Sunday, April 24, 2011

23rd April 2011

The public razzmatazz surrounding the royal wedding is not the sort of thing Romans went in for on such occasions, but their approval for marriage was unconditional.

It was military triumphs and generals returning loaded with gold and silver that triggered the great public celebrations. Marriage in the Roman world was, for the most part, a private affair. A legal digest defined it as ‘a joining together of a man and a woman, and a partnership for life in all areas, a sharing in human and divine law’. So whatever family interests may have been in play—and Roman aristocratic marriage often looks like a business deal—marriage ultimately depended on the personal will of the couple involved, affectio maritalis bringing and keeping them together. Naturally, marriages broke down, but the ideal was there.

Further, the family home was a holy place, generating strong emotional feelings. The god Limentinus protected the threshold, Forculus the doors and Cardea the hinges (!). The continued worship of the family gods was of prime importance, centred round each household’s Lārēs (guardians), Penātēs (penus, ‘provisions’), and Genius locī (the male spirit of the family’s tribe, gēns, personified in the head of the family).

In this the household reflected its close ties with the state: for Rome too was a ‘family’, with its state Lares and Penates, and the emperor its Genius loci. But though the state never intervened to ratify marriage, it did define the conditions under which children were deemed legitimate—through citizen marriage alone. Further, in the absence of children, it encouraged adoption to keep lines going—not of babies either, but of adults, usually males. The first emperor Augustus, himself adopted by Julius Caesar, had great trouble lining up a suitable successor. It was finally his adopted son Tiberius who took over.

So while Romans would applaud the forthcoming marriage—what could be more important than the head of state’s line?—they would think it an insult that it conferred no greater legitimacy on its offspring than any other union.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

16th April 2011

The war in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001. Its purpose was to clear the land of Al-Qaeda and Taleban and establish a democratic state. Last week’s Spectator questioned the current military strategy. Alexander the Great could have expanded on the matter.

When by 329 BC Alexander had dealt with the Persian king Darius—the main object of his mission—he pushed on into Bactria/Sogdia, a tribal area roughly equal to northern Afghanistan and its borders, to pursue Darius’ successor Bessus. He met with immediate success, and Bessus was captured and executed. The Americans too in 2001 soon drove the Taliban into Pakistan.

But an insurgency then developed behind the Americans’ back, and in the last ten years only marginal progress has been made, despite a surge. So with Alexander. He too found it very difficult to handle tribal guerrilla warfare, he too tried a surge, throwing in 22,000 extra troops, and in the event spent more time and lost more men in settling this one area than anywhere else in his conquests to date.

Alexander did have one advantage, in that borders meant nothing to him. He could attack across them at will, though it did not help him much. For the western allies this is not possible, except by aerial drones. This, however, does nothing for the west’s international reputation.The point is that the war is being fought against a people whose capacity for endurance is matched only by their hatred of foreigners, in tribal territory where no alliance can be guaranteed.

Alexander ‘settled’ the place by leaving 30,000 Greeks there and departing. But at his death, Bactria was the first place to revolt. When the Roman emperor Augustus was told that Alexander, having conquered the world at 32, had no idea what to do next, he expressed surprise that Alexander thought it was more important to win an empire than to organise it once it had been won.

A settled, unified, democratic Afghanistan is a pipe dream. Afghan tribes and the west share no common vision. When we depart, what will we have actually done for them—or to them?