[31]

Until the eighteenth century, readers who were only familiar with Rome through their knowledge of the Classics often found that the city of their imaginations looked very different from the heaps of toppled columns that they actually found there.[32] Spending millions of modern dollars, Mussolini set out to revive the glory of the city’s ruins, often setting up enormous maps beside the renovations portraying the High Roman Empire on one side and the modern Italian Empire on the other. In the classicizing Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii, Mussolini delivered a telling speech on the occasion of the appointment of Filippo Cremonesi as governor of the city in 1925. He said:

“My ideas are clear, my orders are exact, and certain to become concrete reality. Within five years Rome must strike all the nations of the world as a source of wonder: huge, well organized, powerful, as it was at the time of the Augustan Empire. You will continue to free the trunk of the great oak from everything that still clutters it. You will create spaces around the Theater of Marcellus, the Capitol, the Pantheon…Within five years the mass of the Pantheon must be visible from the Piazza Colonna through a large space…The milleniary monuments of our history must loom larger in requisite isolation.”[33]

Within less than a decade, this vision of resurrecting the Augustan metropolis indeed became concrete reality. Begun in 1931, the Via dell’ Impero, now the Via dei Fori Imperiali, became the artery connecting the Piazza Venezia (site of Mussoloni’s office, the Sala del Mappamondo and the very hub of Fascist Italy) with the ruins of the imperial forums of ancient Rome.[34] The Ara Pacis, an Augustan altar dedicated to the peace brought about by the stability of his regime, was reassembled in 1938 and inaugurated on the 23rd of September, Augustus’ birthday. Finally, an entire suburb dubbed L’Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR) was constructed in 1937, its architecture Fascist and bombastic to the core, including a giant rhombus dubbed “The Square Coliseum” and a museum of Roman civilization in the city-center famous to this day.

Ultimately, this glorification of Augustan Rome was also manipulated to validate Mussolini’s programs of imperial aggression just as it had been harnessed to justify the loss of civil and political liberties in the name of peace and order. Speaking of the Italian Empire, Mussolini once ominously averred: “We can give value to two regions (Tripoli and the Cirenaica) which once were owned by Rome and which must grow to the greatness of their past.” Aggressive moves in the Aegean and North Africa were described as glorious re-conquests of regions that had once belonged to Rome, with Mussolini delivering them from generations of waste and misrule.[35] In 1937, emblematic of this trend, the film Scipione l’ Africano portrayed the ancient Carthaginian Empire as a corrupt regime ruled by what can only be described as loathsome Semitic stereotypes saved from themselves by Scipio’s victory in the Hannibalic War; it was awarded the so-called Duce Cup at the Venice film festival and declared a masterpiece.[36] Until the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, all this posturing was seen as par for the course when it came to the justification of foreign imperialism, and even bears some similarity to the interpretations of Roman history voiced by the classically trained administrators of British India. Indeed, before the mid 1930s, Mussolini and his classically inspired movement seem to have been viewed as something inspirational to the nations that would go on to topple him; Roosevelt was often compared favorably to Mussolini in the implementation of his New Deal, for example.[37] But when on the 9th of May, 1936, a second Roman Empire was proclaimed following the fall of Ethiopia, the stark realities of the fruits of autocracy began to chip away at their attractive, classicizing veneer.[38]

Nazi Racial Ideology and the Rise and Fall of Rome

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“In the historical department the study of ancient history should not be omitted. Roman history, along general lines, is and will remain the best teacher, not only for our own time but also for the future. And the ideal of Hellenic culture should be preserved for us in all its marvelous beauty. The differences between the various peoples should not prevent us from recognizing the community of race which unites them on a higher plane. The conflict of our times is one that is being waged around great objectives. A civilization is fighting for its existence. It is a civilization that is the product of thousands of years of historical development, and the Greek as well as the German forms part of it.”[39](Adolf Hitler)

Just as educated Britons waxed lyrically on the Roman antecedents to their Empire and Italians spoke with pride on the fruits of ancient Italian nationalism, Hitler and other German thinkers like him perceived Romanitas through their own particular political prism, obsessing about the racial continuity between themselves and ancient ancestors who ironically lived in an era before the concept of race had even come into full existence. The fact that the ancient Romans deemed the Germans barbarians was moot—that both civilizations shared a Caucasian identity was deemed more significant. Before the Second World War, the Germans even expressed admiration for the British Empire as a remarkable achievement proving the ingenuity and superiority of the white race over all others. In 1930, Hitler upbraided Otto Strasser for suggesting that the Nazis should provide aid to the burgeoning Indian independence movement, declaring that the Nordic British had a right to rule in the Subcontinent—“The interest of Germany demands cooperation with England since it is a question of establishing a Nordic-Germanic America, over the world.”[40] In the eyes of the crazed German leader, even matters of real politick were paltry concerns beside weightier matters of racial ideology.

Alfred Rosenberg and Hitler shared the belief that the course of ancient history revealed that Greece and Rome were the direct forbearers of contemporary Nordic civilization, with “Nordic” implying a “Caucasian” identity rather than a “Negroid” or “Mongoloid” one. The cultural achievements of antiquity were interpreted as the inevitable fruits of racial superiority unabashedly expressed over barbarian peoples. The story of the rise and fall of Rome was thus manipulated to justify the Fuhrer’s pseudo-scientific notions of race. The Romans were deemed “die Erstgeborenen der arischen Voelker,” a community of Nordic peasant farmers (Bauernstaat) that came to dominate the racially inferior people surrounding them.[41] In his writings, Hitler declared Italy “the original home of the concept of the state” and expressed awe for the rapid rise of Rome, employing ancient imagery such as eagles, fasces, straight-armed salutes, and legionary standards in his propaganda just as his neighbor to the South did.[42] Hitler found a source of inspiration in the order and militarism of ancient Rome, and a model for Berlin as a world capital.[43] In large part, with the exception of his memorable addition of the swastika to the canon of symbols, the imagery of German fascism was in large part deeply grounded in the classicizing tendencies of its Italian counterpart.[44] In his mind’s eye, Hitler seems to have envisioned himself as a sort of latter day Roman emperor, and he hungered to create a capital worthy of his imperial ambitions. Albert Speer recounts that Hitler saw himself above all else as a great artist, plotting to create a giant metropolis called Germania to be visually modeled on ancient Rome.[45] The imaginary city would have boasted a triumphal arch dwarfing Napoleon’s efforts in Paris and a Volkshalle on the model of the Augustan Pantheon that could have housed the entire Vatican within its walls. The structure was planned to be sixteen times the volume of St. Peter’s Basilica.

How was the Nazi government to account for the fall of the Roman Empire, which was of course precipitated by the direct ancestors of the German people? In the words of Mussolini, “thirty centuries of history allow us to look with supreme pity on certain doctrines which are preached beyond the Alps by the descendants of those who were illiterate when Rome had Caesar, Virgil, and Augustus.”[46] In the eyes of Rosenberg, and Hitler like him, the emperor Caracalla’s granting of full citizenship to all the citizens of the Empire muddied the civilization’s racial waters, and ultimately, a Jewish cult conquered the state like a form of ancient Bolshevism before virtuous German tribes to the North re-invigorated Europe with their pure Aryan blood and set the stage for the achievements of modern history; the same echoes of the idea of an Aryan-Roman super-race can be found in the work of Italian Julius Evola, a formative influence on Mussolini. The narrative of the rise and fall of Rome was thus directly perverted to express contemporary Fascist beliefs about race, nationalism, and imperial force. Still, the discontinuity between a vision of an “Aryan Rome” and the reality of warfare between ancient Romans and Germans, to say nothing of the specific association of Romanitas with Mussolini’s Italy, meant that Rome alone would not suffice as a model for ancient valor. At the same time, certain influential historians were less than impressed by the achievements of Roman culture, interpreting it largely as a cautionary example; Oswald Spengler, for example, identified “Caesarism” as a symptom of cultural decline and underrated Roman military achievements after the Second Punic War. Heinrich Himmler, chief and police and minister of the interior, was admittedly more interested in occultism than Classics and attempted to mythologize the ancient, pre-urban German tribes.[47]

Yet as Helmut Berve wrote: “We are not Romans, and the world around us is different from the Mediterranean world. Nevertheless we can learn endless lessons from Roman history.”[48] Hitler was so thoroughly seduced by the idea of Imperial Rome that as late as 1941, he declared to Himmler that “the Roman Empire never had its like. To have succeeded in completely dominating all neighboring peoples! And no empire has spread so uniform a civilization as Rome did.”[49]

The fact that a bizarre racially charged interpretation of Roman history became so prominent in Germany speaks to the tragic rapidity with which Nazi ideology had taken hold of the contemporary imagination. For generations, Germany had been Europe’s leading center of Classical scholarship, producing works of timeless value and priceless insights. This was the country where Theodor Mommsen pioneered the very art of modern historiography as he systematically and objectively explored the intricacies of the Roman past.[50] Barthold Georg Niebuhr too was a trailblazer, one of the first to differentiate between the value of primary and secondary sources in historical research; for years, Leopold Ranke had his bust in his study, and Grote, Toynbee, and Arnold all paid homage to his legacy.[51] Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Karl Bücher’s Die Entstehung der Volkswirtschaft became one of the most important books in the study of economic history thanks to its detailed attention to the nuances of the ancient, medieval, and modern markets; later, Ed Meyer’s critique of his work added a still more nuanced understanding of the sophistication and complexity of ancient civilization. It became clear that inflation, civil war, and barbarian invasions by Germanic tribes caused the fall of Rome. All of this scholarship, however, paled before the racially charged myth of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and a country whose intelligentsia once boasted the most scientific approach to the study of the ancient past completely lost its bearings and succumbed to the allure of fairy tales. Non-German historians such as Numa Fustel de Coulanges attempted to redress the balance, writing the History of the Political Institutions of Ancient France in which he challenged the notion that ancient Germans had introduced political innovations to a “racially stalling” nation.[52] Tragically, however, the works of individuals like Joseph Vogt became much more common. His “Population Decline in the Roman Empire” (1935) and “Race Mixing in the Roman Empire” (1936) repeated the original theory of Arthur de Gobineau that racial mixing was responsible for the decline of Rome as an established fact. Those whose vision of antiquity was grounded in a search for truth rather than political expedience promptly found no place for themselves in the German university system.

Quo Vadis, Romanitas?

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“Yours is the first barbarian army in history to have taken Rome from the South.” (An anonymous Roman, said to the Allied commander in June 1944.)[53]

 

Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Romanitas and the Latin language became cultural touchstones held in common by all educated citizens—in a sense, from Russians calling themselves czars to Victoria being crowned imperatrix, the course of the continent’s history can be described as a long series of interpretations and reinterpretations of the meaning of a classical past held in common by all Europeans. For the French in the late eighteenth century, “Rome” was a byword for Republican freedom; for Italy on the verge of the Second World War, it symbolized devotion to a dictatorial ideal. The breadth and diversity of Roman history armed every historical epoch, whatever its nature, with a rich array of symbols upon which to draw. So long as European education was grounded in the study of the Greek and Roman past, the Greek and Roman past continued to shape the youthful minds of students imagining themselves as ancient heroes. On the eve of World War Two, never did “Rome” become associated with “wickedness,” because all parties in the struggle were imperial, and all identified with the same ancient past.

 

Thus, seldom did the British draw unfavorable comparisons between Roman aggression and the actions of Mussolini; rarely did Italians dwell on reasons for Rome’s decline; never did the Germans accept responsibility as one of the forces that precipitated that collapse. Instead, we have seen that allusions to Roman history were almost universally employed to imbue contemporary beliefs about race, politics, and imperial conquest with an air of authenticity, with each fresh reinterpretation of the past serving to virtually supplant the true facts of the city’s rise and fall in the popular imagination.[54] Ultimately, much the same can be said of the collective European enthrallment with the imagery of Roman history as Frank M. Turner once wrote about the meaning of allusions to ancient Greek culture to the Victorian mind, which transferred a “moral outlook…to the ancient past and then, in accordance with their humanist aims, upheld that past as a source of wisdom for current ethical and cultural conduct.”[55] In this case, however, it must unfortunately be admitted that the aims of many of the men who appealed to the shadow of the Roman past were far from “humanist,” whether in the form of the British attempting to justify their Empire, Italians their hyper-nationalism, or Germans their xenophobia. Greek history once supplied an inexhaustible source of erudite, artistic references; Roman history, by contrast, came to serve as an inexhaustible trove of symbols able to be mass marketed for purposes of propaganda and pseudo-science.

[1] “Address of the President on the Fall of Rome,” June 5, 1944, 8:30 pm, E.W.T. Radio Broadcast, accessed at http://www.mhric.org/fdr/fdr.html.

[2] Winston Churchill, The Birth of Britain, His: A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (London,: Cassell, 1956).

[3] S. J. Bastomsky, “Rich and Poor: The Great Divide in Ancient Rome and Victorian England,” Greece & Rome 37, no. 1 (1990).

[4] Churchill, The Birth of Britain.

[5] Cyril Norwood and Arthur H. Hope, The Higher Education of Boys in England (London,: J. Murray, 1909). Pp. 343.

[6] Ibid. Pp. 344.

[7] Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain. Pp. 2.

[8] Raymond F. Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Victorian Studies 15, no. 2 (1971). Pp. 150.

[9] Ibid. Pp. 151

[10] Evelyn Baring Cromer, Ancient and Modern Imperialism (London,: J. Murray, 1910).

[11] Charles Prestwood Lucas, Cambridge University Library., and Adam Matthew Digital (Firm), “Class, Colour and Race.” (Marlborough, England: Adam Matthew Digital, 2007), http://www.empire.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=654.

[12] Richard Faber, The Vision and the Need: Late Victorian Imperialist Aims (London: Faber, 1966). Pp. 25.

[13] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 154.

[14] John Robert Seeley, The Expansion of England : Two Courses of Lectures (London: Macmillan, 1883).

[15] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 151-152.

[16] Ibid. Pp. 155.

[17] Catharine Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945 (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. 93-94.

[18] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 149.

[19] Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Writings in Prose and Verse of Rudyard Kipling (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906.).

[20] See the final chapter of Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939).

[21] Churchill, The Birth of Britain.

[22] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 205

[23] Kenneth Scott, “Mussolini and the Roman Empire,” The Classical Journal 27, no. 9 (1932). Pp. 656.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 189.

[26] Emilio Gentile, The Origins of Fascist Ideology 1918-1925 (New York: Enigma, 2005). Pp. 158-159.

[27] See Steven Heller, Iron Fists : Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State (London ; New York: Phaidon Press, 2008).

[28] See Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Jerome Lectures (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988).

[29] Alexander Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity, Monographs on the Fine Arts (University Park: Published for College Art Association by the Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990). Page 10.

[30] Lewine, Annie Esmé (2008) “Ancient Rome in Modern Italy: Mussolini’s Manipulation of Roman History in the Mostra Augustea della Romanitá,” Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity and Classics: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 5. Available at: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/classicsjournal/vol2/iss1/5

[31] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Pp. 28.

[32] Berland, “Review: A City Endlessly Rewritten: Some Versions and Appropriations of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century.” Pp. 288.

[33] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Page 9.

[34] Nelis, Jan, “Constructing Fascist Identity: Benito Mussolini and the Myth of Romanitá,” Classical World 100.4 (2007). Pp. 408.

[35] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 290.

[36] Ibid. Pp. 209

[37] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals : Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939, 1st ed. (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006). Pp. 21-22.

[38] Henry Ashby Turner, Reappraisals of Fascism, Modern Scholarship on European History (New York: New Viewpoints, 1975). Pp. 73.

[39] See Adolf Hitler, Alvin Saunders Johnson, and John Chamberlain, Mein Kampf, Complete and Unabridged, Fully Annotated (New York,: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1940). Chapter 2, Volume 2.

[40] Milan Hauner, India in Axis Strategy : Germany, Japan and Indian Nationalists in the Second World War, 1. Aufl. ed., Veröffentlichungen Des Deutschen Historischen Instituts London = Publications of the German Historical Institute London (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981). Pp. 25.

[41] Ibid. Pp. 20-21.

[42] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Pp. 14.

[43] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Page 2.

[44] Heller, Iron Fists : Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State.

[45] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs (New York: Macmillan, 1970). See the chapters Our Empire Style and The Globe.

[46] Institute of Jewish Affairs. and Boris Shub, Hitler’s Ten-Year War on the Jews (New York,: Institute of Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Congress, World Jewish congress, 1943). Pp. 283.

[47] Christopher Hale, Himmler’s Crusade : The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2003). Pp. 87.

[48] For this quote, see the introduction to Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity.

[49] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 225.

[50] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 151.

[51] For a summary of early twentieth century historiography on Roman history, see Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition; Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, A Galaxy Book, (New York,: Oxford University Press, 1957). Pp. 472-479.

[52] See Coulanges Fustel de and Camille Jullian, Histoire Des Institutions Politiques De L’ancienne France, 6 vols. (Paris,: Hachette et cie, 1888).

[53] Wiseman, T. P. (1992) ‘Of grammar and grandeur’, TLS (May 29). Pp. 11- 12.

[54] Kevin Berland, “Review: A City Endlessly Rewritten: Some Versions and Appropriations of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 34, no. 2 (2001). Pp. 288.

[55] Frank M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981). Pp. 51.

Glittering Translucence: The Glass Menagerie in Previews at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway

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The stage at the Belasco Theater was so empty it was naked. The set amounted to an ugly table with chairs, some cluttered shelves, and a phonograph. The backdrop was the stark brick wall of the theater itself. When Joe Mantello first appeared onstage, I mistook him for a techie until he began delivering his opening monologue, tackling a role usually played by a much younger man in a much better costume. I already found myself mulling over inevitable comparisons with the production of The Glass Menagerie at the Booth Theater in 2013 starring Cherry Jones (Amanda), Zachary Quinto (Tom), and Celia Kennan-Bolger (Laura). I wondered whether it was worth revisiting the play so soon after that great success, which was the first production I’d seen to portray Tom as a gay avatar of Tennessee Williams himself, adding new and unexpected dimensions to the proceedings; his arguments with his mother about where he was sneaking off to at night were never quite so poignant.

 

In that production, the tragedy of the Wingfield family played out on a literal island circumscribed by rippling ebony ooze. Laura seemed to materialize out of thin air, unexpectedly popping out of a couch with all of the suddenness of a half-forgotten memory that somehow intrudes on the consciousness again. This time, though, there was nothing but emptiness. In the shadows, Sally Field (Amanda) and Madison Ferris (Laura) were already visible as they waited in the orchestra to climb onstage. Bracing myself with the reminder that this was still in previews, I had no idea that I was about to be totally transported and enthralled.

 

A long silence ensued as the performers went through the cumbersome process of lifting Ferris’ wheelchair onto the stage. My heart skipped a beat. I had no idea that a performer with muscular dystrophy had been cast as Laura, who is described in the script as “crippled.” Out of her chair, back arched, and down on all fours, she moved with an indescribable elegance, flowing like water across the stage. I’d never seen a production before where the physical components of Laura ‘s handicap were explored with such nuance. Both the challenges and elegances of physical movement are so central to Ferris’ characterization that it almost feels at times like a dance performance (I was not at all surprised to read in the program that the Broadway newcomer has dance experience.) There is no awkwardness on display here, usually par for the course in performers’ interpretations of the shy and fragile character. Ferris’ Laura is long acclimated to the challenges of her difference. She owns them. And in her space, Laura moves confidently, uniquely, and even elegantly. Rather than her own inner demons, it is largely society’s cruel pigeonholing that forces her into the role of a pariah.

 

If Eugene O’Neill is the American Aeschylus and Arthur Miller some iteration of Sophocles, then Tennessee Williams is our Euripides. Both were celebrated for their multi-dimensional female protagonists, their powerful abilities as storytellers, their lines dripping with poetry, and their exploration of the forces of Bacchanalian wildness that always lurk just beneath the veneer of polite society. Needless to say, all of this is pure dynamite for actors. The Glass Menagerie is one of the great ensemble pieces in American theater, and the synergy between the members of this cast was particularly electric. I was initially unsure about Mantello’s interpretation of Tom, which in some ways couldn’t help but disappoint after Quinto’s revelatory queer reading of the role. Over time, though, the dichotomy between Tom’s maturity and the relative youth of his sister and mother highlighted that shimmering, slightly unreal quality that William hoped to capture in the play. If Quinto played Tom as the play’s author trapped claustrophobically in his own memories, Mantello portrays him something like the play’s director, separated from the past in time and space but putting on a show for us in the audience in which he selectively interacts with his former ghosts. The understatement of his performance attractively highlights both the intensity of Fields and the subtlety of Ferris.

 

Speaking of Fields, she is a force of nature as Amanda, a caged eagle. In her blind rage against the bars of her enclosure, she wounds herself and everyone around her. Now she is driven by a sense of rage over the isolation of her daughter and the selfishness of her son; a moment later, she is soft and maternal; at still other times, she’s lost in obsessive memories of better days. Fields’ Amanda channels the great heroines of world theater, echoing the rambling desperation of Blanche, the imperiousness of Lady Macbeth, and the spiteful wit of Hedda. There is a dangerous undercurrent to Field’s performance bound to her acute awareness of the desperation of her position. Her Amanda is nostalgic for the past but far from delusional about her present. She realizes that she is burdened with an alcoholic son who is about to abandon her and a handicapped daughter she cannot support. The prospect of a gentleman caller is the only hope that can save the Wingfields from themselves. But when her daughter balks in terror at this caller when he finally arrives, Amanda herself becomes the flirtatious center of attention. While she hosts him at dinner with her daughter quivering with embarrassment in the other room, there is an effect such as I have never seen before in any theater. The emptiness of the stage is suddenly revealed to be translucence, a fitting quality for a play named for glass sculpture. Without giving it away, I’ll say that it conveys the same idea of symbolic gulfs evoked in the previous production at the Booth Theatre where the family was literally trapped on an island.

 

The entire final act was illuminated by true candlelight, providing the scene with an ethereal, almost ghostly ambiance. Earlier in the play, Ferris portrayed Laura as a slightly spoiled young woman whose life’s meaning was reduced to subtle shows of rebellion against her mother’s will. Ferris obsessed over her glass figurines not with an air of insanity but one of triumph, lording over an imaginary world in which, for once, she could be in control and ignore the admonishments of the world around her. At last, though, she invites the gentleman caller into this world, where he finds that he has been set up as a kind of idol deified since high school. In this space, the way Laura moves and the way she uses her imagination are completely natural, and at least for a fleeting moment, he sees the beauty in her existence and not the stigma associated with it. The chemistry between Laura and her “suitor” (a bright eyed and bushy tailed Finn Wittrock) is sizzling, the most sexual of any interpretation I’ve seen. Their tender dance was the emotional climax of the night, symbolic of the themes of the entire production.

 

Like the casting of deaf actor John McGinty in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ferris’ casting proves that physical difference or disability not only should be no bar to the display of talent, but can even bring new life to classic roles. As wonderful as Michael Arden was as Quasimodo and Celia Kennan-Bolger was as Laura (a sublime performance, in fact), there is something special about the truth that actors bring to parts when they share aspects of that character’s identity in real life. Many actors can try to imitate a limp, but few can move with the combination of grace and dexterity required by someone with muscular dystrophy, let alone one as gifted in physical storytelling as Madison Ferris.

 

Famously, The Glass Menagerie ends with Tom’s injunction for Laura to “blow (her) candles out.” Perhaps fittingly, this performance was the first I’ve seen in which she flat out shakes her head and refuses to do so. This production will linger in my imagination for a long time.

 

So That It Burns

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Upon the cusp of evening shade suffused

with rays of twilight sleek and luminous

my love lingers beyond the ashen span

which glistens on the bed of Tithonus.

As summers wane and dusk invidious

imbues the wilting arch of firmament,

so equally my nimble ardor swells

to drench the stars, gleaming and permanent.

When autumn showers form a breathless mist

which clings upon the face of cobblestones,

the lovestruck poet should not hope to list

what nature and imagination loan.

He drafts within his heart unspoken songs

of boundless pitch which no page could abide,

when transient moments grow a bit more long

and deathless beauty walks along his side.

These subtle metamorphoses run deep

inside our souls before we get too old,

when kindred hearts both skip a single beat

and friendly glances grow a bit more bold.

But little else is crueler to discern

than gusty changes once their course has run,

that fan one feeble heart so that it burns,

but blow out fire in the other one.

On the Inauguration Day of Donald Trump

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The grandeur of his office is a perk
but now the Donald has to get to work.
He’ll require a great deal of endurance
if he hopes to kill our health insurance
and banish same sex couples from our sights
and criminalize reproductive rights
and see to it pollution laws all go
and build a wall to fence off Mexico
and toss every illegal in a cell
and spark a war in central Israel
and put the country’s Muslims on a list
and throw in prison all who would resist.
I will not soon forget this epic date.
So this is what it feels like to be great!
It’s harder to be President than rich
Yet we elected Putin’s rabid bitch.

Lauterbrunnen (On Love and Sunburn)

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How could I help but mine the shapeless hours

above pied valleys cloaked in pine and flowers,

dwarfed by wrinkled amaranthine mountains,

morphed by nourishment on milk of fountains?

Cascades of vapor splashed with such a sound

you would have thought it thundered underground.

I yearned to see the russet dusk begin.

But soon the sunlight burned my face’s skin.

Then I was forced to quit the lonely height

and banish nature’s temple from my sight.

Whenever too at dinner we should meet,

so ravenous however much I eat

and drunken on the wine of every view,

I find I cannot stop glancing at you.

If I am caught, is this game lost or won?

The mystery, God knows, is half the fun.

Each time I steal a look, I know I’ve won.

But take care staring too long at the sun.

Experience has made it understood

that Nature is more beautiful than good.

In the Presence of Strangers: An Unpleasant Surprise (Chapter V)

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“Engaged! Doda Sara, isn’t it exciting?”

It was nearly seven-thirty in the morning, but Miriam had long since lain awake in bed, eager to begin spreading the news about Shlomie Shachar’s proposal to friends and distant relatives alike. At 7:00, she considered it late enough in the day to begin the onslaught. Ariel, Orli, and cousin Tamuz had all been informed. Now it was Sara’s turn to learn the happy tidings.

“No, Sara, you can’t speak with her just now. She’s still asleep. She marched straight into the house last night without saying a word, but I knew by her smile that something was up. Well, when I followed her into the bathroom and told her to spill the beans, she said that Shlomie had proposed! We both started laughing, and after a good, long, chuckle, she asked to go to bed, and said that there were important arrangements to be worked out in the morning. Can you imagine it, Sara? My oldest daughter is marrying the son of Abraham Morgan!”

After a final little delighted yelp for good measure, Miriam composed herself and began to run her fingers through her hair. Weddings were costly affairs, and the Gutmans were not Rothschilds. The Shachars would undoubtedly try to dominate the arrangements, and Nachum and she could hardly be expected to finance their extravagant plans. Of course, it was only fair that Shlomie’s family should bear the brunt of the cost. But if the Gutmans refused to pay for the wedding, they would probably relinquish all say in the subsequent preparations, which seemed equally unjust.

By this time, Miriam was no longer listening to the chipper banter of Doda Sara. There were more important things on her mind. She wouldn’t allow her daughter’s wedding plans to be commandeered by strangers. She wished that they had the money to pay for everything themselves, with no thought to the meddling of Abraham and Tziporah. But it was not to be. The Gutmans were shamefully middle class. She looked regretfully in the direction of the master bedroom. Her husband was asleep. Even behind closed doors, she could hear his snoring. She felt a dull pain in her stomach, and wondered what disease this might have been a symptom of.

As she made her way to the medicine cabinet in search of Tums, Yonatan shuffled sleepily into the living room. He curled himself up into a little ball in front of the television. Nightmares had interrupted what little sleep he finally had, and he’d spent the final part of the night in Raz’s room, where his older brother always let him stay. There was little space for him in the bed, though, so he hadn’t gotten much rest.

When she saw Yonatan, Miriam excused herself from the telephone and handed him a slice of Nutella covered bread. She’d been expecting an unhappy welcome from him that morning and hoped that this special breakfast would placate him. Unfortunately, her attempt at reconciliation was rewarded by an ungrateful groan.

“Just eat your breakfast and be quiet,” said Miriam, returning to the kitchen. “It’s good for you. It’s made from real hazel nuts.”

“I don’t want it,” said Yonatan, searching for the Children’s Channel on television.

“What do you mean you don’t want it? It’s delicious.”

“Then why don’t you eat it?”

“Eat that pita bread, Yonatan.”

“No. Nutella covered pita bread is for babies. I hate it. It makes me want to puke.”

“You never complained about it before.”

“That just shows you never listen to me. I’ve been your son for nine years, and you still don’t know my tastes?”

Miriam flapped her lips. Her sons were impossible to manage. Thank God for Yael. Her obedience was a reminder that she continued to possess at least some modicum of authority in the house, however slight. Then, suddenly, it dawned on her that her daughter would leave Kefar Sava once she was married and then she would be left alone, condemned to serve a pack of thankless males forever with no reprieve in sight. Overwhelmed by this unhappy revelation, she complained loudly and suddenly of arthritic pains over the telephone, thoroughly startling Doda Sara.

Yonatan threw down his breakfast plate.

“Why couldn’t I have gone to Yael’s party, Ima? It isn’t fair! And why couldn’t I have had a piece of-”

“Eat your breakfast and shut the hell up!”

He trudged back into the living room without another word. His mother resumed her telephone conversation and he found a cartoon on television. The noise of gossip and anthropomorphic robots soon inundated the house and the battle was momentarily forgotten.

Awakened by these early morning screams, Nachum now entered the living room.

“Nachum, your son is out of control, and I don’t have the patience for his games today. Explain to him that it wasn’t easy for me to make him breakfast. I was awake all last night with the most horrible pains in my stomach.”

Ima has a disease called indigestion,” said Nachum from the couch.

Ima has a disease called everything,” said Yonatan.

Miriam swore under her breath and turned away from them. Nachum took the opportunity to wink at his son and seize the bread, gobbling it down before his wife could notice what he’d done. He cringed at the taste and pretended to retch. Yonatan pounced on his father’s back. Nachum cried out disapprovingly, but the sincerity of his smile was at odds with his pleas for mercy. Despite a fair amount of panting, the two seemed to be enjoying themselves until Miriam hung up the telephone and said,

“Two peas in a pod! And after you hurt your back so badly last month too. Get out of here, Yonatan. Go play in your room.”

Yonatan released himself from his father’s grasp and scurried away, sticking out his tongue as he left.

“I don’t know why you let him climb all over you, Nachum. You know what Doctor Shatz told you about lifting heavy things.”

“The boy has had a hard month, Miriam.”

“So everyone keeps telling me. But he has to get over it. It’s all very sad, but it’s not like a blood relative died. And anyway, a tragedy is no excuse for him to act like an ungrateful brat all the time. The psychiatrist agrees with me.”

Nachum said something unintelligible and returned to the couch, reaching for the newspaper. Miriam returned to the kitchen.

“Your coffee won’t be all that appetizing this morning because there was nothing but dirty old grinds of Nescafe left in the cupboard. You should have bought a new can when you went to the store yesterday. I can’t be expected to do everything around this house by myself, you know.”

Nachum nodded half-heartedly.

“I hope you’re not expecting an elaborate breakfast,” she said, preparing his scrambled eggs. “I have more important work to do this morning.”

“Oh.”

“I have seven more people to call about Yael’s engagement! Can you believe that our daughter is engaged?”

“No.”

“You don’t seem to be very enthusiastic.”

“I’m not the one getting married.”

“Well, I’m just in shock. I thought that she would never stop breast feeding, and now she’s… engaged! It’s one of the biggest steps in life. Birth, marriage-”

“And death. Two down, and one to go.”

Miriam presented him with his breakfast tray.

“I don’t understand why you can’t just be happy for Yael. She’s marrying a Morgan.”

“I hope this doesn’t mean that we have to dine with them every week.”

“Why are you being so cynical about all of this, Nachum?”

For a moment, he said nothing. Then, deciding on the effort of explication against his better judgment, he folded the newspaper and said,

“I’m not sure that it’s healthy for a girl to marry her first boyfriend. And I don’t think that Yael’s old enough to know what she wants. She’s only twenty-one.”

Miriam could barely hear him from the kitchen.

“Whatever she wants, the Shachars will have to pay for it! We certainly can’t afford the kind of ceremony that they probably have in mind.”

“I said that she’s too young to get married!” he yelled over the sound of running water.

“Actually, she’s exactly the age we were when we got married!”

Nachum wrinkled his brow and resumed his morning reading.

“Can you believe that Shas is in the news again, Miriam? It’s just disgusting. Sometimes I feel like we’re living in the Middle Ages.”

“I’m worried about the menu for the wedding. I wonder what kinds of delicacies the Shachars are expecting us to feed their rich friends.”

“Never mind the Shachars. The wedding will be paid for… Do you think that Israel has always been like this?”

Miriam reentered the living room, drying her hands on her sleeves.

“What do you mean?”

“Was this damned country always so… I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on the word.”

“Leave politics to the politicians. There’s no use dwelling on what you can’t change.”

“We didn’t think so when we were younger.”

“No, I guess we didn’t.”

“I thought that I would take this country by storm— be a great musician whose opinion mattered…”

“Oh, please!”

“Don’t laugh at me! I was so ambitious back then, so opinionated. I had confidence. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind.”

“Back then?”

“I meant it more back then, before I realized that no one was very interested in what I had to say… you know, I probably couldn’t find my old guitar in the attic even if I tried.”

“Never mind all that. Are you ready for work?”

Nachum smiled bitterly at Miriam’s response. With a wife, three children, a steady job in a factory, and a house in the suburbs, sometimes his only comforts in life were little confirmations of his jadedness. He spoke only to be contradicted, and by and by, even the novelty of shocking his audience was blunted by their unwillingness to hear him out. Caught up in such thoughts, he paid little attention to the activity of his right elbow, and inadvertently spilled his drink over the coffee table.

“Oh, Nachum… Never mind, don’t touch it! Look what you did to my mother’s table. Your head is in the clouds this morning.”

Nachum looked at her closely as she began to clean the mess. She was hunched over the table and wildly scrubbing it, crouched on all fours and heaving back and forth. He thought to himself that she looked less like a woman than some ungainly beast of burden.

Yael now entered into the living room dressed in a cotton pink bathrobe. Accustomed to being ignored, she walked to the kitchen table with a look of imperial contempt on her face, but was surprised by the unexpected image of her mother rushing forward to welcome her.

Boker tov, Yael!” said Miriam, putting away her coffee-soaked towel and presenting her daughter with a bowl of Turkish salad.

Boker tov yourself,” she answered, affecting nonchalance but taken off-guard.

“You’re up early today. I was hoping that you would be. I made you your favorite breakfast. Eat it quickly! There’s a lot to do today.”

“Is there?”

“From now on nothing will be the same. You won’t have a minute to yourself anymore. We have to start thinking about the arrangements. You said so yourself last night!”

Yael looked at her mother warily.

“I always thought that you were against my leaving home.”

“Don’t be so naïve, Yael. I’m thrilled for you.”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Of course not! This is a wonderful opportunity for you. Now tell me, are you planning on doing anything special with Shlomie today?”

“Why? Has he called here already?”

“No, not yet.”

“Don’t worry,” laughed Yael between bites of her salad, “He’ll call soon enough. He can’t go a day without talking to me.”

“Isn’t that wonderful? I’m so excited for you, Yael!”

“What’s wrong with you, Ima?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re talking so strangely. You really don’t mind my leaving home?”

“Darling, you can’t stay home forever. Oh, I admit that I was a little bit sad about it this morning, but everything will turn out for the best. Your father and I are so proud of you. Aren’t we, Nachum?”

“Err,” he replied.

“Really, Ima?”

“Yes, really, Yael.”

“I didn’t expect you to be so supportive!”

“We are, honey. We are.”

“And you’ll be willing to help me pay for it?”

“Well,” said Miriam, her voice somewhat less enthusiastic, “your father and I will be happy to help in part, but I think it’s only right that the Shachars fit most of the bill. They’re much better off than we are, you know, and these sorts of things are expensive.”

Yael rose from the table.

“I knew that you were being facetious with me. Well, I don’t care what you say, Ima. I’m twenty-one years old now and can do whatever I want. It’s my life.”

“What are you talking about?”

“If you don’t want to pay for my nursing school, I’ll find another way to enroll without your help. I’ll use what’s left of the money that Safta set aside for me.”

“Nursing school?”

“I’ll start training at Tel Ha Shomer whether you like it or not!”

“What are you talking about? There are more important things to think about right now than nursing school.”

“Like what, I wonder?”

“Like what? Like Shlomie Shachar’s proposal! Could you believe it when he asked you to marry him?”

“No.”

“It was a real birthday surprise, then.”

“I told him again and again that I didn’t want to marry him, but he just wouldn’t listen to me.”

“There’s persistence for you!”

“More like idiot stubbornness.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s like nothing gets through that thick head of his.”

“That’s no way to speak about your future husband, Yael. Trust me, wait until after you’re married to insult him.”

Yael shuddered.

Ima, did you think that I accepted Shlomie’s proposal?”

“Of course.”

“But I didn’t!”

“Very funny.”

“I’m not joking. I told him hundreds of times that I didn’t even want to consider getting married before I became a professional nurse, but he refused to listen to me. And it was such an awful proposal too. He did nothing but insult me after I said no to him.”

“What are you trying to tell me, Yael?”

“Oh Ima!”

For a moment, Miriam stood absolutely silent and motionless. That soon changed.

“This is terrible! I called everybody in the family to say you that were engaged!”

“Well, who told you to do that?”

“How could you be so stupid?”

“Stupid?”

“The Shachars are so rich!”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“You have no idea how the world works, do you? Money is the single most important thing on Earth!”

“That’s a wonderful thing to say, Ima. How profound.”

“Never mind about being profound. What are we, philosophers? Be real Yael. Do you know what it would have been like to live without worrying about bills and debts and… oh Yael, you’re an idiot!”

Ima!”

“Never, never, never, will have another chance like this! Never! How could you reject Abraham Morgan’s son? Who do you think you are? Oh, it feels like the world is ending.”

“Stop being ridiculous and overdramatic. I want to go to nursing school.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“I wouldn’t have gone if I’d married him. I want to make my own way in the world without being dependent on a man. The marriage would have always felt unequal, and like I was secretly in his debt. And besides, I’m not in love with Shlomie.”

“What sort of fairy tale world are you living in? You can learn to love somebody if you live with him for long enough!”

“I want to live alone.”

“But you have all of your life to live alone! Now is the time to get married!”

“I don’t want to get married!”

“Do you want to die an old maid like your aunt Marianna? Is that it?”

“Come on, Ima!”

“Can I be blunt with you?”

“Go ahead.”

“You aren’t particularly pretty or particularly smart or particularly interesting as a human being, and that boy was about the only thing that you had going for you. His infatuation was like a blessing. You’ve just ruined your best chance at happiness in life. And after I called everyone to tell them that you were engaged…”

Yael closed her eyes, brought her hands to her temples, and howled.

“Be quiet! You’ll wake up your brothers.”

“Enough is enough, Ima! I don’t want to hear another word from you! I’m going to nursing school now! Not in September, but now. I’ll take summer courses at Ramat Aviv and live at Safta’s until then. I swear to God that I’ll never spend another night in this house of hell ever again.”

Yael raised her plate of salad and, after a moment of hesitation, dashed it to the floor. Then she ran out of the kitchen.

“You didn’t have to be so cruel to her,” said Nachum.

“I was telling her the truth.”

“No, Miriam. Not that way. Not like that. Poor girl.”

Awakened by the noise, Raz and Yonatan rushed out of their bedrooms and found their mother standing in a puddle of broken glass and vegetables. She began to quietly clear away the mess. Nachum shook his head and rose from the couch. He knocked on Yael’s door, but she wouldn’t answer. After a while, he gave up. He collected his car keys and drove to the factory.

In the Presence of Strangers: Party Embers (Chapter IV)

sagging_balloons.jpg

It was eleven-thirty in Kefar Sava. Although not yet midnight, the town’s energies were depleted, and the place seemed little better than a maze of abandoned parks and alleyways. The portly blue and white balloons floating over the gate of 10 Anna Frank Street had begun to sag. But the party progressing inside wasn’t over just yet.

Much to his chagrin, Yonatan had been packed off to bed. He was busily eavesdropping with his ear to the door by the time that Miriam finished serving her guests Bavarian cream birthday cake. Tziporah, Abraham and Shlomie Shachar had all arrived fashionably late, considerably delaying the evening’s festivities. But by that hour, gifts had been unwrapped, dinners eaten, and tongues loosened by the sweetness of supermarket wine.

Tziporah held her breath for a moment in a show of refined indignation. She was relating a grievous story about how El Al had seated her apart from her husband on their recent trip to Thailand. What did she care if the plane was overbooked and they’d only arrived one hour before the flight instead of the customary three? Their tickets were for business class seats!

“I’m telling you, Miriam,” she said decisively, “that we will never, never fly El Al again. Their stewardesses are so unhelpful. I don’t know where they find them these days. They used to be so gracious and polite, but interacting with them now is like torture.”

“Where did they end up seating you?”

“Next to some Russians who got an upgrade. The whole plane was full of them. And the cow sitting next to me refused to switch seats with Abraham.”

“How do you tell the difference between a Chinese person and a Russian?” asked Shlomie excitedly.

“I don’t know, how?” said Yael after an uncomfortable pause, preemptively rolling her eyes.

“One has yellow skin, and the other has yellow teeth! Get it?”

Everyone forced themselves to laugh.

“In my day,” chimed Gisela from her seat beside the television, “when a Jew came to Israel he was an Israeli, and that was that. But times have changed. I think that the Russians are ruining this country.”

“Oh Ima, enough!”

“I mean what I say, Nachum. They aren’t conforming to the culture here. In fact, they’re actively changing it for the worse. Drunk driving, prostitution, the mafia… Did you know that I found a burglar in my apartment last month?”

“No!”

“It’s true, Tziporah. I found him in the kitchen when I came home from the theater. He darted straight out the door when I screamed for help. The rat stole every bit of jewelry in the house. He even took my wedding ring. Damned Cossack.”

“Russians have been in Israel since the foundation of the country, Safta,” said Yael.

“Yes, my dear. But they were a totally different breed of Russians,” said Tziporah.

“Trust me, most of these newcomers aren’t even Jewish,” said Gisela, “Leftists have ruined this country, letting the Goy invade us. My stomach turns every time I walk through Tel Aviv these days.”

“Please, Ima! You don’t know how hateful and close-minded you sound. It makes me sick.”

“Insult me all you want, but Israel is meant to be the homeland of the Jews, and not the unemployment office of East Asia and the Balkans. We don’t need diversity here. Leave that to America, where everyone is a mongrel.”

“Well, I’m sure that El Al’s rudeness just ruined your flight,” said Miriam. “Personally, I haven’t been overseas myself in years.”

“If you don’t count Tel Aviv,” interjected Shlomie. “Get it? Tel Aviv has so many Russians in it these days, it seems like a foreign country!”

“To be honest, I’ve never really enjoyed traveling very much,” continued Miriam after a courteous nod. “I have a pretty sensitive stomach, and I’m claustrophobic too. A crowded airplane cabin is hardly my ideal place to take a seat.”

“Why don’t you take motion-sickness pills?” said Tziporah. “You shouldn’t trap yourself in this house. You’ll regret it when you’re older. Right, Abraham?”

“Yes.”

Abraham Shachar spoke little and only with great difficulty. Any spark of liveliness or humor that he once possessed vanished long ago when he lost his entire family in the Second World War. Thanks to the shadow that Terezin cast upon his existence, he enjoyed nothing better than being left alone, and dreaded nothing more than polite conversation.

“I could never swallow pills,” protested Miriam, stroking her own head. “I was just telling my doctor the other day that the only way I can take medicine is in liquid form. If I took motion sickness pills, I would have to break up the tablets and mix them with water, and I’m sure that the taste would make me sick to my stomach.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Tziporah. “Motion sickness pills would not nauseate you! There are so many wonderful places to visit. Eastern Europe is all the rage these days. In fact, we’ll be visiting Prague this February. You should join us.”

“Well isn’t that a kind offer. Isn’t that a generous offer, Nachum?”

“Are they offering to pay for us?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Well, it’s a nice thought, Tziporah, but we will have to pass. I couldn’t stand the flight. I get so nervous in large crowds and closed spaces that I just want to crawl out of my skin. It horrifies me to give up control over my life to a captain I’ve never even met. I mean, how do I know that he’s not drunk or asleep at the wheel? Man wasn’t designed by evolution to be hurled through the sky in metal boxes. Granted, Nachum and I almost took a flight to Eilat a couple of years ago for a wedding, but we had to back out at the last minute. My doctor, Dr. Shatz… Dr. Shatz is a very sympathetic man, you know… he actually recommended that I take Valium to calm myself down. But I explained to him that just the idea of gagging on pills makes me-”

“Are you enjoying your birthday party, Yael?” asked Tziporah.

“Yes, thank you.”

“I see that my son didn’t bring you a present.”

“That will come later,” said Shlomie, slapping her back.

“You know, Yael,” said Tziporah, “the time has really come for you to visit our summer house in the Galilee by the Mount of Beatitudes. I can’t believe that you’ve been dating Shlomie for two years now and have never made the trip. We have a movie theater and a bowling alley and two swimming pools there and…well, everything that you could possibly dream of in a house! I personally prefer our comfortable little apartment in Savyon, but it’s nice to have a retreat from the real world once in a while. When Abraham retires I’m sure that we’ll be spending more time up north.”

“I’m not planning on retiring any time soon,” said Abraham.

“Oh no, not yet of course,” said Tziporah. “But the time will come when Shlomie will inherit the family business and the older generation will have to step aside.”

“So we’re the older generation now, are we?” laughed Nachum. He had found it expedient to ignore the bulk of the evening’s conversation, but couldn’t resist commenting on this latest revelation.

“Watch what you say,” said Gisela with mock indignation. “If you’re, old, then what am I? A fossil?”

Everyone smiled.

“You know, the younger generation of Israel faces new challenges every day,” began Yael hopefully. She had seen a special segment of the evening news focusing on the challenges of Israeli youth and was eager to repeat its observations as her own. But before she could continue, Abraham said,

“The younger generation of Israel doesn’t even know what challenges are,” and the room fell into an awkward silence again.

“Well, that was certainly true a year or two ago,” said Tziporah at last, “but this country isn’t such a naïve place anymore. I’m afraid that this next generation of Israelis has some very hard lessons to learn.”

“They should be grateful for those lessons,” said Gisela. “My generation didn’t create the Jewish state by surrendering to our enemies at every turn whenever they attacked us without provocation. Maybe an awakening to our neighbor’s hatred of us is exactly what this complacent generation needs. We Jews have nothing to preserve us but each other.”

“And American money,” added Nachum under his breath.

“Don’t even mention America to me,” said Gisela. “There is anti-Semitism everywhere. Everyone seems to be against us these days, though I don’t understand why. Does the world expect us to sit back and let the Palestinians massacre us? These suicide bombings are like a nightmare. How is it anyone’s business what we do to defend ourselves?”

“It’s terrible to hear you carry on that way,” said Nachum. “We were close to peace once, but the idiots in our government botched it up for everyone. And now we all talk as if-”

“It wasn’t the idiots in our government who botched it up,” said Shlomie. “It was that damned Arafat. It’s all his fault. He refused to make peace.”

“But what difference does it make whose fault it was? You don’t think that most of the Arabs want it to end as much as we do?”

“No,” said Abraham suddenly and with great conviction. “Most of them detest us with a kind of intensity that you’ll never understand. And there are fanatics among them who would kill every one of us without a thought. We must fight to survive. And so we will.”

“You can leave that to me!” interjected Shlomie happily. “As long as we have a strong army, Israel will be just fine.”

“But the Palestinians aren’t necessarily all against us,” said Yael. “It’s only the extremists who are causing all the trouble.”

“That’s not true,” said Gisela. “They are all against us. And I don’t just mean the Palestinians, but the Arabs who live in Israel too.”

“That kind of attitude is ridiculous, Ima, and will only alienate the Israeli Arabs.”

“It’s gotten so late!” said Miriam above the cacophony. “More coffee, anybody? I can’t touch it after seven o’clock myself, or I’ll lie tossing in bed until the sun comes up. And when I’ve gone without sleep, my head-”

“You are absolutely wrong, Nachum,” said Gisela. “And frankly, I’m ashamed of your unpatriotic attitude. Jerusalem belongs to us, us. It’s in the Bible, for God’s sake. The city isn’t even mentioned in the Koran! All this trouble began when Sharon visited the Temple Mount and the Arabs started blowing themselves up over it— and even after we offered them practically every speck of land that they demanded at Camp David, I might add. Men like you and that fool Barak tried to give them peace. Well, they showed us exactly what they thought about that alternative when they began to riot in the streets and contrive the murder of innocent civilians. And while our men were scrambling to defend the country, the Israeli Arabs proved their loyalty by protesting against us and giving the terrorists secret aid. They at least have national solidarity, and would destroy us with it.”

“Well, that may be going a bit too far,” said Tziporah, turning to her husband. “The rotten apples ruin it for all of them, but the Palestinians aren’t all bad. In fact, we once had a house maid from Qalqilya who was a very charming girl. Do you remember her, Abraham? She was so intelligent. Too young to be a maid!”

“You don’t still keep her, do you?” asked Gisela.

“Of course not. We let her go before Sharon was even elected. But she had a hard life. Her mother was dead and her father wanted her to marry her own cousin. At least, I think that’s how the story went. Anyway, the girl refused, so he slammed a door on her arm and broke it as punishment for disobeying him. She had no one in the world to help her, poor thing. God only knows what happened to her after we fired her. We gave her a lifetime’s worth of free coupons to eat at our restaurants the last time we saw her.”

“How generous,” muttered Nachum.

“At any rate,” continued Tziporah, “There’s no use complaining. You can’t help your birth. But we Jews are lucky enough to have good blood and should stick together in dangerous times.”

“How true that is,” said Gisela, eyeing her son accusingly. “But I tell you, until we build a wall separating us from the Arabs, and the Arabs from each other, these murders will never end and there will be no final solution to the troubles of this country.”

“The movement to build one is gaining steam,” said Tziporah.

“The sooner the better. Nothing else will put a stop to these suicide bombings, unless we do something like start executing the families of the terrorists. That’d fix the problem quickly enough.”

“That is a shameful thought, Gisela,” said Miriam. “But really, I don’t like to dwell on politics. Let’s talk about something else.”

“When I think about all of those children blown up earlier this month in cold blood at the Dolphinarium, it makes me want to cry.”

“Let’s not discuss it, Ima,” said Nachum. “It’s a very painful subject in this house.”

Everyone was silent.

“Well Abraham,” said Tziporah, “Yala! It’s getting late. It’s time to go home. You have work tomorrow.”

Ima, wait!” cried Shlomie, rising suddenly from the couch. “Don’t leave just yet. I wanted to talk to Yael outside for a minute, if I could. I won’t be very long. I’ll follow you home in the jeep.”

Miriam and Tziporah shared a knowing glance.

“Well,” said Tziporah, “I guess one more cup of coffee wouldn’t hurt. But hurry up, you two. It’s getting late. Your father is getting tired.”

“I won’t take too long!” said Shlomie, seizing Yael’s hand and practically dragging her onto the porch.

In the meanwhile, Raz was just returning from Netanya. His journey back to Kefar Sava had not been an easy one. He’d been forced to hitchhike with two different drivers and trek three kilometers before returning home. Nevertheless, although his T-shirt was damp and his feet were blistered, the night had turned out unexpectedly well. Yasmine had agreed to go with him on a date to Tel Aviv, and he could hardly wait. He promised himself that he wouldn’t make the same mistake with her as he had with Ilana. His plan was to discover and harp subconsciously on Yasmine’s imperfections before he was tied down to her. Then he would sleep with her and move on to another girl, and then to another one after that. He was determined to teach himself that women were expendable, and that it was possible to date casually without getting imprisoned in a relationship. The thought of it thrilled him. But his smile soon withered at the sight of Shlomie and his sister standing on the front porch. There was no way to avoid meeting them.

“Raz, habibi, how’s it going?” called Shlomie. “You missed your sister’s birthday party!” He slapped Raz’s back with such playful violence that he nearly pushed him over.

“Hello Shlomie,” said Raz quietly. “Still in the army?”

“Same old, same old. Where’d you go, to the beach?”

“Yes. To one of your father’s restaurants, actually.”

“Great. The girls down there have great taste in clothes, don’t they?”

“It’s hard to tell in the middle of the night, but I guess so.”

“There are two things that I look for in a woman and they’re easy to find at the beach. Know what they are?”

“Not really.”

“Her tits! Get it?”

“Very funny,” snapped Yael.

“I could have come with you in my jeep,” Shlomie continued enthusiastically. “There’s plenty of room in the back seat, if you know what I mean.”

Raz chuckled very awkwardly and then turned to his sister.

“Did you have a nice party?”

“You look like you swam here from Netanya.”

“It’s just sweat. I had some bad luck getting home. Nothing serious. Well, OK! Have a good night!”

He escaped.

Yael was sorry to see him go. She didn’t particularly enjoy her brother’s company, but preferred it to being left alone with Shlomie that night. Considering her sense of dread, she might have insisted that they return indoors. But it was a beautiful night, and the breeze was pregnant with the scent of honeysuckle. Not to be outdone by nature, Shlomie lit a cigarette and supplied the air with the perfume of tar. He snorted contentedly as he placed his right hand on Yael’s shoulder, nearly elbowing her nose every time he crossed her face to take a new puff.

“Well, Yael, happy birthday. Another year’s gone by! And by the way, in case you were wondering, I really didn’t forget about your present.”

“Really, Shlomie?”

“When should we tell your parents about the wedding?”

“Whose wedding?”

“Ours! Happy birthday!”

Yael looked to the ground.

“Just keep in mind that once our mothers know about this, we won’t hear the end of it until we set a date. Personally, I wouldn’t care if we said to hell with it and sailed off to Cyprus, but you know how old fashioned our parents can be.”

He laughed nervously. Yael lifted his arm from her shoulder.

“That’s very sweet of you, Shlomie, but you know that I can’t accept this proposal.”

The color drained from his face.

“I’m doing this all wrong. I’m sorry. Are you angry that I don’t have a ring? I figured it would be better for you to help me pick one out instead of buying one that you didn’t really want.”

“What possessed you to propose to me?”

“I… I figured that it was time to take the plunge. There’s only so long that you can wait to do this sort of thing, and besides, you’ve earned it.”

“Excuse me? What a moron you are, Shlomie.”

“Why are you being so mean to me?” He began to pant and lick his lips uncontrollably, as always when he felt threatened.

“What do you mean I’ve earned it?”

“Well, you’ve stuck by me for two years. That shows commitment. You can’t say that this surprised you. Don’t you want to marry me?”

“No, I don’t want to marry you. You know that I don’t want to marry anybody. We’ve talked about this before.”

“What are you, then? A lesbian?”

“For God’s sake, I’m only twenty-one years old! I told you that I want to go to nursing school. Marriage is the last thing that I need holding me back right now. I don’t want to be a sellout and a hypocrite like my friend Avital, who gave up on all her aspirations to become the slave of some chauvinist asshole. Besides, this isn’t even a proper proposal. Like you said, you don’t even have a ring.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying. You’ve never seen my house in the Galilee.”

“You mean your parents’ house in the Galilee. If memory serves, you live in a little army bunker.”

“That house will be mine soon enough. We could go there whenever we wanted. And my mother said she’d let us live in their extra apartment in Herzliya once we got married.”

“How romantic. Do you think that she might let us celebrate our honeymoon in the pantry?”

“Look who’s talking. You live with your parents now.”

“That’s only temporary. I’ll be on my own soon enough. Once I go to nursing school-”

“Nobody’s stopping you from going to nursing school! That has nothing to do with anything!”

“Leave me alone. If you only knew how to treat a woman properly-”

“I’ve treated you too well!” snarled Shlomie. “If I decided that I wanted to marry you, I should have left you. You’d have come crawling to me on your knees, begging and pleading for me to take you back again. But maybe I wouldn’t be available anymore.”

“Have you ever known me to be the jealous type? If you want to be with somebody else because I won’t marry you, be my guest.”

“You say those kinds of things now, but I know you better than you know yourself. Trust me, you’re just like any other woman.”

“It looks like you’re the only one who’s begging and pleading tonight, Shlomie. Shalom. I’m going inside.”

Conscious of the fact that he was about to break down in tears, Shlomie heaved his cigarette into the rose bushes and scrambled toward his car. Yael moved to follow him from force of habit, but stopped herself. Soon, except for the snaps of mosquitoes being electrocuted by the neighbor’s insect repeller and the distant chorus of crickets, the night was totally silent. Yael didn’t plan on being so hard on Shlomie, but his obstinacy had left her with little choice. Still, what did it matter what she said to him that night? He would recover from her rejection soon enough and come back to her, but would think twice in the future about proposing to her and taking it for granted that she would accept. She was twenty-one years old and at the prime of her life. She had the right to be selective.

In the Presence of Strangers: The Gutman Family (Chapter II)

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Nachum Gutman, his wife, and three children lived in a one story cement box in the town of Kefar Sava crowned with a small attic that served as a storage room. Mundane at best and Spartan at worst, these accommodations were in fact something of a unique blessing for the Gutman family. The Holy Land is small and its holy dirt is accordingly expensive. In the wake of exorbitant market prices, the majority of Israelis live atop one another in crowded apartment complexes. But the nearer the West Bank one ventures, the cheaper land becomes, and Kefar Sava is just inconveniently situated enough to render back yards affordable to a few lucky members of the middle class. The town is a teeming place, and in 2001 boasted the distinction of housing what was then the largest Kentucky Fried Chicken in the entire Middle East.

But the comforts of Kefar Sava weren’t always accessible to the Gutman family. When they first married, Nachum and his wife lived in an inexpensive apartment in Qiryat Ono. Although their flat was far from luxurious, it was quite comfortable for two people. After the birth of Yael, they called it cozy. After the birth of Raz, they called it crowded. After the birth of Yonatan, they called it quits. Although Nachum was only an under-manager at the ELCO Factory, twenty years of thrift and two mortgages allowed the Gutmans tenure of their own concrete and linoleum Xanadu. But even though their house was humble, it boasted some degree of local notoriety. Thanks to a managerial fluke, its back yard was a full two meters wider on either side than it should have been.

From the day that his family first moved to Kefar Sava, Nachum took pathetic pride in the slightly inflated size of his back yard. When he could no longer endure the critiques of his mother (who lived thankfully far away back in Qiryat Ono), the complaints of his wife, or the selfishness of his children, he would find an excuse to grow a new plant. Consequently, by the summer of 2001, not so much as a single window was visible behind a veritable jungle of laurel trees and rose bushes. But if one were to cast aside the foliage on the twenty-third day of June and peek inside the little bunker’s lavatory, the snoop would catch sight of an entertaining spectacle. An eighteen year old boy was primping in front of the bathroom mirror with all of the flamboyance of a peacock in heat.

Raz hummed unmelodically as he smeared his neck with lather and fumbled to retrieve a razor from his leather bag of toiletries. A pile of clothing soaked in a puddle of bathwater lay beside him. It hardly mattered. He was confident that his mother would clean up after him. He rubbed a circle of steam from the mirror and examined his reflection. He considered to himself that though he was lankier than he might have preferred, he had the face of the muse of a Renaissance artist. But despite the generous amounts of acne cream he had applied the night before, his forehead remained distressingly oily. He attempted to shave the elusive space between his chin and Adam’s apple. His efforts met with little success, but he told himself that he had done a fine job. He shaved his upper lip, creating a fleeting little Hitler moustache as he did so. He made a scary face at himself in the mirror. Then he shaved it off. He tried to whistle the national anthem. He examined his hairline apprehensively. He wondered if he would go bald like his father.

Raz was born with wisps of light blonde hair and iridescent blue eyes, but his head in general darkened after the age of three. For a time, his mother attempted to rub lemon juice into his scalp in an effort to bleach it back to its former splendor. Unfortunately, the resulting color was little better than a riot of brown streaks. Eventually, Miriam was compelled to resign herself to a swarthy son. But though Raz grew darker and coarser with age, a flicker of gold would occasionally shimmer in his hair, and he would seem to regain something of his former appearance. Now, however, was not one of those occasions. He was so tan that in bad lighting, he could almost pass for an Arab.

At eighteen, he was through with school and did not regret its passing. Although keenly intelligent, he was bored by the ambience of the classroom and had made no real friends there. He spent most of his time dreaming about America. He perfected his English by imitating the accents of the casts of Seinfeld and Friends. One of his greatest accomplishments in life was getting through every word of an old copy of Gone with the Wind with his grandfather and double checking that they understood each sentence with the help of a published translation. He’d had a lot of spare time on his hands once.

As for the army, it was still months away and, despite the shadow that it cast across the youths of all Israelis, still remained intangible to him. All that mattered was that he was finally old enough to open the bank account that Safta Gisela has started for him when he was born; for now, ten thousand dollars was more money than he could even dream of spending. Sandwiched between the inaccessibility of the past and the uncertainty of the future, he had made a conscious decision to dispense altogether with his yesterdays and tomorrows. He looked uncertainly at his reflection and began to gargle mouthwash. He hoped that he would be ready in time.

He’d been preparing for the past half hour for a date with Ilana, the girl that his mother called his chavera. If it were up to him, he would have preferred to call her his nothing. She’d been his acquaintance for years, and just another faceless face he encountered every day between a smile and a yawn. But one day his senior year, she smiled at him in the hallway. Then some insane impulse impelled him to ask her to the movies. That was the beginning of the end.

He’d never even been on a date before. Until that year, he had been disfigured by acne all over his face. The repugnance with which he was sure everyone encountered him had imprisoned him in an involuntary state of asexuality throughout his adolescence, stunting the development of his social graces. To justify the world’s lack of interest in him, he’d learned to delude himself into believing that he was similarly indifferent. He’d taught himself to fear both the intimacy of a relationship and the emotional horror of a breakup. And he had long since made it a habit to hunt for the imperfections of his classmates in search of excuses to disregard the effort of initiating a romance with any of them. Better to do that, he thought, than to risk the humiliation of his awkward advances being rejected, or the suffocation that would inevitably follow as the attendant consequences of their acceptance. And so he spent the majority of his high school years masturbating in the dark to the thought of rich and popular girls who were out of his league.

For some reason, though, he’d decided to take a chance with Ilana. Maybe he wanted to see what he’d been missing all those years. She enjoyed the particular recommendation of his mother, who was an old family friend of her parents. Miriam was always warning him that the over-critical die alone, morose advice though it might have been to give to a teenage son. To his surprise, Ilana accepted him, pustules and all. At first, the magic of a fumbling physical relationship blinded him to reason, and for a long time, he did his best to enjoy her company. But it wasn’t easy. She was always second guessing his intentions and pointing out his flaws. Worse yet, she persisted in forcing him to spend time with her friends, a group of people he found almost unbearably irritating. Eventually, he grew to dislike almost everything about Ilana. But somehow, without his even knowing it, she’d become his chavera.

Then, one day, as if by magic, his acne cleared up. Girls suddenly began to notice him. Of course, to leave the woman who’d chosen him before his metamorphosis in exchange for the superficial harpies who’d always spurned him would have been disgusting. Besides, he was too chivalrous to abandon Ilana after all they’d done together. But his patience was beginning to wear thin.

He chafed his head with a towel and gazed longingly at himself in the mirror. He was almost unusually handsome, he thought, although he often claimed to deny it. But Ilana’s face was the shape of a watermelon and her jaw jutted out like a witch’s chin. He was never really at ease with her. She seemed to see him as a piece of shapeless marble to be refined and transformed by her persistence. But Raz wanted to be his own sculptor.

He clawed at his face for a final time and, after burnishing the dry skin on his nose with a paper towel, decided to take a second shower. His first had been too short, and anyway, he found the feeling of the hot water to be calming. But when he approached the tub, he toppled over his ball of laundry, landing squarely on his stomach. For a moment, he lay paralyzed in a sea of soap and dirty clothes. But then, he laughed at his clumsiness, got up, and turned the shower handle, staring at the tiles of the bathroom wall as he waited for the water to grow warm again.

Their dark blue pattern reminded him of the beach. As a child, he’d fantasized about being a deep sea diver, although he’d long since learned that there was little more than filth and jelly fish to be discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean. But still, he remembered the ambition fondly. It reminded him that for as long as he could remember, he was always curious to discover what lay beneath the surface. For all of his faults, he told himself that he was a deep person, and as such enjoyed a certain diplomatic immunity in all his of dealings with other people. Whatever anyone thought of him, he would always have his profundity of character, and for the time being at least, that was more than enough to justify his self-absorption.

He congratulated himself on his powers of introspection and checked the water temperature. Finding it to his liking, he stepped into the tub. Just then, the bathroom door flung open and a little voice cried out at him from across the room.

“Get out of here, Yael! You don’t own the place, you know!”

Yonatan had pounded on the bathroom door so violently that he accidentally pushed it open. Raz moved the shower curtain aside and poked out his head.

“Get out of here yourself, Yonatan!”

“I’m sorry Raz,” he stammered, scrambling out of the bathroom. “I didn’t know that it was you.”

Yonatan closed the door and hunched miserably over the threshold. He hoped that Raz wasn’t angry with him. He loved his older brother blindly. Raz was never too busy to do things like tell him stories at night before he went to bed, or help him build Lego sets, or watch American cartoons together, or play Pokemon on Gameboy. This sort of kindness stood in marked opposition to the frigidity of their sister Yael, who was always ignoring him. Granted, she’d been friendly to him for about a week earlier that month when the news about Irina’s murder first broke, but she’d since reverted back to her usual callousness. Raz, though, was absolutely magnificent, swept up in some enigmatic sense of purpose that somehow lay beyond the comprehension of a nine year old mind. For all of his reverence, though, Yonatan could think of nothing at the moment but his need to use the bathroom. He prayed to God that his body would prove physically capable of waiting out a second shower.

After what seemed like an eternity, Raz opened the door clad in red, white, and blue striped boxers.

“You shouldn’t go barging into bathrooms without knocking,” said Raz all-knowingly. “Remember, we only have one shower, and there are five people in this house.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” answered Yonatan, shuffling in place. “I wouldn’t have pounded on the door so hard if I knew that it was you in there and not Yael.”

Raz smiled.

“Do you want to help me pick out clothes to wear tonight? I’ll let you into my room again. Your daytime exile will be officially called off.”

Yonatan forced himself to be still.

“Really, Raz?”

“Why not? I admire your fashion sense.”

Really, Raz?”

“Yeah, now hurry up.”

“I’ll be there in a minute!”

“My door will be locked in a minute,” called Raz, already making his way to the house’s bomb shelter that doubled as his bedroom. “If you want to come, you’ll have to come now.”

“Can’t you wait?” pleaded Yonatan, scrambling after him despite himself. “You haven’t let me into your room during the day since I spilled Fanta on your Gameboy last week. I’ll only be a minute!”

“Never mind, Yonatan. Forget about it. Maybe you can make a visit with Ima when she comes in here to vacuum someday.”

“But-”

“Just be quiet and help me find my socks.”

Raz ruffled Yonatan’s hair and then began to rummage through his dresser. Yonatan stared at his brother in mute awe.

“Do you really admire my fashion sense?”

“Sure. I bet that your plastic sandals are the hottest things on the playground.”

“Are you being sarcastic?”

“I’m impressed you know that word.”

“Are you kidding? Ima screams it at me all the time.”

“Anyway, what do you think I should wear tonight?”

“I think you should wear your zebra shirt, the one with the black and white stripes.”

“Wow. That’s a pajama top, Yonatan.”

“Really? It looks cool though. To go with it, why don’t you borrow Aba’s work boots, and-”

Before Yonatan could finish his sentence, Raz’s cell-phone rang in his back pocket. After a couple of rounds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, he discovered the telephone buried beneath a petrified ball of tissue paper and brought it to his ear, involuntarily cringing for fear of cranial cancer.

“Hello? Oh, shalom, Ilana. Speak up, I can’t hear you. I hate holding these things too close to my head. I’ll be ready in a few minutes…”

Yonatan began to pace around the room. At last, he considered making a break for it when the sudden sight of Raz’s flaring nostrils stopped him in his tracks.

“What do you mean Ofir and Nathan are coming with us to the beach? Why did you invite them? You know how much I hate it when you… yes, yes, yes, I still want to go out! It’s too late to change plans now… No, Ilana, I don’t think that I’m overreacting…Oh, I promise you that I won’t antagonize Ofir! Has it ever occurred to you that he might be the one who’s always insulting me?”

By now Yonatan was reduced to hopping miserably in place. Unable to bear the wait any longer, he finally rushed out of the room and into the hallway. The moment he reached the bathroom, though, Yael swept into his path and said,

“Get out of my way, kid.”

He prepared to protest, but his sister slammed the door in his face before he could say a word. Yael ignored her brother’s squeals and looked for her reflection in the bathroom mirror. There was nothing there. Raz had done a fine job of clouding up the room. She noticed his pile of dirty laundry on the floor. Her mother would expect her to pick up after him, no doubt, despite the fact that it was her birthday. She cursed under her breath and wiped away a circle of steam from the mirror. She examined her face. She was not beautiful and she knew it. Eyes, nose, mouth, all in their proper places, but all terribly unremarkable. Her nostrils were set too widely apart, and her forehead was too high. She was her mother’s daughter.

Since her best friend Avital had moved away to Haifa, Yael’s life was like a never-ending one act play with an eternity of the same monologues, the same scenery, and the same bad actors. One day, she thought, the curtain would rise unexpectedly on a new act, complete with fresh scenery and new players. But for the time being, she was confined to the longsuffering servant’s role in the most boring drawing room comedy in world history, imprisoned in the doldrums of polite domesticity with all of the inevitability of an Israeli Cinderella. She bit her lip at the thought of it and then began to brush her teeth.

In the meantime, Yonatan ran into the kitchen, his face scarlet. His mother was standing at the counter drying tears from her eyes. The entire house reeked of onion and garlic.

Ima, Yael won’t let me-”

“Oh Yonatan, don’t shout!” shouted Miriam.

“But Ima-

“I’m busy right now. Can’t you do anything on your own? You’re ten years old!”

“I’m nine.”

“That’s funny. When you wanted to stay up until midnight yesterday, you said that you were ten. It’s a talent to change your age at will like that.”

“You should know. You’ve turned thirty-nine for five years in a row now.”

“Don’t be so sarcastic! For God’s sake, where’s your father? He left to buy drinks like an hour ago. How long do we have to wait for him?”

Yonatan left the kitchen and hobbled toward a bean bag chair in the living room. He grimaced at his mother, but Miriam took no notice. She was busy running from microwave to oven and from pot to pan with more energy than her rudimentary recipes seemed to demand. Her hair clung to her forehead in thick black strands, but she would not take the time to rearrange it— her husband would see her unkempt state and realize how hard she’d been working preparing for the party without him.

She considered that she’d once been an attractive woman. But when she approached the sink and caught sight of her reflection in a metal pan, it seemed to her that her distorted image was more like a heap of crumples than a face. She felt a sharp pain in her right arm. Maybe she was coming down with arthritis. In fact, she knew that she was coming down with it. She felt it creeping into her joints day by day, and her great aunt Margot had had it besides. But she didn’t have time for personal concerns right now. There was work to be done, and her toil would probably never end until she was in the grave and at least granted the poetic justice of leaving her family helpless. She placed the lid on a pot of chicken broth and moved to slice a loaf of bread.

Yael now trudged into the kitchen. Yonatan leapt from the couch and ran into the newly vacant bathroom, knocking over an end-table as he did so.

“I wish that the psychiatrist would have listened to me and prescribed Ritalin for him,” said Miriam, whispering the word psychiatrist.

“It’s been a hard month for him.”

“It’s been a hard month for all of us. But it seems like Yonatan can’t focus on anything for more than ten minutes at a time anymore. It’s becoming a headache. Really, I don’t understand why summer vacations have to last the whole summer. Don’t schools have any pity on parents? He has nothing to do but sit around the house all day and think about things that he can’t help. No wonder the boy has nightmares. And all of his friends are away at camp. There’s nothing to help take his mind off things.”

She turned to Yael. “By the way, I want you to clean the bathroom floor before Safta gets here, but you can sit here for now, to rest. Just don’t look in the refrigerator. I’m making something special for your birthday and I want it to be a surprise. Is that a new dress?”

“You bought it for me three years ago for my graduation. It was on sale.”

“Well, it looks good as new and is really very flattering on you. It almost gives the impression you have a chest.”

Ima!”

“I was only saying that it was a smart choice to wear tonight! It’s very adult. You know, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that you’re turning twenty-one today. Can you believe that I was twenty-one when your father proposed to me?”

“Well times have changed,” said Yael, flipping to a documentary on the Learning Channel. “You’re not being very subtle with your hints. But I want you to know that there’s more to life than marriage, especially at my age. Now that I’ve finished with the army, I should be off seeing the world. I should be in India or Thailand or some exotic place like that. But instead, I’m trapped here in this kitchen with you.”

She scanned her mother’s face for a reaction. Miriam laughed.

“You can fly to any third world country you like when you have something in your pocket to send you there.”

Yael clicked her tongue against her teeth and focused her attention on the television. A woman in a white lab coat was speaking in an authoritative voice about genetics.

In light of groundbreaking research, genes have proven more than relevant to the field of modern biology. They may well hold significant clues to our understanding of life itself at the dawn of the new millennium.

“I’ll have something to send me there soon enough,” said Yael, looking raptly at the screen, “and I won’t need anyone’s favors after I go to nursing school… I still want to go to nursing school, you know.”

“You and Avital would talk about enrolling all the time when you were in high school.”

“But I was more sincere about it than she was, evidently.”

“I imagined that the dream died for both of you after she got engaged to that corporal she met in the army.”

“Dreams never die.”

“That’s what you think. Anyway, I’m sure that Shlomie’s going to love that new dress.”

“Stop repeating yourself. I told you that it wasn’t new. Besides, Shlomie wouldn’t notice it even if it was. He’s a pretty oblivious person.”

“You’re awfully cranky tonight. Has something changed between you two?”

“Of course not. That’s the problem. Our relationship is totally boring. Nothing ever changes between us.”

“Spontaneity is overrated, Yael. There’s something to be said for consistency.”

Miriam wiped her hands on her apron and returned to the oven. Whatever Yael’s many shortcomings, her taste in men at least was impeccable. Her boyfriend came from one of the wealthiest and most respected families in the country. When his parents first immigrated from Czechoslovakia, they were known as the Morgans, but after their beachside restaurant grew into a chain of popular cafes, they eventually adopted the name Shachar, setting aside memories of the Second World War and accentuating their Israeli heritage instead. Granted, Shlomie was not exactly a witty or personable or clever young man, and he had somehow doubled in weight since joining the army. But did these kinds of details really matter, considering that he was an aristocrat? Yael had met him two years ago at a distant cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, and they’d been dating ever since. They would undoubtedly marry someday. Miriam was sure of it. In fact, Shlomie’s mother Tziporah had confided that the engagement was coming any day now. She saw herself in her daughter’s eyes and beamed, pushing a plate of dry biscuits in the direction of her face.

“Eat those crackers.”

“I don’t want them.”

“Eat them.”

“I said no.”

“You look like a skeleton, Yael! Eat the crackers!”

Yael ate the crackers.

A car honked in the parking lot. Miriam hurried to the window hoping to find Nachum, but only saw Ilana Fischer opening the door of an unfamiliar minivan. She nodded her head in grudging approval. She was pleased that Ilana was Raz’s girlfriend despite the fact that her parents were a pair of stingy ingrates. She could not forget that they had arrived empty-handed at Rosh Ha Shana after she’d spent eighty shekels on a stainless steel frying pan for their anniversary party. Oddly enough, Ilana didn’t appear to be carrying anything with her, and Miriam wondered just where she was hiding her daughter’s birthday present. She wouldn’t have dared to show her face without a gift after the scandal of the frying pan. Still, Miriam realized that she shouldn’t be so quick to judge. After all, she might be bringing a check. She answered the door before the girl could find the time to knock on it.

“Hello, Miriam,” gasped Ilana. “You startled me! Is Raz ready to go?”

“I wasn’t expecting you tonight! How are you?”

“I’m fine, thank you. And you?”

“Under the weather, to be honest. As usual.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Do you have a bag or an envelope or something that I can help you with?”

“Excuse me?”

“Aren’t you here for my daughter’s party?”

Raz now appeared in the hallway. His head shimmered with mousse, and a single strand of hair lay carefully positioned on his forehead for a show of spontaneity. Ilana tried to embrace him, but he did not return the gesture. He began to follow her outside, but Miriam stopped him.

“What’s going on, Raz?”

“I’m going out.”

“But it’s your sister’s birthday party tonight.”

“Well, happy birthday to her. Did I shave the bottom of my neck right? I can never tell.”

“It’s your sister’s twenty-first birthday, and you’re going out?”

“Right.”

“But we’ve been getting ready for this party all day. Don’t you have any consideration for her feelings?”

“Only about as much as she has for mine.”

“You used to be so close.”

“That was a long time ago, Ima.”

Miriam began to protest, but just then, Nachum and Gisela entered the house bearing a cargo of assorted groceries.

“Where have you been?” growled Miriam. “I thought that something terrible happened to you and we’d have no drinks for the party!”

“Well, that would have been a heavy loss,” said Nachum, positioning his bag of groceries on the table and making his way into the living room.

“You said that you would only be gone for ten minutes! How could you leave me by myself to…look at me, Nachum! I feel like a slave in my own house sometimes.”

“Sorry,” he said, opening the newspaper.

Gisela stared coldly at her daughter-in-law.

“Hello, Miriam.”

“Oh, shalom, Gisela,” said Miriam hurriedly but in a deferential voice. “Yael is in the kitchen and Yonatan is upstairs. They’ll be happy to see you. Raz is going out.”

She kissed her mother-in-law’s cheek and rushed out of sight, mumbling objections to herself as she went. Gisela winked at her grandson.

“Wherever you’re going, you’d better leave now, before your mother gets back,” she said, slipping him a hundred shekel bill whose absence she would feel in her weekly budget, although not too acutely. “Have a good time.”

Raz embraced his grandmother and kissed her on both cheeks. Then he left the house, slamming the door behind him. Gisela watched him leave intently. He would be a soldier soon.

In the Presence of Strangers: Sabbath Shopping (Chapter I)

I will post a new chapter from my novel about Israel and the intifada every Friday. This book is dedicated to Safta, Saba, Bubby, and Poppy. 

That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.” (Hillel)

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The rose of Sharon wilts precisely six kilometers south of Kochav Yair, just beyond a fork in the road notorious for traffic accidents. To the west, civilization sprawls irresistibly onward, approaching the Pizza Huts and McDonalds’ beyond which the classic waters of the Mediterranean lap the shoreline. To the north, on the other side of a security post manned by guards bearing semiautomatic weaponry and acne scars, the roads of Palestine ramble alongside the wadis of the West Bank, progressing through a long parade of graveyards until they reach the Jordan River, or what is left of it, anyway.

It is a wild place, but not without some sense of dilapidated grandeur. Hills strewn with boulders diffract the sunshine into webs of color and crown the surrounding countryside with their moving shadows. Whitewashed minarets preside over Arab villages. Satellite dishes punctuate the Judaic skyline. The cries of Palestinian children hawking cactus fruit mingle with the blare of Toyota horns at rush hour. Light and shadow, stone and air, past and present—schisms define the place. But encompassing every coming and going are light winds descending from the nearby hills of Samaria, that biblical wilderness proverbial around the world for its neighborliness.

On the twenty-third day of June in the first year of the new millennium, Nachum Gutman’s sea green Ford approached these crossroads from the direction of Kochav Yair and turned toward the West Bank. In the front seat of the car sat all seventy-five kilograms of Gisela Gutman, seatbelt securely fastened. Her son wasn’t wearing one.

“For God’s sake, Nachum, would you please slow down? Is getting to this place five minutes sooner worth killing the two of us?”

“The store closes at five. Try to relax. Enjoy the scenery.”

“I’m telling you, I want to go home!”

“Give me a break, Ima. Just think about the deals you’ll find when we get to the store. The thought of saving money is like Prozac when it comes to you.”

“What’s Prozac?”

“Don’t worry about it. What’s important is that if you pay the shopkeeper in cash at this place, he’s always willing to give you a discount. And Coca Cola is Coca Cola whether you buy it from an Arab or a Jew, right?”

“Bravo, Nachum. How profound. You know, when your father— may he rest in peace— when your father was in the army, he would give the Bedouin laborers his regiment’s leftover food. You know what a generous man he was. And do you know how they repaid him? With rock throwing. Rock throwing! When his jeep drove by, they threw rocks at him.”

“How do you know that those rock throwers were the same Bedouins who enjoyed the generosity of Aba’s table scraps?”

Gisela narrowed her eyes. For a moment, she was silent. But only for a moment.

“I don’t understand what’s happened to this country,” she said loudly. “Israel is going to pieces. It’s as if everything my generation fought for is going to pieces.”

“Remind me again exactly what you crusaded for as a housewife in the suburbs.”

“Your aren’t impressing anybody with your sarcasm, you know. You have no pride in anything that matters. No pride, and no common sense. My son, the hippy!” She pronounced the word “hippy” through her nose, shaking her index finger menacingly before resuming her diatribe. “There is only one Israel, but there are so many Arab countries. I don’t understand why the Palestinians can’t all move to Jordan. Why else was it created by the British?”

“I have a better idea. Why don’t we just drive them into the sea?”

“Are you trying to be funny? Because as usual, you’re failing pretty miserably at it.”

“It’s just that I’d forgotten what a progressive political thinker you were.”

“Why don’t you stop trying to educate me and turn this car around? I keep telling you that I don’t feel safe here.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re almost there. We need to pick up drinks for Yael’s party.”

Gisela turned away from Nachum, grinding her teeth. He’d tricked her into coming with him to the borders of the West Bank, and now it was too late to turn back. But she wouldn’t allow his obstinacy get the best of her. If he wouldn’t listen to plain common sense, perhaps he would at least heed the call of history.

“Nachum darling,” she began in her most somber tones, “listen carefully to me. We Jews have always been an oppressed people. You don’t understand the kind of prejudice and hatred that we used to face in the days before we had a country to call our own.”

Oivaivoi, here it comes.”

“I’m only saying that the world could be a better place with a little understanding and some human compassion. We must learn to accept each other, and until these Palestinians do so, there will never be peace.”

“Never mind war and peace. We’ve arrived.”

The car halted. Gisela unfastened her seat belt and fumbled to find a package of Kleenex in her handbag. The store, if one could call it that, was little better than a hovel beside a gas station. She was embarrassed to be so profoundly terrified by such a contemptible place. As Nachum lumbered to open her door, she was at least comforted to glance a second car with an Israeli license plate in the parking lot. Maybe the place wasn’t so God-forsaken after all.

She was relieved. A moment ago, she’d almost felt like a traitor to her people. Was she, Gisela Gutman, daughter of the most accomplished dentist in Warsaw, sullying a cause rooted in millennia of dispersal and persecution by purchasing soft drinks from the enemy? It was a gnawing suspicion plaguing her ever since her son had informed her just where their shopping errand would be taking them. She had never trusted in the possibility of peace. The current storm of violence was perfectly logical to a woman of her penetrating sensibilities. Judgment Day seemed to linger on the horizon, and yet here she was, wandering like Daniel into the lion’s den for the sake of discounts on sugar water. But the presence of an Israeli car promised at least a rudimentary degree of security and national solidarity. So, after a final sigh for good measure, she resigned herself to the task at hand. Terror would not distract her from pursuing the necessities of everyday life. Perhaps a journey to the front lines might even prove to be patriotic.

But her resolve weakened the moment she stepped over the threshold. The Arab cashier nodded menacingly in her direction. His teeth were just as repulsive as she could have imagined. In the far corner of the room, a little boy was napping on a crate. The skin of his neck was raw and flaking. Gisela wondered if his condition was contagious. She cast the cashier a defiant glance and shuffled toward the center aisle, grasping at bottles of Cola and hastily packing them into a basket as she sought out the owners of the Israeli car from the corner of her eye.

To her dismay, they were nowhere to be found, and she came to the immediate conclusion that foul play was somehow involved in their disappearance; a cliché perhaps, but these kinds of things were clichés for a reason. All at once, the dour headlines of the morning newspaper became horrifyingly less anonymous. Foul play would certainly explain the cashier’s smile. Was he trying to throw her off guard? Far-fetched, perhaps, but then again, these were strange times, and it was better to be safe than sorry.

She began to rush from aisle to aisle, seeking out her son within the labyrinth of olive oil and potato chips that separated them. She finally discovered him in the far corner of the store loading plastic bags with cucumbers. Cucumbers? They had come for Coca Cola. What was next, ketchup, salad dressing, vinaigrette? She would not have it. She waddled to his side with surprising speed for a woman of sixty-three years.

“We have to get out of here, Nachum. Pay the cashier and leave. I told you that it wasn’t safe here.”

“I might as well buy some groceries while I’m here.”

“Do you really think that this food is sanitary?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll disinfect all of the vegetables in industrial strength bleach when we get home.”

“Enough fooling around. I want to go home now. I can’t stand it here.”

“If you’re so eager to leave, pay the cashier for the drinks and wait for me by the car. I won’t be much longer.”

Pay the cashier? She prepared to sweep out of the place once and for all when she came to a terrible realization. If she did not pay for the Cola herself, her son would be left alone in the shop weighed down with too many groceries, which would leave ample opportunity for the Arabs to rob him. This was no time to be self-righteous. So she bit her lip, approached the cash register, thrust her crate onto the counter, and averted her eyes, praying to God that the shopkeeper wouldn’t try to banter with her. Her prayers went unanswered.

“How are you today?”

“I’ve been better.”

“Sorry to hear that. Well, that will be six shekels, ma’am. Ma’am? I said that will be six shekels.”

“Six…six shekels? That can’t be right.”

“You can see the price tag for yourself.”

“But that’s only a guideline in a place like this. I won’t pay more than four and a half.”

“This isn’t a market, lady! The price is six shekels.”

“But I said that I won’t pay more than four and a half. Don’t worry, I’ll give it to you all in cash. Take it or leave it.”

Gisela proceeded to cross her arms with such pathetic grandeur that the clerk couldn’t help but smile at her.

“It’s too late in the day to argue. Do you need a bag for these?”

“You certainly seem to speak Hebrew very well.”

“I should hope so. I’m a Jew, after all.”

“You’re a Jew?”

“Of course I am. I live in Zur Yigal.”

“And this is where you work?”

“I run the franchise, though granted, it’s not the best location for a store these days. That’s my car parked out front.”

“And the boy asleep in the corner?”

“My son, Dov.”

“I don’t believe it. My son thought that this was an Arab store.”

“Far from it, ma’am.”

“But your Cola has Arabic labels.”

“It’s bottled in Ramallah. I can pick it up on the quiet and avoid paying the VAT.”

They both smiled. Then Gisela collected her groceries and left the shop. She thought to herself how charming the little store seemed to be, how neatly it was stocked and with what tender care the cans of stringed beans had been stacked atop each other beside the entrance. Dingy as the place might have been and though it had a slightly unpleasant odor, it was a symbol of something altogether greater than itself. She closed her eyes and fanned herself with her pocket book, waiting for her son to return. The ruins of daylight fused with moonlight, and shadows began to devour the surrounding landscape. It was an indescribably beautiful time of day.

At last, Nachum approached the car and began to load the trunk with groceries. Unable to contain the desire to prove him wrong for even a moment, she pronounced the news in resounding tones as soon as she saw him.

“Nachum, you won’t believe it! It wasn’t an Arab store at all. It was a Jewish store. A Jewish store.”

“A Jewish store, eh? I’d like to have seen the face of the mohel who was hired for the bris.”

“Ha. Ha. Ha.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have guessed… It doesn’t really make any difference, though. Does it?”

For the first time that day, Nachum made her laugh. She imagined that despite his apathetic veneer, he must have been just as relieved as she was to hear about the store. He was just too stubborn to admit it. Either that, or the news actually disappointed him, because their visit to the ends of the earth had made him feel subversive in a petty way, and he derived pleasure from tormenting her. Nachum was worse than a fool. He was an idealist. But he was young, he would learn in time. As would his children, and their children, and their children, and generations after them, on into eternity. They would all learn.