Children of the Fatherland: The Weakness of Rome

Don’t listen to that idiot.

No, I take that back. He’s not an idiot; he’s a man of skill and education, who has sold out to the enemy. Listen to him carefully, and hear the voice of the oppressor! See his mouth move, and look for the strings that lead to the Senate!

“Roman law is harsh,” quotha, “but it is law and not whim.” So speaks the man who has never seen a child of ten flogged! But I have. I was at the trial, and it was all done in accordance with the law. The child had been caught with the bread in his possession; two witnesses had seen him in the baker’s store. Oh, there was some room for whim, yes, even for mercy: The magistrate was perhaps moved by the huge brown eyes in the thin face, or the way his ribs stuck out. He gave only the minimum sentence; only twenty lashes. The child was obviously guilty of other crimes; he could have been sentenced to far worse. So much for law and whim, when the law precludes mercy!

I was there at the flogging, too; it was the same day. Let none say that Roman law – I do not call it ‘justice’ – is not swift. The boy tried to be brave. He did well at first. It cannot have been the first time he was beaten, after all. He thought he knew what he was facing. An uncomfortable few minutes, a sting that would last a day or two, then it would be over. Or perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps he had seen others flogged, and knew what was coming. If so he had deep courage indeed, or a child’s inability to believe that the terrible thing could really, really happen to him, personally. He walked to the post calmly. At least, he looked calm if you didn’t look at the eyes.

The first stroke taught him differently. Strips of oxhide, weighted with lead; more a weapon than an instrument of discipline. The lad was a thief; a caning, a beating, these would not have gone amiss, if only to discourage others. But that is not what Roman law prescribes. It demands punishment with an instrument suited to kill a man.

The first stroke drew blood. Not a scream; I think the boy was too shocked. The breath went out of him, but he didn’t scream; not then. And when the ribs were laid bare, sometime after the twelfth stroke, he couldn’t. But in between, yes, he screamed. I can still hear him screaming, if I listen. I try not to. A child! What has more power to move adults than a child’s scream? We drop what we are doing, we listen intently: Where is the danger? Wolf, lion, jackal, human? The future of the tribe is under attack; move swiftly to the sound of battle, get your spear, kill! The instinct is older than any law, older than rational thought. Yet we stood, a hundred adults, and listened to a boy’s screaming as his life was beaten out, and did nothing.

The executioner was not using his full strength, I think; a mistaken mercy. For a healthy adult it would have worked; twenty strokes is hard, but it cripples only for a few weeks, a month. A child’s body is not protected by muscle as an adult’s is. The boy survived to feel every stroke, instead of fainting at the fourth or fifth. His spine glistened white and red.

“Roman law is harsh, but it is not whim.” Hear the language of the ruling classes, whose children will never feel the whip! What good is it that law is written down for all to see, when what is written is horror beyond bearing? And withal, he gives the appearance of even-handedness; he is not blind, he implies, to the problems, but after all there are good things as well. Certainly it is worse in Russia! And so it is, if you are on the estate of a monster. But monsters are rare. Only written law can turn monstrosity into the stuff of everyday life. Yes, children are flogged in Russia; but it happens because a boyar is a fool or a beast, not because a kind-hearted magistrate has his hands tied by dead men’s words!

He speaks of respect. Of course tenants tip their hat to the man who has the power to turn them out to starve! And yes, most landlords nod graciously; why shouldn’t they? A nod costs nothing. A nod gives the nodder a pleasant feeling of superiority, of noblesse oblige; a gracious landlord am I, that acknowledges the humble greetings of these deserving poor! After all we are all Romaioi together, even if some of us sleep in feather beds and others in mud huts.

Cato and Cicero, Ovid and Horace? Fine authors, for the ruling classes! Indeed, their ideas are not forgotten. What of the brothers Gracchus, who did something for the poor? Who remembers them now? What of Gaius Marius? Oh yes, the Senate reviles the very memory of his reforms; they prefer bloody-handed Sulla, who killed thousands with his proscriptions but gave power to the wealthy. But some of us recall who opened the ranks of the Legions even to the poorest citizen, and who made smallholders of street orphans. Yes, and who broke the Cimbri and the Numidians!

Respect is very well; let nobody dispute the virtues of respect! But respect keeps no child from starving. In the long run, there must be justice; and justice is the one thing that the Roman Empire has not heaped up in piles, in its long history of wealth and power. Gold we have, costly spices, fine silks, great artists, stunning mosaics; and yes, even bread, even meat, even wine and milk and honey are not so rare. But of justice there is very little. There is the weakness of Rome; for without justice, in the long run, there cannot be respect.

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