April 09, 2003
A Timely Allusion

Anyone with a television and a heart has spent the last few days enthralled by the scenes of statues and pictures of Saddam Hussein being knocked over, smashed, or burned by crowds of happy Iraqis. Winds of Change quotes the Virginia state motto and Shelley's 'Ozymandias'. I can't help thinking of Juvenal on the fall of Sejanus (Satires 10.58-64):

            Descendunt statuae restemque sequuntur,
ipsas deinde rotas bigarum impacta securis
caedit et inmeritis franguntur crura caballis.
Iam strident ignes, iam follibus atque caminis
ardet adoratum populo caput et crepat ingens
Seianus, deinde ex facie toto orbe secunda
fiunt urceoli, pelves, sartago, matellae

Here is Peter Green's Penguin translation (3rd edition, 1998):

            The ropes are heaved, down come the statues,
axes demolish their chariot-wheels, the unoffending
legs of their horses are broken, and now the fire
roars up in the furnace, now flames hiss under the bellows:
the head of the people's darling glows red-hot, great Sejanus
crackles and melts. Those features, once second in all the world,
are turned into jugs and basins, frying-pans, chamber-pots.

Though it would be good to keep the broken pieces of one or two of them on display for future generations, I trust that most of Saddam's statues will also be recycled. Chamber-pots are out of style, but bedpans are a possibility: perhaps they could be made with miniature portraits of Saddam and his sons.

The political situations are not entirely parallel. Sejanus was not the emperor himself, but right-hand man of Tiberius, who suddenly and without warning (A.D. 31) had him executed with his whole family. Unfortunately, there is a gap in the text of Tacitus' Annales and the most dramatic parts are missing. But Juvenal fills in quite nicely.

The passage was reworked in Ben Jonson's tragedy Sejanus, 400 years old this year:

The eager Multitude, who never yet
Knew why to love, or hate, but only pleas'd
To expresse their rage of power, no sooner heard
The murmure of Seianus in decline,
But with that speed, and heate of appetite,
With which they greedily deuoure the way
To some great Sports, or a new Theatre;
They fill'd the Capitoll, and Pompeis Circke:
Where, like so many Mastiues, biting stones,
As if his Statues now were sensitiue
Of their wild fury, first they teare them downe:
Then fastning ropes, drag them along the streetes,
Crying in scorne, this, this was that rich head
Was crown'd with Gyrlonds, and with Odours, This
That was in Rome so reuerenced. Now
The Furnace, and the Bellowes shall to worke
The great Seianus crack, and peice, by peice,
Drop in the Founders pit.

That's from Act V, of course, a few pages from the end of the play.

Tangential Postscript:

I wonder what ever happened to the Russian guy in the famous photograph -- I mean the one who shimmied up the side of a 30-foot statue of Lenin to put a rope around its neck so a crane could lift it off its foundations. I might not remember him so vividly if he hadn't been wearing Rocky the Flying Squirrel's hat.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at April 09, 2003 04:36 PM