The Power of Credibility

Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruled the Seleucid Empire from 174 to 164 B.C.. The Seleucid empire at times ruled over a vast portion of the Mideast, its seat of power was Syria. During his rule, Antiochus launched a war against Ptolemaic Egypt. The war went well for Antiochus who looked likely to conquer Egypt. The Ptolemaic army was routed and their capitol in Alexandria was besieged. The Ptolemaic forces were spent. So, they lost right? Nope, and thats where the story becomes legendary.

The Roman government decided that its interests would be harmed by a Seleucid conquest of Egypt. The Roman’s sent a plenipotentiary, Popilius Laena to speak with Antiochus. Now old Popilius was proconsular, which means he was a top government official with complete authority to speak in the name of the Senate and Roman People. One guy, with a small retinue accomplished as much as a victorious army.

Popilius Laena sails to where he will find Antiochus, commanding an army of 70,000 men, besieging Alexandria. Upon his arrival in the midst of Antiochus’ army, Popilius gets right to the point, the Seleucid army must quit Egypt immediately and entirely. Antiochus begins to speak, and it’s clear that he views Popilius words as simply a starting point for negotiation. Popilius cuts him off, and he walks around Antiochus drawing a circle in the sand as he does. Popilius then informs Antiochus that either Antiochus will answer in the affirmative before leaving the circle, or there will be war.

Well, you may have guessed, Antiochus capitulated. Rome needn’t send an army because Rome had credibility. Popilius didn’t scream and yell, or bluster. He didn’t whine, cajole third parties, or make dire threats. He just spoke plainly, but those words carried a terrible force. Sometimes people flippantly compare America to Rome; remember Popilius Laena when they do, and really weigh it in your mind.

Things are slipping away from American power. We have no credibility, and no idea of the consequences of our actions. And the soft, overfed, incompetent, elitist leadership of our country makes no one tremble. We can’t regain the power we had in 1965 or even 1992, but there are corrective actions that we take. But we’ll need a new government to do it.

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2 Responses to The Power of Credibility

  1. Franco Vivona says:

    I stumbled by chance over your writing about the well-known episode of the Roman consul Popilius laena enjoining Antiochus IV Epiphanes to lift the siege of Alexandria, with the very laconic , yet so dissuasive , circle in the sand…

    Whatever you are driving at by citing this episode within the context, so it seems, of what Popilius Laena would have called ” res americanae” ( American reality}, may I remind you that the weight and credibility of the arguments or ideas we put in writing, are indissolubly related to the quality of the language we choose to express them, especially when the subject is something more intellectual than a baseball game , or for this matter, more intellectual or intelligent than anything that G.W. Bush has so far said or done…Sure he is no Jefferson!
    To come to the point , your writing is studded with errors :
    1st line : it should be ” its interests” ( ” it’s” is a colloquial contraction from “it is”)

    3rd line: ” it’s seat of power” for ” its seat of power” . Same error.

    6th line: Alexandria is ( or was!) a CAPITAL , not a CAPITOL! The latter is one of the seven hills of Rome, as well as the building which sits on top of it, or also, more prosaically, the White House.

    Then you have the words ” Guy ” and ” Nope”, epitome of american colloquialism, certainly to be avoided in any serious writing…

    Also, old Popilius was not ” pro consular” as one might be ” pro abortion”!
    No, old Popilius, was simply a “proconsul” . In the roman CURSUS HONORUM, a PROCONSUL was a former CONSUL, who at the end of his term, received the governorship of a province.. But you are probably American and I do not expect you to know Roman history! At least, though, you should know your language better , hopefully just as well as I know mine , ( which is Italian) if you want to engage in any form of penmanship..

    I agree that , as you say , America has lost credibility. I assume you refer to the rapacious capitalism of America, her materialistic greed, her macchiavellian willingness to put money before practically everything else. If you say that this loss of credibility in your eyes (as well as mine and those of the entire world ), is even more exacerbated by this administration’s belligerant foreign policy , I couldn’t agree more ….But , as a European, the roots of my alienation from America, go much deeper than this…It is a cultural hiatus. Whereas in building America your enlightened forefathers, had drawn inspiration from the political ideas of ancient Greece, her ethos and humanism, only the outward signs of Greek wisdom, civility and artistic refinement remain in modern America, chiefly in your grand neo-classic public buildings, landed gentry estates and…museums. Latin and Greek are no longer taught in high schools and with them is gone for ever for our children the opportunity for a more direct and enriching access to the past and its great men ,upon whose shoulders our, your, western society unwittingly rests, like children sitting on the shoulders of giants…Not all giants, of course, but then, slavery was a flaw not only of the classical world….

    A noted French intellectual ( André Malraux, I believe) once said very caustically : ” America is the only nation which went DIRECTLY from barbaries to decadence without going through the usual intermediate state of civilization..”
    However hardly I try to suspend the judgment on this assertion, by saying to myself ” Well, America IS a civilized country: just look at her Constitution, her Bill of Rights, her legal and political system inspired by the highest democratic principles..”,
    I still have a problem in completely dissociating myself from A. Malraux’s view…Especially when I look at the daily litany of the most horrendous crimes being perpetrated in your country : kids slaughtering their parents, parents slaughtering their chidren, infants being kidnapped, toddlers being fed drugs by their uncles, the Columbine shoot-out and its replicas.. On top of this, in the name of a dangerous and ill-understood right-to-bear-arms, you also have banks which give out free complimentary guns for those who open an account…

    Yes, every country is plagued by criminality, but when I look at America from Canada, where I live, or Italy , where I was born and educated ,or other European countries, their, our, crimes, seem to pale in the face of the number, the wickedness, the violence , the sheer evil of the crimes perpetrated in the U.S.A. today…

    In the name of freedom of speech and freedom of thought, we all too easiliy comdemn any form of indoctrination, including religious indoctrination, but we paradoxically allow the equally powerful and dangerous indoctrination of the multinationals or the public media , which through crafty advertising or countless shows , create needs and propose life-styles conflicting with the most basic principles of morality, decency and mental as well as physical health.

    I wonder who is responsible for having young children think that happiness,well-being and social acceptance necessitate breast implants at age 12 , eating deadly two-pounds hamburgers with a liter of Coca-Cola, smoking or toting ( and using) guns,Yes , I do tend to get upset when I meet somebody who thinks that the only Rome or Athens of some importance are in the states of New York and Georgia, respectively…

    I started out with Popilius Laena and I will conclude as well with him by saying that if our children in school were afforded the possibility to revisit the history, the values and deeds of the society to which he belonged, in other words if they had a more humanistic education, perhaps they would be better equipped to resist the onslaughts of our shallow consumption society, have a more adequate moral direction and, why not, write better English as well, including proper spelling……

    By the way, I am neither a history professor, nor a professional intellectual. Just an ordinary person ( not a GUY!) who had the good fortune of growing up in a country with very high educational standards and a long humanistic tradition. I regret not knowing calculus or economics much less than I enjoy reading Tacitus, Seneca, Cicero and Plutarch in the original languages. Wake up America, stop saying that something is “History” , meaning that it does not matter any more! Connect to the past and you will enlighten and make sense out of the present, while shaping your future in a more thoughtful and constructive way !

  2. Thanks for commenting on my post; I appreciate the time you devoted and am glad that you brought to my attention some of the more noticeable typographic errors. My posting is the better for it; thank you. May I suggest that when engaging in constructive criticism, stick to the error. There is no need to guess why the error was made, not just that one can guess wrongly as in this case, but because generally it can be counter-productive and diversionary, regardless of whether the guess is right or wrong.

    The audience one writes for is an important consideration. A blog posting is more informal, and less scholarly; therefore I am comfortable using colloquialisms. Were I to be asked to submit something for publication, I would certainly edit or rewrite my work for that audience. I want this to be accessible and interesting; it is not designed to withstand peer review.

    When I write of credibility, my meaning is the “soft” power of persuasion. The ability of a given government to have its will done by another government with a simple and clear statement, request, or demand. Rome in the instance of Popilius Laena and Antiochus IV Epiphanes, gained a noteworthy political victory, at a very minimal cost. The Seleucid king surrendered to Roman demands without the added expense of blood and treasure that actual war would have entailed: Antiochus kept his head and acted wisely though it must have been galling. While Popilius Laena himself had been Consul, to be proconsular one need only to have been a praetor (propraetor) in the late Republic (Res Publica.) That includes all the dignity’s and authorities of the proconsular imperium, the lictors, the fasces, the authority to speak for Senatus Populusqae Romanus.

    My country does not have the kind of credibility that Rome had, and the President does not have the wisdom that Antiochus had. George W. Bush while surely the Worst President Ever, and the author of numerous and completely avoidable calamities, is not the designer of the system whose power he wields with the reckless abandon of a ten year old boy. Thus my theme that we need a new government, not a new boob running the old government. We can anticipate further problems regardless of the specific chief executive placeholder. If we examine history for models, Roman history would show us that holding on to obsolete forms of governance in the face of change in scale and needs is dangerous domestically. I would like to avoid an era of politics like that which immediately preceded the principate.

    My idea in mentioning Popilius Laena was not to compare, but to contrast America with Rome, and criticize the idea that the blunder in Iraq will lead to enhanced American stature. America and Rome are in no way comparable that I can see. If I had to compare America to any ancient civilization, I’d choose Carthage: also a plutocracy with a bloodthirsty religious element, whose leadership in their hubris lost sight of the useful supporting role their military played in their expansion, who then gave it the leading role, only to fail utterly. Our own Founding Fathers did a brilliant job in crafting a nation and constitution out of an idea. But it is the duty of American citizens to keep alive that spirit of useful change, and not to degrade the constitution into a worshipful relic, as has been done. One could argue that in 1824, and certainly by 1887 A.D. That the federal government was operating in an extra-constitutional fashion. Moving forward to our own day and age, I wonder why there is a continuing debate, that is almost theological in its minutiae, over the supposed meaning of the “god-like” Founding Fathers every utterance, instead of thoughtfully getting on with the business of amending and revising the constitution and government through democratic due process in the light of practical experience.

    I am glad to hear that Italy has a more humanist approach these days, since… the time of the Red Brigades. We can thank Italians for the Renaissance, the inquisition, Machiavelli, and Dante Alighieri who struck the first blow against universal Latin use and for nationalizing literature and language. The treatment of the Albanians in Italy today is also not all it could be in the best humanist tradition; then again actions do have consequences. It is only 60 odd years since Italy engaged in foolish and unjust wars against Ethiopia, Albania, France, Greece and Yugoslavia, Russia, and America. To be fair, the blame can be assigned to the idiotic and egotistical national executive who exceeded his lawful authority. The people of Italy broadly speaking, likely did not support these wars if we judge by the performance of the troops. Yet the military, security, and party forces of Italy did commit atrocities and violate the laws of war. Chemical weapons were used in Ethiopia. All that and yet no Italian leader ever was tried in an international court for crimes against humanity. I wonder if the schools in Italy teach youngsters about this period in their history? What of Marshal Badoglio? Is he a hero for turning his coat four years into world war two or is he a war criminal for gassing Ethiopians? Why is his grandson the 3rd Duke of Addis Abeba?

    I too am ashamed of some of some of my own country’s actions. But I feel that shame because I love my country. Please don’t conflate my invective against my country’s government with my feelings for my country. That is an error typically made in my country by right-wing nuts. America’s leaders and too large a part of the populace are in a delusional state of mind. They see enemies everywhere, they don’t understand the source of our economic problems which, are self inflicted and they are led by fools who believe instead of statesmen who think. I hope we in the U.S. Can change this without having to suffer for our foolishness as have all the leading European nations in their turn.

    Continental Europeans who expect Americans to listen their criticisms should bear in mind some things. A legitimate criticism of American policy today is not the same as an existential criticism. A criticism that is rolled up in what appears to be sanctimonious schadenfreude is going to make the criticizer seem like the larger part of the problem. If a European is going to use his own country favorably in contrast to America in an example you must acknowledge that the long and wretched history of conflict in Europe was ended only by the intervention of two outside powers America and Soviet Russia. One might suggest that Europeans were wise to grasp firmly this chance for peace and prosperity, but without both America and Soviet Russia, likely nothing that you value about about your country now, would exist at all. It is not honest to imply that you all just kind of worked this all out on your own. If one will not acknowledge a debt due, one should at least refrain from drawing attention to that debt.

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