I probably have an inflated and idealistic notion of what government can be.
Whenever I am reaching for a symbol of governmental perfection, I almost invariably mention the Age of Pericles, because my ninth-grade classics teacher, Mr. David Francis, one of the last men I ever trusted, assured me that Pericles was a good egg and that he had Athens running about as well as could be expected.
Mr. Francis was a learned man and an ex-Marine. I took many courses from him over the years, and such was my veneration of him that I never pointed out that he did not really know how to pronounce my first name correctly. After a while I got kind of attached to the way he said it, so that it would not have seemed like Mr. Francis talking if he did not address me as "Colon."
Anyway, I started reading about Pericles today, and it seemed as though his reputation was a little more sketchy than I had thought. Plutarch's entry for Pericles says that "many others say that the people were first led on by him into allotments of public lands, festival-grants, and distributions of fees for public services, thereby falling into bad habits, and becoming luxurious and wanton under the influence of his public measures, instead of frugal and self-sufficing."
I don't even know what that means, but it does not sound completely admirable. There were a lot of other negative accusations, but then I became fascinated by the story of Pericles and Aspasia, a love story not unlike that of John and Elizabeth Edwards, except that Pericles and Aspasia were not married to one another. Pericles left his wife to be with Aspasia (sort of a courtesan with a green card), who was supposedly brilliant and beautiful and may have even written some of his famous speeches. She bore his child, and Pericles publicly wept when she was prosecuted for impieties by Hermippus the One-Eyed, a comic poet and playwright.
I'm not making any of this up.
Why HBO does not have a series in the works about this is beyond me. I actually am quite addicted to the HBO series "Rome," which concludes its second season tonight. It also contains quite a bit of information Mr. Francis did not see fit to impart to me, including the idea that almost everybody of any consequence in the early days of imperial Rome was engaged in very aggressive, athletic sex during which they would frequently hit and choke each other. (I've reached an age where, when I watch people having hot, inventive sex on television, my first reaction is often, "Wow. You could really wrench something doing that," as opposed to some form of vicarious gratification.)
"Rome" is also a pretty good depiction of what a very powerful nation looks like once its leaders have fully dispensed with the entire notion of shame, which is why it's very easy to confuse things that go on in "Rome" with things that go on in "Washington."
I can't even fathom the idea that there may be no third season of "Rome." We haven't even gotten to Caligula, whose reign is notorious for its madness, cruelty and sexual license, as well as for the fact that Caligula tried to have his horse elected consul.
This doesn't seem like such an outrage now, when so many state and federal offices would actually be improved by replacing their current occupants with horses. Here in Connecticut, the speaker of the House is not as smart nor the governor as hard-working as most horses. At White House level ... well, we seem to be run by one part of a horse, and that is not as satisfactory.
According to a Internet bulletin board of "Rome" fans, Caligula was a veritable Pericles (not that that means what it used to) compared to Elagabalus, who tried to make Rome worship a big black stone that was the symbol of a sun cult. He then attempted to marry a statue (Pallas) and was turned down, so he married a different statue (Urania). He appears, during a four-year reign, to have had three wives and one husband (not counting statues), a feat not equaled even by Larry King.
I don't know. A lot of that could have been just bad press. Elagabalus' reputation would probably be better if he had had a daily briefing guy named Antonius Snowius to say things like: "Well, I've told you what our position is. And the Emperor - we have put out a supplemental - I mean, a statement of imperial policy. We think that this is inappropriate. What we want to do is to make sure that the funds have - that our Emperor has the flexibility he needs, which is a paramount consideration in his relationship with statues. Next question."
Anyway, "Rome" could keep going for many seasons before the Visigoths show up and sack the place. And then you could do a whole bunch of series from the Goth point of view. "Goths in the City" and "It's All Goth to Me." Theodoric the Great, technically an Ostrogoth, could be a great Tony Soprano-type character, constantly trying to juggle competing interests among the Franks, the Beans, the pope (who asked Theodoric to mediate a schism), Rome, rival Goths, etc. He gave his favorite daughter in marriage to a Visigothic prince, hoping to unite the Goths, but the prince died young.
Maybe the Goth series could be done by the makers of "300," a movie about Spartans who have the bizarre notion that the men who think up wars ought to actually go fight them. On the other hand, the Spartans talk all the time about how "free" they are, despite living in a totalitarian country where sick people are left on mountainsides, which is now known as "managed care."
All I really ask is that I be kept busy watching the scandals of antiquity until I die, so I don't have to pay any attention to what's happening now. It's not that today's leaders aren't as corrupt, duplicitous, conniving, arrogant and deranged as the old ones. It's just that the old ones were considerably more interesting. Mr. Francis just thought a kid named Colon was probably not ready to hear that.