Like all good Americans – and Russians, come to that – LI harbors apocalyptic fantasies and eagerly looks for the promised horror in the flotsam and jetsam of bad news in the newspapers. In The Idiot, you’ll remember, Lebedev is a buffoon/parasite of the Rameau type who insinuates himself into Salon society with his interpretations of the Book of Revelations. At one point, somebody accuses him of interpreting the star Wormwood as the railroads spreading through Europe. Actually, an excellent interpretation – it was, after all, the contention of the more sober historian, AJP Taylor, that the schedule of those same railroads was the driver for the mobilizations that led to WWI.
So – in spite of my worry about my brother’s investments – I got that certain vertigo from the 400 point stock market drop yesterday – although I in no way believe that indicates a permanent trend. And it made me think of posting a little story about the end of Carthage written as one of the Imaginary Dialogues by the always bizarre late romantic, Walter Savage Landor. Landor, of course, is now off the map as far as the canon is concerned, but remember – he was held in the highest esteem by Emerson, Swinburne, and other assorted literati in the 19th century.
The dialogue is imagined to take place between Scipio Africanus, Polybius, and Panaetius – ah, the air of mustiness is already collecting around your muzzle, lecteur! – but don’t worry, this isn’t some Victorian re-enactment of Roman virtues. Like Flaubert, Landor has a view of Carthage that is full of sexual imagery and violence. Scipio describes the razing of the city – shades of Fallujah – with a cynical view of the meaning of it all. Far from honor and dignity, it is a matter of business – Carthage offers a competitive advantage to Rome that can’t be tolerated. Then Polybius tells a story. He and a patrol enter the half destroyed city. They hear cries issuing unexpectedly from a part of it, and make their way through ash clogged streets until “two old men throw themselves on the ground” at his feet. The men are Carthage’s judges. One of the judges says, ‘the laws are yours, o Romans, and nobody judges treason and parricide more harshly.’ With that sentence, the old men led the patrol around the next corner. Here, I’ll let Landor take over:
‘We entered a small square: it had been a market-place: the roofs of the stalls were demolished, and the stones of several columns, (thrown down to extract the cramsp of iron and the lead that fastened them) served for the spectators, male and female, to mount on. Five men were nailed on crosses; two others were nailed against a wall, from scarcity (as we were told) of wood.
“Can seven men have murdered their parents in the same year?” I cried.
“No, nor has any of the seven,” replied the first who had spoken. “But when heavy impositions were laid upon those who where backward in voluntary contributions, these men, among the richest in our city, protested by the gods that they had no gold or silver left. They protested truly.”
“And they die for this! Inhuman, insatiable, inexorable wretch!”
“Their books,” added he, unmoved at my reproaches, ‘were seized by public authority and examined. It was discovered that, instead of employing their riches in external or internal commerce, or in manufactories, or in agriculture, instead of reserving it for the embellishment of the city, or the utility of the citizens, instead of lending it on interest to the industrious and needy, they had lent it to foreign kings and tyrants, some of whom were waging unjust wars by these very means, and others were enslaving their own country. For so heinous a crime the laws had appointed no specific punishment. On such occasions the people and elders vote in what manner the delinquent shall be prosecuted, lest any offender should escape with impunity, from their humanity or improvidence. Some voted that these wretches should be cast amid the panthers; the majority decreed them (I think wisely) a more lingering and more ignominious death.”
The men upon the crosses held down their heads, whether from shame or pain or feebleness. The sunbeams were striking them fiercely; sweat ran from them, liquefying the blood that had blackened and hardened on their hands and feet. A soldier stood by the side of each, lowering the point of his spear to the ground; but no one of them gave it up to us. A centurian asked the nearest of them how he dared to stand armed before him.
‘Because the city is in ruins, and the laws still live,” said he. “At the first order of the conqueror of the elders, I will surrender my spear.”
“What is your pleasure, O commander?” asked the elder.
“That an act of justice be the last public act performed by the citizens of Carthage and that the sufferings of these wretches not be abridged.”
Such was my reply. The soldiers piled their spears, for the points of which the hearts of the crucified men thirsted; and the people hailed us as they would have hailed deliverers.”