What Would|Tiberius Do?

     Many moons ago I quit a job as city editor in a poor town on the South Texas border and ended up a city editor in a wealthy town in Southern California – the farthest move it’s possible to make in the United States.
     I don’t mean geographically; I mean politically.
     Brownsville is 90 percent Latino and 76 percent Democratic.
     The Temecula Valley is 90 percent Anglo and 143 percent Republican.
     The numbers are approximate.
     As a news editor, I preferred Brownsville – not because it’s Democratic and Latino, but because the political corruption there was so incompetent, and so much easier to catch.
     Republicans are sneaky. Better at hiding their tracks. Or making whatever it is they’re doing legal.
     This explains why, in my fast-approaching dotage, I enjoy reading ancient Roman history more than today’s New York Times.
     Things were simpler then. The same stuff went on, but they didn’t bother to hide it.
     Their news was the same as ours: political corruption, celebrities, violent sports and sex. Once in a while a goat with two heads.
     I have here a story from Tacitus, from the year 17. That would be 1,997 years ago – 66 grandfathers ago. Change the names and a few details and slap on a sleazy headline and it could have been ripped today’s Daily News.
     It seems that a young man named Marcus Hortalus, the scion of a once-rich noble family had spent himself into “conspicuous poverty.”
     The late Divine Augustus, in the year 14, had given him 1 million sesterces in public money, so he could marry and have children, “so that one of our most illustrious families would not become extinct.”
     The daily pay of a Roman soldier or workman back then was 3 sesterces.
     In other words, the emperor gave this rich kid 913 years pay for an average worker, so the kid could get married and have kids.
     Hortalus did that, and then – wouldn’t you know it? – he spent all that money. And showed up in the Senate to beg for more.
     He dragged his four children along with him, and showed them to the Senate and to the Emperor Tiberius, and asked for more money, to “save from penury … the foster-children of Augustus.”
     If you can believe Tacitus – and who else ya gonna believe? – Tiberius was not amused. He gave Hortalus a good tongue-lashing, which you may read in Book II of the “Annals of Imperial Rome.”
     But the Senate listened to Tiberius “in silence or with suppressed murmurs,” because Hortalus was one of their own.
     “Tiberius perceived it,” Tacitus wrote. So the emperor said, OK, I’ll give each of Hortalus’ male children 200,000 sesterces – 200 years pay for a working man or soldier – and we’ll call it even.
     And he did. And the Senate went home happy. So, presumably, did Hortalus.
     What’s the difference between then and today?
     No difference at all, except the U.S. Senate hides it better.
     Rather than just hand out money, the U.S. Senate reduces taxes.
     And how does the U.S. Senate hide it?
     The same way the Roman Senate did it: “by extolling the past, while they are indifferent to our own times.”
     Tiberius used to leave the Senate muttering in Greek that the Senators were so “ready to be slaves.”
     Today in the United States, the Republican Congress has dedicated itself to stopping every single one of President Barack Obama’s plans: good, bad, flat, sharp or natural.
     The Republicans claim to be 100 percent right because Obama is 100 percent wrong.
     That’s highly unlikely, whatever the two sides are. Plus, it makes the so-called “right” side absolutely dependent on what the “wrong side” says.
     Since it looks like it’ll be a close race, here’s a tip for Republicans:
     The ancient Romans carried augurs along with them on campaigns. The augurs were sacred white chickens.
     If the chickens ate hungrily, the auguries were good.
     If the chickens refused to eat, the auguries were bad.
     The Republicans need a good set of sacred white chickens, and to leave it up to the chickens. That way, if the Republicans follow the chickens, they stand an even chance of being right half the time.

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