The Great Sun Jester

In 1968, a prosecution began in Brighton, England against a poet named Bill Butler. His crime: publishing poetry and literature. In a stunning turn of events, the poet was found guilty, destroyed, and later died from his injuries.

This isn’t a framework for a dystopian screenplay. It’s one tragedy in a string of tragedies, obscenities committed in the name of stamping out obscenity. It’s an old story and a current one. Weaponized censorship is as old as ancient Rome and as modern as today’s 24-hour news cycle.

Before I talk about my subject, the armchair historian in me insists that we go back in time for some context, a place to plant our feet before our heads explode.

In the year 8 AD, a Roman poet named Ovid was exiled to Tomis, a city we now call Constanţa in Romania. There, alone and broken, he died. To this day, scholars are split on the actual reason for his exile, though it is known that the emperor Augustus Caesar claimed the banishment was for the obscenity contained in his erotic poem Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love).

Ovid: poet, aesthete, criminal.

Ovid was most famous for his epic poem The Metamorphoses, a 15-book masterpiece of early western literature. The kind of thing that young PhD candidates vigorously dissect in order to discern a new context that will win them the doctorate they have chased their entire lives. With almost 12,000 lines, there’s plenty to vigorously dissect.

Don’t go thinking The Metamorphoses is some kind of impenetrable mess. Among its many themes and myths is that of Pygmalion, a story about a sculptor who spurns women then falls in love with his own sculpture. Blessed by the gods, his sculpture comes to life. They fall in love and have a child named Paphos.

There’s plenty of pathos to plumb here. The misogyny is not only era-appropriate, but has been re-imagined in modern times as My Fair Lady, a musical in which our “sculptor” Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) carefully sculpts the rough-around-the-edges Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) from a Cockney flower girl into a fine lady of standing.

Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins!

This shitty film beat Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove to win the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 1964. Let that sink in for a minute. Imagine the chasm of time between Ovid and Rex Harrison, wherein women were clay to be molded by men in order to have any value.

Contrast with Dr. Strangelove, a film which lampoons the worst impulses of the worst people, those who would happily engage in nuclear annihilation to assuage their petty fears about their own personal inadequacies. It’s an indictment of the worst kind of obscenity.

This obliviousness is the reason that Ovid was banished and Bill Butler destroyed.

Let’s traipse through the centuries of persecuted writers…

Daniel Defoe (left) (1660-1731) was persecuted repeatedly for sedition. He dared to pen pamphlets and books that championed the rights of workers and criticized the domination of the Church of England. For this he was publicly pilloried and repeatedly imprisoned. I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine whether dim-witted, inbred Queen Anne (right) or the brilliant Defoe was the real problem in England at that time.

The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) was a French libertine with a penchant for prostitutes and debauchery. He wrote extensively on these subjects, and his works remain touchstones of human sexuality studies. The word “sadism” springs from the man himself. But in 18th century France, he had exceeded his reach. It was one thing for a wealthy nobleman to fuck everyone within reach. It was quite another to write about it.

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) was a Russian writer who thought it would be a good idea to circulate screeds that were critical of the crushing serfdom and mindless religiosity of Tsarist Russia. Strangely, the Tsar, who was supposedly a supremely powerful man, was so fragile that he could not possibly survive such writings. Dostoevsky was shackled in a frozen gulag for years and years.

Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was a sharp wordsmith and a flamboyant homosexual who skirted the edges of public notoriety. One of his boyfriends was a fellow named Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father was the strict and mirthless Marquess of Queensbury. The old man didn’t like his son gallivanting around with the likes of Wilde, so he libeled Wilde as a “posing sodomite”. This incensed Wilde, who filed suit. But Victorian England being what it was, the tables were turned on Wilde and he was imprisoned for “sodomy” and “gross indecency”. Having harmed no one, Wilde spent two years in a miserable cell.

One would think that the modernity of the 20th century would put an end to such persecutions, but it didn’t.

Which brings us back to William Huxford Butler. Born in Spokane, Washington in 1934, Butler moved to London, England in the 1960’s. A bookish young man with an insatiable appetite for poetry and transgressive literature, he happily leapt into the waves of the 60’s cultural revolution and worked in a city bookstore.

Bill Butler

In 1965 he pulled up stakes and moved to Brighton, England, where he opened the much-beloved Unicorn Bookshop at No 50 Gloucester Road. He painted the building in wild hippie colors and set about enlightening Brightonians with a vast stock of novels, essays, poetry, photographs, magazines, and pamphlets. There was nothing too weird, too sexually explicit, or too striking for Bill to carry.

The Unicorn Bookshop 1967

Passionate about free speech and alternative viewpoints, the tall, boisterous Butler became a much-admired personality in Brighton, popular with both hippies and academics who visited him for rare tracts or publishing services. If you were an aging beatnik or a flowering hippie, the Unicorn Bookshop was a one-stop shop for all your anti-establishment needs.

In 1968, Butler’s Unicorn Press published J.G. Ballard’s hilarious pamphlet Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan. Written in the style of a scientific white paper, it discussed in agonizing detail the limits of the study subjects desire to engage in various sex acts with the conservative governor of California.

A quote:
“Patients were provided with assembly kit photographs of sexual partners during intercourse. In each case Reagan’s face was super imposed upon the original partner. Vaginal intercourse with “Reagan” proved uniformly disappointing, producing orgasm in 2% of subjects. Axillary, buccal, navel, aural and orbital modes produced proximal erections. The preferred mode of entry overwhelmingly proved to be the rectal. After a preliminary course in anatomy it was found that caecum and transverse colon also provided excellent sites for excitation. In an extreme 12 percent of cases, the simulated anus of post-colostomy surgery generated spontaneous orgasm in 98 percent of penetrations. Multiple-track cine-films were constructed of ‘Reagan’ in intercourse during (a) campaign speeches, (b) rear-end auto-collisions with one- and three-year-old model changes, (c) with rear-exhaust assemblies, (d) with Vietnamese child-atrocity victims.”

Not only was the pamphlet outrageously funny, it also exposed the peeling veneer of stodgy 1950’s moralism. The cultural revolution of the 1960’s embraced civil rights, sexual freedom, environmentalism, and free speech, but there were forces at work to hold back the tide.

While J.G. Ballard went on to become a famous author, the same fate did not fall upon Bill Butler. The Unicorn Bookshop was a big, immovable target and Bill Butler sat behind the register every day. It was inevitable that at some point the loaded gun of reactionary conservatism would swing in his direction.

The gunman in this case was Mervyn Griffith-Jones, an Eton-Cambridge man who served in the Coldstream Guards in WW2 and acted as junior counsel at the Nuremberg Trials. A fierce and humorless prosecutor, Griffith-Jones acted as assistant prosecutor in the murder trial of Ruth Ellis, a troubled woman who gunned down her lover David Blakely after months of physical abuse that had culminated in a miscarriage after he struck her in the belly during a drunken rage. Despite calls for mercy, Griffith-Jones pushed for her execution and she became the last woman hanged to death in the UK. She was 28 years old.

Mervyn Griffith-Jones: portrait of an asshole.

Not content with executing abused women, Griffith-Jones went on to attack every form of “indecency” he could find. In 1960, he led the prosecution of Penguin Books for the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s famous Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Written in 1928, the book describes the desperation of a wealthy woman who engages in an affair with her gardener when her loveless husband returns from war impotent and broken. The book contained some explicit sexual passages (explicit for the time) which helped it become a popular novel whose themes of social class, sexual repression, and aesthetic sensibilities were carried aloft on wings of naughty language.

The evil novel that must not be read.

Re-published as a paperback in 1960 by Penguin Books, the widespread acceptance of this unseemly smut drove Griffith-Jones to distraction. He invoked the UK’s Obscene Publications Act as a weapon against those dastardly pornographers at Penguin Books. During the trial, Griffith-Jones asked the jurors “…when you have read it through, would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

This equating of Lady Chatterly’s Lover with a dime shop porno centerfold did not go over well with the jurors. They found the condescending argument literally laughable. After a procession of established writers and academics tore apart the prosecution’s case, Penguin Books was acquitted.

But alas for Bill Butler, Mervyn Griffith-Jones was not done yet.

When Griffith-Jones got wind of Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, his rage would not be tempered despite his smarting loss against Penguin Books. If Lady Chatterly’s Lover was a hopeless cause, surely this outrageous tract will get some traction.

On January 16, 1968, police raided the Unicorn Bookstore at No 50 Gloucester Road, Brighton. They seized thousands of titles, including copies of the counter-culture literary magazine Evergreen Review, poetry by Alan Ginsburg, and books by surrealist William S. Burroughs. And of course the worst offender of them all, Ballard’s Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.

Open up! We know you have books in there!

Now armed with what he thought was unassailable evidence, Griffith-Jones charged Bill Butler with the heinous crime of “possessing obscene articles for publication for gain”. Upon review, the court threw out the vast majority of the seized evidence as it had no pornographic material whatsoever, but dozens of titles were retained as the court could not form a conclusion about them.

Trial started in August 1968. The prosecutor laid out his case before three magistrates. Despite the technicality that he could not prove Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan had actually been sold to the public, he argued that its inclusion of available titles was enough to meet the standard of “publication for gain”.

The defense produced expert witnesses who testified to the literary merit of not only Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, but all the other seized materials as well. In a twist that should surprise no one, prosecutor Griffith-Jones argued before the judges that the expert witnesses didn’t have the discerning legal wit to separate the literary wheat from the obscene chaff, as such skills were present only in the learned minds of legal experts like the magistrates themselves.

Good morning, Worm your honor
The crown will plainly show
The prisoner who now stands before you
Was caught red-handed showing feelings
Showing feelings of an almost human nature
This will not do!

Properly emboldened by the prosecutor’s argument, the magistrates read the explicit materials and found against Bill Butler. His fines and legal fees amounted to £3000, or about USD $60,000 today. That was enough to shutter the Unicorn Bookstore and put Butler into unmanageable debt.

Broken and beaten, Bill Butler left Brighton and sequestered himself in a tiny hamlet in Wales. There, he tried to revive his publishing business and pay off his debts. The bright, bold poet was unable to dig himself free. A few years later he died of a drug overdose, deep in debt, poverty-stricken, forgotten. He was 44 years old.

Bill Butler would have remained just another anonymous casualty of censorious tyrants, but he had a good friend named Michael Moorcock. Moorcock was a prolific writer of science fiction and fantasy. He found in Bill Butler a kindred soul, a fearless defender of all that is weird and untouchable.

The immensely cool Michael Moorcock

Moorcock had formed a lyrical association with the American rock band Blue Öyster Cult. He had written several of the band’s songs, including “Veteran of Psychic Wars”, which was featured in the immensely popular animation film Heavy Metal.

For Blue Öyster Cult’s 1979 album “Mirrors”, Moorcock penned the lyrics to the song The Great Sun Jester. The song was an ode to Bill Butler, a spark of light who was extinguished by dark forces. Sad yet celebratory and reaching to a soaring rock chorus, the song remains a permanent homage to a brilliant poet who was sacrificed on the altar of stupidity.

The immensely cool Blue Oyster Cult

Click here to rock out to The Great Sun Jester.

“And he took the stars in his hands
And as he scattered them he’d shout
‘I’m the joker of the universe!
I’m what it’s all about!’
Now he’s dying in his grief
And the hard men dragged him down
They’ve killed the wild-eyed jester
They’ve killed the fire clown…”

During his trial, Bill Butler left us with one parting shot, and I sincerely hope that others will reflect on it when those nagging, millennia-old forces of censorious tyranny rise again from the misty grave where they belong:

“You regard it as important that we tell the truth in your court, and you put us under oath to do so. When any poet writes or an artist paints, he is under oath to something inside himself to tell the truth and the whole truth. Not to tell just those parts of the truth which are palatable and pleasing but all that is true – the good and the bad parts. Until he does that, he is incomplete as an artist and a poet.”

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Ada, or Ardor

I recently read Nabakov’s “Ada (or Ardor)” and I feel compelled to discuss it. I’m sure thousands of English lit students have dissected this dense cheesecake since its publication in 1969, making me a mere snowball in the avalanche. But since I’ve read a lot of Nabokov I wanted to place it in the hierarchy.

First, the overview: It’s about a wealthy family wherein kissing cousins do a lot more than kissing and are actually a lot more than cousins. Their summer tryst blooms from a reckless dalliance to an era-spanning romance that directs both their lives. Their story is told as an autobiography, albeit a disjointed and surreal autobiography.

The story takes place on an alternate Victorian-era Earth-like planet. On this planet called Antiterra, the late 19th century occurs in a near-parallel with our Earth (“Terra”), a planet which the Antiterrans consider a myth. Only weirdos believe Terra exists. On Antiterra, North America has a deep Russian and French influence. Advanced aircraft and automobiles exist in Antiterra in 1880. People use water-powered mechanical devices for communication, as electricity has been renounced as dangerous. Geographic places and names are often allegorical or altogether invented, but occasionally there are direct correlations.

North America as found on Antiterra.

Antiterra is so similar/dissimilar to Earth that discerning what is real on Antiterra and what might be mere flights of fancy in Nabokov’s mind becomes difficult. This makes things very confusing, and I wonder if Nabokov did this to purposefully unsettle us or simply as an amusement.

Regardless, Nabokov employs his signature style brilliantly. Endless wordplay, myriad puzzles (linguistic and otherwise), and piles of carefully encoded nods to literary works. As ever, he gives you the option of fretting over every fiendish bon mot or just letting it flow over you. I selected the latter.

(The title itself is the first of his little games; Ada is pronounced “Ah-dah”, which is a homonym for the British non-rhotic pronunciation of “Ardor”, which means devotion/passion. Such begins a veritable tidal wave of word play and double-meanings.)

“Ada” is difficult literature, and reading difficult literature is like having a printed word aperture open in your mind. You can only handle so much at any given moment and then only incorporate so much of it into short term memory. For instance, a pulp novel has a wide aperture where the reader easily digests entire chapters into one comprehensible event. Conversely, “Finnegan’s Wake” is such obscurantist gibberish that one’s aperture can only handle fractions of a paragraph at a time. “Ada” finds a mean to those extremes, though it does narrow my aperture quite a bit, causing me to take time when reading.

The first four chapters are extremely challenging as little of it makes sense. Everything seems off-kilter, misspelled, or nonsensical. I went into this book cold so I had no preparation or guide. I eventually read some background so I could fully understand what the hell was going on. (I’m not alone; most reviewers found the first four chapters bewildering.)

Most confounding of all, time seems to have slipped on Antiterra. We should be in the Victorian era, and while characters largely conform to Victorian mores in behavior, they are not bound by our understanding of the era. Nabokov gives them leeway to escape the droll and hopelessly small world of Emily Brontë. A 14-year-old boy can seamlessly expound on complex subjects in three languages with pithy (Nabokovian?) precision. Intercontinental air travel compresses events. It’s surreal yet historically familiar, like “Game of Thrones”. The straight-arrow of history is bent and re-imagined and sometimes wholly warped.

It can be discombobulating, but once you get it, you get it.

Our protagonist (Ivan “Van” Veen, aka V.V. – Vladimir Vladimirovich!) is one of the believers in Terra, which makes him a kook on Antiterra. In 1884, teenage Van falls in love with his pubescent cousin, and as summers become decades their secret romance ebbs and flows between torrid adoration and bitter heartbreak. The years become eras, which is something we can all relate to. We all look back with warm nostalgia or stinging regret all those moments we created in our years. We wonder how it all fits into the bigger picture, whether we’ve been pulled along by the current or whether we’ve stamped our initials on the Universe. One can go mad thinking about time and its succession of moments and chasms of centuries, just as one can go mad thinking about space with its inscrutable quarks and unimaginable stretches of blackness. Instead, we internalize and obfuscate to suit our own ends. The past becomes our non-threatening fable and the Universe is our city district.

From the novel:

“The direction of Time, the ardis of Time, one-way Time, here is something that looks useful to me one moment, but dwindles the next to the level of an illusion, obscurely related to the mysteries of growth and gravitation. The irreversibility of Time (which is not heading anywhere in the first place) is a very parochial affair: had our organs and orgitrons not been asymmetrical, our view of Time might have been amphitheatric and altogether grand, like ragged night and jagged mountains around a small, twinkling, satisfied hamlet. We are told that if a creature loses its teeth and becomes a bird, the best the latter can do when needing teeth again is to evolve a serrated beak, never the dentition it once possessed. The scene is Eocene and the actors are fossils. It is an amusing instance of the way nature cheats but it reveals little relation to essential Time, straight or round, as the fact of my writing from left to right does to the course of my thought.”

Which brings me to Nabokov’s greatest skill: mastery of the stream of consciousness. Once again, Nabokov nimbly explores thoughts, feelings, and motivations down to the smallest detail of how we experience a wall clock or a gnarled tree or a young man beholding the exposed shoulder of his true love. We delve miles deep into the human mind. When Van Veen’s mother becomes insane, the description of her internal schizophrenic dialog is absolutely heartbreaking. Taken out of context, it reads like Joyce-quality gibberish. But in the narrative it’s a punch to the gut. There is so much of this stuff in “Ada” and his other works that I can’t begin to express how talented he is at describing our thought processes, our perception of stimuli, and our reactions to events. At this Nabokov has no equal.

Sometimes, the skeptic in me sees Nabokov’s Antiterra as a convenient vehicle for the writer to describe once again his own life experiences and affection for language. We once again explore characters who have roots in Russian, French, and Anglo cultures, as Nabokov can only write about what he knows and that list pretty much describes his life. (His family were wealthy Russians who escaped the Bolshevik revolution and ran off to Switzerland. Nabokov then studied in France and England and eventually moved to the US. Thus he is fluent in Russian, German, French and English. And his novels often involve Russian emigres with troubled love lives.)

The author, looking very authoritative.

So in one sense, this is just more Nabokov. (Lukewarm fans of “Lolita” would probably agree.) But there’s a lot more to “Ada” than word games and taboo sex explorations. Like his other romantic novels, Nabokov scrutinizes those moments when flirtation gels into something infinitely greater, when the mind fixates on the mundane to the exclusion of all else, and the striking differences between a heart pounding from the joy of erotic love and a heart pounding from the agony of heartbreak.

Unlike most readers, I didn’t come to Nabokov via “Lolita”. One winter I got really sick and for some reason glommed onto a copy of “Glory” and read it, bed-ridden, in two days. It blew my mind. It was the first time I had read about unrequited love with such murderous detail. The prose wasn’t just good. It was luscious. I consumed that book between sneezes, my head in that weird fevered place, delirious with the flu.

When I eventually came around to reading “Lolita”, I was (like most readers) initially duped by Humbert Humbert’s passionate defense of his evil behavior. As the tragedy unfolds, we find his unreliable narration far worse than merely unreliable. He is, in fact, a monster.

In “Ada”, however, our much friendlier narrator seamlessly transforms between personalities. He is alternately an omniscient third person (Nabokov, who may or may not know the characters personally) and Van Veen himself speaking in the first person, writing aloud his autobiography. Ada herself sometimes pops in to add parenthetical comments (or to correct Van, who tends to remember things a bit too selfishly). These narrators seem to meld and swap effortlessly. At no point does Nabokov confuse you about who is who, and instead employs them as he sees fit with each one ultimately “him”, Nabokov himself. In the end, there’s no ambiguity that Nabokov is Veen, any less than he is Martin in “Glory” or Franz in “King, Queen, Knave”.

Ultimately, “Ada” is about how being alive (on Terra or Antiterra) is to experience time and how the events we create or endure add texture to that time. We have the emboldening thrill of it and the miserable tragedy of it. We love to dwell on our details but in doing so we re-paint them. The final product is the created world we acknowledge as true. That’s the nub of it. It’s what describes art and artists, politicians and history, academics and culture. We shake out the rug of existence, beat it with a tennis racket, then place it in the sitting room and call it good.

This is how 94-year-old Van Veen constructs his life story. Every second spent with his beloved Ada is a yawning century of joy, and every year without her is a dismal hour of pain. Van’s time is neither straight nor an arrow. It is a jumble of events that must be shuffled and sieved to be understood. His adoration of Ada is simultaneously unbreakable and marred with insecurity. That should sound familiar.

Nabokov liked to position himself among the pantheon of great writers. He makes no bones about writers he admires (Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust) and those he feels are beneath him (Conrad, Faulkner, Pasternak). A famously prickly critic, he admirably applies that laser-like reproof to his own writing. One is hard-pressed to find a single word misapplied, or “replaced by its first cousin”, as Twain would say. “Ada” is dense, lush, and strikingly beautiful, if sometimes self-indulgent and haughty.

If you choose to read “Ada”, don’t do it for the explicit eroticism. Do it to explore all those contradictions and moral ambiguities in yourself.

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Who the Hell is Gaius Rabirius Postumus?

 Who is this man?

In 2016, I visited Rome for a week. On a sunny Sunday, I rented a bike to ride the Via Appia Antica, or the Appian Way. This ancient road has led into Rome for 2,400 years. Untold drovers, farmers, soldiers, citizens, and slaves have worn deep ruts in the ancient stones, deep enough to occasionally jack knife my bicycle’s front wheel.

Appia Antica is lined with the ruins of hundreds of monuments and memorials. As I rode along I snapped a photo of a particularly well-preserved memorial. It wasn’t until I got home that I inspected that photo carefully. It was not a great photo but the ancient memorial was captured in good detail. I looked at the figures and the names.

Behold my shitty snapshot!

It featured a Roman man named Caius (Gaius) Rabirius Postumus Hermadorus. In the center was his wife, who had taken the name Rabiria Demaris. On the right was an image of their “Usia Prima Sacerdos”, or family god. She was Isis, the Egyptian goddess who leads the dead to the afterlife.

I had never heard of this Rabirius fellow. I wondered who he was, why his memorial was so nifty, and why he had taken an Egyptian goddess to represent his family.

My research took me on a fascinating journey into the most turbulent period in Roman history: the dawn of the Imperium. Rabirius may have been a nobody, but he was heavily involved with the most famous Romans of his day.

We should begin by backing up a bit and looking into Rabirius’ past. He was born into a patrician family and as a young man was adopted by his uncle, a senator also named Gaius Rabirius. The elder Gaius Rabirius was determined to build a family legacy, but his rash decisions would put his entire family and fortune in jeopardy – an object  lesson the young Rabirius would fail to learn.

Old Rabirius was from a respected family and by 100 BCE had become a senator of Rome. At that time, the republic was in turmoil. The optimates (the ruling elite) were squaring off against the populares (dedicated to helping the common plebeians). Battle lines were being drawn.

What the optimates and populares may have looked like.

Two great generals – Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius – represented the two sides. Sulla was an optimate who believed the republic should be ruled by wealthy patrician families. He scorned the new land reforms being introduced by the populares. Marius, whose military reforms included opening the army to plebs, had become sympathetic to the cause of the populares. These two influential men had influential followers in the senate. Things were heating up.

In 100 BCE, Marius formed a political circle with the tribune of the plebs, Lucius Appuleius Saturninus. Marius became the anvil through which Saturninus pounded out new land reform laws that favored the plebeians, usually at the cost of the wealthy land-owning optimates. As you can imagine, the entrenched wealthy elite weren’t going to take this sitting down. Their champion Sulla had some friends, too. He also had soldiers willing to do anything for him.

Sulla (L) and Marius (R).

When Saturninus successfully pushed through a new slate of land reform laws, Sulla stepped in. He and his optimate buddies drafted decrees that rolled back the reforms and threatened violent reprisals against anyone who dared oppose them. The senate was split, with violence sure to follow.

In 99 BCE there were new elections. Saturninus and his pal Glaucia kept their seats. But in their zeal to win at any cost, they decided to blatantly murder their political opponent, a man named Gaius Memmius – during the election. Now, Memmius may not have been a beloved character, but to slaughter him during the ballot count was a bit much, even for the people of Rome.

Things started getting out of hand.

The voters of Rome went ballistic and demanded justice against the murderers. The senate declared Saturninus and Glaucia enemies of the state. The two men fled to a defensible building on the Capitoline hill. Roman sentries cut off their water supply and began a siege. Marius, whose reputation had saved him from the taint of being associated with Saturninus and Glaucia, stepped in and offered the men safe passage to the old senate house known as the Curia Hostilia. Marius assured Saturninus and Glaucius that if they went with him willingly they would receive a fair trial and possibly even exoneration. The two men agreed. Marius guided them safely to the Curia Hostilia.

Enter the elder Gaius Rabirius.

Rabirius was an old school optimate. He believed in the supremacy of the landed aristocracy and he was determined to see any populist reforms strangled in the crib. In his mind, he could not afford to have Saturninus and Glaucia escape justice. They were dangerous and had to be stopped. So Rabirius and a group of his best friends climbed up the walls of the Curia Hostilia, peeled back some of the roof tiles and proceeded to rain huge rocks down onto Saturninus, Glaucia, and a bunch of their followers. They were literally shooting fish in a barrel and all the men inside the Curia were slaughtered in a horrific way.

The Curia Julia replaced the Curia Hostilia in 53 BCE.

Rome may have been a wild and wooly place where powerful men could get away with murder, but there were limits and Rabirius had crossed them. One of the men killed inside the Curia Hostilia had a nephew named Titus Labienus. Labienus was not happy that his uncle was summarily executed by a gang of wealthy optimates. But the optimates maintained a solid grip on Rome. Rabirius and his gang were unofficially excused of their crimes. The fact that Rabirius and his pals remained not only free but able to retain their senate seats galled young Titus Labienus. But the optimates were in control and there was little he could do.

Fast forward to 63 BCE. The still-seething Labineus visited his new pal, a populist Roman senator named Julius Caesar. He wanted Caesar to provide justice for his uncle’s killer, that awful old man Gaius Rabirius, who still sat in the senate house.

Caesar was from an influential family and though he was sympathetic to the populares he also considered himself a law-and-order kind of guy. He wanted to teach the senate an object lesson in what happens when you excuse extra-legal executions, and he wanted to do it legally. This would put the senate on notice that Rome was no longer a free-for-all, and that civic reforms could not be summarily reversed by the optimates.

Actor Ciaran Hinds was the best Julius Caesar EVAR.

So Caesar revived a very old criminal statute known as Perduello, a form of high treason. On the senate floor, he leveled the charge of Perduello at Gaius Rabirius. If convicted, the punishment was death – and not just any death. Those guilty of Perduello would be thrown from the Tarpeian Rock, a seventy foot cliff at the summit of the Capitoline Hill. Those who survived the fall would be left to die slowly. No one would assist them. Their assets would be seized and their houses razed to the ground. The elder Gaius Rabirius was in a world of shit.

In addition to being a craven assassin, Gaius Rabirius was also a resourceful man. He knew the optimates in the senate still held sway. He reached out to them and they responded. Just as the people were urging their senators to declare Rabirius guilty, the optimate consul of Rome pulled down the military flag from the Janiculum hill, a signal that the consul had officially dissolved the seated assembly. No conclusion of guilt could be leveled against Gaius Rabirius.

With no findings, there was no conviction. Old Rabirius was alive, but he was not exonerated. So he hired the best damn attorney in all of Rome: Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero was not just a lawyer; he was considered one of the greatest orators and political thinkers of his age. His reputation resounds down the millenia, and most Roman scholars consider him to be one of the most thoughtful and brilliant Romans who ever lived. Cicero took the case. He liked hard cases.

Cicero looking very statesman-like.

There was no point in proving the innocence of Gaius Rabirius. He was caught red-handed at the Curia Hostilia those many years ago. There was zero doubt he had led the murders of Saturninus and Glaucia. So Cicero took another tack: obfuscate and re-direct. His speech in defense of Gaius Rabirius survives and is known as “Pro Rabirio Reo Perduellionis” (In Defense of Rabirius Accused of Treason). In it, Cicero asks the senate to recall recent acts of political murder that went not only unpunished, but became damn near codified. Before he levels a claim of hypocrisy at his fellow senators, he proceeds to ramble through a huge chunk of Roman history, replete with its vendettas, conspiracies, and extra-legal murders.

If this is the history and hallmark of Rome, Cicero asks, who are we to condemn Gaius Rabirius for continuing this state of affairs? By what right does Rome resurrect this outdated charge of Perduello? Why now? And why Rabirius? Is it because of…maybe…I dunno…a hypocritical political vendetta maybe? Hmm?

And it worked. Old Rabirius was exonerated. Hats off to Cicero for accomplishing the improbable. He will return later.

Now we return to the story of Gaius Rabirius’ adopted son Gaius Rabirius Postumus.

Young Rabirius Postumus training to become a psycho.

Young Gaius Rabirius Postumus studied hard. He learned oration and law and got pretty good at it. His father’s acquittal kept the family name pure, so young Rabirius had a good chance of making his own mark in the senate of Rome. And he did. But just like his uncle, his impetuous nature would lead him into serious trouble.

In the years between the senatorships of the elder Rabirius and the young Rabirius, many of the same players were still on the stage. Cicero was still a respected senator, as was Julius Caesar. Young Gaius Rabirius Postumus took a seat alongside them. He was an optimate and a conservative, but even if you were in the majority, getting political allies was important. You had to hitch a ride on the biggest star you could find and young Rabirius chose Gnaeus Pompey Magnus – Pompey the Great. Pompey was the grandaddy of the conservative optimates. A good choice.

Pompey was a tremendously successful and ruthless general. He had fought brilliantly in foreign wars as well as a civil wars at the head of Sulla’s armies during pitched battles between the populares and optimates. He put down rebellions in Sicily and Africa. He mopped up Spartacus’ slave army during the Third Servile War, hunting down and massacring 6,000 men, women, and children. He wiped out Mediterranean piracy, then soundly defeated Mithridates in Armenia, ending decades of failure with a resounding victory. He “pacified” Syria and Judea and enjoyed no less than three triumphs in Rome.

Pompey looking very Magnus.

In short, Pompey was the very definition of a victorious Roman general. Now that he sat as one of the two consuls of Rome, young Gaius Rabirius Postumus danced his way into Pompey’s sphere and gained favor. It’s good to have powerful friends, but Rabirius would soon learn that if you pledge yourself to the Godfather, it may not work out as well as you expect.

In 58 BCE, there were some stirrings in Egypt. The Ptolemaic King of Egypt (Ptolemy XII Auletes, which means “flute-player”) was in some serious trouble. When Rome conquered his brother’s kingdom of Cyprus, Ptolemy XII famously did – and said – nothing. This treachery was unpopular with the local Egyptians. But Ptolemy XII’s excessive taxes were even less popular.

Ptolemy XII Auletes: Cleo’s pappy and consummate fuck-up.

Ptolemy XII needed to raise those taxes to pay back his many Roman creditors. Among those creditors was young Gaius Rabirius Postumus, who had sunk a huge chunk of his family fortune into Ptolemy’s debt obligations, hoping for a massive return once the Egyptian king got his shit together and stabilized his rule. But that wasn’t going to happen. The Roman debt drove the taxes, which angered a mob already enraged about his political capitulation to the Roman foreigners. The Egyptian people had had enough. They stormed the palace and the king ran off to Rome with his soon-to-be-famous daughter, Cleopatra. His other daughter, Berenice IV, took the Egyptian throne. This was really bad news for Gaius Rabirius Postumus.

In Rome, Pompey housed Ptolemy XII and the cute-as-a-button Cleopatra. Pompey stood up in the senate house, decrying the unfairness of Ptolemy’s exile. After all, he was a friend of Rome who kept his mouth shut about all that nastiness in Cyprus! He should be reinstated, by force if necessary.

What Cleopatra almost certainly looked like.

But the senate was well aware of what was going on. The Pompey faction was dumb enough to lend Ptolemy huge sums of money, and they lost that bet. In the senate’s mind, it was tough nuggets. They would not spill Roman blood to reinstate a king whose poor judgment and sloppy accounting had gotten his dumb ass kicked out of Egypt. It was all a ploy to claw back their investment losses, and that’s not good enough for war. The senate house filled with a resounding NO.

This did not sit well with young Rabirius. Pompey could afford the losses but Rabirius and his fellow back-benchers were ruined. Rabirius pleaded with Pompey to come up with some kind of solution. There must be a way to get Ptolemy XII back on the throne and get the tax revenue rolling again. Pompey had an idea…

Back in the old days when Pompey was fighting pirates on the Mediterranean, there was a very skillful and discreet commander named Aulus Gabinius. The two men saw eye-to-eye on most things, and like most men in Pompey’s orbit, Gabinius was a very ambitious fellow. Pompey drew up a plan for a bit of mercenary warfare in Egypt. He convinced the deposed king Ptolemy to pay Gabinius 10,000 talents to bankroll a mercenary army. This was illegal, but by keeping his own money out of the equation, Pompey had some plausible deniability.

Gabinius put together a private invasion force, which included a young commander named Marc Antony – a man who would one day return to Egypt in a big way. The Roman mercenaries sailed to Egypt and sacked Alexandria. Berenice IV surrendered the palace and begged for her father’s mercy. Ptolemy took back his throne and had his daughter Berenice and all her entourage executed. The dust settled and commander Marc Antony was introduced to the 14-year-old Cleopatra. But that romance would have to wait. Marc Antony had big things happening in Rome, so he sailed home.

Gabinius’ men would stay on in Alexandria to enforce Roman support of Ptolemy XII, and they became known as the Gabiniani. (These 2500 soldiers went native pretty quickly and would one day support Ptolemy’s son, the adolescent Ptolemy XIII, against Julius Caesar in the fight to place Cleopatra on the throne.) 

Marc Antony during his stint as a drunk Welshman.

Anyway, now that Ptolemy XII was back in charge, the problem of his debts still remained. Gaius Rabirius Postumus was particularly pushy about it. He sent endless letters demanding payment. Ptolemy responded with claims of poverty. The treasury was bare. The best the king could do was IOU’s and promises. This did not sit well with the frustrated Rabirius. He took his complaints to Pompey the Great, who told the young upstart to work something out with Ptolemy. Pompey had done what he promised to do; the rest was up to Rabirius.

To shut up his annoying Roman creditor, Ptolemy made Rabirius an offer: come to Egypt and serve as the Minister of Finance. Surely the smart young Roman would have no problem levying taxes and maybe skimming a bit off the top to make back those losses. Rabirius knew nothing about national finance, but this was the only path offered to restore his fortune, so he accepted.

Rabirius sailed to Alexandria and got to work. He wanted his money back ASAP so the first thing he did was ramp up taxation toot sweet. It had apparently not occurred to him that this same greedy behavior had caused the recent overthrow of the king, but Rabirius  gambled that with the well-armed Gabiniani in Alexandria, he didn’t have to worry about any more citizen revolts.

So the taxes went up and up, and Rabirius skimmed off the top with wild abandon. He wanted to rebuild his lost investment as quickly as humanly possible and he assumed the Gabiniani would guarantee his authority to do so. He was wrong.

Within a year, there was another massive citizen revolt. The Gabiniani were unwilling to suppress it. Ptolemy, being a wily fellow, knew the people had no love for Romans so he pointed the finger of blame directly at Rabirius. What the king didn’t expect was an armed attack on the treasury. He moved quickly to put Rabirius in a prison cell to save him from the angry mob.

We don’t need your steenking taxes!

The king calmly informed the mob that Rabirius would go on trial like any other criminal. But the king was also keenly aware that if Rabirius was convicted and executed, his other Roman creditors would go ballistic and he may even lose the support of Rome. So in late autumn, he had Rabirius released from prison and secreted aboard a ship bound for Rome.

Back in Rome, Gaius Rabirius Postumus was an unhappy camper. He had escaped Alexandria with his life, but he still lost a huge chunk of his fortune. Being an irascible fellow, he started complaining at the senate house. He used what authority he had as a senator and friend of Pompey to whip up  support for his selfish cause. After all, how could Rome allow this Greek-Egyptian sometimes-king to cheat a senator of Rome?

This was not a smart move.

Pompey’s enemies got wind of Rabirius’ whining and put it all together. Clearly, the Pompey faction was playing fast and loose with senatorial power. Paradoxically, despite the fact that the restoration of Ptolemy was clearly illegal, it was also successful. The senate would be hard pressed to condemn Pompey for winning yet another brilliant campaign, even if it was illegal. The people of Rome wouldn’t have it.

But a Roman senator bilking a province? That was also a crime, albeit selectively enforced. They decided to enforce it.

Rabirius getting his ass handed to him.

Gaius Rabirius Postumus was duly accused of De Repetundis, also known as extortion. Roman governors often engaged in extortion (if not wholesale theft) when they ruled a province. But if the governor’s greed led to instability, they were sometimes accused of De Repetundis. The penalty was usually a massive fine, and sometimes exile. Like his adoptive father before him, Gaius Rabirius Postumus was in a world of shit.

Rather than gaining sympathy from the Roman senate, Rabirius now faced a serious charge. And there was only one man who could get him out of it: Marcus Tullius Cicero. Like his father before him, Rabirius needed the sharp mind of Rome’s greatest lawyer to get his dumb ass out of the soup.

But Rabirius had a problem: money. He had very little left. So he leaned on his wife, Rabiria Demaris. Her family was rich as hell. Surely they could help? And they did. Cicero got his payment and took the job. His defense of Rabirius was strikingly similar to his defense of the elder Rabirius, and it also survives to this day as “Pro Rabirio Postumo”. In it, he re-frames Rabirius as a hapless, rash fellow who was merely doing his best to secure his assets as any man would. There’s plenty of “who among us?” interrogatories and obfuscations. It was another piece of Ciceronian legal theater and it worked like a charm.

Cicero defends another Rabirius.

It is not known if Gaius Rabirius Postumus ever got his fortune restored. But he did get aquitted, and he did build a lovely memorial for himself, his wife, and his newly adopted Egyptian goddess on the Via Appia Antica. It’s hard to prove, but I suspect part of Rabirius’ penance was to accept Isis as the family god. He surely had no love for Egypt, so it seems likely the adoption of Isis was forced upon him.

Regardless, the memorial still stands on the Appia Antica for all to see. Tourists take snapshots, but few have ever heard of him and even fewer know his story. Gaius Rabirius Postumus may have been a footnote in Roman history, but around him swirled the timeless stories of mighty ancients like Pompey, Cicero, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Ptolemy, and Cleopatra. He was a player in the game at a moment in history when a thriving republic became an unapologetic empire.

Next time you are in Rome, rent a bike and head down the Via Appia Antica. Just past the Via Degli Eugenii is a monument to the Rabirii. Stop and take a look. There is the face of a man who, though a fool and a scoundrel, was a moving cog in the machine that built western civilization.



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