Thursday, February 21, 2008

317. Gaius Caecilius Metellus

Part the First: In which G. Caecilius Metellus embarks upon a public career.

(These events take place between the 681st and 685th year of the founding of Rome, from the consulship of L. Gellus and Cn. Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus to that of Q. Hortentius Hortalus and Q. Caecilius Metellus)

The envy of Peperna brought them low in the end;
too many drinks at a feast, a sudden flash of swords,
and in the passions born of burning jealousy,
the great general, Sertorius, was cruelly cut down.
I was then just a military tribune, rising nineteen,
under the command of my uncle, Metellus Pius;
when news of the murder made its way to our camp,
I was not the only young officer to sigh with relief.

Fighting in Spain had been harsh and unpleasant,
days of humping dry hills under a punishing sun;
lightning cavalry probes on our flanks, sudden panic,
dead companions, wounds, no trace of the enemy.
With the shrewd Sertorius gone, we soon wrapped it up,
although my laconic Uncle Pius reddened with rage
when Pompey (the ‘Great’) stole away with the credit;
as for me, I was delighted at last to sail home.

Ah, Rome!

You have no idea what it’s like to be back in the city,
to walk again the crowded, cacophonous, colourful streets;
to stroll in the Forum, linger lazily in the baths,
sleep with sultry and scented depilated girls!
My father, cold and stern in the approved old manner,
tipped me out of bed at sunrise on the third morning;
‘Holiday over,’ he grunted, as we stood in the cold atrium,
face to face with ancestral masks, ‘time to get cracking.’

So farewell to low taverns, to louche companions!
I notice, when you stand in the Forum on election morning,
that the white powder that gleams on your snow-bright toga
rises in little puffs, gets up your nose and makes you sneeze.
There I was, poised uneasily, on the bottom lowly rung
of the steep and seemingly lifelong cursus honorum,
a narrow, overcrowded, and quite often lethal ladder
that might lead one day to the dizzy heights of Consul.

I could see friends grinning up from the surging crowds,
as battered bones still ached from the ordeals of Spain;
my father’s clients milled about full of fussy attentions,
with such a formidable family, I had little chance of losing.
Duly elected quaestor, I was assigned to the Treasury,
about the most boring job you could possibly imagine;
daily I put my seal on whole streams of arcane documents,
presented and removed by dour and efficient silent slaves.

The sheer monotony of this unchanging daily routine
very soon made me frantic with the seeds of frustration;
I would slip away for the odd party or secret assignation,
but Boras, that bastard, would infallibly track me down.
Boras, ex-centurion, ex-primus pilus, far-too-loyal retainer,
son of a freedman who had once been slave to the family;
built from brick and scarred marble, doglike in his devotion,
he had no patience for ‘ softarse young pups on the town’.

In my experience, when your fortunes begin to sink low,
they have a way of descending into something far worse;
I’d only months left in the horrible job I’d been stuck with,
when Father announced yet another of his sleek notions.
‘There you are, son,’ he boomed, ‘gods above, you seem peaky!
‘I think it’s time we put a bloom on those pale pasty cheeks.’
O, gods, no, I thought, whatever this is, I really don’t want it!
‘I think it’s time,’ said the parent, ‘to think of your marriage.’

Boras, you evil old snitch, was my first conscious thought,
you ratted on my all-too-rare nights down in the Subura;
Boras’ eyes never once flickered in his long mahogany face,
so, then, I thought, it must be politics – isn't it always politics!
‘We need to steer a careful path,’ said Father, predictably,
‘between the remaining old supporters of Marius and Sulla ;
‘the family is not all that badly placed, but this could change,
‘we need to consider these rising men, Pompey and Crassus.

‘We connect with Pompey through your cousin,’ he continued,
‘But Crassus has no daughters!’ I cried out, without thinking;
this earned a frown from Father, an obelisk stare from Boras,
‘If you will allow me’, said Father, ‘I was thinking of the Julians.
‘But this fellow Caesar is a scheming villain, all piss and vinegar!’
‘He may prove successful, and there's a niece of some sort.’
My heart sank straight to my toes, like a heavy stone within me,
I knew all about young Julia, the ice-cold patrician princess.

I gazed blankly at my father, eyes heavy and dull with horror;
I felt transfixed, like one of the six thousand unfortunate slaves
that Crassus, not so long ago, had roped and nailed to crosses
and left to die, mile after mile of them all along the road to Rome.
‘Cheer up,’ said Father, ‘the betrothal is the thing, she is young.’
She is seven, I thought, which carries scheming a little too far.
‘We need to plan,’ he growled, ‘I command, and you will obey!’
Spain came first, then the Treasury, now this: I must get away.

Brief notes:

- dates: approx. 72-69 BCE
- Sertorian War
- cursus honorarum: elected magistrates
- primus pilus: a sort of regimental sergeant-major
- Subura: a working class red light district in ancient Rome

The Metelli were a prominent senatorial family, conservative in outlook, but determined to preserve the Roman Republic as they understood it. They produced an impressive number of consuls and military leaders but were ultimately unable to prevent a showdown between the dignified political obtuseness of Pompey and the the unscrupulous political brilliance of Caesar, both powerful ambitious men with large armies to call upon. In a real sense, military expansion (the growth of empire) destroyed the republic, a lesson from history to any imperial power that masquerades as a republic at home.
See this article on the family

Part the Second: In which G. Caecilius Metellus abandons for a time his public career

(These events take place between the consulships of L. Caecillius Metellus and Q. Marcius Rex and those of L. Aurelius Cotta and L. Manlius Torquatus)

The quaestor’s job had been tiresome; now Father planned to marry me off,
and not just to anyone, either, he wished to forge an alliance with Caesar.
Much troubled, I went to seek advice from the celebrated M. Tullius Cicero,
whom I had watched, enthralled, during his masterly prosecution of Verres.
When I called on the great man, diffidently, his effusiveness surprised me,
but as a nobody from nowhere, he played up to the scions of older families.
I explained my awkward position and asked for the benefit of his thoughts:
‘Ah, dear impetuous youth,’ he sighed, then smugly intoned, ‘you must obey!’

I thanked him, strapped on my armour and breathlessly ran for the boats.
Quintus, another of my military uncles, had held out one chance of escape
before scheming Father, clutching my testicles, could approach wily Caesar
and offer my services, a sacrificial bull for Julia, his darling only daughter.
A fire-breathing response to what had been an offhand, half-hearted offer
visibly startled Uncle Quintus, this canny no-nonsense fleet commander;
as elder brother to Father, he was quick to understand the lie of the land,
and practically smacked his lips in composing a brusque and formal letter:

Hail, Brother! The People and Senate of Rome, in this hour of crisis,
look as ever to the bravery and fortitude of its young citizen officers,
among whom the fine young men of our family have always been …

Etc., etc.

We campaigned against the pirates of Crete, a bothersome nuisance,
and I found this to be refreshing, a form of violent outdoor exercise;
then, when an ill-planned raid went wrong, I received a slash across the guts
that came close to killing me, and for weeks I languished in some agony,
threatening to die if my worried uncle made an attempt to send me home.
Death passed me by with a whisper, but I knew it would find me in Rome
should I be connected to a woman that I cordially but intensely disliked,
and, more to the point, her ruthless father, who frankly terrified me!

I slipped ashore, a convalescent scholar, on sparkling peaceful Rhodes,
and applied to the school of Molon, former tutor to Cicero and Caesar;
‘Ordinarily, I wouldn’t do this,’ he said, accepting my lavish presents,
for he had cackled rudely at demonstrations of my "slow pedestrian mind”.
I wasn’t offended; I like the Greeks, they are subtle, quick and intelligent,
although incapable of practicalities, such as running their own country.
They make extremely useful slaves, unlike sluggish and belligerent Gauls,
and if you have the sense to flatter them, they can teach you a thing or two.

I took a liking to the local wines, and also to the habit of open discourse,
and was praised, I believe, as a mannerly young fellow, utterly un-Roman.
These were pleasant times, as the pirates faded entirely from view;
the task of clearing them I left to Uncle and, latterly, glory-seeking Pompey.
My father never ceased in his importunate efforts to summon me to Rome,
but well-paid local doctors sent him a series of discouraging reports.
Father recoiled with dread from any thoughts of ships or the sea,
thus I could laze to full recovery, attended by a pair of ravishing sisters.

I forget how long this leisurely life had lasted when it came to my notice
that young Roman visitors seemed to sport strange wispy little beards.
Romans have always been such a notoriously clean-shaven sort of people,
that I was intrigued by this change in fashion and sought these fellows out.
They spoke in reverent tones of some senator, a patrician named Catalina.
I had heard of him, of course, a grasping thug from one of the old families,
he had wilfully murdered for property at the time of Sulla’s proscriptions,
and, so it was said and believed, he had brutally murdered his very own son!

‘A great change will come to Rome,’ these young men were pleased to confide,
‘when all the landlords and lower-class moneylenders will meet their desserts;
'all the old families, the natural elite, will be restored to rightful power.’
Just so, thought I, calling for more wine, but what will Father make of all this?
Hardly a week had passed before his thoughts were forcefully made known.
A slave ran to my gate and delivered a letter from a ship newly docked:
‘Blast your silly wounds!’ it read. ‘Come back to Rome immediately!’
Father’s style, indubitably. Then: ‘I want you to befriend this man Catalina'.