Sunday, March 27, 2016

“I Have Been Everything And It Is Worth Nothing.”

“I have been everything and it is worth nothing,” said the twenty-first Emperor of Rome, Septimius Severus, on his deathbed. He handed off power to his sons, Geta and Caracalla, and died, but not before dispensing some crucial practical advice to his boys: “Pay your soldiers well and to hell with everybody else.”

Caracalla promptly murdered Geta, and then built a huge bath house, which you can still see today. Caracalla followed his father’s advice and treated the troops well. Nonetheless, he was assassinated while peeing on a roadside by a disaffected soldier whose brother had been executed by Caracalla. Everything and nothing.

Caracalla was a scowling brute, one of many, many bad emperors that ruled Rome in the third century AD, which was one of the most dismal centuries in the entire history of Rome.

It’s symbolically interesting that just as Rome was entering it long, grinding decline, an emperor saw fit to build a gigantic bathhouse. Reinhold Niebuhr said something to the effect that societies build their gaudiest and most opulent monuments just as they’re on the verge of collapse.

Here are the Baths of Caracalla:

Whoops. That’s AT&T Stadium, Jerry Jones’ outsized monument to American vulgarity (not to be outdone, the Bay Area yuppies answered with Levi’s Stadium, an equally obnoxious structure). Here are Caracalla’s baths:

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