Monday, June 19, 2000

Bald and Proud

We at Classics Corner have seen the moment of our greatness flicker. We have heard the eternal coatman snicker. Our head (grown slightly bald) has grown older and fatter.
It is a disturbing matter.

We try not to dwell upon the the fleshly expanse at the center of our head. So long as we need two mirrors to see it, we enjoy the illusion of youth. Our friends know better than to bring it up. Photographic evidence is immediately destroyed.

We fear the day that our thinning crown meets our high forehead and turns us into one of those pathetic old men who comb their three remaining hairs over the shiney area above their eyebrows .

Yet, this can also be seen as one more instance in which advanced age allows one to better appreciate the richness of classical literature.

In our youth, for example, we were always puzzled by 2 Kings 2:23-25, which, as most of you will no doubt remember, is a pleasant little story about the Prophet Elisha.

The elder Elisha was on his way from Jericho to Bethel when a number of small boys came out of the city and jeered “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”

Elisha cursed them in the name of the Lord, and two she bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of them.

We used to think this evidence of a cruel, vindictive, and arbitrary God. Now, in our great maturity, we see that the little shits had it coming.

Socrates, with his bald head and pot belly, has rescued our self respect. He was ugly as a satyr, but through pure force of personality and intellect managed to be the Patrick Stewart of the ancient world. Alcibiades, the heart throb of Athens, the biggest playboy of the 5th Century BC, wanted to jump his bones so bad he could barely stand it.

In Plato’s Symposium, the beautiful, brilliant, desirable Alcibiades details his labors to seduce the old man. He corners him at the gymnasium, gets him drunk over dinner and crawls under a toga with him afterwards; he openly professes his love: the poor man tries everything.

But Socrates was too good for him. His brilliant, unattainable, bald head shown forth as a beacon of virtue in the night. Bald was beautiful baby.

As if further evidence of the virtues of baldness were necessary, we also have the testimony of Herodotus, who lived about a generation after the Great Socrates. The far-ranging historian tells of the Argippaei, a people of the north, who lived in the foothills of the Urals in what is now once again known as Russia.

These mysterious people lived under trees and evidently thrived upon cherries, which were strained through cloth and then concentrated into cakes.

Herodotus, who leaves the only extant record of this amazing race, says the Argippaei needed no weapons, for they were “accounted sacred” and no one would attack them. They were in fact sought by neighbors for their wisdom in settling disputes.

These tree-sitting, cherry-eating, dispute-resolving holy people were said to be snub nosed and to have large beards. They were also completely bald, from birth, men and women alike.

Kojak was never this cool. One can almost see the Argippaei, sucking on their cherry cakes, saying, “Who loves ya baby?”

“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.”
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.”

Apologies to T.S. Eliot, upon whose poetry we leech.

Sunday, June 11, 2000

Gladiator and Commodus the Deranged

Despite the fact that Rome isn’t really our specialty, we at Classics Corner recently waddled down to Oak Tree Cinema to watch musclemen perform strenuous acts of combat in the hot sun. As always, we were grateful to not be born in Italy circa 160 AD.

We are, of course, referring to “Gladiator,” which features Russell Crowe doing his best Anthony Hopkins on steroids impersonation, and Richard Harris, who looked about 90, which is odd, since he played Marcus Aurelius, who died at 59.

If you are the sort who needs the element of surprise to stay interested in a predictable story line, I suggest you stop reading right now and spend the next three minutes making crank calls to 684-4000. Tell the Mayor you’re not pacified by bread and circuses, you’re still pissed about SAFECO field, and that one day, the revolution will come. Otherwise, read on.

In the movie, Marcus Aurelius, after conquering most of the known world, asks Maximus, his lead general, to restore the state to the senate and end political corruption as the next Emperor. Maximus momentarily demurs. Commodus, the Emperor’s son, takes the news badly and offs the old man before the decision becomes known. Maximus is unsuccessfully executed, winds up a slave, becomes a gladiator, and eventually, with the ineffective help of Commodus’ sister, plots revolution and kills the annoying upstart Emperor in the Coliseum before a cheering crowd.

It was great. Yet, as the credits rolled and the adrenaline high began to subside, we began to suspect that “Gladiator” was not exactly an historical document. While we don’t want to sound like some nerd at a Star Trek convention whining about how ships in space don’t bank for turns, we thought, as a public service, that we might separate history from Hollywood for those who care.

Marcus Aurelius was, in fact, Emperor from 161-180 AD. He was also preoccupied as a philosopher with the problem of power and responsibility. Despite this, he disastrously named his son Commodus as successor, a move that was widely considered his biggest mistake. Commodus had a sister, Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilia, who attempted his assassination. For this she was exiled and finally executed. In the movie-land of happy endings, perfect teeth, and extensive cleavage, she triumphantly survives to offer a climactic speech.

According to our Oxford Classical Dictionary, which we read everyday and twice on Sundays, Commodus was “obsessively devoted to performing as a gladiator and appeared to be dangerously deranged.” He also, in true Roman tradition, called the months of the calendar after himself and renamed Rome as Colonia Commodiana. He was finally strangled on New Years Eve 192. The people did not mourn his passage.

Unfortunately, there was no general turned slave turned gladiator upon whom the story turned. Nor, presumably, was there an improbable love interest between this gladiator and Commodus’ dearly departed sister. Nor did Commodus bring the games back to Rome after Marcus Aurelius, the saintly philosopher king, had them banned, thus desecrating the memory of his father. In truth, the games were never banned in Rome until Constantine, in 325, decided they were too bloody for a peacetime activity.

But we at Classics Corner would never let our facts get in the way of good story. “Gladiator” has the enduring moral that bread and circuses are not enough. The people love entertainment, but will eventually see through the politicians’tricks to support the scrappy underdog, especially if he puts on a good show. Justice will prevail, and all they’ll have to do is cheer.

At least that’s how it works in Hollywood.