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by Morgan on Apr.28, 2011, under
In the spring of 2003, as the radio delivered report after breathless report of the second American invasion of Iraq, charting the progress of the Abrams tanks rolling into Baghdad, I was reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for the first time. It had been on my “must read” list for years and I’d finally worked up the nerve.
Gibbon’s masterpiece lives up to its reputation: it is a rich and rewarding read. But what struck me most, in passages describing how the ancient “golden age” had passed from prosperity and relative peace to decay and continual war, is how closely the trajectory of the contemporary American empire mirrors that of the Roman empire.
From Gibbon I turned to Will Durant for a more general view. In his Caesar to Christ, the similarities between the two empires is made even more stark. Read page 88 of that book for a remarkable, though unintentional, correspondence; Durant could have been writing about 21st century America.
Today, pundits often casually refer to the US as a reincarnation of the Roman empire. They talk of Pax Americana, imperial presidencies, and American exceptionalism. The founding fathers, steeped in the neo-classicism of the Enlightenment era, envisioned the United States in Rome’s image. Of course, it was republican, not imperial, Rome they had in mind – it takes time for a nation to trace that downward arc. Commentators draw superficial parallels between the two empires. But in reading Gibbon and Durant I wondered how far one could go. I began work on The Last Stoic that summer.
Some of the characters and places in The Last Stoic are historical, others are fictional. Where they are historical, I have endeavoured to hew as closely as possible to the received facts as they have been handed down by the chroniclers. Of course, some sources are considered more reliable than others. The reliability of the Historia Augusta, for example, while accepted by historians like Gibbon, has lately been cast into doubt; some modern scholars wonder if it isn’t deliberate fiction or even satire. Thus, while The Last Stoic isn’t meant to be a piece of scholarly research, and many historical descriptions, if they are interesting, are taken at face value, I have tried to keep with the current, common consensus.
All quotations from The Meditations appearing in The Last Stoic are taken from the following translation: Aurelius, Marcus. The Meditations, transl. Maxwell Staniforth (London: Folio Society, Penguin Books, 2005).
Here are a few additional notes on some of the historical characters that appear in The Last Stoic.
Commodus is emblematic of the fall of the Roman empire. In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon describes the period of the Antonine emperors (138 C.E. – 193 C.E.) as the “golden age”. Marcus Aurelius, philosopher-king, was the last of these golden emperors who oversaw the Pax Romana. His son, Commodus, was “born into the purple,” the first emperor in many generations rising to the throne, not through merit, but bloodline. In most ways he was the opposite of his father and he has come to represent the degeneracy that rotted the empire from within. Marcia, his Christian concubine attempted to poison him. Narcissus, his wrestling partner, finished him off through strangulation.
The emperor Caracallus ruled Rome from 211 to 217 C.E.. Born Lucius Septimius Bassianus, and renamed Marcus Aurelius Antoninus when he was seven, he was popularly known as Caracalla, for the Germanic cloak he would often wear, though at least one historian (Cassius Dio) records that he was sometimes called “Karakallos” (Greek) or “Caracallus” (Latin). Though the nickname was originally meant to be an epithet, and was never used in the emperor’s presence, some commentators suggest it was secretly relished by Caracallus because it lent him a patina of low savagery – perhaps an ancient version of “street cred.”
(Thanks to Professor James Fraser, University of Edinburgh for his clarifications.)
President of the United States (POTUS)
Presidential administrations consciously and unconsciously present themselves with an air of imperial Rome. And the parallels appear to go both ways. In chapters four and twenty-two, a good portion of Caracallus’ address to the troops is taken verbatim from similar addresses made by George W. Bush to the American military.
The Story of Sextus Condianus
Sextus Condianus was a real person, if we can believe Cassius Dio in his History of Rome. The story that the innkeeper relates to Marcus in Chapter Two about how Sextus escaped execution largely follows Dio’s own retelling.
Sextus Condianus, the son of Maximus, who surpassed all others by reason both of his native ability and his training, when he heard that sentence of death had been pronounced against him, too, drank the blood of a hare (he was living in Syria at the time), after which he mounted a horse and purposely fell from it; then, as he vomited the blood, which was supposed to be his own, he was taken up, apparently on the point of death, and was carried to his room. He himself now disappeared, while a ram’s body was placed in a coffin in his stead and burned. After this, constantly changing his appearance and clothing, he wandered about here and there. And when this story got out (for it is impossible that such matters should remain hidden very long), diligent search was made for him high and low.
Loeb Classical Library, 9 volumes, Greek texts and facing English translation: Harvard University Press, 1914 thru 1927. Translation by Earnest Cary.
At the time of The Last Stoic, Mithraism was Christianity’s chief rival. Like Christianity, it had its origins in the East. Though Mithraism is several thousand years older, the two religions share a similar mythology: Mithras was born on Dec. 25th, is identified with both the lion and the lamb, a divine light led to him gift-bearing shepherds, he worked miracles, etc.. The cult was enormously popular with the soldiers, who took its rituals and customs all around the nations of the empire. Both Commodus and Caracallus were initiates. There were two major threats to its longevity, however; secrecy and exclusivity – only males could participate. When Constantine converted and made Christianity the state religion in the fourth century, Mithraism was suppressed and gradually withered into obscurity.
Barbarian Invasions of Rome
There is no evidence that the barbarian attack on the Emporium in Rome that occurs at the end of Chapter Sixteen actually took place. Neither am I aware of any evidence to the contrary. Invasions of Rome by the Vandals and Goths began to happen with regularity in the fifth century.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, philosopher-emperor, the last of Gibbon’s “five good emperors,” wrote this volume near the end of his life while he was encamped on the banks of the Danube, in between campaigns against the tide of Quadi, Marcomanni, and Sarmati surging across the Germanic border. Maxwell Staniforth, in the introduction to his 1964 translation writes as follows: “there, among the misty swamps and reedy islands of that melancholy region, [Aurelius] consoled the hours of loneliness and exile by penning the volume of his Meditations.” Galen, the emperor’s physician, was perhaps his only companion as an infectious disease took hold and ended his life in 180 C.E..
It is believed that the emperor’s journal, entitled “To Myself,” was never meant for publication and wasn’t discovered by scholars until the fourth century. As distant heirs, we are fortunate that the parchment managed to survive the empire’s disintegration and the heedlessness of time. It is a conceit of The Last Stoic that an extant copy found its way from Galen’s steady hand to Commodus, to Narcissus, Commodus’ assassin, to the assassin’s kin, and then was sold, perhaps at a market or a bookseller, to Vincentius, Marcus’ grandfather, and finally to Marcus himself.
by Morgan on Apr.28, 2011, under
Hidden Brook Press provides reading and book club guides for the North Shore series. The following is intended to help you find interesting approaches to reading and discussing The Last Stoic.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1) How would you characterize The Last Stoic: Historical fiction? Contemporary fiction? Neither? Both?
2) A central conceit of the novel is that the parallels between the two eras are so strong the narrative can continue uninterrupted as the setting shifts from historic Rome to modern America, alternating from chapter to chapter. Are you convinced? What are the similarities between the two eras? What are some significant differences?
3) In a 2004 New York Times Magazine article, journalist Ron Susskind famously relates an interchange he had with a senior aide to President George W. Bush, who derided Susskind for being a member of the “reality-based community.” ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” the aide said, ”we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
What role does history play in The Last Stoic? Is it possible to attain wisdom without an understanding of history? In which ways is Caracallus indifferent to history? How does Marcus learn from history? What role do elders play in the novel?
4) Who is the Last Stoic of the novel’s title?
5) Stoicism once provided a philosophical framework for ancient Rome. Could it be said that the pioneers of the early American republic were similarly Stoic? If so, how far from those early ideals has modern America diverged? Is it inevitable that young, vigorous civilizations must eventually decline and fall?
6) The Last Stoic is described as a story of appetite and fear, both modern and ancient. Arius Didymus (1st century BC – 1st century AD), stoic philosopher to the emperor Augustus, called appetites and fears “excessive impulses which are disobedient to reason,” and therefore detrimental.
In what senses are the characters in the novel beset by fear? Appetite? In which ways are these impulses destructive? How prevalent are they in our own societies? In our own lives?
7) In what ways does the character of Patrick/Patricius epitomize the themes of appetite and fear? In what ways is he a distorted mirror image of Mark/Marcus?
8) Admiral James Stockdale spent seven and a half years in a prison camp during the Vietnam War during which he and his men were routinely tortured. Many of his comrades succumbed to the ordeal, their will to live broken. Stockdale credited his own survival, in part, to the stoic writings of Epictetus, whom he had studied at Stanford University when pursuing his Masters.
In The Last Stoic, Sextus Condianus quotes Aurelius to young Marcus saying, “Nothing happens to anybody which he is not fitted by nature to bear.” Marcus is dismissive of the old man, rejecting the statement as nothing but empty talk.
How much truth is there in the statement? Are words and ideas powerful enough to overcome great adversity? Can mind triumph over matter?
9) Ulpian, the famed Roman jurist living and working during Caracallus’ reign wrote this about torture: “the strong will resist and the weak will say anything to end the pain.” Sextus Condianus echoes these sentiments in The Last Stoic.
Relative to other societies of the time, ancient Rome had a relatively enlightened view toward torture, prohibiting its use against citizens. This changed with Caracallus, who, in Cassius Dio’s phrase, “made paranoid use” of torture in the hundreds of sedition trials he ordered.
How accurate is Ulpian? Is torture effective? Is it ethical? Can it ever be justified? Does it have any place in modern society? How does it affect the main character, Marcus? How does he survive it? How do the actions of Caracallus mirror our own era?
10) The Meditations, originally entitled To Myself, were never intended for publication. The journal was a self-reminder to Marcus Aurelius to live according to the principles he held dear. It is a minor miracle that the volume survived to be passed down through the centuries to our waiting hands. One can imagine all the other works that didn’t make it, reduced to ash, for instance, in the burning of the great library at Alexandria, ordered by Caracallus in a fit of rage.
How fragile is our cultural heritage? How tenuous our freedoms, rights, and social fabric?
11) Patrick/Patricius aspires to be a delator, making a public accusation of Marcus, hoping for a reward for his conviction as a traitor. The use of delatores or informants, often making unsubstantiated charges that led to confessions made under torture, was pioneered by emperors Tiberius and Nero and encouraged again under Commodus and Caracallus. How likely is it that such a system of justice could take hold in our modern era of terrorism? Can parallels be drawn between the delatores of ancient Rome and the McCarthy era or the current era of Homeland Security?
12) In The Last Stoic, Christianity is marginalized and Mithraism is the prevailing religion, favoured by the elites. In modern times, it is Christianity that has gained the upper hand and is now the state religion. How has Christianity changed over the intervening 1800 years? What has become of Mithraism? How would western society be different if Mithraism or another religion had won the struggle for long-term dominance?
The author, Morgan Wade, is happy to talk, read or discuss The Last Stoic with book clubs, reading groups and schools who are interested in reading this book. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve launched this website in order to have a public venue for my writing, to make it available to willing readers and to gather commentary and critique. I’m interested in all manner of writing: long fiction, short fiction, poetry, plays, and essays. Pieces will appear on the website as they are finished, sometimes published, sometimes not.
Thanks for stopping by!
by Morgan on Feb.05, 2010, under
Commodus did not notice the dusky figure lingering at the foot of the vast, marble bath, just beyond the candle glow. He was preoccupied with the parchment that Galen had presented to him earlier that evening; he spooled and unspooled it, glancing idly at the mass of script. Actually reading his late father’s journal, at this hour and in his condition, would take an effort he had no intention of summoning. He’d read as far as the second line…
Existimatione et recordatione genitoris mei ad verecundiam et animum viro dignum excitari debeo.
…and then was content to toy with it between his meaty fingers.
A scuffing of sandal leather against stone echoed through the caldarium. Commodus hoisted his body from one side of the pool to the other, scanning the shadows, choking back the familiar reflux. The cylinder of goatskin buckled under his tightened grip. Tepid water, viscous with a dozen oils and perfumes, slopped unctuously between his thighs and under his buttocks as he rolled over, exacerbating the churn of his stomach. He propped himself up on the side of the bath and squinted through the wine-coloured mist filming his eyes.
“Who’s that? Identify yourself!”
The man padded forward. Candle-light flickered across his features, accentuating the lines of sinew and ridges of muscle. He gazed toward the emperor, handsome and haughty.
“Oh! It’s you,” sighed Commodus. Narcissus, the Nubian slave who called himself Khaleme, the emperor’s wrestling partner. He also provided massages, strigilings, spongings, and other bathing services. Marcia, his concubine, sent him up as yet another exotic dish, a dessert. He imagined how he would punish her for such presumptuousness and it caused a stir in his groin that was both faint and fleeting.
Commodus was in no mood for extras on this night. Earlier, he had forced down more bloody portions of that very rare roast beef than he was otherwise inclined, prodded by Marcia’s urging. It increases a man’s sexual vigour, she had effused. And then there was the array of smelly cheeses from Belgica, olives from Apulia, the hen, quail, pigeon, peacock, and ostrich eggs, sea urchins from Misenum, mussels and clams from Ostia, potted hare and venison from the forests of Germania, pickled tuna and grilled mullet from the Hispanic coast, trout and pheasant from Britannia, broiled Egyptian flamingo stuffed with figs, roast side of Umbrian boar, sow’s udder, antelope tongue, sheep stomach, calf brains. The five cups of undiluted Falernian wine that sluiced down dinner were just enough to numb his gouty toes, but they constituted no more than an average evening’s drinking. Although he had vomited twice since dinner, once more than was typical, there was none of the customary reinvigoration. At his age, stomach ache so regularly accompanied suppertime it hardly merited a mention. But this indigestion brought with it an uncommon sharpness.
The emperor made a sound like air escaping slowly from a bladder.
“Not tonight Narcissus.”
The slave did not withdraw.
“Not tonight! I’m not well!”
Narcissus moved forward noiselessly and with purpose, like a leopard. Commodus watched, his burly jaw-hinge slackened, muted by the unprecedented insubordination. Narcissus moved behind the emperor and he began to massage his thickly knotted shoulders. The emperor’s shock waned as waves of pleasure rolled up his neck and down his back, tension melting under the forceful manipulations. For a moment, the warm sensation spreading out from the kneading fingers held at bay the discomfort threatening from his abdomen. But within minutes the nausea swelled again and Commodus was reminded of his slave’s appalling disobedience.
Quick fingers clenched around the emperor’s windpipe, treating him to the second great shock of the evening.
Commodus dropped the roll of parchment to the edge of the bath and clutched at the black, straining fingers pressing into his neck. He was larger and heavier than his assailant, but in his weakened state he was unable to resist. This was one wrestling match that the Nubian would not artfully lose.
The smile on the emperor’s face looked more like a grimace. He knew now why Marcia had been shoveling plate after heaping plate at him. At the time, it had seemed peculiar how no-one else had partaken of the roast beef. Now it was obvious. Poison. The extra regurgitation earlier had saved his life, temporarily. Frustrated, Marcia had sent Narcissus to finish the job. Commodus ground his teeth imagining her clandestine collaborations with the magnificent athlete, rutting with him like a bitch, by way of concluding the deal. Again, most inappropriately, he was aroused.
Narcissus, disgusted, poured every ounce of reserved strength into his constricting fingers. There was a loud pop of cracking vertebrae and tearing ligaments. As the oxygen dissipated from the emperor’s body, his resistance abated and he began to revert to a foetal position, crunching himself into a ball. From the emperor’s core a final chasm of fear yawned and caused an utter evacuation of his bowels. The cooling water of the bath, originally sweet with aromatics, now darkened and muddied into a foul broth. Through his diminishing consciousness, Commodus could see his father, standing on a distant hill, clad in gold armour, bathed in the warmth of a Mediterranean sun reflected and redoubled in its brilliance. The emperor began to cry the pure, unrestrained tears of a baby. In his fading reverie he called out to his father, but the distance was too great, and his words were carried away by the wind.
“Father,” Commodus mouthed, “forgive me.”
The emperor’s eyes closed and he was limp. Narcissus, having completed his task, relaxed his grip, his fingers aching with the strain of their work. He stood, bent to retrieve the crumpled parchment from the stone floor, and turned to rejoin the shadows. The mass of the emperor’s body began to sink into the thick water until, with a soft burble, he submerged.
by Morgan on Oct.07, 2009, under
The Last Stoic is a story about appetite and fear, both modern and ancient. Half of the story’s narrative occurs in the time and place of the ancient Roman Empire; the other half occurs in the present-day United States. A central conceit of the novel is that the parallels between the two eras are so strong that the narrative can continue uninterrupted as the setting shifts from historic Rome to modern America, alternating from chapter to chapter.
In ancient Rome it is 215 A.D., during the reign of the emperor Caracallus, an intemperate, impatient man who is thought to have murdered Geta, his brother and rival to the throne. Caracallus sees himself as a world conqueror, a reincarnation of Alexander the Great. He is superstitious and cultish, mistrustful of scholars and philosophers, and believes that Mithras intervenes personally on his behalf. After bestowing great favours on the legions to the detriment of the Roman citizenry, he leads an ill-advised invasion of the Parthian Empire.
In modern America it is 2005 A.D., during the administration of George W. Bush, a man born into the purple, and twice elected under controversial circumstances. Bush proudly declares himself a “war president”. He promotes “faith-based initiatives”, is dismissive of intellectuals and believes that God speaks directly to him, guiding his decisions. After cutting taxes on the rich, and lavishing money on the military, he launches a reckless campaign into the Near East.
Marcus, a young man from a northern provincial border town, journeys deep into the heart of the empire and witnesses first-hand the excesses that can lead to ruin, both personal and political. His story offers an ancient commentary on the preoccupations of our own turbulent times.
Shortly after his arrival, the empire is thrown into a panic by an unprecedented barbarian attack on the capital. Suspicion and paranoia abound. A young Roman/American runaway named Patrick, disillusioned with his own life and the state of his country, becomes convinced that Marcus is a dangerous traitor. Culminating in a public accusation made by Patrick, Marcus is wrongfully imprisoned, exiled and tortured as an enemy of the state. In prison, he confronts the many contradictions he has found in his adopted home, and in himself.
Throughout the story, in both eras, the writings of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (The Meditations) insinuate themselves unexpectedly into the Marcus’ life. In prison, he is saved by a chance meeting with Sextus Condianus, the “last Stoic” of the title, a cell-mate who is able to fully recite Aurelius’ words and impart their wisdom. Ultimately, it is this unanticipated and unbidden instruction that gives the young man the strength he requires to survive. It becomes evident that the words of the venerable Stoic emperor have as much relevance to our own era as they did to his.