If this were the Roman Senate...

by Andrew Sprung

Continuing with the fictional flashbacks: Gail Collins' lament (if Gail Collins can ever be said to lament) over Senatorial privilege triggered a couple. Collins:

He is being treated like a visiting superpower. When the prime minister of India came to the United States, he got that one crasher-wracked party and an hour of face time with Barack Obama. Ben Nelson has met Obama at least three times in the last nine days. The president, he said serenely, “made a strong case for passing health care reform, but it remains to be seen if it was compelling."

Good work making your case, most powerful person on the planet. But we will see if it meets the standards of Senator Ben Nelson.

Back up seventeen centuries. Here's the newly empurpled emperor Julian, taking his first imperial bath, attended by his best friend and his uncle (from Gore Vidal's Julian*):

I submerged for a moment, eyes tight shut, soaking my head. When I came to the surface, Oribasius was sitting on the bench beside my uncle.
"That is no way to approach the sacred presence." And I splashed Oribasius very satisfactorily. He laughed. My uncle Julian laughed, too, for I had soaked him as well. Then I was alarmed. In just this way are monsters born. First, the tyrant plays harmless games: splashes senators in the bath, serves wooded food to dinner guests, plays practical jokes; and no matter what he says and does, everyone laughs and flatters him, finds witty his most inane remarks. Then the small jokes begin to pall. One day he finds it amusing to rape another man's wife, as the husband watches, or the husband as the wife looks on, or to torture them both, or to kill them. When the killing begins, the emperor is no longer a man but a beast, and we have had too many beasts already on the throne of the world. Vehemently I apologized for splashing my uncle. I even apologized for splashing Oribasius, though he is like my own brother. Neither guessed the significance of this guilty outburst.

Next up: a virtuous queen of C.S. Lewis' imagining (from Till We Have Faces), confronted by the freshly widowed wife of the counselor she always secretly loved. The wife, after a moment of intimacy in which the two women recognize that they loved the same man, accuses the queen of sucking all her servants dry, being "gorged with other men's lives, women too." The queen reacts:

"It's enough," I cried. The air in her room was shot with crimson. It came horribly in my mind that if I ordered her to torture and death no one could save her. Arnom would murmur. Ilerdia would turn rebel. But she'd be twisting (cockchafer-like) on a sharp stake before anyone could help her

How many Democrats would cede to Obama (or perhaps the Lyndon Johnson of sudden nostalgia) the power to impale Joe Lieberman just now?

Speaking of Johnson, he was definitely the splash-from-the-bath type. According to Robert Caro, he would force people to consult with him while he was on the toilet.

Take a step back: it's remarkable, the constraints democracy has placed around power over the slow march of centuries.


*Andrew has excoriated Vidal's verbal flame-throwing in public affairs - with some justice. But the man is a master story-teller.