Saturday, November 20, 2010

13th November 2010

Poor old Stephen Fry says that he feels sorry for straight men because, unlike gays on Hampstead Heath, women do not actually like sex; it is merely the price they pay for a relationship. What a Silly Willy!

It was an assumption of much ancient Greek literature that sex between the older male and the young boy was the ultimate experience—for the older male. But since the hunt for this nirvana was bound to end in failure, the advice was to forget it. You would just make a complete prat of yourself. Those who fell into the trap—especially elderly males yearning hopelessly after beautiful young boys—were the subject of endless mockery from friends and enemies alike.

As for women, well, that was something completely different. The story was told of Teiresias who, as a young man, was walking in the countryside one day when he saw two snakes copulating. He gave them a stout blow with his stick, and was promptly changed into a woman. Seven years later he was out walking and again saw two snakes copulating. A swift whack with his stick and, lo and behold, he was restored to his former state.

Zeus, suffering the after-pangs of having given birth to Dionysus from his thigh, naturally began to muse on the whole business and wondered whether the male or the female got more pleasure out of sex. So he summoned the only known expert. Teiresias stated that, if there were ten units of pleasure involved in the act, the woman got nine. Zeus’s wife Hera, furious that he had given away woman’s great secret, blinded him. To compensate, Zeus gave him the gift of prophecy.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

6th November 2010

Last week, Livy was invoked to rally the top 15% of earners to a bit of wholesome belt-tightening. Not that Livy had anything against the filthy rich. Far from it. But he did expect them to use their wealth wisely—no showing off, no power-grabbing—and if the state did interfere with it, he expected there to be an acceptable quid pro quo.

According to tradition, Servius Tullius (the sixth king of Rome, 578-534 BC) divided the Roman people up into classes (same word as ours) by property. One of its purposes was to rank your ability to serve in the army. The top classis was the equestres, rich enough to provide a horse for the cavalry (a bit like owning a Ferrari or two); then came those able to provide a full suit of armour and weapons, each subsequent classis providing less and less till the sixth, with nothing to offer except children—proletarii (Latin proles ‘child’).

The second purpose was to divide the people into ‘colleges’ for voting purposes. The top two classes, divided into 88 voting blocks, therefore commanded 88 votes; the whole of the rest of the people, divided into 105 blocks, commanded 105! And the third aim was to determine your tributum, an irregular levy on property, decided annually. The higher your status, the more you paid.

Livy found this last demand baffling. He could not understand why the rich were willing to pay tax as a proportion of their wealth, and therefore much more than anyone else. His explanation was that it was a quid pro quo for the voting system. This gave the elite almost complete control over the decisions on what the state should spend public money. So not one man, one vote, but one (poor) man, one vote, one (rich) man, the equivalent of many votes. ‘No tax without representation’, we say. Livy might emend that to ‘No more-than-anyone-else’s-tax without more representation’.

Which raises the question: does the state offer the seriously rich anything in return for their vast taxes? And if they avoid them, what might encourage them not to?

23rd October 2010

Today’s top 15% of earners have been whingeing away at the belts they will have to tighten to deal with the financial crisis. Ancient historians like Livy would not have been impressed. In the Roman republic, crises were life-or-death ones, and it was those who concentrated on the battle and not its rewards (in the shape of often very lavish booty) who won his admiration.

Livy’s history is full of such, e.g. Cincinnatus who in 458 BC, ‘wiping the sweat and dirt from his face and hands’, answered Rome’s call from his little farm where he had been ploughing, defeated the enemy and returned at once to his three-acre site. Finding his plough and four oxen still waiting for him, he picked up where he had left off.

Perhaps most famous of all was the consul Manius Curius Dentatus (dentatus because, we are told, he was born with teeth). In 290 BC, when the Romans were expanding south and in conflict with the ferocious Samnite hill tribes, he was approached by some Samnites with a massive bribe of gold. They found him seated on a crude bench by his hearth in his farmhouse, roasting turnips, eating from a rough wooden dish. Slightly amazed, they invited him to take the bribe, but he laughed in their faces, calling them ‘ambassadors on a superfluous, not to say incompetent, mission’. He told them to take back their gift, ‘as noxious as it was costly’, and to bear in mind that he could ‘neither be beaten in battle nor corrupted by money’.

Further, when he had thrashed the Samnites and celebrated a triumph, the people wanted to give him a vast chunk of land as a reward. But he refused, and settled for the hand-out that the senate had decreed for the *plebs*, reckoning that ‘no one could be counted a suitable citizen of the republic who could not be satisfied with what everybody else was given’. It all bore out what he had said to the Samnites: that ‘there was no glory in possessing wealth, but only in controlling its possessors’.

Come on, you top 15%. Romans knew what they meant by cuts, and they were not financial ones either. Stop all this ‘moral despair’ tosh. Show what you are made of.