Reflections On the Populousness of the Roman World

060930-120153 Model of Constantine's Rome Northwest View of Palatine Hill Area

Reflections On the Populousness of the Roman World 

David Vincent Kimel

I. The History and Significance of the Questions at Hand

Prior to the popularization of the work of T. R. Malthus (1766-1834), it was widely believed among seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers that a sprawling population was evidence of a prosperous society governed by just institutions. Although he did not agree with this idea in its entirety, David Hume wrote in 1777 that “if every thing (sic) else be equal, it seems natural to expect, that, wherever there are most happiness and virtue, and the wisest institutions, there will also be most people.”1 This notion linking a state’s metaphorical and literal vitality inevitably informed early scholarly opinions on the size of the Roman Empire’s population. The period of the Antonine emperors in particular (96 CE-180 CE) was associated by such historians as Edward Gibbon with notions of hyperbolic grander thanks to its supposedly enlightened political leadership. Citing an opinion undoubtedly antithetical to contemporary stirrings in the American colonies, he declared in the third chapter of the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776 that “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”2 With his imagination fired by the holistic grandeur of antiquity, Gibbon wrote in chapter two that the Roman Empire constituted “the most numerous society that has ever been united under the same system of government.” This opinion was echoed with just as little grounds by earlier scholars like Isaak Vossius, who estimated that the city of Rome at its height housed some 14 million people “with an area twenty times greater than that of Paris and London combined.”3 No less an authority than Montesquieu wrote in 1721 that Europe was depopulated compared to the days of the Caesars, with the eighteenth century population likely representing one fiftieth of the ancient total.4

It would be comic understatement to suggest that common assumptions about the size of Rome and its empire have somewhat altered over the past three centuries. In the wake of work such as David Hume’s groundbreaking study on the populousness of antiquity and, most importantly, Julius Beloch’s Die Bevoelkerung der griechisch-roemischen Welt published in 1886, altogether smaller numbers began to be imagined for antiquity, with the entire population of Italy during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE) amounting to perhaps no more than 6 or 7 million people, with three quarters of a million to 1 million people crowded into Rome itself.5 Hume worked with a wide body of knowledge about ancient literary sources, pointing out how the often extravagant totals mentioned by ancient authors were unrealistic and contradictory. For his part, Beloch revolutionized approaches to the issue by turning to quantitative analysis; specifically, he sought to measure changes in the size of the Roman population by studying fluctuations in the size of the city’s public grain doles, proceeding to estimate what percentage of the population those receiving the grain represented. According to modern authorities like Walter Scheidel, Beloch’s conclusion that the Roman Empire at its height contained some 35 to 80 million people definitively set the parameters for all future discussion on the subject.6 While acknowledging the existence of important contributions to the question of Rome’s populousness since 1886, scholars like John C. Caldwell believe that “much of classical demography, originally deduced from literary sources and burial inscriptions, remains essentially unchanged.”7 Whatever the validity of this claim, it is unlikely that mainstream academic opinion will ever favor the assertions of Vossius and Montesquieu again. After all, they appear at odds with well-known trends in comparative demographic history, which, for better or worse, only admit to limited gains in world population until the advent of the industrial era.

Of course, the question of whether the Roman Empire contained 35 or 80 million people seems to leave a great deal of room for meaningful debate. Unfortunately, personal bias often appears to motivate authors toward defending lower or higher estimates. For example, in an attempt to highlight the productivity and populousness of pre-Roman Gaul, C. Jullian averred that before Caesar’s invasion, the population probably stood at some 20 million people, which proceeded to double over the course of the next century thanks to “the long famous fertility of Celtic women.” Likewise, E. Lo Cascio’s rejection of Beloch’s totals and his insistence on a population of 7-14 million for Augustan Italy have been branded patriotic hogwash by the late Keith Hopkins.8 Nationalism certainly becomes a particularly thorny issue when it comes to the scale of the Roman Empire’s population compared to that of Han China. The notion that one empire was significantly more populous than the other invariably reveals bias in favor of the “progressiveness” of Roman or Chinese culture, since evidence to suggest any fundamental differences in size simply does not exist. (Admittedly, recent efforts seem aimed at building bridges and accentuating the similarities between the two imperial systems, though the thematic emphases of this approach might arguably conceal its own kind of bias shaped by the fear of stepping on professional toes.9) At other times, pride in one’s academic discipline, such as Medieval Studies, might tempt some to underrate the Roman period’s supposed luster relative to subsequent history. There is surely something deliberately revisionist in the air when it comes to Angus Maddison’s 2001 attempt to suggest that far from representing a height in Europe’s population, the number of people on the continent might have stayed the same or even slightly increased over the course of the period formally known as the Dark Ages.10 Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna wrote disparagingly of the very notion of the “Dark Ages,” claiming that the bleakness of the era was largely a rhetorical trope developed by Christian authors longing for the imperial order of the past.11 However, other “authorities have posited the population of Europe halving during the first six centuries of the modern era,” maintaining that the decline of Roman civilization was indeed accompanied by a fall in population.12

Fundamental questions concerning the quality of life in ancient Rome, the scale of the empire’s economy, and the ways in which urbanization transformed the provinces are all bound to debates over population size; for example, a lower population might reveal an unexpected source of economic strength, with more benefits for everyone to go around and less competition for jobs.13 Unfortunately, in many ways our state of knowledge remains woefully speculative. In the words of Scheidel: “Our ignorance of the size of ancient populations is one of the biggest obstacles to our understanding of Roman history. After generations of prolific scholarship, we still do not know how many people inhabited Roman Italy and the Mediterranean at any given time.”14 Attempts to glean the likely populations of major cities from vague references in ancient literary sources can be compared to similar attempts to understand the scale of Pre-Columbian American society by assembling a constellation of random quotations and trustingly treating them as scientific evidence. In an effort to draw attention to the ludicrousness of such methods, David Henege jokingly attempted to calculate the population of elves and orcs in Middle Earth by analyzing references from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.15

In this study, I present important sources of evidence about the size of Rome’s population over time, discussing various broad indicators of growth and then examining approaches to the question of populousness grounded in a diversity of different sources, from the analysis of bones to studies of comparative DNA profiles. The fact that debate persists to this day with an intensity belying the poverty of the available evidence is telling, though few scholars disagree with the broad parameters established by the work of Beloch with regard to the grain dole and with Harkness (1896) and McDonnel (1913) vis a vis funerary inscriptions.16 Ultimately, I will show that while there exists a general consensus that the Roman world was far removed from modern population dynamics, the methods of evaluating the data are all extremely problematic, and one’s conclusions about the size of the empire’s population often reveals more about the nature of the researcher and his or her academic interests than historical truth.

II. Harnessing Evidence on the Populousness of the Romans

During the reign of the emperor Trajan (98 CE-117) , the Roman Empire stretched 3000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the banks of the Euphrates and encompassed some 1,750,000 square miles, approximately half the territory of the contemporary United States. Roman civilization facilitated the spread of Hellenistic civilization around the Mediterranean basin and its hinterlands, creating a great cultural melting pot solidified by centuries of general peace.17 Even after a millennium and a half of neglect, the ruins of cities like Leptis Magna and Pompeii are impressive enough to awe millions of tourists a year; the urban landscapes of the empire at its height, before centuries of theft and collapse took their toll, must have been magnificent indeed. Surveying the rural landscape of Turkey and noting the many hulks of abandoned Roman cities, Gibbon took the ruins as evidence of the populousness and vigor of antiquity compared to the state of affairs under the Ottomans:

(The Asian provinces) of the east present the contrast of Roman magnificence with Turkish barbarism. The ruins of antiquity scattered over uncultivated fields, and ascribed, by ignorance, to the power of magic, scarcely afford a shelter to the oppressed peasant or wandering Arab. Under the reign of the Caesars, the proper Asia alone contained five hundred populous cities, enriched with all the gifts of nature, and adorned with all the refinements of art. Eleven cities of Asia had once disputed the honour of dedicating a temple to Tiberius, and their respective merits were examined by the senate. Four of them were immediately rejected as unequal to the burden; and among these was Laodicea, whose splendour is still displayed in its ruins.18

The notion that the Pax Romana was an era of unprecedented prosperity has definite implications with regard to opinions concerning the size of the population that enjoyed its fruits, even if the effects are difficult to quantify. In the second century BC, the archeological record shows great ranches dotting the Italian countryside where once there had been barren fields, suggesting demographic change. These are the so-called latifundia, cash-crop plantations manned by hundreds of thousands of imported slaves.19 The suicides of Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BCE represented the final act in a century of tragedies and brought an end to the Civil Wars. Until the early third century CE, battles were subsequently altogether more infrequent and smaller in scale. Given the destructiveness of warfare in pre-modern societies, the introduction of peace associated with the rise of Rome might conceivably have facilitated a growth in population.20 The idea that the Celts, Berbers, Teutons, and Illyrians who had once inhabited Rome’s provinces lived like noble savages in blissful harmony with nature is flatly contradicted by the fact that 90-95% of all world societies, statistically speaking, were involved in periodic warfare to some extent or another and that violence was part and parcel of everyday life for the people of most pre-modern civilizations. Indeed, the historical record attests to unending combat among indigenous peoples before the Roman occupation.21 At the same time, Roman culture celebrated fertility and encouraged early marriage among women, with the mothers of three children granted special economic privileges by the emperor Augustus.22 According to Frier, surviving Egyptian census data suggested that the vast majority of women married during the Roman period. Specifically speaking, he estimated that some 80% were wedded by the age of 20.23

Added to these trends was the introduction of innovations like “iron tools, iron knives, screw presses, rotary mills, even water mills…silver and bronze coins, money taxes, chattel slavery, writing, schools, written contracts, commercial loans, technical handbooks, large sailing ships, shared risk investment, (and) absentee landlordship,” all speaking to possibilities for enhanced productivity and the accommodation of a large population.24 Grain imports and handouts, bathhouses, aqueducts, gymnasia, sewage systems, written laws, and paved roads facilitating travel and migration might easily be added to the list. Keith Hopkins explained that by raising taxes and spending money on the defense of distant frontiers, the empire facilitated long distance trade and enhanced possibilities for social mobility.25 Authors such as Horace, Martial, Juvenal, and many others all affirmed that these economic opportunities drew significant numbers of migrants into Italy, with the city of Rome ballooning to ever larger heights, a trend confirmed by rising numbers of insula type high-rise apartments discovered in the suburb of Ostia dating to the first two centuries CE.26 In certain parts of the empire, sources of evidence even seem to suggest that Roman rule was associated with long life-spans (and presumably a large population). For example, a graveyard from the North African site of Castellum Celtianum was found to contain 1,258 individuals with an average lifespan of 60.2 years in a time period where the average life expectancy of most world societies was in the high teens or early 20s.27 Although the site is unique, graveyard inscriptions from the salubrious provinces of North Africa in general suggest life expectancies closer to 40 than 20.

While all of this seems compelling enough, how can one go about attempting to actually quantify the Roman population? Comparisons to other historical epochs, informed conjectures, and old-fashioned common sense in the face of extremely limited evidence are the rules of the day. In 2 CE a census in Han China counted 12,233,062 families, which has been used to suggest that some 60 million people lived under imperial rule. An Augustan census of 14 CE included 4,937,000 citizens. This has been interpreted to suggest rough parity with China, for “assuming that full-fledged citizens of Rome constituted less than 10 percent of the empire’s total population at that time, it is (thus) reasonable to conclude that the Roman Empire contained 50 to 60 million people in the early decades of the first century CE.”28 Adding to these numbers were streams of slaves from beyond Rome’s borders, an insidious source of population growth. Sir William Smith’s epic nineteenth century dictionary mentioned that the Roman Empire saw the system of slavery augmented “to a prodigious extent.” Quoting Book VI of Athenaeus, the author reflected upon the idea that “very many Romans possessed 10,000 and 20,000 slaves and even more.”29 Even if this total seems exaggerated, the number of slaves owned by certain aristocratic Romans was likely to be very high indeed. Pliny the Elder recorded in Book XXXIII.10 of his Natural History that 4,116 slaves were left to the heirs of a single Augustan freedman who (paradoxically) had seen his estates greatly diminished during the Civil Wars; Dio Cassius reported in Book V.1.27 of his History that Augustus allowed a man to take 40 slaves or freedmen with him into exile out of sympathy for his impending loneliness. In his paper “Believing the Ancients: Quantitative and Qualitative Dimensions of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Later Eurasia,” Timothy Taylor took the words of Athenaeus at face value when he declared that Scheidel’s estimate of slaves at 10% of the classical population was likely too low; when it came to classical Athens, after all, Athenaeus described a populace of 21,000 citizens, 10,000 resident metics, and 400,000 slaves, implying that 93% of that city’s population was enslaved.30 Even if these numbers are off, they imply a world in which it was possible to imagine sprawling numbers of unfree people toiling alongside a small core “in-group” of citizens, such as was famously the case in fifth century Sparta.

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 8.57.49 PM.pngThe Romans themselves took great interest in numbering their subjects for the purposes of taxation and (during the Republic at least) conscription, though most of the information drawn from these censuses and, indeed, how the surveys were even conducted in the first place is tragically lost. Nevertheless, from the first century BCE to the fourth century CE, literary sources mention the numbers reached by selected censuses. (Please refer to Table A for a representative sampling.31) Twenty-five different censuses are recorded from the third century BCE to the end of the second century BCE, ranging between some 137,000 to 395,000 people.32 These numbers clearly do not approximate the entire population of the empire; most scholars assume that they represent the number of adult male citizens, though even this is not uncontroversial. Whatever the case, the numbers rise dramatically to 910,000 in 70/69 BCE and a whopping 4,063,000 in 28 BCE when the method of taking the census itself evidently changed. 14 CE saw 4,937,000 people counted. Claudius’ census of 47 CE totaled 5,984,072, further evidence of long-term growth.

But can these numbers be trusted? Basing his work on a seminal 1971 study by P. A. Brunt, P. M. G. Harris insisted that the general trends to which the data spoke made perfect sense in light of Roman history. For example, from 465 BCE to 493 BCE the population of Rome seems to have increased by two-thirds if the census was accurate, a trend associated with an extension of citizenship rights to allied states and an increase in the cultivation of the ager publicus, or land for public use. By contrast, 218 BCE to 203 BCE saw steep losses in the wake of the Second Punic War so grave that the author compared them to demographic trends in Aztec Mexico after the arrival of the conquistadors. The Lex Julia of 90 BCE enfranchised several allied states up to the banks of the Po River, adding nearly a million people to the empire. Finally, by the time of the 47 CE census, Claudius had begun to extend Roman citizenship to the people of southern Gaul, further driving up the numbers.33 Estimates about the size of Rome’s population often toy around with this data, asserting that various census totals represent different hypothetical percentages of the total populace.

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 9.00.11 PM.pngThe 1886 work of Beloch on the size of the Roman grain dole served to contextualize these numbers. (Please refer to Table B for data related to the public distribution of goods in Rome.34) In 123 BCE, Gaius Gracchus instituted the practice of doling out grain to the urban masses, and in 58 BCE Cicero’s enemy Publius Clodius Pulcher made the practice permanently free of charge. Beloch put the information that 150,000 to 320,000 men were eligible to receive the various doles to good use by attempting to guess how many dependents (wives, children, slaves, etc.) these men might have had, and how many foreigners likely lived in the city alongside them. He ultimately concluded that 800,000 inhabitants for the city of Rome seemed consistent with the levels of grain imported during the age of Augustus. This number likely increased over time. Dionysius of Halicarnassæus, for example, attested in Book IV.3 that the ancient walls of Rome had nearly the same circumference as those of Athens, but that by his time, Rome’s suburbs were so extensive that it was impossible to tell where the city ended or the countryside started. Also consistent with a narrative of increasing population is Gerda de Kleijn’s work on the water supply of imperial Rome.35 The completion of the Aqua Claudia and the so-called New Anio aqueducts begun by Caligula in 38 CE and completed by Claudius in 52 CE suggest an increasing demand for fresh water, just as Claudius’s construction of a second harbor at Portus to supplement the one at Ostia suggests a growing urban market for grain and other goods. Altogether, the population of the city likely peaked at 1.2 million people, making it the largest urban center in Europe (and according to some sources, the largest in the world) until the early nineteenth century.

When it comes to the first two centuries CE, the archeological record is unanimous throughout the lands bordering the Mediterranean that the volume of goods traded dramatically increased, which might be consistent with a rising population prospering during peacetime. Sites like the colony of Cosa grew greatly in size and, like Rome, gradually acquired high-rises and suburbs.36 We know there were 430 so-called urban centers in Italy during the age of Augustus. Using this information, Elio Lo Cascio took issue with Scheidel’s statement that Italy as a whole probably contained 6 million people total (the so-called “low count”). Pointing out that if the estimates were raised for 25 major towns from 15,000 to 20,000 inhabitants and the average of the 405 minor cities from 2000 to 3000, a total of 3 million would be reached, which would mean that half of Italy’s pre-industrial population was urbanized—a number which comparative demography suggests is altogether too high.37 Thus, he estimated that the total population must have been somewhat greater than 6 million if even 35-45% of Italians lived in cities, since ancient agriculture was rudimentary and a great deal of food would have to be produced by many hands to feed the sprawling populace. One is struck by how even a slight shift in assumptions can radically affect an interpretation of the extant archeological evidence. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, a degree of agreement has been reached concerning certain issues in Roman demography. For example, despite statistically outlying sites like Castellum Celtianum, Harkness’ 1896 work with funerary inscriptions suggested a stationary population for the empire with an average life expectancy of 18 years, and McDonnell’s widely cited study in 1913 harnessed a still more extensive corpus of inscriptions to raise life expectancy in Rome “to 22 years for males and 21 for females, in the Iberian Peninsula 39 and 34 years respectively and in Africa (not including Egypt) 48 and 46.”38 In 1966, Keith Hopkins used United Nations model life tables to reach an empire-wide life expectancy of 20-30 years.39

Archeological fieldwork in Egypt has proved to be especially informative thanks to the discovery of papyrological records containing information of interest to demographers. The literary record is unfortunately erratic when it comes to contextualizing this data, which is certainly disheartening considering the centrality of this kind of evidence to conjectured numbers for Roman Italy. For example, Josephus in his Jewish War II.385 suggested that 7.5 million people lived in Egypt outside of Alexandria; Diodorus of Sicily, however, said in his Library of History I.31.6 that the number for the entire country was a paltry 3 million. Roger Bagnall and Bruce W. Frier took Diodorus’ number seriously and used it as the basis for all of their work; however, one is struck by the fact that they might have just as easily based their findings on Josephus’ number.40 The surviving archeological evidence cannot provide definitive answers and is often more tantalizing than edifying. For example, while scattered examples of birth registrations have been discovered in Egypt, they are few in number and the practice in general seems to have been optional. At the same time, we know that local administrators took detailed tax records with a large number surviving in clumps dating to the reign of Claudius (41- 54 CE), but almost all of the archives have been lost.41 Scheidel put the number of Egypt’s people during the Roman period at 4.75 million people, with 35% of the people inhabiting urban areas, though the categories of “urban” and “metropolitan” often bleed into each other.42 Nevertheless, as in his account of the population of Italy, Scheidel’s estimate might have been too low. Joseph Manning, for example, explained that during the Roman period as a whole, growth in population was reflected in gradually increasing agricultural and craft production.43 And according to some ancient sources, the city of Alexandria came to rival that of Rome in size and splendor.

Recent years have seen further refinements in the debate over the size of the Roman population. Comparative genetic analyses of individuals hailing from former imperial provinces represents a particularly exciting, nascent field. Eric Faure in 2008 turned to Roman history to explain the distribution of chemokine receptors related to the CCR5- Delta 32 allele. Homozygosity for the CCR5-Δ32 allele results in resistance to R5- tropic HIV-1. The frequency of this allele is lowest in areas corresponding to the lands of the Roman Empire. 10% of Europeans on average have the gene, but only 4% of Greeks, and almost no one in North Africa. To explain the data, Faure suggested that feline zoonoses might have spread among provincial populations as the Romans brought increasing numbers of cats to new areas with them to serve as pets and to control pests.44 Although he suggested that gene flow between colonizers and the colonized was “low and indirect,” this data suggests that the scale of Roman occupation was extensive enough to leave fundamental and permanent marks on Europe’s genetic landscape.

III. The Limitations of Existing Demographic Models of the Roman Population

Petrus_Roselli._Carte_marine_de_la_mer_Méditerranée_et_de_la_mer_Noire_(15th_century)While, as we have seen, eighteenth century models of the Roman population were informed by the underlying assumption that the empire represented a period of unprecedented prosperity, current estimates of the civilization’s population are caught up in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that it could only have been a large natural fertility regime with rampant disease similar to other pre-industrial societies. The problem is that this approach, while grounded in reasonable assumptions, denies the possibility that the Roman Empire was somehow uniquely ahead of its time, which was once assumed as a given—after all, Europe did not see such extensive urbanization and such large metropolitan centers until over a millennium and a half later. Tim G. Parkin declares that “no one today would seriously regard as accurate” Pliny’s estimate of 600,0000 total people for Seleucia, but this is an arbitrary assumption grounded in nothing but the belief that the Empire contained few such extensive cities.45 The dismissive tone of the author is particularly telling. After all, had his assumptions about the inherent trustworthiness of Pliny been different, he might have forgiven the author under the grounds that he could have been referring not only to the city of Seleucia itself, but also to its extensive surrounding hinterlands.

Nevertheless, multiple sources of evidence discussed in the previous section of this paper can safely be labeled problematic. For one thing, even if the Roman Empire saw extensive urbanization, large-scale internal migration, and the formation of suburbs, this redistribution of people geographically is not necessarily synonymous with population growth. Moses Finley seems to have been correct in his critique of Keith Hopkin’s model of Roman commerce, declaring that opportunities for exploitation could increase without a corresponding growth in productivity.46 Studies such as those by Barbiera and Dalla- Zuanna attempting to understand population size with reference to burial sites are often hampered by the paucity of the existing sources of evidence; for example, they use eleven cemeteries to represent the entirety of the period between the first century BCE and the fifth century CE, but have ten data points for the sixth to seventh centuries alone. They also systematically ignore the fact that the bulk of the Western Roman population practiced cremation during the first two centuries CE, while early Christians (who practiced burial but lived on the fringes of society and likely did not have the best diets) were probably over-represented.47 Evidence for enhanced nutrition might be grounds for believing that Italy was becoming a more salubrious and populous place. It might alternately, however, be evidence for economic collapse as lands formally devoted to cash crops were turned over to the production of fruits and cereals and formally massive urban populations broke up into smaller groups whose nutrition did not rely on grain doles. There is simply no way to know the truth, though the fact that the paper was written by medievalists rather than classicists perhaps informed the ultimate thesis. Whatever the case, a high population for Rome and its empire might be interpreted as a mixed blessing vis a vis long term growth. At I.12, Herodian described how “because of its very high population, and because it took in immigrants from all over,” mortality was highest in Rome during times of plague. And contrary to the naïve impulse that a large population implies a prosperous nation, Bruce W. Frier aptly explained that with higher population can paradoxically come lower living standards and less opportunity for economic advancement.48 Paradoxically, the lower the population of Roman Italy is estimated to be, the more urbanized and prosperous its people might seem to appear.

It is impossible to know to what degree rising birth rates and immigration were responsible for the dramatically increasing numbers seen in Table A. An increasing percentage of a stable pre-existing population might simply have been granted citizenship over time with no corresponding growth in population size. Even the epigraphic data, deemed over-analyzed by Scheidel, can prove to be deceptive. For example, epigraphic patterns differed depending on location in the empire. Old ages seem to have systematically not been recorded in Noricum, but were a popular typos in Africa.49 The number of surviving grave sites, just as in the case of the number of surviving documents from Egypt, is not enough to make accurate estimates for the state of the empire as a whole. Even the little evidence that survives is in some degree inherently unrepresentative. For example, young males between the ages of ten and fourteen were underrepresented in Egyptian papyri dealing with the census, likely because the census was taken regularly and once it became known that a boy reached the age of fourteen, he became liable for taxation; females were under-registered as a rule.50 It is not even clear what category of people were eligible for being counted in censuses of Roman citizens. Saskia Hin, for example, pointed to the possibility that Augustan counts might have included widows, children and grandchildren liberated from patria potestas, and freed slaves.51 At the same time, while there is some evidence for the growth of the Roman population in urban contexts, there is also evidence for a drop in fertility among certain subsections of the populace. A full three-quarters of the senatorial families of the early Roman Empire disappeared after a single generation. This extraordinary fact has been variously interpreted, but it was likely, at least in part, the result of deliberate birth control, delayed marriage, and even infanticide.52 While Augustus passed laws punishing bachelors and rewarding fertility among Roman wives, two children were exposed in his own family: the child of his granddaughter Julilla, and an infant whom the future emperor Claudius suspected was illegitimate.

Compounding these problems is a lack of sensitivity to just how untrustworthy the numbers mentioned by ancient literary sources can be. As we have seen, scholars such as Bagnall and Frier somberly employed numbers mentioned by Diodorus of Sicily in their estimates of the size of the Egyptian population. However, this ignores the fact that Diodorus has been called one of “the most accomplished liars of antiquity” and was condemned to hell in one of Lucian’s satires for his poor scholarly standards.53 In fact, some have even assumed that Diodorus (or a scribe) simply made a typo and meant to write 7 million rather than 3 million, since he used just that number at an earlier point in his history.54 Ultimately, even the most respected and meticulous authors of antiquity were liable to make mistakes. In Book I.2 of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides mentioned that 200 triremes were dispatched by Athens to Egypt in 460 BCE, which would mean that 40,000 men were sent to the Nile in the midst of the First Peloponnesian War when there were incredible strains on manpower. A Persian source, Ctesias, says that the number was actually 40 triremes, and he may (or may not) have been closer to the mark.55 Duncan-Jones readily accepted Cicero’s assertion that the state income of Ptolemaic Egypt was 300 million sestertii. However, we know that the entire Roman Empire’s annual income ranged between 650 and 900 million sestertii, and the notion that 35-40% came from Egypt alone seems improbable.56 To make matters worse, ancient sources in general cannot be fully trusted when it comes to any number. Scribal errors and the use of letters to represent digits resulted in maddening variations across the manuscript traditions of many ancient authors, which sometimes only survive in their present form from a single copy that may or may not have been accurately transcribed.57

Gibbon’s notion that the Roman Empire represented the most populous state in the history of the planet seems hyperbolic, yet his use of evidence was actually quite reasonable and rather similar to contemporary approaches, albeit informed by different assumptions about the possibilities for the veracity of the source material and the proportion of people who were enslaved and/or otherwise unrepresented in the data set. He wrote, for example:

We are informed that when the emperor Claudius exercised the office of censor, he took an account of six millions nine hundred and forty-five thousand Roman citizens, who, with the proportion of women and children, must have amounted to about twenty millions of souls. The multitude of subjects of an inferior rank was uncertain and fluctuating. But, after weighing with attention every circumstance which could influence the balance, it seems probable that there existed, in the time of Claudius, about twice as many provincials as there were citizens, of either sex, and of every age; and that the slaves were at least equal in number to the free inhabitants of the Roman world. The total amount of this imperfect calculation would rise to about one hundred and twenty millions of persons; a degree of population which possibly exceeds that of modern Europe.58

It is singularly discouraging that Gibbon’s use of the same source material as Walter Scheidel could result in an estimate twice the size of contemporary guesses. Be that as it may, imaginative applications of common sense to ancient data can sometimes generate compelling arguments indeed, shedding light on obscure demographic forces. For example, when considering whether or not the deliberate breeding of slaves raised the population of Roman Italy, Hume ingeniously concluded that the effect was likely minimal:

At the capital, near all great cities, in all populous, rich, industrious provinces, few cattle are bred. Provisions, lodging, attendance, labour are there dear; and men find their account better in buying the cattle, after they come to a certain age,from the remoter and cheaper countries. These are consequently the only breeding countries for cattle; and by a parity of reason, for men too, when the latter are put on the same footing with the former. To rear a child in London, till he could be serviceable, would cost much dearer, than to buy one of the same age from Scotland or Ireland; where he had been bred in a cottage, covered with rags, and fed on oatmeal or potatoes. Those who had slaves, therefore, in all the richer and more populous countries, would discourage the pregnancy of the females, and either prevent or destroy the birth.59

Hume backed up his argument by noting that individuals bred into slavery, so-called vernae, enjoyed special legal rights compared to other kinds of slaves, so there was likely not many of them. (owners preferring to maximize the possibilities for exploitation). Moreover, Cato, Varro, and Columella mention nothing about the profitability and desirability of breeding slaves. Xenophon’s Oeconomicus actually suggests that male and female slaves sleep separately. While it is impossible to tell whether or not Hume was correct about the impact of slave-breeding on the size of the population, the silence of these iconic texts on the issue is difficult to ignore. To Hume, as to most modern authorities on the subject, the eighteenth century image of an empire of 120 million people fuelled by the breeding of massive numbers of slaves seemed somehow intuitively unreasonable.

IV. Final Thoughts: “Losing the Trees for the Forest?”

Rome-Forum-night-italy-1-XLKeith Hopkins warned that economists and demographers exploring the Roman past often make simplifying assumptions in an effort to see where they lead without paying attention to the complexities and ambiguities of the real world situation: “It is as though, in order to guess the weight of an elephant, you first imagine it to be a solid cube.”60 As we have seen, assumptions about the overall size of the Roman Empire have shifted dramatically over time, with the same problematic evidence interpreted through various thematic prisms forged by one’s academic interests and general beliefs about the nature of pre-industrial civilization as a whole. Be that as it may, Beloch’s work in 1886 broke real ground by harnessing reported census returns to make reasonable guesses about the size of the population, and since then, the general parameters of the debate have been set; the Roman Empire likely contained c. 60 million people, with the city of Rome boasting somewhere around a million inhabitants at its height. The size of individual provinces— even the relatively extensively documented Egypt—remains controversial. However, if the Roman Empire was not a natural fertility regime and consistently showed life expectancy above the mid twenties, it would be unique in the history of the pre-industrial world.

There is perhaps an unfortunate tendency in modern scholarship to ignore the possibilities for such uniqueness, or to make generalizing claims about the size of the ancient population without paying attention to the ways in which cultural practices might shape demographic realities. The fundamental problem is that the evidence for institutions such as birth control, infanticide, etc., is limited to passing references in literary sources, complicating the possibilities for evaluating the “modernity” or lack thereof of ancient practices, to say nothing of their demographic effects.

However, in the tradition of Hume, I believe that there still exists the possibility to make use of common sense and a strong imagination to add new information to our knowledge of otherwise extremely inaccessible states of affairs. For example, what is one to make of the ancient Roman saying “sexagenarios de ponte deicere”—“(to) hurl sixty year old men from the bridge”? Modern scholars who treat the subject almost unanimously assume that the phrase refers to a remote period in Roman history when an over-eager youthful populace attempted to monopolize voting rights, casting elderly men off the planks that Roman citizens would cross to reach voting places.61 However, at least one ancient author, Festus, admitted that the saying might have referred to ancient practices of senicide. The answer to the puzzle seems lost to time, but there are some clues to guide us. First, we know that bridges in general were invested with religious significance in early Rome—to this day, the pope, like the Roman emperors before him, is known as the Pontifex Maximus. Moreover, on the 15th of every March, a series of ancient purification ceremonies began whose origins were purportedly obscure; the Vestal Virgins would throw life-size dolls (argei) from the Sublician Bridge into the Tiber. Some have theorized that this was a proxy for former human sacrifices, though as far as I know, few have specifically connected the practice with the ancient saying.62 Human sacrifice in general was banned by Crassus and Lentulus as late as 97 BCE, and Romans in the time of Cicero and Augustus seem to have preferred to ignore the issue. However, I personally suspect that it was no coincidence that Julius Caesar was “sacrificed” on the Ides of March, the very day when the ancient ceremonies associated with senicide and the freedom of an independent youthful electorate took place.63

This is a situation in which an ancient practice which may or may not have existed was likely limited to a small circle of old men in extremely early Roman history. There certainly exists no way to measure its overall demographic effects on the size of the population (which, anyway, might have been negligible to begin with.) However, a sense of imagination with regard to the surviving ancient evidence can highlight unexpected quirks which made the structure of Roman civilization unique rather than a cookie-cutter example of a pre-industrial society. While archeologists pine for new discoveries and many scholars believe that our best hope for new knowledge of Roman demography will derive from this source, an ability to creatively reconstruct past social practices in the tradition of Beloch and Hume perhaps suggests another avenue for hopefulness with regard to our understanding of the structure of ancient society at large.

***

1 See David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987). Chapter: ESSAY XI: OF THE POPULOUSNESS OF ANCIENT NATIONS, accessed at http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/704/137546.

2 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 6 vols. (London: Printed for W. Straham; and T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1776). Chapter 3.

3 See the opening essay in Isaac Vossius, Isaaci Vossii Variarum Observationum Liber (Londini: Prostant apud Robertum Scott bibliopolam, 1685).

4 See the Baron de Montesquieu, The Persian Letters, Letter 112, 1748. Roger B. Oake points out that the 1758 edition of the letters was edited to read a tenth rather than a fiftieth. See also Roger B. Oake “Montesquieu and Hume,” Modern Language Quarterly 2 (March 1941): 25–41.]

5 In 1973, the famous classicist Moses Finley still branded Beloch’s study “The fundamental work on ancient population figures.” See M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy, Sather Classical Lectures, (Berkeley,: University of California Press, 1973). Pp. 182.

6 Walter Scheidel and Sitta von Reden, The Ancient Economy, Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002). Pp. 201.

7 John C. Caldwell, “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?,” Journal of Population Research 21, no. 1 (2004). Pp. 11.

8 Scheidel and Reden, The Ancient Economy. Pp. 182. See E. Lo Cascio, ‘The Size of the Roman Population,’ JRS 82 1994. Pp. 115. See also C. Jullian Histoire de la Gaule, (Paris; 1920) Vol. 5. Pp. 25-28.

9 For a cultural, political, and economic comparison between the two empires in a spirit of building bridges between subfields of history, see Walter Scheidel, Rome and China : Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, Oxford Studies in Early Empires (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Donald Kagan criticized the book to me in a conversation for its unwillingness to dwell on the implications of fundamental differences vis a vis conceptions of liberty between the two empires.

10 For the development of this argument, see Angus Maddison and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Development Centre., The World Economy : A Millennial Perspective, Development Centre Studies (Paris, France Development Centre of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,2001).

11 Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna, “Population Dynamics in Italy in the Middle Ages: New Insights from Archeological Findings,” pp. 369.

12 Caldwell, “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?.” Pp. 2.

13 Quoted in L. de Ligt and Simon Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14, Mnemosyne Supplements, (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2008). Pp. 17.

14 Ibid.

15 David P. Henige, Numbers from Nowhere : The American Indian Contact Population Debate (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998). Pp. 287-280.

16 Caldwell drew my attention to their work. See Harkness, A. G. 1896. Age at marriage and death in the Roman Empire. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 27. Pp. 35-72. See also McDonnell, W. R. 1913. On the Expectation of Life in Ancient Rome, and in the Provinces of Hispania, Lusitania, and Africa. Biometrika 9. Pp. 366-380.

17 M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy, 2nd ed. (London: Hogarth Press, 1985). Pp. 29-30.
4

18 Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chapter 2.

19 M. I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980). Pp. 84.

20 For a description of the destructiveness of periodic old wars and the old order, see Alan Macfarlane, The Savage Wars of Peace : England, Japan and the Malthusian Trap (Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997).

21 See Lawrence H. Keeley, War before Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). pp. 28.

22 For the most comprehensive contemporary evaluation of the institution of Roman marriage, see Susan Treggiari, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Organization), and American Council of Learned Societies., “Roman Marriage Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian.” (Oxford New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1991), http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.01470.

23 Bruce W. Frier. 2000. “Demography” in A. K. Bowman, P. Garnsey, and D. Rathbone (editors), The High Empire: AD 70-192. Cambridge Ancient History Volume 9. Cambridge University Press.

24 Peter Garnsey, Keith Hopkins, and C. R. Whittaker, Trade in the Ancient Economy (London: Chatto & Windus : Hogarth Press, 1983). Pp. 12.

25 For an analysis of this important element of Hopkins’ contribution, see John R. Love, Antiquity and Capitalism : Max Weber and the Sociological Foundations of Roman Civilization (London ; New York: Routledge, 1991). Pp. 215.

26 Fritz-Heiner Mutschler and Achim Mittag, Conceiving the Empire : China and Rome Compared (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Pp. 127.

27 Tim G. Parkin, Demography and Roman Society, Ancient Society and History (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). Pp. 8-9.

28 Alfred J. Andrea, James H. Overfield, The Human Record: Sources of Global History: To 1700, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000. Pp. 146.

29 See the entry under slavery in William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 2nd ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1870).

30 Timothy Taylor, Believing the Ancients: Quantitative and Qualitative Dimensions of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Later Prehistoric Eurasia, World Archaeology, Vol. 33, No. 1, The Archaeology of Slavery, (Jun., 2001), pp. 27- 43.

31 See Table A taken from Tenney Frank, “Roman Census Statistics from 225 to 28 B. C,” Classical Philology 19, no. 4 (1924).

32 Ligt and Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14. Pp. 19.

33 P. M. G. Harris, The History of Human Populations (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001). Pp. 168- 172.
34 See Table B taken from

34 Gerda de Kleijn, The Water Supply of Ancient Rome : City Area, Water, and Population, Dutch Monographs on Ancient History and Archaeology, (Amsterdam: Gieben, 2001).

35 Ibid.

36 Alan K. Bowman and Andrew Wilson, Quantifying the Roman Economy : Methods and Problems, Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Pp. 142-143.

37 Ibid. Pp. 101.

38 For a summary of findings on inscriptions, see Caldwell, “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?.” Pp 9-10.

39 Hopkins, Keith. 1966. On the Probable Age Structure of the Roman Population. Population Studies 20(2). Pp. 245 onward.

40 Roger S. Bagnall et al., “The Demography of Roman Egypt,” In Cambridge studies in population, economy, and society in past time 23. (Cambridge England ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1994), http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.02277.

41 See chapter 3 of Walter Scheidel, Death on the Nile : Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt, Mnemosyne Supplements, (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2001).

42 Walter Scheidel, Debating Roman Demography, Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava Supplementum, (Leiden Netherlands ; Boston: Brill, 2001). Pp. 141.

43 Joseph Gilbert Manning, Land and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt : The Structure of Land Tenure (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

44 See Eric Faure, “Could FIV zoonosis responsible of the breakdown of the pathocenosis which has reduced the European CCR5-Delta32 allele frequencies?” Virol J. 2008; 5: 119. Published online 2008 October 16, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2575341/pdf/1743-422X-5-119.pdf

 

45 Parkin, Demography and Roman Society. Pp. 65.

46 Joseph Gilbert Manning and Ian Morris, The Ancient Economy : Evidence and Models, Social Science History (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005). Pp. 212.

47 Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna, “Population Dynamics in Italy in the Middle Ages: New Insights from Archeological Findings,” pp. 379.

48 See chapter 4 of Scheidel, Debating Roman Demography.

49 Bowman and Wilson, Quantifying the Roman Economy : Methods and Problems.

50 Walter Scheidel, Measuring Sex, Age and Death in the Roman Empire : Explorations in Ancient Demography, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series, (Ann Arbor, MI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1996). Pp. 56-57.

51 See Saskia Hin’s essay in Ligt and Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14. Pp. 187-285.

52 D. S. Potter and D. J. Mattingly, Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire, New and expanded ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010). Pp. 100.

53 Lloyd, quoted in Robinson, Eric W., “Thucydidean Sieges, Prosopitis, and the Hellenic Disaster in Egypt,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Apr., 1999). Pp. 135.

54 Parkin, Demography and Roman Society. Pp. 65.

55 Robinson, Eric W., “Thucydidean Sieges, Prosopitis, and the Hellenic Disaster in Egypt,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Apr., 1999), 132-135.

56 Scheidel and Reden, The Ancient Economy. Pp. 196.

57 Ligt and Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14. Pp. 20.

58 Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chapter 2.

59 David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987). Chapter: ESSAY XI: OF THE POPULOUSNESS OF ANCIENT NATIONS, accessed at http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/704/137546.

60 Scheidel and Reden, The Ancient Economy. Pp. 193-194.

61 See, for example, Lily Ross Taylor, Roman Voting Assemblies from the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar, Jerome Lectures, 8th Ser (Ann Arbor,: University of Michigan Press, 1966). Pp. 92.

62 For a sampling of contemporary thoughts on the issue, see Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World : A Cultural and Social History, Ancient Society and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). Pp. 265-268.

63 Incidentally, I believe I am the first to make this claim. It at least adds credence to the idea that Caesar might actually have been told to “Beware the Ides of March”—it was no ordinary day.

Works Cited

Bagnall, Roger S., Bruce W. Frier, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Organization), and American Council of Learned Societies. “The Demography of Roman Egypt.” In Cambridge studies in population, economy, and society in past time 23. Cambridge England ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Bowman, Alan K., and Andrew Wilson. Quantifying the Roman Economy : Methods and Problems, Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Caldwell, John C. “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?” Journal of Population Research 21, no. 1 (2004): 1-17.

Finley, M. I. The Ancient Economy, Sather Classical Lectures,. Berkeley,: University of California Press, 1973.

Finley, M. I. The Ancient Economy. 2nd ed. London: Hogarth Press, 1985.

Finley, M. I. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. London: Chatto & Windus, 1980.

Frank, Tenney. “Roman Census Statistics from 225 to 28 B. C.” Classical Philology 19, 4 (1924): 329-41.

Garnsey, Peter, Keith Hopkins, and C. R. Whittaker. Trade in the Ancient Economy. London: Chatto & Windus : Hogarth Press, 1983.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 6 vols.London: Printed for W. Straham; and T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1776.

Harris, P. M. G. The History of Human Populations. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001.

Henige, David P. Numbers from Nowhere : The American Indian Contact Population Debate. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Hopkins, Keith. 1966. On the Probable Age Structure of the Roman Population, Population Studies 20(2).

Jullian, Camille. Histoire De La Gaule. 8 vols. Paris,: Hachette et cie, 1920.

Keeley, Lawrence H. War before Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Kleijn, Gerda de. The Water Supply of Ancient Rome : City Area, Water, and Population, Dutch Monographs on Ancient History and Archaeology,. Amsterdam: Gieben, 2001.

Ligt, L. de, and Simon Northwood. People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14, Mnemosyne Supplements,. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2008.

Love, John R. Antiquity and Capitalism : Max Weber and the Sociological Foundations  of Roman Civilization. London ; New York: Routledge, 1991.

Macfarlane, Alan. The Savage Wars of Peace : England, Japan and the Malthusian  Trap. Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Maddison, Angus, and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Development Centre. The World Economy : A Millennial Perspective, Development Centre Studies. Paris, France Development Centre of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,2001.

Manning, Joseph Gilbert. Land and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt : The Structure of Land Tenure. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Manning, Joseph Gilbert, and Ian Morris. The Ancient Economy : Evidence and Models, Social Science History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat. Persian Letters. The 5th ed. London,: M. Cooper, 1755.

Mutschler, Fritz-Heiner, and Achim Mittag. Conceiving the Empire : China and Rome Compared. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Parkin, Tim G. Demography and Roman Society, Ancient Society and History. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Parkin, Tim G. Old Age in the Roman World : A Cultural and Social History, Ancient Society and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Potter, D. S., and D. J. Mattingly. Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire. New and expanded ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Scheidel, Walter. Death on the Nile : Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt, Mnemosyne Supplements,. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2001.

Scheidel, Walter. Debating Roman Demography, Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava Supplementum,. Leiden Netherlands ; Boston: Brill, 2001.

Scheidel, Walter. Measuring Sex, Age and Death in the Roman Empire : Explorations in Ancient Demography, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series,. Ann Arbor, MI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1996.

Scheidel, Walter. Rome and China : Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, Oxford Studies in Early Empires. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Scheidel, Walter, and Sitta von Reden. The Ancient Economy, Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002.

Smith, William. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1870.

Taylor, Lily Ross. Roman Voting Assemblies from the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar, Jerome Lectures, 8th Ser. Ann Arbor,: University of Michigan Press, 1966.

Treggiari, Susan, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Organization), and American Council of Learned Societies. “Roman Marriage Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian.” Oxford New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1991.

Vossius, Isaac. Isaaci Vossii Variarum Observationum Liber. Londini: Prostant apud Robertum Scott bibliopolam, 1685.

Hannah Montana (The Heart You Broke At Yale)

This is my third rap, which I just got around to filming earlier this summer. I used a beat I found on Youtube made by Lion and Prime. The inspirations are the poems of Catullus, the Streets’ When You Wasn’t Famous, Alanis Morissette’s You Oughta Know, and my own experiences. I hope you enjoy it; I’m confident I’ve never met whomever you assume it’s about!

***

I recall that when we all would get in a fight

You’d hiss when pissed that I couldn’t rap or write.

But goading me you now will see is truth in all its might.

I feel like exploding, and I stay awake at night.

So face the facts, my famous friend, and feel their chilling bite

And let these humble lyrics be enough to bring to light

The sad and old forgotten tragicomic fairy tale

Once upon a time… about the heart you broke at Yale!

Lacking mostly in renown, New Haven is a craven town

With name unsung, but here you came,

famous young, and blind with fame.

I’d seen your films now and again

And guessed you messed with girls and men

But knew that no one on TV

Would ever take two looks at me,

A pauper in obscurity.

But in a clubhouse out of sight,

We both danced in a tomb that night.

Once I spied you, gone was choice!

My tongue was tied, I lost my voice.

Deaf and dumb, my head was turning

Thoughts all lost to lust and yearning

Mute and dumb, my body burning

Sweat and tears and danger christened

Both my eyes which burned and glistened

While the crowd of gawkers listened

To your laugh, which forced on me,

Do not be dismissory,

Paralysis and misery…

Symptoms, so the lonely tell us,

Of a broken heart that’s jealous.

Then you went to take a smoke

And I dared make a feeble joke

About that hapless Scottish bloke

Who just puked when he took a toke.

Funny, how I first met you

And that you laughed and teased me too

Acting cool and being flirty,

Brushing skin and talking dirty.

At the end of Tupac’s song

You took a last hit from the bong

You said, you weren’t in town for long,

I read your mind and wasn’t wrong.

I guess you saw some charm in me I couldn’t understand.

I’d never been the type before to have a one night stand.

I had no strategy thought out or any subtle plan.

You wondered at the hunger of my kiss.

Then we began.

I had no money, name, physique, or any self assurance.

But, innocence had its mystique upon this first occurrence.

Perhaps you thought my mind unique

And I could learn from your technique

And temporary solace seek

Though I was just a humble geek

And you a freak who hit your peak

We then lost track of many hours

Blazing suns gave us their powers

Then, I hoped for no more fun

Or wanted more of anyone

Yet still, you said it wasn’t done

So then began our awful run.

And I was one of many men,

And women too now and again.

My God, I wish it ended then.

Captive to some twist of fate

You’d often come to see me late.

Vulgar texts to consummate

Impossible to satiate.

Publicly, you’d play the saint,

But privately, you gave complaint.

Took on others more athletic

Found my jealousy pathetic

Said it was your right to cheat

Proved it like a bitch in heat

When I felt like I would die

You’d scoff at all the tears I’d cry

Knowing that I’d take you back

Fatal as a heart attack

Who’d have thought a Disney star

Would stoop to keying someone’s car

Or blow a brother and his twin

Or overdose on aspirin?

And who’d have thought a PhD

Would put up with such misery.

But all that burns must turn to dust

And these things end as these things must

So finally, I struggled free

Of love for your celebrity

And then at last, you must confess

That I’m the one who called you less

But thinking that this was absurd,

You had to have the final word.

And told me that you hated me,

And never even dated me.

Knowing you was all my luck

And I was just some empty fuck

Then in some paper or another,

There you were right on the cover,

In the arms of your new lover.

What a treat for all your fans!

As for me, I’ll be a man,

Forced to do all that he can

To efface you from his plans

Nor pursue you where you ran.

Jaded, cynical, unnerved,

I got just what I deserved

Should have left you at the curb,

Never crossed your path but swerved

Given all that I observed

But now my honor is preserved

And some justice will be served

With that I have the final word.

Bring on the Cyborgs: Redefining the Singularity

Here is the final version of my speech “Bring on the Cyborgs: Redefining the Singularity.” I presented it at as a TED talk at Yale. The audition video can be seen in my posts from earlier this year.

***

Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk are afraid. Afraid of our computers turning on us. Afraid that Siri will go from botching directions to taking over and crashing our cars. This is what they call the singularity.

The smartest and most powerful men on Earth are right to be concerned about the future. But in this speech, I’m going to propose a solution to save our species. It involves rethinking the concept of the singularity and reimagining our destiny as human beings. Without exaggeration, this topic might be the single most important one on Earth.

I’m a doctoral student at Yale in Roman history and the founder of Yale Students and Scholars for the Study of Transhumanism. It might seem strange that an ancient historian has an interest in studying the future. But don’t be so surprised.

Ancient historians are interested in the beginning of things like drama, democracy, and the idea of equality before the law. I’m interested in the singularity—and transhumanism—because today we are once again at the beginning of something new. And new beginnings are when we need to pay the most attention to the lessons of the past.

Historians know that technology has not always advanced in a straight line forward. At the Great Library of Alexandria, two thousand years ago, a scientist appropriately named Hero invented the first steam engine. The first computer in history, the Antikythera Mechanism, was developed over a century earlier. Both, however, were toys for the wealthy instead of tools to improve the lives of the masses.

Everyone asks me why Rome fell. I ask a different question. I ask, what could have saved Rome? And then I remember the steam engine and the computer, and I say: technology.

What is the singularity? Technically, it refers to the point inside a black hole where space and time don’t exist as we know them. But the word’s meaning has been expanded over the years.

In the 1950s, mathematican John von Neumann, applied the term to the history of human civilization. The singularity, he thought, was a point in history after which human affairs themselves would become fundamentally unrecognizable. Then, about the time when I was born in Israel in 1983, mathematician Vernor Vinge, defined the singularity as the point when artificial intelligence would create a world “far beyond our understanding.”

Neumann and Vinge had something in common. They imagined human progress escalating and accelerating as we approached the singularity. Today we have a parallel concept: Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years.

This means that computers are becoming more powerful, exponentially, and data since the 1960s has backed this up. Now, some question whether Moore’s Law will continue to hold true in the future, and I’ll get to that critique in a moment.

But if it does hold true, you may understand why so many brilliant people might be scared. One can easily imagine computers becoming so powerful – so fast – that they take control over their own programming and come to overpower us.

Mankind has often feared the conscious wills which it enslaves. As a classicist, I’m reminded of Aristotle’s “natural slaves.” The idea was that those who were able to apprehend rational principles well enough to follow basic orders but who simultaneously possessed no rational strategic faculties of their own were essentially slaves by nature.

Classicists argue about the people that Aristotle might have had in mind—a professor once even told me that he was really talking about the mentally handicapped: people like my brother Dinh. Today, I’d argue, it sounds like we’re talking about Siri. Siri can understand my directions and execute them, but has no strategic ends of her own. Computers like Siri understand us, but they don’t really comprehend us.

But what happens when a computer is sophisticated enough to form independent values? It certainly wouldn’t be Aristotle’s “natural slave” anymore. But here’s why people like Hawking are worried: its values might not be our values; its goals might not be our goals. Over the course of human events, slaves have tended to resent their former masters.

And if the conquest of the New World and the fall of the Qing Dynasty are any indication, where contention exists in the presence of technological and material inequality, there tends to follow the wholescale destruction and capitulation of one side of the struggle.

But I have hope for a different future. A future of which we can be proud. A future toward which we can work together. A future in which humans and machines are not enemies at war, but are one. This is where Transhumanism comes into the picture.

Transhumanism means using technology to enhance human capabilities. People already have pacemakers, hearing aids, and artificial limbs. This is just an elaboration. But why is the idea of transhumanism important to the singularity?

I’ll tell you. Transhumanism holds out the possibility that we will heal not only our hearts and our bodies, but also our minds. In the future, it may be possible to replace parts of the brain with computers—curing diseases like my late grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, and radically empowering us to shape our own dreams, metaphorically and literally.

If Moore’s Law continues to apply, we need the enhancements of transhumanism to stay one step ahead of our machines before they become smart enough to take control over their own programming and become more powerful than we can even imagine.

Machines may not share our passion for the preservation of civilization. But enhanced human beings will still have human experiences like that of membership in a community and feelings of pleasure, pain, and love.

If Moore’s Law does not hold true, however, as many computer scientists have argued, the need for transhumanism will be even greater. Our ability to create smaller and smaller microchips will eventually run into intractable barriers at the frontiers of our knowledge of quantum mechanics.

At that point, which could be no more than a decade away, new ideas will be needed. The time will come when we will need better materials than silicon, and the best alternative will be genetically engineered cyborgs.

The advantage seems clear: why reinvent the wheel when the human brain possesses great technology shaped by millions of years of evolution? Why reverse engineer what a human brain can do when it can be enhanced by robots?

Transhumanist technology can cure diseases, enhance intelligence, allow us to shape our dreams, and empower us to control our destiny as a species. But it must be available to all, and not only a chosen few. Its free choice or rejection must be a human right.

When access to the technologies associated with Transhumanism becomes a human right, our hopes and dreams will be transformed. When the brain is augmented by technology, and we understand the electrochemical foundations of consciousness, barriers to communication and understanding will come crashing down.

We will have the power to decide the content of our nightly dreams—anyone can feel like an NBA All-Star, the world’s most attractive movie star, or literally one of the stars of the Milky Way. Without the need to fight over resources, our ecological crisis will be solved and our Earth will be protected and healed, halting the destructive race to the bottom of industrialization.

As a historian, I can even imagine accessing the lives of our ancestors as experienced through their eyes. Life will be a blank canvass and a paintbrush for all of us. And we will all be equals in a fellowship of artists.

Given all that is true about transhumanism and the singularity, we are all obligated to bring that future closer. Each moment of delay means countless pain, suffering, and death. But each step of progress brings us one day closer to the dream and the promise of Transhumanism.

What must be done to bring that future closer? First, we must deal with the panic about the singularity. Fear of the singularity stems from its old definition. I want to redefine singularity to mean the point in technological progress when our relationship with machines becomes a seamless, shared consciousness.

The singularity will occur when we have the power to jump out of our bodies and into a cloud of pure imagination. The singularity will allow our imaginations to reach the boundaries of the universe.

This speech is a challenge: A challenge to all people who share my hope for humanity’s future. To bring humans and computers together, we as humans must come together and agree upon our shared purposes. As human beings, we are all enslaved to the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune. On Earth as it is, where you are born, and who you are born to, matter more than the content of your character. This must change.

To believe in transhumanism we need to believe in human progress again. Since the horrors of the twentieth century, we have retreated from such confidence. But Transhumanism is not tied to any single culture or broken ideology of the past. It is bound to our essential attributes—what makes us human—our imaginations, our feelings, our hopes, our dreams.

As a student of ancient history, I see the traces of transhumanism in the earliest records of human thought. When Cicero used the word humanitas to symbolize the noblest aspects of our species’ character, he showed that he believed something fundamental separated human beings from all other types of beings—the inculcation of our rational faculties and our ability to apply those faculties over time to the development and preservation of our civilization.

The only thing that we should fear is delay. We need more than a transhumanist society. We need transhumanist departments at every university. We need interdisciplinary study—in the humanities and the sciences—in order to probe the nature of our own natures in ways unprecedented until now. We need the courage and the legitimacy and the vision to undertake the research that must be done.

The most powerful men in the world are afraid of the future. But I am ready to face it. Are you?

Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter IX (A Tragic History)

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On our way to the library, I passed beside a weathered portrait of my father. I recognized the painting from my childhood, though I remembered it being more colorful than it actually was. I resembled him closely right down to our upswept auburn hair, though he was, admittedly, quite pale.

I suppose that I should say a bit more about his exploits and the circumstances of my childhood, although I honestly despise the kind of books that spill ink over long tangential asides as if their authors were paid by the letter. Ultimately, however, I consider it better to include a few pages of exposition than to potentially confuse my readers by restricting myself to hints and innuendo about the past, as I’ve done until now.

When I first began to consider the prospect of writing this book, I thought that I would make it a lengthy third-person epic beginning with my father’s birth in Scotland. But two considerations ultimately dissuaded me from this course of action. The first was that I would have been compelled to write at length about people and places unfamiliar to me personally, which would have ruined the honesty of this account. How, for example, would I have portrayed my mother, a woman whom I’d never met nor even seen in a daguerreotype? My second concern was that I didn’t wish to seem to be casting judgment on the India of my father’s youth, a civilization I never knew beyond stories of cock-fights, native mistresses, and drunken brawls, a broken but rambunctious dreamscape that saw the British hungrily engorging themselves on the carcass of a dying aboriginal culture. I was born just as that old India was being torched and a new, gentrified colonial holding was taking its place on the funeral pyre.

My father John Maxwell first came to India in 1806 when he was only 16 years old. He was ostensibly seeking adventure and fortune, but I think it was more likely that he was escaping the influence of his father, a Presbyterian minister from Aberdeen who, I was told by my aunts, used to beat all of his children regularly to the point of bleeding. He began his career in Calcutta working as a Europe-shopkeeper on Court House Street. Europe-shops sold all sorts of goods in those days from carriages to coffins and could turn a great deal of profit if properly managed. My father’s store was evidently one of the finest in the city, celebrated for its Portuguese wines.

Independently of his partners in the shop, he soon made a small fortune for himself supplying goods to what were then the remote settlements of Cawnpore and Fatehgurh. In those days, budgerows would only make the trip upcountry a few times per month and there was great profit to be made servicing the more inaccessible stations of the Doab. His work made him the acquaintance of Captain Nathan Blenkinsopp, an elderly English commander of one of the several native infantry divisions at Cawnpore. Appreciative of both my father’s wit and talent for consuming copious amounts of liquor without collapsing, Captain Blenkinsopp eventually arranged for him to become Agent to the Army and Military Store Contractor. Needless to say, these proved to be most lucrative commissions.

Rupee Pandit, my grandmother, was a Nagar Brahmin and an ayah in Captain Blenkinsopp’s household. Her given-name at birth was of course not Rupee, but this is what Captain Blenkinsopp always called her, and the moniker stuck. It was remarkable to me that she was able to transform that sardonic name into an endearing one. In fact, I don’t know her original name even now, though I always knew the family to be called Pandit. She told me many times that our ancestors were descended from officers in the army of Alexander the Great who’d come to India two millennia ago to fight the elephants of King Porus. The blue eyes of several members of the Pandit clan were considered proof of this theory. Although I would have loved to have believed this tale, in my heart, I knew that the aforementioned color more likely came by way of Liverpool than Pella.

Rupee’s daughter, my mother Elizabeth, had such a fair complexion that most people assumed that she was the product of an affair with Captain Blenkinsopp, whose English wife was long since dead and whose son by his first marriage, Daniel, was then away at school in England. This rumor about Elizabeth’s parentage was only fortified by her being raised as the Captain’s ward, to say nothing of the open prominence which my grandmother enjoyed in that household. It was never made clear to me whether or not my mother formally married my father, though the silence on this subject leads me to assume that there was in fact no ceremony. Still, they certainly lived together as husband and wife until her death in childbirth in 1830. Afterward, Rupee left Captain Blenkinsopp’s villa and came to live with my father, eventually becoming something like his personal secretary, an extraordinary role for a native woman. Captain Blenkinsopp evidently cared enough about her interests to ensure that she was well-educated despite her station and well compensated upon his death. He even found sporadic employment for her brother Pulkit as a drummer in the 56th Native Infantry. The poor man was not of sound mind, but he was well meaning and incapable of malice.

I do not know if my father loved my mother. By the same token, I don’t have any especial recollection of much warmth between him and Molly either. This is not to say that my stepmother was a frigid or unkind woman. She invariably did her best to behave with as much compassion and consideration toward me as toward Vivian when I was a child, and she allowed Rupee to continue living with us at the Highlands as buriah ayah along with Pulkit. Still, it was always somewhat of a stuffy household that my father and stepmother kept, even after the birth of Peter in 1832. I remember wondering if they ever visited each other’s bedrooms.

In those days, there was still an old law in force in India forbidding Europeans from owning substantial amounts of land in their own right. Since I was native-born, my enterprising father was able to use my name to accumulate a great deal of property. After he died suddenly from an apoplectic fit after a tiger hunt in 1836—just one year before the law was changed, incidentally—I   inherited controlling interest in five indigo factories in addition to outright ownership of 36 villages, several cotton presses, indigo vats, and even a rum distillery at Jajmau and an opium clipper called the Nereid docked at Calcutta. Altogether, the property was valued at 13 lakhs.

Since I was only six years old when I came into this inheritance, my father’s will stipulated that my property be put under the management of Daniel, the son of Captain Blenkinsopp. He had recently returned from England after his father suffered a sudden bout of paralysis. Daniel’s display of filial piety as he cared for his dying parent evidently made a strong impression on my own father, who promised to look after Daniel following Captain Blenkinsopp’s death. It took place but one year before his own. His final testament actualized his promise.

Daniel, whom everyone assumed to be my mother Elizabeth’s half-brother, promptly formed a company called Blenkinsopp and Co. and managed my inheritance during my upbringing in Scotland. Vivian and I lived with my father’s spinster sisters, their father, the brutal minister, having long since died, choked to death on haggis. By the time that we sailed back to India in 1847, Daniel was a regular nabob. The family’s wealth seemed unlimited. Returning as I was to the District after so long an absence in an abstemious Scottish household, needless to say, I began to positively hemorrhage money.

What followed were the happiest two years of my life, at least before a sudden fit of coldness descended upon Vivian that all the intensity of my love for her could not thaw. Christopher, Daniel, and I spent a fortune together gambling, buying carriages, and throwing enormous burra khanas on my estates. I remember how often Peter would beg to accompany us on our nightly adventures. We treated him like a child, though, and often took malicious pleasure in holding out hope and then ignoring him. The conviction with which I felt him to be my junior is somewhat ludicrous in retrospect. After all, he was only two years younger than I was. Daniel was much older than anyone else in my circle of friends, already in his late forties. Perhaps it made him feel young again to spend time with Christopher and me. It was our private joke that we never smoked ganja with him.

My readers will wonder about the ramifications of this wasteful state of affairs. Vivian, who had evidently taken a childhood fancy to Daniel before we left for Scotland and allowed the wound to suppurate, of course said nothing to criticize us. Molly, a woman of the old order, similarly did not ask any questions, particularly because she favored Daniel very highly. Besides, Peter had inherited a great deal of money from my father which she herself was responsible for managing, so she likely had troubles of her own to occupy her attentions. For all of these reasons, no one supervised Daniel or inquired after his motives too closely. He had by then effectively managed my estates for nearly two decades in my absence. Besides, reckless spending was commonplace among young aristocrats in the District. We all competed with each other in heedlessness, and I had more to prove than anyone because I was self-conscious about my parentage.

After Vivian announced that she was going to marry Daniel, life suddenly became altogether grimmer for me at the Highlands. I spent most of my time smoking ganja and charas with Christopher. I abandoned India for Scotland soon after Julia was born in 1849 and lived the life of a hermit among my old haunts.  Only two years later, though, I was compelled to return to the Highlands again when news of a disaster broke.

What happened, in brief, was this. In March of 1850, Daniel vanished. He claimed to have gone off to Singapore to visit his uncle, Admiral Brandon Blenkinsopp. He never reached his destination, however, and it was presumed that he was robbed on the open road and killed. Then, only weeks after his disappearance, out of the blue, news broke that Blenkinsopp and Co. had failed for 15 lakhs. Native and European creditors alike began to swarm around the carcass of my holdings like eye flies, all demanding their share of the decaying rot. I soon learned that most of my land had been heavily mortgaged by Daniel, but thankfully, property technically in my name could not be auctioned off to rectify the debts of Blenkinsopp and Co. For this reason, I believed that I still had a chance to salvage my inheritance.

By the time that I returned in 1851, the sircars and shroffs and virtually the entire native staff of Blenkinsopp and Co. had vanished. The Sub-Deputy Collector of Revenue (E. A. Reade-I’ll never forget his name) wished to make a severe example out of me and threatened to seize the entirety of my property unless I could immediately pay what was owed to the Government in back taxes. This man was an ancient enemy of my father’s, and since I was my mother’s son, he saw me as less than his equal, to say the least. I wrote to the Commissioner of Revenue at Allahabad begging for more time, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. When I urged my native collectors to demand rent more scrupulously from our ryots than they had in the past, Reade accused me of bullying and terrorizing them simply because we’d seized some cattle from a raving old man and sold it outright for profit. The farmer in question had paid irregular taxes for years and dared to be surly to my men when they reached his farm. He certainly would have gotten much worse treatment under a native Indian zamindar. But I cannot dwell on this topic at length. It pains me to remember how corrupt and confused the state of my estates had become.

Completely unable to pay back what was owed, I was forced to watch in silence as the bulk of my property was put up for auction. Most of my farms and villages were bought up by one Kullulooddeen Khan, who agreed to provide me the insulting allowance of 29 pounds a month. I passed Reade on the road soon after this, and he made a sarcastic remark under his breath loudly enough for me to hear it. When I told him to go to hell, I caught the attention of several native passersby who began to whisper to each other. So he noisily called me a “bankrupt nigger” to show them he meant business and continued on his way. It was soon after this that I left India again. I thought that I would never return.

The Maxwells lost everything but the Highlands. Peter, recently married and a father for the first time, was put in charge of the estate by Cruttenden and Co. of Cawnpore, to whom the property had been mortgaged. Molly personally appealed to the director of the company and his wife for mercy and sacrificed a great deal of the family’s remaining money as collateral (effectively impoverishing me completely, incidentally). Compared to me, I suppose Cruttenden and Co. saw Peter as the true heir to what was left of the magic of the Maxwell name in the District. As a matter of fact, over the period of the next few years, he managed to pay off everything that was owed on the estate, using the remainder of his inheritance and increasingly meager profits from the yearly indigo harvests to do so. He was even eventually named Deputy Opium Agent in charge of all the East India Company’s poppy fields in the vicinity of Cawnpore, a singular honor.  The family was still far from prosperous, however. Clans like the Churchers and Joneses had long since eclipsed our own in the District.

Here, then, as I wrote at the beginning of this account, were the leavings of my father’s kingdom: a run-down mansion with a red tiled roof and a fanciful name, two stories high on a lonely plain. There was also a factory with some vats that was close by, a drying house, and the assistant’s bungalow where Christopher lived. The rest was only a fading memory. I was fortunate to still own the opium clipper Nereid, which was beyond Molly’s grasp when she liquidated the family’s holdings.

Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter VIII (Parlor Songs)

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Julia and Thomas sang for the assembled family in the parlor before supper. My stepmother Molly accompanied them ploddingly on the piano-forte.

Ho-ro, my nut brown maiden.

Hee-ree, my nut brown maiden.

Ho-ro-ro, maiden.

For she’s the maid for me.

Her eye so mildly beaming

Her look so frank and free

In waking and in dreaming

Is evermore with me.

We broke into applause at the conclusion of the second verse to avoid an interminable punishment. Thomas bowed, and Julia curtsied repeatedly, cradling her gray kitten, Ms. Google, too tightly for comfort in her arms. The poor creature bore this indignity with patience, however. She was evidently good natured for a cat.

“That was just enchanting,” said Vivian, ethereal in yards of turquoise muslin, her hair unbound. “But skip the verses about mild-eyed Mary, please.”

“But why?” cried Julia. “That’s my favorite part of the song. It’s so emotional.”

“You’re liable to move us to tears,” said Christopher.

“Shall we eat our dinners out on the chabutra?” said Vivian. “It’s scalding in here!” Then she turned to me and dexterously avoiding even a moment’s pause in the conversation, said, “We’re all thrilled to have you home again, Maximilian. I only wish that Andrea could be moved downstairs to see you.”

“I wouldn’t want to trouble her,” I stammered.

“I’m sure that she would be very pleased to visit with you if it were possible,” said Molly, joining us. “You know that you’ll always be a welcome guest here at the Highlands, Maxim. One can always add more water to the soup.”

My eyes happened to be on Christopher as she spoke. He squinted. I wondered what sort of face I was making.

“Maxim knows that he will always be more than a guest here, mother,” ventured Peter, his breath reeking of brandy. He loathed polite conversation and very rarely shared his thoughts, so whenever he chose to say anything, he commanded great attention.

“Of course, my dear,” said Molly, adjusting the sleeves of her funereal ebony bombazine. “I misspoke.”

“Have you any interest in Company paintings, Maximilian?” improvised Vivian in a rapid voice. “I’ve been obsessed with them recently. They show such a fascinating mix…a wonderful mélange of styles.”

“Darling,” said Molly, “Maxim must be exhausted. Let him save his voice for later, when he tells your brother about his adventures in the jungle.”

“Oh nonsense, mother!” she answered, taking my arm. “Tell me, what do you think of the Daniells?”

“The Daniells?”

“Thomas Daniell and his nephew, William. They paint the most beautiful landscapes. They’re my second favorite painters.”

“They count collectively, do they?”

“Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I can hardly distinguish between their styles, to be honest! Can you guess who my very favorite artist is?”

“Michelangelo?”

“No, no—we were discussing Indian art!”

I chuckled and shrugged and must have seemed like a perfect fool. In fact, I had just downed a great quantity of bhang with Christopher on the sly and I couldn’t have cared less about Indian art. As my father’s eldest son and head of the household, I was eager to discuss several important matters with Peter such as evacuation plans for the family and the great secret I’d discovered on my travels which had inspired my return, to say nothing of my need for money. Since my arrival, though, no one had breathed a word about the mutiny to me. They all seemed more concerned about Andrea’s health than anything else. But they were all denying the plain truth. The family couldn’t remain at the Highlands for much longer or everyone there was likely to be unceremoniously slaughtered should the mutiny spread to the District.

The company moved outside onto the raised chabutra where a long table draped with a peach colored cloth had been set up. A native girl with an aquiline nose and a paunch who’d brought me a change of clothing when I first arrived had been doubling as a punkah wallah inside the house. She was presently transformed into a server. Peter’s khitmatgar was also on hand. He was a scrawny, acne-scarred fellow who looked no older than sixteen. His jacket, I observed, was at least two sizes too large for him about the sleeves. He probably inherited it from someone dead, I thought.

“We’re having pish pash and chupatties for dinner, among other things” said Peter quietly. “Jesminder tried her hand at Ayah Rupee’s old recipe—your favorite, I remember. Ever since Daniel’s death, things have been somber here at the Highlands. It’s refreshing to have an excuse to be happy again, brother.”

These were the first words that Peter had directly addressed to me since I met him on the porch earlier that evening and he’d enigmatically whispered, “Say nothing now. We’ll discuss everything later.” I’d noticed that his breath smelled faintly of spirits even then.

At first, I appreciated the illusion of domesticity so busily manufactured for me that night. Here, with the exception of my deceased father and my aunts in Scotland, was the only family that I’d ever known. My mother, Elizabeth, died in childbirth, and my father married my stepmother, an Irish cabinet-maker’s daughter, when I was only five years old. I never ventured to call her daughter Vivian my sister, though my father and stepmother had originally encouraged me to do so; for whatever reason, these exhortations ended with the birth of Peter.

Vivian was so incandescent that I knew from the moment we met that I wanted to marry her. My affection for my stepsister was fortified by the long years we spent together as Anglo-Indian expatriates in Scotland. I’ve mentioned already that we were sent to my father’s ancestral home near Inverness to receive a proper education under the supervision of his sisters. I was seven at the time, and Vivian was ten. I recalled the heartbreak of saying goodbye to Peter, who was only four and remained in India with his mother. He was always Molly’s pet and was never sent to Europe, a great rarity in those days. India was all he ever knew.

We reached the table and all joined hands, Vivian on my left and Christopher on my right.

“Maximilian should do the honors,” said Vivian, squeezing my palm. “Make it the Selkirk Grace, in honor of your father.”

Some hae meat and canna eat,” I intoned awkwardly, thinking of nothing but the moisture of my hand in Vivian’s tight grip. “And some wad eat that want it…” My pulse quickened and its rhythm throbbed in my temples. “But we hae meat and we can eat…so sae…so sae…”

So sae the Lord be thank-ed,” concluded Christopher, releasing my hand and making an exaggerated show of wiping off his own. “Sorry Maxim, but it felt like I was shaking hands with the Little Mermaid there for a minute.”

We began to eat, and for some time there was no sound but the unpleasant scratching of metal on glass. The promised pish-pash and chupatties were on the menu, along with Julienne soup, yellow rice, a curry made with some sort of meat, and bottled peas—always bottled peas. Half of us were seated before decorated porcelain, and the rest ate from plain white ceramic plates. My plate happened to have been ceramic, but so was Peter’s, so I wasn’t jealous. Our wine glasses too were mismatched. My awareness of the gauche assembly of tableware cast a pathetic air over the entire meal, an ambiance only enhanced by the fact that half of our seats lacked antimacassars. Ayah Rupee ran a tighter ship once upon a time.

To make matters worse, the wine was too dry. Just as I was secretly considering the prospect of stealing some sips from Thomas’s lassi, Vivian revived the conversation. I considered that while her mother’s serene demeanor could almost be mistaken for coldness, her daughter’s character was forged of altogether different stuff, traces of her dead father’s nature, perhaps. She was the belle of every burra khana and the most popular woman in the District, forever the volatile center of attention.

“Shaykh Muhammad Amir of Karraya is my favorite Indian artist,” she said quickly and loudly, ignoring the fifteen minute interval separating this revelation from our previous conversation.

“I would never have guessed,” I said. “You were right.”

“In fact, I quite prefer him to Michelangelo.”

“Land sakes,” said Christopher. “That’s sacrilege. Now I’ll take everything you say about art with an ocean’s worth of salt, Vivian.”

“I’m sorry to shock you, Christopher. Michelangelo was a fine sculptor and painter so long as he was capturing the male figure. But he had no range. His women all look like muscular men! And his themes were completely monotonous, never touching on everyday life.”

“Then why is he universally considered a genius?”

“Commercial concerns.”

“Oh?”

“Ever since the invention of the aquatint, there’s existed this gauche trend of celebrating geniuses like the old Italian masters and fainting over Michelangelo. But it’s only a commercial strategy to sell prints—a way to highlight individual dead artists in a marketplace oversaturated with them. What’s genius, anyway? An excuse to be temperamental, and to take full credit for lazy work! Give me elegance and truth over genius any day.”

“Well, if you ask me, nothing is more inane than the genre scenes that you idealize so much. There isn’t anything profound or uplifting about them.”

“You’re so wrong. There’s great beauty to everyday life if you know how to see it. But some haven’t the sensitivity.”

“This is all nonsense,” slurred Peter, providing yet another rare contribution to the conversation, “The idea that you would even compare Sheik What’s His Name and Michelangelo is ludicrous. Michelangelo was a white man.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, brother. Race has nothing at all to do with matters of art.”

Molly arched her right eyebrow. I knew by the way Christopher was grinding his teeth that he’d thought of some witticism and was aching to reveal it, but he held his tongue. In his defense, he usually did his best to behave as politely as possible to everyone in my family, whose formality likely stood in stark contrast to the liveliness of his American household. The only exception was when political debates were on the docket. Then he would not only invariably venture strong opinions, whatever his audience, but even serve as a provocateur.

“Amir deserves every bit of praise that I can heap on him,” continued Vivian determinedly. “He captures the smallest details of everyday life in his paintings with amazing precision, just as Jane Austen did in her novels. I just adore his sketches of residences, carriages, hunting parties…all sorts of elegant scenes in the countryside. There’s so much truth to his style…”

“He certainly sounds talented,” I offered stupidly.

“Well, I suppose I have to admit that he’s something of a rarity. Art schools these days force native artists overwhelmingly toward portraiture, and everyone is taught the same tedious, formal style. It’s a shame, really. There was a certain beauty to that old, courtly Mogul look. Primitive but expressive.”

The room fell silent again. Evidently no one had anything else to add to the conversation about Company paintings. I reflected that even after Vivian announced that she was going to marry Daniel, I’d never stooped to treating her with anything less than the greatest warmth. But it was an enervating charade, and I’d long since succumbed to an obsession with attempting to make her feel guilty for choosing him over me. I thought that my only hope was to shame her into loving me again, so that her pity for me would overpower any lingering loyalty to her illusion of Daniel. I knew she had loved me in more uncomplicated days in Scotland when we’d shared enough kisses to lose count of them all. But after our return to India, the only time she ever touched her lips to mine again—once, softly and briefly—was on her wedding day, when I burst into tears at the sight of her in her mother’s ivory gown.

We’d all finished eating by now and the atmosphere had become positively eerie. Insects roared in the background. We all plastered lying smiles onto our faces. Only the children seemed to take their elders’ calmness at face value. They argued playfully among themselves throughout the meal.

“Shall we have a party for your birthday tomorrow, father?” asked Thomas as the plates were being cleared away by the maid and the khitmatgar.

“Of course we shall,” said Julia. “After all, it’s the Queen’s birthday as well.”

Peter, Christopher, and I stole grave glances at each other. Molly kept her eyes on her plate.

Orchid presently appeared in the doorway with Rob hiding behind her. Once again, I hadn’t heard her approach, and once again she startled me. I noticed that Molly didn’t even lift her eyes to meet her. Vivian nodded graciously at her, though. Peter’s face turned even brighter than his hair, which was auburn as my own.

She was wearing a Regency-style, close-fitting gown that flattered her form splendidly. Though the dress would have been some forty years out of fashion in London, necessity has always compelled families in the District to be open-minded on the subject of popular attire. Given what was likely a limited wardrobe, I considered that she’d made a wise selection. And the rouge that she was wearing had a similarly impressive transformative effect. I wondered why she’d gone through the trouble of adorning herself so meticulously that night.

The children would have scrambled directly off to their rooms, but she caught them and whispered something to them in a huddle. Julia objected at first, but I saw Orchid stroke her hair and coax her into acquiescence. Orchid then whispered to Thomas for a second time and then disappeared into the parlor along with Rob. The long-suffering Ms. Google took the opportunity to scurry out of the room.

We presently all focused our attention on Thomas and soon heard the sound of a violin coming from within. The boy stepped forward with what seemed like genuine reluctance and sang:

O where and o where is my Highland laddie gone?

O where and o where is my Highland laddie gone?

He’s gone to fight the French for King George upon the throne,

And it’s oh in my heart that I wish him safe at home.

 

Oh where and o where did your Highland laddie dwell?

O where and o where did your Highland laddie dwell?

He dwelt in merry Scotland at the sign of the blue bell

And it’s oh in my heart that I love my laddie well.

 

Suppose and suppose that your Highland lad should die.

Suppose and suppose that your Highland lad should die.

The bagpipes should play o’er him, and I’d sit me down to cry.

And it’s oh in my heart that I wish he may not die.

Though I was initially planning to tease my nephew for singing a woman’s song, I restrained myself, for his voice was almost as pure and melodious as Christopher’s. I realized that the child had been something of a little gentleman to have deliberately lowered the quality of his song to match Julia’s faint attempts at music earlier in the night. His true voice was as tremulous and delicate as a nightingale’s. It would be a sin, I thought, when Nature re-christened him a baritone.

I wondered how it was that Orchid played the violin so well. Unless the untalented Molly had instructed her, which I most gravely doubted, I guessed that she must have been self-taught. I later discovered that I was in fact correct in this assumption. She’d even arranged the abridged version of The Bluebells of Scotland that Thomas sang for us without the use of a published broadside.

We applauded Thomas heartily. He didn’t bow this time, but blushed and retreated behind his grandmother’s chair. Orchid, Julia, and Robert emerged from the parlor and we all clapped again. Julia embraced her cousin. It was to her credit that she behaved with nothing but friendliness toward him in the aftermath of his song, though the thought of her being upstaged had, I’d seen, originally broken her heart for a moment or two. Still, whatever this redeeming characteristic, the child had yet to speak to me, though I caught her staring mutely at me with a searching expression on her face more than once during the meal.

The children were now sent to bed and the women excused themselves from the table to tend to Andrea. Orchid did not reappear. Molly made me promise to detail my experiences to her in the morning. I convinced myself that her interests were sincere and that Vivian was similarly honest in her more verbose professions of sorrow for taking her leave from me so early in the night. At length, Christopher, my brother, and I entered the house to share a hookah and candid conversation in the library. It was the moment for which I’d been waiting.

On Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress

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Check out my editorial on Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, which was picked up by the Congressional Blog at The Hill.

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/234641-the-key-figure-in-the-middle-east-is-abbas

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As a doctoral student of history at Yale, the coach of the debate team, and a citizen of both the United States and Israel, I felt that Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday hit close to both homes. And all of this in the shadow of the genocidal ISIS on the borders of the Galilee, talk of a regional nuclear arms race, Iran’s promotion of terrorist groups and usual hyperbolic rhetoric about Zionism in all its forms, and the perennial misery of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza.

It’s like some horrible movie in which I and everyone I love are anonymous extras with no power to make a difference to the plot, and our lives are hanging in the balance.

I saw the speech with a close friend of mine of Iranian ancestry (only in America, right?). My friend and I agreed that Netanyahu spoke very powerfully, though the conclusion of the speech in which he seemed to suggest that Israel would attack Iran unilaterally made me laugh—its jets couldn’t even fly over Iraqi airspace without American support. But then I stopped laughing. Who knows what could happen over the course of the next decade depending on who is elected in both countries.

I have four observations about the issues at play here.

1. Israel is right to be concerned about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran’s leadership has appropriated tropes unheard of since the days of the Nazis, and the Jews of the twentieth century learned all too well that supposedly empty threats might not remain empty for long. Iran is a volatile nation that could readily fall prey to a radical revolution such as the others sweeping the Middle East, and who knows whose finger could end up on the little red button. Iran’s leaders require a deal with the United States more than the reverse. Ideally, restrictions on the expansion of the nuclear program should be stringent, with a high price to pay for non-compliance. But Netanyahu didn’t help the issue, because Obama will be unlikely to seriously consider his voice at the table after this speech for fear of appearing to have kowtowed to a reprimand, and Congress is powerless to alter an agreement that hasn’t even been reached yet. The speech was nothing but electioneering that made real compromise less likely, particularly in light of Tehran’s rejection last night of Obama’s “generous” ten year plan even as it currently stands.

2. Ultimately, there must be a compromise of some sort with Iran, because ISIS must be stopped, and this can only happen with Iranian cooperation. Iran and America working together and increasing trade would create new wealth, potentially leading to political liberalization and stabilization. In the long term, Israel cannot expect to remain the only serious military power in the region indefinitely.

3. The Palestinian issue is behind all the trouble between Israel and Iran. In an ideal world, Israel, the Gulf Arab States, and Iran would be close trading partners, leading to regional prosperity and the eradication of the poverty that helps to breed political extremism. The stalling of the peace process is partly Netanyahu’s fault, because his regime has expanded Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and has frustrated the Palestinian government’s attempts to build coalitions. In the long run, if Israel wants to preserve its identity as a Jewish state without recourse to apartheid in the face of falling Jewish birth rates, there needs to be a Palestinian alternative for those people in the country who choose not to live under laws that privilege the Jewish people before others.

4. Mahmoud Abbas—not Netanyahu or Obama or Khamenei—is the person best poised to solve the problems of the Middle East, but not by trying to alienate Israel internationally at the UN and the International Criminal Court while Hamas continues to attack Israeli civilians with weapons funded by Iran. If Abbas would only appropriate the language of passive resistance and adopt the mantle of a modern King or Gandhi, the liberal media’s sympathies would be on his side, and he’d be empowered to have a strong hand at the negotiating table. Even a dozen hunger strikers at the Temple Mount could rejuvenate the peace process if the protestors would only renounce the targeting of innocent civilians as a crime in any time or place.

Netanyahu mentioned the story of Purim in his speech, using it as a reference point for the ambitions of a megalomaniacal Persian politician out to destroy the Jews. But when I think of the relationship between Israel and Persia, I’m reminded of Cyrus the Great, who restored the Jews to Israel after the Babylonian Captivity. Iran and Israel needn’t be enemies, and historically, they have not always been so. But of all people, it is up to Abbas to make the first move, or else Israel will exploit the uncertainty in the region to engage in land grabs, and the country’s enemies will only become more desperate and more militant.

***

Kimel is a doctoral student of history at Yale.

Fuck You, Scarlett O’Hara: Gone With the Wind’s “Prissy” Revisited

Just over three quarters of a century ago, Gone With the Wind had its premiere in Atlanta. Most industry experts were confident that the movie would flop. After all, it was a four hour long color film in an era of black and white flicks that were usually less than half its length; it was a narrative about the journey of a flawed female protagonist in a medium usually privileging the stories of heroic men; it was a war film without a single battle scene; it was hampered by the firing of the original director and cameraman and incessant conflicts between producer David O Selznick and his crew; it was one of the most expensive movies ever made; and it had spiraled dramatically over-budget. “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper,” said Gary Cooper with a singular lack of prescience. Of course, Gone With the Wind proved to be the most successful film of all time in the United States despite the relatively low cost of tickets when it was first released and its incredible running length (“hard on one’s ass,” quipped Vivien Leigh). In fact, it became perhaps the most widely seen film around the entire world over the course of the twentieth century. Rhett and Scarlett have been immortalized in global discourse as archetypical tragic lovers no less iconic or recognizable than many of their Shakespearean antecedents. “Selznick’s Folly” proved to be a canonical text in the history of world film, and the story of its making emblematic of the entire history of Golden-Age Hollywood.

While academic and critical circles tend to regard Gone With the Wind as a great achievement in spectacular entertainment rather than exceptional film art per se, I think a strong argument can be made that in the eyes of history, it should be seen as one of the most important aesthetic achievements of the twentieth century: a film that literally invented the role of production designer, pioneered the finest color cinematography of the first half of the twentieth century, challenged the boundaries of censorship, set the upper time limit and two act structure for a host of subsequent epics, and included some of the finest music and costumes ever featured on screen, all the while faithfully interpreting a Pulitzer Prize winning story grounded in strong undercurrents of feminism, to say nothing of touching the lives of untold millions of people with its message of survival in the face of adversity. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett is, in my book, the most impressive performance I have ever seen by an actor, male or female; the entire success of the film rests on her shoulders, since she is in 95% of the scenes for the entire four hour duration (why Cameron Crowe thinks that Gable is the one who does the “heavy lifting” acting-wise in the picture is beyond me.) Gone With the Wind’s perennial appeal and craftsmanship are so powerful that today, it is virtually the only popularly respected monument to the ghosts of a dead civilization, men and women who deserve to be mourned as human beings even if their culture and what it did to them does not. In short, it’s a true American epic set against the backdrop of the most dramatic moment in our national history.

But these days, the movie is in need of some rehabilitation. Its very popularity and political incorrectness have blinded many mainstream critics to its artistry (though there are exceptions to the rule, like Molly Haskell, who takes the film seriously). Paul Thomas Anderson even recently boasted about never having seen it, nor having any interest in doing so. Spike Lee criticized George Clooney for celebrating Hattie McDaniel’s achievement when he won his Oscar (luckily, no one criticized Mo’Nique for doing so when she also gave McDaniel a shout-out.) The Oscars are beginning to highlight The Wizard of Oz every year instead of acknowledging the true winner of 1939’s race, the most competitive in the history of the awards. Too long and “popular” for inclusion on academic curricula and tainted with a legacy of alleged racism to boot, the film’s continuing popularity belies the fact that it is becoming somewhat taboo among the self-appointed judges and preservers of art history, and fading from the forefront of the popular consciousness as a living document. This is a great shame, however. The piece casts a long shadow, and it deserves to be understood and discussed in all its complexity, not the least because it shaped popular attitudes for so long.

This will be the first in a series of articles reexamining the film. We’ll begin with its most controversial aspect: the performance of Butterfly McQueen.

***

Malcolm X was not a fan of Prissy in Gone With the Wind. “When Butterfly McQueen went into her act,” he wrote, “I felt like crawling under the rug.” He wasn’t alone in his disapproval of the ditsy slave girl who sweeps through the climax of the first act of the film with no less force than the whirlwind evoked in the stanza of Ernest Dowson’s poetry appropriated by Margaret Mitchell for the title of her book. In an article written in celebration of Gone With the Wind’s 75th anniversary, for example, a first-time viewer recently described the role as “horrifying,” suggesting that McQueen is nothing but a “dim-witted girl who exemplifies every negative racial stereotype.”[1] But is the role really so horrendous? Roger Ebert, for example, called her “subversive.” I concur that there’s much more going on with Prissy than meets the eye. On close inspection, the character isn’t just subversive, but openly rebellious. However, as a slave at the mercy of others, she masks her aggression behind a false veneer of passivity and helplessness impenetrable enough to escape the notice of her oppressors, but also movie-goers too horrified by appearances to take a closer look at her. Yet if my reading of one pivotal scene in the film is correct, Butterfly McQueen may have even one-upped and preempted Clark Gable’s infamous “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” by mouthing “fuck you” to Scarlett O’Hara before explicitly singing about her hope for liberation from slavery.

Gone With the Wind’s racial politics are dizzyingly dated, no doubt. The opening intertitles literally dub the days of slavery “a dream remembered,” the florid prose inducing Margaret Mitchell herself to roll her eyes during the premiere.  Films like 12 Years a Slave remind us of the horrors of the so-called peculiar institution, whose existence was a disgrace to the ideals of American history. And yet, Gone With the Wind endures as a cultural phenomenon because the problematic racial issues, while present, do not form the underpinning of the narrative as, for example, in The Birth of a Nation, whose plot gets completely derailed in the second half of the drama by an obsessive promulgation of a message of hatred. For all of its political incorrectness, Gone With the Wind remains relatively popular in modern America while older plantation-bound favorites like Song of the South have fallen to the wayside. The latest anniversary of the movie was met by the creation of a new sequel, an umpteenth box set, theatrical revivals, and several articles online and in magazines. Of course, in most cases, critics are careful to qualify their praise of the dinosaur with trigger warnings about its naïve depictions of race relations. To his credit, Selznick eliminated references to the KKK and excised the n-word from the script (he’d entertained having the black characters say it to each other for “historical accuracy” and comedic value.) Nevertheless, slavery is portrayed as largely benign; the Yankees bring hardship rather than liberation; the former slaves are manipulated by the carpetbaggers during Reconstruction; Mammy doesn’t even have a first name. And worst of all, purportedly, is Prissy, described by Rhett as a “simple minded darky.”

Gone With the Wind is a film of the 1930s, and to a large extent it deals in a naive racist shorthand when presenting its black characters. As a white commentator, I don’t want to underrate the importance of the visceral negative reactions of many viewers of color to aspects of McQueen’s performance that they see as demeaning. I don’t know what it means to watch Gone With the Wind grounded in the lived experience of an African American still suffering from the repercussions of the era romanticized in the film. Gone With the Wind is not a masterpiece due to its insights into the nature of the experience of slavery by a long shot, any more than The Merchant of Venice is a great play thanks to its understanding of Judaism. But in this article, I do want to suggest that the filmmakers portray race relationships in a way that is more nuanced than it may first appear, and that the contributions of the African American actors to the richness and complexity of the final narrative should not be underestimated. Working from a script written at the height of the Jim Crow era just 75 years after the abolition of slavery itself, they nonetheless crafted three dimensional characters that were actually quite pioneering in their complexity by the standards of 1939. This idea is usually grudgingly acknowledged in the case of Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award winning turn as Mammy, though a writer at Time recently called her work “infantilized” and worthy of inspiring “cringing.”[2] McDaniel’s character displays a remarkable combination of wisdom, understanding, compassion, shrewdness, and even, sometimes, repressed rage; she speaks bitterly and angrily more than once, and there is an undeniable aggressiveness brewing just below the surface at many times during the movie. Her performance weeping her way up the stairs after the death of Bonnie probably clinched the Oscar for her; it’s one of the most extraordinary long takes I’ve ever seen. Her love for the child and pain at her death are excruciatingly palpable. Bodily fluids ooze from her face. It is a totally uninhibited, raw moment.

But what about Butterfly McQueen as Prissy? Is she really such a disgraceful character? To many, she seems a mere stereotype employed for comic relief. But I think that to insist upon this reading of the character is to underestimate McQueen’s talents as an actress. To begin with, believe it or not, McQueen used her real voice in the film. She wasn’t affecting that unforgettably distinctive tone halfway between Walt Disney’s Snow White and Minnie Mouse. Of course, one could argue that she was cast because her ultra-high pitched voice inherently spoke to offensive stereotypes, but did it really? I’ve heard of stereotypes about slaves speaking in an exaggerated dialect before, but never stereotypes of slaves speaking as if they’d just inhaled helium. She was chosen because her voice was extremely unique and in fact the very opposite of stereotypical. No one in the world sounded like her, and Selznick believed that her voice and comedic talent would make the role memorable. It wasn’t easy to get a part in a movie in 1939 as a black woman in Hollywood, let alone one who sounded like Butterfly McQueen in a world too quick to judge individuals with high sounding voices as being infantilized. But she took her opportunity and rolled with it. Perhaps she thought of Hattie McDaniel’s rejoinder to her critics that she’d rather play a maid than be one. At any rate, while McQueen’s voice is distracting and strange for many viewers, to assume that it in itself denotes stupidity in the character is to make a mistake.  Referencing her choices as an actress, McQueen later said, “I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid.” In fact, Prissy is far from a simpleton. She is actually very sly.

I interpret Prissy as a a rebellious character. She dislikes working as a slave, and so she puts on an act that empowers her to abrogate responsibility whenever she can. She lies to Scarlett and Doctor Meade about knowing how to deliver babies, nonchalantly endangering the life of her former owner’s wife for the mere reason that she feels like boasting. As Melanie struggles in childbirth in a life-or-death battle, Prissy shuffles about Atlanta “as slow as molasses in January,” taking her sweet time finding the doctor. She whines and cowers  when Scarlett upbraids her, but becomes calm quickly enough as soon as her mistress’ back is turned.  In fact, the more that Scarlett screams at her and threatens her, the more she whimpers and whines, but the slower she works. The character is almost lethally passive aggressive during a time of great crisis, speaking to a form of rebelliousness less satisfying to a modern perspective than the cathartic overt vengeance of Django Unchained, perhaps, but representing something altogether more realistic. As the future emperor Claudius discovered, playing the fool could sometimes have its benefits.

Consider the scene in the clip at the top of this article. As Scarlett fans the dying Melanie while they both wait for the doctor, she hears Prissy’s voice outside the window. The slave is moving as slowly as possible, and she is singing—not just any song, but “A Few More Days to Tote the Weary Load.” Could she possibly be referencing the impending ending of slavery, or is she too stupid to know the symbolic implications of the lyrics? When she encounters Scarlett, she begins her interaction in a surly manner, casually explaining that she couldn’t find the doctor and was too afraid to look for him. When Scarlett presses her, she begins to weep and whine. Scarlett leaves to find the doctor herself. She threatens “Don’t you be upsetting (Melanie), or I’ll whip the hide off you.” And then, there is this magical moment where Butterfly McQueen ad-libs a line that shows she knew exactly what she was doing with the character. Prissy straightens her back, stops sniffling so promptly it is clear that it was all an act, and proceeds to linger so long on the F of “a few more days for to tote the weary load” that it actually looks very much like she is saying “Fuck you” to Scarlett O’Hara. Unfortunately, the pivotal moment takes place just after the ending of the clip, above. But revisit the film for yourself and look for it. It’s there. Audiences often even gasp at it. In that elongated “F” is an entire history of pent up rage behind a passive aggressive veneer in which incompetence and “stupidity” can be used as weapons to avoid hard labor. I don’t think that this was the director’s contribution. I have a feeling that it was all Butterfly.

In his otherwise very cogent and engaging essay “On Plantation Politics” in Gone With the Wind, Wesley Morris suggests that “as Prissy, Butterfly McQueen is giving the same high-strung performance as Vivien Leigh. To see McQueen falling down and squawking is to think there really isn’t a huge difference between her dithering emotionalism and Scarlett’s, except that Prissy is written as a fool and Scarlett as a superhero.” There is so much wrong here that I don’t know where to begin. Prissy is clearly faking most of her theatricality; Scarlett is always completely serious, and much less over-the-top. Behind her melodramatic veneer, though, Prissy is actually a different person behind closed doors. Selznick evidently understood this about the character in a way that the original director George Cukor did not. According to McQueen, Selznick visited the set one day while Cukor was shooting a scene with Melanie in childbirth. Prissy is supposed to say, “Ma says that if you put a knife under the bed, it cuts the pain in two.” Cukor wanted her to say it hysterically. Selznick told her to cool it down and say it more calmly, perhaps to draw more of a contrast between Prissy as she normally is and Prissy when she is being passive aggressive. Cukor was furious. A few days later, he was fired. In the movie, McQueen says the line calmly. Selznick always got his way in the end. He admired McQueen, and gave her work in his subsequent epic Duel in the Sun. She plays the servant girl Vashti, a much kinder and sweeter character than Prissy, and altogether less interesting. Prissy is more diabolical and hilarious. Really, for all of the problematic baggage surrounding the performance, Butterfly McQueen steals the show in the most pivotal part of the biggest and most famous movie of all time. For better or worse, “I don’t know nothing about birthing babies” is one of the most famous lines in film history. It is usually associated in the popular imagination with incompetence. It should perhaps be associated with masked rebellion.

No discussion of Butterfly McQueen’s role in Gone With the Wind would be complete without a discussion of Scarlett’s slapping her in the face after her admission about lying. It’s a jarring moment—the heroine of the film is actually beating her slave. Gone With the Wind is often criticized for glossing over the horrors of servitude, but here, at least, is an indication that the threat of physical force is always just below the surface. Of course, Scarlett has been called “an equal opportunity slapper” who beats a whole host of other people over the course of the film, and McQueen joked that she herself would love to have slapped Prissy. But the moment is absolutely shocking to  modern audiences. I’m glad it was included. I think the audience is meant to feel a sense of callousness on the part of Scarlett that is in part reprehensible—she is not portrayed as a “superhero” in this instance.

There is a distinct disconnect between the world of the black characters and the white characters’ understanding of that world. Earlier in the film, Scarlett meets her former slaves conscripted by the Confederate army and greets them enthusiastically, but does not seem to notice that they are singing the hymn “Let My People Go.” Later, her father chastises her for behaving too brutally to Prissy and Mammy, urging her to be more gentle with “inferiors.” In the final act, while Mammy is hunched over in misery complaining about her aching back, Scarlett breaks into song, completely (and glaringly) heedless of her surrogate mother’s plight. And when Rhett leaves Georgia for England, he walks gruffly into Pork as he passes him in the hallway, aggressively bumping into him without apologizing. These microaggressions against the black characters are deliberate inclusions by the filmmakers suggestive of the dehumanizing nature of servitude in the South, or at least the obliviousness of white characters to the inner emotional landscape of their house workers. The experience of slavery is not explored very deeply in Gone With the Wind, but the thematic gulf between the complete self-involvedness of the white characters and the hurt silences and passive aggressive tactics of their black servants is certainly highlighted. All of the slaves run away from Tara except two. When Ashley complains that he “will not make money from the enforced labor and misery of others,” even Scarlett has to laugh at him. He assures her that they didn’t treat their slaves like that, and that he would have freed them all after his father died. Scarlett tactfully changes the subject.

For all of the discourse about the simpering stupidity of her character, Butterfly  McQueen was actually the most rebellious member of the cast. She refused to be literally slapped by Vivien Leigh during her climactic scene, even against the violent protests of Cukor; she said that she would scream loudly if the slap was simulated, but would take it completely silently if her face was touched. Her insistence was honored. Later, she also refused to eat watermelon on the porch of Tara. The filmmakers compromised, and she carves it in the background in the final cut of the scene (she later jokingly admitted that she regretted her obstinacy in this case; it might have been funny to spit out the seeds nonchalantly, she said, while the other characters were engaged in their melodramatics all around her). When Hattie McDaniel first auditioned for the role of Mammy, she actually visited Selznick’s office dressed like a slave, showing him that she was willing to embrace the part in all its facets, and was not ashamed of it in any way. Hattie McDaniel told Butterfly McQueen during the shooting of Gone With the Wind that she would never work in Hollywood again. “You complain too much,” she said.

***

[1]http://popwatch.ew.com/2014/12/18/gone-with-the-wind-75th-anniversary/

[2] http://time.com/10650/dont-applaud-jared-letos-transgender-mammy/

(One wonders if the author of the second article didn’t accidentally mistake the characters of Prissy and Mammy. Indeed, this confusion is all but confirmed by the correction at the bottom of the article which retracted the idea that Mammy was the one who delivered the famous line about birthing babies. The adjective “infantilized” is totally wrong to describe the part of Mammy; the idea that McDaniel’s no-nonsense and aged character is in any way immature seems bizarre.)

Remember Cawnpore, A Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter VII (An Introduction and a Reunion)

indigo_factory_bengal2[1]

“Lord, this is a scandalous first impression,” I said.

The woman cocked her head to the side and stared at me. I began to wonder if her knowledge of the English language was in fact poor and she was only able to deliver certain stock snide words and phrases in it.

“I assume that you are these children’s ayah?” I exclaimed loudly and with what she must have interpreted as humiliating slowness.

“That’s what Andrea and Molly call me,” she answered fluently, setting Robert down. The child stared at me in mute terror for a moment and then scrambled indoors.

“Are all of you on a first name basis, then?”

“Get off your high horse, Maxim,” said Christopher. “Things aren’t so formal around here anymore. The little boy alone has said enough this afternoon to give a vicar apoplexy.”

“Stay out of this.”

There was an awkward pause. The woman remedied it.

“I apologize—I should have said their royal highnesses Andrea and Molly.”

“Your English is impeccable, Yulan,” I told her quietly and close to her face, so that the children wouldn’t hear me, “and since I know it not to be your native tongue, I imagine that you must have a lively intellect. But you’ve given me the immediate opinion that you are unprofessional, madam.”

Christopher cackled at this, but the woman only stared at me again in an odd sort of way. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking.  Her eyes seemed to be soulless, and she was breathing hard. At length, she smiled.

“Please call me Orchid. To be honest, only the little girl and her mother have the talent to pronounce my proper name correctly, so it’s better that you didn’t even try. Butchering the Chinese language is beneath you.”

“As teaching duties are evidently beneath you?”

“Thomas,” she said in a bored voice, “Recite your history lesson. Or are you too dense?”

“I am not!”

“Then prove it and tell your Uncle Maxim the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta.”

“The stranger thinks we have to be sent to Scotland,” whispered Julia urgently. “So do it right.” I realized that the children were completely oblivious to the danger of the mutiny. The worst horror that either of their little minds could conjure up was probably being separated from their mother, the gut-wrenching fate of all well-bred Anglo-Indian children. I couldn’t quite bring myself to sympathize with them, though, because both of my parents were dead when I left India for the first time, and I knew that worse fates existed than grammar school in Aberdeen.

“Watch me, Uncle Maxim,” Thomas sighed. He proceeded to rapidly recite, “Once upon a time there was an evil Indian prince named Sir Roger Dowlett. In seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-six the Brits were in an awful fix. Sir Roger captured Calcutta. He put 146 of her majesty’s royal…sorry…loyal subjects into a jail cell 18 feet long by 14 feet wide. Only 23 people survived the night. 123 people were crushed to death inside the cell. So, in seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-seven, Sir Roger Dowlett was sent to heaven. We beat him and his Frenchy helpers at the Battle of Plassey a hundred years ago this June, and that’s how we won India.”

“Perfect,” said Orchid. “Now run off and play.”

“Oh boy!” said Christopher excitedly in anticipation of a debate. “You’ve got the story all wrong there, Thomas.”

“I know why,” said Julia. “The prince’s name wasn’t Sir Roger Dowlett at all. It was Siraj Ud Daula. Sir Roger Dowlett was just a nickname.”

“Excellent,” said Orchid. “Now everyone has contributed to today’s history lesson. See? Was it so wrong of me to indulge the children with recess, Mr. Maxwell? It’s remarkable how erudite the baba logue are.”

As far as I was concerned, the woman’s surliness was an insult to the sacredness of her position. I knew intuitively that her fluency didn’t help matters. I guessed that she fancied herself a persecuted intellectual. But I thought she had no call to describe a child as dense to his face, particularly one so high-spirited as Thomas. I could understand why he disliked her. I suppose she was attempting to make an impression of some kind on me. But in my mind, I thought of Rupee, my grandmother, a buriah ayah of the old order, the compassionate true head of the household whatever the men of the family might think or have thought of her, shrewd, patient, and nurturing. This woman was no match for her.

I sat down beside a row of rose hedges, motioning for Julia and Thomas to join me. Julia of course remained in place, but Thomas edged forward.

“Siraj Ud Daula, or Sir Roger Dowlett as you called him, was the last Nawab of Bengal,” I explained authoritatively.  “Now, why did he attack the East India Company’s forces?”

“Because they were Brits?”

“No. It was because they defied his orders and began stockpiling weapons in Fort William in Calcutta. Fine bubble there, incidentally.”

“Why did they stockpile weapons?” he asked guiltily. (I’d just caught him blowing bubbles of saliva in boredom.)

“They were afraid of the French, who were causing trouble, as they always do in world history. Anyway, after Siraj…after he captured Fort William, some angry Europeans assaulted the native soldiers assigned to guard them. It was only then that Siraj’s officers threw all 146 prisoners into the Black Hole as punishment. When the guards told the prisoners to get inside, everyone thought it was all a joke, at first. But then their laugher transformed into terrified screams and pleas.”

I hoped that my effective use of hyperbole was proving entertaining to my audience.

“So, Siraj’s officers did it,” yawned Thomas, “and not Siraj himself?”

“Siraj was asleep—that was his excuse. Anyway, the soldiers might not have meant for the prisoners to die…when they began to die. But everyone was too afraid to wake up the prince and ask permission to unlock the doors. And so the native guards stood by as 123 people were smothered and trampled to death.”

“That’s just what I said,” said Thomas. “You’re only making the story longer, Uncle Maxim.”

“You missed the moral of the story.”

“Oh?”

“It teaches us what happens when small-minded people use the excuse of following orders to justify their evil actions. Besides, you lacked details. For example, you didn’t even mention Robert Clive, the man who avenged the Black Hole at the Battle of Plassey. When it was all over, Siraj was betrayed by his own troops, and then he was killed.”

“And what happened to Robert Clive?”

“As a matter of fact,” interrupted Christopher, “he stuck a pen-knife into his neck in middle age. Thomas was absolutely right, Maxim! Your version of the story was no different from his. Show the kids that they can question history—that they can change the meaning of the story in retrospect, and make up their own morals. What if I told you, Tom, that Siraj Ud Daula was right to defy the British?”

“Right to defy the British?” screamed Thomas.

“From Siraj Ud Daula’s perspective, yes,” said Christopher.

“Right to suffocate all those people?” cried Julia, willing to join the conversation now that Christopher was in it.

“Christopher,” I said, “you’re ruining the lesson.” I had meant to set a calm example of the Socratic method to Orchid and was instead being upstaged.

“Wasn’t Siraj right to fight for his people’s freedom?”

“I don’t care what he was fighting for,” said Julia decisively to Christopher. “He was wrong to throw all of those people into the Black Hole. Those helpless prisoners were his responsibility, and their murder only made the British seek revenge. He didn’t help anybody, least of all his own people. But history will have its revenge on him. He’ll be remembered for all time as a villain.”

“Some people,” said Christopher, “argue that the Black Hole never really existed.”

“Oh, it existed,” I said. “There’s a plaque commemorating it somewhere in Calcutta.”

“This is an interesting history lesson,” said Thomas.

“You see, Maxim?” said Christopher. “I didn’t ruin anything. I was helping your lesson along, though you were too caught up in yourself to realize it.”

“These children need to be packed off to Scotland,” I repeated, secretly enjoying the visible effect that this threat had on them. It suppose it made me feel powerful in a petty kind of way. Admit it or not, but it can be pleasurable to be malicious to the weak when you can get away with it sometimes.

“If we were lucky, we’d all be sent far away from this place,” said Orchid. “Come along now, children, and go inside. It’s too hot to be out here.” She turned to me. “Your brother is away just now inspecting the vats, Mr. Maxwell. Andrea—I mean Mrs. Maxwell the Younger—is bed-ridden, and your stepmother, Mrs. Maxwell the Elder, is tending to her.”

“You know,” I said, “there’s no shame in being a governess. And certainly none in being a teacher.”

“Well, I’m afraid I’m no pedagogue. You found me out.” She smiled for a moment, and then became serious. “You’ve been unfriendly and formal with me from the start, Mr. Maxwell, and I confess that I’ve also been less than polite. But you needn’t think of me as your enemy. There’s no place for either of us here.”

“Speak for yourself. You certainly have a lot to say for a stranger. This is my home. My family is here.”

She rolled her eyes.

“I thought I had it on good authority,” I offered as a parting shot, “that your people respected family ties, though perhaps I was mistaken.”

Orchid’s mouth tightened.

“I didn’t ask to be an ayah, Mr. Maxwell. You know, I was a person of some importance in my world before it was destroyed. I am of pure Tartar blood. My father was a bannerman in the emperor’s army. Now, the truth is I’m practically a slave in this household. You have no call to put on airs with me to show off for your friend.”

She turned to Christopher,

“I was impressed by your lesson,” she said awkwardly, the first words she had spoken directly to him since our arrival.

I remember that the sense of desperation in her voice was offset by a certain kind of self-assured dignity, a sort of nobility of bearing that I couldn’t help but admire. Anglo-Indian manners were nothing to this woman.

Christopher only wrinkled his brow in response to her compliment. She turned away and walked slowly toward the house. I watched her leave, studying the swaying motion of her body as she moved. I wondered where she kept herself during the day.

“Some pumpkins…” muttered Christopher. “She’s off her rocker on laudanum, you understand. There’s no telling what she’ll say when she’s on the stuff.”

“Of course,” I said. “What else could account for such insolence?”

The truth was, though, that I hadn’t realized this nor even considered the possibility of this.

It was then that I heard the sound of galloping. I turned and saw Vivian riding side-saddle toward me with reckless speed.

“I’m not bald, by the way,” said Christopher, retreating reluctantly toward the house. “I’m balding. And only ever so slightly.”

I was no longer listening.

Vivian leapt from the horse. Her sea-green eyes were accentuated by the emerald ribbons of her riding habit. She was ungloved, but she took my palms in hers, shaming me. My hands were filthy, and they always became embarrassingly clammy whenever I was around her.

“I don’t know what to say,” she whispered tearfully, and embraced me. My lips grazed her cheek, excruciatingly soft. I’d almost forgotten the impossible beauty of her face, snow white in a frame of jet.

The state of my costume was not lost on her. She even shuddered at the sight of it, quickly but visibly. This pleased me immensely. Yet I couldn’t help but notice a silver locket around her neck which I knew contained a maudlin daguerreotype of Daniel, and so I too shuddered.

Judging the Judge of Israel

w-schabas-youtube

In September 2014, I had the opportunity to form my own judgment about the former UN-appointed judge of Israel.

We were sitting in a brownstone on Crown Street in New Haven, the headquarters of Shabtai, the Jewish society at Yale. William Schabas, head of a three person committee appointed by the UN to investigate crimes against international law in Israel and Palestine during the summer of 2014, had been invited to meet with Israeli academic Moshe Halbertal and give a talk on the topic of Jewish contributions to human rights law. Some wondered why he’d accepted the invitation, but I didn’t. Presumably Schabas, a known critic of Israel who had once declined to call Hamas a “terrorist organization” when giving an interview with the Israeli press, was venturing into the lion’s den to indicate that he wasn’t prejudiced.

I was asked to interview Schabas for one hour about the history of human rights and the law. This assignment was particularly personal for me. At the end of June, I’d visited Israel for a month to attend my brother’s graduation and finish a novel about daily life in my birthplace during the second intifada. Over the course of my stay, rocket fire broke out. I experienced the effects of eleven air raids, including one where a dying relative and Holocaust survivor was unable to be moved into a shelter and asked us to leave her behind. Mindful of everything that I’d experienced, I wanted to talk to Schabas to get some insight into his thought process and judge him for myself. He’d mostly avoided discussing Israel and Palestine overtly on his trip because he said it might compromise his forthcoming report. So I had to be indirect, focusing on historical examples.

What was his opinion of the Allied bombing campaigns in Germany and Japan in the Second World War? He explained that the bombings might well be considered illegal by today’s standards, though the context of 1945 made their status more ambiguous. If it were up to him, it would always be a crime to attack civilians in cities. How did he think a hypothetical commission would deal with limited access to information regarding military decision making and activities undertaken in secret by terrorist groups? He told me that judges must always do their best to come to conclusions even in the face of great obstacles and incomplete information. Were there any examples in modern history of times when the bombing of cities by western powers represented a justified military intervention? He didn’t mention any. If the United States were attacked by rockets from Mexico, did he think it likely that the United Nations would investigate its retaliatory conduct? His answer was yes, absolutely. The law should apply equally to all nations. In an era in which terrorist organizations can embed themselves in the infrastructure of cities, what constitutes the distinction between overwhelming force and disproportionately violent force when dealing with perceived threats? This is the only question he declined to answer.

His discussion of the Goldstone Report was particularly telling to me. He was struck that Moshe Halberthal admitted that white phosphorus was no longer employed by the IDF thanks to Goldstone’s findings; this was the first time that he’d heard someone associated with Israel admit that the commission had done any good. I wondered if Schabas thought that recommendations for small practical changes such as this were the best that his report might ultimately accomplish.

In my judgment, Schabas seemed like a knowledgeable man who understood that there existed significant opposition to his commission, but who was nonetheless deeply convinced of its nobility. Though originally called upon by the UN to focus on Israeli actions, he immediately insisted that Hamas too had to be scrutinized. But this was the least that he could do to ensure that the commission would not be dismissed out of hand as one-sided. Given Schabas’ history of criticizing Israel, he seems to me to have been an undiplomatic choice to head the commission to say the least, almost guaranteeing that the Israelis would call his findings into question. In an ideal world, a report by the United Nations on the situation in Gaza could be a landmark document setting guidelines to help regulate actions by modern militaries when engaging with targets in densely populated cities using asymmetric force. But the efficacy of such a report would be bound to the constellation of voices that it brought to the table—it could only be patched together in a mutually supportive context in which military expertise informed the theorizing of the academics, and the academics considered the facts on the ground when making their recommendations.

I knew that Schabas’ commission would not provide such a document, and believe that his quitting at this point will have little influence on the ultimate reception of the UN’s findings. The entire enterprise was undertaken in a hostile context in which Abbas is increasingly resorting to the authority of international organizations to try to put the squeeze on Israel and draw attention to the iniquities of the stalling peace process. This adversarial atmosphere might not be the most productive for compromise and open discourse; something like the establishment of a truth and reconciliation committee led by truly impartial observers might lead to greater popular perceptions of justice being served. In the meantime, so long as Hamas continues to deliberately target civilian populations and refuses to adopt strategies of non-violent resistance that have proved gloriously efficacious in the cases of Gandhi, King, and Mandela (strategies courageously carried out every day by moderate Palestinian groups ignored by the press in the face of massive opposition by both the IDF and extremist factions), any effort to solve the peace process through legal finger-wagging will prove to be a futile endeavor.

Superface (Kiss My Hairy Face, a Hipster Rap)

Here’s my second stab at a music video. Special thanks to my friends Joanna Zheng and Gary Gao for helping me to film this on location in Bushwick, and to Chris Tokita for helping me edit the sound. I shot it on my camera and edited it using Lightworks. The lyrics are below.

***

You might think that you know me,
But at last I’ve turned the tables!
This gold ring in my nostril proves
That I defy your labels.
I’m rocking this wool cap
And a beard that looks like crap
And in case you missed the news
I look fierce in canvass shoes.
Take a look, but not too close,
I don’t wear socks, so they smell gross.

The rims of my glasses are thick and absurd.
I basically look like I’m one giant nerd.
My pea-coat is vintage, my pants super tight,
The shape of my testicles lies in plain sight.
These Civil War mutton chops both look like hell,
This sweater is right out of Saved By the Bell.
Sipping a fro-yo, I play with my yo-yo,
Passing chain restaurants, I tell my friends “hell, no.”
That meal once had feet, be it fish, fowl, or meat.
And gluten free wheat germ is all that I’ll eat.

Unwashed and contentious,
I’m very annoying and pretentious.
But all of you can kiss my hairy face.
I can’t stand your fucking mainstream taste.

I love to use phrases like badass and dude,
I’m grungy and lazy and stuck up and rude.
I live in a basement. I have no emotion.
My love life involves a computer and lotion.
Get off of my case.
We artists need our space.

Listen to pop and I’ll call you a fool.
I only like music before it is cool.
Your shade bounces off me just like an elastic.
Bombastic, sarcastic, and unenthusiastic,
I’m not too gymnastic or very scholastic,
MTV’s classic. I’m being sarcastic.
If you are rich and your parents tote plastic,
Life here in Bushwick is fucking fantastic.
I party and drink and I vomit all night,
Then sipping my latte at Starbucks I write
Pompous haikus about guilt being white.
My mind’s a chariot for the proletariat.
So my scarf is sewn from fur of yak,
Weaved by orphans from Iraq.
And doing my part to promote social war,
I only buy weed from my brothers, the poor.

Clever and sardonic,
My tattoo of Pikachu is ironic.
But all of you can all kiss my hairy face.
I can’t stand your fucking mainstream taste.

When I make my daily calls
To the thrift store at the malls
I read Mao’s Little Red Book in the stalls,
So capitalism can suck on my balls!
Get off of my case.
We artists need our space.

And if you dare to mock me as you pass,
Then I’ll occupy your bourgeois ass.
Down with the man! You better get off me
Before I scald your face with fair trade coffee.

You are just a cliché.
So who really cares what you have to say?
You are just a cliché.
So who really cares what you have to say?

I’m a spoiled brat with artistic pretensions,
I deserve to be the world’s center of attention.
But haters can all kiss my hairy face.
I can’t stand your fucking mainstream taste.

I’ll never conform.
I refuse to reform.
Each day of the week
I’m completely unique.
You’ll never define me.
So give me no lip, sir,
Oh shit. Now I realize
I’m just a hipster.

Better hitch my saddle,
Head off to Seattle…or Portland.