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A Letter from Claudius to Pericles

HistoryA Letter from Claudius to Pericles

My Dearest Pericles,

Though it has been over four hundred years since your large helmeted head was laid to rest, I feel that I must write to you to convey my admiration and appreciation for all that you did to advance human civilization. Your influence remains a bright illumination of the path *I struggle here with the translation* though it is now the year 788 in the Romulan Calendar, around 50 years after that disruptor Jesus of Nazareth made his entry into the world. As for me, I am Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the fourth emperor of the mighty empire of Rome, not counting old Julius. 

I am writing to you, Pericles, in your native tongue of Greek in order to convey my respect to you. Under your leadership, the small Polis of Athens was transformed into a great empire—one that I would say was only second to ours.

I would like to recount to you how I came to this decision, this honor, of second rank that I wish to now bestow upon the armored shoulders of yourself and your patron Athena Parthenos, though I mean no disrespect to Athena, or Minerva as she is known to us. I believe that under your wise and steady leadership, Athens came to have enough prosperity and advancement that the entire period of time under your guidance should be called “golden.” Though your government was not as mighty as our imperial system, it was still very admirable.

Here is my logic: 

I believe that the social and cultural achievements that occurred during your lifetime were the primary drivers of this “goldenness”. These fall into three categories: the democratic, theatric, and architectural and artistic.

Though Athens became a democracy under Cleisthenes, thirty-seven years before you became the leader of Athens, democracy was not properly implemented until you took charge. Before, only the rich could participate in government. Poorer citizens had to work and farm, and therefore were unable to saunter up to the forum and debate matters of public policy all day. But you came up with the radical idea of actually paying people to be in the council of five hundred! This gave opportunity and representatives to all social classes. I also appreciate your efforts to ensure that it wasn’t just the rich who could participate in government. Under your watch, the council of five hundred were selected by lottery, taking wealth or social class out of the equation. Though I myself have certainly benefited from my place in the Roman nobility, and the majority of Senators have continued to loyally support me, the nobles are also a big bunch of lazy, fat, and rich men who sit around all day making laws to support themselves and not the poor citizens and the slaves, the people upon whose backs we build our economy. Due to their unhealthy attitude, I just recently had to execute a good number of them. I agree therefore with your lottery system, as it keeps people rotating in and out of power, and gives everyone a chance to represent their kin. Power rots people to the core, and the longer they hold it, the more rotten they become.

I also like the system that you put in place which standardized the requirements of citizenship and the process by which boys became full citizen men. I believe that you did the right thing when you made sure that only people with two Athenian parents could become full voting citizens. You ensured that foreigners could not influence matters in a way that might create a conflict of interest. But at the same time, you made it so that those who should rightfully be permitted to vote could vote. Under your leadership, when a boy came of age, they could go to the assembly and be evaluated on whether he met three criteria: proof of two Athenian born parents, proof of age (over eighteen years), and proof of free status. If the citizens believed that the boy met these three criteria, they could vote to confirm the boy as a man, a citizen. If the boy was determined to be too young, they would be sent back for a few years. If they could not prove Athenian parentage, they would have to accept that they could not vote, or possibly get proof and come back. But if they were found to be not free, they would be completely banned from the process and sent back to service as a slave. However, you did not allow this banning to be abused. You took the concept of law, and you implemented it in its full effect. If found to not be free, a man could appeal to the court, and have a trial to determine whether they were really a slave. If found to be free, they would be accepted into the franchise. But if found to be not free, they would immediately be sold by Athens as a slave. In that way, you avoided abuse of the appellate process.

In Greece, you also had the system of Ostracism. People get powerful over time, and their power can sometimes become so strong that it is a threat to democracy. Or, politicians can simply have dangerous opinions. In Rome, we deal with this sort of system through exile or even death. However, you had the democratic system where citizens would first vote once per year whether they wanted to award a ten-year exile to someone, and then they would choose who to exile. The fact that all could vote on this matter made it democratic, but also very practical. The only objection I have is this: I recently executed four hundred people who threatened me and my position. Under your system, I would have had to wait four hundred years to get them all out of the country, and by that time, three hundred and ninety of them would have already returned and died of old age.

But the most important achievement of Athens with regard to democracy was the fact that you successfully put the power directly in the hands of the many. Athens’ small size of eligible population enabled it to successfully implement a direct democracy, where the citizens could vote on all motions. This is one advantage of making the majority of your population slaves or metics: you can keep the voting population manageable. And while you were not a tyrant, you, Pericles, held significant powers. This meant that you could check the whims of the mob and that someone was there to make swift military decisions. It was the best of both worlds, something that I cannot say about Rome today. My great power, while convenient, puts a large red target on my back.

Now I’d like to pivot to a different subject: theatrical achievements. When the golden age of Athens began, when you were even born, the concept of “acting” basically did not. Choruses of people would sing and dance on stage about events, but they would never actually start speaking the roles. But then, Thespis came along. Due to the atmosphere of innovation that prevailed at that time, he felt enabled to, rather than tell the story of Dionysus, step into the role of the god and start speaking lines as if he were the character. This was a revolutionary move, which made Thespis the “first actor” in recorded history (the protea). But while Thespis could act alone and give long soliloquies, he was unable to have any dialogue, except for himself. And this led to the introduction of the second actor (deuteragonist), by Aeschylus. Now, dialogue was possible. But then, young Sophocles came along and upstage him with the third actor (tritagonist). There could now be three actors on stage, fighting and laughing together, and costume changes became smooth and seamless. Although the number of actors stopped at three—that was all they needed—theatre grew and evolved to be a great form of entertainment. Hundreds of people would gather in large outdoor theatres, much like those today in Rome, and would watch the three actors, with their beautiful face masks and costumes. A chorus consisting of around twelve (Aeschylus) or fifteen (Sophocles) people would aid the story, acting as the “perfect audience,” and singing and dancing their poetry in between every scene. But more enduring than the shows and the performance of the great actors, were the words written for them to speak by the great playwrights: Aristophanes, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. 

Many Greek plays were of extremely high quality. They are still regarded as classics today, and may still be classics in two thousand years, assuming civilization still remains. If you are wondering, my definition of classics is the following: a work that deals with a subject matter that will remain relevant for thousands of years to come and that has a message about fundamental parts of human nature and behavior. The relevance of the works by Sophocles and others to us Romans, the Germans, the African nations, and even the Brits, is what makes these plays endure, even after Athens fell. These great works are products of the age of “goldenness” which you found yourself in, and help to characterize that time, four hundred years ago.

And finally, I would like to touch on Greek architectural and artistic developments, as these were also great contributors to the golden times of Athens. First, I will touch upon Greek sculpture. Though your paintings were brilliant, colorful, and magnificent, the paint has since faded, and what remains is the stark white stone of your sculptures. You took what was handed down to you by the Ancient Egyptians, the unnatural statues with hands and legs tightly together, and created the style of “contrapposto.” This was a style where statutes had their weight unevenly distributed between their legs. They often also had arms outstretched. This created a realism that was heretofore unachieved and is what made your sculptures unmatched. Even us Romans have taken and built off of the sculpture that was left to us by you, the Greeks, while largely rejecting the sculpture of our ancestors, the Etruscans. This great influence that your small Polis has had on us, the greatest empire of the world, is what prompted me to first consider you as golden. It is also what spurred me to write this letter to you.

In architecture, you were not lacking either. You basically invented the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders, which were ways in which you built your greatest buildings: temples and government establishments. The great Parthenon, perhaps your crowning achievement with its scale, perfection, and sculpture, was itself built in the massive and heavy Doric style. These three orders, and especially the columns with their distinctive capitals, pervade all Roman architecture. If I may be so bold, I would posit that these architectural styles may still be in use two thousand years from now, standing gloriously as a testament to the achievements of your golden Polis.

I believe that the way in which your society was able to achieve peace and build military power enabled all your successive achievements. It is necessary for a nation to provide for the common defense in order to prevent the intrusion of hostile forces, which have the potential to invade and upset peace and prosperity. As a Roman, and the brother of Germanicus, I know this all too well. If a nation must concentrate all its efforts on the defense and protection of its homeland, due to resource scarcity it logically follows that they should not have the necessary resources leftover in order to focus on the higher elements of life: art, drama, science, etcetera. As the hierarchy invented by my not-so-well-known friend Masicus tells us, before humans can focus on self-actualization—innovation, art, and scientific progress—they must first have their basic needs met. Feeling safe is a basic need. However, one can not feel safe with the knowledge that there is a hostile army on domestic shores. Therefore, if a population doesn’t feel safe—if a nation feels as if they are constantly besieged—they are not able to engage in the many cultural and scientific pursuits that characterize a golden age. Military power unquestionably leads to peace. And so, military power is an important, and even necessary, component of a golden age. 

Economic power and wealth is the second factor that I would consider of great importance to Greek success. Money enables many of the endeavors of a nation. Keeping an army up and running requires vast sums; military and economic power are closely tied. I know this all too well. The campaigns in Britain and Germany have been very costly; my brother Germanicus fought for years and spent countless sums, and even after that, his work still wasn’t finished. But, having a powerful military is absolutely necessary for peace and advancement. In addition, having economic power is often the result of inter-national trade and a strong foreign presence. Participation in the global economy and the exploitation of the resources of foreign countries has allowed nations to grow, expand, and improve. Rome has done this, and so did Greece, when you very smartly formed the Delian League and then slowly turned it into your Athenian Empire. Finally, an abundance of power and wealth causes nations to be able to provide for and feed their people. This ties into, again, the concept of Masicus’ hierarchy. 

Finally, though I by no means wish to degrade the accomplishments of the Athenian people, I think that you benefited enormously from your geographic location in the world, and your sizeable population (although not comparable to Rome). A sea coast is an extremely important factor that can make the difference between a prosperous country experiencing a golden age and a secluded and weak nation. With a sea coast, a country is fast able to become a global power through trade and the conquering of foreign lands. Expansion and economic improvements are possible. However, landlocked countries are almost incapable of spreading their influence beyond their small locale. I do not believe that I have ever heard of a completely landlocked empire having a golden age. This shows by correlation at least that geography is critically important. Topographical geography is also important, as it is a major influencer of a country’s development. A country with flat geography is better able to form a large nation because flat terrain enables better domestic trade and travel. But Greece was not flat; it is mountainous. These mountains are what led to the formation of small Poleis, including Athens. In spite of this difficulty, the Athenians were able to overcome this challenge and become stronger. They were even able to use it to their military advantage against the Persians at the Pass of Thermopile. The mountains make it that much more impressive that Phidippides completed his famous run and warned the Athenians that Sparta was going to delay their arrival. Phidippides’ character exposed the true, brave, nature of the people of Athens. Finally, a larger population is better suited to both defend itself and then innovate during peacetime. Although the Athenians were outnumbered by the Persians during the first war, they were not so badly outnumbered that victory was impossible. And of course, the larger the number of citizens, the more likely it is that some of them will be talented individuals like Socrates. It is no coincidence that the largest Polis at its time, Athens, was also by far the most successful (during its golden age at least).

You must be thinking, why would an evil Roman emperor talk so favorably about democracy? The answer is simple. While I now find myself in the “golden predicament,” I first and foremost am a historian. I look to the past for inspiration and guidance. I might prefer my own system of government, especially due to the fact that I am favorably positioned in it, I still acknowledge the advanced and brilliant civilization of the Ancient Greeks. But do not forget: I still regard Ancient Greece and its government to be second to Rome. Even though our societies seem very different—one is ruled by a singular person, and one is ruled by thousands—they are actually very similar. We both employ slaves, we both do not give women rights, and we both take steps to ensure that power is in the hands of the elite—if not the monetarily elite, the “political elite.” By political elite, I mean those who meet the strict criteria of citizenship: being free, a man, and being able to prove two Athenian parents. Though our systems may not benefit every person, I believe that you and I both worked and continue to work to increase the quality of living for the most people. We do this through peace—at home and in our provinces—prosperity (success), economic power, military power, and a hopefully not-so-corrupt government. Though life is still not perfect for all, I believe that we have improved some people’s lives and have at least done all we can to move forward and advance our civilization.

And now, the topic of delivering this letter. We Romans have made so many advancements recently, in the fields of mathematics, the sciences, architecture, and others. Due to this fact, I remain hopeful that a time machine will someday be able to get this letter to your hands. For now, however, it must suffice for me to bury this scroll in the ground. Maybe, one day, in a time better than ours, a temporal voyager will dig this up and deliver this message to you. Hope springs eternal.

May the winds fill your sails.

Sincerely, 

Τιβέριος Κλαύδιος Καίσαρας Αύγουστος Γερμανικός

[Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus]

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