World Of Words

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Aviya Kush­ner BY AVIYA KUSH­NER

How Julius Cae­sar Coined A Trumpian Tra­di­tion

Just past the dis­play of coffins from 13th­cen­tury BCE that once be­longed to mil­i­tary leg­end and an­tiq­ui­ties ob­ses­sive Moshe Dayan, a re­mark­able new ex­hibit of Ro­man coins at The Is­rael Mu­seum, in Jerusalem, feels strangely con­tem­po­rary. Be­fore mag­a­zine cov­ers, tele­vi­sion shows, “fire­side chats,” Twit­ter, and, of course, Don­ald Trump, coins were a method of as­sert­ing power and ma­nip­u­lat­ing im­age — and they are es­pe­cially worth think­ing about now.

Only the em­peror him­self had the right to is­sue gold coins in Rome; the Se­nate could is­sue merely sil­ver and bronze. Al­most all Ro­man coins in this ex­hibit are au­rei, from the Latin au­reus for “golden,” and weigh about 7 grams each. As I bent down to get a good look at thumb­nail­sized por­traits of em­per­ors long dead, what struck me was not the glit­ter of an­cient gold, but how Ro­mans couldn’t pos­si­bly avoid see­ing the em­peror’s face while liv­ing their daily lives; his face was lit­er­ally in the palms of their hands.

I could not help feel­ing some com­mon­al­ity with the an­cient Ro­mans.

We, too, must deal with pol­i­tics — how­ever dis­taste­ful — reach­ing into the palms of our hands. We are now liv­ing in the era of a pres­i­dent who has also man­aged to find his way into ev­ery crevice of our daily life, into our hands, through cell­phones that con­stantly beep, in re­sponse to a news cy­cle that jumps at his ev­ery out­rage.

Part of hav­ing power, I thought as I looked at the coins, is know­ing how to make one­self — or more ac­cu­rately, one’s im­age — ubiq­ui­tous. Per­haps com­pelling peo­ple to hit “retweet,” cre­at­ing more and more ver­sions of one’s mes­sage, is not that dif­fer­ent from forc­ing one’s face onto coins, and hav­ing more and more of them made.

It turns out that coins made by the pow­er­ful have a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory. Julius Cae­sar (100 BCE-44 BCE) was the first Ro­man to put his por­trait on coins, and at the time, a de­pic­tion of a liv­ing ruler in­stead of a god or an­ces­tor was revo­lu­tion­ary. Cae­sar’s bold move of por­tray­ing him­self as a god may have even led to his demise. In­ter­est­ingly, Cae­sar’s suc­ces­sors — af­ter the in­fa­mous be­trayal that cap­ti­vated Shake­speare — also made coins with his im­age. I stared hard at a Cae­sar coin is­sued by Oc­tavius, with a di­am­e­ter of 20 mil­lime­ters and a weight of 8.23 grams of gold, as well as a video of­fer­ing a close-up of it, and thought about how easy it is to re­write his­tory, or to re­coin it. The right vi­su­als can go a long way, and the truth has al­ways been easy to ma­nip­u­late in, well, gold, glit­ter, or any kind of shiny dis­trac­tion. The glare of a cell phone is just the lat­est ver­sion. But per­haps it is sooth­ing to con­sider that we are not the first to strug­gle with truth ver­sus il­lu­sion, and not the first to have false­hood forced into our hands.

Next, I looked at coins of Au­gus­tus, (27 BCE-68 BCE), who por­trayed him­self as a young man, even decades af­ter he most cer­tainly was not. But af­ter Au­gus­tus, the wrin­kled por­trait trend re­turns to coins. The idea that ma­tu­rity was a valu­able trait in rulers was pop­u­lar in Rome, and even then, ap­pear­ance re­ally mat­tered. “Lit­er­ary sources from the Ro­man Pe­riod in­di­cate that it was com­mon to draw con­clu­sions about a per­son’s char­ac­ter on the ba­sis of his or her ex­ter­nal ap­pear­ance,” the wall text re­ports.

Speeches also ex­tolled the im­por­tance of vi­su­als along with “hon­esty and hu­mil­ity” — and I thought of how such speeches were early ver­sions of cam­paign ral­lies, even when no cam­paign was go­ing on. An ora­tion de­liv­ered by Pliny the El­der, for in­stance, de­scribes the ideal Ro­man em­peror as some­one “pos­sess­ing mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline, hon­esty, hu­mil­ity, and moder­a­tion along­side such phys­i­cal fea­tures as height, strength, a hand­some coun­te­nance, and gray­ing hair.” Mar­cus Tul­lius Cicero be­lieved that the coun­te­nance and, more specif­i­cally, the eyes were win­dows into a man’s char­ac­ter. “The coun­te­nance is the por­trait of the soul, and the eyes mark its in­ten­tion,” Cicero said. And so, even­tu­ally, Ro­man coins in­cluded holes to in­di­cate the pupils of the em­peror.

I found my­self scru­ti­niz­ing those pupils, and won­der­ing what, if any­thing, vot­ers saw in Trump’s eyes, un­til I re­al­ized there was some­thing more in­ter­est­ing to think about: the em­peror’s rel­a­tives. It turns out that Ro­man em­per­ors

Cae­sar’s bold move of por­tray­ing him­self as a god may have even led to his demise.

also used coins to de­pict their moth­ers, spouses, sons and daugh­ters. And fe­male rel­a­tives played a spe­cial role, then as now. “Though the women did not play an of­fi­cial role in govern­ment,” the wall text in­forms view­ers, “their por­traits, which ex­press mod­esty, de­vo­tion and fam­ily unity, were meant to con­vey to cit­i­zens of the em­pire how women were sup­posed to ap­pear and be­have.”

It was dif­fi­cult to read this pas­sage with­out con­jur­ing up an im­age of Ivanka Trump, con­stantly por­trayed as the pin­na­cle of ap­pro­pri­ate wom­an­hood, a golden girl, even as her fa­ther’s poli­cies threaten women’s health, and as his tweets de­mean women’s dig­nity and hu­man­ity.

All this is just on one side of the au­rei, or golden coins. The other side was used for slo­gans. Be­fore the bill­board on the road, the nightly news or, well, Twit­ter, the back of a coin was pre­cious real es­tate. And the Ro­man em­per­ors used it to ham­mer home what they wanted to em­pha­size to their sub­jects. Top­ics in­cluded a re­cent con­quest, the end of a war or “generic themes like peace, vic­tory, pros­per­ity and se­cu­rity.” The word “generic” made me jump a bit, as I thought “Make Amer­ica Great Again,” with no de­tails re­quired.

Per­haps what was most chilling about Ro­man coins viewed on a scorch­ing-hot day in Jerusalem, when I said a si­lent prayer of thanks for the in­ven­tion of air con­di­tion­ing, were the slo­gans em­bla­zoned near the ceil­ing of the ex­hibit in Latin, He­brew and English. They in­cluded “Rome Reborn.”; “Pub­lic Se­cu­rity.”; “Vic­tory of the Em­peror.”; “Eter­nal Rome.” And most bizarrely, given what hap­pened to Cae­sar, “Cheer­ful­ness of the Age.”

The idea of “Rome Reborn” sounded like a pre­cur­sor of “Make Amer­ica Great Again.” But the cheer­ful­ness is what gnawed at me. It seemed like the fol­low­ing re­cent ideas floated by Repub­li­can politi­cians: that Med­i­caid re­cip­i­ents should get jobs that have health in­sur­ance, that the ill could be cured through laugh­ter, or that the sick just need faith. It’s not just the op­pres­sive poli­cies the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is try­ing to force down Amer­i­cans’ throats; it’s the idea we should be happy about it, that we can laugh or pray our way to health.

Maybe what we are be­ing fed is the idea of Roma Aeterna, with a golden im­age of the em­peror in the front, and a slo­gan al­lud­ing to great­ness, eter­nity and, well — god­li­ness — on the back, no mat­ter what the bloody truth is. Rome per­fected the em­peror process, but the trail­blaz­ers in­cluded the an­cient Egyp­tians, whose im­ages of men as gods still make mu­se­um­go­ers gasp in ad­mi­ra­tion, 34 cen­turies later. Maybe there is some­thing in the hu­man that wants to wor­ship, whether man or God, worth­less or wor­thy, I thought as I pre­pared to walk back out into this city of ho­li­ness, nod­ding to the coffins on my way out.

Aviya Kush­ner is the For­ward’s lan­guage colum­nist and the au­thor of “The Gram­mar of God” (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Fol­low her on Twit­ter, @ AviyaKush­ner “Faces of Power: Ro­man Gold Coins From the Vic­tor Adda Col­lec­tion” is on view at The Is­rael Mu­seum, Jerusalem, through June 2018.


COIN OF THE REALM: An ex­hibit on Ro­man coins at the Is­rael Mu­seum feels oddly timely in the age of Trump.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.