The capability of a Roman II

And to continue the story of the brave and intrepid Roman consular, Gaius Popilius Laenas. Many perceptive people will have divined the outcome of the story, though the point of why I am sharing this particular episode will have to wait till I finish the story.

So lets get one with the account. We had got to the point where Gaius Popilius encountered the invading army, which has been repeated for your benefit. Now read on….

“Clad in his purple-bordered toga and preceded by his twelve crimson-clad lictors, all bearing the axes in their bundles of rods, Gaius Popillus Laenas walked east. Now he was not a young man, so as he went he leaned upon a tall staff, his pace as placid as his face. Since only the brave and heroic and noble Romans built decent roads, he was soon walking along through thick dust. But was Gaius Popillus Laenas deterred? No! He just kept on walking, until near the huge hippodrome in which the Alexandrians liked to watch the horse races, he ran into a wall of Syrian soldiers, and had to stop.

“King Antiochus IV of Syria came forward, and went to meet Gaius Popillius Laenas.

“‘Rome has no business in Egypt!’ the King said, frowning awfully and direfully.

“‘Syria has no business in Egypt either,’ said Gaius Popillius Laenas, smiling sweetly and serenely.

“‘Go back to Rome,’ said the King.

“‘Go back to Syria,’ said Gaius Popillius Laenas.

“But neither of them moved a single inch.

“‘You are offending the Senate and People of Rome,’ said Gaius Popillius Laenas after a while of staring into the King’s fierce face. ‘I have been ordered to make you return to Syria.’

“The King laughed and laughed and laughed. ‘And how are you going to make me go home?’ he asked. ‘Where is your army?’

“‘I have no need of an army, King Antiochus IV,’ said Gaius Popillius Laenas. ‘Everything that Rome is, has been, and will be, is standing before you here and now. I am Rome, no less than Rome’s largest army. And in the name of Rome, I say to you a further time, go home!’

“‘No,’ said King Antiochus IV.

“So Gaius Popillius Laenas stepped forward, and moving sedately, he used the end of his staff to trace a circle in the dust all the way around the person of King Antiochus IV, who found himself standing inside Gaius Popillius Laenas’s circle.

“‘Before you step out of this circle, King Antiochus IV, I advise you to think again,’ said Gaius Popillius Laenas. ‘And when you do step out of it – why, be facing east, and go home to Syria.’

“The King said nothing. The King did not stir. Gaius Popillius Laenas said nothing. Gaius Popillius Laenas did not stir. Since Gaius Popillius Laenas was a Roman and did not need to hide his face, his sweet and serene countenance was on full display. But King Antiochus IV hid his face behind a curled and wired wigbeard, and even then could not conceal its thunder. Time went on. And then, still inside the circle, the mighty King of Syria turned on his heel to face east, and stepped out of the circle in an easterly direction, and marched back to Syria with all his soldiers.”

So that is what had happened, as Publius Rutilius Rufus (158 BC –after 78 BC, a Roman statesman, orator and historian of the Rutilius family, as well as great-uncle of Gaius Julius Caesar) recites to his old colleague, Gaius Marius, as Colleen McCullough tells us in “The First Man in Rome”. The account, without the stylistic embellishments, can be found in renowned historian Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita.

To round out the background, I must tell you that Gaius Popillius Laenas twice served as one of the two consuls of the Roman Republic, in 172 and 158 BC.

What he did was not unparalleled in Roman history….. Marius himself, on vacation in Asia Minor while a private citizen, visited a tributary kingdom and found its young king murdered and the country occupied by Mithridates VI of Pontus, a long-standing Roman enemy. All by himself, Marius peremptorily ordered the king to withdraw, and the eastern king, after some ineffectual grumbling, made haste to comply.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, Marius’ associate-turned-bitter foe, also in the area later, assembled a legion of auxiliaries and with it successful in deterring Mithridates and his father-in-law, the King of Armenia, as well as holding his own against a delegation of their Parthian overlords.

However, that was then…. what remains is that a capability of projecting an influence, a moral suasion, without having an overwhelming or even a remotely adequate backing force anywhere near, except just the thought of its presence — though far, far away.

It is this effect that I miss having, given not only the incidents of the last few years,  but even much earlier as I realise on serious contemplation….. but these are the ifs and buts of human affairs……


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