14 December, 2004

What makes a man historical?

Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?
Quam diu etiam furor iste tuus nos eludet?
Quem ad finem sese effrenata iactabit audacia?

In 63 BC, during the last, dark and tumultuous decades of the Roman Republic, the consul Marcus Tullius Cicero stepped before the Senate, which he had convened in an extraordinary session, and exploded against one of its most notorious members with the powerful words above. They translate roughly to
How long, O Catiline, will you abuse our patience?
Until when will this rage of yours mock us?
To what end will the same unbridled audacity shake itself?

"Catiline," or Lucius Sergius Catilina, was a candidate for the consular election that year. He had lost to Cicero and another man the year before, and these two men were obliged by Roman law to retire.

In our enlightened postmodernity, people would fall over themselves to denounce Cicero for his moralizing. (I am not making this up. Not too long ago, I read a mystery novel set in Roman times that sneered at Cicero's conservatism, his self-righteous moralizing, and his revulsion at homosexuality.) "Freethinkers" would excoriate Cicero for having postponed the elections, and for stirring up fear in the hearts of Roman citizens that someone wanted to take away their rights. Doubtless some documentary would circulate in the cinemas, exposing all the connections that, if only investigated by a crusading and courageous journalist, would expose the corruption of Cicero's administration.

Fortunately for Cicero, he did not live in a modern Western republic; he lived in ancient Rome. Cicero had called the Senate into extraordinary session in the temple of Jupiter. The Senators were spread throughout the temple. Catiline had his usual crowd of friends around him. The story goes that, as Cicero thundered out one denuncation after another, exposing Catiline's plot to destroy the Roman Republic and assassinate as many Senators as possible, Senators distanced themselves from Catiline, at first one by one, then in groups, finally en masse, until Catiline sat alone, glowering, and finished. There is a famous painting of the scene by Professore Cesare Maccari; click here to see it.

To really offend the postmoderns, let me add that, with the emergency powers granted him by the Senate immediately following, Cicero had several of the conspirators executed without a trial. This contravened Roman law, and Cicero suffered dearly for it later. It can be argued that the Roman Republic died with Cicero, murdered on the Appian Way, a little down the road from my mother's hometown of Gaeta.

So, this all makes for a good story... but what I really want to know is, is Cicero historical?

If so, how much of this story is historical?

I don't really know the answer to the question. I'd like to say that, yes, Cicero is a historical person; yes, the story is (mostly) historical, and no, the painting is probably not very accurate.

However, I don't know the meaning of the word historical anymore.

The last couple of decades have seen a frenetic search for the "historical" Jesus. This has been the subject of an army of scholars and journalists setting aside the only documents widely recognized to have been written about Jesus by the people who knew him best, and replacing them with documents written sometime afterwards, or even with nothing at all, interpreting whatever they now have in the light of their own political and cultural prejudices. It's gotten so bad that Gnostic texts about Jesus get more credit than unquestionably Christian texts about Jesus.

(Gnosticism was a religion that predate Christianity, and which tried to absorb Jesus as just another spiritual teacher. Gnosticism's basic idea was that the believer had to discover some secret knowledge in order to attain salvation. (If you were mentally disabled, tough luck, eh?) The Greek word for knowledge is "gnosis"; hence the name. Gnostic beliefs were heavily influenced by the Hellenistic culture of the time.)

Not satisfied with that, some historians (and non-historians) have in recent decades seriously entertained the notion that Saint Juan Diego, the Aztec whose vision of the Virgin Mary at Guadalupe prompted mass conversions in Mexico, is not a historical person. This, despite the fact that his tilma is still around some four centuries later, and investigations have shown that the image on the tilma is not a painting, and that it is very, very strange.

Then there's the recent CNN special on The Two Marys, wherein scholars heaped one "if..." upon a "maybe", toppin it off with an "it could be..." to assert that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus' disciples, were misrepresented by the early Church.

"If." "Maybe." "It could be."

For example (not an exact quote): "Mary may have been a political operative, assisting rebels against the occupying Roman soldiers."

Another: "Could Matthew have gotten it wrong? Could Jesus have been born not in Bethlehem of Judaea, but in another town named Bethlehem, near Nazareth?"

In the realm of strict possibility, Matthew could have gotten it wrong. Mary may have been a Zealot.

For that matter, Cicero could simply have been silencing one of his critics, afraid that Catiline would expose the rank corruption of the Ciceronian administration. When Sallust wrote his history twenty years later, he could very well have been glorifying the triumphant Cicero, instead of telling the truth.

What makes Cicero historical? What makes these new "historical" Jesuses and Marys (there are, after all, numerous such Jesuses and Marys, all contradictory to each other) any more "real" than the Jesus of faith?

I don't know. I'm aware that there's an academic definition of "historical" that is different from the common notion of "historical"; the academic definition has to do with "historical" documents, which would cause a historical scholar to look with a natural and even justifiable skepticism at the gospels, which are documents of faith. However, by multiplying these "ifs" and "maybes", and by basing them merely on idle speculation — not one single document, historical or otherwise, was offered to suggest that Mary was, in fact, a revolutionary — gives one a natural and even justifiable skepticism as to the entire modern academic pursuit of history.

Even more laughable is the notion that the Christian church, under persecution for its counter-cultural views, could somehow enforce the discipline necessary to extinguish formerly Christian beliefs. Even as a state religion, the Church failed to extinguish Arianism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, Nestorianism, etc.; these "alternate" Christianities lived on quite happily outside the borders of the Roman empire (even within them, often enough). Why should I believe that these other "valid" Christianities of the Gnostics were magically suppressed throughout the Christian world during the 2nd and 3rd centuries by men, rather than expiring through the collapse of their cultural relevance? We haven't the slightest evidence of any such suppression; what we have are texts attacking these "alternate" faiths as dangerous, heretical, and untrue.

One senses that the program was simply an exercise in spiting Christians who aren't enlightened enough to replace the ancient Jesus of faith with the postmodern Jesus of politics.

Is all history practiced like this? It doesn't seem to me that scholars of the Roman Republic are subject to such unpersuasive argumentation based on ill-founded possibilities and suppositions. I have never read that "maybe" Cicero defended the Roman Republic against the conspirator Catiline, afterwards stepping down from the consulship to return to private life. I've never read that "it could be" that Cicero really had his hands in the treasury, and manipulated the strings of power until those great heroes Caesar and Antony came along to dislodge him.

I'm sure Cicero has it coming, and when the truth starts to come out, who are you going to believe: Cicero, who tried to preserve the corrupt institution that protected the interests of the upper class, and was obviously keen to portray himself favorably? Sallust, who doubtless was fooled by Cicero's legendary rhetoric?

Or will you believe our novelists and scholars who are beginning to re-evaluate Cicero as a homophobe and a moralizing fool?

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